Thursday, May 30, 2013

British Antiques in Japan – so that’s where the Irish pubs get their bric-a-brac!

Following up on my recent visit to Victorian Craft, the British Antique imports shop and Irish pub (etc.) designing business in Matsumoto, I've continued research into options for furnishing my space.

It turns out that there are quite a few of these British and European specialty antique businesses in Japan, some of which have show rooms you can visit and many of which also let you shop online.

Here are some of those that I've found.
  • The amazing show room complex I visited recently in Matsumoto, Nagano. They also do a space planning service, having helped with Royal Scotsman and many Irish bars, cafe spaces and hair salons. (The original perhaps perfect but prohibitively expensive armchair price around 218,000 JPY)

  • British antiques (and Mini Cooper cars/car parts) business based in Wakayama and Nara. They also have a Doll's House online shop.. (Armchair price around 119,000 JPY, not directly comparable style)

  • Ikejiri shop and cafe space in Tokyo, online shop and business planning service. Check out their planning section for a nice gallery of shops they've designed. (Armchair prices around 189,000 JPY)

  • Appears to be related to the above site, but the list of items is different, and so I've included it here. (No armchair to compare price)

  • Not only British antiques, apparently a huge stock of items. Based in Ibaraki-ken. (My head hurt trying to find an armchair to compare price. Not exactly comparable styles, but different styles around 20,000-74,000 JPY)

  • Tochigi-ken based British antique business with online shop. Appears to focus on tables and cabinets. (Armchair price around 105,000 JPY)

  • Nagoya-based European antique store with slightly scary fonts on their site and photos of an insane amount of stock. Focus on British, French, Dutch and Belgian furniture. Comparatively competitive prices. (Armchair price around 158,000 JPY)

  • The new 'old fashion style' furniture part of the above business, items work out cheaper than the original antiques. (Armchair price around 96,000 JPY)

  • Emphasis on the pretty-pretty, wrought iron garden bits and bobs, ceramics and picture frames. Feels like it is aimed at domestic consumers rather than businesses. Retail premises in Nagano and online store. (Small armchair price around 47,000 JPY, not comparable style)

  • Beautiful photos of stock on this site. I want all the things! Gifu-based business with a shop and online store. Again, this business feels as though it is targeting individuals rather than commercial customers. (No armchair to compare price, however items on this site are comparatively expensive..)

  • A "highgrade" (sic) site, with ladies and little girls posing like princesses in some of the photos. Comparatively cheap pricing, and again lots of stock to rifle through. (Armchair price around 97,000 JPY)

  • The 'new antiques' part of the above business. (Hideous photoshop warning!) Also, some of the furniture is in amusingly poor taste. Can I say that? Eeek. (Armchair price around 96,000 JPY)

  • Fukuoka based shop, online shop and Facebook page. Appears to be a labour of love, with a "photographs of England" section of the site with pics of phone boxes, pub lunches and corner shops :) (Armchair prices around 98,000 - 198,000 JPY)

  • Fukui-ken business established 1903 selling French and British antique furniture and light fittings. Special focus on leather wingback chairs (Armchair price around 212,000 JPY)

As you can see, prices are generally quite a bit higher than the equivalent you’d expect to pay in the UK. The Chesterfield style leather wingback chair examples seem to cost between 100,000 - 218,000 JPY which is about 600 - 1,400 GBP and you can find comparable items in the UK starting from about 200 GBP. One would expect to pay more for the same thing in Japan since the Japanese businesses have to factor in importing the items, and also probably due to their rare and exotic nature being sold so far away from home. A bit like how some Muji items are 3 times the price they are in Japan.

I’m currently investigating the logistics and cost involved in another option - having a bit of a used furniture spree back home and shipping them to Japan myself. From what I gather, it’s possible to pay for the use of part of a shipping container.

It isn't immediately encouraging that all the shipping/overseas moving companies I've contacted so far have either not replied, or have stopped responding to my mails after I give them an idea of what I’d be looking to ship – perhaps it’s not enough stuff to make it worthwhile for them. Or perhaps they know that the cost would be too high for me and they are giving up on my behalf. I’ll keep trying however, and report back if I find anything interesting out.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Lip-smacking sourdough onion rings recipe, excellent use of pour-off

The other week I was browsing around old posts on one of my favourite food thoughts sites, Joe Pastry, and found an idea that was a bit of an epiphany. Sourdough onion rings! In fact, sourdough batter fried anything! (Apple fritters, anyone? Must, must try. Perhaps even Bramley apple fritters? hmm...)

