Today is the Feast of Saint John the Baptist – one of those secondary feast days in the church calender that becomes a major celebrations in some regions of not just Italy but the World. As an example in Québec June 24th has always been a major celebration of Saint Jean-Baptiste the patron of the province. It has since taken on a slightly more nationalistic nature but the traditions of the older celebration still hold on.
You have to admit that the story of John the Baptist is a pretty good one. Its got everything – religion, sex, politics, sex, political descent, sex, intrigue, sex, death and did I mention sex? Its no wonder it’s attracted writers, artists, composers, choreographers and movie makers.
In paintings the child John is normally seen with the Madonna, his smug little cousin Jesus and his mother Elizabeth. Often he’s holding a lamb or a…
After the formality of a cup of tea we set to work with Madame Hà, her daughter and six assistants. Our job was to create dishes for an Imperial meal for lunch time guests at Tịnh Gia Viên without harming the restaurants reputation!
Fortunately the assistants had already done the elaborate carving that included hollowing out a pineapple to create a lantern, turning pineapples into peacocks, tomatoes into swans and carrots into flowers. Our job was to cook paper-thin duck egg omelettes*, wrap the various force meats we had made in the omelettes, won ton pockets, spring roll wrappers and grape leaves. Deep fry them without burning ourselves and cut various shapes with razor sharp knives without drawing blood.
Again with this particularly arrangement it is not possible to caption the various photos but a left click will take you to a slideshow for a closer look.
Of course you couldn’t serve Emperor Tự Đức plain old springs rolls – they had to be cut into bite size pieces and arranged on the back of a peacock. Fortunately Madame Hà’s assistants provided the dazzle and we the sizzle.
The same applied to the Lantern – beggar’s purses of vegetables, won tons, stuffed grape leaves and French cheeses (!) required artful arrangement before the candle could be lit.
The Dance of the Phoenix – okay that was a bit of work. Omelettes were sliced to form a necklace of feathers on a bed of noddles, pigeon eggs were nestled around the white radish head, fried rolled omelettes stuffed with pork, mushrooms, red pepper and asparagus were cut into pinwheels, and then artfully arranged. Anyone for a dance?
Well that was three down and only forty-seven more to complete the menu for Emperor Tự Đức’s evening meal. And all it took was one master chef, six assistants and two bumbling tourists.
The two Chefs (??) with Madame Hà and their (???) creations.
*Did I mention that Madame Hà said mine were the thinnest and most perfect she’d ever seen in all her years of cooking? Just saying!
The word for September 29th is: Phoenix /ˈfēniks/: [noun] A unique bird in classical mythology that lived for five or six centuries in the Arabian desert, after this time burning itself on a funeral pyre and rising from the ashes with renewed youth to live through another cycle. Old French fenix, via Latin from Greek phoinix ‘Phoenician, reddish purple, or phoenix’. The relationship between the Greek senses is obscure: it could not be ‘the Phoenician bird’ because the legend centres on the temple at Heliopolis in Egypt, where the phoenix is said to have burnt itself on the altar. Perhaps the basic sense is ‘purple’, symbolic of fire and possibly the primary sense of Phoenicia as the purple land (or land of the sunrise). Isn’t it also the name of a city in the Southwestern US where old people go to burn in the sun?
In October 2006 I started this blog (I had a previous one when I worked for the Warsaw Business Journal – the WBJ, at 10 zloty the cheapest BJ in Warsaw*) in October of 2016 with the aim of recording our trip to Vietnam. It was coming up to my 60th birthday and I wanted to celebrate in someplace a little different. We had been to Cambodia and Thailand the year before and I loved South East Asia. And having grown up in the 70s during the American War (known here as the Vietnam War) I had seen endless reports on the country. None of those reports prepared me for the fascinating three weeks we spent visiting the country from the Mekong Delta in the south to the Hoang Lien Son mountains at the Chinese border. Back in 2006 Vietnam was still off the normal tourist map and I understand that now it has become very popular. It is one place I would love to visit again – for now I’ll just revisit it from the comfort of my armchair.
I wish I could remember the name of the tour company I booked with as their service was nothing short of miraculous. Accommodations were deluxe, travel first class, and nothing was ever a problem for our guides. We had indicated that cooking would be one of our chief interests and we were booked in to several cooking schools turning our travels. All of them were great fun and a good introduction to the varied regional cuisines of the country. But none were as intriguing as Madame Hà’s Garden of Tranquility in the last Imperial capital of Vietnam: Huế.
