If horse racing is the sport of kings, then polo appeals to the world’s princes, whether actual royalty or the moneyed, athletic titans of industry. Its origins can be traced back to ancient Persia (purportedly to the sixth century BC) and it is now making great strides at elite schools, colleges and clubs from the UK and the US to Argentina, India and China. Liao dynasty Emperor Abaoji (872-926) was a devotee, reportedly beheading surviving players of a ferocious match that caused the death of his relative.
Patrons, players, ponies
While polo has long been called a rich man’s pastime, Corinne Ricard has smashed her mallet through the glass ceiling, as a team owner and the only woman with a top-ranked 10 handicap. Patrons assemble and support professional teams of four players and a stable of thoroughbred ponies (players often use six or more mounts per match).
The most famous modern-day foursome, La Dolfina, was founded by heavy-hitting Argentinian Adolfo Cambiaso in 2000; other top teams include the late Thai tycoon Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha’s King Power Foxes, and Ali Albwardy’s Dubai. Most feature one or more high-scoring Argentinian, or “hired assassin” in polo lingo since that nationality dominates the 10-handicap player list. The best ponies are bred in Argentina too, and are not, as the name might suggest, smaller than the standard horse, just supremely agile.
Passport to the world
Sir Winston Churchill opined that a polo handicap is a passport to the world, and today this is truer than ever. The season stretches from May to September on the green fields of Cowdray Park, Sussex, and Windsor in England, where celebrity spectators sip Champagne in marquees emblazoned with the names of luxury sponsors such as Cartier and Jaeger LeCoultre, and tread the divots at half time. When Meghan Markle publicly supported Prince Harry’s polo prowess from the Royal Box at Coworth Park, Ascot, in 2017, the media speculated correctly that the couple would soon be hearing bells other than those that signal the end of each seven-minute chukka.
Gentility on the sidelines in the English summer gives way to the noisy stadiums of Buenos Aires in the ‘ber’ months, where crowds swell to 30,000-plus for the high-goal encounters. Then, after Christmas, the action moves to Palm Beach, Florida, and even snowy St Moritz, where special shoes allow horses to navigate the icy conditions. Uniquely, the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club in northern China hosts the Snow Polo World Cup in winter, and grass tournaments in summer. UK and US university teams face off at the Metropolitan Intervarsity Polo Challenge every year, aiming to shoot straight to the pinnacle of a sport where social standing and position, on and off the field, have always mattered.
The most thorough demonstration of equine sporting excellence occurs in eventing, when dressage, cross-country and jumping competitions test the skill and mettle of horse and rider over three days. Horse racing may grab the sports-page headlines with its thrilling speed and rich purses, but for displays of strength, suppleness, fearlessness and poise equestrianism reigns supreme. And 2018 world champions Isabell Werth on Weihegold (dressage), Simone Blum on DPS Alice (jumping), and Rosalind Canter on Allstar B (eventing), while not household names, clearly signal that it is one of few sports in which men and women compete on equal terms.
Equestrianism encompasses other disciples – governing body Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) has world rankings for driving, reining and vaulting as well as dressage, endurance and jumping. It is the latter that enjoys the most public recognition. Famous pairings over the decades, including David Broome on Beethoven, John Whitaker on Milton, and Eric Lamaze on Hickstead – the 2008 Olympic champion when Hong Kong hosted the equestrian sports – give show jumping a dignified air. Brand sponsorship helps to secure television coverage, though the excitement of sinewy steeds chasing the clock for a clear round in a tight ring packed with up to 20 daunting fences should not be underestimated.
Longines has put its name to the FEI Jumping World Cup since 2013, as well as its qualifying leagues in Western Europe, North America and China. The north field at Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club has doubled as a show jumping venue for the three-city Longines FEI Jumping World Cup China League since 2018.
Grounded in the middle of modern eventing is the cross-country day, a stern endurance test of the horse’s physique. At Badminton Horse Trials in England, considered the most prestigious on the world eventing calendar, the four-mile course presents 45 ‘jumping efforts’, from solid manmade obstacles to streams. Penalty points are accrued for straying beyond the optimum finishing time, with elimination facing those who exceed the time limit and riders who tumble off their mounts.
In eventing, the same horse who scales fences and leaps ditches must also exhibit an elegant gentility. Dressage is a pursuit for the purists, with both horse and rider immaculately presented and moving as one. Tasked to perform a sequence of prescribed movements, the animal is judged for the likes of rhythm and precision, and the human for seat and balance.
