Chikashi Miyamoto

philosopher by training, gentleman by accident, pervert by nature, glutton by choice

Category: food and drink

Tea. Bicycle. An Unexpected Confluence. 

I enjoy tea. I am not an expert; I simply like the stuff. Not the ‘herbal’ varieties, but the Camellia sinensis varieties. Because coffee is so fashionable amongst cyclists of various stripes, I had not expected that the world of tea would overlap with the world of cycling, at least not in my sphere. Happily, it did, seemingly out of nowhere. 

I tend not to ‘talk shop’ with social contacts until I have developed some level of familiarity with that person. I cringe when I read or hear chatter about cycling being the new golf, for professional networking and advancement. I prefer to cycle with those that turn up because they want to go for a ride in the company of others, not for any motives unrelated to cycling, health or amusement. As such, I do not ask about someone’s trade until I feel I have become sufficiently familiar with that person. Of course, by that time, I tend to have picked up the information through normal chit chat within the group so I end up not needing to ask him or her what it might be.

Sometimes, such incidental discoveries take time. There’s a chap that rides regularly with a group that I occasionally join. He’s one of the group’s core members. I’ve been riding with them for a couple of years, but I only learned about his trade earlier this year. It so happens that he is a tea importer, with a family firm that got started in the 19th century.  

When you think of cycling, you think of coffee, not tea. Sometimes I get consumed by the most trivial discoveries in life.

There are tea importers and tea importers, and I didn’t know which one he is.

When spring was about to give way to summer, I was running low on tea supply at home. It was the time of year when spring harvest should be trickling into market. It seemed like a good time to suss him out.

Tea is a lot like wine in many ways. Climate and topography influence the flavour. Weather has a tremendous impact on the quality of the crop; the output varies from year to year. Each harvest, even with ideal weather, will have a range of quality. The crop must be picked and categorised with expert care. It must be steamed, fermented or both, to the right degree, not too little and not too much. The degree of care exercised by the producers depends partly on how discerning the market is.

There has been a steady decline in quality amongst many regions, even at renowned estates. If the weather does not co-operate, we don’t get good products no matter how good the producers are. However, there has clearly been some human contribution over the years. For example, it’s been quite a few years since the first flush from Darjeeling tasted like it should.

Surging demand from emerging markets brings buyers willing to pay any price for something, without understanding or caring about quality, because it’s ‘the thing to have’. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve seen that in wine, French in particular. The same has happened with tea. Producers get top money for mediocre output. So, why make the effort? I am guessing that the worst news to hit the Cuban cigar market is the US lifting the embargo. 

On a Sunday jolly in June, when we stopped for a nature break, I casually mentioned to him that it seems to be more and more difficult to find good Darjeeling these days. If he specialised in herbal and ‘detox’ nonsense and flavoured teas, he wouldn’t have anything substantive to say in reaction to my moaning. But he did. Pleasantly surprised, I was. Talking tea, on a bike, in Belgium.

Later I tell him that I’m in need of some tea. How is this year’s Gyokuro? He tells me Yame had a good crop and that he has some. I was stunned that he had any Gyokuro on hand.

I tell him that I’m also in the market for some white tea from southern China, expecting him to say he has no such thing on hand. He says he has some Yin Zhen. I thought, ‘Wot? You have Yin Zhen? You’re joking…’

And, any decent Darjeeling first flush, either SFTGFOP or FTGFOP grade? He tells me that he has a really nice batch from Tumsong. Tumsong was not familiar to me, and my ignorance had me feeling a bit suspicious. And then he proceeds to tell me that it’s a real, old guard production, what you expect a first flush to be like, from a small estate. OK, you got my attention…

 

He gave me a sample packet of Tumsong, and back at home I found that he was spot on. Darjeeling first flush as you would expect. Except it’s hardly ever available these days. It reminds me a bit of Castleton and a bit of Namring Upper when they were still producing excellent first flush many years ago. Marvellous. In this day and age, it seems even majestic.

