International Wine Guild Blog

Lunch and Traffic

Filed Under: Claude in Hangzou

Yesterday we went to a restaurant owned by one of the faculty taking the class. The restaurant specialized in ‘western’ cuisine. The students practiced their sommelier service at the restaurant for half a day.

Picture 1 shows Dr. Lim practicing his opening skills doing the vintage port service.  Seated is Ms. Soon, the GM of the school.  We used the restaurants serviettes and water glasses and brought the cart, wine and tools.

We had spent part of our most recent ‘off-day’ trying to find a service cart we could use for sommelier service. Dr. Lim and Joyce Wu, the Marketing Director, were going to go find service carts, plates and ‘western’ cutlery.  They asked if I wanted to come with them, of course I said yes. So they took me to the ‘plate and knife’ market – the hotel and restaurant supply market.

In China they like to put all of the merchants selling one kind or group of similar products together in an area. Sometimes it is all in one building. In this case there were at least 100 stores in a 4 square block area, competing with each other for a customers business. We drove all the way across Hangzhou to get to the market.  I will show some of those pictures in a blog about the City I will do at a later time.

  Pictures 2 and 3 were taken standing on the sidewalk and shooting down the street one way and then turning and shooting the other.  Every store you see, in both directions, and for the next 3 blocks, sells nothing but hotel and restaurant supplies to the trade.  The owners and works in the store (often family – or extended family) life in the apartments staring on the 3rd floor above the stores. The second floor is storage for the showroom.

We went into several stores looking for a rolling cart to use as a guerdon as well as plates, cork plates and western cutlery. I took pictures in several stores, and frankly, you can hardly tell them apart.  The next couple of pictures were taken in the store from which we ended up purchasing two carts.

Picture 4 shows a large table with place settings and serving pieces.  If you look out the door of the shop  (in the back of the picture) to the store across the street you can see that they have a similar table set up to entice customers to go in their store. Picture 5 is a shot across the store of display tables. This store was larger than most.

There are no prices on anything, so bartering is the method of determining what price to pay. So I got to see some Chinese bartering – which is understandable even if you don’t speak the language. 

Some of it I was able to understand because Dr. Lim and the Marketing Director would occasionally talk to each other in English – a language less than 1% of the population in Hangzhou speaks, so it was a way they could talk to each other without the shop owner understanding.  The ease with which they went back and forth between English and Chinese makes me believe they had done this before.

She gave him a price she thought they could purchase the two carts for and he began a conversation with our salesperson.   He kept pointing out scratches and dirt on the cart, looking for anything to help support the price he wanted to pay. We even began walking towards the entrance, but were called back.  Eventually we purchased the two carts, plus delivery for one of them, for close to 300 yuen - $44.

This group of students has studied very hard, probably more than 5 hours a night, is what Dr. Lim told me, to prepare for the daily exams. All of them speak English, but it is still difficult to take a technical course in a second language.

After practicing sommelier service for 3 hours at the restaurant we had a 4-course ‘western’ meal; served in courses with a different wine with each course.  It was the first time that most of them, including the restaurant owner, had experienced this way to eat a meal.  Normally in this restaurant, ‘western’ food is served ‘Chinese’ style with everything being served at once. So I had to do a short talk on western table etiquette.

Our first course, called an appetizer that was really a salad, we had a seafood salad, shown in 6.  This was followed by mushroom soup – picture 7, and the main course – a steak, shown in picture 8.

The steak course generated some conversation for two reasons: (1) there are two starches on the plate and no vegetable and (2) the pasta was so spicy it overpowered everything else on the plate. Dr. Lim, who is also a graduate of the Cordon Bleu Cooking School of Singapore, talked about these issues with the Chef and students.

Dessert was a piece of cheesecake with a red date sauce top layer and chocolate. See picture 9. Yes, it had a tomato as a garnish – this generated some conversation as well. Following dessert was a fruit plate, shown in Picture 10.  Ending a meal with a fruit plate is classic for summer in China.

I have not been editing the pictures I am using with this blog, except the next one.  I have been intrigued with the stop light system they use in Hangzhou. It is one of the best I have ever seen, anywhere.  So I took a series of pictures as we sat in traffic and combined them into the sequence shown in the next picture showing the stop light sequence.

The stop light system uses arrows pointing each direction.  #1 shows all red: L turn, straight and R turn.  However you can see the number 2 next to the straight-ahead arrow. It is counting down the seconds, and began at 10. When it reaches 0 the light turns green, as in #2.  Next the right turn signal turns green - #3. In #4 you can see both the straight ahead green arrow counting down and the left turn arrow counting down. In #5 the straight ahead and right turn arrows have turned yellow and the left turn is still counting down.  Finally, in #6 the L turn is green and everything else red. This will then sequence back to #1.

This is one of the few intersections that has an arrow for a right turn, you can turn right on a red light in China just like the US, however, you do not have to stop before making the turn. So cars go flying around the corners merging into the traffic.

