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Lunch with Yamashita: Paris’ celebrity vegetable gardener

5 Jan
Degustation menu at Yamashita

The degustation menu: Clockwise from top left: Chicken hearts and liver in miso; Bonito Dashi with Kometsuna Japanese greens; Wasabi leaf, kabu and avocado, cherry tomato salad; Black carrot, Hokkaido Pumpkin and chicken dumplings in dashi broth; Steamed edamame and sweet corn; Fried Chicken and Okara tofu with Japanese leeks; Pickled cucumber, wakame and miso salad; Udon with fried carrot leaves and shrimp; Apricot Mochi with green tea

Asafumi Yamashita in his greenhouse

Asafumi Yamashita in his greenhouse

Asafumi Yamashita is not your average French vegetable grower. Firstly, he’s not French – he’s Japanese; and his clients are not your average grocers, retailers or restaurateurs. Yamashita can count his current clients on less than two hands – three-starred hands, in fact. Yamashita is the select vegetable supplier to top chefs such as Pierre Gagnaire, Sebastien Bras, Sylvain Sendra, Pascal Bardot (l’Astrance), Eric Briffard (George V) and Anne Sophie Pic (Maison Pic), but don’t quote me on the currency of which of these are on the list at this moment. What’s even more interesting, however, is Yamashita’s personal story behind how this came to be.

A regular day at the Yamashita family household

A regular day at the Yamashita family household – a Japanese haven on the outskirts of Paris

I first met Yamashita when I was on the panel at Haute Cuisine Paris. Yamashita gave a demonstration and tasting of his exotic Japanese vegetables along with chef Sylvain Sendra from Restaurant Itinéraires. It was that day when I first tasted the sweetest, juiciest raw corn that had ever passed my lips, and the intriguing texture and flavour of his trademark vegetable, the Kabu – something I describe as in-between a daikon, zucchini and a green apple. More importantly, chatting with Yamashita that day was when I discovered his personal story.

Yamashita first came to Paris 24 years ago. At the time he was a bonsai artist and made a modest living from selling his bonsai trees. One fateful day, all but one or two of his Bonsai trees were stolen from his property. Left without his valuable assets for the bonsai business, he turned to his other hobby, for which he had natural gift – growing vegetables. With all but a green thumb, a few packets of dried seeds brought from Japan, and a handful of existing plants, he slowly built up his vegetable garden and started supplying local Japanese restaurants in Paris and surrounds with hard-to-find Japanese varieties. Eventually, his niche supply of top quality, seasonal Japanese fruits and vegetables caught the attention of the country’s best chefs, and now, 17 years later Yamashita has gained somewhat celebrity vegetable grower status amongst the ranks of France’s greatest chefs.

Salad bowl at Yamashita's

Salad – as fresh as it gets. Wasabi leaves, kabu, avocado, red and yellow cherry tomato

So it was with great curiosity and anticipation when I finally went for “La table d’hôte de Naomi et Asafumi Yamashita” experience at his farm in Chapet after scoring the last reservation of the season thanks to a last minute cancellation (the waiting list can be up to 2 months in advance).

Yamashita and his wife offer a traditional Japanese degustation lunch or dinner nine months of the year on their homestead property in Chapet, 40 kms West of Paris. The food served is sourced almost exclusively from their own farm, so it’s as authentic, fresh and local as you can get. Yamashita’s farm is not certified organic, nor does he think all that highly of the concept. He makes all efforts to avoid pesticides and chemicals but is very upfront about the challenges and realities of growing quality small-scale produce to meet his client’s demands on consistent supply and quality.

Yamashita is a modest, simple, yet switched-on, charismatic and passionate character. He personally served the ten guests at our lunch table each course, explaining in detail the produce and ingredients used. Luckily for me, I had brought along my friend Phoebe, who just happened to live in Japan for 12 years, so with her fluent Japanese we got even more out of the experience, including a translation from Japanese to English of one of Yamashita’s recipes (below).

