I was in Nepal recently and accepted an invitation I had received on numerous occasions to enter a house, often a farm. And I have had many opportunities to admire these strange forms hanging above my head like laundry on a line. It is difficult to know which is more incongruous, the electric bulb or these sticks.
But what is this stuff the colour of fresh butter?
In fact, it is cheese, drying out until it becomes as hard as rock. When it comes to cutting it, no less than a pair of pincers is required. Chewing it is no easier: even just a tiny piece left to soften for ten or twenty minutes in the mouth is still inedible. It requires enormous patience to actually chew it and extract its minimal flavours.
This is what a Japanese tea shop looks like. Or rather, a tea shop in a covered market, like here at Nishiki Ichiba in Kyoto. In the foreground are chests full of Hojicha and, on the right, the apparatus with a chimney is actually a Bancha roaster. It is used to produce Hojicha. It gives off a wonderful woody, caramelised aroma which spreads to the nearby stalls.
Each tea accessory used during the Cha no Yu (the Japanese tea ceremony) is made using the methods of an ancient craft. Raku is a classic technique often used to make the “chawan”, the bowl used in the tea ceremony. This process involves firing at a very low temperature.
Here, in the Kyoto studio of Hattori Koji-San, I watched the master potter deftly work the clay and gradually shape the contours of a tea bowl.
Part of the experience of travelling is escaping from your usual routines. What a joy to be able to discover the habits and customs of our fellow men! Here is one such example…
While stopping off in Lisu (China) I was honoured to be invited to lunch at a little riverside restaurant, a short distance from the main road on which we were travelling. There, in the peaceful surroundings with only the gurgling of the stream and the enthusiastic trilling of a couple of mynah birds to distract me, I waited to see what my hosts had ordered.
For those who one day might travel to this part of our beautiful planet, I feel a bit guilty for spoiling the inevitable surprise and pleasure of discovering a dish so little known in our own country, despite its wealth of gastronomic curiosities. But given that hornets – for this was the local delicacy in question – are so common in the south of France, it seems a shame to deprive our friends in Provence of a recipe that is so easy to prepare and would not fail to impress their guests. And as we approach the end-of-year festivities, which are always upon us sooner than expected, are we not looking for a more unusual festive dish to make a nice change from turkey or capon?
Here’s an extract from my tasting notes: “A particularly intense contrast between the head of the insect (one of which is at least 10 cm long) and its abdomen. The head, grilled to perfection, is crunchy in the mouth, while the creamy substance that escapes from its abdomen lines the palate, coating the tongue in a thick, generous matter that slowly develops lingering aromas…”
Accompaniment suggestion: I think a “Bourgeons de Yunnan” tea would suit perfectly with our dish.
During my recent journey to Japan which led me to the north of Honshu at the extreme south of Kyushu, I visited for the first time a lovely city deeply nestled among mountains covered with woods. This city is Kakunodate, located nearby Akita (I’m giving details for the people, like me, who enjoy poking their nose on a map and dream while pointing their finger on imaginary roads).
In Kakunodate the tradition of wood work is still carried on. But not any wood ! Here they are only interested in cherry tree. Objects are carved in its bark, or, in other words, this beautiful bark is turned into a smooth and delicate leaf just like a precious parchment and is then pinned against the desired object: a tea canister for example.
It is a very slow and meticulous work: once the wet season is over, a sample of bark is taken (approximately ten meters above the ground) and is then left to dry for no less than a year ! This leaves enough time to carefully think about its destiny…
With the help of a small flat-iron, this worker smoothly presses against the bark, after having coasted its back so that it perfectly sticks to the tea canister’s body. Of course, before that, she slowly polished the bark with great care, using the blade of a knife in a repetitive movement so as to make it surprisingly soft.
I’m admiringly watching her, in the silence surrounding her workshop. Once the tea canister is finished, she strokes it and holds it out to me with a discreet pride and I’m thinking about the beautiful Japanese green tea which will be a perfect case for it.