Sunday, April 6, 2008

Slow Food that Quickens the Heart

The Pillow Book, Sei Shonagon's observations of courtly life in 10th century Japan, is full of lovingly detailed observations and obsessively concerned with lists. Among her more famous lists is "Things that quicken the heart." She lived and died long before cacao sailed from the Americas to all parts of the world. And long before the Meiji era, when confectionary giant, Meiji, began its domination of the Japanese chocolate market with its decidedly dreary chocolate bars.  I'm quite sure that on her list that includes such things as "to notice that one's elegant Chinese mirror has become a little cloudy" and "to pass a place where babies are playing", she would have added "to eat chocolate."

Eating pure chocolate - eating good chocolate, one feels a slight surge under the skin, a slight chill on the cornea, a spark of electricity. The heart quickens.

The Ajimi Team recently met with a bunch of folks from Slow Food Suginami-ku for a leisurely dinner with internationally renowned chocolate maker, Claudio Corallo. Over platters of pasta, cheeses, and various antipasti, about a dozen of us chatted over all things food, chocolate in particular, at a cozy little Italian cafe called Lemon near Ochanomizu. Conversation rolled in a mix of Japanese, English, French, and Spanish over the course of three hours. As the delightful meal came to a close, Claudio brought out samples of the very artisanal chocolate that he is justly famous for.

First a bit about the man himself. Corallo, originally from Italy, went to Zaire in 1974 where he found his way into the coffee business. Revolution in Zaire and a growing interest in cocoa led him to São Tome e Príncipe in 1993 where he set up shop. He's been on a voyage of culinary love, rehabilitating old plantations, and rediscovering and husbanding ancient strains of cocoa and coffee that found their way from the New World to the tiny islands that he now calls home.

And what about the chocolate? Corallo first brought out 3 of his flagship chocolates; one he labeled his "soft" chocolate - a 75% cacao; his 85% chocolate; and his 100% chocolate. It should be noted that Corallo's chocolates use no vanilla, just cacao and sugar. Even the most "pure" of what's available in the market is no match for Corallo's. His chocolates are simultaneously austere and completely indulgent. Used to the contemporary style in artisanal chocolates that forefront a certain perfuminess and BIG taste, Corallo's seem to be a bit lacking at first taste. However, we found ourselves sneaking more and more samples of his fine chocolates. They unlocked their pleasures slowly, subtly, and to great satisfaction.

Chocolate, often gobbled down unthinking and un-tasting, is common currency. Fast, easy - a quick sugar fix.  We rarely give it time. And much chocolate is not worth much time. The slow food pleasures of Corallo's chocolates, however, were well worth taking some time over.

Just as the dinner was wrapping up, Monica Cespedes and Juan Carlos Fernandez, a couple of Chilean food producers in town for FOODEX, brought samples of their avocado oil, fruit vinegars (not fruit-infused vinegars, but vinegars made from the fruits themselves - raspberry, strawberry) and cusqueño (a dried aji chile condiment). 

It was a pleasure to take some time with food and new friends in this city that seems as if it can't go fast enough.  Special thanks to Toshiya Sasaki and his wife Noriko of Slow Food Suginami-ku for putting this all together.

More on Claudio Corallo - his fascinating story and information on his chocolates can be found at this link.

Slow Food Suginami-ku's site can be found at this link.

Chilean vinegars and other artisanal food products can be found at this link.


Saturday, April 5, 2008

Snow Strawberries

The Ajimi Team is a sucker for snow strawberries (yuki ichigo - ゆきいちご - 雪苺娘), the delicate decadent mochi confection. Like a pink-cast snowball, it's a wrap of thin mochi over a light cake, whipped cream and a sweet/tart strawberry. The gooey chewy moochi makes a perfect compliment to the spongy cake, the unctuous cream, and the berry fruit goodness of this perfect treat.

The movie Careful comes to mind when looking for yuki ichigo. Guy Maddin's contemporary bergfilm takes place in an alpine village where the threat of avalanches is so great that the residents must speak softly at all times. Quietly repressed desires fuel passions in this pastel tinted winter wonderland. One can imagine soft pink yuki ichigo - they not only look like breasts, but they feel like them too - as objects of illicit desire.

But there's no problem with speaking quietly at our favorite yuki ichigo stand under the tracks at the entrance to the Yurakucho JR station.  But it's for a different reason. The place is run by hearing impaired workers, who quickly and quietly dispatch orders from this perfect little hole-in-the-wall.  Also available are momo (peach), pudding, and anko plus strawberry filled daifuku.  A perfect place to indulge those desires.


Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Fugu 'n me

My track record with fugu is not great. My first encounter with this delicacy came during my first-ever Internet date. I knew that this relationship was not going to be long-term within the first 30 minutes when the guy told me that he owned exactly 30 pairs of shoes, most of them expensive Italian ones. Now, as a dedicated shoe fetishist I am not opposed to the idea of a man owning 30 pairs of shoes: I was put off more by the fact that he had classified their number and value as priority information.

Nevertheless, off we went to dinner at a moderately expensive restaurant that featured fugu and shabu-shabu. (The kanji for fugu, by the way - 河豚 - means something like "river pig.) This being November, I ordered une petite verre de Beaujolais Nouveau, the only wine available, which was served well-chilled as red wines generally are in Japan. Shortly, the fugu arrived, arranged like a feathery collar on an enormous platter. A few bites into it I felt a mild tingling sensation in my mouth then, before long, I began to feel decidedly woozy. One glass of wine does not make me woozy, at least, not since 5th grade it hasn't.

After a decent interval my date and I swapped banalities about what a nice time we'd had, must do it again, then I stumbled off to the train and he went home to count his shoes. The next morning, I felt an oral itching and, next thing I knew, the inside of my mouth was peeling off!

My next encounter with a member of the fugu community was when a couple of fins showed up, less than deliciously, in a can of sake that the Ajimi Team bought on the shinkansen to Yamagata. See the February 19, 2008 posting for more detail.

Perhaps these sub-optimal encounters with the fish make me especially melancholy whenever I pass a fugu restaurant. Usually, fugu float around in big tanks in the windows of these places, reminding one of prostitutes in the redlight district in Amsterdam. Often, a few hapless fugu are "resting" on the bottom of the tank, belly up, past caring about their fate. The live ones are not much livelier, gazing out at onlookers with the calm blankness of the doomed. Which begs the question: how do you select your own personal fugu from among the dozen or so in the tank? My guess: don't pick a dead one.


Solitary fugu photo: VS

Fugu funeral photo: NV