La table chez Yamashita

The other guests at Yamashita’s table

Surprisingly, most of the other guests at our table had never before eaten food of this kind – real, home-style Japanese cooking, I mean. In reality, I shouldn’t be surprised about this. The majority of Japanese restaurants in Paris are actually under Chinese ownership, and they offer the standard sushi, sashimi teriyaki menu you see everywhere. Of course there is authentic Japanese to be found in Paris, but it’s rather hard to come by. The French sure do French cuisine well, but I have to admit, they have a long way to go on offerings of ethnic and Asian cuisine. So when a table of self-confessed French foodies– most of them from Paris and surrounds admitted to never eating wakame, dashi or tofu before, we can understand why.

Japanese Hokkaido Pumkin and Chicken Dumplings in Bonito Broth - chez Yamashita

2 soups

The food is not fancy, it is super fresh, modest and designed to make the produce itself the star – presented and served simply with a thoughtful progression of flavour and complexity throughout the courses. I personally was totally stuffed by the fifth course, and had not even eaten managed to get through those in entirety. The chicken liver and heart dish we started with was not something I could stomach, and by the time the udon arrived, I was ready to lie down and sleep in the greenhouse next to the kabu. Everyone else at our table had no problems polishing off the entire 10 courses however… I’m forever impressed by how much French people can eat.

Yamashita's Farm

Bresse Chickens raised on Yamashita's farmBresse Chickens raised on Yamashita's farm

Bresse Chickens raised on Yamashita’s farm

Sweet corn, tomato and black chillies from Yamashita's farm

Sweet corn, tomato and black chillies from Yamashita’s farm

Japanese vegetables at Yamashita's farm

The famed vegetable: Kabu – a Japanese turnip, growing at Yamashita's farm

The famed vegetable: Kabu – a Japanese turnip, growing at Yamashita’s farm

Gooseberry from Yamashita's Farm

Phoebe holds up a freshly picked Gooseberry

Edamame beans growing at Yamashita's farm

Edamame beans

Seedlings growing at Yamashita's farm

Gumboots at Yamashita's Farm

Phoebe and Asafumi

Phoebe and Asafumi

Rachel and Asafumi Yamashita at his farm outside of Paris

Wow… wasn’t expecting that one! Yamashita’s all affection. Must be something about those wasabi leaves…

My favourite dish was actually the simplest – a gorgeous, small side dish of cucumber wakame miso pickles. Thank you to Yamashita and his wife Naomi for generously sharing the recipe below.

How to have the Yamashita communal dining experience:

You can visit “le Kolo” communal table for lunch or dinner on weekends only, outside of the winter months.  The price per head is 40 Euros for lunch, 50 Euros for dinner, plus wine.

Come prepared with a big appetite, an open mind, expandable pants, and preferably in a car. For the more adventurous types, Yamashita offers the chance to try raw sashimi chicken at your meal… but you have to “pre-order” it two weeks in advance. Enough said.

Address: Chemin des Trois Poiriers, 78130 Chapet (Yvelines) FRANCE

Phone for bookings: +33 1 30 91 98 75

Nearest transport: By train: Gare des Clairières de Verneuil (from Gare Saint-Lazare, take 31 minute train MALA in the direction of GARE DE MANTES LA JOLIE, €6) then walk 15 minutes through the Bois de Verneuil to reach the farm.

Recipe: Yamashita’s Pickled Miso Cucumbers

Yamashita's Miso Pickled cucumber and wasabi salad

Ingredients:

1 egg yolk
2 tbsp  dried wakame
4 tbsp mild white miso
2 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp Japanese mustard
6 baby cucumbers
Coarse Sea salt

Directions:

Rehydrate dried wakame in a bowl of warm water and drain well.

Shave cucumbers with skin on, into long thin strips, preferably using a mandolin. Sprinkle sea salt generously over the cucumbers and allow to “sweat” for approximately 10 mins. Rinse the cucumbers to remove excess salt, squeeze out excess water and then pat dry with paper towels. In a small bowl, mix the miso, egg yolk, vinegar, sugar and mustard until dissolved and well combined. Combine wakame and cucumber, then pour over sauce and mix in the dressing.

