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The city of the senses

Place can make an experience. Paris, abundant with opportunity to stir the senses, is the ultimate setting to discover the elusive flavour of umami.

A man in a black suit pushes open the heavy metal doors to the Pavillon Vendome. It’s a beautiful autumn afternoon. The leaves are turning but there is still warmth in the air. It’s our third day in Paris, brought here for this exact moment – to experience what’s behind the doors of this palatial building. Inside we’re met by another suited man, speaking into an earpiece, who leads us to a large room dimly lit with blue light that brushes the velvet couches. A DJ, her hands holding her headphones, is moving in time to the music. A projection of turquoise and gold swirls in time to the lounge-style beats behind her. Smartly dressed guests huddle in small groups, sipping on tumblers of liquid gold. This is a waiting room.

The five senses
We’re here to experience the revealing of the limited release from Johnnie Walker Blue Label – Elusive Umami. This finely crafted whisky, only a few thousand bottles made available to purchase, is a collaboration of two masters of their craft: whisky making with master blender Emma Walker and creative gastronomy with Michelin-star winning Japanese chef Kei Kobayashi. Both masters are a first in their field – Emma Walker is the first female master blender in the company’s history since it was founded in 1820; and chef Kobayashi is the first Japanese chef to have earned three Michelin stars in France.

The result is sensational. Johnnie Walker Blue Label’s Elusive Umami offers a satisfying and unique flavour inspired by one of the world’s most alluring taste profiles: umami. The flavour, literally meaning ‘delicious’ in Japanese, is a relatively new concept to Western palates, but in essence is associated with a delicious savoury flavour that you can’t get enough of.

From the waiting room small groups move from one tasting room to the next – each room representing the elements of earth, fire, wind and water – to experience a tasting plate exquisitely created by chef Kobayashi to pair with the unique flavours of Elusive Umami whisky. The experience doesn’t disappoint with each bite and sip evoking the very essence of that hard-to-pin-down flavour of umami itself. There’s oyster confit with seawater jelly and caviar; hay-smoked lobster with mushroom fricassee and lobster sauce; spicy karaage free-range chicken; gorgonzola muesli foam and whisky honey and finally tarte au chocolat effused with Johnnie Walker Blue Label Elusive Umami.

For Emma Walker getting acquainted with the intensity of the umami flavour was the key to creating the Scotch Whisky. To create the blend, the duo handpicked select casks from inland and coastal distilleries that offered unique umami profiles – a true rarity in that only one in 25 000 casks actually succeeds in bringing this elusive character to life.

“Umami possesses a mysterious quality that ignites our senses, revealing sumptuous taste, complexity and depth,” says Kobayashi.
Explaining his approach to the tasting experience, Chef Kobayashi says he sought to elicit an emotion beyond flavour. He says, “Think of a forest at dawn, when the scents rise after the rain. It must be a treat for the senses.”

The launch event is just the start of a memorable week designed specifically with this sentiment in mind – Parisian experiences to treat the senses.


A place of taste
Unsurpisingly, chef Kobayashi is just one of many chefs who’s made their way from around the world to train and work in Paris. Wandile Mabaso from Les Creatifs in Johannesburg is one of our travel companions. Having lived in Paris for two years under the apprenticeship of Alain Ducasse, Wandile provides access to some of the most exclusive eateries Paris has to offer. There’s Sunday lunch at Hotel Plaza Athene on the famous avenue Montaigne, the tree-lined boulevard of French fashion. At Michelin-star Athene’s restaurant Le Relais Plaza, the waiter stands next to our table and carves slices of tender lamb and Bresse chicken (reputedly the best quality table chicken in the world) then places it on our plates with duck-fat roast potatoes and a green salad.

There’s high tea at Restaurant le Meurice Alain Ducasse, where we experience the extraordinary desserts of pastry chef Cedric Grolet – freshly-baked Madeleines as well as astonishing innovations like the legendary ‘trompe-l’oeil’ sculpted fruit. Crack into the carved chocolate and an explosion of fruity flavours erupts.

