Articles in Travel

Guest and resident chefs at the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival 2015. Credit: Andy Mettler

Why did a handful of British chefs invade the 2015 St. Moritz Gourmet Festival? It’s a nod to the very British pioneers who more than a century ago visited in winter and made the Swiss mountain town a popular cold-season tourist spot.

In September 1864, Johannes Badrutt, a hotelier in St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps, staged a neat publicity stunt. At the time, people on holiday — about 75% of them British — ventured to the Alps only during the summer months. In a bold initiative to change the established pattern and persuade them of the beauty of the mountains in winter, Badrutt made a promise to his departing British summer guests: If they returned in December and stayed until Easter, their stay in St. Mortiz would be free of charge, provided the winter experience matched their summer memories.

Toward the end of 1864, a handful of hardy British guests, motivated by the now-famous bet, set off on the long journey from London by horse and carriage across the English Channel and through France to Switzerland. From Chur in Switzerland’s Graubünden, the carriages got progressively smaller and more uncomfortable as the guests traveled ever higher, finally reaching St. Moritz via the winding Julierpass. Piled high on long sledges towed behind the carriages was everything they needed for their two- or three-month stay.

In the spring of 1865 the delighted caravan of guests returned to England, suntanned and singing the praises of St. Moritz in winter. Winter tourism in the Alps was launched.

In recognition of Badrutt’s initiative, and of the key part Brits played in developing winter tourism in the Engadine valley of southern Switzerland, this year’s St. Moritz Gourmet Festival, held annually at the end of January, took on British colors. Just how much the British food scene has changed in the past 20 years — not to mention since that winter of 1864 when the first British guests stayed in St. Moritz — became apparent over the course of the festival, during which a team of nine of Britain’s leading chefs returned in the footsteps of those first British winter tourists. Their job was to showcase the best of what the British have to offer in a series of spectacular dinners, kitchen parties and gala events.

Food festivals are two a penny nowadays. What set this one apart was not just the quality of the cooking but also the surprise element. “Plenty of people still think that British food is just fish and chips and Yorkshire pudding,” said Jean-Jacques Bauer, assistant manager at the Hotel Kulm, where the whole story began and where the final gala dinner took place, with all nine chefs in attendance. “But, as we saw at this year’s festival, it offers so much more than this.” During the week, he said, “the chefs took us on a culinary journey and opened our eyes to the outstanding quality of contemporary British food.”

Chefs highlight multicultural influences in British cuisine

The crack team of chefs was selected first and foremost because each is at the top of their game — most have Michelin stars. Some work in London, others out in the country. More importantly, the festival organizers had understood well what distinguishes the best modern British food: not just superb local ingredients and specialties used with skill and flair, but also the many international and multicultural influences at work, both contemporary and from the country’s colonial past. “Great Britain is a melting pot,” Bauer said. “And so, too, is its food … which has brought together tastes from all over the world within just one country. This is British cuisine today.”

Each chef was assigned to one of St. Moritz’s five-star hotels, where they worked in tandem with the home team, preparing menus with their own personal stamp. Yorkshire-born Jason Atherton boasts a stableful of trendsetting London restaurants (Pollen Street Social, Social Eating House) with outposts in Asia, and further operations about to open in Dubai, Sydney and New York. Guests at the Schweizerhof were treated to what he describes as “real food based on British traditions,” along the lines of Cornish sea bass with a kombu glaze and braised ox cheeks sourced from the estates of the Duke of Buccleuch.

Angela Hartnett, whose home kitchen is Murano in London’s Mayfair, brought a British-Italian perspective to diners at the Carlton with her brand of seasonal, pared down cucina Italiana, which included a virginal buttermilk panna cotta with grapes and candied oranges. Across the lake at the Waldhaus in Sils-Maria, Nathan Outlaw managed to bring a breath of sea air from St. Enodoc in deepest Cornwall all the way up to the Swiss mountains with his seafood-rich menu, including succulent turbot with lobster sauce and seaweed.

