Mention Bordeaux and one immediately thinks of a luscious glass of red. In June, though, there were Chinese touches in the French wine capital. That’s when it unveiled the 10th edition of the Bordeaux Fête le Vin (Wine Festival) which this year took place from June 23-26 and to which two Hong Kong chefs were invited to play a part.
The setting was magical. Along the promenade on the banks of the river Garonne, the region’s winemakers set up pavilions near the scintillating Miroir des Quais – the world’s largest reflection pool – in front of the fabulous 18th century palaces surrounding Place de la Bourse.
Eight main pavilions represented the eight grand appellations of the area. A Grands Crus Classés 1855 Passport allowed festival goers tastes of the Médoc’s finest reds, from the Haut-Médoc, Margaux and Pauillac appellations, as well as the elegant whites of Saint-Emilion and the ambrosial sweet wines from Sauternes. Additional stands for independent traders and artisanal food producers from the Aquitaine region popped up along the two-kilometre open-air “wine road” along the riverfront, where there was a curious sight – a traditional Cantonese theatre stage, its vivid neon, red and gold standing out amidst the cool cream of Bordeaux’s limestone architecture.
Hong Kong was one of the guest cities of honour to participate in the Wine Festival, together with Brussels, San Francisco and Quebec. The Hong Kong Tourism Board flew in bamboo weeks before, and Choi Wing-kei, a master Cantonese opera stage builder,constructed the colourful Chinese stage by the river. Cantonese opera stars Yuen Sin-ting and Paris Wong Hau-wai performed excerpts from a scene where the Tang emperor Xuanzong gets his famous concubine Yang Guifei drunk, to the delight of the Bordeaux audience.
Nobody gets drunk in Bordeaux, though. The ambience is festive and jovial, but everyone is orderly, lining up to try a sparkling crémant or a rosé, popular during the summer.
Chef May Chow, founder of Little Bao in Hong Kong, was cooking at a little kiosk next to the giant Cantonese stage. In addition to her signature pork belly bao, which she serves at her modern Asian diner on Staunton Street, SoHo, Chow was dishing out a lamb tartare flavoured with fu yu – fermented bean curd – a modern summer twist on the classic Cantonese winter casserole.
Bordeaux residents, never one to shy away from steak tartare or lamb cooked pink, took to the dish like wildfire, especially when they found out that fu yu’s pungent flavour – which is often compared to the taste of cheese – was actually a Chinese fermented bean product.
“Bao are such a universally loved product. It was interesting to pair our food with Le Petit Haut Lafitte wines,” says Chow. “We used a lot of French ingredients to recreate Hong Kong classics such as our foie gras French toast, inspired by cha chaan teng French toast.”
Chow also created two Hong Kong-inspired tapas using French ingredients specifically for the festival: “Under the Bridge” crab claws with black bean panko and a dash of red chilli, and scallops served in the shell with garlic vermicelli, flavoured with yuzu. They proved to be so popular that Chow put them on the Little Bao Hong Kong menu for this month.
Lara Yuen Ka-hei, a cook at Little Bao, was the only other person helping chef Chow churn out dish after dish for the festival goers. “We got a lot of feedback from people all over the world who said that they wanted to come to Hong Kong to try Little Bao,” says Yuen.
“It is always an honour to work with HKTB,” says Chow. “They have a great relationship with the Bordeaux government and they try to bring a different perspective of Hong Kong annually. This year they focused on the modern creative side of Hong Kong so have approached both chef Alvin [Leung] and [me] to present Hong Kong food inspirations with a modern twist.”
Self-proclaimed “Demon Chef” Alvin Leung is the mastermind behind the three-Michelin-star Bo Innovation in Wan Chai, where he serves up his “X-Treme Chinese Cuisine” – creative, deconstructed, food inspired by Cantonese flavours and techniques. He was asked to cook for two major events during the festival – the mayor’s lunch, hosted by Bordeaux mayor and former French prime minister and foreign minister Alain Juppé, as well as the closing gala dinner in honour of the 10th edition of the Festival.
The dinner on June 15 at the Palais de la Bourse, a Unesco World Heritage building, was a magnificent formal affair, with many fine wines from different chateaux, all grands crus.
“Dinner required more effort with two courses and more than 400 covers,” says Leung. “Overall I felt we did well on both occasions, and I must compliment the professionalism of the local chefs, who supported our service and helped it run smoothly.”
The first starter of the evening was Iberico ham served on sweet potato vermicelli, cooked in a stock of umami-rich morel mushrooms and drenched with clarified butter to prevent the noodles from sticking. The concept was to meld the saltiness of the ham and the mouth feel from the butter with the medium of an Asian noodle.
Next was a ris de veau braisé: veal sweetbreads braised and then deep-fried. Inspired by Cantonese hong siu tofu, the luxurious offal was cooked with a home-made oyster sauce, a juice of sautéed ginger, spring onions, and fresh and dried oysters – the last ingredient was brought over from Hong Kong. The dish was served with roast artichoke, black mushrooms, and baby pak choi pickled with Château de Lisennes, Cuvée Tradition 2010 Bordeaux Superieur.
“It was great to serve our food in this kind of context: the best wine of the world paired with our food,” says Guy Monaghan, sous chef at Bo Innovation, who adds, “Alvin is very knowledgeable and sharp on wines and vintages, so it was a great event for him. But he was taking it very seriously, warning me that the people attending are obviously connoisseurs who know their food. There’s a big emphasis on Hong Kong’s part to play and it was great being a restaurant representing Hong Kong.”
Juppé, lauded for cleaning up a polluted Bordeaux in the ’90s, when all the limestone facades of the city’s buildings – black from centuries-old dirt and grime – were restored to their cream-coloured glory, was complimentary of Leung’s dishes during dinner, saying: “I love Chinese food. I enjoyed the dinner a lot, the mixture of Chinese technique with French products. It’s a bit chauvinistic for me to say it, but French cuisine is very complex and refined. It has a lot of finesse. I find Chinese cuisine sharing those qualities with French food.”
Peter Lam, chairman of the Hong Kong Tourism Board, was also present at the gala dinner. “We’re happy to return to Bordeaux Wine Festival as the only City of Honour from Asia,” said Lam. “This year, we brought our unique East-meets-West culture. The Hong Kong fusion menus created by chef Alvin and chef May were highly sought-after by the patrons and received many positive comments. We hope all these elements served as an appetiser, attracting guests to come to Hong Kong for the main course – a real taste of our city.”