Bloom in the Park

For our anniversary dinner, we went to Bloom in the Park, one of Malmö’s three Michelin-starred restaurants.

The setting is lovely—a deceptively rustic looking building in the shadow of the water tower in Pildamms park, a short distance (but a world away) from the bustle of Malmö’s shopping streets.

Bloom’s unique “concept” is that they don’t have any menus; nor at any point do they tell you what you are eating. They just bring you the food and allow you to experience it fully through your own senses, without any preconceptions. Of course it’s fun to try to identify the flavours and ingredients.

As with the food, you don’t choose your own wine. If you opt for the wine menu, they serve you wines chosen to match each course (and top up your glass generously as required), but they don’t tell you what you are drinking. Oddly, the wine menu is more expensive than the food menu.

On arrival, we were invited to go out to the terrace and relax in the evening sunshine with a complimentary glass of champagne. If you don’t drink alcohol, they’ll offer you a glass of lemon tea instead.

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On the terrace of Bloom in the Park

The dishes are highly inventive, with an emphasis on presentation verging at times on theatrical flair. For example, the bread was black and served on a bed of charcoal; the delicious post-dessert treats were served on a slate on a big heap of moss.

Most dramatically, at one point we were presented with test tubes full of green liquid, cooled with dry ice that overflowed all over the table.

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These little “hamburgers” are made with a disc of blood sausage and onion jam.

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We nominally had a 5-course meal, but between amuse-bouches, hors d’oeuvres and other in-betweeny courses, we lost count of the number of dishes we actually got. Each one was a visual delight.

 

 

Service was extremely efficient and attentive, and after the first few courses we felt that everything was happening so fast that we wondered if it would all be over within half an hour. But that wasn’t the case; in fact after the main course we were invited to have a break and take our drinks out to the terrace to stretch our legs.

After the meal, you are given a card with a web address and a password, so that when you go home, you can if you wish satisfy your curiosity and finding out what food you experienced.

Total cost for two, excluding service charge, was 2,475 SEK; each 5-course meal was 695 and the wine menu is 795.

 

一番高い—a visit to the highest restaurant

The Burj Khalifa is the highest building in the world. On the 122nd floor is at.mosphere restaurant, billed as the world’s highest restaurant. Yesterday, we went there for lunch.

Lunch at 442 metres above ground level doesn’t come cheap. In fact, everything at at.mosphere is astonishingly, hilariously expensive, as if money has become disconnected from all meaning. But this post isn’t about how much it cost, so let’s just say it was the most expensive lunch I have ever eaten, and is very likely to remain so.

The occasion was Yuko’s birthday. Making a lunch reservation was a bit of a palaver, involving several e-mails back and forth, including instructions about what to wear:

Our dress code is Smart elegant and/or National dress:
Men: Must wear shirts with a collar and sleeves and closed fine shoes. No shorts allowed. Sandals are allowed if worn with National dress
Ladies: Elegant feminine attire. Beach sandals are not allowed.

Access to the restaurant is via the lobby of the Armani hotel, a super-chic hotel with an impressive array of supercars parked outside.

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Cars parked in front of the Armani Hotel, Dubai

Before arriving in Dubai, we had been warned just to get a taxi anywhere we want to go, as it’s a very pedestrian-unfriendly city. This was very sound advice, which I duly chose to ignore. This resulted in our arriving for our special-occasion birthday lunch half-an-hour late, a little sweaty and flustered, having found considerable difficulty in finding a way to access the Burj on foot. I wondered whether we were the first people ever to attempt to do so, and indeed we were stopped by a surprised security guard while walking up the ramp.

Entering the minimalist air-conditioned elegance of the hotel was like entering a different world, a kind of haven for the super-rich, whose every need is anticipated and seen to immediately without fuss. We were greeted very politely and shown to a special express elevator with just 2 floor buttons.

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Elevator to level 123

The elevator whisked us at high-speed up to level 123, from which we had to go down 1 flight of stairs to reach the restaurant.

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Welcome to At.mosphere

We were greeted with great friendliness by our waitress, who was very attentive throughout our meal.

The view from our window seat was northwards towards Dubai creek and Sharjah, with a collection of tall buildings in the foreground and a desert landscape stretching inland to our right. Hazy conditions made it hard to make out much detail looking along the coast.

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View of Dubai

First we were presented with a little plate of 3 amuse-bouches. These little salty bread snacks were a welcome treat as we were actually really hungry by this stage.

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amuse-bouches

Next a young man came over to offer us a choice of fancy bread, all baked in-house: a French baguette, a croissant with goat’s cheese or some ciabatta. He had a trolley with two great cylinders of butter, from each of which he whipped some onto a little plate for us while explaining to use their special virtues and French origins. The butter with seaweed was really good; silky and salty.