And while all the chefs at this year’s festival are currently working in the U.K., not all were born there, yet another reflection of the international flavor of British food today. Take French native Claude Bosi, for example, who found his way to London from his home town of Lyon, France, via Ludlow in Shropshire and now officiates at the double-starred Hibiscus in Mayfair. At Badrutt’s Palace his highly creative and personalized version of French cuisine included a dramatic dish of venison with quince and Sharon fruit, while Atul Kochhar, born in India, educated in Britain and now a star chef with several London restaurants to his name (plus one in Dublin and another in Madrid), dazzled palates at the Kulm with slivers of duck breast cured with Indian spices (“my charcuterie, Indian-style”), a fragrant fish curry and a delicate dessert based on yogurt and dulce de leche.

“People used to poke fun at Britain on the culinary front,” said Atherton, adding ruefully, “If there’d been an Olympics for food, we’d have been at the bottom!”

But a week in the mountains of St. Moritz was enough to show that British chefs are now right up there at the summit.

Zester Daily contributor Sue Style was a guest of Kulm Hotel St. Moritz and Switzerland Tourism.

Main photo: Guest and resident chefs at the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival 2015. Credit: Andy Mettler

Read More
Falafel, a Middle Eastern dish of spiced mashed chickpeas, is formed into balls or patties, deep-fried and sometimes eaten in a pita. Credit: Copyright 2012 iStock/mphillips007

Majdi Al Khdraa, 25, brings a plate of falafel balls out of the Alshami restaurant kitchen to a family of five seated at one of the diner’s nine snug stalls. As he walks, he peeks a glance at the door, where Lebanese and Syrian sweets and platters of pudding called muhallabia tempt passersby.

After delivering the falafel, Al Khdraa pats a little boy on the head. A thin smile protrudes from his veneer of five-o’clock shadow as he returns to the cash register. At his perch, he observes the chaos of pedestrians, cars and street vendors on Avenue Al Maghrib Al Arabi in Morocco’s capital city, Rabat, but keeps diners in his periphery, ready to dash over with extra pita or a napkin.

The Author


Ben Bartenstein
Ben Bartenstein reports for Round Earth Media from Spain and Morocco. His writing also appears on the websites for Minnesota Public Radio and Macalester College. Ben is active in the Asian American Journalists Association.

 

The Photographer


Julia Barstow

Julia Barstow is a junior at Bennington College in Vermont, studying photography, media, and video. She is currently studying journalism in Morocco where she plans to cover issues related to culture and the environment.

When Al Khdraa was a boy in Damascus, Syria, long before the war that has engulfed his country, his family operated a cosmetics shop. He went to school, studying English and French and dreaming of potential studies abroad. But as the Syrian civil war escalated in July 2012, Al Khdraa and his family sold their house, car and other belongings. They each packed a bag of clothes and fled by plane to Lebanon.

“It was the only choice we had,” Al Khdraa says.

Morocco is safe landing spot

After 15 days in Beirut, the family flew to Morocco, one of the few countries that would accept them for permanent residency. In the eyes of Syrians, Al Khdraa says, Morocco is the safest landing spot in the Arab world. Morocco granted about 3,600 Syrian refugees legal status last year, according to a government report. These documents must be renewed annually.

Several months after arriving in Rabat, Al Khdraa got a job at Alshami. Wasim Alkhouga, 35, had just opened up the diner, and he quickly recruited a team of mostly Syrian refugees.

“It’s hard to find each other,” Alkhouga says. He recalls his arrival in Rabat two decades ago when his family relocated for work. He was 10 at the time and spent his first year blundering words in Darija, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, which is quite different from his own, he says. In a city that’s receiving dozens of Syrian refugees by the month, Alshami reminds the city’s burgeoning émigré community of home.

From the lunchtime grab-and-go shawarma sandwich for 18 MAD ($1.88), to the light but filling lentil soup ($1.26), to their “famous” falafel ($2.09), the diner attracts Moroccans, Syrians and tourists. Al Khdraa recommends his personal favorite, the mix grill ($6.17), an array of shish, lamb and chicken kebabs.

Syrian falafels are a popular street food

Although the Egyptians claim to have invented the falafel, the Syrian variety of chickpeas, garlic and spices became a phenomenon, sold by street vendors, fast food chains and restaurants around the world. In what is known as the Levant region (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Jordan), the croquettes are often served with tahini and pita as a precursor to the main course. During Ramadan, the balls are sometimes eaten for iftar, the meal after sunset that breaks the fast.

