Finally, some good wine… and it was Burmese

Unsuprisingly, wine on my travels has habitually been a disappointment. At best, it was over-priced, ozzie blockbusters, with a tendancy to have been badly stored and horribly old. At worst, it is home-made rice wine in plastic bottles with tarantualars floating in it. But I havent been here for the wine and have instead finally trained myself to drink the local brew of beer when alcohol is required (!) 

However, when we sat down to a delcious local meal in the hills in Kalaw, a drinks list was produced with ‘Local Myanmar Wine’ offered. Naughtily cynical, I bought a glass of ‘Red Mountain’ muscat and tried it – and was very surprised; it was good. 2 days later we made our way up to the winery to find out more.

The winery sits above Lake Inle, in a stunning location overlooking the generous valley and beautiful lake. The heavy clay soils with limestone underneath were found to be perfect to grow vines on, despite Burma never having had a history of wine production. The current winemaker, Francois Raynal, was originally trained in Bordeaux but had spent time in the New World and Hungary (making Tokaji) before hearding out to Myanmar and working on the neighbouring Aythaya vineyard.

The result is a winemaker with a classical training but an open mind. His Hungarian training has lead to him creating a few barrels of Tokaji for the first time in 2011, which were already tasting great. His Pinot Noir and Shiraz Tempranillo were excellent and his whites – especially a Chardonnay that was still in barrel, was a definite Chablis contender. The wines had clearly benefitted from the cool nights and warm sunny days afforded to them by their position, and were full of flavour and elegance.

Interestingly, the main problem that Francois faces is that the vines continue to grow all year around, as there is no cold season to ‘shut them down.’ He therefore does a harsh pruning in October to ‘reset the vine’ and uses chemicals to stimulate the beginning of the growing season. This is done in a very short space of time (usually a week for 50 odd hectares) as the vines mature very much at the same speed and Fancois is keen that all the grapes of a particular varietal should be harvested together – at the end of Feb / early March. 

Digging around in his underground cellar, you can see bottles of Malbec, Gewurz and other varietals being tested. He makes a point of experimenting: everything is new to Myanmar so it is worth testing more to see what happens.

The wines are popular, and demand is high. If the size of the wine library is anything to go by, very little wine is held back. In fact, Red Mountain are dramatically increasing production and hope to sell the wine beyond Burmese shores where it is currently being snapped up by hotels and any restaurants catering for thirsty tourists (the locals prefer beer and tea.)

It was great to meet Francois and while my enthusiasm for the wines may be a little indulged by the complete absence of drinkable wine over the last 4 months, I can honestly say I loved what he was doing and wish them the greatest of luck. I hope that Burmese wine takes South East Asia by storm.

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Burmese Days

‘Burmese Days’ by George Orwell is one of the most cliche’d reads for tourists – an amusing if slightly alarming story based in British Colonial Burma. Since I was slowly falling out of love with my Kindle, I picked up a photocopied version in the market for 2000 kyat (equivalent of 2 quid; we had to buy them with dollars in the local market in copious 1000 kyat notes as there are no ATMS in Burma) and tucked myself into the first blurry pages over an ice-cold avocado shake. I had been told to look out for these as the local avocados were in season. It wasnt hard to miss them in the markets – they were HUGE, black and very round. In fact, just like a cannon ball but much more tasty.

Avocado shakes were omnipresent – slightly sweetened and incredibly smooth, they are thick but not cloying and the perfect power boost mid afternoon – much better than the Durian shake I tried in the wierdly named ‘Nylon Bar’ Mandalay’s top ‘ice cream and shake’ hang out. Let’s just say that the Jury is still out on this stinky, spiky fruit.

The best avocado experience we had was on the top of a hill after a full mornings hiking around Kalaw. After walking along the terracotta mountain ridge, we arrived at the home/eatery owned by some Nepalese who had a garden full of tea, gerka fruit and orange trees. We sat down, downed endless cans of coke and waited for our much anticipated lunch to arrive. We were eventually treated to quarter of a melon-sized avocado each, some picked cabbage and steaming, home made chappatis. A do-it-yourself wrap, topped off with a squeeze of lime and a tiny scattering of sun-dried chilli, turned out to be the best walking lunch we could have wished for. This was washed down with copious amounts of local tea straight from the rugged plantations below and some home-grown oranges. Pretty good.

