Where To Buy Your Lapsang Souchong

It’s clearly a dilemma but one that I’ve been determined to solve as I have a love affair with the smokey, ethereal flavour and taste of Lapsang Souchong, the fabled tea from China.It’s name is derived from the Mandarin and means literally “sub variety from Lapu Mountain”.

It’s a black tea that came originally from the Wuyi region of the Chinese province of Fujian. Lapsang is distinct from all varieties of tea because the lapsang leaves are traditionally smoke-dried over pinewood fires that give it its distinctive smoky flavour.

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Smoky teas were first developed in Chongan County in the 17th century. The Chinese smoke their tea in artisanal fashion. After oxidation, Souchong leaves are grilled on a hot iron plate, then arranged on bamboo racks over a fire fuelled by green pine logs that give off their scent. Smoky teas are known for their substantial character

Lapsang from Wuyi is increasingly expensive as it’s a small area and there is an increasing demand for the variety of tea.

But back to my original question. Where best to buy it from? In my view there is only one supplier of tea that I trust to whet my appetite for the very finest and utterly reliably sourced teas: Mariage Frères-the French gourmet tea company based in Paris, France.

Founded by the two eponymous brothers-Henri and Edouard-in 1854 and for over 130 years managed by a succession of Mariage family members this is the High Temple of Tea.

In 1983 the company was transformed from a wholesale importer into a retailer. Now under the leadership of Kitti Cha Sangmanee and Richard Bueno, Mariage Frères opened tea houses in central Paris. The first such tea salon was on the rue du Bourg-Tibourg and opened in the same building that Henri Mariage had as his office over 150 years ago.

Today, the company has  thirty Mariage Frères outlets in France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan. There are also 4 Mariage Frères tea salons in Paris.The MF brand is also distributed through resellers in over 60 countries and served in famous hotels in Paris and London.

To my mind there is no substitute for Mariage Frères’ LAPSANG SOUCHONG IMPÉRIAL about which they have this to say:

“The most refined of smoky teas–its long, uniformly handsome leaves are carefully smoked over rare wood in a traditional manner. A rich yet subtle tea for daytime”.

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Never have truer words been spoken. Order some today.

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Why Is The Best Alligator Leather So Expensive?

This is a question I’m often asked and it’s always difficult to give a simple answer. As usual I turn to the expert in these matters, namely Tim de Rosen from Bianca Mosca that makes probably the best alligator bags and accessories in the market.

Selection

The first criterion is selecting appropriate skins from the tannery. This has become extremely challenging of late as the demand for prime grade unblemished skins has soared on demand from the major fashion houses who are increasing the proportion of exotic skins used in their high fashion collections.

In order to counter this problem groups such as LVMH and Hermes have bought their own tanneries in order to “lock in” the best availability of skins.

As a result the prices of larger and perfect skins (i.e. more than 30cm in width) is increasing by 10% a year, piling the pressure on retail prices. Of course it’s possible to buy products made from the skins rejected by the major players but they will never be as appealing or tactile as those made from prime skins.

Dyeing and Processing

This is the most critical aspect of turning the tanned “crust” into a useable skin for making finished items.

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“Skins are solid dyed, before a pigment-based surface treatment is applied to highlight the beauty of the material. Working on skins involves an alchemy that evolves constantly thanks to the innovations introduced by the Manufacture. This total control of production makes it possible to meet requests for customised items” says de Rosen of Bianca Mosca.

Quality control systems involve numerous laboratory tests on products to check their resistance to rubbing, UV rays, pulling and twisting, as well as their hypoallergenic qualities. All of this adds to the expense of producing the best products.

Manufacturing

Making products from alligator is a time consuming and labor intensive activity. It takes many years of specialised training to attain the required levels of proficiency to make even a seemingly simple article such as a credit card holder.

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Constructing alligator leather products is a very different endeavour than making products from cow leather and special tools and routines need to be employed in order to work the skins effectively and to ensure a fine result.

Bag making is altogether a higher art form and requires not just experience but also sensitivity for form and function as each piece is made over many hours entirely by hand from a paper pattern.

In France and Italy where the best workshops are located salaries and social costs are very high adding a large part to the costs of making these high quality products.

Durability and Longevity

There is no material that compares to Louisiana alligator leather. It has strength, durability and resistance to moisture, heat and light whilst also managing to be extraordinary supple and soft to the touch.

Over time alligator matures as it’s used and acquires a unique patina.

With proper care it should last a lifetime helping to underpin the relatively high price paid at the outset.

 

 

 

It’s All In The Pores

I’ve always wondered about the difference between Louisiana alligator leather and crocodile. Like most people I wrongly assumed they were one and the same. In order to broaden my understanding I decided to call in the expert in the shape of Bianca Mosca Chairman, Tim de Rosen. As you know I’m a huge fan of their superb quality alligator wallets and accessories.