Alkhouga learned falafel fundamentals from his father. There are only a handful of ingredients, but he says patience is everything. The process begins with soaking chickpeas in water for 10 hours and ends with five minutes in boiling vegetable oil. “Don’t touch it,” Alkhouga warns, “or it will shatter.”

Alkhouga applies this singular approach to all food. He takes traditional ingredients to create timeless flavors known throughout the region. Unlike most restaurants, Alshami barbecues the shawarma meat before cooking, Al Khdraa says, pointing to the rotisserie outside. After garnishing, the shawarma is lightly cooked for 25 minutes and served hot. While it’s a steady process, Alshami makes large quantities to accommodate lunchtime demand, so the wait time is insignificant.

As he attends to a steady stream of customers, Al Khdraa says he carries painful memories of his home city 2,400 miles away. He says that he has adapted to Rabat, but longs for the day when he return. Once the violence stops, Alkhouga also says he’d “return in an instant.”

Both realize that day could be years off, but neither forgets the friends and family who stayed in Syria amid death tolls that have averaged about 150 people per day during the course of the four-year civil war, according to the United Nations. Al Khdraa calls home nearly every week and adds, “They say, ‘We made it for this week.’ “

Majdi Al Khdraa, 25, carries an order of Al Shami’s specialty, falafel. Credit: Julie Barstow

Majdi Al Khdraa, 25, carries an order of Alshami’s specialty, falafel. Credit: Copyright Julie Barstow

Alshami’s Falafel

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 5 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: 5 to 6 servings

Ingredients

2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of chickpeas

3/4 to 1 ounce (20 to 30 grams) of garlic cloves

1 tablespoon of salt

Few pinches of parsley

Cumin, pepper, to taste, optional

Soy or corn oil

Directions

1. Put chickpeas in water at room temperature for at least 10 hours.

2. Grind up chickpeas in a blender, or preferably an ice crusher.

3. Add seasonings.

4. Place mixture in falafel scooper to form into balls.

5. Set balls into boiling soy or corn oil for five minutes. Temperature at least 320 F.

6. Serve right away with pita bread and tahini sauce.

Main photo: Falafel, a Middle Eastern dish of spiced mashed chickpeas, is formed into balls or patties, deep-fried and sometimes eaten in a pita. Credit: Copyright 2012 iStock/mphillips007

Ben Bartenstein and Julia Barstow are in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program.

Read More
Find your style: Shoot what you enjoy. Experiment with lighting, lens, shooting positions, subjects and situations until you find a style that expresses how you feel about food. Credit: Copyright David Hagerman

How many times have you been inspired to photograph a dish only to find that the image captured on your camera’s LCD screen is nowhere near as beautiful, or appetizing, as the dish sitting in front of you? Unwilling to give up you shoot another, and another — until your dinner companion, or a waiter, taps you on the shoulder and says, “You better eat that before it gets cold.”

Great food photography is mostly about technique, and with a little practice you can master the basics. Once you’ve developed technical skills, add inspiration and passion (because every photographer should love his or her subject). You’ll be amazed at the results.

To advance your food photographs, check out the slideshow.

More Zester Daily stories with slideshows from David Hagerman:

» A professional’s tips for shooting photos of markets

» The heart of Lao cuisine

» Food and the open flame

» Endangered Thai treasure

Main photo: Find your style: Shoot what you enjoy. Experiment with lighting, lens, shooting positions, subjects and situations until you find a style that expresses how you feel about food. Credit: Copyright David Hagerman

Read More
Setting up snack plates in Helsinki. Credit: Heidi Uutela/Restaurant Day

Burgers grilled over an open flame in Moscow. A five-course meal cooked in a Williamsburg loft. Vietnamese spring rolls served in a Helsinki train station. A Belgian waffle bar set up in Berlin. These are just a few of the concepts behind hundreds of restaurants scheduled to pop up on Feb. 15, for one day only, as part of what organizers call the “world’s biggest food carnival.”