Come autumn, I’m curious about the summer harvest, so I asked him how the second flush from Darjeeling turned out. ‘Too much rain, not enough wind, low grade crop. But I can still give you some if you want.’ OK, no second flush this year then.

Does he still have a kilo of Tumsong first flush to spare? Yes, he does. Fabulous.

Tea, cycling. Still surprised by the happy confluence…

Serving notes:

Gyokuro: 10g for every 60ml of spring water, steeped at 60°C, for 2.5 minutes 

Yin Zhen: 5g for every 200ml of spring water, steeped at 80°C, for 2-4 minutes 

Darjeeling first flush: 3.5g for every 200ml of spring water, steeped at 95°C, for 3 minutes 

Advertisements

Crab Cake Eggs Benedict at Tiffany’s

BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, Audrey Hepburn, 1961

You would think that every adult has seen this classic film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, starring a spectacularly famous actress. OK, maybe not, but if one is remotely interested in the jewellers Tiffany & Co., then you would think that one may have at least seen the film out of curiosity even if one is not much of a film fan or care about one of the greatest beauties that ever lived. (Or, have read Truman Capote’s book of the same title…)

You would be wrong. Very wrong.

When I was based in New York in the 1990s, every day there was at least one visitor to 727 Fifth Avenue that asked where the restaurant is. Every day, a member of staff politely answered THAT question. They tend not to be visitors from abroad even though there are many international tourists that shop at Tiffany. I am guessing that the situation has not changed after all these years.

I think a reasonable hypothesis is that those who set foot in Tiffany’s Fifth Avenue home in the hopes of eating something have heard of the film title but have never actually seen the film.

If you are one of them, here’s a pro tip: Tiffany does not have a restaurant. And, I’ll save you the trouble of seeing the rather wonderful film. Here’s the spoiler: Holly Golightly, the character played by Audrey Hepburn in the film, has a pastry and coffee OUTSIDE the store, on the sidewalk, as she gazes at the jewellery displayed in the exterior display windows very early in the morning as she makes her way back to her apartment from a night of parties. If you like, you can do that too, dressed in an Hubert de Givenchy dress. However, remember to consume your food and beverage outside the store, not in the store.

I once overheard a visitor posing THAT question to one of the security officers, and upon hearing the reply, she said:

‘Oh…  Are you sure?

I had to turn away in the hopes that she would not see me shaking violently in a futile effort to suppress my laughter.

Please spread the word. You might be doing someone a favour, particularly since many will be visiting New York between Thanksgiving and Christmas to shop.

A Captivating White Wine

Domaine de la Vougeraie Monopole Le Clos Blanc de Vougeot 2011

When a friend came around last year after his boozing tour of Burgundy, he very kindly brought along a bottle from one of the producers he visited. Being old friends since primary school, the image that I am tempted to paint is that of him holding a piece of rope tied to a dried gourd bottle filled with grain alcohol and singing some cheesy 80s pop song. Instead, he handed over a chic carrier bag branded with the producer’s logo. In it was a bottle of 2011 Vougeot Premier Cru from Le Clos Blanc de Vougeot, a Domaine de la Vougeraie vineyard. Dried gourds simply do not come with so many French words attached to them.

And, no singing. ‘See if you like it.’

White wines tend not to capture the imagination and attention as red wines do. It probably has something to do with my preconceived notions, but whites tend to just fall in one of the following categories without really provoking any excitement as some reds do: ‘yuck’, ‘passable’, ‘not too bad but needs to be had with food’, and ‘pleasant’. But that’s about it. I don’t long for specific whites at random moments or imagine and plan a whole meal around a certain white like I do with some reds. That is not to say that I dislike whites or that I necessarily prefer reds to whites. I suppose that I don’t find whites to have a certain seductive quality that good reds tend to have. Perhaps whites are like a beautiful girl lacking in sex appeal, the heroine in a Walt Disney animation.

