Mooncake Festival Tastings in Singapore 2019

Fairmont Hotel

Here are my favourites.

Seed Based Mooncake – Baked Combo from Goodwood Park Hotel. You can choose from Lotus Seed Paste with Melon Seeds, White Lotus Seed Paste with Yolk and Assorted Nuts with Ham – from $38-$46 for two mooncakes.

Green Tea MooncakeMama Bakery. This snowskin Matcha green tea tastes unmistakably of Matcha! About $11 each.

Black Tea Mooncake – Premium Earl Grey Tea White Lotus Paste with Chia Seed from Peach Garden. About $17 each. If you are into tea flavoured mooncakes, this one and the Matcha one from above are the ones!

Traditional Mooncake – Tung Lok. Not too sweet, not to dense, balanced – just perfect. Go for the Double Yolk Red Lotus and Double Yolk White Lotus – 2 each in a box of four for $78

Surprise Flavour Mooncakes – Beetroot and Rose, mini snowskin from Fairmont Singapore. You get eight of these memorable tasting lavender hued mooncakes in a box for $72. If corn is your thing, then go for the Mini Golden Corn (8 pieces) for $64 from Demon Chef Alvin Leung.

Sorry, not covering durian mooncakes today.

Janice Wong’s display

Display of MooncakesJanice Wong. Mooncakes named for the nine prefectures of Japan and their flavours (Yuzu, Hojicha, Peanut, Sweet Potato, Chestnut, Azuki, Matcha, Kinako and Ume). Each mooncake in a different pastel colour – the display was like a kaleidoscope!

PackagingConrad Hotel’s packaging is a tall drawer box with choices of Emerald Green Auspicious Red or Burgundy Red.Their Traditional Baked Honey Osmanthus $84 is the one I liked best. Regent Hotel’s ‘tower block’ packaging of mooncake in red and gold is also lovely. Goodwood Park Hotel’s gold themed packaging is pretty.

Two excellent deals are from Awfully Chocolate (with four mooncakes, you get a art deco inspired wooden ‘chest’, some with intricately carved wood knives) for $88. For the exquisite packaging, it has to be the one from Fairmont Hotel. At the fair in Takashimaya, for the price of the mooncakes, you also get a Chinese pot and cup set thrown in.

Awfully Chocolate

Hawaiian Coffees Cupped

These days, there is more than Kona coffee from the Big Island.

They grow coffee in several districts on the Big Island. Imagine my pleasant surprise to find coffee also from Oahu, Moloka’i and the other islands of Hawaii. Hence a cupping was necessary to compare, contrast and appreciate them all. Picked up several coffees from Whole Foods, Kahala Mall recently and brought them back to Singapore.  Thanks are in order to Leon of Papa Pahleta, for setting up the tasting.

Maui Yellow Caturra
– as the name suggests, the bean turns yellow when ripe (instead of the usual red). This was a truly full bodied, low acid and astringency coffee with very strong smoke and dark chocolate flavours. Espresso lovers would not say no to this drip!

Rusty’s Hawaiian Ka’u Classic Dark Roast (Big Island)- medium-dark roasted Arabica Typica beans from the southern slope of Mauna Loa volcano.  Coffee plants from the Ka’u district (next to the famous Kona district)  is cultivated on small hill-side and valleys. The fruit is pulped and fermented in their own juices; the beans are then washed and sun dried.  Medium acidity with  chocolate, nut and honey and hint of citrus fruit.  Complex, racy and refined.

Waialua Peaberry Coffee (Oahu) –  Grown at 650 ft elevation, these Arabica Typica peaberry beans proved to be the smallest (and cutest) looking amongst the rest. I just loved the floral, milk chocolate notes of this coffee. Waialua is owned by the Dole Food company (of pineapple fame). When the sugar plantation was closed in 1996,  Dole planted up coffee. See pic of plantation.

Moloka’i Muleskinner – Dark roasted beans from the North Shore of the island.  Named after the Muleskinners who traversed a trail of switchbacks from 2000 feet down to the sea. (not confirmed: could be Red Catuai beans from mid-high altitude).

Wings of the Morning, hand-picked Kona (Big Island) – The farm takes its name after Ka Io a native hawk. The  coffee is processed using a traditional Japanese coffee farm wet method – “coffee beans are carefully fermented in a soaking tank overnight before being washed in clear water and dried. We are still drying our coffee on the hoshidana deck and raking the beans by hand to insure even drying”. This is my kind of coffee – complex yet subtle, with layers of flavour and good balance!


I always considered Sake as the hot drink with no definite flavour but with a potent punch that left me with scalded lips. As such, I never believed Sake to possess the amplitude of aromas found in grape-based wines.

Then, I visited friends in Beverly Hills who took me to the celebrated Nobu Matsuhisa restaurant where I encountered my first ever, ice-cold sake alongside a foie gras topped off with shitake jus – The wine, fresh and minty, was the perfect foil to the dish. I returned home to find more than a hundred kinds of Sake in the marketplace. Aromatic sakes, floral versions, Sakes with nuances earth, powerful Sakes, delicate Sakes, sweet Sakes, bone-dry sakes and even the rare matured Sake. I quickly discovered that light and dry versions of sake are suited to fish and white meats in delicate sauces whilst the heavier Sakes are perfect for dark meats and heavily sauced dishes, whatever their national origins.

