FORTUNE COOKIE: Polish Ambassador Woos Delhi’s Palate to Win Indian Market
A FORMER Chilean Ambassador in India and noted political scientist, Jorge Heine, had once said to me that it was easier to conduct public diplomacy over a meal. He was so convinced of this fact that he even turned the visit of his country’s president into a showcase for Chilean food (notably sea bass and salmon) and wine.
It got the state visit, which would have been otherwise relegated to one of the less important pages of the national newspapers, the media attention that exceeded the ambassador’s expectations. The media was literally eating out of the Chilean President’s hands because it’s not often that a visiting head of state hosts a sit-down lunch for food and wine opinion makers.
Heine’s words came back to me at the majestic Art Deco home of the Ambassador of Poland, a relatively new and young incumbent named Tomasz Lukaszuk, as a fairly large turnout of diplomats and food connoisseurs from the Delhi Gourmet Club got introduced to the joys of a cuisine we know so little about. Impacted adversely by Russia’s retaliatory ban on agricultural imports from the west after the imposition of economic sanctions against it in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, European nations have been seeking out alternative markets. Russia was a voracious consumer of European agricultural produce, so all eyes are now on the Indian market.
A senior European Union official made this clear in as many words at the FICCI-sponsored Annapoorna food trade show in Mumbai a couple of months back. But when you are a little-known entity among the many countries wooing the Indian market, how do you get the spotlight you seek? The Polish Ambassador and his wife, Maria, who’s also the economic attache of the embassy her husband heads, hit upon the idea of throwing a party where the spread would consist entirely of Polish food and vodka, and the man presiding over the kitchen was Delhi-NCR’s only Polish chef, Adam Szczechura of the Hyatt Regency Gurgaon. It worked as memorably as a Kieslowski movie.
Polish food, as Ryan Bromley, a Canadian chef-turned-scholar of gastronomy married to a Polish embassy official, explained to us, is all about the power of ingredients and the interplay of seasons. The magic of Polish cuisine, Bromley explained, starts in the fields and the forests; in India, it begins in the kitchen. Polish cuisine is ingredient driven, which is not as easy as it seems, for, as Chef Adam reminded us, Poland gets fresh produce for just four months. Indian cuisine, on the other hand, is technique driven.
The limited availability of fresh produce clearly has left a mark on the cuisine of the country. It has turned simplicity into a gastronomic tradition. The pierogi, or lightly fried dumplings, Poland’s national dish, are expressions of this tradition. Chef Adam said that during Lent, or on Christmas eve, when devout Catholics turn vegetarian, every family has pierogi, which come with fillings such as potato mash, onions and cottage cheese, or cabbage and wild mushrooms, or with minced meats and even sweet berries. With shots of Poniatowsky vodka, smooth as silk and tasting like green apples, pierogi and sour cream taste like heaven. Unsurprisingly, the vegetarians weren’t complaining.
The star of the evening, though, was the zurek, the sour rye dough and potato soup, an Easter speciality served with juicy kielbasa sausages, which ooze umami once softened by the warmth of the soup, and halved boiled eggs. There was something addictive about this meal in a bowl, and its vegetarian counterpart, the mushroom soup, made after slow-roasting porcini and other flavourful wild fungi for four hours.
The chicken meat balls, or pulpety, served with buraczki (braised beetroot), stewed green peas and carrot, and staropolskie (roasted potatoes), brought back memories of gushtaba. And the roasted duck with apple jam (the Poles love their apples, whose prices have dipped because of the Russian trade embargo) was a welcome change after the surfeit of preparations one’s had with orange sauce as accompaniment. Without doubt, Polish cuisine is here to stay.
ART HISTORY IN A WINE LABEL
CHATEAU Mouton Rothschild not only has a famous pedigree (it is owned by the Rothschilds and is one of Bordeaux’s five First Growths), but it also carries a distinctive label painted every year since 1945 by the world’s greatest artists. The wine estate has just released the label for its 2012 vintage and it is doubly significant because it was the last but one to be personally selected by Mouton’s grande dame and avid art collector, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, who passed away in August this year.
The story of the label, which has seen artists such as Salvador Dali (1958), Joan Miro (1969), Marc Chagall (1970), Pablo Picasso (1973), Andy Warhol (1975), Francis Bacon (1990), Anish Kapoor (2009) and Jeff Koons (2010) work on it, and paid in cases of the iconic wine, goes back to 1924. Baron Philippe de Rothschild (1903-88), father of Baroness Philippine and the man who put the wine on the world map, asked the famous poster designer Jean Carlu to create the label to salute his first vintage bottled entirely at the château.
It remained an isolated initiative, but in 1945, the baron, who had fought the Nazis under the leadership of Charles de Gaulle, wanted to celebrate the return of peace, which he did by deciding to crown the label for the vintage with the ‘V’ for Victory, drawn by the young painter Philippe Jullian. Since then, the label has continued to be the work of a different artist, and each one has carried the signature of Baron Philippe or, after his death, his daughter.
It was Baron Philippe’s great-grandfather, Nathaniel de Rothschild, who had acquired the estate in 1853. To commemorate the centenary of the acquisition, a contemporary sketch of Baron Nathaniel graces the 1953 label. The same ancestor re-appears, this time from a contemporary photograph, on the 2003 label, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Rothschild ownership.
Each label comes with a story. Prince Charles, for instance, has created a label for Mouton, for the vintage 2004. The royal family enjoys a special relationship with the chateau. Queen Elizabeth II visited the estate in 1977 and this historic occasion was commemorated with the royal seal being emblazoned on the Mouton label. The priceless label collection has grown big enough for Mouton to be the only wine estate in the world to have its own art museum with an exclusive collection created exclusively for it. That’s unbeatable!
AN ORWELLIAN SINGLE MALT
IT WAS in the desolate island of Jura, off Scotland’s West Coast, that a seriously sick George Orwell wrote his dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, in a remote farmhouse named Barnhill lent to him by the Observer editor David Astor between 1946 and 1950 (the year he died). The novel, which gave the English language expressions such as ‘Big Brother’ ‘doublethink’ and ‘newspeak’, has now inspired the single malt, Jura 1984, which has been quietly maturing for the past 30 years.
The one and only distillery in the island, the Isle of Jura was rebuilt in 1963 to revive the tiny community living in that speck of geography. Its name, according to www.masterofmalt.com, derives from “the Old Norse expression for ‘deer island’, a reference, most probably, to the large local herds of deer, which more than outnumber the isle’s human population.”
Drinks Business reports that only 1,984 individually numbered bottles of the limited edition single malt whisky, casked in 1984, will be made available worldwide. It quotes Willie Cochrane, the distillery manager, as saying: “1984 is certainly a year to remember.” Buy your bottle before stocks run out. Only, you’ll be poorer by £750, or Rs 72,500 at the present exchange rate.
FANCY A PARANTHA WITH CRICKETS?
IS INSECT PROTEIN the next big thing in Indian cuisine? As the world discovers the joy of eating creepy-crawlies (insect protein bars is the newest rage), which is hardly a novelty in India (pickled red ants are a Chhatisgarhi delicacy and silkworm pupae have a fan following in Madhya Pradesh and Nagaland), bugs are getting a bearhug in at least one Indian fine-dining restaurant. The much-acclaimed Vij’s in Vancouver, run by Amritsar-born Vikram Vij and his wife Meenu Dhalwala, has a pizza-like parantha topped up with crickets on the menu. It has caught the eye of restaurant trend-spotters, Baum + Whiteman, who predict that the popularity of insect protein is set to explode worldwide.
This column first appeared in the Mail Today edition dated November 20, 2014. Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers