Sunday, 25 June 2017

Portugal - My Voyage of Discovery

Portugal's national epic, Os Lusíadas by Luís Vaz de Camões, is an epic tribute to the Portuguese voyages of discovery of the 15th and 16th Centuries.  Those voyages were the foundation of the first of the great European maritime empires, their leaders bearing names of legend: Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan...

Now I'm not suggesting for a moment that I should be mentioned in the same breath as Camões, just noting that this humble series of instalments takes me the other way.  Me, a native of one of the realms that Camões' contemporaries "discovered" for the glory of Empire, travelling in the reverse direction to discover for myself the land of the sons of Lusus, the descendants of Bacchus: Portugal.


So there I was in the office in February, bashing away on my keyboard trying to get a report out, when my phone vibrated.  It was my editor A.  Now we have had our ups and downs since I started freelancing for her magazine back in 2014, mostly ups as she seems to tolerate me for the most part.  This message, however, was slightly different from the usual ones: 

"Hey, what are you doing in the first week of April?"

I had slept awfully the previous night, as I do most nights these days, and was about to type back something terribly impolitic.  But I checked myself.

"Don't know yet, what's up?"

"We need to send a writer to Portugal for a wine trip.  Are you keen?"

I was surprised.  Not because of the promise of a free trip.  But Portugal!  It was, I am now ashamed to admit, not on my list of places to see before I died.  Of course, as a keen student of history, I knew the great names of the colonial age, and of a more recent one: Mourinho, Ronaldo, Figo.   And I had most pleasant memories of sharing a glass of the wonderful 1998 Quinta dos Malvedos with Johnny Symington back in December 2015 at Bar-Roque Grill, sadly also the last time I would see my friend Etienne Hugel in person.  But apart from that, and a brief dalliance with Mateus Rosé when I was at Uni (all I could afford, apart from Aussie cask / box grog), I had zero experience with Portuguese wine.  Diddly.  Nada.  Sweet FA.

So on paper, I was clearly not the right guy for the job.  Further, such plum junkets are usually reserved for loyal staff writers who devote all of their working hours to the magazine's success, not thrice-a-year (if I'm lucky) freelancers like me.  But it is not for us to question why, and the last time I looked a gift horse in the mouth it spat on me.

So I called the Wife.  We had just found out she was pregnant with our third child, and would be six months in April if I went on the trip.  Our two girls, while undoubtedly gorgeous little angels, can be a handful at times.  To make matters worse, our helper was scheduled to go on her annual holiday that same week.  The Wife, however, was firm.  "You must go", she commanded in her usual stentorian tone.  I tried to engage her about how she was going to cope but she imperiously closed the book on any further discussion.  "I'm not going to talk about this, just do it."  What choice did I have then but to obey?

In all seriousness, my wife is an absolute saint, and has been the immovable bedrock on which our family is built.  Sure, she was probably dying to get rid of me for a week anyway,  but that in no way diminishes the scale of her sacrifice or my gratitude.  So if I later recount what a riotously grand time I was having, washing down some delightful roast pork with draughts of old-vine Douro red, I would like you to know that my enjoyment was tinged always with a touch of guilt that I had left her alone with the kids, and that she wasn't there to share those joys with me.

So I wrote back to A.

"Before I say yes, how many of us are on the trip?  I'm not keen if the entire foreign press corps are coming along".

"Oh no, it's just three of you.  Our publisher C, a sommelier and you".  She didn't need to say "in that order".

"OK, count me in!"

The next few weeks flew by.  I was incredibly busy with work and work-related travel, which left me no time at all to prepare for this trip.   A lot of the prep that I usually try to do in advance of visiting a new country, e.g. reading in, learning a few basic phrases of the native language, all fell by the wayside as I ran around like a headless chook.  The only positive from all that was that I didn't have to go shopping, especially for cool-weather clothes that I would outgrow after a single use.