My top 10: The best addresses for cheese shopping and finding a good coffee in Paris

30 Apr

It’s about time I shared the love. Two of my great loves are of course: coffee… and the other you already know — cheese. Not necessarily together or in that order! I’m often asked for tips and addresses on both of these subjects so I have compiled my top 10 and made interactive maps for both the lists. After all, what trip to Paris is complete without eating too much cheese? Then after all the fun of running around buying and tasting it, you will be needing a good coffee to pick you back up again if you want to make it on your last legs to that pastry shop…

Coffee and latte in Paris

COFFEE:

Let’s start with coffee, since it’s rather problematic in this city. A good friend of mine recently moved for a six-week stay in Paris and called me in a panic: “All the coffee is so aaaaawful here… what am I going to dooooo?? Why can’t I just go into a café and drink a decent latte?”

And she’s absolutely right. Unlike cheese, the good stuff is simply not common and easily available in this city, in fact, getting a real coffee is more like a treasure hunt — you almost need to plan your day/meeting around it to make sure you get your fix in one of the very few places that know how to make it. There has been a lot of press on the issue recently, and the scene is quickly changing for the better thanks to French-Australian partnerships who are raising the bar, such as Café Lomi who supply most of the places on my list.

So here is the list I gave my latte-longing friend. There is hope, I promise.

Where to get a good Latte / drink real coffee in Paris:

Café Lomi Paris 18eme
Black Market – Paris 18eme
Le Bal Café – Paris 18eme Clichy
KB Café Shop (formerly Kooka Boora) – Paris 9eme
Coutume Café – Paris 7eme
Sugarplum Cakeshop and Café – Paris 5eme
L’inconnu Bar/Café – Paris 10eme
Ten Belles – Paris 10eme
Télescope (great coffee in a central part of town) – Paris 1eme
Vélo Café (mobile coffee cart at Place de la Bourse) – Paris 2eme
Alto Café (mobile coffee cart at Galeries Lafayette and Passage du Havre) – Paris 9eme.

cafe lomi latte

L’art du Cafe at Lomi, Paris. Image © Rachel Bajada

CHEESE:

First things first, I need to lay down the rules of engagement here: no cheating and buying cheese at the supermarket! Sure, you may be able to find a decent fresh chèvre or biodynamic faisselle in the dairy isle, maybe even the occasional genuine AOC Camembert, but the vast majority of cheeses sold in big chains like Monoprix, Carrefour and Franprix are industrially processed, inferior, pasteurized milk cheeses which are actually slowly killing the real artisanal cheese industry in this country. Sadly, a growing number of French cheeses become extinct every year due to the industrialisation of the French dairy industry so please be a conscious cheese shopper and support artisanal cheese makers and small businesses by favouring quality over convenience and bargain basement price tags.

There is only one time and one reason only when you have an excuse to buy in the supermarket, and that’s if it’s your last stop in Paris and you’re buying cheese to take on the flight home. This leads me to my next important piece of advice and a common question:

Can I take raw milk French cheese back through Australian customs?

The answer is YES, you sure can! There is just one catch. Firstly, you must of course declare it on your arrival card, but as long as the cheese you bring in is “commercially prepared and packaged and originate from countries free from foot and mouth disease” you are allowed to bring it in. And don’t worry, as long as you wrap it in lots of layers of plastic and foil to avoid your entire luggage smelling of cheese, it will certainly last and wont spoil during the long journey home.

Because of this, you can’t just go to the farmers markets and buy a fresh unpackaged cheese to take overseas; so this is when the supermarket may be your only option. I have done this numerous times without problems but usually I stop at Galleries Lafayette Gourmand or la Grande Epicerie where they stock a good range of quality raw milk cheeses with sufficient labelling and packaging to keep you off Border Control at prime time. If you do however find yourself in a sticky situation with customs, here is how to successfully talk your way out of it.