I ordered a roots soup with coconut and shiitake mushroom to start and a Patagonian cod main course. Yuko had a foie gras terrine starter and flank of wagyu beef with shallot confit and aligot (French for mashed potato, apparently) for main.

The root soup was deliciously thick and creamy, with Thai flavours like chili and galangal. I was pleased that we were offered more bread whenever we needed it; I hate running out of bread before I finish my soup, and I wanted to try the different kinds.

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roots soup

The cod dish was amazing; most notably for the flavours and textures of the risotto, which was made with black rice and lumps of meaty parmesan cheese.

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Patagonian cod with Venere risotto

Of course, a visit to at.mosphere is only partly about the food; people go there for the novelty of visiting the world’s highest building, and for the views that entails. And one of the best views is from the men’s toilets, which overlook the lake where the fountain display takes place. The multi-storey buildings look just like toys.

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View from the gents

We decided not to go for dessert, but a surprise was in store: a choux-pastry swan with a single candle and a “Happy Birthday” message for Yuko. I thought that was a lovely touch, and in fact it was really good.

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Birthday swan

We ordered some coffee to go with the swan, and this came with yet another surprise – a plate of fancy treats. The “lollipops” consisting of marshmallow-covered pineapple, dusted with pieces of orange sherbet, were especially good. Also included were mini-eclairs, a banana custard sweet and a light and moist canelé. We were also given a little basket of madeleines.

And at the end of all that, Yuko was given a little bag of chocolates to take home.

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Treats served with coffee

After we had eaten, our waitress gave us a little tour of the rest of at.mosphere: a private dining room and the lounge bar. The bar is apparently very popular as a place to watch the sunset while sipping extremely expensive drinks; you can also enjoy “luxurious high tea” there for around €150 per person. The people in the lounge were far more elegantly dressed than we were; most of the women were wearing cocktail dresses.

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Towards the coast at Jumeirah Beach and The World islands (almost invisible in the haze)
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South along the coast toward the Burj Al Arab and the Palm islands

In each area, we were given the opportunity to take pictures of the views and our waitress took pictures of us with various backdrops. She turned out to be quite a skilled photographer.

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Dara and Yuko in the lobby of at.mosphere

At last it was time to leave this rarefied world and return to the real world far below, where (lesson learned) we took a taxi back to our hotel.

お好み焼き—okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki is an Osaka speciality. It’s also a Hiroshima speciality. Osaka and Hiroshima people disagree as to which one is tastier.

Today we went to an okonomiyaki restaurant, Chibo, for lunch. We ordered one Hiroshima-style and one Osaka-style okonomiyaki, to carry out a taste comparison and decide once and for all which one is nicer.

The waitress served the two okonomiyaki onto a hot plate in the centre of the table and, with a rapid back-and-forth movement, drizzled each of them with fine lines of mayonnaise.

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okonomiyaki being drizzled with mayonnaise

She then drew the spatula across the lines of mayonnaise to create a lovely scalloped pattern on the top of the okonomiyaki.

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Creating a pattern on the okonomiyaki
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The finished product, ready to eat. いただきます!

I have to say, the two dishes were remarkably similar. In the end, we decided that while both were delicious, one was indeed very slightly tastier than the other. But we weren’t really sure which was which, so the question remains unresolved.


A note on the word of the day:

Okonomiyaki is a dish made with flour and eggs, like a savoury pancake or omelette. Inside, you can put various fillings such as cabbage, bacon, shrimp or noodles. Then you spread worcestershire sauce and mayonnaise on top, and optionally sprinkle it with toppings such as katsuo fish flakes and aonori seaweed powder. Yuko makes delicious okonomiyaki (usually incorporating Irish bacon rashers). She says the secret to success is using proper okonomiyaki flour, that’s hard to get outside Japan.

お好み焼き o-konomi-yaki contains the word konomi, meaning preference or something you like, and yaki meaning grill. 好み konomi is written with the same kanji as 好き suki meaning to like or to love; this kanji is made up of the symbol for woman 女 and child 子.

 

カルタ—playing cards

I received a present yesterday evening.

We met my former Japanese teacher and her family for dinner, in what has become an annual tradition, at the Turkish/Mediterranean restaurant アルピーノ Alpino. It was an evening of delicious food and convivial company, as well as an unbeatable Japanese learning experience to be surrounded by Japanese conversation, including the excited chatter of a 7-year-old girl who sat beside me and chatted away to me all evening.

