Business Times - 16 May 2009
Dedicated foodies can now add Spanish designer chocolates, full-blood wagyu and dry-aged beef to the list of gourmet products available here. A new range of artisanal cheeses is heading our way too
The Spanish Pantry (Singapore)
IT ALWAYS happens to foodies. You go away on a gourmet holiday, fall in love with the local produce, stuff your bags with them and ration them out over the next few months or so. Then when your precious stash is finally gone, it's time to plan a return trip or wistfully dream of how great it would be if only you could find your favourite goodies right here at home.
Newly-wed foodies Geraldine Lee and Foo Jia are typical foodies who've gone a step further to ensure a steady supply of their favourite Spanish delicacies - they decided to import the food in themselves. So they have teamed up with Sydney-based The Spanish Pantry (TSP) - which distributes artisanal chocolates and premium Spanish cured ham in Australia - to open a Singapore branch that sells the same chocolates and, hopefully, the ham as well before the year's end.
Their biggest brand name to date would be Oriol Balaguer designer chocolates from the famed Barcelona-based chocolatier and patissier. Balaguer was here recently at the World Gourmet Summit and his famed elliptical-shaped chocolates (including the pop rocks version) are now for sale at the Grand Hyatt's mezza9 pastry shop.
Says Ms Lee, 28, whose background is in dentistry rather than food: 'We've known Javier Degen and his wife Emily (the directors of TSP Australia) for many years. Whenever we were in Sydney, we would visit them, just so that we could have some of their jamon and buy their Oriol Balaguer and Blanxart chocolates to bring back to Singapore. We're not in the food business, but we were definitely big patrons of it!'
The couple's main obsession was with the Jamon Iberico Bellota - top quality ham made from the meat of acorn-munching black pigs. 'We saw that there was a great opportunity when AVA lifted the ban to import jamon from Spain in June 2008,' says Ms Lee. 'We had just returned from a trip to Barcelona, and we took the lifting of the ban as a sign. Javier and Emily agreed that it was a great idea and that is how The Spanish Pantry (Singapore) came to be.'
They are in the process of getting accreditation from the AVA to import Pedro Nieto jamon, which is served at top Aussie restaurants like Tetsuya's, Movida and the Royal Mail. If they're successful, the brand will be added to the Fermin brand of jamon that is currently available here.
The right to distribute Balaguer's chocolates came about through the friendship between fellow Barcelonians Balaguer and Javier Degen, explains Ms Lee. 'Oriol's chocolates are very established in Australia and Hong Kong, and it was through Javier's recommendation that Oriol agreed to let us represent him in Singapore.'
TSP also imports Blanxart chocolates, one of the most established artisanal chocolate makers in Barcelona, which lies in Spain's Catalonian region. Catalan chocolate has always been held in high regard even if it isn't always mentioned in the same breath as, say, Belgian chocolates. The Spaniards were the first to introduce chocolate to the Western world, but like olive oil, it took its European counterparts like Italy and France to make it famous.
Hence, Ms Lee and her architecture-trained husband are taking it upon themselves to spread the word about Spanish cuisine, along with a handful of importers which already import the country's products.
Besides the chocolates - Blanxart is available at Jones the Grocer - TSP also sells churro makers and cookbooks. A small repertoire now, but the plans are to expand the range and break into China, Taiwan and Macau.
Obviously, Spanish food lovers can now add to their repertoire of hard to find products. Jones the Grocer also brings in Spanish cheeses like Manchego and a mild Iberico, and hopefully the range will get even bigger in the near future.
THERE are cheesemakers and there are cheesemakers, and then there is Jacquy Cange, a man who belongs to a rarified group of specialists known as affineurs - 'ripeners' or 'finishers' - whose passion in life is to select, develop and age cheeses under strictly controlled conditions in order to achieve optimum ripeness, flavour and texture. Affineurs like Cange are considered artists whose expertise extends far beyond what the cheese guy at your local deli can offer.
Cange is based in Beloeil, a small town in western Belgium. He was in town this week to select a local distributor for his cheeses, which target the gourmet end of the food spectrum, and has tied up with Culina. He attended the Food & Hotel Asia trade show here last year and decided that as a growing gourmet market, Singapore is ready - or 'ripe' - to be the first country in Asia for his range of premium cheeses.