Madame Hà’s forte is the elaborate cuisine favoured by Tự Đức, the fourth emperor (1847-1883) of the Nguyễn dynasty of Vietnam. To classify Tự Đức as a gourmand would be no exaggeration – it is said that he demanded that his daily morning tea be brewed using only the dew collected overnight from lily pads on the ponds of his palace. His feasts included 50 dishes prepared by 50 cooks with the finest ingredients the country could provide. It was an elaborate cuisine that demanded novelty and presentation of the highest order. Perhaps it is churlish to note that Tự Đức insisted on these elaborate feasts during times of famine and pestilence or that his cooks stole what they wanted from vendors in the local markets.
Madame Tôn Nữ Thị Hà, who I understand is still going strong at 77, is regarded as Vietnam’s leading authority in the art of the Imperial cuisine of Huế. She also claims descent from the Nguyễn dynasty and has been given the title of “National Treasure”. Set in a traditional landscaped garden and surrounded by over 400 bonzais – a passion of Monsieur Hà we were told – Tịnh Gia Viên is a restaurant/cooking school housed in an old French villa. It is a mere 500 metres away from the grounds of the Citadel and Imperial enclave. Yes it is “touristy” but also a great deal of fun. We were the only two people in the class that day and Madame Hà and her daughter were genial and easy-going. And I’m sure that Madame tells everyone that their duck egg omelettes are the thinnest and most perfect she’s seen in all her years of cooking!
And what was on the menu – oh nothing fancey. Just three of the fifty dishes you needed to please Emperor Tự Đức.
In the next few days I’ll be putting together a few photos of some of the work that went into creating these elaborate dishes.
The word for September 24th is: Imperial /imˈpirēəl/: [1. adjective2.noun] 1.1 Relating to an empire. 1.2 Relating to or denoting the system of non-metric weights and measures (the ounce, pound, stone, inch, foot, yard, mile, acre, pint, gallon, etc.) 2. A small pointed beard growing below the lower lip (associated with Napoleon III of France). From Middle English imperial, from Old French imperial, from Latin imperiālis (“of the empire or emperor, imperial”).
I have been following, with much sadness, the events in Hong Kong over the past year or so. And I fear for what will become of that once vibrant and maddening city as the People’s Party tightens the noose that will eventually squeeze the life out of it. Something they have waited patiently to do since 0001 July 1, 1997.
I have such incredible memories of the three months I spent there working back in 1995 and of subsequent visits to spend time with our friends Diane and Jean-Paul. That first visit was a bit of a pioneering venture: a small group was sent by Air Canada to set up the airport operation for our first route to Asia. We were from various stations and represented each of the departments involved in an airport operation. Though none of us previously knew each other we meshed well as a work team and a social too. It was a great opportunity to get to understand how we all fit in the giant jigsaw puzzle of an airport operation. It meant long days and sometimes longer nights because of the time change and headquarters seeming inability at times to deal with it.
And we were working at an airport that presented challenges on all possible front: Kai Tak.
An outdated and overburdened facility at the edge of the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbour it was one of those airports where regardless of how modern the aircraft type or cockpit system the pilots were the ones landing the aircraft on landing not a computer. Nothing was automated. It was visual and manual all the way in – one miscalculation and you either ended up in Kowloon Bay or aborting the landing and going around to try again. The approach was over the city towards Lion Rock Mountain, making a sharp 47º right bank at the Checkerboard, guiding the aircraft through a canyon of apartment buildings so close that you could see what the residents were having for breakfast, calculating the frequent crosswinds and hitting the beginning of a single runway that stretched out into the Harbour. It was known as the “Heart Attack” approach for pilots, passengers and onlookers.
By the time I worked there a facility designed to handle, at the most, 24 million passengers a year was seeing upwards of 30 million making it the third busiest airport in the world. There were only six boarding bridges and everything else was tarmac boarding with buses to the aircraft. As I recall there were no boarding announcements allowed in the terminal only at the gate. It was also a favourite airport for passengers using false documents to enter North America illegally. On the Inaugural flight we stopped seven “sailors” headed for Toronto to take an oil tanker through the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Which was strange as the Seaway had closed early that year due to the premature onset of winter ice. As I said it was an airport that offered challenges on many levels.