The present came neatly wrapped in a yellow bag from Osaka souvenir shop ichibirian, the bag decorated with typical images of Osaka and some phrases in Osaka dialect. Opening it up, I found what I thought was a book, with the title “Osaka PhD”.

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Front of card game “Osaka hakase”

But instead of opening like a book, the middle slid out to reveal two sets of playing cards; one with text and the other with colourful images of fun facts about various Osaka neighbourhoods.

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Osaka waiwai karuta

The “front cover” (or maybe back cover, from a European point of view) says 大阪わいわいカルタ oosaka waiwai karuta—Osaka clamorous cards, and then in smaller writing underneath, “Did you know? Didn’t you know? This and that about Osaka”. The whole cover is brightly decorated with typical Osaka images such as Osaka Castle, Tsutenkaku tower, bunraku theatre, fugu, and a bowl of ramen.

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Osaka waiwai cards: や

Each card pair is associated with one hiragana symbol. For example, the text card for や (ya) has the following “interesting fact”:

八尾市はな 歯ブラシ生産 日本一

yao-shi wa na, haburashi seisan nihon ichi

Yao city is number one in Japan for toothbrush production.

The corresponding image card shows a woman holding a toothbrush atop a smiling Mount Fuji, symbolising the number one status.

The text on the cards uses little furigana symbols alongside the kanji for the benefit of children (and me!) for whom the task of learning to read Japanese is still a work in progress.

I was really struck by the ease and fluency with which musume-san read the text on the cards. I expected a child of that age to be painstakingly sounding out the words, but she just read them off at full speed (much more quickly than I could). I wondered if she was just familiar with the text of the cards from playing with them at home, so I tested her by showing her some sentences on my phone that she had never seen before. She showed equal facility reading the following random sentence:

ドライバーでねじを回したが、なかなかうまく回ってくれない。

doraibaa de neji wo mawashita ga, nakanaka umaku mawattekurenai.

I turned the screw with the screwdriver, but it just didn’t want to turn.

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天才娘さん tensai musume-san

I guess she is some kind of a prodigy; I assume most Japanese 7-year-olds don’t read at that level. I asked her mother about it and she just replied that “she loves reading”.

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Sensei, danna-san and musume-san after dinner with me and Yuko in Alpino

Anyway, it was a lovely evening and we all left feeling feeling happy and saying また来年 mata rainen—see you again next year!

crêpes

I’ve often said, only half in jest, that when you go to a foreign country, your IQ immediately drops by 50 points. A task as simple as buying milk in the store has pitfalls for the unwary. And so it was on our recent visit to France, which featured several instances of idiocy, fortunately none of them calamitous.

Locked out

On our first night in the gîte, I was struck by the amazing clarity and multitude of stars in the pitch blackness of the night sky, and I called Yuko outside to share the experience. The glass door was fitted with wooden shutters, so I pushed them closed to reduce the light coming from inside the house. Then I heard a tiny, horrifying, “click” as the shutters latched closed behind us, and all thought of stargazing was instantly dispelled. Anxiety rose as it became clear that we really were locked out of the house, in short sleeves, at night, miles from civilisation. I tried to force the shutters open, applying more and more force, but to no avail.

Then it occurred to me: had I left the car unlocked? I had! Which meant I had access to tools. A minute later I had succeeded in popping the shutters open, with no discernible damage, and we were safely inside once more.

Wine

One of the pleasures of staying in France is that you can buy very good wine at very low prices, and I enjoyed a glass (or two) of red wine with my dinner each evening. The second gîte had a fancy corkscrew that looks like this:

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Obviously, the screw is intended to turn freely when going down into the cork, then to “lock” and pull up without turning to lift out the cork. But whatever skill or technique was required to achieve this simple sequence eluded me. No matter what I tried, the screw remained in “locked” mode, pushing the cork ever further down the neck of the bottle. By the time I admitted defeat and resorted to a simpler, no-moving-parts, idiot-proof corkscrew, it was too late. I only succeeded in pushing the cork the remainder of the way down the neck, forcing the now-pressurised contents to spray all over me. Good wine or not, it stings when you get it in your eyes. My white shirt was ruined.

Lait Ribot

Lait Ribot is a Breton fermented milk product, like buttermilk. I did not know this. When randomly choosing a container of fresh milk from the supermarket shelf, I just assumed that “Ribot” was the brand name.

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Granted, had I read the label more carefully, I would have seen the words “lait fermenté” written right there. In red. But it went into the supermarket trolley without that level of scrutiny. I discovered my mistake when I poured it into my coffee that evening and it curdled unpleasantly.

