Armchair Travels: Gourmet France en Dubai
Different people travel for different reasons. Some like adventure – they seek adrenaline injections at mountain pinnacles, ocean depths, at the end of a rope or the start of a fall. Some need nature. They desire trappings that cannot be found in their common abodes, and instead search for mossy hollows, sweeping savannah, craggy rockscapes and isolated islands. There are the culture vultures – they go feral in yoga camps, spend a month in Tuscany making olive oil, shift to a Tahitian village to paint, or go walkabout in the search for relics of the dreamtime with the Australian Aborigines. Some only need simple pleasures, to take a break. They find a sunny place with absolutely nothing to do except lie down and read a book. And then there are the bucket listers – they tick off attractions like girl guide badges. Eiffel tower? Check. Taj Mahal? Done. Sistine Chapel? Couldn’t see it behind the crowds, but yes, got there too.
I travel for food. Every holiday I take has a kitchen at its heart – sometimes it’s in a rented holiday home, and other times it’s found in various restaurants. I research national dishes, seasonal produce, markets, Michelin stars and Lonely Planet secret eateries like others would plot their tourist trail around architecture, art and activity.
Some may say this is pointless. Food is everywhere, not least in our own homes. It is simply nourishment. But for me, each bite holds the adventure, terroir, culture, simple pleasure, and even that tick on the bucket list that others can only find in grander things. Dhosa with coconut chutney and firy chilli for breakfast off a plastic plate beachfront in Kovolam, accidently taking the offal from a whole goat Ouzi in an Iftar tent in Oman, chewy dried wild boar hacked off a leg strung from the ceiling in Montepulciano, Pinot Noir grapes stolen off a ripe vine in October in Vosne Romanee, my dinner being dragged out of a pit, wrapped in banana leaves and smelling of heaven in Western Samoa. Each of these and many other food related activities are my treasured memories from holidays. And I haven’t even started to talk about wine…
Last week, I was invited along to a tasting at Galeries Lafayette Dubai. The focus was on Lafayette Gourmet’s catering division, and I’m sure that’s what they’d like me to talk about. Maybe I will a little later, but what got to me was the little holiday I took in their shelves after I’d stuffed my belly with complimentary tasty morsels (oh the hard life of a food blogger).
I’ve previously complained about mediocre imports of famous restaurants, of which there are several, not only in Dubai, but all over the world. Soulless places that promise a taste of elsewhere but instead deliver a sour shadow. And, if you compare Galeries Lafayette to its Parisian parent, then yes, it’s definitely a poor relation (drinking Veuve Cliquot Rose under the dome of Galeries Lafayette Paris is an experience I bag with the others above). So why would I slam the restaurants and sing the praises of the retailer? Simple – because I can take the product home and control the setting it is presented in. I don’t have to sit in a restaurant with poor service, the waiter pouring me corked wine, the food arriving 45 minutes after it’s supposed to, too salty or dried out, while I look over venetian linen and cutlery at a view of a shamal at the DIFC gate, or listen to a Philipino speaking English trying to pronounce French words that are already misspelled on the menu.
I can instead buy a slab of wagyu filet, a sliver of foie gras, a roll of french pastry (yes, I’m a cheat) and a jar of cepes. I can go home, kick the kids and husband out, and spend a quiet hour preparing beef en croute with the blaring beauty of Mozart’s Magic Flute in the background and a sneaky glass of Burgundy at the elbow (for cooking of course). I can take a painted tin of piquante sardines, fleur de sel and a baguette and eat them peasant style with no cutlery and the oil dripping down my fingers with my family on the beachfront at sunset. I can try a little jar of lavender pastilles the size of petit pois, get them home and bake vanilla angel cupcakes and scatter them over, knowing that from this day forward my children will appreciate the use of lavender in cooking. Now that’s what I call a taste of France.
The experience of shopping at Lafayette Gourmet reminds me of a couple of other experiences. The Mediterranean Wholesalers in Brunswick (Melbourne), where you fight Italian Nonnas for trolleys after you realize that the basket over your arm is so full it’s cutting circulation off. A haven of jars filled with pretty things, panettone, oils and sauces, pastas fresh and dried in hundreds of forms. A shop that requires a macchiato break in the middle before you tackle the second half. Or Victoria Street in Abbotsford – where tiny stores with all manner of Vietnamese magic and a spread of other south east Asian goodies tempt with their beauty, scent and bizarreness. It’s also a little like wondering into a French Hypermarket for the first time. No less an experience than walking into an Indian hypermarket in Dubai like Lulu’s, where there is a man to grind your coconuts, vegetables that look like they’ve come from the Jurassic era, pots and pans on thousands of shapes and sizes, 55 different grades of chilli and a sari shop upstairs where you can get 6 metres of synthetic silk for 27 dirhams, the very picture of the East to lay on your table.
I suppose that makes me lucky, being a food traveller. My demands between holidays can be easily met, particularly in a place as multicultural as Dubai. In my mouth I can go to the shores of the cote d’azur, the folds of Tuscany, the throb of Mexico City, the back alleys of Cairo or a beach shack in Hikkaduwa, maybe all in the same day. Who ever thought a supermarket could be so much fun?
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Galeries Lafayette can be found in the Dubai Mall, with Lafayette Gourmet on the top floor. It’s more than just a store – there are a bevy of chefs working behind the scene, and it’s possible to dine there (and very good). The catering arm has given me a few ideas. They now deliver single portions through rsd.ae (room service Dubai), but you can also get them to cater for a very decent price, for groups as small as ten people. Photos here are of some of their delicious canapés, which you can arrange for as little as 115AED/head (3 hot and 3 cold). They also do sushi for about the same price as Carrefour do (68AED for 12 pieces, 98 for 21), and a hot breakfast complete with extras like croissants, juices and coffee, delivered and cooked for 80AED per head. Hmm, I feel a home-brunch coming on.
There is now a covert pork section behind a secret door with very large print above it “For Non-Muslims Only” selling Dubai’s best collection of saucisson, jamón ibérico, and some lovely chorizo which must have been mispriced at 15AED a six-pack. Cured meats only – no fresh pork – hopefully that will change, as I’d love to see some free range Otway pork somewhere in the UAE (sorry non-pork eaters).
The shelves contain an array of both fresh and preserved items, ranging from fresh meat and vegetables (both local and imported), bakery and patisserie, seafood (including sushi), a formidable cheese room, and some other lovely dairy items such as crème fraiche and french yoghurt in pretty ceramic containers. Highlights of the shelves include honeys and preserves, the pasta selection, sugar (I never knew it came in so many guises), salt and pepper (complete in grinders in a multitude of colours), oil and vinegar, tinned and smoked fish, tea and sweeties. There is enough to stock a pantry (barely), possibly a little more expensive than the standard grocery. They also deliver groceries – simply dial your private chef, and for 50AED delivery and handling you can get a gourmet bundle straight to your door.
Phone: +971 4 382 733, ext 2383
location: Dubai Mall, downtown (Grand Parking)
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Sarah Walton runs The Hedonista blog, and is a lover "of all things warm, fattening, velvetty, far-away and funny". Sarah has managed restaurants, been a sommelier, a waiter, a bottle shop attendant, written a very small wine magazine, been a wine sales rep and had my own wine website with cellar management and online sales. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org