Yet, without the knowledge of Japanese, I was unable to tell which sakes on the shelves are dry, medium or sweet. Fortunately, Lin, who had spent time in Japan came to the rescue and pointed out that the level of sweetness of sake is specified on the label. They are graded from a bone-dry (-4.5)  to a sweet (+15).  In addition serving temperatures are also indicated (5-10 C and 55C).

With Sake, following serving suggestions to the tee is necessary. A sake that is meant to be served cold does not taste very palatable if it is warmed up.  For hot sakes, if steam rises from the sake during the warming process, flavours would be degenerated (In retrospect, I should not have trusted the microwave but instead used gentler heating methods such as a bain marie of hot water).

Sake Savvy


Sake making began in Japan during the 3rd Century. All members of a village would gather and chew up in their mouths, rice, chestnuts and millet, which they subsequently expelled into a tub. Saliva converted the starches in the rice mixture into sugar and as soon as the tub was filled, a natural brewing process began. It turned the gooey, mouldy mixture into rice wine called Sake.  If the process sounds unhygienic, take heart that only virgin girls were allowed to finish the brewing as the ‘use’ of Sake in Shinto is considered to be a highly significant aspect of the religious festival. Today, sake is brewed in factories using sterile methods.

Sake types

Like Beaujolais and nouveau wines, Sake is usually bottled and sold the year it is produced, and often consumed within six months. All sake is pasteurized except for ‘Nama’ sake whose delicate constituency demands it is not subjected to heat or oxidation – it spoils easily and should be consumed as soon as it is released. Traditionally, the best sakes are brewed during the coldest days of the year, in winter. ‘Kan-zake’ indicates cold brewed sake whilst ‘Haru-zake’ refers to the spring-season brewed sake.

There are exceptions and various unusual versions of sake – Genshu is undiluted sake with up to 20% alcohol by volume; Kijoshu is port like and Happo sei seishu is a sparkling sake! Milky white ‘cloudy’ nigori is a talking point although aficionados seek out the rare ori cloudy sake. There is also sake made for ageing. The koshu (“old”) sakes are aged in stainless steel from three to seven years; this gives them complex aromas and flavors ranging from soy and nuts to molasses and raisins. Jukuseishu is another term for aged sake. Taru sake is a variation, aged for a shorter time and in cedar or wine casks. There’s also vintage sake. I once tasted a rare vintage 1983 sake that accompanied a steak. It was golden in colour, with bottle bouquet flavours that I had not expected to find in a ‘brewed wine’. I detected soy sauce and mushrooms. The wine reminded me of an aged Riesling-Sherry combination, exhibiting oxidation aromas, an incredible balance of acidity and sweetness, and strong mature wine flavours.

Sake comes in bottle sizes of 160ml, 300ml, 720ml and 1.8 Litres. There is even the tan rei pack, presented in a large milk carton.

Note on The Classifications

Premium: Junmai is made from rice with at least 30 percent husk milled away, and so is Honjozo (premium sake with added alcohol) and Futsu shu (regular sake with added alcohol). Slightly higher grades of sake have the term ‘tokubetsu’ – e.g. Tokubetsu Junmai, or Tokubetsu Honjozo, which indicates more highly polished rice (up to 40%), or the use of very special sake rice.

Super Premium: Junmai Ginjo, and Ginjo (with added alcohol) is made form rice that has at least 40 percent husk milled away.

Ultra Premium: Daiginjo (with added alcohol) and Junmai Daiginjo both have at least 50 percent milled away. Some are made from rice that are 65 percent milled.

Note: There is much overlap within the classifications. A Junmai can be fragrant whilst a Daiginjo could be reserved. Cheap sake has copious amounts of distilled alchohol added to it at the final stages for balance yet a small amount of alcohol added to the final stages of brewing helps to ‘set’ and preserve desirable aromas in ginjo and honjozo sake. The addition of alcohol also inhibits the cultivation of lactic acid bacteria (putrefactive hiochi-kinbacteria), which tends to compromise the flavours of sake.

More on Sake

Fine Sakes are a world apart, just as cheap plonk is different to Grand Cru grape wines. My two favourite high-end Sakes are Isojiman ‘Junmai Daiginjo’ Nakatori 35 (Shizuoka prefecture) and Kokuryu ‘Daiginjo’ Shizuku (Fukui prefecture) – both are a little expensive.

So what makes a sake better or different to another?

Well, Sakes are classified according to how much the rice grain husks are milled and the more the husk is polished away with stone-rollers, the ‘better’ the sake’s grade. Dozens of new yeast strains have also been developed for sake and have been put into use. Each unique yeast strain will give rise to its array of chemical compounds, like esters, alcohols, and acids that affect the nuances of fragrance and flavour.  They have been acknowledged as an important factor for the flavour and especially the aroma of sake. Sake brewers declare water quality as the next differentiating factor that influences the overall taste of the drink. Since ancient times, brewers divined certain pure spring water sources to be the secret to good rice wine – resulting in many of Japan’s best sake prefectures locating their operations near those water sources. Recent findings, based on scientific analysis confirms that, mineral-rich, hard water from springs do make a difference. The resulting sakes have a robust character. These days, with modern filtration and water treatment technology, ideal water is readily available anywhere – and some sake brewers have been known to blend hard and soft waters to achieve the desired balance in their rice wines.

