Vietnam goes a la carte

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 February, 2012, 12:00am


When EU regulations made it impossible to continue working in France, oyster farmer Jean-Christophe Sevin left Brittany for Vietnam and its 2,000-kilometre coastline.

It might not seem an obvious choice, but visitors to the country may have sampled items such as cured meats and cheeses at five-star hotels - nowadays often sourced from local producers.

'We've been producing seafood just outside of Nha Trang for five years,' Sevin says. 'We sell sea urchins, lobsters and other crustaceans, but our main business is organic oysters - Crassostrea gigas, or Pacific oysters - which have a thin skin, strong taste and a full and milky meat; and Ostrea edulis, or European flats, which are saltier and very tasty - a little like Boulogne oysters.'

In December, Sevin produced six tonnes of oysters for the holiday season - most of which was consumed in the high-end hotels and restaurants of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, but he hopes to be exporting around 80 per cent of his product within a few years.

These are not the only Vietnamese-produced delicacies that could be heading Hong Kong's way this year. Inland, 1,500 metres above sea level, the lakes dotted around former colonial hill station Dalat teem with more than 40,000 sturgeon, with 64,000 more in Dami Lake in the northwest part of Binh Thuan province, just outside Ho Chi Minh City.

Although most of the world's caviar is produced in cold countries, Catam Vietnam Group says that a government-run experiment in 2006 proved that these waters provided a suitable, cost-effective habitat for the fish.

'We're raising the rarest fish, such as the Beluga, and feeding them with worms and fish, rather than dry food, to make the caviar more tasty and nutritious,' says marketing director Hien Ha.

'Our first big order was from the Park Hyatt in Saigon, but now we sell to hotels and resorts throughout the country, as well as the Metropole Hotel boutique in Hanoi. In 2011 we produced more than 500 kilos. This year we'll produce maybe three times more.'

Other epicureans are looking to refine, repackage and promote local specialities as a premium gourmet product.

Self-confessed dinosaur of the Hanoi dining scene Didier Corlou has been championing local spices and seasonings for over a decade, sourcing indigenous flavours from all over Vietnam to use at his Hanoi restaurants, Madame Hien and La Verticale.

'Phu Quoc Island, off the south coast of Vietnam, is famous for its nuoc mam, or fish sauce, but I find it too sweet. I prefer Cat Hai nuoc mam as it's saltier, and, for me, it's the taste of the north,' he says.

He lays out a line of small dishes and spoons, ranging from a supermarket brand fish sauce to his own premium nuoc mam blends, and proffers a small spoon of each in succession. 'Taste this - it's fish sauce that's been aged 15 years. You can see it's darker and not so salty. And this, the 20-year-old sauce, is even blacker.'

The older the sauce, the more complex the flavour: as we progress down the line, the olfactory elixir becomes less and less salty and fishy, with more subtle vanilla and caramel tones.

'The secret is to put fish sauce on the food at the end,' he tells me. 'If you cook it too much, it's not good for the nuoc mam. Marinate first, then use a light dipping sauce after. And if you add sugar, the flavour stays in the mouth longer.'

Most of Corlou's signature spices and sauces, available to purchase at his ground-floor La Verticale boutique, have been sniffed out by long-time friend and ally Laurent 'the nose' Severac in Vietnam's highland jungles.

'Every year I make around 200 kilos of spices for Didier. Nuoc mam salt is still our biggest seller, but I also find wild pepper, Sichuan pepper and citrus spices for him,' he enthuses.

'Usually a chef will ask me to find something specific. For instance, this year, I'll try to develop another product - special wild ginger from Ha Giang province - with Pierre Gagnaire, one of the best chefs in Paris. He wants to use it in venison dishes, and with apples and pears.'

Les Vergers du Mekong, based in the Mekong Delta, believes that Vietnam's fresh, natural, feel-good vibe can be bottled - literally.

'We have some 30 tropical fruits in Vietnam to work with,' says founder and managing director Jean-Luc Voisin. 'We're producing lots of tropical fruit juices and nine different kinds of jam, everything from strawberry - everyone's favourite - to dragon fruit and banana, with many different recipes ready to be launched,' he says.

Voisin says his favourite fruit is the acerola, also known as the Western Indies or Barbados cherry, valued for high levels of vitamin C.

'Many manufacturers use chemical ascorbic acid to protect their products, but we use acerola,' he says. 'We tested it and found that oranges have 60mg of vitamin C per 100 grams of fruit, but acerola contains 3,000 to 4,000mg for the same weight - up to 66 times more! I think it's amazing that one cherry can provide your full daily allowance, and it's certainly the best product that I have discovered in Vietnam.'

Vietnam could soon be famous for another highly prized beverage. In September this year, Vaucluse- born viticulturist Daniel Carsol is planning Vietnam's first harvest of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and shiraz grapes - planted in the central highlands in 2007.

'I've worked in Singapore, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, but couldn't find the right land,' he says. 'It is very important to get the right aroma and grape colour: you need the right difference in daily temperature. Dalat has a daily high of 25 degrees Celsius, and a low of 12 degrees, so it's perfect.'

Carsol estimates that at first he'll produce 1,000 to 2,000 litres per hectare, about 30,000 bottles; but this will increase to about 5,000 litres per hectare, or 60,000 bottles, within five years. First he plans to produce a pure shiraz before creating a blend with merlot, and he's confident he'll have white varieties before 2015. Carsol has also chosen a name that encapsulates his French know-how, Dalat's French colonial history and Vietnam's majestic regal heritage.

'I've decided to call it Domaine Imperial, as Emperor Bao Dai had some palaces in Dalat and spent a lot of time here,' he smiles.