Sartre and the Egg Tarts

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I have finished this piece a week ago, starting with…

Joaquim Miguel Braz de Oliveira Junior greets you with a wide smile as if he has been waiting for you since hours. He looks so happy to see you, then patiently waits as you get indecisive infront of the multiple choices of eggtarts on grandmother’s trays while a long queue; buzzing with excitement behind you, impatiently waits for their turn.  Joaquim serves your order in a dash while taking the time for small talk and then you settle on one of those modern chairs infront of a huge window. There is light, a lot of light and a lot of bustle on the busy Chaussée de Charleroi but your eyes are now locked on the four pasteis de nata you vow to finish in one sitting. Here, temptation is so huge, you order more than you can chew even if this luminous, welcoming, chic café offers you all the time to finish them and to bask in an afternoon of coziness while the huge pile of ironing had been left in one corner at home.      

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But then, I felt something was missing. So I headed off, for the nth time, to Forcado Pastelaria…

Instead of going to the cafe, I sneaked into the small atelier, which for more than ten years was also the improvised shop, more of a counter with a minuscule shelf that housed a no-sweat cash register and cake boxes. I pushed open the door…it was quiet, spic and span, and before me, rows of tiny moulds and a bowl of bubbly cream. I heard someone hollered from behind…”who’s there?” and I answered “I’m sorry, I think I made a mistake.” And then he appeared, Joaquim Fernando de Oliveira, the great Portuguese chef who whips up the best eggtarts in uptown Brussels. I asked if I can visit, explaining that its for my blog that nobody reads. With a big smile, he donned his chef’s vest before he grants me a late afternoon, unhurried chat where I discover a man full of charm, who remains passionate about his work, and so fatherly in his advice that family counts first – far from the “grouch” he was occasionally known to be when pretentious customers and their impertinence exasperate him.

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Very few people know that Forcado is a family affair that began with a chef’s life in exile. Joaquim Senior left Portugal at the height of Salazar‘s dictatorship. His father was in prison and he was scheduled for departure to a former colony, Guinée Bissau “to shoot people who did me no harm.” So at 19, he crossed the borders, found himself in Brussels,  worked in restaurants, learned on his own, rose from the ranks, and finally opened a gastronomic restaurant thirty-two years ago. The original pastry shop, which opened a few years later, was located around the corner on rue Americain, facing the imposing house of Horta, the most important edifice of art nouveau architecture.

There were glorious years; impressive notes from Gault et Millau and receiving “deux fourchettes” from Michelin….and there were difficult moments in the frenetic life of a chef. He sent all his employees away, sold his business, said goodbye to his kitchen, followed the advice of a psy to change his life. But that little fire kept burning and one day, he opened a tiny atelier beside his former restaurant, worked alone and started rolling out hundreds of pasteis de nata from a traditional, convent recipe dating back from 1843, from which he had added his “secrets.”

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I tried to wangle bits and pieces of these “secrets” – temperature shocks that congeal the cream; high-grade margarine that is spread in puff pastry, folded and refolded by hand; a cream mixture that demands the time and patience modern pastry chefs have very little of today. But the loveliness of Joaquim’s pasteis goes beyond the recipe that yields a crunchy crust with a wobbly, smooth and creamy flan. They are simply made with love.

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The café is Joaquim Junior’s project, with a bit of prodding from his father. He admits he is no good at the kitchen, hardly touched the oven. A masteral thesis, however, proved that he had all the ingredients for building an “empire” his father had always dreamt of reconstructing, not for him but for his only child. And while Joaquim Junior is young, ambitious, and highly motivated by family loyalty and gifted with an intuitive sense of marketing, he knows that his ace is still his father’s unparalled pasteis de nata. It has been said that Joaquim’s pasteis are soooo good and are compared favourably to the ones made in Belem, the bastion of pasteis, that they find their way back to Portugal, wrapped in boxes and taken home as precious gifts instead of Belgian chocolates.