Balletic-sounding names of some movements (piaffe, passage, pirouette) nod to the artistry of a test that, rather ironically, harks back to the military – cavalry training for the battlefield. Images of the Spanish Riding School’s beautiful white Lipizzaner horses prancing in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace capture the appeal of classical dressage, which evolved into one of today’s most exquisite Olympic sports.
Few sports combine thrilling speed, athletic beauty and tradition as perfectly as horse racing. Europe’s premier flat race meeting, Royal Ascot, held every June just six miles from Windsor Castle in Berkshire, England, is a spectacle of style (the hats), sophistication (wining and dining in the Royal Enclosure) and pageantry (Queen Elizabeth’s carriage procession) – and that is all before each graceful paddock parade gives way to swift power on the track.
Sponsored for the past five years by Gigaset, Goldin Group’s telecommunications arm, Ascot racecourse stages more than a third of Britain’s annual Group One races. It dates back to 1711, around the era of the three English-owned stallions to which all modern thoroughbred racehorses can be traced.
One of the trio, the Godolphin Arabian, lives on in spirit at Dubai-headquartered Godolphin Racing, founded in 1992 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai. Today, Godolphin ranks among the world’s best racing stables, with 1,000 horses under its care in six countries where flat racing excels – Australia, France, Ireland, Japan, the UK and the US (horse racing-mad Hong Kong is a notable exception). The Sheikh’s global breeding operation, Darley, which began a decade earlier in Newmarket, England, shelters many prized studs including Dubawi, the only British stallion to sire 100 Group winners.
Also in the race for top breeder: John Magnier’s Coolmore Stud in Ireland, Kentucky and New South Wales; and Zayat Stables in New Jersey, owned by Ahmed Zayat, whose dirt-track star American Pharoah clinched the US Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes) and the prestigious season-ender, Breeders’ Cup Classic, in 2015. An Australian success story, Lindsay Park Stud, the former home of two-time Melbourne Cup-winning trainer Colin Hayes, was acquired by Goldin Group in 2013. It now operates as Goldin Farms, with 2013 Hong Kong Cup and Hong Kong Derby champion Akeed Mofeed – a son of Dubawi – as its founder stallion.
The UK Triple Crown (2,000 Guinea Stakes, The Derby, St Leger Stakes) has proved a tougher nut for three-year-olds to crack than the American triumvirate; the last horse to win all three races, back in 1970, was Lester Piggott astride Nijinsky (1970). Frankie Dettori, who slipped into Piggott’s saddle as flat racing’s top jockey, recently scored double victories with Enable at Paris’ classic 2,400-metre gallop, Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (in 2017 and 2018), and Stradivarius at Royal Ascot’s 4,014-metre Gold Cup (2018 and 2019). The latter also nabbed the Goodwood Cup and Lonsdale Cup in 2018 to complete the Stayers’ Triple Crown for long-distance races; both horses are trained by John Gosden at Newmarket.
Perhaps the UK’s most famous horse race, though, is held not at a picturesque countryside track in summer, but in chilly April over “jumps” at Aintree, Liverpool. The Grand National is the highlight of the National Hunt steeplechase season, and up to 40 horses scale 16 different fences as high as 1.57 metres, plus plenty of ditches, over a distance of almost seven kilometres. Having won two on the trot, 2019 champion Tiger Roll is edging close to the legendary Red Rum’s epic trio (and two second places) in the 1970s.
Wine aficionados look primarily at terroir – the intricated interactions among soil, aspect, elevation, microclimate and grape variety – and the skilled hand guiding each stage of the production process, to account for the aroma, texture and taste of the cherished liquid they swish around in their glass. Yet there is another key element that gives wine its character: the oak it lies in prior to bottling. Winemaking, of course, varies from region to region, and from red to white to sparkling, but for some length of time a fine wine will mature in barrel, with French or American white oak being the wood of choice.
A matter of taste
Wooden barrels have been used to store and transport wine since Roman times, when picking up a tip from the beer-drinking Gauls the conquering armies discarded their ceramic vessels. It is only in the modern age, however, that oak’s ability to enhance wine has been fully understood.
Scientifically, oak allows slow influx of oxygen and encourages metabolic reaction. Naturally, aroma compounds found in the wood – the likes of vanilla, spice, clove, coconut, smoky notes – and triggered by specific crafting methods at the cooperage, seep into wine as it ages for one, two or more years, depending on the house style and region. Moreover, a recent steer away from large stainless steel vats to a more holistic and intimate style of winemaking has seen small oak ‘barriques’ utilised not just for optimal maturation but for smoother and more fruitful fermentation too.
French or American
Two species of white oak are most favoured for barrels; the fine-grained European oak is judged to augment subtler wines compared to the bolder, more structured wines that might mature more quickly in oak grown in the USA. French oak is most prized, and the forest it hails from (tannin-rich Limousin or spicier Allier, for instance) also impacts the wood, and thus the wine.