I received a copy of our itinerary  the week before the trip.  I read it thoroughly, but as with so many other things, when you do them without any context or comprehension, the information glides out of your mind as easily as it went in.  According to a very helpfully included Google map, we would travel the length and most of the breadth of the country, starting in Porto, and working out way along the Douro River through Vinho Verde country to the Cima Corgo, and thence to Dão, and through Mangualde, Viseu, Alenquer, Torres Vedras, Evora and finishing up in Lisbon.  In five and a half days, with an average of 2.5 winery visits and three rich meals a day.  I like packed itineraries but from the looks of it, we would barely have ten hours, including sleeping time, in any one place.  I was glad, however, to see that Daisuke Kawai, my former comrade from Les Amis days and who now owned his own wine bar La Terre on Upper Circular Road, would be the sommelier in our party.  I thought he was being asked along to lend some technical gravitas to our party, but it seems that he won a Portuguese wine tasting competition back in 2015 and had been waiting two years for the chance to claim his prize!

The days crawled by agonisingly slowly, and finally it was time for me to depart.  After saying goodbye to the girls, I chucked my bags into the boot of my Uber and took my seat in the back.  The driver asked me where I was travelling to.  I said "Portugal".  He looked at me in the rear-view mirror.  "Portugal!" he exclaimed.  "You are the first person who has ever said that!"  Well...

I got to Changi early, so joined the massive queues at the Turkish Airlines check-in counter.  the flight was oversold and the line was stubborn, moving at a pace that would have shamed a glacier.  If the motley queue was at all an accurate sample, I deduced that most patrons of Turkish Airlines from Singapore are not Turks going home, but rather European backpackers for whom the transit via Istanbul was a whole lot cheaper than flying direct to their homelands.

But I got there eventually.  Now only three flight legs and 22 hours stood between me and Lusitania!

To be continued...

I have covered the rest of my trip highlights in the July edition of Epicure, so please pick up your copy from good booksellers and newsagents.

On 6 July, Wines of Portugal and Sopexa are running a trade-only Masterclass and open-to-the-public Grand Tasting paired with Portuguese delights (1pm - 5 pm, Swissotel the Stamford, Equinox Suites on Level 69).  I can heartily recommend that you attend these events as there are some absolutely stunning wines being made in Portugal outside of the usual Ports, Madeiras, etc., and which really deserve more attention in this part of the world.

On 5 July, La Terre will be hosting a Portuguese wine party from 6-9pm, featuring nine wines from across Portugal, including Quinta do Vallado's excellent aged tawny ports (10,20 and 40 years).  From $10 nett per glass.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Review of Lafite, Kuala Lumpur - There's Life in the Old Lady Yet

Maybe it's because I'm still an insecure young whippersnapper, maybe it's because I was not born with a million-dollar trust fund, never in line to rule the world by birthright.   Whatever the reason, I never cease to be dazzled, if only for a second, when I walk into the grand lobby of the Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur.  And much of that halo effect was derived from the hotel's long-time gastronomic crown jewel, the restaurant aptly named Lafite.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Review of Alma by Henrique Sá Pessoa, Lisbon - A True Star

I just got back on Sunday night from a week in Portuguese wine country.  I can't say too much about the trip for now as I am writing an article for Epicure's July edition.  But I need to share something with you, and that is the genius of the chef Henrique Sá Pessoa, who owns the one Michelin-starred Alma restaurant in the heart of Lisbon.

Owner-Chef Henrique Sá Pessoa at Alma's open kitchen

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Jaan and the Mysterious Case of the Heated Mineral Water

I was at Jaan for lunch the other day, my first visit since Julien Royer's departure and the ascension of his faithful sous Kirk Westaway to the top post.

I was expecting brilliance. After all, most of my previous meals at Jaan has coincided with Royer's periodic absences, and Westaway had proven himself numerous times to my delight.  Royer has since won two stars for Odette (while it is very good, I believe that one star would have been a more realistic assessment based on the standard applied by Michelin in France) and Westaway one at Jaan.  If nothing else, there was a forensic interest in seeing if the difference in ranking was justified.