Inspired by the Slow Food Movement’s catalogue of immortal gastronomical treasures, I have decided to create a more personal register – The Ark of Greed – a compendium of the most delicious things I have ever eaten and drunk. The original plan was to go back through my life and make meticulous notes, starting with babyhood and Heinz chocolate pudding, moving on through my mum’s fritto misto, my dad’s pilchard curry, etcetera, etcetera… One day, maybe. Just for now, though, the Ark will have a more recent and random structure, to be added to as treats occur.
In the crowded fo’c’s’le of cheese, for example, I must now include two fascinating experiments currently being conducted by Afrim Pristine of Cheese Boutique. The first begins with a lovely, smooth Drumloch cheddar from Scotland. Pristine strips it of its protective green wax coat, wraps the naked yellow form in cheesecloth and then soaks the whole package in 16-year-old Lagavulin whisky from the Isle of Islay, re-annointing it twice a week for three months. I was privileged to try some this week. It’s superb. The whisky hasn’t made much inroad into the actual cheese but the edible rind is marvellously aromatic, elegantly reeking of the Lagavulin’s telltale odours of kelp, iodine, gun oil, peat smoke and tar. Pristine has created this gem for the popular Toronto eatery Trevor Kitchen and Bar and I would hurry down there, phoning first, to taste it.
And that is not the only Dionysian delicacy to spring from Afrim’s Olympian thigh. He has been ageing chevre in a mixture of gin, tonic water and lime in an effort to make something entirely unique for the cheese plate at Crush. It’s another winner, in my opinion, and definitely worthy of a place on the Ark of Greed.
Also aboard, in the wardroom reserved for poultry, is the best Peking duck I have ever tasted. It’s quality is not a surprise. The Beijing restaurant that serves it, called Da Dong, is one of two or three that specializes in the dish. It’s a thoroughly modern, glamorous establishment with a beautiful dining room abuzz with happy conversation and much table hopping from the local glitterati. The walls are backlit green glass painted with an abstract, calligraphic impression of a bamboo plantation (amazingly like that side wall in the restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, though that must be a coincidence). The anteroom is a glassed-in chamber where a dozen chefs are constantly pushing prepared ducks into wood-fired ovens and pulling them out when they are lacquered and golden. You can sit there and watch if you like, but the more conventional plan is to go in and sit down at a big round table with a bunch of friends and indulge in a set dinner.
It begins with a finger of duck liver paté, as rich as any foie gras, encased in a tiny brick of clear golden jelly. Europeans look around for toast to spread it on but the idea is to eat it on its own, startling the palate into a sudden understanding that tonight is not like other nights.
Then comes dessert – many variations on a theme of sweet stiff jelly involving red bean, sweet potato, sesame, as well as mashed potato stained with the juice of some purple berry and garnished with golden candied citrus peel. These treats remain on the lazy susan throughout the meal. Tuck into them at this early stage and you mark yourself as a rube.
Now the silent, serious server brings a dish of perfectly steamed asparagus – its texture poised between softness and crispness – the spears angled upon a bed of ice with a rich, salty tahini-like sauce for dipping.
Then a warm dish of noodles tossed with soft smoked salmon, lemon, shreds of cucumber and a wasabi hit. Again the temptation is to dive in, but patience, Iago… Patience…
Then a rich, heavyweight, translucent, golden consommé of mushroom harbouring big slippery slivers of local wild mushrooms. I would call them shiitake, matsutaki, chanterelle, straw mushroom, lobster mushroom, but I dare say they have their own names and subtle identities. On the plate beside the bowl of soup lie spices – whole star anise, coffe beans, salt – though the soup owes nothing to them. Perhaps I was supposed to add them myself?
A show-stealing course now follows – grilled nuggets of genuine kobe beef so rich that these smallish morsels are exactly big enough. You can dip them into sea salt or a mound of finely chopped scallions. Or you can just put them in your mouth, chew once or even twice and experience them melting into sweet fatty beef juice on your tongue.
The dinner proceeds. We all know we’re waiting for the main event of the duck and it suddenly occurs that it might have been a good idea to pace ourselves… But before that proposition can take hold, more goodies arrive. Here is a whole red cod, filleted and reformed between its head and tail, one side of it dressed with spicy red peppers, the other with a brunoise of sweet, mild yellow peppers and orange. Down the middle runs a green stripe of minced chive. The steamed fish is so fresh-tasting, so soft and moist, it quite erases the macho memory of that kobe beef.
Now comes a dish that must be Cantonese – juicy, rare shrimp cooked in a sauce of peach and cream that tastes like hot sweet mayonnaise. It’s the perfect distraction as waiters at last bring the condiments for the long-expected duck – dishes of sugar, white garlic paste, hoisin sauce and white scallion, tiny plates of radish and pickled cucumber and pickled bok choy. Steaming baskets of soft pancakes appear and here, finally, comes the duck. But no! Not yet! First some other things to calibrate the buds. This one is finely chopped duck meat with fresh peas and peanuts in a nest of very crunchy potato threads all rolled in a crisp lettuce leaf. Scrunch, scrunch! All gone! This other creation involves broad beans and dried shrimps served in a martini glass. I love it. Others hate it with an equal passion.
Basta! At last. The duck. Waiters bring three for our table, each one on a trolley, wheeled in slowly amidst appropriate genuflection and applause. The waiters wear gloves as they remove the skin from the breast in one piece (a most unorthodox gesture but a trademark of Da Dong). There are three ways to eat the meat and its skin: with little sesame biscuits; dipped in sugar and popped into the mouth; rolled in the pancake with hoisin sauce and the other condiments. There is so much duck to go round. Glancing up from my twelfth pancake I see that everyone else has given up, exhausted, sated, happy but too full to move… Excellent. All the more for me.
There is dessert – those jellies – also rather a good tiramisu, but we have been exposed to so much swetness during the course of dinner that they have lost their appeal. Not that they go uneaten.
Outside the restaurant, Beijing’s wealthy young elite wait for their chauffeur-driven limos to appear. Truly, China is ready to enter the wider world.