This is what I learned:

By carefully examining the leather in a crocodilian product you can get clear clues as to it’s species. Those products with a large amount of leather are generally easier to identify. Small products such as watch bands are much more difficult to distinguish.

This is especially important since the quality of crocodilian leathers varies greatly by species. Alligators and crocodiles in general are considered to be classic leathers and are in most cases high quality and high price.

Caiman, mainly from South American counties such as Colombia is an inferior product and much cheaper and abundant in the market. Although caiman has its place in the market, mislabeling has become such a problem that the buyer need beware. An example of inferior products is the widely available Nancy Gonzalez brand that is sold in many high end boutiques as crocodile but which is in fact caiman. Many caiman products are marked crocodile or alligator and sold at the high prices of these classic leathers. Alligator is sometimes marked “croc”, and “croc” is occasionally mislabelled alligator.

Some of this is a cultural difference. Americans tend to call all “crocodile” alligator, and Europeans tend to call “alligator” crocodile. Upon close inspection, one will find that some large pieces have mixed leather in them. In the past it was fashionable to make a purse with alligator on one side and crocodile on the other. Today, due to product cost, it is not uncommon to see a purse with alligator or crocodile on the front and back and caiman on the sides with a caiman strap.

Faux designs are getting better and better and are increasingly becoming more difficult to identify. Some faux patterns are made by rolling something over a genuine skin to make the press. The finer details of faux are beyond the scope of this page, but here are tell-tale signs: the creases between the tiles are not deep and the pattern is often very repetitive.

How To Identify Leathers: Alligator Umbilical Scars

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The single most distinguishing feature of alligator leather is the umbilical scar. The alligator is the only crocodilian that has this feature. Designers will often put this section of the leather prominently on their products to make the authenticity of the leather evident. As many as three may be used in making a purse. The umbilical scar is an elongated star shape with a webbing pattern in it. Finding this mark on leather identifies it as genuine alligator.

Pliability

Pliability and durability are what makes the alligator a superior and classic leather. Alligator and crocodile leathers are pliable. Caiman have bony plates in the skin, which dramatically decreases the pliability of the leather. When caiman leather is creased cracks appear between the plates.

Head Bumps

Another way the unpracticed eye can easily distinguish alligator leather is by counting the bumps on the back of the head. At the base of the head crocodilians have a pattern of bumps that is unique to each species.

The alligator has a pattern of 2-2-2 bumps. Caiman have a pattern of 4-4-2, and crocodiles have 4-2.

Belly Scales and Patterns

The belly scales of the alligator and crocodile are smooth and pliable. This smoothness and the homogenous nature of alligator and crocodile skins allows dyes to distibute evenly in the leather. The bony deposits in the caiman skin will not allow dyes to distribute evenly and causes crinkling in the belly scales. If you see splotchy patterns in the dye, then you are looking at caiman.

The alligator has a slightly less even pattern than the crocodile with some irregularities appearing in the scales. As already mentioned the alligator has the umbilical scar and the crocodile does not.

Flank Scales and Patterns

The flanks of the alligator have dense scales of even sizes, while the flanks of the caiman have uneven sizes and spaced scales.

Ultimately, your only guarantee is to buy quality products from a manufacturer that can identify the sourcing of it’s material from US certified farms that comply with all of the regulations set down for the ecological and humane treatment of their stock.

Not all alligator is created equal. Once the skins have been sourced they need to be carefully selected and graded and treated correctly in the tanning and dyeing process to ensure the best results-but that’s another story for a future article.

 

 

 

Top 10 Luxury Gifts For Xmas 2015

With Santa spinning his wheels for his 2015 World Tour our attention turns to what might turn up at the foot of the bed come Xmas Day.

Here are a few modest trinkets that would be most welcome in my stocking this year.

1.Michel Cluizel Dark Chocolate 85%. My favorite chocolate from the famed Parisien chocolatier.

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2. Jacques Selosse “Substance” Champagne. A very unusual and rare Solera-style wine. 97 points WA.

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3. Bianca Mosca wallet in alligator with a goatskin lining. Delectable and butter smooth handmade perfection.

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4. Elie Bleu fountain pen orange sycamore. Part of the fruit wood collection.

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5. Connor NYC stationery. Superlative hand-engraved stationery.

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6. Brora Trilby. In wool and leather. Also in navy.

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7. Thorsun Fan swim trunks. Perfect for New Year in St. Barts

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8. Rose Bespoke Tie. Screen-printed motifs, crests and inscriptions of your choice.

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9. Bresciani cotton socks. Sublime comfort and Italian style.

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10. Derek Rose silk pajamas. Seductive and elegant.