Claude in Hangzou

Advanced Wine and another dinner

Filed Under: Claude in Hangzou

We are about one-third the way through the Advanced Wine Course.  Teaching a group of Chinese students how to pronounce German and Italian wine terms, when you are instructing in a third language – English – is an interesting experience for everybody. It usually means I lecture for 2 or 3 slides and then Dr. Lim translates it into Mandarin. If it is not too complex then I lecture for longer and Dr. Lim translates key components when we take breaks.

It will be considerably easier on the Chinese students when Dr. Lim has the opportunity to translate everything into Mandarin. He is doing the translation very carefully, because each Chinese character can have 5 or more meanings.  The context of the sentence often determines the meaning of the word.  He is consulting with some Mandarin experts to make sure he is creating an accurate translation because the IWG/HWCC translation may become the standard for China.

Chinese is written with characters, which are known as ?? [??] (hànzi). The characters were originally pictures of people, animals or other things, but over the centuries they have become increasingly stylized and no longer resemble the things they represent. Many characters have been combined with others to create new ones.

There are more than 23,000 actively used Chinese characters, given the multiple meaning of each of these characters; they represent over 120,000 words in Chinese.  This is about as close as any language comes to English – which has a vocabulary of about 200,000 words.  However, most Chinese, like most people that speak English, use a vocabulary of about 1,500 words (or characters).

What do words we know look like in Chinese?  Picture 1 is the list of 5 Grand Cru Chateau of the Médoc and Graves from the 1855 (and 1973 update) Classification listed in Chinese. Can you guess which is which?

Almost every restaurant we went into had a menu that showed pictures of each dish, or certainly the ‘specialty’ dishes of the house.  I took some photographs of the menu at this restaurant and a sample of them is shown in pictures 2, 3 and 4.

Dr. Lim picked the following dishes for dinner:

(1) fresh cucumber in vinegar and sesame oil (picture 5);
(2) pickled mustard plant (picture 6);
(3) sweet and sour chicken (picture7);
(4) spicy boiled river prawns (picture 8);
(5) steamed Gui (pronounced ‘Jui’) fish soup, with fish heart and liver, pork and vegetables in a fish and soy stock (picture 9); and
(6) steamed spinach with diced ham, garlic, duck egg, and with diced ‘ancient’ (duck) egg (picture 10).

Although all of the diners might confer, it is not unusual for just one member of a party to order for the entire group.  This makes sense when you consider the fact that all dishes are eaten communally.  With the possible exception of rice, no one orders a dish that only they will be eating.  Everything is eaten communally.

Fresh cucumber in vinegar and sesame oil is a classic cold appetizer. Light and refreshing, it has a very light touch of sesame oil to offset the vinegar. In the US I have seen this dish usually sliced across the cucumber so the pieces are round and the skin is not removed. I could not find out if this preparation or the preparation I am more familiar with is the most common here in China, both fabrication techniques seem to be used. The dish is shown in picture 5.

Pickled mustard plant, shown in picture 6, was the second appetizer dish. It was a nice combination of vinegar from the pickling and slightly spicy from the natural flavor of the mustard plant. This was also a cold dish, very crunchy as well.

The black and red can in the background of this picture was ‘herbal tea.’  Although it had a hint of licorice it was basically a can of sweet green tea – apparently sugar is considered an ‘herb’ in China.  It was chilled and a nice shift from all of the hot green tea we had been drinking.

Although these two dishes were ‘appetizers’ that does not mean they were served first.  Chinese food is served as it is cooked, so the dishes come out in no particular order.  Your table might get a couple of dishes, then dishes go to other tables, and then a couple of more for your table.  This continues until all the dishes you have order have arrived.  They all might be brought to the table within 5 minutes, or it might take up to 30 minutes, or more.

A copy of your order is left on the table and the food runners check off each dish when they bring it to the table.  Customers will check the order sheet to see what dishes are still to come.

Rice is traditionally served last, if it is ordered at all.  Of course, everybody in a group begins eating as soon as the first dish arrives.  Taking bites from each new dish as they are brought to the table and are still hot (or cold).

Sweet and sour chicken, picture 7, is the first main dish I have been served that is also commonly served in the US.  However, the preparation was far more complex that what I have had in the US.  The chicken was cooked twice: first it was baked, then de-boned, and then cut into small pieces, about 1”x1.” Next it was deep fat fried (flash fried really) to create a thin crust on the outside of each piece.  There was no breading.

Each bite was a combination of crunchy and tender textures that created a very nice taste contrast.  The sweet and sour sauce was neither as sweet nor as sour as the same sauce served in the US.  It was also a much darker color.  Probably the best sweet and sour chicken I have ever eaten. I was told that this was a dish that most ‘westerners’ liked – I would agree.

Spicy boiled river prawns with scallions was a dish we have had variations of in previous meals I have written about.  See picture 8. Slightly spicy you eat the sweet flavored prawns as I have discussed in previous blogs: bite the head off, bite the legs off (if you don’t want to eat them) and then suck the meat out of the remaining shell.  Each diner creating a pile of shells and heads on their plate or the table in front of them as they consume bites of prawn.

The specialty of this restaurant is the steamed Gui fish soup, with fish heart and liver, pork and vegetables in a fish and soy stock.  Our dish is shown in picture 9, the dish is also pictured at the top of the page of the menu shown in picture 2.