Cange, 55, started his career by selling cheese at local markets but decided to learn about affinage - which takes cheeses to their peak level - when he realised that the flavour of the cheeses he was selling could be improved further. 'I started looking for small artisan producers - the way cheese was meant to be,' he says. 'I brought their cheeses back to my production site and ripened them, bringing the cheese to another level of flavour.'
He also started experimenting by infusing cheeses during the ripening process with different types of beers and wine, herbs, nuts and truffles as well as unconventional ingredients such as fresh chillies and strawberries. Now, almost 25 years later, Cange supplies cheeses to over 250 restaurants in Belgium, France and Holland.
Cange works with many different cheeses from various countries, including France, Belgium, Italy, Spain and England. He produces traditional cheeses but has also developed a range of cheeses with names that are unique to his eponymous brand, such as Brillat Truffe (flavoured with black truffles), Fourme au Maury (ripened with a Port-style French wine) and Avesnois a la Trappiste (made with Belgian beer). 'If I can't do traditional cheese ripening well, it is not possible to have a good result with the 'crazy' cheeses,' he says.
'You can call it fine-tuning of cheese,' say William Delsemme, Trade Counsellor at the Belgium Embassy in Singapore. 'Like with cars, the idea is to bring it to another level of performance. What he offers is true flavour and cheeses that reflect their terroir (specific environment). It's still a niche market, but it's an opportunity to offer something new, and people will be able to differentiate the quality.'
Says Cange: 'I have the passion for it, and if I like the smell, I must be a little crazy. Someone once called me 'an artist of cheese'. I don't try to be unconventional - you can be a little crazy but above all, respect the taste, and think about who is eating the cheese.'
He adds: 'It is important to work with producers who can give you the basis of what you want to do.' They deliver the cheese fresh from the mould, and Cange then spends up to four weeks washing and ripening the products in temperature- and humidity-controlled cellars that are also well-ventilated.
'In the European fine-dining culture, chefs will make diners ride a certain wave during the course of a degustation meal,' he says. 'The cheese is usually at the end - how do you make a cheese that is at peak flavour but not too strong? This is what I am trying to achieve - the right flavour, not too strong, not too weak, fine enough to be pleasurable, and always with humility towards what the chef is trying to do.'
THE next time you buy or order a wagyu steak, make sure you find out who the cow's parents are. Not because you're trying to win a weird customer of the month award, but because it affects the flavour, and the price. Seriously.
This issue came about when one saw the appearance of 'full-blood' wagyu beef on the website of Indoguna's online store, greengrocer.com.sg, in addition to 'regular' wagyu beef.
'Most wagyu sold in Singapore are cross breed versions either of wagyu and angus, or wagyu and holstein,' says its managing director Helene Raudaschl. Full-blood wagyu, as the name says, comes from pure-bred cattle, and presumably comes closer to the unique, refined flavour of Japanese Kobe beef. While wagyu is described as having a prized juiciness and beefy flavour, full-blood wagyu has an exquisite sweetness, says Ms Raudaschl.
Full-blood wagyu adds to a widening repertoire of ingredients that are getting easier to get in Singapore without having to lug them back from abroad one way or another. Indoguna, a fine food importer which also supplies to restaurants, supermarkets and butcheries, is 'the only one with a consistent supply of full-blood wagyu as we commit to an ongoing programme for the farmer and buy 70 per cent of their production on a regular basis,' she adds. That's why it is able to sell the meat in convenient portions ($90 for a 400gm package) unlike other butcheries which sell it in whole pieces.
Another unique service that Indoguna has introduced is dry-aged beef, and it's the only company doing it on a commercial basis, says Ms Raudaschl.
Dry-aging beef refers to beef which has been left to age for a period of time in a temperature-controlled environment. During the process, moisture slowly evaporates from the meat, which concentrates the flavour. The enzymes start to break down the connective tissue, so the meat becomes naturally more tender without the need for artificial tenderisers.
'Before we introduced this service, dry-aged beef was done independently by some restaurants but it was not easy to find,' says Ms Raudaschl. 'Dry-aging requires very expensive equipment because of the highly controlled environment necessary for safe aging of the meat. Also, very specialised butchery expertise was required for it.'
Indoguna introduced the service last December and it was well-received, which is why it is planning to sell the products online soon. Right now, you can still get it if you call the company in advance, but you would have to buy a whole piece rather than nice manageable portions.
But not to worry. Indoguna says it sells to Meidi-ya supermarket, so you may find it there, or you could just order it at high- end eateries at The Capella, Tower Club or Four Seasons. And pretty soon, you'll be able to click and have your steak delivered too.