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Dante Ferretti: I brought the shapes and colours of food to Expo Milano 2015 with my Italian market-stall sets

Culture / -

Dante Ferretti a Expo Milano 2015
Andrea Mariani © Expo 2015

Dante Ferretti is an internationally acclaimed set designer who left his home in the Marche region of Italy to pursue a career that has spanned the globe. He's captivated audiences with his stupendous sets, reconstructions and the study of space. He's worked with many of the world's top film directors including Fellini, Zeffirelli and Scorsese and he's won three Oscars with The Aviator, Sweeney Todd and Hugo. Now his art direction has come to Expo Milano 2015 with a fascinating interpretation of the shapes and colours of food on the stalls of a classic Italian market.

You're won three Oscars and you're one of the greatest living production designers with special skills in stimulating the imagination of audiences. What can set design contribute to the goal of communicating important messages and inviting visitors to reflect on the great challenges that await us?
It was a great honour to receive the three Oscars - indeed, working with my wife, Francesca Lo Schiavo, we can actually lay claim to six in total. There's no doubt that an art installation can convey a very clear message. I spent several years working on this project to create the sets for Expo Milano 2015: we adorned the Decumano main thoroughfare with eight sets based on various foods representing the Universal Exposition. I decided to bring the Italian market to the Expo site.

Some of the Pavilions use high-impact images that shock, while others employ artworks to transmit the same message of the value of food. Which do you think is the best way of communicating emotion and which emotions do we need to trigger to get these messages across? 
The Pavilions are highly emotional spaces in which visitors get the opportunity to understand how different countries interpret food. So far I've visited Pavilion Zero, the Italian Pavilion and the Brazilian Pavilion... it's quite a powerful experience.

You were born in Macerata and have travelled all over the world: what's your favourite dish...I mean the one with which you have the deepest emotional connection? 
I'm a great lover of Italian cuisine so I'll say Vincisgrassi lasagne, which is an oven-baked pasta dish from Le Marche. I left Macerata when I was 16 to attend Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome where I studied set design and art direction, because when I was just 13 I had set my heart on becoming a production designer. I used to steal change from my father's coat pockets and then announce that I was going to friends' houses to study, but instead I would go to the cinema. I'd slip out of one theater as soon as the movie was over and go to see another one. It was Macerata sculptor Umberto Peschi who encouraged me to pursue my career. My first break came at the age of 17 when I worked on a movie as an assistant. I went on to work on films made by Antonio Pietrangeli, eight films with Pier Paolo Pasolini, and six with Federico Fellini. I've received 11 Oscar nominations and I've won five BAFTAs.

You've created a cornucopia of different views of Italy, but what has been the most inspiring meal in your travels across the world? 
I was particularly impressed by the banquet offered by MOMA last year: we had a six-month exhibition there and went to eat at Eataly and were rewarded with a wonderful and absolutely exquisite meal. I remembered the occasion here at Expo Milano 2015 so I made sure to drop into the Eataly pavilion for a meal. Having worked on nine films with Martin Scorsese, over the years we had many excellent meals together on his birthdays. I'm also a big fan of Japanese cuisine, and one of my most memorable birthdays was spent in Kyoto where we had a wonderful meal. I also look back with pleasure at the many social occasions with Federico Fellini and Leonardo Di Caprio during his frequent visits to Rome, and also Martin Scorsese, when we were making the sets for Gangs of New York in Cinecittà. I actually convinced him to come to Rome for the sets by enticing him with the cuisine!
 

Quinoa, from poor cuisine to stardom at the table

Taste / -

 
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Quinoa plants, Perù
Quinoa salad
© Marie-Laure Tombini/Oredia/Corbis
Harvesting Quinoa, Bolivia
© George Steinmetz/Corbis
Quinoa fields, Perù
© Hugues Herve/Hemis/Corbis
Winnowing Quinoa, Bolivia
© Patrick Escudero/Hemis/Corbis
Processing harvested Quinoa, Bolivia
© Tim Clayton/Corbis
White and Red Quinoa
© Marie-Laure Tombini/Oredia/Corbis
Stuffed Turnips with Quinoa
© Marie-Laure Tombini/Oredia/Corbis

Quinoa, mistakenly considered a cereal, is instead a herbaceous plant with thousands of properties. Cultivated for 5,000 years in the Bolivian Andes, it is a food that is becoming a star at the tables of Europe, where it is used especially as a substitute for rice and couscous.