At least one soup dish is served with most dinners; sometimes 2 or 3 are part of the same meal. It really depends upon the specialty of the restaurant and what you want to eat. However, every meal I have had included a soup bowl as part of the customer’s set-up whether you are going to eat a soup or not.  This is because the soup bowl actually has several purposes, it can be used for rice or soup, a place to rest large bites from serving dishes if you do not have a plate; even a place to put bones and other bits you spit out while you are dining.

Each person can ladle their own soup or the ‘host’ (or hostess) can ladle the soup for each diner – actually serving each diner.  This allows the host to parcel out the ‘best’ pieces to the special guest.  Which explains how I ended up with the heart and a piece of fish liver as the ‘special guest.’ It would be easy as an American to assume that they were giving me the pieces they didn’t want to eat but this is not the case.

Long before we arrived at the restaurant, Dr. Lim had talked about this dish, and what were the best pieces to eat.  It is a big mistake, traveling anywhere in the world, to assume that how your culture views eating specific items is the same as how other cultures view it.

In a fish dish like this one, the fish is served whole; you can see the head and tail in the picture. If the head has been larger it would have been removed because it is often served as a separate dish.  Fish head dishes are a specialty of Hangzhou and can be very expensive.

This is a freshwater fish, very mild, with fairly firm texture and a slightly sweet taste.  One of the reasons this is a popular dish is because the Gui fish does not have many small bones. Picking out small bones from a piece of fish is as difficult as it sounds when you are using chopsticks to pick out the bones.

To remove bones you would place a bite of fish in your soupspoon and tug on the bones with your chopsticks.  When you removed a bone you would place it on your plate (or the table in a less fancy restaurant). After removing the bones you would eat the bite directly from the spoon.  Then you could scoop another piece of fish out of your soup bowl with the spoon and repeat the process. 

If you see a particularly nice looking bite in the serving bowl you could use your chopsticks to grab it instead of taking a bite out of your soup bowl.  You did not have to wait for your soup bowl to be empty to get more from the serving bowl.

If you had a really big piece of fish or a piece with large bones you would place the piece on your plate, pin it down with the spoon in your left hand, and pull the bones out with your chopsticks. Since the piece of fish is not in the soupspoon if you perform this procedure you would pick up small pieces of fish with your chopsticks to eat rather than put them in your soupspoon.  Chinese eating etiquette is much more complex than I had imagined or previously learned back in the States.

The fish heart is about the size of the first joint of your thumb and tastes like a piece of muscle – which it is.  Actually, very little taste but considered a ‘special’ piece because there is only one heart in the entire dish.  Liver is liver, and fish liver can be a strong flavor; in this case a little overcooked because it had been in the pot a long time.

The last dish, shown in picture 10 was the steamed spinach with diced ham, garlic, duck egg, and diced ‘ancient’ (duck) eggs.

This was a very light dish compared to some of the other ones served in this dinner.  The base was a vegetable stock, with a little bit of pork stock added, making it slightly salty.  The spinach was steamed to just the right temperature and the pork pieces made an interesting color contrast compared to the spinach.  The white pieces in the picture are either garlic or pieces of duck egg.  The ‘ancient’ egg is difficult to pick out – they were dark gray to black in color.

The stock/sauce with this dish was light enough that you could easily taste each component of the dish. 

To eat this dish you pick up the 3”-4” long pieces of spinach with your chopsticks and eat them (in one bite if possible) then pick up individual pieces of pork, garlic, egg and ancient egg to add to your mouth while chewing the spinach.

At the end of a meal it is customary to leave a few bites on your plate (or in a bowl). To ‘clean your plate’ implies you did not get enough to eat and the host will then feel obliged to order another dish or two so as not to lose face with the guest. Always leave a few bites on your plate - even if there is food still in the serving bowls and dishes.

The Chateau answer:(a) Margaux, (b) Lafite, (c) Latour, (d) Mouton, (e) Haut-Brion.

Claude in Hangzou

Hangzou - day 4 - I think

Filed Under: Claude in Hangzou

Today we started the Certification Seminar. It went well given the Chinese tradition of a 9 to 6 workday, with a break EXACTLY at noon for lunch. Allowing for some translation along the way, I finished at 6!! (Honest-right on time.)

Students are enjoying and are impressed with the well-developed program of the Guild.  There English is better than I expected. However, the approach we are using is for me to present an entire lecture (for example, the piece on the Loire Valley and Burgundy) then we take a 10 minute break to see if there are questions - which Dr. Lim then answers in Chinese, conferring with me to make sure he is correct.

We added a short lecture on Chinese wine to the seminar to make it better recognize the fact that we are teaching in China.

The lunch on day one is 'Chef's choice' just as it is in the US.  We all had Chinese 'take-away.' All of the lunches were the same: stir-fried green beans, steamed spinach, spicy squash, white rice and chicken.  The chicken was steamed chicken feet - everybody got 4 feet for lunch.

Lets talk about Chinese farms. Sherrie is writing a blog on the Guild's organic garden, so I though it would be fun to talk about farming in modern China.

Looking out my hotel room, if it is not raining, smoggy (really bad) or so much humidity that it appears foggy (well, foggy and smoggy), you can see some ‘classic’ Chinese farms – right in the City, right next to the hotel.

According to the people I am working with here in China, traditionally, Chinese farms tend to be fairly small with several families from the same clan working the land together.

Today, (more or less post-1990) farmers no longer live on the farm; they live in apartments or townhouses and ‘commute’ to work on a bicycle, electric motorbike (it's like watching motor scooters in Italy), or car. Most plots are still small and follow the row or the contour/mound method of planting.  The first picture (from my hotel room window) shows row planting.

You can see that there are several different crops in one small block of land. The buildings in the photo are traditional farmhouses where the first floor was used for storage and animals and the second (and third) floors were living space. Each one of these ‘houses’ would have been for two or three families. Chinese farms have been constructed this way for hundreds of years. 

During the Middle Ages, in Europe, farmhouses were also constructed with animals living on the ground floor and people on the upper floors.

The second picture shows contour farming, or mound farming. In this case the crops follow the contours of the mound.  It was unclear whether the mound was natural or man-made.  I would suspect man-made because the city is in a broad alluvial plain surrounding a large river. Such small mounds would not be normal - which raises the question: where did the dirt come from to make the mound? And, how long ago were the mounds made?  I was told, possibly centuries ago.)
The third picture shows new apartments being constructed directly behind the farms. These could be housing for the local farmers as well as workers in the City.

Since the 1990’s as the city has expanded*, dramatically, and farmland has been purchased for new urban development the farmers must be compensated in cash and a new house for each member of the family.  So, if you were a family of 3, the legal maximum in modern China (one child per family), then you would be given cash plus a new house for each member of the family – so three houses (apartments/condos) for a family of 3! This is what is done even if one family member is only one year old.

Often the unused houses are rented out – making the modern ‘retired’ Chinese farmer very wealthy.

*Hangzhou has DOUBLED in size since 1990; from about 3 million to 6.5 million people!  By comparison, Denver is one of the fastest growing urban areas in the US by maintaining a growth rate of 100,000 per decade for over 2 decades.  Think what it would be like to live in Denver, or any US city, if it doubled in size in 20 years. (Denver metro growing from, say, 3.5 to 7 million in 20 years - larger than Chicago.)

Claude in Hangzou

Subject: Day 2 of Cert Seminar - Song Dynasty Opera - Part 1

Filed Under: Claude in Hangzou

We have just completed the Certification Seminar – everyone passed the exam. So we have 5 new Guild members and our first graduating class in China! Guild Certification Seminar number 145.

The class average was a 95% on the test. Everybody studied quite hard during the evening between day one and day two to prepare themselves for the test.

The wine and food pairing lunch on the second day consisted of several Chinese dishes, including smoked duck, ham, fish, and beef, as well as cheeses and other foods.  Sorry, I forgot to take a picture of the plates.

Per their request, I added a brief demonstration of basic sommelier service to the agenda on the afternoon of the second day of the Seminar so they could begin practicing.

I will include a picture of the graduating class in a later blog after I get a copy for Dr. Lim.

After the seminar was completed Dr. Lim, Jane Soon and I went to the Hangzhou Song Dynasty Cultural Center to see the Song Dynasty Opera.  The Center was a cross between going to Disneyland and a carnival.

The Song Dynasty existed between, roughly, 970 AD and 1270 AD.  During that period the capital of China was Hangzhou.  The Song Dynasty Cultural Center was a replica of a few buildings of the Royal Court of the Song Dynasty. 

It was during that period that the West Lake was constructed – it is a man-made lake and very famous throughout Asia. Actually, there is not a travel book you can buy on China that does not mention the West Lake – it is almost as famous as the Great Wall of China. About the time it was being constructed, Marco Polo was ‘governor’ of the city of Hangzhou.

Tomorrow is my day off and they are taking me to the West Lake as well as the Hangzhou silk market.

The opera consisted of several vignettes of myth and history about the Song Dynasty or and the City of Hangzhou.   It has been favorably compared to a great Vegas show, or even a Paris show.  It was very much like a Vegas show – except in Vegas the costumes would have been considerably more skimpy.

The music and songs were a combination of traditional and modern Chinese, while the staging was truly amazing. I was quite surprised to discover they allowed the audience to take pictures during the show so I took more than 50 pictures with my iPhone, it did a better job than my digital camera.

Picture 1: an example of one of a series of several vignettes of court life during the Song Dynasty.  The Emperor is seated at the center of the back of the stage while dancers from all countries paying tribute to the Emperor perform. In this picture the dancers represented Thailand. Dances representing 3 or 4 different countries were represented in a non-stop series of vignettes with changing music and costumes.

Pictures 2 through 6: This vignette was the longest and represented the war that brought to an end the Song Dynasty. In picture 2 cannons rose out of the left and right hand side of the stage to lay siege to the palace – firing blanks, but making a great deal of noise. As you can see they came up out of a stage pit quite close to the audience.  (We had second row seats – so had a great view.)
Picture 3: The battle rages, a little blurry but real horses are being ridden across the back of the stage in front of the backdrop of a burning palace, while the prince and his elite guard try to protect the palace.

Picture 4: The prince and all of his guard are killed in battle. The prince is at the front of the stage, on his knees, having been shot by an arrow.  To simulate this, arrows were shot from above the stage into the pad you can see at the very front of the stage.  The actors with the lanterns, who were basically invisible (the eye could not see them – the iPhone could pick out individuals better than you could see them) were weaving lanterns of light moving back and forth across the stage represented ‘Chinese angles?’ to take the Prince and all his troops to purgatory.

Please remember I am getting this story as it is being translated in very brief bits during the show – so what is told me may not be exactly correct in terms of correctly explaining the myths.

The Prince wants to go back to earth to be with his new bride and must go through several Chinese hells to get there.

Picture 5 shows the ‘cold hell’, where it is snowing on stage. This scene occurred not more than 15 seconds after the scene in picture 4.  A very brief black-out (maybe 5 seconds) and they were standing, or rising up off the stage where they had laid dead, in a driving snow. The Prince is the one already standing.

Picture 6 shows the final meeting of the Prince with the ‘Chinese devil’, the devil is on the raised platform – the prince is the actor directly to the left of the Devil with his arm outstretched (right next to the edge of the cape of the devil).  Alas, the prince does not meet all of the requirements to return to earth – the devil wins. Apparently a classic sad Chinese ending to the story.

Picture 7 is the next scene, 30 seconds or so after the Devil sinking slowly back down below the stage. Another 5-10 second black-out and the stage now represent the West Lake – with the front half of the stage converted to a pool of water.  It was also raining on the pool of water, representing spring on West Lake. 

The dancers with the bright green parasols represent the lotus plants – with the parasols representing the leaves of the lotus. The lotus is the official flower of Hangzhou. The backdrop shows West Lake with overhanging willow trees.  The pink flowers are lotus blossoms.

Picture 8 shows the key scene of the myth of the white snake that lives in West Lake.  In this picture the white snake, in the form of a beautiful lady, and her best friend, the green snake – also a beautiful lady in the myth, have a chance meeting with a prince (it’s always a prince in these stories) on the famous Broken Bridge, which spans a small part of West Lake.

However, the love is not to be, and in the myth the white snake is captured and held under a Buddhist Pagoda – where (according to the myth) she is still held.  The Pagoda is on the shore of the West Lake – it was built about 980 AD.

The Prince and the White Snake were each standing on half of a bridge. The two halves moved towards each other to center stage to form the complete bridge – the symbolism told everyone in the audience (except me – of course they had to explain it to me as I was not familiar with this myth) that they were standing on the ‘Broken Bridge.’ It was very clever staging.

The Broken Bridge is so named because in the winter time, when it snows in Hangzhou, the top of the bridge gets covered in snow to a depth that you cannot see the top of the bridge, making the two ends touching shore to no longer be connected to each other or ‘broken.’ The bridge is also 1000 years old, however, it has been updated so many times that it now carries cars, bikes and electric scooters across it.


Pictures 9 and 10. These two photographs also represent very important scenes in the seasonal cycle in Hangzhou.  Slide 9 represents the workers picking green tea.  The green tea from the City of Hangzhou is considered the best in China.  Only about 2% of it actually grows in the City today, but that 2%, per ounce, is more expensive than an ounce of gold.

Slide 10 shows dancers dressed as lotus blossoms. Again, the lotus is the official flower of Hangzhou.  At the first ‘traditional’ meal I was served, a couple of days ago, we had glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaf – the leaves are 2-3’ across.  Really big.

It really was a terrific stage show.

Claude in Hangzou

Subject: Cert - Day 1 dinner

Filed Under: Claude in Hangzou

Going to dinner – June 30, I am already loosing track of the days of the week now that classes have begun. Also the fact that Hangzhou is 14 hours ahead of Denver time means it is tomorrow in China when you get my emails.

This was the end of the first day of the Certification Seminar. We went to a restaurant specializing in seafood.

As you walk in the door they have on display all of the fresh seafood, had this been an ‘up-scale’ restaurant all of the seafood would have been in tanks – still alive and you would have pointed to the food you wanted to eat and they would catch it for you.  At the restaurant we went to it was fresh, within 120 minutes of the ocean or river. With ‘fresh’ fish arriving hourly.

Fresh ingredients are a hallmark of Chinese food – at every level, in every restaurant. I don’t know about street vendors (I have also been advised to be cautious about streat food vendors in China).

Food cost is subsidized in China.  I can remember visiting Moscow in 1990, when it was still the USSR, and eating a 5 course meal for $2 per person.  Although I would say the quality of food in the USSR then, was not good (actually, it was horrible), the quality of the food in China has been excellent.

If you look at the photo of the menu, the price of each dish is along the bottom (for example, 18 or 20 yuan). The yuan is worth 0.147 US dollars, so a 20-yuan dish, which will easily feed 2 or 3 people, costs $2.94. A large steamed crab (6 to 7” across) for $2.94! So a seven-dish meal, which is common, is $20.58. Tipping is optional and rare (meaning - not recommended).

I had originally though they were ordering all those dishes because I was there, then, as I began looking around the restaurants in which we were dining, I saw that every table had 5 to 7, or more dishes.  Even the tables with 1 or 2 people!