Other lunches varied between hand-made noodles with veg (always the safest option if – after a trip to a restaurant loo – we had caught sight of the wood-smoke filled kitchen and wished we hadn’t) and divine steamed fish parcels, rice with coconut or pounded fish and taro or pumpkin custard. Restaurants, per se, are very rare and aimed purely at tourists – since the number of non-Burmese who came into the country last year for business and pleasure, totalled 750,000 (Angkor Wat in Cambodia had 3 mill visitors last year alone, by point of reference) and the ex pat community totals 800, you can see why the restaurant trade is virtually non-existent. The alternative is the Tea Rooms for the mornings (these also serve noodles up to mid-afternoon) and then Beer stations in the evenings, which will serve the local brew with salads and, often, bbq’d meet or curry.

The first night in Rangoon, a lovely expat took us to her local beer station. We took up our plastic chairs on the notoriously dangerous pavement – they are invariably a foot up from the road and have craters in them that could swallow up a fully grown man into the sticky black water running beneath. As we perched, the first dish of pickeled tea leaf salad arrived. This is the national dish, offered as a welcoming gesture to guests and eaten instead of pudding by the Burmese. It varied a lot on our travels  – some was more spicy, some pickled and some rice-filled. The basic ingredients are the tea leaves which are preserved for a couple of months in oil, rice, roast fava beans, peanuts and sesame. The texture is taken very seriously – a mixture of crunch and smooth. Very good if slightly weird.

Avocado salad with tamarind and tomato salad staples. The tomatoes are coated in a peanut and lime dressing (great texture again) and are delicious. All the veg we ate was deliciously fresh and surprisingly familiar – cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, beans and aubergines. Strangely I have not tired of food markets on my travels and I willingly gave up my seat on the bus to one morning to get tucked into a local market in the hills. It was one of my favourite experiences of my trip: all women, chattering and smiling, laughing and joking as they handed over there carefully grown produce. Jew Root was a major player  – which look slightly like bean sprouts and are used in soup, as were shallots and dried beans  / chick peas.

The amazing thing about this particular market – between Kalaw and Nagashwe on Inle Lake – was that all the ladies were wearing their traditional costume – each village being slightly different. Some had black jackets with brightly coloured turbans, others had brightly coloured clothes and matching turbans. The ‘more modern’ used towels and turbans instead of hand-woven material. Being the only non local in the whole, sprawling market was therefore made even more obvious, and I found myself crouching down to their level, observing, trying to resist the urge to go crazy with my camera (I didnt succeed.) I was looked at with genuine wonderment – as if they had never seen a white person, let alone one wearing trousers and wielding a camera.

However, I never felt threatened. On the contrary, I was welcomed by the biggest smiles, and encouraged by most, to take photos. The almost naive, uninhibited smiles of the Burmese are their biggest gift as a nation and I just hope that does not change too fast. Their warm welcome allows visitors a real insight into them as a people and an understanding of how they live; my favourite dialogue in the market was with 2 grannies who were sitting next to each other, both selling strange sticky things. They were as intrigued by me as I was by them and their bounty, so I went over and tried to figure out, with my best acting, what they were selling. The most hilarious exchange ensued, filled with giggles and smiles. They were in fact selling Orchids (with just buds) and my delight in realising this was mistaken for a desire to buy. As I stupidly acted out a backpack to give them the reason I wasnt able to buy, I realised that they thought I was wanting one of their huge wicker baskets, carried with a strap across their forehead. A hopeless but happy exchange which left us all chuckling.

Aside from the endless supply of veg with noodles, tea, doughnuts and pickled tea leaves, we were treated to a tour of a little foodie village on the banks of Inle lake making all sorts of other local delicacies; tamarind flakes (a sweet treat of lots of paper-thin slices of dried tamarind eaten after a meal) gooey knotted sweets made from sugar cane and  jaggery fudge (from palm sugar.) Chickpeas were used in everything from a cold sauce served with doughnuts at breakfast (yuk) to pancake which are deep-fried into poppadum type things, and a type of tofu cube (again deep-fried.) The villagers worked away tirelessly, some smoking the omnipresent local Cerruts, to produce these treats.