The full details on Australian quarantine regulations can be found at the daff.gov.au site here. I regret that I don’t know enough about current regulations in the US, UK and Canada etc. to provide them but if you know please drop a comment below.

My favourite places to buy and taste cheese in Paris:

Fromagerie SecrétanParis 19eme (owners are extremely friendly and helpful and they stock a range of beautiful seasonal and special cheeses)

Galerie Fayette Gourmande – For the pre-flight stock-up to take home

Market bio 17eme and Marche bio Raspail. Excellent organic/biodynamic producers of goats cheeses and nearly every French cheese you could dream of. More expensive but worth it, make sure you get there before midday. The markets are my weekend sport.Hah.

La Ferme Saint Hubert FromagerieParis 9eme. You will smell it before you find it. This is a good thing. Very traditional with a great range.
A memorable shopping experience.

Quatre Hommes CrèmerieParis 7eme. A top quality cheese shop which also produces and sells exciting new cheese varieties such as Pistachio Brie.

CantinParis 7eme. Run by cheese queen Marie-Anne Cantin fromager de tradition and Affineur with 7 impressive caves, the shop has been open since her father set it up in 1950.

Marche BastilleParis 11eme. Here you will find a few great stands with excellent cheeses. My favourite is the best Burrata I have found in Paris from the Spanish and Italian food stall. You can also find more exotic cheeses such as Guinness Cheddar and Goats Milk blue. Photos here

Alléosse Paris 17eme. Stocks an impressive array of artisanal AOC cheeses such as camemberts, Saint Marcellins, a large choice of chèvres and the best part- a selection of rare, hard to find cheeses such as Persillé de Tignes made by the last remaining producers of their kind in the country.

Mmmozza – Italian Mozarella and cheeses – Paris 3eme. A great spot to buy giant buffalo burrata, fresh burrata from Puglia, smoked and classic Mozzarella and Treccia, other Italian cheeses and excellent Prosciutto and Parma hams, in the heart of the Marais and a stroll from Marche des Enfants Rouge.

The ultimate cheese selection at Edouard Loubet, Bonnieux France. Photo courtesy of Arturo Zavala Haag www.arturozavala.com

Ready for the suitcase: Black Truffle Brie at Lafayette Gourmet, Paris

The art of Easter. Chocolate egg design reaches new heights in Paris

8 Apr

Paris at Easter kind of reminds me of the characters in desperate housewives. Just as Gabrielle and Marcia would secretly aim to outdo each other with their good-willed neighbourly ‘bake-offs’, the designer chocolate boutiques in Paris launch full-scale campaigns to boast the most impressive designer Easter egg display in town. There is no mucking around in this city– ‘Haute chocolat’ at Easter in Paris is rather serious, not to mention – lucrative business.

This year’s designs are particularly extravagant and the window displays in every chocolate shop are filled with outrageously gigantic, painstakingly sculpted designer chocolate eggs and fantastical themed window displays as the stores are packed to the rafters with excited Parisian chocoholics purchasing designer eggs and gifts aimed to impress. So impressive in fact, I doubt many of these eggs ever actually get eaten. Here’s a selection of some of my favourite designs from this year, and some scenes from the streets of Paris this Easter.

2012 paris designer chocolate easter eggs

The Designer Dozen. Paris' most impressive designer chocolate eggs on display for Easter 2012. Clockwise from top left: Painting Pots by Jadis et Gourmande, Patrick Roger, Jean-Paul Hevin, Dalloyau, L’Avocat Surprise Des Gâteaux & Du Pain, La Duree Anniversary Limited Edition, Pollock framed by Jadis et Gourmande, Mazet flower egg, Marcolini "Chef d'Oeuf", L’Œuf de Tortue de Jean-Paul Hévin, Pollock egg by Monoprix, Hédiard Œuf Zèbre

chef-oeuf-marcolini-2012

One of my personal favorites. The Marcolini "Chef d'Oeuf" is made of dark chocolate with a pralinated puffed rice base. At 89€ a piece, it seems I have expensive taste...
Image © Pierre Marcolini