Blind tasting notes of sakes (thanks to Daniel Chia, Lam Chi Mun, David Teo and Hiro who participated)

Rating guide    3 Stars=Outstanding, 2 Stars=Excellent, 1 Star = Good


Name of Wine Company /


Tasting Notes



Agent / Distributor



Tosazuru Karakuchi


Kochi prefecture, located on the south coast of Shikoku island is famous for dry styles of sake with a subdued fragrance.

Light florals and hint of rice, dry punchy finish, alcoholic but smooth and clean.


1 ½ stars



Kuromatsu-Hakushika Yamadanishiki


Hyogo prefecture, of which Kobe is the capital, produces a quarter of all the sakes in Japan. This sake has apple and goma nuances lightly spicy but hot and clean with a vodka like finish.


1 ½ stars



Momokawa Junmai

Iwate, in the northeastern corner of Honshu is famed for its sake brewing technology – thanks to a businessman in 11678 who introduced sake brewing to locals.

Spice, with mild warm taste, balanced and good for accompanying food.


2 stars





Yellow gold in colour, with barnyard and fish flavours, simple, warm with acidity. Good for grilled food.


1 star



Nanbubijin Tokubetsu Junmai

Aomori prefecture, located on the northern tip of Honshu, is Japan’s as the biggest producer of apples. Light pale yellow in colour. Exuberant with rice flavours mixed with pear, melon and other fruits. Alcohol gives a backdrop of fat richness and savoury warmth.


2 stars.




“Kumamoto Jinriki”


Chiyonosono is located in Yamaga City in the Kumamoto Prefecture of Kyushu island. This prefecture has it own yeast – a vital component for Ginjo sake. Tinge of yellow. Pear, light florals with flavours of wheat, rice and spice chiming in. Fragrant, round, with a dry astringent and acidic finish.


1 ½ stars



Kiku Masamune Junmai Ginjo

Made from Yamada-Nishiki rice, recognized as the best sake-making rice. It came about in 1923, after Yamada-sui rice was artificially fertilized with pollen from the Tankan-Tosen strain. The rice has larger grains, has more starch, protein and fat. Pear, ginger and sweetcake with citrus and melon. Broad, warm and dry with a minerally taste. Dainty and perfect for sipping despite 16% alcohol.


1 ½ stars.



Miyasaka “Bessen Kinju” Junmai Ginjo

Made from 80% Miyama Nishiki- and 20% Hitogokochi-rice. Miyama Nishiki rice was developed in this prefecture as Nishiki was too small a grain. The Miyama rice brings an elegance to sakes. Berry bruit, apple, persimmon, yeast, meat and rice aromas. Dry, fresh, with a slightly rough edge but with a round finish. For quaffing.


2 star



Tedorigawa “Yoshida-kura”

Dai Ginjo

The Ishikawa prefecture is cold (its Noto Peninsula juts out into the Sea of Japan) and perfect for brewing. Best sakes are consumed locally. Over the last four decades, the sake style has shifted from sweet, heavy, full and complex to dry, crisp and fragrant.

This sake has a light yellow tinge. Pungent with florals, pear, apple, rice. Full and balanced with sweetness, develops flavour, complex, and long finish.


2 ½ stars


Inter Rice Asia

Obata Shuzo “Manotsuru Daiginjo”

Cold winters, clean water and air, and plenty of rice, and investment in technology is Niigata’s formulae at being one of the favourite sakes in Japan. Gohyakumangoku rice from Niigata, (also from Fukushima, Toyama, and Ishikawa) produces a smooth and clean and dry and slightly fragrant. This sake is warm, round, with rice, peach, florals banana, green vegetables, and a touch of spice and sweetness. It is full and elegant.


2 stars




Dai Ginjo

Niigata’s sakes have been awarded more medals than other prefectures in the last decade. Fruit hints with liquorice, honey, jam, yeast rice, apples, banana, minerals, anis and florals. Smooth, exciting soft yet with grip.


2 stars.




“Ugo No Tsuki” Dai Ginjyo

Hiroshima’s soft water, low in calcium and magnesium have been cited as a condition for fragrant and soft sakes. This one had a sweet nose, reminiscent of auslese Riesling. Amalgam of apples, melon, florals, and a robust palate with a touch of bitterness. Cool mint style, fragrant and exuberant.


2 ½ stars




Dai Ginjo

The winters are bitterly cold in the middle of the north island of Hokkaido. This sake is slightly sweaty with apple strawberry and yeasty nose, it is warm, round and lightly sweet with some astringency, spice on the finish.


2 stars


Inter Rice Asia

Obata Shuzo “Manotsuru Maho” Dai Ginjo

The brewery is located on Sado Island, across from Niigata. Made from the famous Yamadanishiki rice, this has rich aromas with mild cherry brandy overtones. It is full, long warm with astringence and acidity.


1 ½ stars



Umenoyado “Bizenocho”

Junmai Dai Ginjo

Nara boasts lots of small breweries but also has a history. In 689, the then-imperial palace in Nara formalized the brewing of sake by establishing a brewing department and a range of sakes were made.

Apple, gooseberry, basket of mixed fruit and rice. Forward acidity, big bodied with spice, vibrant, silky, multi-dimensional – more like grape wine.