From Lucullus to bread, wine and radishes. Dining with the ancient Romans

Culture / -

cosa mangiavano antichi romani
A Roman Feast by Roberto Bompiani @Corbis

The ancient Romans were not above certain frugal practices, even if they did not hesitate, like the famous Lucullus, to offer sumptuous banquets of almost indecent proportions. In any case, there is one rule in mind: to eat alone is a very bad habit.

Frugality and abundance. Stoicism and Epicureanism. It is between these two poles that the question of food in Rome would oscillate throughout the entire classical period. Yet forever mindful of conviviality.
 
Frugality, commoners and slaves
Next to the less frequent and festive coena the usual meal, the prandium, would take place in Rome. It probably comes closest to the today’s brunch or snack - consisting of bread mainly, olives, onions, wine, cooked vegetables seasoned with olive oil, mixed salad and figs. The Metamorphoses of Ovid offers the declaration of a priest on the island of Delos: "Everything my daughters touch turns to grain, or pure wine, or olives," which says a lot about the symbolic significance of these foods.
Literature offers examples of humility when it comes to food, citing the simplicity of Horace, the frugality of Virgil, the thoroughly Etruscan composure of Maecenas, the admiration for Martial’s simple cuisine, and the ingenuity of Catullus.
 
The prandium  of peasants was based primarily on vegetables, the staple food of a soldier's bread, convenient to carry and highly energetic. Subsequently, among the more affluent classes, meat and cheese appear, and legumes become staples of plebeian dining. On a lamp found in an excavation near Aquileia, in the region surrounding Venice, there is a basket garnished with bread, wine and black radishes with the words: "The meal of the poor: bread, wine and radishes."
 
Cato the Elder repeatedly evoked in detail the meals allowed to slaves, consisting of bread and pulmentarium, a generic term for condiments. These varied according to the seasons, but always included oil, salt and vinegar and olives, or, when such stocks were used up, hallec,  was used, the liquefied residue of the preparation of garum, a fish-based pressed condiment typical of Roman cuisine, which is prepared in three qualities, flos, castimoniale, sociorum. After the harvest, slaves were given a little wine, but for the rest of the year, they had to settle for a substitute made with the leftovers of presses or vinegar diluted with water.
 
Abundance and splendor
Towards the end of the first century AD - when the most important cookbook in Latin, De Re Coquinaria, is believed to have been written - frugality and modesty at the table seem to eclipse the Roman Republic. The original author is Apicius, a great cook, but the many expansions of the original recipe made ​​in the three centuries that followed, now offer an exceptionally broad view of the tastes of the Roman world of antiquity. Wine flavored with fruits and spices, sauces made from seeds crushed with herbs and chicken meat, imaginative dishes doused in sophisticated sauces, inviting and exotic wild game such as ostriches, cranes, grouse and the warbler, fine fish, and vegetable blends. The desire to satisfy the greed of the participants brought Apicio towards the magnificence and completeness of a table fit for the newly wealthy, new nobles and the powerful novi equites.
 
Lucullus and Petronius offered fascinating testimonials of the new glitz. Lucius Licinius Lucullus, who died at age 57 after the birth of Christ, having taken part in the Mithridatic War with Silla and having shown himself a skillful and courageous general on the River Tigris and in the conquest of the Armenian cities of Cabira and Amisos. He retired to Rome to live in private splendor all over Eastern Europe, growing cherry trees brought from Pontus. The memory of his dinners are perpetuated by the adjective "lavish". Petronius, arbiter elegantiae, was one of Nero’s courtiers and the author of the Supper of Trimalchio, where playing the role of Eumolpo - refined in judgment and expert in the art of cooking – he admonishes the uncouth Enobarbus. As proconsul in Bithynia, Petronius was also acquainted with Asia Minor.
 
The common rule, eat together
In the scale of greek-roman values which went on to influence all civilizations of the Mediterranean basin, it is clear that civilized man distinguished himself from barbarians and animals by how he ate in a social way. In the words of Plutarch, "We do not sit at the table to eat, but to eat together."
 
From the history of food to the future of food, a long trip can be undertaken at Expo Milano 2015. In particular, at Pavilion Zero the history of man on Earth can be seen through his relationship with nature and food. 
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