Recently I had the honour of being invited as guest on the “Gourmet Jury” at the First Haute Cuisine Paris gastronomy event in the gorgeous Palais Royale Gardens. Over two days I sat on a gourmet-jury style ‘tasting panel’ organised by Madeline Market, where I had the pleasure of discovering some of the finest, freshest and most innovative products on French gastronomy scene. (What a dreadful way to spend a weekend… ) These two days opened out a whole new world of flavours, products, cooking techniques, trends and personalities that I figured are best shared with other food lovers, rather than left as memories in the form of photos on my iPhone and jotted notes in my little black notebook.
In this post I summarise and feature the highlights and most noteworthy of my delicious discoveries, from the finest Ibéric Jambon with a nutritional lipid profile comparable to olive oil, through to an exotic Japanese Turnip, exceptional Italian Carnaroli Rice and incredible micro-herbs that literally explode on your tastebuds. Here I aim to be your ‘French Food Correspondent’ in sharing these delicious discoveries.
This is the part where I add my little disclaimer to confirm that none of the references in this post, (or on my blog for that matter) are of a commercial nature. I like to promote people and products simply becasue I think they’re great, not because I’m paid to do so. Voila!
Day one was all about Jambon. I must say, when I was first asked to sit on a panel purely involving the degustation and discussion of Ibéric Jambon, I was admittedly a little intimidated. For someone who had spent a large portion of her adult life as a vegetarian, the invitation was both exciting and slightly daunting at the same time. My former choice to lead a vegetarian lifestyle was what I believe originally contributed to my passion and curiosity for food from an early age; but the main drivers were the ethical, animal rights and environmental sustainability issues linked to the meat industry.
Little did I know, man did not make all Jambon equal. Many of my generalised preconceptions of this product were dispelled through the discovery of this premium, artisanal Ibéric Jambon. Meeting Pierre-André, founder of Origine Gourmet was a big eye opener. This man is on a mission to source and distribute the finest range of gourmet delicacies produced with the greatest respect for terroir, tradition, quality, and artisanal farming techniques and methodologies.
We sampled four kinds of Ibéric Jambon on the jury, each was a unique discovery in itself- exhibiting its own distinct personality and flavour profile. Tasting a fine jambon of this quality is a sensory experience on so many levels. On the palate, it not only apports an incredible array of subtle flavours ranging from red fruits, vanilla and cinnamon to hazelnut, wood and truffle, but it brings one of the strongest sensations connected to ‘terroir’. At the moment of tasting this jambon- you really get this feeling of being magically transported to the place of its origin. An unexplainable connection between the product and the land, was produced from becomes evident through the aroma of earth, truffle, soil, wood, and fruit. I’m also convinced that the strict production methods employed in producing these special products is at the heart of this. The ‘Jamon’ variety for example, (pictured) requires up to four years of careful treatment, processing and ageing following strict traditional and artisanal methods, before the product is finally ready for the market.
A Labour of Love:
Salted for up to 15 days at a constant 5 degrees, then temperature controlled for a further 60 days at 80-90% humidity, the Jamon is then matured during a careful drying process which ensures the gradual and uniform diffusion of fats into the fibrous tissues. The maturation process lasts up to 9 months at 30-35 degrees at 70% humidity with the entire process controlled daily by a “Maesto Jamonero”. Finally the maturation is completed in special ageing caves which allow a natural constant temperature of 10-20 degrees at lower humidty, where the Jamon matures for 20 to 30 months when finally, at the end of the long process, the moment arrives when the Jambon becomes “Jamon”.
Aside from the slow, strict artisanal maturation and treatment process, almost more importantly is the story behind the original product- the actual animal that was raised under the most ideal of living conditions and with great respect for the health, well-being, happiness and physical state of the creature during its lifetime. The ‘Ibérico’ Cochon is a specific breed perfectly adapted to allow for cohabitation with other species- usually impossible with other varieties.
