A 12 hour layover is a fine thing if that layover happens to be in Hong Kong. It is one of the few cities in the world where you can actually escape the terminal for no cost and no paperwork. And the excellent train system takes you directly to the heart of downtown in 25 minutes! Not only do you get to muse at what must be one of the most internationally eclectic cities in the world, you also get eat dim sum – and you know how I feel about dim sum (see my post from February). But on this day, as I walked off my hefty lunch in the sanctuary of an underground mall (a typhoon brewing and spewing rain outside), I encountered the most amazing grocery store I have ever seen. Ever. Why? Let us consider the meat counter.
The meat counter at C!tySuper looks, at first glance, like that of any other gourmet food shop — beautifully cut chops and steaks, Maine lobsters and Scottish salmon — exotic for this corner of the planet but not shocking. Then your eye hones in on the special Wagyu beef display — check out the marbling in that ribeye — and your jetlagged mental calculator starts converting the pricetag from HK$ into USD. Slowly the words “whoa Bessie” come to mind as you realize that this rare gem will set you back $100 PER STEAK! That’s $400 bucks on the grill for a family BBQ! But let’s not stop with the Japanese beef. At the end of the deli counter there is a display of fine looking hams hanging in a glass case. Fine Spanish hams. Fine Spanish hams that run about $200/lb. I get a hunch that some of those haunches fetch close to $2000 apiece. I’ll take two – grams that is. Moving further along in the store I found $2000 bottles of French champagne and $200 bottles of olive oil. At least the gummy bears and the rice crackers were affordable.
The item that impressed me most however was a small bottle of vinegar. The contents of this bottle, “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena,” is perhaps one of the finest, most precious foodstuffs in the world. Crafted from trebbiano grapes in the Po River Valley of northern Italy and aged in barrels of varying wood types, traditional balsamic (as opposed to the generic balsamic vinegars of the American supermarket) is truly more an elixir than a condiment. I once tasted some 30 year old traditional balsamic at a friend’s house, first on a spoon then over a small scoop of good vanilla ice cream. Viscous like maple syrup and intensely concentrated — earthy and ethereal at the same time. I don’t really know how to use wine lingo, but great balsamic must be the very definition of flavor complexity. And while I have never purchased any myself, it was one of those tasting experiences that sticks in the mind for a very long time. It is not surprising, then, that it should show up here in this Asian gourmet shop. But what really struck me about this particular little bottle, tagged at nearly $1000, was the age. 100 years. A portion of the liquid gold in this bottle started as grapes harvested in the early 1900’s. The Italians that put that juice into its first barrels are surely long gone from this earth. Those barrels somehow survived World War I and the reign of Mussolini – carefully tended by the skilled hands of two or three generations of Modenisi. In the early 1900’s the natives of Hong Kong were subjects of the British Empire — small cogs in a very large eurocentric machine. But somehow, through the stranger than fiction flow of human history, this small Italian amulet has come to rest here in a Hong Kong market. Waiting for some affluent Chinese family to pick it up, take it home, and savor those drops of liquid history on a fresh Asian pear.