Well, when life gives you fermented milk, what do you do? You make crêpes! And that’s how we came to have crêpes for breakfast every morning for the last 4 days of our stay. For 10-12 crêpes:

  • 200g of plain flour
  • 300 ml lait ribot (or buttermilk)
  • 300 ml fresh milk
  • 2 eggs
  • a pinch of salt

Put the flour and salt in a bowl, make a well in the centre and add the beaten eggs. Mix a little. Beat in the milk and fermented milk in stages, continuing to beat until the batter is smooth. It doesn’t need to rest but can be used immediately.

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Serve hot with butter, jam, fresh fruit or compote. Delicious!

ラーメン ramen

I don’t really mind long flights. The packing, the travel to and from the airport, the check-in, the security checks, those are exhausting. But once on the plane, the fact of sitting quietly in a seat for 11 hours doesn’t bother me. If anything, it offers a rare opportunity to slow down, to read a book or watch a film, or just do nothing at all, while every so often people come and bring you food and drink.

Pro tip: I find a gin and tonic at the start of the flight is a very good way of getting into the right frame of mind.WP_20140410_001

Business class is a nicer experience, of course. But while you can usually get an economy class ticket for between €800 and €900 return, the business class fare is more like €2500. For two people, that amounts to an extra €3000, which would buy you an awful lot of comfort on the ground. As in, you could stay in a luxurious hotel for 2 weeks for that price. For that money, I will happily put up with the economy class experience for 11 hours. Hell, for that money I would spend the flight in a cage in the cargo hold with the animals. Or tied up face down on the floor with an hourly kicking from the cabin crew.

Anyway, when we arrived in Japan we went out to the supermarket to get something for lunch. I got sushi.

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This sushi selection, freshly made this morning, cost 410 yen. That’s about €3. For a selection of 10 delicious nigiri-zushi.

For dinner, we decided to go to a local ramen place: Tiger and Dragon.WP_20140411_010

They do “Hakata-style” ramen noodles, with a fatty, almost silky broth made with pork bones.

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The sign below says that you can help yourself to fiery-hot (chili) mustard greens, sesame mustard greens or benishouga (red pickled ginger). I had to look up the word for mustard greens: 高菜 takana, as I wasn’t able to read it. Or rather, I was able to read it but wasn’t sure how to pronounce it or what vegetable it referred to. If that makes any sense. Such are the vagaries of the Japanese writing system.

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 Benishouga is a typical accompaniment to Hakata ramen. And by the way, the fiery-hot mustard greens really are.

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Itadakimasu!

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リンゴ酒—Cider

A few years ago, I started making home-made cider.

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It’s not hard to make cider. If you take some fresh apple juice and wait, it will turn into cider all by itself. You don’t have to add anything at all – just let nature take its course.

This approach, appealing in its simplicity and its lack of added chemicals, is how cider was made by mediaeval monks, and this is how I have made most of my batches over the years.

There are a couple of downsides though. The first is that, if you allow the fermentation to run to completion, all the sugar will convert to alcohol, resulting in a very dry and very strong cider (typically my cider is 8% to 8.5% alcohol, while commercial cider is around 5%).

The second problem is lack of consistency. The natural process will invariably produce an alcoholic drink that tastes of apples, but the quality will vary. I’ve produced some batches of cider that are absolutely heavenly, like bottled autumn sunshine, with wonderfully balanced flavour, clear golden colour and light effervescence. Other batches have been pretty awful and I’d be embarrassed to offer them to anyone else.

In 2012 I didn’t make cider. I was living in Japan and didn’t have access to apple trees, and my cider-making equipment was in storage back in Ireland. Much of my 2011 production was also in storage, and when I returned to Ireland it had matured beautifully. Of which more later.

Last week I started making my first batch of 2013. Here’s how I did it.

First, I picked some apples from my dad’s back garden. I took 16 kg of apples, which will yield about 8 litres of cider.

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You’ll notice that some of the apples are scabbed or damaged. It doesn’t matter.

It’s not easy to get apples to give up their juice. The usual method is to use an apple press, where layers of chopped apples are wrapped in cloth, and tonnes of pressure are applied to squeeze out the juice. My colleague Conor has a press that he designed and built himself, which is capable of applying several tonnes of pressure, and is capable of delivering more than 0.6 litres of juice from every kilogramme of apples (more than 60% efficiency).

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Conor’s process begins with running the apples through a garden shredder. Here, he and another colleague, Shane, are shredding large quantities of apples on an autumn evening in 2011.

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The freshly-pressed apple juice is delicious; rich and full of flavour.

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As you can see below, Conor makes a lot of cider!

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Compared to Conor’s operation, my production is pretty small-scale. I don’t own a press, so I’ve evolved a very low-tech method.