The now-global event sprouted in Helsinki, where a group of friends, frustrated with the red tape required to establish a restaurant, launched a social-media campaign to get people in Finland to join them in creating temporary eateries for a single day. That first Restaurant Day in May 2011 included 45 restaurants. The most recent, in November 2014, encompassed 1,698 in 35 countries (mostly in Western Europe).

“There was such huge media interest in the first event, we knew we were onto something big, and the international potential became apparent very fast,” says Restaurant Day co-founder Timo Santala, who leads a team of volunteers that promotes and supports local restaurant hosts through a “Restaurant Day Ambassadors” network, a mobile app, and a website in 17 languages.

Kathryn Sharaput, a pastry chef in Montreal, learned about Restaurant Day on Facebook, and first participated last summer, serving up homemade ceviche in a local park.

“I really enjoyed actually getting to talk to the people I was cooking for – trading stories about food, travel and recipes,” Sharaput says, adding that the event also helps bridge the “disconnect between people and their food — where it comes from, how it’s made and who’s making it.”

Restaurant Day, held four times a year, is part of a larger trend toward eating experiences that are more innovative, intimate, ephemeral — or all three. Food trucks ply the streets of many major cities, while small supper clubs hosted by chefs are an increasingly common phenomenon. Websites like EatWith and MealTango connect food-lovers with people who want to cook and host meals in their homes.

But Santala says Restaurant Day’s spontaneity, public nature and amateur spirit set it apart. To join in, all hosts need to do is add a short listing to the global map for the next event and prepare some kind of food or drink to sell or give away. Utilizing public spaces is encouraged, and unlike Sharaput, most participants are not culinary professionals.

“Restaurant Day puts the spotlight on ordinary people: Boy Scouts, school classes, grandmothers, anyone who wants to create new experiences around food for other people,” Santala says. “That’s what makes it exciting; it’s a way of democratizing the food business.”

For many hosts, it’s also a way of creating community, whether by supporting local businesses, raising money for charity, advocating for a cause or introducing their neighbors to the tastes of their home country.

One host in Prague who goes by the alias “Psychologie chuti” (Psychology of flavor) decided to sell her Parisian-style macarons – in 15 nontraditional flavors ranging from mulled wine to jasmine – inside a favorite local café. “I always notice almost no one else goes there, which makes me sad,” she says. “So I tried to let other people know about it by setting up shop there and it was awesome!”

For Marte Munkeli, the leader of the Norwegian Vegan Society, Restaurant Day is “a great opportunity to promote veganism in a fun, non-preachy way.” The group has served vegan sandwiches, soups and cakes at previous events and plans to cook meat-free “chili sin carne” in February.

Sasikala Anbarasan, a biotech researcher in Espoo, Finland, says Restaurant Day offers a way for her to show Finns that “Indian food doesn’t just mean chicken tikka masala and naan.” She donates a share of the profits she makes from cooking a “typical Tamil menu” — including South Indian specialties such as idli, a savory cake made from black beans and rice, or sambar, a tamarind-flavored vegetable stew — to an organization that helps orphaned children in that region.

Korea-born SuJin Jung says she finds a cultural element lacking in the Korean restaurants of her adopted home city of Montreal. So when she and her friends decided to make bibimbap for Restaurant Day last November, she says they “didn’t just serve the food, but tried our best to explain the culture behind this dish” – a rice bowl with various toppings, all of which have traditional symbolic meanings.

Living abroad for the past 13 years, Rashmi Ahuja has likewise been disappointed by most Indian food she’s found in other countries. “I was looking for something that reminded me of my mother’s food, something that satisfies your soul,” she says. Ahuja started teaching herself to cook some of the dishes she remembered from home, sharing them first with friends and family, and then hosting her first Restaurant Day in November 2012 in Helsinki, a year after moving there. She has now participated six times, making Mumbai street food, Indian-Finnish fusion and other recipes based on a specific region or ingredients.

Sharing a passion for food culture with the locals

“It’s a way for people like me who are passionate about their food culture to share it with local people,” she says. “The food that we eat gives an insight into our personalities and how we were brought up and tells a lot about us and our cultures.”