Except for the grand array of pasteis….the classic, chocolate, speculoos, lemon, almonds, orange, mojito, porto, muscat, and other delicacies like the Tentugal and the Orange or Almond rolls, and snatches of customer conversations in Portuguese, there is not much to tell you that Forcado is your portuguese café. Joaquim Junior, who I now baptize as JJ for easier reading, refused any clichés that would have made it a “popular” café but instead have opted for neutral and modern tones, only allusions to azulejos in the logo, a collection of heirloom plates on a wall, the cork flooring (Portugal produces half of the world’s commercial cork)….and yet, JJ couldn’t do away with having a Portuguese flag at the counter nor ignore the rambling tramway upfront that reminds us of the city of Lisbon.

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For13In a few weeks, Joaquim Senior will leave his two-room atelier….for a bigger one; the irony of a semi-retirement that will allow him to make his dream cakes, recipes that he had gathered, invented, re-invented but never had the time, the space nor the equipment to realize creations such as the multi-layer and alcohol-soaked “Obama” or “King Philip.”

Back in the café, the eggtarts were gleaming on our marble tabletop. It was time to savor and to share and the stories have wandered from the father and son exploits to my daughter’s philosophy class on Jean-Paul Sartre and his advocacy for constant change. “My teacher said that Sartre thinks one should never be contented with oneself, that we should always strive to be better and not to be afraid to embrace change. And I told him, my mother is like that,” my 18-year old daughter glowed as she recounted. My pride was brimming like the pasteis’ toasted tops and as we devoured the four classic eggtarts, I thanked Sartre and the Joaquims for reminding me that I am the sole “meaning maker” of my life. Now, this could still be in the world of pastry but will probably never compete with a chef, who one day braved the borders to bake Brussels’ best eggtarts.

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Tea at the Emirates Palace

P1020795 At exactly four o’clock, my taxi swerved into the expansive driveway of the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi. I stood infront of the massive doors, curious as to what awaits me in this palace built to showcase Arabian culture. But at the excuse of culture, I am here, in all honesty, for tea.

I’m here at the advise of a kind Emirati at the airport after asking him what I can do in an afternoon in this desert city. And aside from the shopping malls and the Ferrari circuit, there is not much for me to visit in this jungle of sleek, imposing, high-rise buildings.P1020792 But the palace is something else. No king, no sheikh, no princess lives here. It was built as a luxury hotel, the second most expensive hotel built in the world. Almost two billion British pounds were poured into construction work but that’s what one would pay for if you find gold and marble in every suite, a private beach and marina, 85 hectares of gardens and lawns, a rugby pitch and a soccer field. The hotel, managed by the Kempinski Group, claims to be “beyond five star.” A self-acclaimed “seven star” could only lead to one’s beating as expectations will be as high as their domes. They did receive the flak for bad service at the café. I ignored the bad reviews, the advise to make a reservation, the dress code that prohibited jeans and just headed off to the Emirates Palace for tea.

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As the valet swings open the door and welcomes you with a bow,  the opulence takes your breath away. The long and wide stretch of marble floorings, an 80-meter high dome dotted in gold, ornate lighting fixtures, and rococo wall fittings with Arabic themes reveal a royal venue. After a languid walk of the hallway, greeted every five meters by costumed hosts and hostesses, you reach the grand Le Café. I felt more like Aladdin than a princess…all that glittered was gold and “iftaḥ yā simsim! (open sesame!)”…all those cakes protected from my reach in a wide glass case.

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People come here for the much-talked about 24-k signature cappuccino with gold sprinkles but I opted for tea and chose the “Jasmine Pearls: a delicate, flowery specialty with tea leaves rolled by hand and flavoured with fresh jasmine pearls.” And to help me finish a teapot good for four, I ordered the signature Emirates Palace Cake, a multi-layer chocolate mousse and fudge cake sprinkled with gold. And gold sprinkles you will find in almost half of the menu, from the 24k camel burger to the golden French fries. Not to mention the gold-snaring bill at the end of this royal visit.

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But I opened my wallet with pleasure because I think its all worth it – the cake and tea were exceptional, the palatial ambiance, Villeroy and Boch chinaware, Christofle cutlery, the shower of gold leaves, and the attentive service (except that the waiters, as per instruction, politely refused to take your picture. Then you have to learn how to take a selfie before your tea gets cold). So, I could never understand someone who thinks being refused additional hot water to further soak his tea is bad service. He should have brought his own kettle.

Just before leaving, I tried to look sad and one of the waiters took notice. Worried that I was unhappy with the service, he asked me how was my tea. And I said “perfect, but I have no selfie.” He hesitated, looked where the video surveillance cameras were, angled himself against a huge pillar, and clicked.