So I thought, ‘A white Burgundy… Mostly Chardonnay, a bit of Pinot Gris and a lick of Pinot Blanc… It’s probably alright.’ Expectations being neither high nor low, just absent. In reality, it’s probably the best way to approach something unfamiliar.

A whiff of the Vougeot betrays that she’s not just a pretty face. Expectations rise.

A sip initially delivers a very ‘safe’ tasting elixir, lacking in any character to speak of. Neither offensive nor pleasing. Nothing to hold onto. Expectations turn flaccid.

A moment later, a burst of complex flavours fills the mouth. Suddenly, there is structure, body, vanilla, peach and an assortment of flavours that demand that you sit up and pay close attention before swallowing. It’s an altogether extraordinary experience. This one is no Snow White.

But, neither is she a heavily made-up, bleached, nipped, tucked, Botoxed, fashionable bore with perfect hair and matchy-matchy get-up devoid of style, like a lot of Australian wines tend to be, with heavy-handed inclusions of flavouring additives.

I always feel faintly ridiculous using words like harmony, balance, complexity and depth when referring to bevvies, but the use of such words cannot be avoided when referring to the Vougeot.

Actually, it is an extremely sexy white wine. Imagine that. Thanks, J.

Aztec Chocolate in Modica, Sicily

Antica Dolceria Bonajuto

When referring to a particular make as being real, there is always the risk of seeming to unfairly imply that others are not real. However, it is tempting to refer to Antica Dolceria Bonajuto‘s chocolates as the real deal. Celebrated chocolatiers in Europe have earned their reputation by developing their own methods of making chocolates using cocoa (or without any cocoa, as the case may be), in ways that are very different from the older Mesoamerican method. Bonajuto still use the Aztec method of creating chocolates which, for those accustomed to newer receipts, makes one re-evaluate what a chocolate is. The colonial rhetoric has characterised Europe as being Old World and the colonies as being New World, but the Aztec chocolate makes one realise that it might be more appropriate to characterise Europe as the New World as far as chocolates are concerned.

Bonajuto is in Modica, Sicily, tucked away in an alley off Corso Umberto I. Baroque neighbourhood, on the pavement a faint whiff of Turkish tobacco and a toddler navigating the cracks and potholes on his micro scooter, a couple of vintage Vespas out front, sweets behind the door. La Dolce Vita…

Let’s first address the elephant in the room: Italy is not at the top of the list when it comes to chocolates. Actually, I think Italy ranks only marginally higher than the UK and the US, which isn’t saying much. So, of all the things one can eat and drink in Sicily, it seems counterintuitive to include chocolates on the list of things to eat in the south of Sicily. But you must.

In a word, Bonajuto chocolates are distinctive. They are gritty. The cocoa is semi-ground. The sugar is left undissolved in the mixture. The result is a gritty texture that releases bitterness and sweetness separately. They are made entirely of cocoa powder, caster sugar and spices. No dairy products like butter or milk.

I don’t think it’s appropriate to characterise Bonajuto chocolates as being superior to the best that Switzerland and Belgium have to offer, but they are very different in a gloriously primeval way. The simplicity does not allow defects of material or process to be hidden.

I recommend calling them in advance to book a tour of the kitchen. It is surprising how much an immaculate but small kitchen can produce both in terms of variety and quantity. I always enjoy seeing the people behind the product. The people at Bonajuto are very welcoming and take pride in what they do — both heartwarming and reassuring. They charge only a nominal fee for the tour, which includes a very generous sampling plate of chocolates and pastries. You will most probably not be able to eat everything they give you, but do not worry: they will happily pack what you cannot finish for you to take away and enjoy later. Not knowing this at the outset, I tried to eat as much as possible on site, and I was literally bouncing off the walls with all the caffeine and sugar that I consumed in that short period.