It was to be replaced by Hong Kong International Airport on Lantau Island in 1998. After years of discussion and sitting derelict Kai Tak has became a transportation hub once again – the old buildings were demolished and a cruise ship terminal was built on the peninsula that was once the runway jutting out into Victoria Harbour. High rises now block the old flight path from the Checkerboard to Runway 13. And needless to say 22 years of tropical storms have dulled those peeling red Checks to a dull pink.
But back to 1995. The timing for the inaugural flight, December 22, meant that we spent Christmas in Hong Kong. Laurent flew in from Jordan, where he was living at the time, to join me. I met him at the aircraft and told him I’d see him on the other side of Immigration. I can still remember the look on his face when he came through those doors and confronted the hundreds waiting to meet their loved ones. Kai Tak, or Hong Kong for that matter, was not the place for agoraphobics at Christmas time.
We were extremely fortunate that we had two families to spend that Christmas with: our Air Canada family and the Delisles. Our beloved Diana and Jean-Paul are old friends from Cairo days and it was a chance to once again spend the holidays with them. We were to be with them again the Christmas of 2006: that was the Boxing Day when dinner was interrupted by an earthquake and several after shocks. A truly scary experience as we were at Mid-Levels surrounded by high rises. But that is a story for another time. This memory drawer in the archives of what is left of my mind is that Christmas in 1995.
So what caused this particular memory drawer to creak open, you ask? A t-shirt. A t-shirt? Yes, a t-shirt. An Alan Chan t-shirt that Santa Claus (but really I think it was Diane and Jean-Paul) gave me along with a host of other goodies that Christmas Day.
A t-shirt that I took out of the wash only yesterday and is one of my favourites. The colours have only slightly faded and it is as soft and comfortable as only oft washed quality cotton can be. When I put it on it brought back memories of that first visit to Hong Kong: my first taste of Singapore Fried Noddles at KaKaFuk, a dinner on a junk with the gang from the High Commission, watching the enormous Christmas light displays taking shape each night on Victoria Island across the harbour from my hotel window, my first tailor-made blazer and dress shirts by Mr. Wani, the old Star Ferry terminal in Kowloon, the gaggle of Philippina maids in the park at Central, the mad confusion and elation of that first departure, Christmas Eve with my Air Canada family, and Christmas Day with our dear Diane, Jean-Paul and their youngest Marc-André.
All those memories came tumbling out of that drawer – and what opened it was that treasured t-shirt. And it reminded once again that I have been granted a life filled with friends, family, adventure, travel, laughter and joy.
The word for July 16th is: Memory /ˈmɛm(ə)ri/: [noun] 1.1 The faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information. 1.2 The mind regarded as a store of things remembered. 1.3 Something remembered from the past. 1.4 The remembering or commemoration of a dead person. 1.5 The length of time over which a person or event continues to be remembered. 1.6 The part of a computer in which data or program instructions can be stored for retrieval. 1. 7 A computer’s capacity for storing information. Middle English from Old French memorie, from Latin memoria, from memor ‘mindful, remembering’. I find 1.2 is starting to make 1.5 of 1.3 question 1.1!!!!
While compiling the little slideshow of the Jubilee Cook Book I came across another slideshow I had created in 2011 after a visit to Innsbruck and it’s wonderful Museum of Folk Art. Innsbruck was a city of many surprises and treasures that it was always a joy to stop in on our way to and from Salzburg.
Often when I am in a museum I find myself by-passing something that is a “major” attraction to focus on a more obscure work. Last month’s visit to the Tiroler Volkskunst Museum was no exception. They have so many wonderful pieces on display but for some reason one relatively small work caught my attention.
In 1772 in the market town of Tefls – about 40 kms from Innsbruck – the Confraternity of the Scapular celebrated the centenary of the society’s founding in the region. Though the Vision of the Virgin to Saint Simon Stock is reputed to have happened on July 16, 1251 the laity were not granted the wearing of the miraculous garb until the 1500s. Confraternities sprang up throughout Europe as the pious vowed to faithfully pray to the Madonna and received the small pieces of brown cloth with the promise of salvation that the Virgin had pronounced…
Telling the stories of the history of the port of Charlottetown and the marine heritage of Northumberland Strait on Canada's East Coast. Winner of the Heritage Award from the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation and a Heritage Preservation Award from the City of Charlottetown