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A Javanais in the sky!’

P1020726Despite of the cabin crew’s incessant fawning, the last meal I had on Etihad’s Business Class was a huge disappointment. Zucchini and aubergine slices tasted like they were forgotten in insipid broth; fish was bland; and the desserts were a total flop. I’ve put all that in an Etihad general survey and one week after, they sent me another survey to do, except that this time, it was mainly on food. When asked what would I like to see on the menu, I answered pork. That was the last time I heard from customer service. Pork is never served on airline meals. You can request for a non-pork meal (even if there is no pork meal onboard anyway) but you can never order pork meal. But pork is not my specialty…it’s pastry!

Here I am again on a Business Class seat crossing two continents. And while gulping refills of champagne to get me drunk to dull my fears of take-off, I peeked at the menu. I knew better this time. Order dishes from the airline’s country. This guarantees “home-made” offerings. Don’t get French food on a Dutch airline, for example.

But before attacking the menu, let me tell you the story of how a poor person like me gets to travel in style. A couple of years ago, a young, tall, good-looking man walked into my shop, ordered my famous “Obama” sandwich and a soda, took a seat and settled comfortably to eat. When he came back to the counter to pay, I cajoled him into a casual conversation like I always do with all my clients. By the time he got back his change, I knew the story of his life: single, renovating a flat in Brussels, and works for the airline Etihad. And out of the blue, he offered me one of his ten staff tickets, cheap tickets on any of their destinations but on a standby status.  Every year since then, I go back to Manila on Business Class with a ticket that cost one-fourth the price of a pair of Valentino shoes; shoes that I will probably never get unless I meet a client who can offer me staff-priced pairs (and even then…)

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Now the menu. The usual advice is to eat light so I half listened to the advice and ordered two starters….and a dessert. I left out the watercress soup and chose a plate of arabic mezze as my first entrée. It was fantastic. Rice stuffed on a vine leaf, tabouleh with pomegrenate seeds, creamy hummus, pickled vegetables, pita bread and a puff pastry filled with spinach and pine nuts. The steward came back with my second starter, asked me how the first one was, accepted my compliments with glee, and served with flourish, my new plate: quinoa and wakame salad, green asparagus cooked al dente, and red pepper sauce that blended well with the tanginess of perfectly cooked shrimps marinated in lemon. Delicious!

It was time for dessert…a Javanais, the Belgian version of the French opera, known to have been invented by Cyriaque Gavillon in 1955 and was named as such by his wife in honor of the ballet dancers of the Opera Garnier in Paris. A Javanais.…a cake made of four, very thin layers of almond biscuit, mocha buttercream and iced with a dark chocolate ganache. I’ve been dreaming of the Javanais for weeks, after sweating on the recipe, validating measurements and procedures a million times for my final oral exams in bread and pastry school.  Finally, I was getting one and snobbishly licking my dessert fork 39,000 feet above the ground.

Now, when you get a Business class seat for cheap, you feel guilty being bitchy. So, I stayed polite and emptied the plate but if one day, the inflight chef stumbles upon this piece, may I just suggest more coffee in the buttercream, more ground almonds in the cake, and a real ganache on the top layer instead of icing coming from a plastic pot. And the vanilla cream that came with it was not really necessary especially if it was poured from a brick.

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By the end of my “light” meal, the steward was starting to take my opinions seriously and was getting excited after each serving, so he suggested I take a meal just before landing. I ordered a salmon pie with mashed potatoes and herbs. A mistake. I should have just stayed with the Arabic menu. The puff pastry was uncooked and the salmon filling was too oily it could have clogged my arteries if I had finished the plate. And the caraway seeds mixed with the mashed potatoes carried away with it all the other flavours that would have made this edible. I’ve left the plate untouched and wanted to hide from the now excited steward by making myself smaller on the huge, comfortable armchair that extends into a bed for two small people like me.

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But he saw me so I pretended I  wanted another dessert and ordered baklava, the mediterranean version of “mille feuille” (“a hundred pages”) usually made of layers of filo pastry, filled with nuts and sweetened with honey. The steward arrived with the last, tiny piece of baklava onboard (while my seatmate got lucky with the last pack of chips) and saw me taking notes. “So, you are copying our menu,” he said. I looked at him and returned the smile with “no, I’m getting ready for my next survey.” And I rattled superlatives for the food and service but did not dare to add that it would have been perfect if not for the incessant babbling of the cabin manager.