One regret I have is not having bought more of their chocolate liqueur. I was initially rather sceptical, but I think it’s divine served cold. You may decide that you do not want to share it with others.

Surprised, Delighted, and Impressed at Bravas Tapas

For a long overdue boys’ gossip session, we recently lunched at Bravas Tapas, St. Katherine Docks in East Smithfield. I’m trying to come up with an excuse to return.

Victor Garvey is the head chef and a co-founder of Bravas Tapas. Victor is an affable American who lived in Barcelona and then cut his teeth in the Basque kitchens at the storied Akelaŕe and Mugaritz in San Sebastián. An American whipping up Basque dishes in London: if you are struggling to get your head around that concept, stop immediately. Never mind such details, just head over there, eat and then see if any of it matters. The gossiping boys’ consensus was that it’s an asset to have Victor serving good food in London.

St. Katherine Docks is one of those areas in London that were ‘repurposed’ by property developers in recent years. Like Shad Thames and other pockets in London, it reeks of recent development even if some of the buildings may have some history. By that, I mean that the area is packed with chain restaurants, bars, pubs and shops that you see all over the place. It was the first time that I visited St. Katherine Docks, and my first impression was, same-crap-different-neighbourhood (‘SCDN’). From a commercial standpoint, the location choice made by Victor and his business partner Bal Thind was a stroke of genius because the area has excellent footfall given its strategic location. What that means for diners is that it would be prudent to book your table in advance.

Bravas Tapas is emphatically not SCDN. It’s a one-off. In this digital age, it’s difficult to feel as though you discovered a place, whether it’s a shop, restaurant, seedy cafe, a pretty square, whatever. In a way, the information overflow has robbed us of the sense of discovery. (Ironically, I may be contributing in a small way to this phenomenon.) There is no shortage of Interwebz commentaries on Bravas Tapas. However, given that it physically exists in the midst of all the SCDN establishments, it felt like a discovery when we walked in. (Well, to be completely honest, we had no idea where in St Katherine Docks the restaurant was, so it took us a little while to orient ourselves and actually find it, which probably enhanced the sense of discovery… You do know how boys hate to ask strangers for directions, don’t you?)

When you are there, I recommend that you do what we did: don’t look at the menu, just leave it all up to Victor, including drinks. To be precise, the idea was Victor’s not ours, but the result is equally delightful.

As we waited for a variety of dishes to appear, we nibbled on surprisingly good jamón ibérico. When the helpful staff brought them out, they explained what the dish is made of. Some of the combinations made me think, ‘That doesn’t sound like it’s going to work,’ only for the thought to vanish once the food entered my mouth. It’s a fabulous way to be proven wrong.

One notable surprise for me was the gazpacho. It’s virtually impossible to find decent tomatoes in northern Europe (my pet peeve), so I tend to cringe whenever someone mentions gazpacho. You’ll see that it is poured into the sideway claret glass at the table. When you have it, you will understand why Victor has chosen to pour it at the table although I found that the reclining glass distracts from the soup. The gazpacho took me by surprise. It was lovely.

Victor brought over a couple of dishes from Amaru, the adjacent Japanese-Peruvian (‘Nikkei’ in a more fashionable parlance) restaurant that he and Thind started earlier this year. I understand that Victor had a stint at Park Hyatt in Tokyo during which time he picked up a few ideas from the streets of Tokyo. I suppose that fusing some of that with Spanish bits would put one on a path to the Japanese-Peruvian realm. The result? They reminded me of some of the interesting dishes that Nobu used to serve before they became a global franchise that one cannot seem to avoid in big cities and descended into SCDN hell, serving heavy-handed concoctions in overdesigned venues. A separate visit to Amaru is in order.

The pink bubbly went splendidly with the diverse food. In hindsight, it was the ideal choice. Of course, Victor had the courses in his head so he could choose the right tipple for us before we even realised it.