2 ½ stars



Kitagawa “Tomioh Gin No Tsukasa”

Junmai Dai Ginjo

Thanks to railways (since Kyoto lacked a seaport), Kyoto began producing sake on a large scale in the late 1800’s, and as the 2nd largest producer, Kyoto makes 13 percent of the nation’ sake today. This sake had melon, was fruity, subtle, savoury, was balanced and was soft and light with spice, acidity and warm finish. Panelists were divided on scores here.


2 stars.



Miyaizumi “Koten Sharaku” Junmai Dai Ginjo

Fukushima is situated next to Niigata and brewers both boutique as well as commercial, make a slightly dry sake with a hint of sweetness. Scent of fresh cooked rice, fruit gym, pandan, banana – complex with mouth-filling flavours, sweet yet dry, lean yet complex with layers, multidimensional, clean lines and multidimensional with a nice tail.


3 stars



Tamano Hikari

Junmai Dai Ginjo

Cheese, banana rich and complex but astringent and disjointed – perhaps it’s the hard spring water. Warm finish.


1 ½ stars



Kitaya “Kansansui” Junmai Dai Ginjo

On the northern part of Kyushu, Fukuoka is sheltered and good for rice growing. Yet not many have heard of the prefecture’s sakes. There are more than 70 breweries in this area. Bubblegum, cherries, white chocolate, pineapple, nashi, dry with back palate sweetness, sharp, and hot, easy drinking.


2 stars



Okuno-matsu Junmai Dai Ginjo

Fukushima prefecture’s sake research institute isolated a special yeast that is responsible for fragrance, lower acid and elegance. This sake, hit high notes with tasters who enjoyed its fragrant rice aromas, forward pear and floral nuances, the lightly sweet yet dry taste, the silky texture, gentle alcoholic finish that was not lacking in acidity either.


3 stars


Inter Rice Asia

Fukugen “Fukumimi” Junmai Daiginjo

The Nagano prefecture in central Honshu is surrounded by high mountains, and ‘Alps’ yeast was developed to bring out fruity, and floral fragrances in the sake. This sake made from Hitogokochi rice showed asparagus, banana, melon, pepper, flowers, melon and rice with a nutty taste. It was warm rich, bold yet delicate with a dry Muscat type taste. Flirty, sweet, yet dry.


2 ½ stars


Wines of Italy

GRAPPA – True Appreciation of the Italian Spirit
Like most Italian boys, Vittorio Capovilla adored to his mother. He obediently ate his ration of fruits daily. It was not long till he became so enamoured by the taste of good fruit that he decided to preserve them in bottles – but not in the way you think.

Vittorio proceeded to set up a boutique grappa distillery near Vicenza, in the N-E Veneto region of Italy, to produce distillates of his favourite organic fruits – especially the ones harvested from the wild. That was in the 80’s. Today Vittorio offers grappa enthusiasts more than forty types; junipers, pears, strawberries, cherries, prunes, peaches and more.

What is Grappa?  According to the soft spoken, t-shirted Vittorio, “it is essentially a brandy and in Italy it is obtained from the distillation of grape pomace (a winery’s fermented, pressed skins and seeds that is often discarded) or fruit. The result is a clear tasty fresh spirit.”

I remarked that grappa is fiery alcoholic drink that has the effect of burning one’s gullet to the effect of clearing it of all the cholesterol after fatty meals.

So when Vittorio suggested I dip my finger into a stainless steel canister which contained a colourless fluid, I acquiesced reluctantly. As I brought my finger to my mouth to lick off the liquid, the scent of the ripest sweetest purest perfumed peaches wafted up to my nose. “They are made from Saturno peaches of the Marches,” Vittorio said.  As I sucked off the last drops of the grappa from my finger, he could tell I was hooked.

As Vittorio proceeded to unhinge the covers of a row of canisters, my finger was already poised for further dipping. I tasted a blackberry grappa. I savoured sweet ripe raspberry grappa. I reveled in the scent of grappa made from Mirabelle plums and then I went on to compare the ‘alcoholic essences’ of three types of apples – Fuji, Golden Holz and Annurca. But it was the incredibly perfumed yet natural clean taste of Pear Williams in a grappa that sent me into a fruity rapture.  To my surprise, the thought of a fiery liquid never entered my mind. In taste, Vitorrio’s grappas, were devoid of any aggressivity, despite the alcohol content of around 41%.

Inspired, I began to find out more about Grappa and related drinks.   For that I went to Fratelli Brunello an 1840’s distillery in Montegalda, Vicenza. There I tasted not only a sweet-smooth Grappa but a grape brandy.  I learned that any fermented grape or fruit when distilled becomes grape or fruit brandy. Wine itself can also be distilled into brandy. Often wine brandies are softer and have less alcohol.

My visit to a third Grappa producer took me to Poli. At the Poli Museum of Grappa , I discovered that grappa is a drink that is named after an enchanting village near the foot of the Dolomite Mountains called Bassano del Grappa.

Bassano del Grappa lies at the foot of Monte Grappa (Grappa Mountain), where, according to the legend, many clandestine distillers used to produce Grappa. Traditionally farmers drank grappa to salve their workday aches and also to keep themeselves warm in the evenings as heating was scarce.

The Poli family was among the first to distill grappa in Italy about a century ago. The Polis being straw hat makers had opened an osteria to serve food, wine and also to sell their hats. They later found that the discarded raw material from winemaking could be used to make grappa.