“Keep Calm…amidst the mob at Marks and Spencer”

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There was a mob on each floor, a conglomeration of mobs in the food court. That’s how Brussels welcomed the re-opening of Marks and Spencer. I hurried past the crowds who were in united euphoria over baking powder, gammon, clotted cream and shortbreads (the very same things I look for when shopping at Tesco whenever I cross the Channel). But here we are in one new, big building. Marks and Spencer has come to feed Belgium’s hunger for British food. The line was long and the shelves were empty. I headed to the coffee shop for afternoon tea but the line was long and the shelves were empty.

Finally, after twenty minutes and facing three overwhelmed staff at the counter, I ordered a cup of Earl Grey tea, a capuccino and a slice of Victoria sponge cake and chocolate cake. No great expectations. It’s industrially-made but let’s see what a 3.50 euro slice of cake is worth (the same price I would pay in a no fancy tea shop.) The three-layer chocolate cake was dry, meaning far from being moist, and a bit too sweet but luckily the ganache was good. Victoria sponge was “correct” but the strawberry jam and the thin spread of buttercream fillings were far too sweet. And for someone who never adored fondant sugarpaste icing, this was a nightmare. Half a centimeter of icing that you can literally unroll to make a pizza and re-roll to resemble a soiled sanitary napkin. But this was just me and my personal struggle against sugarpaste icing.

MS victoriaMS victoria 2But let’s face it… Marks and Spencer is an honest-to-goodness supermarket that makes no claim to pâtisserie fine. It has no pretensions, has always strive for quality, and promises good value for money, which amounts to the majority of items you find in the store and tells much of what Marks and Spencer is known to be.

MS sliceTo prove this, I bought one of the cheapest ready-made classic pastry, “cream slices made with puff and freshly whipped cream, strawberry conserve and topped with smooth fondant icing.” For 1.10 euro a piece, this was worth what my sweet tooth needed to calm my claustrophobia in Britain‘s flagship store. This, however, did not stop my daughter from crying out loud “Mom, why are doing this to me,” after being coerced to join the tasting. Well, getting scones outside of my kitchen was a display of insolence, so some kind of petty “punishment” was due.

After the Pastry World Cup, I will never look at a hairdryer the same way again…

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Here I was in Lyon, France – one of the world’s gastronomic capitals and yet, have been eating fastfood, greasy hamburgers for the last two days. I didn’t get a chance to eat in one of Paul Bocuse’s brasseries, the very least I could have done since I couldn’t afford a classical menu in his Restaurant Abbey Le Collonges.  If I had taken wine with that dinner,  I would have reprimanded myself anyway for a peacocky meal instead of paying for a nice holiday in another country’s food basket, like Bologna in Italy. I was surrounded by “food of the gods” and got deprived of a single bite. I just didn’t have time.

No tasting of Lyonnais specialties on this trip, where I had been asked to cover, in 48 hours, a huge French food fair and the Pastry World Cup.  The saying “You cannot have your cake and eat it, too” could never have been so appropriate than in my despondent case. All I was allowed to do was to ogle and salivate….because the pastries were so near and yet so far.

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This is the Pastry World Cup – the dream of every pastry chef that some ignoramuses refer to as the Miss Universe or the Formula One of pastries. How can one even compare this prestigious contest with human meat or motor oil? This is the Oscars of Pastries, where gowns are replaced with white, crisp aprons and checkered pants, with toques as accessories and double-breasted jackets simmering with gold, silver and bronze medals. And the winners…speechless and in tears.

So, now you can imagine why my frustration in the last two days have risen to the level of a sizzling volcano. I could see the multi-layered bavarois, almost licked the cream, smelled the intense aroma of melting chocolate, saw how sugar is transformed into an artwork and watched the desserts parade before a long table of international judges. And they poked, forked, chewed, moved their lips, gurgled with sparkling water after each tasting and penned the points that determined this year’s champion.  I was nervous, excited and hopeful and yet…I was just a spectator, though thanks to a press entry, I was able to watch in close range how each team fought to be the best in a marathon of 10 hours. But the reason for the extra jitters and the core of this effervescence was the presence of a Philippine team.