For the next Restaurant Day, Ahuja plans to make daal roti (lentils with flat bread), an Indian staple. Around the world, hundreds of other food lovers are also thinking about what culinary experiences they might like to share with their neighbors.

“Even though the basic concept stays the same, the individuals who participate decide what Restaurant Day looks like, so each time it’s completely different,” says Santala. “It’s all about just digging in and enjoying what comes along.”

Main photo: Setting up snack plates in Helsinki. Credit: Heidi Uutela/Restaurant Day

Read More
The Lakes Distillery is among the first to use both copper and stainless steel in the distillation process, which they believe helps the malt develop greater character. Credit: The Lakes Distillery

The mizzle had become worse. The combination of velvet mist and silky-soft drizzle was fast turning into a full-fledged downpour. In other words, it was starting to chuck it down in the way it only can in the land of the Romantic Poets, of lakes and mountains, fells and rivers, and of silence and overwhelming natural beauty. No matter. Inside the newly opened Lakes Distillery, we were aglow with The One, the Lake District’s latest gift to mankind.

A unique, artisan blend of four British whiskies — from Scotland, Ulster, Wales and England — the pale amber liquid had a touch of smokiness, a long finish and a nutty, spicy-sweet quality that justified the award of a Silver medal in both the 2014 International Wine and Spirit and the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirit competitions.

Although Scotland will be forever associated with whisky, it is no longer automatically in the pole position. The whiskey list at The Lakes Distillery bistro is a revelation: a premier league roll call from countries as disparate as Japan and Sweden, Tasmania and India. In fact, whiskey can be made anywhere the key conditions can be met, but it is the water used in the distillation process that really gives the spirit its transcendent quality. And water comes no purer than from the fast-flowing River Derwent near Bassenthwaite Lake in the Lake District National Park.

Whiskey-producing country

Add to that crisp, clean air, high rainfall, peaty foothills and rugged Cumbrian mountains and it is not hard to see why it is prime whiskey-producing country, said Paul Currie, managing director and founder of the Lakes Distillery. Currie, part of a Scotch whisky dynasty and founder of the Arran Distillery, has been joined in this venture by master distiller Chris Anderson.

It has been a dream come true for the pair to create a new whiskey in a part of England just south of the Scottish border.

Saints, sinners and smugglers all play their part in the history of this spectacular region. Illicit whiskey distilling, in particular, was once widespread: The verdant green hills and valleys provided ample cover for smuggling activity to and from the ships docked at Workington, located about 25 miles away. Rivers such as the Derwent acted as the trunk roads of the day, transporting people and goods. Lancelot “Lanty” Slee was a 19th-century local farmer and smuggler who notoriously supplied the local magistrates with moonshine from his “not-quite-legal” stills.

The new distillery is housed in a renovated Victorian model farm that dates to the 1850s and was built to be both beautiful and functional. The main barn houses the mash house and still house dominated by burnished copper stills, and an old cattle shed has been converted into the warehouse where the spirits mature in high quality casks. The company is proud to be a “green” distillery: The process is entirely natural using only grain, yeast and water and emits no damaging effluent. By-products are used for animal feed and soil improvement.

Lakes Distillery spirits

In two years’ time, the first bottles of The Lakes Single Malt will be ready for sipping. Currie promises the spirits will be lightly peated, more similar to the whiskies from the highlands rather than, say, Islay.

Alongside the signature whiskey, they also distill The Lakes Vodka and The Lakes Gin. The latter contains Cumbrian juniper and a mix of traditional gin botanicals as well as bilberry, meadowsweet, hawthorn and heather — all foraged on local fells — plus, of course, the crystal-clear water of the River Derwent.

I wish I could have been present at the branding meeting when they came up with the name The One. It must have been quite a eureka moment. It may be the distillery’s first, but it won’t be the last.


 Whiskey Notes

  • Increasingly artisan whiskey makers are of the opinion that it is not so much a question of age in a product, but of the quality of the spirit, the skill of the distiller and the nature of the cask in which it is matured.
  • Don’t hesitate to add a splash of water or soda to your whiskey. It may have gone out of fashion, but it opens the flavor.
  • Try “The One” with game, such as pheasant or venison. It makes a splendid match with Rannoch Smokery’s Pressed Game Terrine, according to Rosemary Moon, a specialist whiskey and food writer.