If I’m not baking sourdough bread every weekend my starter gets a bit neglected and not in the best of spirits. It’s not much of a problem as it is nicely revived after a couple of feeds but I prefer keeping it fairly active and healthy, with the idea it might help it ward off mold and off-notes. The main problem is the pour-off. I hate wasting starter and worry about the effect on plumbing even if the pour-off is thoroughly diluted and chucked down the loo instead of the kitchen sink. Pancakes are well and good, as are waffles made with sourdough batter, but it’s good to have a bit more choice.

Looking around, regular onion ring recipes often include eggs in the batter. Some use them simply mixed in with flour and others have the yolks mixed in first and the whites whipped to stiff peaks before folding into the batter, yet more batters use beer.

Sourdough starter has a couple of good things going for it as use as a batter aside from the fact you may have been about to throw it out anyway – the processes of the yeast and bacteria thriving in the starter produce lactic and acetic acids and alcohol and so there is a wonderful vinegary tang already in the batter, before, as any self-respecting Brit would, the fried product is liberally doused with vinegar at the table. I would go as far as to say that depending how sour your starter is when you poured off the portion to use for this recipe, you might not even need additional vinegar at all... just sayin'.

Comparing a few sourdough onion ring recipes and attendant photos, it seems the key to having a nice thick bubble of airy batter around your ring, that adheres properly to the onion at all stages of preparation and eating, is twofold – dredge the raw rings in flour before dipping in the batter and have your oil hot enough for frying. Most recipes state the oil should be at least 175°C (340°F), and I've also seen 190°C (370°F) recommended.

Don't crowd the pan

Very excited to try this out, I sourced a little tempura pan at a local supermarket. It was about 1,800 yen (just over 10 quid), simple design with a cute rack for the temporary resting of fried goods. Of course you can use any deep fat fryer you might have, indeed the electric ones are also much safer than these old fashioned pan-of-boiling-oil setups.

Recipe for sourdough onion rings
  • About 240ml (1cup) of cold sourdough starer
  • About 60ml (quarter of a cup) of cold sparkling water
  • About 60g (half a cup) of flour
  • A large onion
  • Oil for frying (canola, etc)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Any exciting seasonings you want to add such as paprika, garlic salt, chilli flakes etc.
All measurements approximate, adjust depending on how thick and sour your starter is. You want a consistency thick enough to cling to the onion, similar to pancake batter. Starting with a cup of sourdough starter gave me enough batter for a bit more than just 1 large onion. Original recipes referenced include the Joe Pastry example and this from La Brea Bakery's Nancy Silverton.

  1. Slice your onion as thick/thin as you'd like, my slices are about 1 cm thick and I separated out the rings so they had about 2 layers each. I left the smaller center rings intact as little solid discs.
  2. Put the rings into a shallow dish of seasoned flour, turning them over to have the flour stick to the juicy bits of the sliced onion.
  3. Mix your starter with the sparkling water in a smallish bowl along with any seasoning you want to use. I've seen recommendations to rest the small bowl inside a larger bowl that contains ice water/rest a metal bowl on a frozen gel pack, or like when you make tempura you could put a couple of ice cubes directly into the batter to keep it cold. The idea is that cold batter helps to create a crispy fry. I used the 'bowl over an ice water bath' method for these rings but I think you’d also probably get quite good results by using cold ingredients fairly quickly.
  4. With your oil between 175 – 190°C (340-370°F. Use an infrared thermometer to be sure, or test the oil. The oil won’t be bubbling until the food is introduced), reduce the heat if necessary to avoid going too hot and take a slice of onion from the flour, drop it in the starter mix and turn to coat if necessary. Lower them one by one into the hot oil carefully using cooking chopsticks or tongs. 
  5. Use a metal strainer or slotted spoon to turn the rings over and fry for about 3 minutes or until they are slightly golden. Note that the temperature of the oil will drop temporarily each time you add something, so take care to do just a few at a time and keep your oil in the frying range or your rings will be greasy.
  6. Remove with the strainer or slotted spoon and transfer to kitchen paper to drain briefly. Salt to taste.

Keep finished rings warm and crispy in an oven at 100°C while you finish off the batch. Apparently you can freeze them and reheat them in the oven, but we didn't leave any to test this theory.