One inevitable question is whether Victor’s creations are authentic Basque. (To ask a similar question about the Japanese-Peruvian seems somewhat misguided.) To be honest, I haven’t a clue. And, I don’t care either because it’s good food.

I did not take any photos of the food because the light at our table would not have allowed me to take decent photos using my phone, but here’s Victor in action:

Bravas Tapas and Amaru are located at Ivory House, St. Katherine Docks, East Smithfield, London E1W 1AT.

When in Lech, Eat at Hagen’s

When a butcher has a restaurant attached to the shop, you can usually count on the food being good. Hagen’s Dorf Metzgerei in Lech, Austria is one such butcher with a restaurant but with one difference. Their food is not just good; it’s excellent.

Leberknödelsuppe at Hagen'sWhen butchers get things a bit wrong, it is when they try to get a bit too creative with their dishes and lose sight of doing things well by focussing too much on being different. No such problems here. At Hagen’s, they stick to the basics and insist on doing them well. In a way, it is a necessity because simple dishes cannot hide imperfections. For instance, the Leberknödel soup above was, well, perfect. It might seem a little odd to wax lyrical about such a thing, but the homemade broth was divine. Perfectly balanced, uncorrupted by clever ingredients that some include only for the sake of being clever. Alchemy for alchemy’s sake can be very tiresome, but none of that nonsense here. The Leberknödel tastes like something that was lost a couple of generations ago, like the great grandmother’s long-lost receipt.

If I had been alone in the restaurant, I probably would have licked the soup bowl clean.

Veal chop at Hagen'sI was tempted to try one of the aged beef that has a pride of place in the shop as well as on the menu. However, I chose the veal chop this time.

I was a bit surprised by the condiment. I spotted the Kräuterbutter in the shop as I was scanning the case upon entry, but I hadn’t expected it to appear next to my veal chop. For some reason, I have a very low opinion of Kräuterbutter so I was a bit hesitant at first. The yellow tint suggested that there is a bit of tumeric / curry powder in it, which got me even less enthusiastic.

With the risk of sounding a bit silly, this was the best veal chop that I have ever had. Sweet, tender and juicy. Golden on the outside, pastel pink on the inside. In other words, excellent raw material prepared to perfection. And, I have to admit that the parsley and curry powder being released from the butter actually worked very well with the veal. My prejudice against Kräuterbutter turned out to be completely unjustified (on this occasion).

They have a fairly extensive wine list with a good assortment of Austrian production, a diverse assortment of French production, and a limited selection of Italian goods. Some wine lists smell very much like a convenient recommendation of the local wine wholesaler. Others have a feel of a selection made by the proprietor with care. Their’s is the latter. You might be surprised by some of the wines on the list.

Leberkäse at Hagen'sIf you are in a rush, you can get a Leberkäse sandwich in the shop to take away. They looked so good that I was tempted to get one for the road even though there was no space left in my stomach. Truth be told, I wanted to move into Hagen’s. As is sometimes the case with these sorts of discoveries, I discovered Hagen’s only the day before leaving Lech. Otherwise, I would have lunched there everyday during my stay…

The shop is open until 19:00, and the kitchen closes at 18:30. On one hand, it seems a shame that one cannot have dinner at Hagen’s. On the other hand, it is a commercial and personal choice that the owner family have made and probably reflects on their principled approach to their business, which I think is a good thing.

During the ski season, the restaurant gets absolutely packed at about 17:00. In contrast, it is easy to get a table and linger in the early afternoon. It is a blessing that it is located a few hundred meters away from all the bars and eateries popular with the hoi polloi.

One word of caution: your canine friends are not welcome inside (there are a couple of tables outside), so make necessary arrangements before you go.

The staff are friendly and helpful, and the food is excellent. If you are in Lech, make a point of eating there. If you are in one of the neighbouring villages, it’s well worth the detour.

Thank You

To the person that paid our bill anonymously at Café de Flore yesterday, thank you.

%d bloggers like this: