Talk about culture shock. For nearly the past three weeks, 33 students from the Republic of Singapore have traveled throughout Northern California, visiting artisan food producers, wineries, farms and ranches.
For chef Fabian Chiow, an early highlight was going to a Sonoma County cheese-making company. “In our country we have no opportunity to see things like this, where you have the product come straight from the cow and made into cheese. That is amazing,” he said.
No doubt. The city/state of Singapore is 268 square miles in size, about the same as Austin, Texas or Memphis, Tenn., and contains 5 million people. It is urbanized and, because of the expensive land, little of it is used for agriculture. Shawn Tripp, adjunct professor at the CIA campus in Singapore, said the three-week field course, called “Food, Wine and (Agri)culture,” is the first time many of them have seen plants growing in the ground.
How different is a vista of grapevines from what he is used to? Chiow exclaims, “It’s everywhere (vineyards) to you guys, but to us, whoa!”
The students, who just finished their junior year and will graduate in early 2013, have spent the past few months reading and researching the products of Northern California. The three-week field trip is “an opportunity for them to see, touch and taste the outstanding products of Northern California,” Tripp said.
He adds the students will “gain an appreciation as future chefs of where their food comes from, rather than just ordering it from a distributor or grocery store. They get to see the whole process.”
In Singapore, some of the food is imported from California, including Driscoll-brand berries, but much of the food comes from regional countries, including Thailand, China and the rest of Asia.
After arriving in San Francisco on Aug. 27, the students spent two days in Sonoma County, including visits to Iron Horse Vineyards and Marimar Estate, both in Sebastopol.
On Aug. 31, they spent a day at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone, touring the kitchens and campus, having lunch at the restaurant and attending a wine seminar taught by Christie Dufault, one of the CIA’s wine and beverage instructors.
They also spent a day in the Napa Valley, touring the Oxbow Public Market, including a visit to The Kitchen Door, owned by Todd Humphries, and visiting Bouchon Bakery in Yountville.
The rest of their three weeks were spent in parts of Northern California, from Yolo County to Monterey County.
At the CIA at the end of August, student Tay Fulin said the field trip is all about immersion. “We’re learning what it is about Northern California, the terroir and climate that’s special,” she said. “Everything we studied in books.”
Fulin said after experiencing just a few days in Sonoma and Napa, she understands why terroir and climate play a part in wine. “The overall climate is quite sunny and warm in the morning and quite cool at night, is something I did not expect.” Singapore, she said, is nearly the same tropical weather all year round, except for the monsoon season.
A former small business owner and chef, Chiow said the trip gives him “an intangible education. It brings me a different platform of understanding into food and wine.” He said he enrolled at the CIA campus in Singapore to upgrade his skills and to gain more knowledge. “When I come here, I know that I’m not that good,” he said.
Instructor Tripp said California and especially Napa Valley wines are popular in Singapore, but added they have a fairly limited distribution. “Historically, the Asian market is quite big on French wines, because it’s a traditional powerhouse,” he said. Australian wines, too, have a huge share of the market, Tripp said, because it is so close, people have visited there and are familiar with the wines.
“Until recently, the American wines were much more expensive, because of the dollar exchange rate and because they were coming from so much farther away,” he said.
How should Napa Valley wines become more prevalent in Singapore? Tripp said if he knew the answer to that he would become a distributor. But, he added, it’s people’s exposure to the wines. “It comes down to letting them see and taste the wines. That’s the best way to sell Napa Valley wines in Singapore.”