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My heart went out to them. I had to stop myself from cleaning their table tops, removing scattered ice, and pulling the sugar. But no one was alllowed near them. They were the “untouchables,” oblivious to television cameras, to roaming judges, to the screaming contingent of Filipino fans. They were calm, organized and concentrated in their sweet bubble.

I felt like the special guest of Willy Wonka. I was in my planet but this is another universe. The Pastry World Cup has nothing to do with baking brownies on a Sunday. Nigella Lawson, one of my favourite chefs despite of her lapses, would have failed in the first 15 minutes. Her drooling icing, finger-licking antics that my nephew calls “culinary porn” wouldn’t have pass the first test. There is baking and there is pastry. And in between an entire world of gadgets and equipment, years of training and techniques, honed instincts on varying melting points  of chocolate and the talent of synthesizing flavours. When the budget allows it, we see an artillery of equipment from power tools for ice carving, spray guns, high-end mixers, sugar-heating ceramic lamps,  blow torches, electric fans and yes, hairdryers.

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There were 21 teams, each had 3 chefs specialized in sugar, chocolate and ice. Each team had ten hours to finish three chocolate desserts, 3 frozen fruit desserts, 12 desserts on a plate, and artistic creations in sugar, ice and chocolate. Also, each country had to choose a theme:  “The Vikings” for Sweden (how original!), “The Wild West for the US” (how surprising!), “The Wild West for Algeria” (even more surprising!), “Star Wars” for Denmark (that was a darth idea), “Mayan Culture” for Guatemala (love your own!), “Peter Pan” for Italy (forever kids), “Mario Brothers” for Singapore (forever kids 2), and “Cycle” for the Philippines which, like many things in the country, requires sub-titles and in this case, “the hunter and the hunted” (just because a sugar frog was eyeing a sugar dragonfly).

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A panel of judges gave points for work organization, technique, maximum use of ingredients, timing, artistic appeal, originality of recipes, and taste. The teams received bonus points if they used special ingredients from their countries. Tropical flavours were the in-thing with yuzu as the most glamorous ingredient. But they were also judged for cleanliness and order of the atelier, punctuality and team work. It was this “oneness” that earned the Philippines their place in the top half despite of being a first-timer in such a prestigious contest. They had no airs, no diva-attitude, no quarrels of who’s the boss. It was a perfect symbiosis of a team who was determined to show the world their level of excellence, their dedication to the profession.

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All the teams felt that way so there are tears when things go wrong. But no tantrums, no swearing, no fuss. The show must go on as it had to for Egypt, for example, whose two chefs were denied French visas and had to deal with “strangers” who replaced them or Italy who, seconds before bringing out their dessert plates,  broke their chocolate sculpture and messed up all the ready plates. Backstage stories were fascinating: a Guatemalian chocolate chef on a wheelchair who decided that no accident can stop her from this passionate profession; the rumored three-million euro budget for training the Danish team; and the Philippines’ Vincent Cahatol, the wood carver who converted himself into a kitchen artist with vegetable, fruit, chocolate and ice carvings. Cahatol, whose toolbox never arrived, won the best ice sculpture with a borrowed chainsaw, two chisels and an ice clamp.

Quentin BaillyAfter 48 hours, the verdict was: gold medals for Italy; silver for Japan and bronze for the US. Winning is so important but not as important as the lessons learned in such a contest. French master chef Quentin Bailly, the 2013 champion, said the pastry cup experience is life-changing. “Of course, you earn more credibility, it opens new doors professionally. But the pastry cup is a venue of sharing. We learn from each other’s techniques, get acquainted with new equipment, taste new ingredients coming from different countries…but most of all, we build friendships.”

I felt it…this unspoken solidarity among those who knew what it means to be there. Hardwork, perseverance, creativity, passion. At the end, it felt less of a competition. How could it be…when you hear generous compliments from each other or the shared sighs when things go wrong for one team or the unabashed expression of admiration for another’s technique.

Indeed, it’s strange this special sacharine kinship among pastry chefs. And as Gabriel Paillasson (below), founder-president of the Pastry World Cup said, “Welcome to the family of the greatest pastry chefs in the world.”

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