I wondered if they were sold locally or further afield. my suspicion is locally, since the infrastructure around the country is still basic, dusty and uncomfortable, to say the least. This is local cuisine at its best…and worth so much more than Orwell’s comment that the ‘filthy monotonous food….(was) almost the worst thing in Burma.’

Breakfast in Burma (or, more officially, Myanmar)

Buddhism is more than a religion, it is a way of life, and it was, undoubtedly, this way of life that makes the Burmese culture such an amazing one. The very recent realities of Burmese culture may have severely threatened this but thankfully, it is was the presence of the thousands of monks in Myanmar – rather than any other force – and warm welcoming smiles that I will remember Myanmar by. 

Before sunrise, you can wander the empty, dusty streets of rural Burma heralded by cockerels. Delicious wood smoke fills the already misty air as each new day starts. Dedicated locals emerge from their homes and calmly set up ‘stations’ along the main thoroughfares, with large pots of steaming rice and other Burmese dishes. At the same time each day, long, straight lines of monks, dressed in dark red, silently emerge – barefoot – out of the darkness. Large lacquer bowls in hand, they calmly file past the rice stations and collect their ‘alms.’ Not a sound is uttered. This is their first meal since midday the day before, and the (quite substantial) contents of their bowls is taken back to the temple, blessed and devoured as a sacred but none-the-less ‘mess’ of foodie donations.

As happy travellers, 3 of us created a routine around this and – I am ashamed to say -were busted by fellow hotel guests as we chased the monks down the road, keen to get the best photo possible. What they didn’t realise was that our reward for our efforts was not just our 100 photos (well almost) but a true Burmese breakfast.

We had shunned the hotel breakfasts on day 2 – a vague attempt at Western delights, the processed white bread packed full of sugar and the orange juice made from tartrazine-tastic concentrate were not cutting the mustard. We decided to ‘go local’ and pottered down to the local tea room, sat on stools which were – no joke – 25cm of the ground and ordered ‘Burmese tea.’

Tea houses are the main morning eating option in Burma and run from morning until mid afternoon, when beer stations then take over. They offer tea, horrible powdered coffee, noodles and doughnuts.. freshly made in front of you, in a large wok. They are delivered, steaming, to your tiny kiddies table on (dirty) plastic plates by very young tea boys who were working in return for lodging. They are nectar. I can’t think how long it is since I have eaten a doughnut, but WOW these were good. Some were plain, some filled with coconut and some more like samosas (there us an unsurprisingly large Indian community here.) We washed the doughnuts down with an equally healthy, little grubby glass of strong tea with condensed milk. If only my detox yogis could have seen me..

The whole ritual was made even better by the people watching. Monks walking in one direction with their alms, people heading to work in the longhis (sarongs) with tiffin boxes in the other. We were part of the gentle bustle which was early morning Myanmar. We watched as betel leaf parcels were rolled (in betel leaves,) carefully placed into the sides of locals’ mouths, chewed until the red stain covered their already black teeth, and spat out, ceremoniously, onto the pavement, leaving a large, red ‘bird splat.’ Nice.

Having got quite used to our 300 chet (30p) routine, we were slightly bemused to be tapped on the shoulder by our female Burmese guide and invited to join her for breakfast at her noodle stall. What about our daily doughnuts? However, I was intrigued and sat down with the locals and let her order. It was only then that it occurred to me that this was what the Burmese women do for breakfast – only the men go for the heathy doughnut / sugar laced tea option. (How had we not noticed that before..?) So there I was, communicating in smiles and greed once again, while I observed this new culinary ritual. My bowl of ‘Shan’ (northern region) noodle soup was totally delicious  – a clear broth with chewy noodles in it (made from glutinous rice flour) sesame seeds, mustard leaves, a spicy peanut dressing and lots of herbs. I restrained from adding pork scratchings to the top although the locals do this to add flavour and texture. I needn’t have bothered with my attempt at health conciousness as I was seduced into a little cheeky doughnut by the others on the way back to the hotel…

Time for some serious hiking in the Burmese hills…