Honestly, these animals have a pretty awesome lifestyle. For the first year and a half, they are raised in vast open enclosures that permit the farmers to have a greater degree of control over their diet. Come October, they are released completely into the wild where they graze at full liberty in oak forests and dramatically increase their body weight until 60% of their body fat percentage is composed of fat tissue. Roaming and grazing with reckless abandon in bountiful open spaces sounds pretty good to me.
The ‘sacrifice’ of the animal is obviously an important part of the process and is carried out in a manner observing the utmost respect for the creature, and in the most humane way possible. Finally, each portion of the cochon is used to produce one of four uniquely different types of Jambon: Paletta, Jamon, Lomito and Lomo.
Furthermore, all of these utopic conditions bring specific health benefits to the product: Nutritional profiling studies on this Ibéric Jambon reveal large antioxidant properties and very high levels of Vitamis B1, B6, B12 and Oleic acid (Omega 9)- the cholesterol-lowering substance normally found in olive oil. Pas mal.
And the price, you may ask? Naturally, due to the highly idyllic conditions involved in all of the above, the Ibéric Jambon is sold for between 180 € and 450 € per kilo. It recently became available for order online with international shipping on Madeline Market where you can buy it in 100 gram packs staring from 18 €.
During day 2 on the Gourmet Jury I discovered the fine, exotic Japanese vegetables of Asafumi Yamashita. I never imagined myself getting so excited by a pretty plate of diced raw vegetables, but the result was what I imagine would occur if Monet, Marimekko and Louis Vuitton threw a party in a veggie garden. Yamashita could honesty transform a hairy celeriac root into a plate of art with a few simple flicks of his Samurai grade vegetable knife and the elegant gestures of a skilled calligraphist.
Yamashita – a Japanese expat who moved to Paris more than 36 years ago to study French at La Sorbonne; through a turn of fate, fortune and pure talent has become somewhat of a French celebrity gardener. His story is both fascinating and inspiring.
Originally Yamashita was a practicing Bonsai artist when he first set himself up in Paris, until one fateful day when nearly all but two or three of his Bonsai trees were stolen. Unsure of what to do next, he turned to his other passion and natural talent- growing vegetables. Notably, there is one thing these two beautiful artisanal crafts have in common – the artful gesture (which really does sound much nicer when the French say it as “le beau geste”).
Before long, Paris’s top Michelin-starred restaurants were practically fighting over access to his limited supply of rare and exotic vegetables; all carefully cultivated personally by Yamashita on his own farm and hand delivered in person twice a week to a very select number of top restaurants and hotels. Today Yamashita’s impressive clientele list includes le George V, l’Astrance, Ze Kitchen Galerie and Restaurant Itinéraries (one of my favourite tables in Paris).
Yamashita and Sylvain Sendra- head chef of restaurant Itinéraires, united produce and passion to prepare a selection of vegetable assiettes for the Gourmet Jury. The simple manner of preparation, cutting techniques and insanely fresh, quality nature of the produce itself created sheer delight. I have never tasted fresh corn so sweet, crisp and starch-less in my life… special varieties of fresh Broccoli, cut separately to distinguish the flavour and texture of the stem, leaves and florets… rare Caviar Tomatoes, Red Carrots, Kabodjian Pumpkin, Japanese Herbs and one star vegetable that stole the show: “Le Kabu”.
The Nobel Prize of Root Vegetables goes to this incredible variety of white Japanese turnip (pictured on brioche and jam above). We tasted this impressive variety both simply sliced raw (visible on the base of the vegetable assiette on right) and also whipped up by chef Sendra in a surprisingly delicious combo with Brioche and confiture (fruit jam).
Let’s face it… turnips are normally such an unsexy vegetable. But the Kabu is no ordinary turnip. Unlike the turnips I am accustomed to (and generally not a fan of), the Kabu does not exhibit bitterness, starchy character or a dense fibrous texture. Its exterior is soft and slightly spongy, the interior flesh is delicate and refined with a slight apple-ish sweetness and the density is somewhere between the crunchiness of carrot and soft sponginess of a raw zucchini. When in season, Yamahita produces up to just 300 per month. Unfortunately, supply of Yamashita’s exotic delights is not available to the general public, so if would like to sample Yamashita’s produce, you have one of two options: either dine at one of the restaurants he supplies, or reserve well in advance for the real deal- a long lunch in his very own on-site garden restaurant where you can visit the farm and sample his produce over a delightful ‘discovery degustation menu’.