These days, Poli makes not only traditional grappa and aged grappa but also that of Luce and Sassicaia, two renowned wines of Tuscany named respectively after and made using the spent or fermented out grape skins. It was the Luce grappa that came across as smooth as silk that changed my mind forever that grappa is an aggressive unrefined drink.

If you have been turned on by grappa, you will no doubt, like me, discover that grappa can be had from the regions of the Piedmont, the Veneto, Umbria, Trentino, Fruili and Tuscany. Even if not, many grappa bottles are works of art. At VinItaly, the Grappa di Pinot Grigio of Distilleria Schiavo caught my eye. Each unique bottle is mouth blown by the Venetian maestro, Gandini. Miniature glass sculptures of multicoloured fish, jellyfish and more appear to be swimming in the grappa bottle!

•    Poli Museo (museum) Della Grappa at via ganba 6, Bassano del Grappa (tel/fax +39 0424 524 426 or 0444 665 007)
•    Distilleria F.lli Brunello Via Roi, 33– Montegalda; Tel. 0444.737253
•    Vittorio Capovilla at via Giardini 12, Ca Dolfin Rosa (about 30 minutes on the road from Vicenza) but call first for an appointment (+39 0424 581222).

Factsheet : Grappa
The main Grappa-production regions have their own names for the eau-de-vie. In Piedmont it is called branda, in Veneto it is referred to as sgnapa, you ask for cadevida in Trentino and in Friuli and Lombardia it is known as grappa.  Like in wine, each region offers a different style of Grappa, although by law grappa is made from grape pomace (skins, pips and stalks left after the production of wine). Aromatic grappa is distinguished from the original version in that the aromatic ones are those where fruits or herbs macerated directly in the grappa infuse additional flavours to it.

Distillation is the separation of liquids by evaporation extracts alcohol and aromatic substances from the pomace. Some volatile substances (the head) and other impurities (the tail) are discarded and what remains is the ‘heart’ – pure unadulterated eau-de-vie. Various systems (double boiler, bain marie, steam stills, continuous distillation and discontinuous distillation) are used but it is the discontinuous process, time consuming (freshest pomace is used) and expensive (a lot of the pungent and aggressive ‘head’ as well as the fat and oily ‘tail’ is cut out) results in the finest grappa.

Often mono-varietal grappa is made from a specific grape variety such as Moscato, Riesling, Sauvignon, Malvasia, Nebbiolo, Muscat, Aglianico and Cabernet. Some good producers include Alexander, Banfi, Bocchino, Capezzana, Caparzo Ceretto, Chiarlo, Gaja, Lungarotti, Mastroberardino, Masottina, Nonino and Ruffino.

How to savour Grappa
Grapppa is best enjoyed cool at between 9-13 degrees Centigrade in a tiny glass. There is a different approach to tasting grappa when compared to wine. You place your nose at the front, rather than at the back rim of glass. That way you do not sniff in the mucous membrane-burning alcohol but instead you get a good whiff of the aromas. Then you take a bit of grappa in your mouth and let it roll off your tongue. You will be surprised that you never get in the mouth, the ‘fire hot’ sensation that puts most first-time drinkers off the drink.

Grappa Types
Grappa labels usually indicate the geographic appellation, the grape variety, and the type of alembic still used in its production. Grappa varieties can be classified in the following manner:

•    Grappa giovane (young grappa), with aromas of the grape variety and fermentation.
•    Grappa affinata in legno (grappa matured in wooden barrels).
•    Grappa invecchiata (aged grappa), matured for at least 12 months in wooden barrels.
•    Grappa riserva or stravecchia, matured for at least 18 months in wooden barrels.
•    Grappa aromatizzata, or grappa to which vegetable and fruit (apple, pears, blueberry, etc.) have been added or used in the distillation. However aromatic Grappas include those made from aromatic or semi-aromatic grapes such as Moscato, Muller Thurgau, Traminer, Sauvignon, etc.

Grappa Culture
In Italy, grappa is primarily served as a “digestivo” or after-dinner drink – to aid digestion. Yet incorporating grappa into the daily coffee ritual adds a spark to the café. For instance, ‘caffè corretto’ meaning ‘corrected coffee’, features coffee dosed with grappa whilst a variation is ‘ammazza caffè’. Meaning ‘coffee-killer’ it is a term that describes the ritual – espresso is consumed then chased down by a glass of grappa.  In Veneto, a cup of espresso sweetened expresso is downed, then grappa are poured into the cup and swirled with whatever remnants of coffee and then, and tossed down in one go.

