Oh Calcutta!

Apr 15, 2014, 06:00 IST | Malavika Sangghvi

And so finally after two decades we went to Kolkata. We went, ostensibly to attend the “International Vine & Food Experience” curated by the acclaimed Sommelier Keith W Edgar and hosted by the Taj Bengal, but also because having lived in and loved the city when we’d been residents of it many years ago, we were curious to experience Kolkata first hand

And so finally after two decades we went to Kolkata. We went, ostensibly to attend the “International Vine & Food Experience” curated by the acclaimed Sommelier Keith W Edgar and hosted by the Taj Bengal, but also because having lived in and loved the city when we’d been residents of it many years ago, we were curious to experience Kolkata first hand.

Ritu Kumar and Sabyasachi Mukherjee

Had it, as we had been told, truly ‘improved’ beyond recognition, as far as civic amenities went? Would it still retain its ‘most sophisticated city in India’ title in our opinion? And how come it was churning out one brilliant fashion designer after the other (Anamika Khanna, Ritu Kumar and Sabyasachi Mukherjee) before one could finish saying Rosogolla?
It was time to examine the Calcutta chromosome.

Meeting old friends
Just as well then that the next day after we heard Michel Drappier of the legendary house of Drappier Champagne and Vishal Kadakia of Saint Clair Family Estate wines, New Zealand, we excused ourselves from the festival to dine with old Kolkata friends Rakhi and Eetu Sarkar and Naresh and Sunita Kumar at the hotel’s Chambers.

Naresh and Sunita Kumar

All four individuals after all epitomised Kolkata’s refinement elegance and warmth for us. Rakhi, the wife of Calcutta’s pre-eminent publisher Aveek Sarkar had long been one of Kolkata’s most prominent patrons of art, and her gallery CIMA launched in the early nineties had become one of India’s foremost. Ably assisted by her sister Eetu, she had been one of the earlier champions of the soon to be established Kolkata Museum of Modern Art.

The Kumars are easily the city’s most elegant couples, were also art and culture aficionados, conversant with the best in the world and had been close friends and confidantes of Mother Theresa, Tata titan Rusi Modi and MF Husain.

We lunched on an asparagus soup delicately flavoured with roasted pine nuts, a truffle risotto and an excellent basa fish as we spoke of art, (the Kolkata art market had been more resilient than Mumbai’s because of its inherent conservatism), and the astonishing number of designers who’d emerged out of Kolkata. And even as we spoke, we were told the Kolkata bred and born Priya Narang, Sunita and Naresh’s daughter was carrying on food tasting in London at Anton Mosimann establishment where each year she cooked an Indian meal for his cherished guests.

Kolkata as India’s leading city for fine dining and living?

Set game and match.

Master Classes with the experts
The Taj Bengal’s stately Crystal room banquet hall, the headquarters of its first ‘International Vine & Food Experience’ was abuzz when we entered it. Almost 30 national and international wineries had put up stalls to offer their finest produce for tasting, Mumbai’s own Cecilia Oldne, global brand ambassador of Sula had already spoken on the subject of ‘It’s better with bubbles’, as had Abhay Kewadkar, Chief Wine Maker, but Alessio Secci from Fratelli Wine’s and Sumedh Singh Mandla, CEO Grover Zampa’s were still to come.

Cecilia Oldne

What’s more, there were foodies and wine experts wherever one turned. We spoke to Sommelier magazine’s attractive founder publisher Reva Singh, chatted with celebrated British chef Shaun Kenworthy who had left England to make the city his home, met Tuscany’s wine grower Laura di Collobiano whose robust reds appeared to be the biggest hit of the evening. And queued up for Canadian Master Chef Marc Thuet’s most drool worthy bite-sized portions of duck lobster and mango, which had made us exclaim ‘Ah Kolkotta’ instead of the more familiar epithet.
Clearly, Kolkatta was even better than I’d expected it to be.

Life the great script-writer!
Can there be a better scriptwriter than Life itself? Waiting our turn at the Indigo counter we overhear a heated discussion between airline personnel and two hapless passengers. What’s the problem we enquire? The problem, we are informed, is that the two gents are trying to smuggle a container of, what else, but Kolkata Rosogolla out on their persons. How is this national emergency going to be resolved?

“Normally bhi do not allow liquids,” says the friendly man behind the desk, “but for rosogolla bhi make an exceph-shon.”

One doesn’t have to make these things up!

India’s food and wine destination?
So Friday evening saw us grappling with the issue of Kolkata’s claims to becoming a food and wine destination with an annual wine festival. After all, the city that first post of the East India Company had enjoyed a rich and nuanced relationship with European cosine, and post independence its residents had dined on the fare of the great Park Street eateries such as Skyroom and Firpos.

K Mohanchandran

Finally, of course, there was the refined Bengali palate to consider, one that could discern the most delicate flavours of fish and fowl, it was rumoured.

The Taj Bengal’s dapper GM, K Mohanchandran, whose brainchild had been the festival shared this view, “I think there is a long standing tradition of food and wine with some excellent places to eat and drink here; it’s the only city that has a Chinatown, it has tremendous history,” he said.

And what went in to the creation of this fest? “Three components - first to firm up an interesting, informative, yet serious program on both days with the Master Classes, the correct combination of whites and reds, domestic and overseas wineries and varietals and significant grape types. Second, getting the trade excited to participate and take stalls and so on, and finally, ensuring that our overseas visiting Celebrity chef Marc Thuet from Canada who only arrived 36 hours before the festival had the right ingredients and logistical support for the finale dinner,” he said.

As for Calcutta’s great tryst with fine living and European sensibility, Mohanchandran was candid, “I have had some very good food at the Clubs but I am not ‘au fait’ with their past...”

Of wine snobbery
Here’s the thing about wine: having spent more time than any one really required being exposed to its production and consumption in our salad days, our attitude to it had become a bit facetious: knowing too much about in our opinion is a bit like to dissecting a butterfly for its beauty. 

The International Vine & Food Experience

The pleasure of drinking wine in our opinion is greatly depleted by the presence of pedant’s annotated notes and wine bores. Of the latter, we know quite a few and it has led us to the opinion that like ones religion one’s pursuit of the subject is best practiced privately.

In fact we have to admit that not a very long time ago we had emerged reeling from a month long study tour of Frances’ wine growing regions clutching our heads moaning: Le terroir! Le terroir!

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