Patrickrogereaster-2

Simple elegance. Less is more with the class and style of Master chocolatier Patrick Roger. 
Image © Patrick Roger

jean paul hevin easter egg

Sculpture meets chocolate. The "Œuf de Tortue" (Turtle Rgg) by Jean-Paul Hévin.
Image © Jean-Paul Hévin

laduree oeuf petale

More than just macarons. Ladurée's anniversary limited edition celebrates 150 years. The stunning Oeuf Petale design is adorned with pralinated flower petals.
Image © Ladurée

oeuf_pollock_20_cm_avec_cadre_2012

Chocolate art. Literally. The Pollock framed collection by Jadis et Gourmande comes in small, medium and HUGE. Image © Jadis et Gourmande

Dalloyau easter egg

The intricate design by Dalloyau is complete with a tiny singing nightingale etched into pearly chocolate. It's very pretty, and very pricey. Starting at 70€.
Image © Dalloyau

Maison Mazet is first a confectionery that Leon Mazet bought 107 years ago. In their Easter window display are 3 giant "Prasline de Montargis" caramelised almond eggs. Image © Rachel Bajada

kids in paris shop window

The giant praline eggs at Mazet confectioners literally stop curious passers-by in their tracks. Image © Rachel Bajada

window display at maison la mère de famille

The 2012 Easter window display at la Maison la mère de famille - Paris' oldest chocolate shop.    Image © Rachel Bajada

Chocolate filled hens eggs

          The real deal. Chocolate praline filled hens eggs at Jadis et Gourmande, Paris.                                 Image © Rachel Bajada

Paris dog in chocolate shop

A parisien dog waits patiently at the door of the Mazet boutique as his owner buys him a fancy   Easter treat. Image © Rachel Bajada

A heart between two homes

6 Mar

paris_sydney_cheese_je t'aime

Dear Australia,

I love you. You raised me, bathed me in sunlight and blessed me with beautiful beaches, an awesome lifestyle and my treasured family and friends, but I am sorry, I am leaving you. This little holiday at home has been magical, but the time has come, and I am going back to my adopted country, France.

Now, don’t be like that; please don’t be jealous, we absolutely cannot compare the two of you. And don’t be so presumptuous please- it’s not the wine I’m leaving you for. It’s also not the amazing markets and restaurants, nor is it for the fashion. You did everything right, my dear homeland, but you did one thing wrong. There is just one thing missing in this relationship…. Let me explain…

Chère France,

I love you, too. And I am coming back to you, if you will take me. How you have such a strong pull on me, honestly I don’t know. In reality, you treat me kinda mean. You’re painfully cold 6 months of the year. You make me drink too much wine, eat too much bread and not do enough exercise. You made me tolerant of passive smoking, and living in overpriced shoebox-sized flats. You make me spend too much money on pretty things I probably don’t need. Your metro is an efficient but dehumanising experience. Your lovely pebbled pavements ruin my stiletto heels and your thousands of poodles leave their sh*t everywhere. Too many of your shopkeepers are rude and obnoxious; your Michelin star waiters refuse to serve me real cappuccinos and most of your café coffee sux.

OK OK … maybe that was a little rough, after all, for a love letter, this didn’t start so well. No need to be insecure. I do love your amazing fashion, and strolling around the city at night is like living in a walking museum. Your effortless elegance, manicured gardens and romantic summer nights certainly wooed me, but that is not why I am taking you back. I’m coming back, my dear France because you offer me in abundance one thing Australia cannot – real cheese.

That’s right baby. Unpasteurised, unhomogenized, unadulterated, raw milk, artisanal, wonderful… CHEESE! Fresh ones, aged ones, soft ones, hard ones, stinky ones, mild ones… I’m only just getting started. You know you’ve got what I need my love, and over 400 of them….

So yes, you won me over.