For people reading this who don’t currently own a sourdough starter, here is a non-sourdough onion ring recipe to try.

A couple of additional points I feel duty bound to relate. I was a tad nervous about having boiling oil in my kitchen. I made sure the work area was clear, the cats were not around me, I checked the amount of oil recommended to use for the size pan I have and used no more to avoid spillage. I also used an infrared instant read thermometer to check that the oil wasn't getting too hot. Smoke points and flash points for oils vary. The generic サラダ油 salad oil (usually a mix of canola and soybean oil) is most frequently used for deep frying here in Japan and has a flash point of 360°C (680°F). 天ぷら油 tempura oil is usually a mix of sunflower and sesame oils and is listed on this site as igniting from around 360 – 380°C (680-716°F). Both of these are somewhat far from the up to 190°C (370°F) I was aiming to maintain, but drips of oil falling onto the flames can cause fires even when the main body of oil in the pan is at a safe temperature.

So point number one: be safe, use a thermostatically controlled electric fryer if possible, and check how much oil your pan permits for safe use (usually no more than a third full). Don’t over-heat the oil causing it to smoke, and if it starts to smoke, then stop and turn off the heat before it sets alight. Never throw water on boiling oil and don’t try to move a pan that is on fire. Old advice about damp tea-towels is no longer recommended in the UK, the official recommendation of the fire service in the event of a pan on fire is to turn the heat source off if it is safe to do so, then get out and stay out and call emergency services.

Electric deep fryers are available in Japan, but many people still use the traditional type of tempura pan I used, and hence the most common cause of kitchen fires in Japan is from cooking tempura. The official line on kitchen fires from many ward offices is still to use a wet towel to extinguish a fire, and there are things such as this fire extinguishing flower that you throw into the pot, other advice recommends using a lid to try to extinguish a fire. Though I hope you'll never need it, the fire service number in Japan is 119. Some useful info here on the US embassy's site about calling emergency services in Japan.

Secondly: be a mensch, don’t pour the used oil down the drain. The oil will solidify and can block drains and sewage pipes. In Tokyo we are advised by our ward office to let the oil cool and pour it into a container such as an old milk carton that has scrunched up newspaper or fabric inside it, then tape the carton shut and put it in with your burnable rubbish. You can also get an oil coagulant which allows you to put the oil in solid chunks straight into the burnable rubbish.

You can use your oil a few times for frying, particularly if you strain it each time. But the oil will eventually become rancid with use and exposure to air. (Though apparently, the frequently retold rumour that repeated use of cooking oil produces of trans fats is untrue as long as the oil was not partially hydrogenated to start with. If you want to check the Japanese label of your oil, partially hydrogenated in Japanese is 部分水素化 bubun suisoka).

I've read on Japanese forums discussing tempura that using oil 3-4 times is a pretty good rule of thumb, but it depends on what you fry. If the oil becomes dark and starts to smell bad then it’s certainly time to throw it away.

Phew I had no idea when I started this post that it would turn into such a mammoth investigation of frying! Goodness me. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Field Trip! - British antique shop Victorian Craft, Nagano

series of posts from visiting interesting little (and large) cafes, food-related establishments and other places of inspiration.

Braving the Golden Week holiday crowds, I trundled off to Matsumoto in Nagano last week to have a look at Victorian Craft (their site is sometimes down recently, try again later if the link doesn't work) - the British antique importing, furniture making and shop designing business that Royal Scotsman owner had told me about.

On the ground floor of Victorian Craft there are a few different knick-knack areas, for kitchen things, garden bits and pieces, light fittings and odds and ends many of which are new rather than antique.

Upstairs has the larger imported furniture, some of their own brand "Oak Leaf" furniture, stained glass and old doors.

Starting downstairs then, you're greeted by this old pianola and trumpet in the entrance way. I heard people testing out the keys of the piano now and again as I walked round the shop, but no-one must have been brave enough to have a go at the trumpet.

After the shelves of random old English books and a few framed prints you come to the gardening corner with little old-looking containers, watering cans and candles. It was interesting to see the kind of things people were buying to pretty-up their gardens and balconies.

The kitchen section had quite a bit of enamel-ware like old (looking) white bread boxes, and thin enameled plates. For the downstairs bric-a-brac section you could use a wicker basket to put all your goodies in, and I can see how the novelty of doing that might lead to buying more than you planned to.