The Cheese Decoder & Wine Recommendations

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SOFT Fresh cheeses and fresh curd un-ripened. Delicate, soft spongy cheese with high water content, many with a short shelf life Petit-Suisse, flavoured cheese, cream cheese, Mascarpone, Fromage Blanc, cottage cheese, Ricotta. With mixed nuts or with fruits, a quince paste or as a spread/dip. Offer light fruity reds or aromatic white wines (Beaujolais, Verdelho, white Burgundy or Chardonnay).
  Soft cheeses with a white or downy rind, surface ripened. Interior is creamy. Neufchatel, St. Marcellin and Chaource. Brie and Camembert starts off milky but can develop a desirable pungency. With slices of pear or baguette. Offer medium bodied reds and both light and full bodied white wines (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre, Entre deux Mers, Albarino, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Torrontes or Gewurztraminer).
  Soft stretched curd or shaped cheeses are cooked and kneaded although some are fresh with a shelf life Mozzarella, Fior di Latte, Provolone. They are best incorporated in salads, as pasta fillers and pizza toppings.
SOFT BUT STRONG TASTING Soft cheeses with a rind that is often washed in salt water during ripening Feta, Caboc (Scottish), Maroilles, Livarot, Pont l’Eveque, Munster, Epoisses, Raclette. Very strong flavours. Vieux Puant for example is aptly named; it means old stinker in French Such cheeses demand full bodied red wine and complex white wines (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Bordeaux, Cotes du Rhone, Nero d’Avola, Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne, Chardonnay).
HARD Semi Hard to Hard Cantal, Morbier, Tomme, Reblochon, Mimolette, St. Nectaire, etc. Pair with great or grand wines - Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Mature Bordeaux and mature Rhone; Chianti, Tempranillo, Aged Vouvrays and Chenin Blancs work too.
  Hard with and without holes. The hardness comes from the pressing of the cheese, removing water. Some are cooked (Gruyere, Emmental, Beaufort) Edam, Emmental, Gouda, Gruyere, Swiss. Cheddar without holes (Vintage, Leicester, Cheshire, Colby). Compte, Beaufort, St. Nectaire. Cheese can be enjoyed on its own without bread etc. Full bodied red and white wines - Cabernet Franc, St. Nicolas de Bourgueile Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, Gamay, Merlot are delicious with hard cheeses.
  Firm and very hard/flaky/grating cheese Pecorino (ewe’s milk), parmesan Full bodied whites, reds and Champagnes work well.
STRONG FLAVOURED CHEESES Goat milk cheeses can be soft or hard Chevre (often logs or unique shapes, covered in black ash/vine leaves). Goat cheeses are often creamy, delicate and slightly acidic. Often then can be green, tangy and sharp Aromatic white wines - Sauvignon Blanc, Gruner Veltliner or Pouilly-Fume. And especially Champagne.
  Blue veined cheeses Roquefort, Bleu d'Auvergne are strong in flavour and salty. Others are stilton, gorgonzola (creamy), Bleu de Bresse, Fourmes, Cheshire and Danablu (Danish) Sweet whites, dry reds, heavy alcoholic wines. Sauternes, Barsac, Monbazillac, Banyuls, Vin Jaune, Muscat de Frontignan, Red Burgundy.

Guilty Pleasure – the Forbidden Fruit

During the war, my mother, her siblings and her parents took refuge in Penang Hill. Food was scarce, especially fruit, but once a week, they – a family of nine would treat themselves to an apple – divided eight ways – so invariably someone would go without.

So when I was growing up, we had apples all around. Gleaming apples sat in a bowl on the side table, tempting someone to pick them up; there were apples chilling in the refridgerator, ready for anyone willing to take a bite; we had diced apples with breakfast cereal and at every meal’s end, sliced apples would be served up. But too much of a good thing can turn you off.  In early adult life, I rejected apples. Whenever offered a fruit basket I would reach for any other fruit other than the apple.

Apples seldom reached my lips for the next 20 years. And then I got to France. One day, at a potluck party, I bit into a tart. I assumed it to be a pear tart but it turned out to be a special French apple tart called the Tarte Tatin. It was so delicious, I finished it in seconds but when I went for seconds, there was none left!

Soon, I became a fan of apple desserts. I tried many – from the commercial French apple puree to the traditional Tarte de Pommes, from Apfelstrudels and deep dish apple pies to Apple cobblers and even English apple pies – none satisfied me and then I realized, I was seeking the delightful taste of the original Tarte Tatin.

Yes, I was hooked!  What so great about a Tarte Tatin you wonder. Well, its an ‘open-face’ apple pudding. The Tarte Tatin that got me addicted at the pot luck party had chunks of apples instead of slices; and the apples were not crunchy but instead had a jelly like consistency with the combined taste of sweet caramel, toffee, and French butter. And the flavours were lifted by a lightly tart apple juice taste and it was all held together in a flaky, almost fluffy pastry –perfect as any dessert could be.

I decided to go on a quest for the perfect Tarte Tatin.  At every restaurant I visited in France, my dessert choice would be the Tarte Tatin if it appeared on the menu. Sometimes the tart would served with clotted cream or crème fraiche on the side, other times, it was accompanied by  marscapone, the thick farmhouse yoghurt or yet, slices of aged cheddar.

I even made a special visit to the Pomze restaurant in Paris. Here, every dish features apples – you can begin with a cider or apple juice; the salads feature apples, then there are curries with apple chutney, there’s shrimp with apples, apple soup, cheese with apples, roast duck with apples and the final dish is Tarte Tatin. But although very good, the Pomze Tarte Tatin still didn’t taste like the one at the pot luck party. I also tried variations of the apple tart – in some restaurants apples were replaced by plums or peach; pineapples even.

One day in a tiny fish restaurant called the Taverne du Safranier, located a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean shoreline of Antibes town on the Cote d’Azur in France, I spotted some Tarte Tatin, fresh from the oven, and cooling off on a sheet of wax paper. And so I ordered a slice even before perusing the menu.