First  I mill the apples in our kitchen food processor.

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The milled apple starts to turn an unattractive brown fairly quickly.

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In some cider-making techniques, the milled apple is deliberately left to oxidise for a longer period to enhance certain flavour components. This is called “cuvage” and I have never tried it. Instead I press the apples immediately. It’s also wise to avoid prolonged contact with metal (other than stainless steel) as apple juice is quite acidic.

My method of pressing is quite unorthodox, but it works. I scoop the mash into a strong cloth bag, and I squeeze by hand. It’s a slow process, requiring patience. But I achieve an efficiency well over 50% (half a litre of juice per kilogramme of apples).

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The apple pulp yields up its juice only gradually, partly because there are limited channels for the juice to make its way from the centre of the mass to the outside. You have to squeeze a little at a time, allowing the mass of pulp to rest and recover a little between squeezes, and rearranging it in the bag every so often.

The reason this method is reasonably effective (albeit slow) is that it’s possible to exert enormous pressures, comparable with those of a mechanical press, by the action of wringing cloth. In the past I’ve used cotton bags, and found the limiting factor was the strength of the material. This year I’ve been using sackcloth, with good results.

The solid residue after squeezing is called “pomace”. More sugar can be extracted from this by a process of rewatering – adding water and pressing it out again, adding the resulting watery “juice” to the first pressing. I tried this once and did not find it very successful. I have no shortage of apples, so if I want more juice I can just press more apples.

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This is my first 5 litres of juice.

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It’s important at this stage to know how much sugar is in it, so I take a sample and measure its specific gravity.

The specific gravity is measured using a hydrometer.

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According to the hydrometer, the juice has a specific gravity of 1.05. This is fairly low considering the hot dry summer we have had.  It corresponds to a sugar content of around 11% and an eventual alcohol content of around 6%.

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At this point, I set aside some of the juice for drinking. But it must be drunk promptly as it can’t be stored (unless pasteurised) – it will start to ferment and if kept in a closed container it will explode.

At this stage, we have a choice to make. We can either add a sachet of yeast or allow natural yeasts to colonise the juice.

Buying yeast from the shop means that you get to choose which species and strain of Saccharomyces will carry out the task of fermentation. In this case, you may wish to kill any other organisms first by adding sulphite tablets, and then add the yeast of your choice. I prefer not to do this.

The air is full of yeasts just floating around. The surface of the apples is also probably well-stocked with yeast. So you don’t have to add any yeast at all – just wait and fermentation will begin within a couple of days. DSC_0451

At this stage, the activity of the yeast and the production of carbon dioxide help to protect the juice from contact with air and bacteria.

(Incidentally, I always find it amusing that I go to great trouble to clean and sterilise all the vessels, implements and tubing I will use for cider-making, only to add large quantities of completely non-sterile apples!)

Once fermentation started, I siphoned off the juice into 2 demijohns (one-gallon glass containers) and fitted them with airlocks.

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While the juice is very cloudy at this stage, it will gradually clarify as solid material settles to the bottom of the vessel. However I decided to depart slightly from my purist approach and add one chemical: pectolase. This is a pectolytic enzyme that improves clarity by removing “pectin haze” from the liquid.

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Now the two vessels are bubbling away in the kitchen – glug…glug…glug… – about one bubble every two seconds. It’s a cheering sound, and if I leave it there it will be completely fermented within a few weeks. However it will be harsh and barely drinkable at that stage; only through a second stage of “malolactic” fermentation will it gradually become mellow and tasty.

In any event, I don’t really want it to ferment too fast. I’ve found that a slower initial fermentation leads to a nicer cider, so I would like to move it to a cooler location, possibly even an unheated shed where it can ferment over the winter. Even if the temperature drops so low that the fermentation stops – about 4 degrees C – the yeasts are not dead, merely hibernating, and will come back to life when the temperature rises again in spring.

As the cider ferments, the yeast will convert the sugar to alcohol (and carbon dioxide) and the specific gravity will gradually reduce.

At some point I will have to decide whether to stop the fermentation (resulting in a sweeter cider with a lower alcohol content). This can be done by dropping in a sulphite tablet to kill all the yeast. I have never used this method as I prefer not to add chemicals, and some people report that sulphites give them headaches. Another possibility is simply not to feed the yeasts. In addition to using sugar in their normal metabolic process, yeasts need nitrogen in the form of amino acids to grow and reproduce. As these are in short supply in apple juice, the fermentation may come to a natural stop due to insufficient nitrogen. This method is unreliable, to say the least.

I’ll post again with progress reports over the next few months.