French coopers typically hand-split the oak into staves, season (or dry to soften) it naturally outdoors for months, then toast the staves over an open fire until they are sufficiently pliant to bend and ring with iron. Lighter toasting results in more oak, vanilla and tannins; heavy-toasted barrels are treasured for the rich coffee and caramel aromas they bring to the wine.
Old or new
The high prices of French oak barrels are a reflection of their quality and labour-intensive craftsmanship by hand. Many wineries will reuse them, but elite producers, including Goldin Group’s SLOAN ESTATE in Napa Valley and Pomerol property, Château Le Bon Pasteur, will not skimp on new French oak for each vintage. Brand-new barrels allow more precise winemaking and more intense flavours, translating to greater complexity in the glass.
Winemakers today hold degrees in chemistry or oenology, but science alone does not make a superlative wine. Skill, instinct, experience, a discerning palate and perhaps an artist’s soul are required to guide the fruit from barrel to bottle. Winemaking is often called an art, and artful blending provides its signature flourish.
Coveted reds show depth and complexity that can rarely be attributed to a single type of grape or parcel of land. Blending fermented juices from different varietals and plots imparts nuanced aromas and flavours for the finest expression of terroir and house style. Clarets may combine the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot grapes; Rhône Valley blends can juggle up to 15 varietals. Many of Napa Valley’s famous reds are Cabernet Sauvignon blends.
Even in Burgundy, where the red is 100% Pinot Noir, winemakers will sample myriad combinations – from lots picked at varying degrees of ripeness, and different crus (villages) or corners of the vineyard – until they encounter the most powerful blend. With intuitive genius, they know how much press wine (pressed and fermented grape skins) to add for structure, and how their chosen blend will develop after further ageing, before and after bottling.
Winemakers pick and choose their grapes, and the time and frequency they blend them. There could be four tasting sessions (or many more): a first tasting of all available lots in barrel after malolactic fermentation; a second, six to eight months after harvest; and a pre-blend before the new harvest that evolves into the final blend after further tweaking. Very often, an outside expert is hired to conduct the blending process, improvising and fine-tuning the resident winemaking team’s composition, if not writing the music.
Globetrotting oenologist Michel Rolland, the consultant at Goldin Group’s wineries in Bordeaux and Napa Valley, orchestrates a slow, deliberate iteration, the final blend achieved in 18 to 28 months from multiple small batches selected and combined with exquisite care. Since critics arrive en masse to rate the vintage en primeur each spring, Bordeaux châteaux may finish blending much earlier, within six to seven months of harvest, so wine presented in barrel bears close proximation to its final taste.
Master blenders have a less pivotal role in white wine given the prevalence of single varietals, though classic Bordeaux blancs blend Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, often with a little Muscadelle in the mix. Red and white can come together – not in rosés, which are nurtured from red grapes with only a touch of skin – but in the Côte-Rôtie, for instance, where red Syrah and white Viognier may even be co-fermented, and of course in Champagne – traditionally a proportion of Pinot Noir (red, for strength), Chardonnay (white, elegance) and Pinot Meunier (red, dependability). Except for their vintage Champagnes, the Champenoise blend grapes not only of different varietals and vineyards but also years to achieve a consistent house style synonymous with luxury.
Winemakers have a natural affinity for the land they live and work on, the vines they tend year-round, and the grapes that they nurture, like children, to become the best possible expressions of themselves and the terroir. It is no wonder then that many have embraced the cry for a greener, artisanal lifestyle. In viticulture terms, that means hands-on rather than mechanical, organic rather than chemical, pure not adulterated. As for the wine itself, researchers found that American wines from 1998 to 2004 labelled “ecocertified” were rated on average 4.1 points higher than non-organic wines by trusted reviewers. Prepare to enjoy a fresher, wild-flower, fruitier vitality.
Government regulation criteria vary, but wines are certified as “organic” or, to a lesser degree, made from “organically grown grapes”. Soil is enriched with natural compost and minerals since synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilisers are prohibited; the stricter certification also forbids winemakers, during fermentation, to add more sulphites to counteract oxidation and unwanted bacteria than the small amount of sulphur dioxide that occurs naturally.
Biodynamic winemakers elevate organic cultivation onto a higher plane, believing in a harmonic interconnection between all living things in the universe. Certification comes from Demeter, a regulatory body adhering to Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner’s 1920s theory of biodynamic agriculture rooted in spiritual science; or by Biodyvin, an association of 148 primarily French biodynamic wine growers. More than 600 wineries held Demeter certification in 2018.
