Mr. Ambassador, with these food showcases you’re really spoiling us…

One of the fun things about working in media (and the salary sure ain’t among them), is that no-one ever really questions whether you should be in the room. You flash your card, say you’ll be writing about what’s going on, and a surprising number of doors are flung open. Too often, you grab what free food you can and make your escape before the PR machine gets its claws into you. Occasionally though, the experience makes you grateful for the access you have – and forces you to consider what you’d have to do to live like this more often.

Such was the case with two recent food showcases, courtesy of Ireland and Sweden. Crucially (at least for bragging purposes), each took place at the respective Ambassador’s house – in the case of Ireland, a busy evening in a gorgeous, glass-walled residence on Chatsworth Road; for the Swedish showcase an intimate get-together over lunch at a stately house up near Thomson.

The Irish Food Showcase was put on in association with Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board) and the Irish Chamber of Commerce, and centered around a cooking demonstration by Michelin-starred chef Kevin Thornton. Flanked by high hedges and an inviting swimming pool, the great man demonstrated how he prepares sautéed Bear Island king scallops, accompanied by truffle mouse, scallop carpaccio and enoki mushroom fingers, served on bog oak, a natural timber buried for some 5,000 years.

Disappointingly, only two or three samples were passed around (the pretty girls near the front getting first dibs), but the sheer volume of other food spread out around us quickly shut us up. Though not prepared by Thornton himself – it came courtesy of the Hyatt – everything, from the organic brown bread to the baked salt crust organic salmon, the fresh shucked oysters to the cashel extra blue mature cheese, was of Irish provenance. Hell, they even had braised beef in Guinness. Sensibly, we’d brought along a bunch of hungry Irish MBA students, for the purposes of a controlled trial. Their verdict? Authentic to the core. It was they who tipped us off to the wonder that is Sheridan’s Onion Marmalade (insanely good on an oatcake with cheese), and we had to fight them for the bread and butter pudding.

The baked leg of ham with a prune herb crust was terribly dry, some of the minor dishes also missed the mark, and the sense of disappointment that Thornton wasn’t more closely involved was inescapable. But there was no question that notice was served of the strength in depth of Irish ingredients; the cheese platter alone was of world-beating standard. If there was one thing that really did niggle, it was the absence of authentic Irish barmaids serving the black stuff. The Chinese girls in the little black dresses were all smiles; but you want a bit of banter with your bevvy.

So it was a pleasant surprise to find that the Swedish Lunch with the Swedish Ambassador and his wife was a much more personal affair; charming Swedish interns, an introduction to the food from the Ambassador himself, Mr. Ingemar Dolfe, and a wonderful paean to Swedish new potatoes from his wife. (Incidentally, despite being otherwise bowled over by Singapore in their eight months here to date, she’s so disappointed with our bland, watery tomatoes that she’s begun growing her own in the garden of the residence. Seriously.)

Swedish food is perhaps even less widely known than that of the Irish. So once the obligatory meatball jokes had been made, we were all too happy to move on to some seriously fine food prepared by Swedish chef Jakob Esko, of Capella. Frankly, we could have stood around all day nibbling on the gravad lax med hovmastarsas (marinated salmon with a mustard sauce) and toast skagen (prawns and mayo on sautéed bread), but we were all silenced by the arrival of a seafood cocktail with tarragon infused carrot foam, white asparagus and cucumber. The show-stopping part? It was served in a glass basin overflowing with liquid nitrogen, with clouds billowing around each bowl like a scene from a cooking class at Hogwarts. More than just a party piece, the mussels in particular were given extra bite by the sub-zero swirl. Then it was on to spiced veal loin, morel mushrooms and sweetbreads, in a red wine sauce. Tart lingonberries set the dish off perfectly.

An opportunity to trumpet the merits of Swedish food (and chef Esko’s upcoming lunch menu at Capella — available on 13 July, for S$65++) this may have been; but there was no doubting the hosts’ sincerity. The Ambassador’s wife was seemingly more homesick with every bite. As we ate our way through an almond and pear dessert, topped with cloudberry ice cream, we heard how young children in the far north of the country (right up by the Arctic Circle, where your bedtime reading light is the Aurora Borealis) are sent out into the winter woods by their grandparents to gather the cloudberries. A fairytale ending indeed. (Perhaps though, this explains why the intern telling us this story had opted for a placement in sunny Singapore.)

Of course, this wouldn’t be a critique – at least not an I-S one – without a least one gripe, and yet again it was booze-related (OK, OK, perhaps we have a problem). Sure, this was lunch, but really, where was the snaps? A traditional drinking song like “Helan Går (it all goes down)” would have been the perfect way to round things off. All in the name of research, you understand…

The warm welcome we received at both events should have come as no surprise. Embassy staff are old hands at turning on the charm (it’s part of the job description, after all), but at both the Irish and the Swedish showcases the sense that being in Singapore has rubbed off on them was palpable; whether or not they did before, they clearly now feel no immodesty in proclaiming their country’s food to be among its most important elements of cultural heritage. And both cracked wise about the notion of England doing something similar. An English Food Showcase? Stranger things have happened. It’s time to step up, guys. We hear your Ambassador’s pad is pretty sweet.