Also, nobody takes the leftovers home.  No doggy bags because many people do not have any place to store or cook the food.

Green tea is often served, upon request. It is a specialty of Zhejiang Province (Hangzhou is the Capital). There are at least 20 different kinds available in the City. The very best, grown only in a small district of the City costs more than gold – per ounce.  Of course an ounce of tea would be enough to last several months, still, $2000 an ounce is rather expensive tea.

Beer is the next most common beverage in the ‘everyday’ restaurant.  Chinese beer is different: it is very light, does not produce much of a head, and is 1 to 2% alcohol.  That’s right – 1 to 2%; it is lighter in alcohol than the lightest American beer.  People order an entire case (12 bottles), per person for dinner!  It often comes in a 576 ml bottle.  I have no idea why such an unusual bottle size – my guess is that this matches an older Chinese measurement when converted to the metric system. I will have to ask. A case of beer may be as cheap as $2.00US (roughly, 14 yuan).

Restaurants are not very large, the largest I have been in, so far, would seat 50 people, maybe 60; many only seat 20 to 30. However as we travel around the city I can see 5, 6, or more, restaurants on every block, in every direction. There are, literally, tens of thousands of restaurants in the city.

Most people do not cook, many are working in Hangzhou and are ‘visiting workers’ who must ether become a resident of the city or go back home after a specific time frame.  So, many, but not all, often go out to eat for every meal, every day.

Service is very fast and very efficient, the food often beating the customer to their table. Dinner is served from 4 to 10 or 11 at night, every night (although it is a ‘late dinner’ after 8 or 9 pm in most restaurants).  A small restaurant will often serve 200+ people a day, every day.

They would not let me take photographs in the restaurant – so I will describe the meal and refer back to the photos of the main ingredients.

Our meal consisted of the following dishes: (1) three styles of steamed oysters – one with garlic sauce, one with pepper sauce and one with spicy sauce; (2) steamed white fish in a salt and fish stock sauce (the sauce was simulating sea water); (3) mussels in a steamed egg custard, (4) stir-fried ‘spitting’ fish, (5) stir-fried white fish (they looked like country fries), (6) stir-fried roe sack (with roe inside); (7) steamed octopus and (8) wheat noodles with seafood.

This was a very light meal, with many steamed dishes.  Nowhere near as heavy, rich or spicy as the two dinners preceding it.  A nice shift.

The spitting fish, that was stir-fried (dish #4, above), is shown in the menu items #1, it is in the top row of fish in the picture, the third from the left: the long, thin fish with the extended and pointed mouth.  They spit water at insects to make them fall in the water so they can eat them.

The white fish that was also stir-fried (dish #5, above) is immediately to the right of the ‘spitting’ fish.

The head  of the ‘spitting’ fish is entirely cartilage, so when the dish arrives at the table the insides of the head are not present (probably used in a sauce) but the cartilage is still attached.  The fish is cut in half, one half having the head, the other the tail.  The proper way to eat them is to pick up the head half, with you chopsticks, by the back of the piece. Turn the head to face you and bite it off – spit it out on a plate, or the table, and then proceed to eat the rest of the fish (optional – eat bones and all) while you hold it in your chopsticks.  To eat the back half you can eat everything as well, including the tail.  If you don’t want to eat the bones, you use a classic Chinese soupspoon to scrape the meat off the bones so you can pick it up the small bits of fish with your chopsticks. 

Learning Chinese dining etiquette is interesting – many dishes have a specific technique you are suppose to use to eat them.  Knowing all of the techniques is a sign of a ‘well-rounded’ and ‘intelligent’ diner.

The roe sack is shown in Menu items #2, it is located in the picture (if you start counting at the upper right-hand corner of the picture) 3 over and 3 down.  The yellow-orange objects in the pan directly below the empty pan.

The complete roe sacks were cut into pieces and stir-fried.  They tasted like a vegetable, like squash, breaded with corn meal and stir-fried.  I was quite surprised.

Claude in Hangzou

Day 3 in Hangzhou

Filed Under: Claude in Hangzou

We completed the first day of classes, pouring wines from France, Germany, Australia and Italy – a good indication of the growing range of wines currently available in China.  

Dr. Lim (the Director), Ms. Soon (the GM of the School) and I went out last night to another restaurant specializing in Hangzhou cuisine – this time spicy cuisine. Also, the restaurant served a unique wine, also developed in Hangzhou.

The wine was slightly effervescent and made from coconut milk – a style of wine that has been produced in both China and India for over 2000 years.  It was slightly sweet and bubbly, was quite popular – judging by the number of patrons drinking it, and made the spicy food even more spicy.

Other Chinese wines, made from European grapes – such as Cabernet Sauvignon, were available but not being ordered.  They are still too new to most diners in a traditional restaurant like this one.  Also, the Chinese tradition of serving all dishes at once, not in any order, makes the European concept of wine and food pairing very difficult.  

This may change over time or new concepts of wine and food pairing will be developed.