Cycles of the moon
The biodynamic vineyard operates as a self-sustaining and regenerative ecosystem, with cultivated plants growing as they would in the wild. Livestock provides manure for compost – manure-filled cow horns buried in winter are dug up in spring, their contents diluted with water to spray the fields. Herbal sprays of nettle or dandelion are also utilised. Celestial and terrestrial forces intertwine: the lunar calendar drives pruning (Root days), watering (Leaf days) and harvesting (Fruit days); on Flower days, when the moon is in Aquarius, Libra or Gemini, the vineyards are left alone. Vinification rules are stricter than for organic growers: fewer additives and only natural yeasts.
A newer trend by small artisanal producers is for natural wines, which are organic but not necessarily biodynamic. Here, wines are spontaneously fermented using only yeast present in the grapes or the vineyard, have no added sulphite preservative, and are unfiltered.
The vast majority of organic and biodynamic vineyards (316,000 hectares in 2017, equating to 4.5% of the winemaking total) are in Europe, specifically Spain, France and Italy. Yields are relatively lower than in conventional winemaking, but this, and the richer soil, leads to a more concentrated grape, and arguably a more aromatic and intense expression of terroir.
While many wine-lovers would not want their favourite Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay to change – apart from developing greater complexity in the bottle – the feel-good factor and vibrancy of organic and biodynamic wines make them a non-guilty pleasure.
Herbs have been valued and cultivated since before written history, perhaps more for their curative powers than their culinary prowess – Hippocrates catalogued the healing properties of some 400 herbs in ancient Greece – yet it is hard to imagine food without the vital boost that these small, fragrant greens provide.
In the strict language of the kitchen, herbs are leaves and greenery, whereas spices originate from a plant’s roots, seeds or bark. They vary according to season and region, and whether used in cooking to perfume a dish, or raw as garnish, they shape the distinctive flavours of cuisines worldwide.
Seasoning the world
The four “fines herbes” of classic French cooking – finely chopped chervil, chives, parsley and tarragon – bring delicacy to traditional dishes and texture to salads. Herbs are pungent in Asia – think lemongrass, liquorice-like Thai basil and kaffir lime leaves in Thailand, and mint, coriander, fenugreek and curry leaves in India. Baskets of fresh herbs appear on dinner tables in Vietnam (mint and basil to add to phō or wrap spring rolls), parts of Eastern Europe (dipped in salt and consumed throughout the meal) and at Persian restaurants (sabzi).
The Japanese use shiso, mitsuba (a type of parsley) and negi (onion) to garnish the likes of sushi, miso soup, soba noodles and tofu. Purple shiso (or perilla) often pops up in contemporary Western fine dining now, flavouring lobster with heritage tomatoes at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, for example, and langoustine with masala, a signature of Edward Voon at LE PAN in Goldin Financial Global Centre in Kowloon Bay.
Growing their own
Diners’ demands for vegetarian menus and eye-catching plating over the past decade have seen chefs reaching further and more frequently for fresh herbs, and even seeding their own herb gardens. At country restaurants like The Star Inn in North Yorkshire and La Bastide de Moustiers in Provence – which both hold a Michelin star – chefs have the luxury of picking fresh herbs from their extensive gardens before service; at Pied à Terre in London limited space on the roof still yields 200 plants and a beehive. A herb trolley at the Dorchester’s three-Michelin-star restaurant enables aromatic leaf-snipping tableside.
Specialist suppliers offer lesser-known herbs such as English mace (combine with asparagus in soup), lovage (add to chicken stock) and hyssop (great with fatty meats). Lemon verbena’s benefits now go beyond herbal tea or a balm: its lemony lilt complements a variety of foods from poultry to puddings. And careful final placement of micro herbs, such as coriander and pea seedlings, and edible flowers, including begonia, viola, oxalis, borage and nasturtium, provides height, texture, colour and flavour, transforming dishes into veritable miniature forests or tropical isles.
Allowing fresh, natural flavours to shine on the plate is not new in fine dining – most top chefs in Europe have moved on from rich, cloying sauces and overly fussy preparations to a lighter, cleaner contemporary cuisine, buying at the market in the morning and flying in seasonal produce from trusted suppliers. Ethical eating (causing least harm) and locavore (supporting local farmers) movements provide further impetus nowadays, challenging chefs to be more creative and focused in what they serve each day.
Trust the chef
Japanese omakase is at the cutting edge of this dining luxury, placing the meal totally in the chef’s hands. An abbreviation of “I’ll leave it up to you”, omakase originated in tiny, traditional sushi restaurants without menus, where diners could get up close and personal with the artist across the counter. The feast was shaped by what was fresh that day and how diners reacted to their previous course. Its high cost, justified by the uniqueness of the experience, the market price of the seafood and the amount of premium sake consumed, would not be known until the end of dinner.