Yours truly,
Rachel

Rachel Bajada with giant Mont d'Or cheese

At Rungis Markets, Paris with a 'Mega Mont d'Or'

And so there we have it. Going home after almost two years in the land of wine and cheese, I have returned as a changed woman. Arriving in Sydney was like walking into my hometown with a brain transplant. My country has not changed a lot, but I have evolved enormously. I’m the same person, with different eyes, and slightly evolved tastebuds. A new language, a million crazy stories, hundreds of new friends and bank accounts in multiple countries.

Out of habit, one of the first things I did was to check out the cheese selection at the local delis and department stores (like, isn’t that what we all do)? Wasn’t that just a depressing experience? Hate to say it but Australia really is the communist Cuba of fromage. We are living in the height of cheese communism. How can such a developed and progressive country still have strict bans on raw milk production? As long as Australia keeps a ban on raw milk cheese production, I’m going to have a hard time living there!

So I’ve decided to do something about it. Next month I’m launching a campaign in conjunction with Slowfood International and Australia’s top chefs to lobby against the ban on Raw Milk production and sale in Australia- the principle thing preventing artisan cheese makers cultivating a rich and diverse industry. Let’s support local producers and artisans and support the freedom of choice over what natural raw foods we have access to.

Watch this space and stay tuned for updates. In the meantime, check out some reading material on the issue here, and while you’re at it, join my Facebook Cheese Fanclub

See you at the Paris fromagerie!

Rachel
xox

Delicious Discoveries from the Gourmet Jury at Haute Cuisine Paris

7 Sep
Le Jury Gourmand gathers around Ibéric Jambon at Haute Cuisine Paris

Day 1 on the ‘Jury Gourmand’ This photo somehow resembles the last supper… slight difference though: we’re sharing ham, not bread… From left: Laura Annaert, Emmanuel Giraud, Mathilde Dewilde, Rachel Bajada, Laurent Cagna. Photo credit: Barbara Siegel

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!

Plate of Jamon by Origine Gourmet

‘Jamon’ variety Ibéric Jambon from Origine Gourmet (Patte arriere du cochon).
Photo credit: Barbara Siegel

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 €.

Rachel Bajada- Degustation de Jambon Iberic, Jury Gourmand Paris

Passion for quality- Pierre André Rouard and Jean Bernard Magescas. Trying to explain the subtleties of terroir and Ibéric Jambon... in French.. not easy!
Photo credit: Barbara Siegel

Extra-ordinary Vegetables:

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.

Assiette des Legumes cru par Yamashita

Beauty in simplicity. Seasonal vegetable tasting plate by Yamashita and Sylvian Sendra, Chef chez Itineraires

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”).

Asafumi Yamashita and Sylvian Sendra Cutting Vegetabes

Asafumi Yamashita and Sylvian Sendra

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”.

Brioche with Kabu (Japanese Turnip) et confiture

A surprisingly delightful combination. Brioche au 'Kabu' (Yamashita's special Japanese Turnip variety) and confiture

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

Incredible Cress:

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.

Paris Restaurnant dishes from Kei and MaSa using Specialty Cress

Decorative Dishes: Kei Restuarant Paris using flowers and microherbs,
MaSa Restaurant Paris using Scarlett Cress

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!

Plate of Scarlet Cress

Scarlet Cress - exhibits the delicate, earthy flavour of beetroot

Limon Cress and Dushi Buttons

Incredible Cress: Limon Cress (left) is packed with aniseed and lemon flavour.
Dushi buttons explode with sweet mint-cholorphyll flavour

The Italians:

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).

Photo of Acquerello Rice

Acquerello Rice. Not just ordinary rice.


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.

Cheese Board by Sebastian Bergne

Coup de Coeur - Beechwood 'Jerry' cheeseboard.
The understated elegance of Sebastian Bergne design.

Palais Royale Gardens, Paris

One of my favorite city havens. The gorgeous gardens at Palais Royale, Paris.
Photo credit: Barbara Siegel

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