They took our order as soon as we arrived, even before we had a table.  By the time we sat down at a table our food was already being placed on the table.  Of course, following the Chinese tradition the food arrived as the Chef produced the dishes and since there is no first or last course, like European or American dining, we began eating as it arrived and was still hot – thermally as well as being spicy. The dinner was as good as the previous night and quite different.  Most of the dishes served were fairly spicy, but not to a point that the spices masked the flavors of the food.

Since it was quite warm outside (37C – 99F) and 100% relative humidity, the spicy food helped keep us cool.

The dishes included pickled jellyfish, freshwater prawns in a spicy tomato paste.  Crayfish and peanuts in a sauce made from five spices, a mixed dish of mushrooms, pork, chicken and beef.  Also, pickled cucumbers in garlic and vinegar, rice starch and vegetable soup, eggplant and pork in a spice and green onion sauce.  The last dish served was peanuts roasted in spices.

The crayfish dish and the prawn dish were specialties of the restaurant and very good.  The crayfish dish is shown in the picture. You eat them using your fingers, not chopsticks.  It is the only dish which you completely consume before going on to another dish because you need to wash your hands before continuing.  

Of course the normal way to eat a Chinese meal is to take small bites from each dish, not eat them one at a time. You do this with your chopsticks, portions are not ‘plated’ for each guest.  So you take a bite from a bowl, rest it on top of your bowl of rice and then eat that bite. Take another bite from another platter or serving dish and repeat the process. It is actually a very efficient way to eat.

Did I mention that the prawns were still alive when they were brought to the table.  The color of the spicy tomato paste sauce was exactly the same color as their shells and you had to hunt for them with your chopsticks as they swam (literally) around in the sauce.  Learning how to eat them reminded me of visiting New Orleans – “bite the head off, and suck out what’s inside” with the added skill of using your chopsticks to pinch the meat out of the shell.

The Jellyfish was amazingly crunchy – not gelatinous as you might expect.  

Also, the trick to eating a smoked duck tongue – it seems that a duck’s tongue has a bone running through the middle, and you scrape the meat off the bone kind of like how you eat artichoke leaves, by scraping the artichoke off the leaf with your teeth.  Only in this case you are holding the back of the tongue with your chopsticks while scraping the meat off with your teeth.  Tastes a lot like slightly salty, smoked ham.

Claude in Hangzou

Day 2 in Hangzhou

Filed Under: Claude in Hangzou

Arrived in Shanghai at 5:00 pm on Sunday evening – in a driving rain (it is the rainy season).  The actual flight time was 12 hours – San Francisco to Shanghai. However, you go through 14 time zones and the international date line – so you arrive the day after you leave: left San Francisco at 1:45 pm Saturday, arrive Shanghai at 5:00 pm Sunday.

Monday we set up the classroom and went over schedules and wine, and they took me out to a traditional Hangzhou dinner that night with dishes all created in an around the city of Hangzhou.

The menu, from front to back was: (platter – front and center) crispy tofu ‘skins’ with a sweet and sour sauce – a sheet of tofu ‘dough’ rolled and stir fried, (bowl to left of platter) pork dumplings, mushrooms and greens in a light vegetable stock, (bowl at top of tofu platter) hot and sour soup, (plate with greens to right of hot and sour soup) cilantro and pickled fish skin salad, (platter above the cilantro and fish skin salad) Beggar’s chicken – chicken baked in lotus leaves, (large bowl to left of Beggar’s Chicken) the ‘most famous’ dish of Hangzhou – Emperor’s Fish (fish head soup with greens in a bean paste sauce) and (bowl above Beggar’s Chicken and Emperor’s Fish) braised eels in a brown sauce.  The two partially obscured small bowls (one directly behind the dumpling and mushroom soup, the other directly behind the Emperor’s Fish) are the cold salads: young bamboo shoots and bean shoots.  Not pictured was a classic dish of smoked and baked pork belly.

All of the dishes were excellent, I particularly liked the eels.  I even survived eating only using chop sticks.

The story I was told behind Emperor’s Chicken – the Emperor was traveling through the countryside and became hungry. So he stopped at a peasant’s hut and asked for some of whatever they were eating for dinner.  The only thing they had was a fish head – so they ‘created’ a dish with fish head and greens in a fermented bean past stock.  The Emperor so enjoyed the dish that he named it ‘Emperor’s Fish.’ The peasants became famous and started a restaurant, the restaurant I had dinner in is on the site of the original restaurant started by the peasants.  This occurred about 500 years ago.

The restaurant is located in the heart of ‘old’ Hangzhou.

On my arrival Sunday night, we had a ‘quick’ Chinese meal, which included several dishs, one of which was smoked duck tongues – another local specialty.  I discovered there here is a trick to eating a duck tongue.

More later.

Claude in Hangzou

Why Merlot is Still a Big Deal

Filed Under: Wine

Although Merlot is a varietal that many people believe they should not like, a new study by Nielsen and commissioned by Blackstone Winery found that Merlot "has the single largest consumer base of any varietal wine in the U.S. and, of the major wine varietals, is the one most closely associated with high quality at an affordable price."

Many believe that Merlot took a big hit from Sideways, while Pinot Noir benefited. This is untrue. It is true that Pinot Noir sales increased by about 48% - and stayed up. Merlot sales actually increased by about 5% and stayed up.