The concept has diluted a tad since moving out of the neighbourhood and the country. Temples of omakase such as Sushi Saito in Hong Kong (a branch of Takashi Saito’s famed three-Michelin-star restaurant in Tokyo), Sushi Tetsu in London, and Omakase Room by Tatsu in New York set a price per person in advance. Intimacy is vital: serving only six people per night with no menu, Chef Nobu Yamazaki at Sushi Taro in Washington DC is able to play it by ear.
A new generation of international chefs enjoy face time with their customers, too. At The DeBruce, a 28-seat restaurant in upstate New York, Aksel Theilkuhl makes a point of interacting with each diner. He is also a proponent of ‘field-to-table’ dining, foraging at dawn for wild produce to serve that evening; other restaurants, like Lazy Bear in San Francisco, employ professional foragers. Aided by its own farm, SingleThread in Sonoma, California is inspired by the Japanese concept of micro-seasons – 72 “ko” per year during which certain ingredients reach their peak.
Fresh asparagus (white and green) and truffles (white and black) have long been worshipped by quality chefs, appearing fleetingly on menus. Despite its London location, Lyle’s optimises the shooting season, with the likes of wild duck breast and pheasant on a tasting menu that changes daily. Diners are unaware in advance what is for lunch or dinner at Restaurant De Kas, situated in an Amsterdam greenhouse, although delicious organic greens grown under its roof are assured.
Chinese cuisine bows to seasonal rhythms, with warming or cooling foods regulating the body’s energy flow. The Cantonese, in particular, appreciate the natural flavours of fresh produce, using spices and herbs sparingly. Seasonal specials at Goldin Group’s Cantonese restaurant Dynasty Garden include a menu of braised dishes in winter as well as lamb stew, and hairy crabs in autumn.
As Japanese cuisine has spread West in recent decades - championed for its purity by acclaimed chefs and an increasingly health-conscious public - so has the concept of umami infiltrated the general consciousness, coating the tongue with an addictive deliciousness. The fifth basic taste (joining salty, sweet, sour and bitter), umami was identified more than 110 years by Tokyo chemist Kikunae Ikeda, and named for the Japanese word for savouriness. Yet it only entered the English language in 1979, and is still the subject of much mystique, if not the contentious debate it once stirred.
Since taste is subjective, umami is hard to define. In simple scientific terms, it is the amino acid glutamate, a protein, combined with nucleotides inosinate or guanylate, and minerals such as sodium and potassium. Sensually, that translates to a deep, meaty, moreish intensity which spreads pleasingly through the mouth and throat, and happily stimulates the brain. As a protein, umami triggers saliva and digestive juices; it also lingers longingly like no other aftertaste.
The umami taste explosion is best found in cooked, aged and fermented foods – think seaweed (Professor Ikeda was investigating kombu dashi, the kelp stock at the heart of numerous Japanese dishes), bonito flakes and shiitake in Japan; ginger, soy and fish sauces in Chinese cuisine; and the Western staples of cheese, particularly Parmesan, cured ham, tomatoes and Marmite. Breast milk is also rich in glutamate, which might explain the comforting cravings that umami inspires.
Natural flavour enhancement
Ikeda made a fortune with his discovery by packaging it as Ajinomoto, a.k.a. MSG (monosodium glutamate). While MSG sends alarm bells ringing in the West, the natural flavour-enhancers of umami-rich foods have won over the new generation of gourmets seeking fewer calories and animal fats. Japanese cuisine is a hot export; like many of its brethren, Matsunichi Japanese restaurant, located at Goldin Group’s headquarters in Hong Kong, offers an authentic, artisanal dining experience, each course infused with umami goodness.
East to West
Leading European chefs including Christian Bau and Sergio Herman, and in Hong Kong Edward Voon at LE PAN restaurant, have long blended flavoursome Japanese ingredients like uni, miso and katsuobushi with their prime produce and contemporary cooking techniques. Famed British chef Heston Blumenthal also sought to maximise the umami taste, serving a dashi-based dish at his award-winning The Fat Duck restaurant.
Umami is not only fine-dining mouthfeel, of course. Cheesy pizzas and spaghetti Bolognaise typically provoke such savoury taste pleasures. When the umami concept burst onto Western palates 10 years ago, New Yorker Adam Fleischman smartly founded the Umami Burger chain, serving beef patties infused with umami flavours to amplify the taste-buds. In a curious cross-cultural reversal, he has even brought the concept to Japan.