And when I took my first bite of that Tarte Tatin, I knew my quest had come to an end. It tasted exactly like the first slice of Tarte Tatin that had reached my lips, years ago.

Note: I visited La Taverne du Safranier this summer and noted that the original owners have sold the business. The seafood is now nowhere as good as the original, and  sadly there is no more Tarte Tatin. I can no longer recommend this place. As such I have decided to remove the address details of this restaurant.

109, Boulevard Haussmann
75008 Paris, France
+33 1 42 65 65 83

Origins of Tarte Tatin
Tarte Tatin was created by accident.  Legend has it that it was first created by accident by two sisters Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin, who ran the Hotel Tatin in Lamotte-Beuvron, France in 1889. Stéphanie Tatin, who did most of the cooking, was overworked one day and left the apples she was cooking to make a Tarte de Pommes in butter and sugar for too long. Smelling the burning, she tried to rescue the dish by putting the pastry base on top of the pan of apples, quickly finishing the cooking by putting the whole pan in the oven. Later she turned out the upside down tart, and served it up. Hotel guests were so impressed by the dessert that the ‘tarte of the Tatin sisters’ became a signature dish at the Hotel Tatin.  Later, the restaurateur Louis Vaudable, who tasted the tart made the dessert a permanent fixture on the menu at his restaurant Maxim’s of Paris.

Tips on making your own Tarte Tatin

There are many recipes for Tarte Tatin. They all work quite well but in order to get the authentic taste:

  1. use the Granny Smith apples. The apples have good acidity and are firm even when mature so when you cook them they do not turn into mush
  2. cook the apples with the skins on to give them a chewier texture. Even if overcooked, the skins hold the pieces together
  3. caramelise the sugar first in a pan before cooking the apples so the apples absorb the caramel and are also coated with it; and later, edges of the apple would be slightly burnt will take on the ‘country-style’ or home cooked taste
  4. use French butter in the pastry – French butter has a unique taste and lends all food cooked with it that ‘authentic French taste’.

Fishy Business

published in Wine & Dine Magazine

The day at the Tsukiji fish markets begins when seafood drifts in just before midnight. By daybreak fish from the world’s oceans would have arrived by truck, plane and ship. Tens of thousands of individual consignments are directed to the various destinations of the hangar-like market by dozens of zippy two-stroke powered trolleys resembling Star Wars droids. Occasionally, tradition endures and a wooden wheelbarrow or pushcart is drawn into operation. Pullers and pushers run frenzied from one end of the market to the other–a total of 2300 tons of highly perishable and fragile seafood needs to be in place, with not a claw, fin or tentacle out of alignment by auction time.

After all, this is serious business – seafood worth US$20 million will change hands in a matter of hours. Here, every kind of seafood can be found –salmon, live and salted; eels still wriggling; shark with fish still in their belly; crab; sea urchin and fish roe; abalone; sardines; squid of all sorts and more. You’ll see more marine animals here than in an aquarium – over 450 types. Only these are to be eaten. No surprise, since Japan consumes 1/6th of the world’s seafood.

The best time to visit Tsukiji is around 5.30 am when auctions begin in many of the 20 auction pits (visitor pass required). By then, each of the seven auction houses will have sorted, graded and readied for inspection, the commodity it specializes in.

A short taxi ride from Shinjuku and I arrive – bleary eyed, making my way past vegetable stalls and shops selling hand-made knives and cooking equipment. Right in the centre of the complex, is a wet market, with many small stalls. Here you’ll smell the sea. It’s just like standing on the edge of a cliff, with even the salt spray reaching you. Indeed, there’s fish, lots of them, in polystyrene and plastic containers, splashing about and taking what must be their last gulps of water. There are also frozen fish and octopus, packed in mounds of ice.  I stop at various stalls, curiously admiring seafood I have never seen before. Buyers are about, poking, rubbing, smelling and tasting pieces of fish, going about their business, oblivious to the many camera wielding and gawking tourists.

What I am looking for is bigger fish. So I head to the back of the markets, to a row of warehouses. Inside, the floor is shrouded in mist. In this surreal environment, you’ll see rows and rows of tuna, hundreds perhaps, paraded out on the ground. Every one is more than a metre long. Most are covered in frost, and all are missing their tails. More are being slithered across the concrete floor with steel contraptions not unlike that of Captain Hook’s.  I am here, at a bluefish tuna auction pit!

The frost is unceremoniously hosed off a row of tunas. Gumboot clad jobbers and buyers with flashlights and sashibo (steel rods), poke, jab and feel the flesh inside the sleek and shiny bodies to determine its fat content and freshness. I overhear discussions but can only make out words such as akami (lean red meat), naka (the best of the red meat), chutoro (belly area of the tuna along the side of the fish between the akami and the otoro), and kama (meat just behind the gills considered by some connoisseurs to be more delectable than toro). Deliberation is done with as much seriousness as a shopper considering a big purchase. No wonder, for each tuna can cost as much as a car. The auction begins.

Suddenly the auctioneer utters, “How much for this?” and the jobbers and buyers begin bidding with gestures – all very civilised.  Time passes in a flurry and blur.  A buyer may be from a restaurant who will then keep his favourite cuts for himself and then resell bits off to smaller sushi bars. By 7a.m., the jobbers would have taken their fish to their own stalls, sawn and carved them up for display for caterers and other purchasers to buy.