Maybe the Merlot drinkers never got the word that they were not suppose to drink Merlot. Forty-five percent of participants in Nielsen's survey of Merlot drinkers never saw the movie, and 93% of those that saw the movie say it had no effect on their opinion of Merlot. Since Sideways, Merlot dollar sales and volume have grown steadily and the number of US households purchasing Merlot more than doubles those purchasing Pinot Noir. Of course, Pinot Noir sales have never been higher than 9% of total red wine sales.

More American households purchase Merlot than any other wine variety, red or white. The varietal is reportedly enjoyed for its taste, value and approachability, and also has the highest repeat purchase rate of any wine variety in the U.S.

A majority of 90% of respondents say "taste" is the most important factor in their wine-buying decisions, with "good value" ranking second. Not surprisingly, 80% of respondents consider Merlot "a good everyday food wine," while roughly 70% find Merlot to be "a good value" (rising to "great" when priced under $12 per bottle), "a good wine to drink at home," and "approachable and reliable."


Cellar Management Ideas

Filed Under: Wine Cellar Tips

In many markets around the US a wine cellar is becoming a standard feature in new houses. For example, in the Denver metro area a house priced at about $450,000 or higher usually has a wine cellar; condos have cellars as well. This trend has been observed all over the country.

One of the first issues that confronts people who have a wine cellar in their house is learning how to buy wine for a cellar.

It seems like it should be easy, but in reality buying for a cellar takes planning and forethought. Here are a few simple guidelines:


Always taste before buying - Buy one bottle, taste it, and then make a decision to purchase more. Also keep in mind that you do not have to purchase a case of everything.

If your cellar is not large (say, less than 500 bottles) then purchasing 12-bottle cases of wine means you can have about 40 different wines in the cellar. This may sound like a lot, but if you purchase 3, 4 or 6 bottles it means you could have 80 to 100 different wines, or more, in the cellar.

As you get use to having wine in a cellar and begin to drink wine with dinner on a regular basis then having a wider range of options becomes appealing and less limiting when choosing a wine to go with dinner. Besides, the more wine you have in a cellar the less often you drink a particular producer - the worse thing that can happen is that it goes bad before you have a chance to drink it.

Keep costs in perspective - Cellars are not just for "expensive" wines. It is also a place to store the wines you drink every day. Therefore, learn to shop for values in all price groups.

Try and figure out what is a good value for the quality of the wine, regardless of the cost. Along with this, try and drink wine when it is ready to drink. Most wine should be consumed within 5 years of the vintage, but there are always wines with a longer life.

The rule-of-thumb we teach in our classes is called the "95% rule": 95% of the world's wines should be consumed within 5 years of being produced, of the remaining 5%. at least 95% of them should be consumed within 10 years of the vintage. This means that only about ¼ of 1 percent of the worlds wine has longer than a 10-year life.

Most wines with a long life are undrinkable on release, so if you can purchase a current release and take it home for dinner that night it probable does not have a really long life.

Be aware of your consumption patterns - We recommend keeping a log or diary of your consumption patterns for at least 3 to 6 months before beginning to stock a cellar. You might be surprised at how much, or how little, you actually consume. Keep in mind that if you entertain a great deal, especially for dinner, and enjoy having wine almost every night, then you are a great candidate for a cellar anyway.

Expand your palate - having a cellar usually expands your palate because you have more opportunity to have wine to drink every day. (Which, by the way, is very good for your health - one or two glasses of wine a day.) Therefore, it is not a good idea to complete fill up your cellar when you initially stock it because the more you drink the more your palate expands and changes.

Always leave room in the cellar for new wines or wines you have just "discovered." A good idea is to keep 10-20% of the available cellar storage free. You never know what new wine will become available or if you will "discover" white Burgundies after drinking nothing but California Chardonnay.

These guidelines were taken from a lecture on cellar design and management given in our Advanced Wine Course. We also offer a cellar design and management one-night class for the general public.

Wine Cellar Tips

Matthew Reid Testimonial: Executive Chef at Victoria Country Club


I wanted to thank you immensely for an inspiring and perception altering class experience. I am looking forward to the possibility of the August Level Two class so much so, that I can hardly contain my enthusiasm. You and your wife did an outstanding job from beginning to end. I think the most humbling part about the class as a whole was, I can never approach a wine dinner the same.

Your mission with me was a success and I cannot stop thinking about all the new skills I can now employ to better my experiences, as well as my customers. You have a top notch organization and team. I look forward to your continued success and also to more wine education from you & your staff. Thank you very much.
Matthew Reid
Executive Chef
Victoria Country Club

IWG Events


Food and Wine Pairing

More Questions? Visit our Frequently Asked Questions page.


Put an International Wine Guild Badge on Your Website!

Sommelier Courses and Wine Classes from the International Wine Guild Wine School

The International Wine Guild Wine School

Copy the code below and paste into your website or blog:

Sommelier Courses and Wine Classes from the International Wine Guild Wine School

The International Wine Guild Wine School

Copy the code below and paste into your website or blog:


Customer Feedback