The hotel itself, overlooking the Tuileries Garden, is reminiscent of 18th century splendour with chandeliers and ornate tea sets. This is where Queen Victoria stayed and Pablo Picasso was married here in 1918. A large oil portrait on the wall still bears the scar of a popping champagne cork from Picasso’s happy wedding table. Bob Dylan and Coco Chanel were all frequent guests here. For Salvador Dali, le Meurice became his second home for over 30 years, the main restaurant now named after him.

For a more casual affair, there’s dinner at Mun on the Champs Elysees, which evokes the intoxicating smell of opium dens with the heavy, spicy scents of Asia. Here you can feast on Baeri Caviar, Faux filet de Wagyu Miyazaki or tuna Tataki, or sit on the verandah with a glass of French champagne against the backdrop of the twinkling Eiffel Tower.


A place of scent
Paris is also synonymous with scent, its history with master perfumers dating back to the 1800s. Located in the Opéra Garnier district in Paris, The Musee du Parfum Fragonard offers perfume lovers the opportunity to discover the secrets of perfume making for free. Founded in 1926, Fragonard Parfumerie is a family business with unique traditional French know-how. Here, you can slip into the shoes of an apprentice perfumer by creating your own eau de Cologne or peruse the collection of art objects linked to perfumery, rare pieces from antiquity to the 20th century.

It is also worth a visit to L’Occitane specifically the one at 86 Champs Elysees. Here perfumer L’Occitane and chocolatier Pierre Herme have created a hybrid store offering a dessert bar, a coffee station and a restaurant. Adding an olfactory twist, L’Occitane presents an interactive in-store perfumery and scent installation, where you come nose-to-nose with raw L’Occitane ingredients and production methods. Simply stand inside and take in the heady scents and titillating sights of the dramatic dessert station centre-stage or order a cafe and a pistachio macaron while inhaling the heady scents of lotions, soaps and fragrances.


A place of sight
Whether it’s marvelling at the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, or the Notre Dame (set to reopen at the end of 2024 after extensive restoration from fire damage) or simply walking the winding cobbled streets of beautiful Montmartre, Paris sights never disappoint. But, arguably, it’s the museums where you can truly feast your eyes. The Louvre with its iconic glass pyramid and home to the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo offers art lovers a taste of both ancient and modern pieces. But its Musee D’orsay overlooking the Seine River, that is perhaps the better loved of the two offering a richer and less tourist-packed affair. Famous for its vast collection of Impressionist paintings, Musée d’Orsay holds the largest number of famous paintings in the world by the painters we love — Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Morisot, and Renoir. It is also home to Vincent van Gogh’s self-portrait and The Starry Night and is the perfect way to spend an afternoon.

For fashion and design lovers The Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris exhibits the couturier’s body of work on the legendary premises of his former haute couture house.


A place of touch
The literary quarter in and around St Germain-de-Pres rich with bookshops and literary cafés, allows for a natural experience of touch. Here you can flip through the pages of French novelists in iconic bookshops like Shakespeare and Company, reputedly one of the most famous bookstores in the world. Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Anais Nin and Henry Miller were early visitors to the bookshop but it has since been frequented by bibliophiles, writers and artists alike.

While cafes like les Deux Magots and Café de Flore, made famous for being frequented by Paris intellectuals, like DesCartes, Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir and Trotsky, it’s the quieter, less touristy Les Editeurs where you can find modern day publishers and authors negotiating book details. Here, red leather couches and large bookshelves with rows of neatly placed books (5000 in total) lend this establishment an air of sophistication rather than a stuffy or bookish sentiment.

Of course a trip to Paris cannot be without shopping and while there’s no shortage of the big luxury brands (a walk down the Champs Elysees will take you past the storefront displays of Cartier, Omega, Dior and Louis Vuitton) it’s well worth venturing into one of the exclusive shopping malls. At Galeries Lafayette you can run your hands over a Karl Lagerfeld LBD or Cartier handbag or try on a pair of Dior sunglasses. From exceptional ready-to-wear to exclusive accessories, the finest luxury houses rub shoulders with niche labels. The basement food court also offers a rich selection of Parisian treats that make wonderful gifts for back home.

But much more than the foie gras, bottle of Dom Perignon or beautifully gift-wrapped macarons you might leave Paris with, it’s the emotions that’ll have been stirred that will make the memories of this city of the senses stay with you for months to come.


by Susan Newham-Blake


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