You can buy the baskets as well as use them in the shop

I was amazed to see the kinds of things hoarded here - my Mum had loads of these upper body frames when we had the wool shop, and here they were selling for about 10,000 yen! (about 65 pounds).

In the downstairs section, antiques, used items and British imports were mixed in among the new items but were usually labeled as such, or otherwise defined by the difference in price. The enamel jug was about 8,000 yen and labeled as a 'genuine British antique'.

The cabinet being used to house all the little drawer handles and hooks still had the Dymo embossed labels with things like "drill bits" and "spring washers" in place. You can even buy horse brasses and fancy brass toilet roll covers here...

There were a few swinging shop signs, but they were quite a bit more expensive than I had imagined - the cheapest on display here at 98,000 yen, over 600 pounds. In the bracket section there were also some simpler designs at under 10,000 yen which you could attach your own sign to, though a shop sign is perhaps something I can buy abroad and fit in my suitcase to save some money.

Something else I saw here that was interesting was a stack of Old Village paint. This is an American company that specialise in "18th and 19th century color fidelity" and who have been making paint since 1816.

About an hour (seriously...) after I arrived, and a quick look at the lighting section and I headed upstairs to check out the old imported furniture. Most of the items I saw were from the 1950s onwards, with some of the older-looking bookcases labeled as being from the 1970s but made in an older style.

The furniture seemed to be laid out in groupings of a classical old fashioned area with some of the furniture verging on the Granny, or even monastic in appearance (aha! Christon cafe, is this where you get all your Churchy stuff?) and a 1960-70's area more along the lines of what you'd see in the form of new and somewhat diminutive versions in interior design shops like Franc Franc (see the Franc Franc furniture catalog to see what I mean).

Between the two styles of furniture was a kids area with little desks and some cabinets and things like the wash stand in the photo above that, while not originally designed for children, I could see might sell to Japanese parents looking for something special and a bit different.

Something Victorian Craft specialise in is doors. The picture above shows a door before refurbishment (the blue part) and after (green). It was quite a strange feeling to see all these used doors, stacked up like oil paintings, some of them still with their original locks from when they were in use in homes in the North of England maybe... who knocked on to call to see if the kids could come out to play? What letters were posted through, and who struggled to get the key in the lock after a night at the pub?

Many of the doors have stained glass panels and, as in the case of the pretend door on the corner of the Royal Scotsman, if there is a piece of stained glass and a separate door that you like they will put them together for you.

 A few of the many stained glass panels

They also had quite a few chandeliers and kilim rugs, which I've noticed to quite stylish effect in quite a few cafes to cozy up the concrete floors of trendy cafe spaces like Irving Place in Shirokanedai.

Something I'd love to have in my space would be a couple of battered dark brown wingback chairs. They had one at Victorian Craft that was particularly lovely, unfortunately so was the price tag... 218,000 yen, (about 1,400 pounds) gasp!

On their site, (on which by the way you can buy many of these items without going to Nagano) you can also see a selection of items that they have made new, and distressed them to appear aged. These are their Oak Leaf branded items that are popular for the Irish pubs and some hairdressers in Tokyo. I understand that they will work with businesses on designs specifically made for their premises. This nested table set is an example of one of their own-brand, Oak Leaf 'new antiques'. They sometimes hold workshops such as "making your own antique frame" which would be interesting to see some of the aging techniques they use. For insights into their opposite process of repairing and refurbishing have a look at their 'repair blog'.

I finished off my day of thorough scouring of Victorian Craft with a lovely piece of cake and a sit down looking at the snow-capped Northern Alps from the sunny terrace of Santa Cafe on the ground floor of the complex.

It's a 2.5 hour ride on the JR limited express Super Azusa train (or 2 hours 50 minutes on the regular Azusa train), from Shinjuku to Matsumoto station, and then a couple of stations on a local line and a short walk, or 10 minutes by taxi straight from Matsumoto station to get to Victorian Craft. Here is their map page (Japanese) and here is a Google map (the 'Santa Cafe' in the link is in the same building as Victorian Craft).

Having other plans for the rest of Golden Week I came back on the same day, which was a bit of a squeeze and a lot of train time. If you have time to stay over, you could work in a stay at a ryokan in somewhere in the region like the Shirahone onsen area (about 90 minutes from Matsumoto by car / 30 min train ride + 50 minute bus).