La table d’hôte de Naomi et Asafumi Yamashita, 35 € per person for lunch and 50 € for dinner. Reservations a must. +33(0)1 30 91 98 75
Have you ever wondered how many of today’s top chefs manage to pack so much flavour and subtlety in their creations whilst keeping them perfectly well garnished and stunningly presented? Slowly I am discovering some of their tricks, and one of the secrets lies in their access to and clever usage of a commercial range of micro-herbs and specialty ‘Cresses’ – fast becoming big business in this industry.
On the Gourmet Jury we tasted a wide range of these tiny, delicate ‘mini cresses’, flowers and micro-herbs supplied by Koppert Cress. The range across these special products is just overwhelming. I had never been exposed to such a diverse array of products like this in Australian restaurants to my memory, so for me it was a real eye-opener.
Here are some of the most interesting products I tried:
Dushi Buttons – (pictured) These tiny white flower buds burst with sweetness and minty, chlorophyll-like flavours; it’s most often seen used by chefs in desserts, with marshmallow, or to compliment goats cheese
Scarlet Cress – A deep red, decorative cress with earthy spinach and beetroot flavours. Often served with fish, meat and game. (Pictured in photo from dish at MaSa)
Limon Cress – (Pictured) From the basil family, this powerful leaf has strong aniseed and lemon character. I have seen it used in restaurants to flavour sorbets and garnish fish.
Honny Cress – An amazing leaf with neutral sweetening properties. Similar to Stevia, this product will no doubt soon be widely used as a natural sugar alternative
Elephant Garlic flower (buds) – Tiny purple flower buds from the Elephant Garlic plant. Packed with aroma and sweet garlic flavour
Salty Fingers- A plant grown along the coasts of tropical America and Asia. It’s crispy, salty, slightly bitter with a cactus-like texture.
Sechuan Buttons – These inconspicuous little yellow flowers are seriously feisty and create more of a ‘sensation’ rather than flavour experience. Thank goodness that was the last one we tried- my tastebuds were on fire and completely out of action for a good 20 minutes after that little piece of dynamite landed on my tongue!
Now, what food event is complete without something fine and Italian? No, I’m not talking pasta, or cheese, or Italian dolci- this time it’s Italian rice.
I have the lovely Sophie from Gourmetise to thank for this little discovery. Sophie is the ultimate specialty food hunter. When she told me “You simply must try this Italian rice” my response was something along the lines of “It’s rice, Sophie. Rice is rice, what’s honestly so special about it?”
In the end, I did try this rice, and really, I was blown away. I love it when something so simple is just so darn good. This special variety of Italian-grown and produced rice grain called “Carnaroli” by Acquerello was cooked using the absorption method, with a little olive oil and sea salt for good measure- and that was it. I would have been happy to eat that as my lunch for a week straight- honestly.
This special rice is grown, aged and processed on the 16th Century Colombara farm by the Rondolino family in northern Italy. They use a patented whitening process whereby the unhusked whole rice grain is aged for at least one year then slowly and gently whitened using a helix then restored with it’s original rice germ. The end result is this superior product that retains the nutritional profile of brown rice but cooks similarly to Arborio – staying perfectly intact without losing starch or vitamins.
I made a risotto with it recently (guided by the expert instruction of an Italian friend of course) just to test it out myself, and the results were superb. (Check out the risotto we made here).
The Art of Eating:
Now finally, you have probably noticed by now how much I love CHEESE so I just couldn’t go past this gorgeous creation by designer Sebastian Bergne who exhibited his “Eat & Drink” table-wear range at Haute Cuisine Paris. No kitchen is complete without a good cheese board, and besides, you need to order one to go with the cheeses you can smuggle through the French border, next time you’re in town.