 Main photo: The Lakes Distillery is among the first to use both copper and stainless steel in the distillation process, which they believe helps the malt develop greater character. Credit: The Lakes Distillery

Read More
The cluster of eighteen Faroe Islands is situated in the North Atlantic, between Great Britain and Iceland. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, they don’t suffer from very cold winters. Credit: © Carla Capalbo

Unspoiled, undiscovered and unusually beautiful, the Faroe Islands combine breathtaking scenery with a unique food culture. Situated in the North Atlantic, far above Scotland, these islands were colonized by the Vikings and for centuries isolated from the rest of Europe. (Officially, they belong to Denmark but have a quite separate history.)

Until recently, the islanders survived by eating sheep, fish and sea birds. Almost no fruits or vegetables — apart from potatoes — were cultivated on the Faroes, so the meat and fat of the whales they caught provided a life-saving source of vitamins. Unlike other parts of Scandinavia, the Faroe Islands rarely freeze in winter, so the islanders’ only way to preserve these precious meats was to hang them to dry in the moist, salty air — away from insects — in a process of natural fermentation. To the non-Faroese, their distinctive, pungent flavor may be an acquired taste, but it’s an integral part of the islands’ culinary identity.

The fresh seafood found in the pure ocean waters around the islands is undoubtedly some of the world’s finest. Faroese langoustines, mussels and crabs are without rivals for their sweet, tender meat. Salmon is farmed in the spacious fjords and complements the wild fish that’s featured in local restaurants. Some of these have taken an active role in the new Nordic cuisine that includes wild and foraged local ingredients. So the Faroes are an exciting destination for foodies, especially those who like to hike, fish or go kayaking surrounded by puffins and seals.

For the rest of the story, please follow the slideshow below.

Main photo: The cluster of 18 Faroe Islands is situated in the North Atlantic, between Britain and Iceland. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, they don’t suffer from very cold winters. Credit: © Carla Capalbo

Read More
If you’re up to the challenge, start out by trying Vegemite on a slice of hot toast. Credit: iStock / Ben185

To the Vegemite virgin, the dark brown paste may look like axle grease and smell like rusty nails, but to many an Aussie, the salty spread is comfortingly delicious, as well as essentially synonymous with Australia itself. It’s a common joke that Vegemite is an Antipodean baby’s first solid food. It’s also routinely cited that Vegemite can be found in the cupboards of at least 80 percent of Australian homes. What’s more, traveling Aussies don’t leave home without it.

Primarily a yeast extract that remains after the beer brewing process, Vegemite contains few calories and no fat, but a fair amount of sodium. A rich source of B vitamins, which play a role in metabolizing macronutrients and in producing energy in the body, Vegemite has routinely been promoted for its purported health benefits. In the late 1930s, its advertising even featured an endorsement from the British Medical Association for its B vitamin content. Although less “veggie” than its name might imply, Vegemite is vegan, vegetarian, certified kosher and certified halal.

Vegemite was developed as a copy of a British product, Marmite, a spread of similar texture and flavor — though it’s best not to say so to a Vegemite die-hard. In the early 1920s, Fred Walker, an Australian entrepreneur, engaged Dr. Cyril P. Callister, one of Australia’s first food technologists, to develop the product. After considerable experimentation, Callister developed Vegemite in 1923. Based upon a mutual interest to develop cheeses with a longer shelf life, Walker later combined forces with American cheese producer James Kraft, forming the Kraft Walker Cheese Company in 1926. This partnership eventually resulted in an American company owning Australia’s national food, though Vegemite has always been produced in Australia and from mostly local ingredients.

Despite Vegemite’s widespread popularity today, in its early years the spread was slow to entice Australian appetites, as Marmite held on to a significant portion of the market share. According to Vegemite’s heritage website, however, by the early 1940s Vegemite had become a “staple food in every Australian home and in every Australian pantry.” Over the course of the 20th century, the spread would become an Australian icon.