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Lustau. The Best Sherry In The World

That’s what they say but I’m sure Gonzalez Byass and other legendary bodegas might beg to differ. None the less the offerings from Lustau are certainly very fine as I discovered recently.

Bodegas Lustau was founded in 1896 by José Ruiz, a court clerk, who founded his bodega on a small island: Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza. It was a modest beginning.

His son-in-law Emilio Lustau Ortega added his family name and moved the winery to the old neighbourhood of Santiago, in the historic quarter of Jerez de la Frontera. There, in buildings that formed part of the historic Moorish walls of the city, he slowly began to expand his business, still as an “Almacenista”. In 1950, the company began exporting it’s own sherry wines.

In 1988, Lustau took an innovative step by introducing a new bottle design for its wines. The elegant, dark bottle with sloping shoulders is exclusive to the company, distinguishing Lustau from the other Jerez wineries.

In 1990, Emilio Lustau S.A. was acquired by the renowned company, Luis Caballero, producer of liquors and spirits. This gave Lustau important financial support and the opportunity to develop and expand further.

In June 2000, Lustau acquired six 19th c. winemaking buildings in the heart of Jerez, covering a total area of 20,000 m2. These buildings were restored and today they are the company’s primary winemaking facilities.

In 2012, it was the most medalled winery in Spain and the seventh worldwide. Lustau oenologist, Manuel Lozano, has been named Best Fortified Winemaker of the Year seven years in a row by the International Wine Challenge of London and the bodega won a trophy for best Sherry in 2013.

So much for the past. What about the wines of today? I recently purchased three of the more modest wines in the Lustau range for a limited tasting with my colleagues at the Bespoke Dandy. The wines were:

Manzanilla Papirusa:

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An entry level Manzanilla with a dry crisp finish. Excellent as an aperitif with lightly salted almonds. These wines come from old soleras, mostly founded or acquired from 1900 until the 1930s.

A balanced nose with aromas which point to a slightly higher age (as the golden colour already indicates). Walnut husks, chamomile and meaty hints of bacon fat. Candied orange peel. Quite a soft yeastiness. Cashew nuts, almonds and a hint of green banana. Nice but soft and a little restrained.

Easy to find at about €13. 90-92 points.

Palo Cortado Peninsula: 

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Robert Parker – Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate:
“A mind-blowing sherry is the non-vintage Palo Cortado Peninsula Solera Reserva. Like all Lustau sherries except for the East India, it is made from the Palomino varietal. A dry, crisp, full-throttle, intense sherry offering incredibly complex, nutty aromas, it represents a style that falls between the Amontillado and the more oxidized, heavier Oloroso.” (08/12)

Not certain about mind-blowing but this is a very accomplished wine with the finesse and delicacy of an amontillado and the depth of an oloroso. Perfect with cheese or nuts or as a post prandial digestif.

92 points.

Oloroso Don Nuno:

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James Molesworth, Wine Spectator: “Nicely defined, with salted caramel, date and green tea notes leading the way, backed by brisk blood orange and spice cake notes that add length and cut on the finish. Drink now.”

The “Don Nuno” Oloroso is best served as an aperitif with blue or strong-flavored cheeses, or as a digestif with nuts after a meal. It should be served at a cool room temperature. Notes of dried prunes and molasses but finishes dry. Impressive.

91 points.

 

 

 

 

The Best Spaghetti In The World?

I recently had the good fortune to return for dinner at Il luogo di Aimo e Nadia to give it its full name.

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Founded by the eponymous Aimo and Nadia this small restaurant occupies a renovated building deep in the suburbs of Milan around a twenty minute drive from Piazza Reppublica.

The restaurant, one of only three 2-star Michelin establishments in Milan, has an illustrious 50 year track record and although Aimo and his wife are long retired they visit their premises regularly to check that their exalted culinary standards are being properly maintained.

After a pre-prandial glass of Bollinger 2005 (delicious and on song) we proceeded to sample the Italian gastronomic menu. Whilst not quite at the level of my previous visit ten years ago the food was none the less well prepared and lovingly cooked and served.

The highlights were the sublime (and famous) dish of spaghetti with onion that I still cannot quite believe comprises just-spaghetti and onion (period). As on my previous visit I questioned the Maitre d’ about this and he reaffirmed the seemingly simple recipe invented all those years ago by Aimo. The secret is an extremely slow and long cooking time at a very low temperature allowing the onions to caramelise perfectly.

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The second dish that was a standout this time round was the braised beef cheek, again benefitting from a super slow braise to render a gelatinous and deep flavoured finish.

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Although the other dishes were less memorable the evening was highly enjoyable and the accompanying wines were expertly chosen by the sommelier.

Would I return? Yes-I’m looking forward to my next visit in 10 years time to re-sample that wonderful spaghetti!