As I climbed into the funicular on the way down from the Schatzalp restaurant above Davos, Switzerland, I was joined by someone who, like me, had not been offered the choice of a toboggan ride down to our hotel (that was only available to guests of the Barclays Capital dinner next door). Instead, we had had the pleasure of the best meal in town.
In fact, as my travelling partner was to disclose, he had just had the best meal he had ever had while attending the World Economic Forum, which is held here every January - an event in which, as an eminent business school professor, he had participated since its inception. But as an American who had spent his working life in two very food-orientated cities, first Singapore and now Paris, he was thoroughly dismissive of the food on offer for most of the participants at the Forum.
A hundred or so of us had just been fortunate enough to book a place at the Schatzalp dinner orchestrated by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. A Winter Dinner in Davos followed the mantra that she has inculcated into so many, so successfully, over the years and was based on purely local Swiss ingredients, including the wines below kindly sourced by Swiss wine writer Chandra Kurt.
To give an impression of why we were feeling so well-disposed, here is an outline of the food, but it has to be prefaced by one equally important design feature. Alice and her team had taken over a charming wood panelled series of rooms but in the space of a few hours had managed to give it the Chez Panisse feel. By the bar there were her tell-tale signs of welcome – large buckets of apples and similar ones filled with salad leaves. Next to them were wicker baskets of bread that, as the menu would detail, had come from three different local bakeries.
In a reception area to the right of the entrance, where Alice's daughter Fanny was toasting bruschetta over an open fire, were two tables stacked with Swiss cheeses and charcuterie. For those who wanted to taste the difference there were large rounds of cows' milk cheese, one made when the cows had been eating summer pasture and one made in winter. The latter, not surprisingly because it was six months older, had a definitely nuttier flavour and greater length.
All these were offered with such generosity that it was difficult to show any self-restraint, particularly as the dinner was late in getting under way for two very different reasons. The first was that the Forum's system for taking reservations for the various events had crashed earlier that morning (not for the first time) and the second was that it was being whispered that there was going to be a large delegation from Google, including the two founders. The Googlers have, not surprisingly, an extremely large presence at the conference as do many others in the IT world and nobody, naturally, wanted to upset them. Finally, they arrived and the show could get under way.
The point of the dinner was to reiterate Alice Waters' emphasis on the importance of sustainable, local food and at relatively short notice she and her team had put together an impressive menu. It began with Jerusalem artichoke soup with garlic and cumin, moved on to braised kid goat with red corn polenta, roasted root vegetables and a chicory salad, during the course of which trays of lamb cutlets grilled over the open fire came round, followed by a very fine Glocken apple galette with such a thin pastry base that you knew someone had spent the entire afternoon rolling and rolling and rolling.
The paper menu was simple but effective. The front showed Earth as it turned under the heading of 'The Phenomena of the Seasons' while inside there was a list of the names of the 20 suppliers who had made it all possible.
While Alice is a passionate speaker, she is also a reluctant one so she had invited Peter Sellars, the renowned artistic director, to welcome everyone, and then Michael Pollan, the author of the excellent The Omnivore's Dilemma as well as his latest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, which has just gone to the top of The New York Times bestseller list, to say a few words. With a late start they considerately kept their opinions to a minimum before Alice got up to take a well-deserved bow and to thank all those working in the kitchen and the dining room for their hard work and professionalism.
While this meal followed Alice's principles and proved a beacon of excellent food based on excellent ingredients in a sea of mediocrity best described as 'the curse of the canape' it was made further memorable by the company.
Opposite me was Simon Maxwell, who, having left Oxford in 1970 as president of its Wine Society, had had his wine drinking career cut short by a particularly bad case of hepatitis contracted in India. All his career has been devoted, however, to food policy in various parts of the Third World although he is now back in London working as Director of the Overseas Development Institute across the river from the Houses of Parliament with which he is in constant contact (www.odi.org.uk)
Simon had not initially signed up for the food or the wine but because he and his wife are great fans of Peter Sellars and all his operatic productions. But once the meal started I was treated to the incontrovertible truth of his argument of the need for change in how we buy our food. In his view, while organic food and local farmers' markets are definitely good they only serve a small, niche market of the food buying public. They don't have any impact on the poor who cannot afford better food and nor do they address the much larger question that the vast majority of the world's farmers and producers only receive less than 10% of the retail value of what they produce and until the balance shifts considerably more in their favour they will never get out of the long-running cycle of debt and poverty. To make his point more effectively at Davos next year he wants to organise a dinner using only produce that has been flown more than 10,000 miles but where the producer gets only this small proportion, just a tenth, of the value of the produce he has worked so hard to bring to the market. The purpose would be to highlight how much better these producers should be rewarded.
Diagonally opposite was someone from a completely different part of the food chain. M Carl Johnson III is Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer for the Campbell Soup Company based in New Jersey, which currently employs 25,000 people around the world and whose cans of Chicken Noodle Soup played a vital role in the upbringing of Michael Pollan, the latter confessed when they met later that night.
Soup has always been important to me, the consequence of my Russian grandfather's opinion that 'a meal is not a meal unless it begins with soup'. Professionally, I have tried to follow this too as ordering a soup in a restaurant, like ordering a terrine, is invariably a more precise way of judging a kitchen's capabilities than say a salad with a few pieces of quickly-sauteed protein on the top.
Johnson admitted, however, that like so many other food companies facing saturation in their traditional markets, Campbell's now found Russia and China their fastest growing markets. Although both are countries with long traditions of soup making and slurping – and certainly in many parts of the Far East soup consumption is very conspicuous – domestically many Russian and Chinese housewives do not have the time to make their own soup that they once used to. As a result, Campbell's are busily supplying them with a soup concentrate to get their cauldrons going, from a plant in Germany for Russia and from their own factory in China for that market.
And business is booming although for very different reasons. In Russia, Johnson, explained, the housewives are extremely keen to be seen to be making the best possible soup to keep their husbands happy. In China, the housewife's approach is more altruistic in that she still sees her role as providing the best nourishment for as many of her extended family as possible using this as an effective shortcut.
The meal that night contrasted sharply with the more typical fare the following evening when I was the moderator for a session over dinner ambitiously entitled 'Food, Civilisation and Culture'. The panel was, however, highly distinguished as alongside Pollan and Waters again were Professor Homi Bahabha, Professor of the Humanities at Harvard; Ms Helen Fisher, Research Professor in Anthropology at Rutgers University; and Hermant Oberoi, Executive Grand Chef of Taj Hotels in India, who told me the economy in India is currently so strong that his company is signing up one new hotel site a month and that many of the chefs he has trained but have subsequently gone abroad are now fast heading back home to India.
While they all played their part in what was a lively event, the food was hugely disappointing: an awful, almost flattened salad of tomato and mozzarella followed by a grey fillet of salmon and overcooked mange-touts. As a result, everyone seemed to pounce on the passable plums and ice-cream. When I got up at the end of the meal to thank everyone for coming I noticed that the doors of the room were closed and that there weren't any staff present so I added that I hoped that if the 2009 World Economic Forum were to extend its extremely welcome interest into food, it could deliver something that more closely matched the calibre of those it had invited to participate. For which I received a most enthusiastic round of applause.
Wines for A Winter Dinner in Davos, with notes by Chandra Kurt:
Domaine De Cressier, Brut Absolut G, Grillette NV Méthode Traditionelle
An ultra dry and crisp sparkling wine with delicate mousse and a good length. Lots of finesse and aromatic of pain grille and some lime. Seductive minerality in the finish. Grapes: 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay. No liqueur de dosage.
VOLG Weinkellereien, Completer 2004 Malans
Mainly found in the east part of Switzerland Completer is one of the oldest grapes of the country – also called "white Malanser". Its high acidity gives the wine interesting life and energy. This wine smells slightly of curry, Muscat and honey and is full bodied and complex. In the finish there is a slight salty taste next to the sweet honey aromatics. Decanting is recommended – but not a must. The grapes for this wine come from the village of Malans in the Swiss canton Graubünden [through which all trains to Davos from Zurich must pass – JR].
Familie Davaz, Uris Pinot Noir 2006 Fläsch
Andrea Davaz is a reliable Swiss winegrower from the Graubünden village of Fläsch. For this Pinot Noir he uses only the best grapes of low yielding plants. The wine stays 12 months in French oak and is hardly filtered. The aromatic spectrum contains notes of blackberries and blackcurrant, as well as some spicy pepper. The wine is not too heavy in structure but very charming and elegant. The tannins are well integrated in the ripe fruit aromatic. I would even say it's his most elegant vintage so far.