Try Vegemite this Australia Day

Australia Day, marked each year on Jan. 26, is a national holiday celebrating the day in 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet of 11 convict ships from Britain arrived at Sydney Cove. Kraft attempted to cement the connection between the holiday and Vegemite in 2012, the year of the spread’s 89th anniversary. That year, Kraft rebranded Vegemite jars “Australia,” though retaining the recognizable red and yellow color palette.

One way for an American to celebrate Australia Day is to try Vegemite. The strange truth you’ll have to overcome, however, is that most non-Australians absolutely despise the stuff. With an Australian father, I grew up eating Vegemite and love it, but have yet to convert a single American friend to its delightful, savory charms. Part of the issue is likely a case of mismatched expectations, since Vegemite looks like chocolate, but tastes like, well, straight up saltiness.

A more apt description of Vegemite’s flavor profile might be umami incarnate. Despite appreciation for other foods boasting savory, umami flavor — from bacon to Parmesan, soy sauce to mushrooms — most non-Aussies just can’t handle Vegemite. Though Oprah claims to like it, a popular video circulated last year in which 10 American children tasted Vegemite for the first time with dismal results: no tears, but lots of squealing. Suffice it to say, none of them gave Vegemite their kid seal of approval. In 2011, President Barack Obama confessed to then-Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard that he found the spread “horrible,” disappointing Vegemite lovers. In 2012, singer Niall Horan of the group One Direction echoed this sentiment when he tasted Vegemite toast live on Australian television only to spit it out and later share on Twitter, “Can clearly say vegemite is horrible!”

A ‘culturally specific food’

In 2003, psychology researchers Paul Rozin and Michael Siegal quantifiably confirmed the oft-stated assertion that only Australians enjoy Vegemite. From a survey of 202 participants, the authors concluded, “The eating of this food product and especially the enjoyment of it are specifically linked to Australian birth and ancestry.” They also asserted, “This sticky brown paste remains a candidate for the most culturally specific food.”

Australians know best about Vegemite. Credit: Emily Contois

Australians know best about Vegemite. Credit: Emily Contois

The deck may be stacked against Vegemite, but if you’re up to the challenge, start out by trying Vegemite on a slice of hot toast, which is the way most Australians enjoy it at breakfast. Spread the toast first with butter, allowing it to melt in, and then evenly spread a thin layer of Vegemite. A common mistake for first-time Vegemite tasters is to slather it on too thickly like one would peanut butter or a chocolaty spread, an amount unpalatable to even most devoted Vegemite enthusiasts. Recipes from Vegemite’s website suggest you jazz up your Vegemite toast with tomato, egg, cheese or avocado.

If you’re ready to try Vegemite at every meal, you can make turkey burgers, seasoned with Vegemite, onions, rice wine and a touch of sugar, for lunch. Then you can try Vegemite flavored couscous or sweet potato and rosemary pizza with a Vegemite sauce for dinner.

You just might find that you love Vegemite. If nothing else, it’ll be your saltiest Jan. 26 on record.

Main photo: If you’re up to the challenge, start out by trying Vegemite on a slice of hot toast. Credit: iStock / Ben 185

Read More
Cafe Triode manager Yo Endo pours a glass of wine at the cafe. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

Yo Endo would be the first to tell you he doesn’t know a lot about wine. What he does know is how to sell things. His last job was marketing tennis equipment, which took him to Los Angeles and Las Vegas; great restaurants — and wine, of course.

Today, Endo manages Cafe Triode, a cozy restaurant near the giant Tokyo Dome, home for Japan’s beloved Giants baseball team. The surrounding neighborhood is best known for the ultra-luxury La Qua spa, sporting goods stores, used bookstores and inexpensive restaurants catering to baseball fans and university students.

I stumbled onto the café while looking for a quiet escape from the rain during a business trip to Japan’s capital. Endo took my dripping umbrella and escorted me to a small wooden bar near the back. A hunk of Serrano ham anchored one end of the bar, and soft jazz played.

Women in Japan’s workforce is growing

Traditionally, the after-hours scene in Japan has been dominated by izakaya bars catering to salarymen. Beer, sake and whiskey are the favored drinks, and the vibe is usually loud and smoky or expensive — or all of the above.