What could be fresher than sushi from the market: I head to the other end of the complex and sit down amongst the people I had just seen in action awhile ago. Like them, I order a seto or set of sushi and ponder my day ahead. How ironic; for them, the day is almost over.

Pearls of the Sea

published in Latitude Magazine

Caviar’s beginnings were humble indeed.  Centuries ago, the sturgeon roe was Russian peasant food; villagers eking out a living on the shores of the Caspian Sea unceremoniously scooped it from the fish’s belly and consumed ladles of it.

Over time caviar became a symbol of aristocracy and a delicacy reserved for tsars, but the rest of the world took to it only much later. Legend has it that in the early 18th century, Peter I The Great sent Louis XV a consignment of caviar.  The French King was so unimpressed that as soon as he tasted it, he sprayed the carpet at Versailles with it.

Fast forward to the 1920’s. ‘White’ Russian exiles, (who opposed the Bolshevik Red Army) living in Paris attempted to recreate their former tsarist lifestyle, with Champagne and all, but caviar was nowhere to be found.  Two enterprising students, Melkoum and Mouchegh Petrossian, devised a cunning scheme. They arranged for the Soviet embassy to freight in caviar, which they paid for, in francs, hard currency that the Soviets welcomed. Not long after, Paris high society began indulging in the eggs alongside the Russian émigrés. And the rest is history.

Having caviar on the table, anywhere in the world these days, heralds a distinguished moment. Of late, the amount of caviar from the Caspian Sea has diminished, due to a fall of production in the sea – mainly from over fishing and poaching.

Enter the substitutes as there are 30 species of sturgeon.  The Chinese version from farmed Kaluga sturgeon in the Amur River near Russia, is a golden coloured and nutty tasting; North America boasts eight species with the lake sturgeon producing roe somewhat similar to Sevruga caviar; and then there is host of fish eggs, peddled in supermarkets  – from the paddlefish and lumpfish to the trout ‘caviar’ and capelin roe. Whatever the claims of these upstarts, whether their eggs are an eye catching brilliant orange-red (salmon roe) or richly golden (whitefish), they are far in form and taste, from Caspian caviar, claim the purists.

The ultimate caviars are by definition – the roe of the sturgeon, from the Caspian Sea. And so, geographically, there can be only two sources– Iranian and Russian – nothing else matters despite the fact that each country will claim that their version offers the best texture and taste.

Caviar Savvy
The three original types of caviar available commercially are Beluga, Oscietre and Sevruga, named after the respective sturgeon varieties. The largest of these three is the Beluga, while the Sevruga is the smallest. Here’s the savvy.

Sevruga –  They are usually grey-black in colour, but varieties ranging in colour from yellow to grey-brown can be found. The eggs have a firm texture, and are smaller than the other two varieties. Uniquely, Sevruga is the saltiest amongst the three, but in surprising contrast, has a sweet finish. It is the least expensive grade, as the female Sevruga matures at about seven years, then it begins producing eggs. Serve Sevruga with crème fraiche on toast or incorporate with scrambled eggs. Suggested wines: An Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava or Laurent Perrier Champagne.

Oscietra –The female fish produces a wide variety of eggs and reaches maturity at the age of 12. In the early years, large eggs with mostly a dark golden shade, but can range from grey-black to deep brown are produced. Oscietra is nutty and earthy, although of course it still carries the sublimely salty, fishy taste. As the fish gets older, the roe produced is a pale amber, and in taste, is subtler. This roe is prized and should be consumed by the spoonfuls on its own. Suggested wines: A good Soave or an aged sparkling Vouvray.

Beluga – Because the sturgeons only reach maturity somewhere between 25 and 40 years of age, and they may not necessarily spawn every year, hence a huge price premium for Beluga. The eggs are large-grained, and could range in colour from a steel grey, to an almost black shade of grey. As you bite into a spoonful of Beluga, the large-grained eggs burst in an explosion of flavour in your mouth. This is the king of caviars. Served in small spoonfuls, unadorned, wines to accompany include complex Champagnes – Billecart-Salmon, Henri Giraud and Henriot.

Buying Caviar – When buying caviar, approach a reliable source. The best caviar will bear a Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) certification; beware of counterfeits, sold at a discounted price or other fish roe passed off as caviar. Cheap caviar almost always never turns out to the real thing.

The best caviars will have a ‘malossol’ tag implying it is delicately salted. Beluga is rated by zeros, with triple zero being the best whilst Ocietra/Osetra carries an A grade. Sevruga is graded one and two. Trust your taste and purchase what you like. Eggs should be whole, of the same size and colour be glistening and firm. Good caviar begins with an oceanic-like taste and finishes off nutty or fruity. Some aficionados can taste nuances of brine and copper. Caviar should never taste fishy, oily or salty. If it is, but has been served, rescue your palate and your hosts’ ego by opting for an austere wine to go with it. Pressed caviar or broken eggs is jam-like in consistency but will keep addicts with light wallets satisfied. Accompanying wine could be a sweetish German sparkling Sekt or a dry Cremant de Bourgogne.

Storage – Fresh caviar can be held unopened under refrigeration for four weeks. Pasteurized caviars will keep in the refrigerator unopened for several months. Once opened, all caviars should be consumed within two to three days.