Cafe Triode offers moderately priced wine, tasty nibbles and jazz — a perfect place for happy hour with girlfriends. And that’s exactly what Endo is aiming for.

Though Japan lags behind much of the developed world in female employment, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to increase the percentage of women in the workforce. This includes providing more affordable childcare and encouraging companies to adopt family-friendly policies, such as flexible work schedules.

It also means finding a place for those women to unwind after a hard day at the office. “There’s an increasing need for working women to have a girls-only night out for a drink to strengthen their solidarity,” Chikako Hirose, a spokeswoman for Pronto Corp., recently told Bloomberg News. Pronto is reportedly expanding its Di PUNTO chain of wine bars to at least 26 outlets by the end of 2015.

There are other reasons the wine industry is chasing the female market. Women in Japan still make most of the household buying decisions, and they are more likely than men to attend wine tastings and classes, according to a report released last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agriculture Service. Sixty percent of Japan’s wine experts are women.

Old-world wines dominate this market. Although Japan buys wine from 55 countries, just 10 account for about 98 percent of the imported volume, according to the USDA report. Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the favored varietals. Sparkling wine is also growing in popularity, and “wine on the rocks” is being touted as a refreshing alternative on a hot summer’s day.

Endo sees these trends at Cafe Triode, where the majority of his customers are couples or young female professionals. When he first opened his café, his wine list included a range of wines divided by country, varietal and price. But he discovered most of his young customers would spend a long time agonizing over the menu and then end up somewhere in the middle, where they would have just a few bottles to choose from.

Cafe Triode still sells bottles of wine for as much as 19,000 yen ($159) but now offers a large selection of wines for 4,100 yen ($34) a bottle. During my visit, that included two California Zinfandels from Peachy Canyon and Ravenswood chosen by Endo’s wine broker.

American wines are slowly finding a market. In 2013, the United States held an 8.6 percent value share of Japan’s imported wine, up from 7.7 percent the previous year, according to the USDA. But U.S. vintners face significant barriers. A stronger dollar and high import duties push them into a higher price bracket, and Japanese consumers prefer wines with a lower alcohol content than most American wines offer.

By offering a “Reasonable Selections” list representing many different varietals and wine-growing regions, Endo hopes he can encourage wine newbies to experiment. “Everyone finds it very easy to make a choice, and it’s also easy to control the budget,” he said.

Armed with a glass of the house red wine (600 yen or $5), I turned my attention to Cafe Triode’s multi-page English menu, which married two of my favorite cuisines: Japanese and Italian.

Meat platter is most popular on menu

The most popular menu item is the Triode assorted meat platter delivered on a large wooden board with five types of meat (1,950 yen or $16.35). Other tantalizing offerings include dumplings made from fish and shrimp wrapped in yuba (tofu) skin (1,190 yen or $9.98), codfish and scallop pie (1,190 yen or $9.98) and Tajima beef rump steak (1,500 to 1,800 yen or $12.58 to $15.10 per 100 grams). Tajima is the strain of black Japanese Wagyu cattle that produce the famous Kobe beef.

The grilled duck salad from Cafe Triode. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

The grilled duck salad from Cafe Triode. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

Endo, an easygoing man with an impish smile, started me out with a fig paired with a dollop of mineoka dofu. This delicate palate cleanser, made from an ancient recipe developed by Buddhist monks, isn’t tofu. It’s actually made from milk, arrowroot starch and sesame paste. Rich and creamy with just a hint of sesame, I resisted licking the tiny pottery dish and settled on the Saikyo-yaki (Kyoto-style) grilled duck salad (980 yen or $8.22) for my entrée.

Working out of a kitchen the size of my bedroom closet, Chef Yoshimi Imazu quickly worked his magic, preparing paper-thin slices of Parmesan cheese and duck marinated in a sweet white Saikyo miso on a bed of crisp greens.

My visit to Cafe Triode was just another reminder that you can travel well in Japan without breaking the bank. That, combined with that tasty salad, was enough to lure me back one last time before I left Tokyo.

Main photo: Cafe Triode manager Yo Endo pours a glass of wine at the cafe. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

Read More