Mooncakes by lantern-light | What is the Mid-Autumn Festival?

The countries of East Asia and their festive denizens might seem a whole world away, especially in a global landscape much changed by the unwelcome arrival of a pandemic, but the moon is a light that we share. We hold it in common as an object of fascination, a cyclical guide, and a source of literary, scientific and spiritual inspiration since time immemorial. It was Oscar Wilde who said, ‘With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be perfectly happy?’ To this list we might be tempted to add a little glass of red, but we’ll get to that a bit later 😉

It is, indeed, the moon that we find at the very heart of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Celebrated in China, Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as South Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines, this is a tradition that dates back to the early Tang dynasty (618-907). Several legends lay claim to its origin, with one saying that Chinese emperors of the Zhou dynasty worshipped the moon in the hope of a bountiful harvest the following year. Chinese mythology also writes that the Goddess of Immortality, Chang’e, lives on the moon, hence why incense is burnt and offerings are made on this day. As is the case with celebrations across the world, national holidays come to take on new meanings, and wherever its origins lie, the Mid-Autumn Festival has become above all a celebration of family and loved ones. Taking place on the 15th day of the lunar calendar’s 8th month, this year’s festival falls on the 1st October. This will be the fullest moon of the year, and the streets will glow with thousands upon thousands of brightly-coloured lanterns as a symbol of reunion and good fortune.

Many of us have warm recollections of the table as the heart of our festivities, and here it’s no different, since on the day of the Harvest Moon reuniting to enjoy dinner together is always on the menu. The culinary diversity across East Asia is immense – more than could be done justice to in one article – so I spoke to our Asia Sales Manager, Alva, to get her perspective as a Hong Kong-dweller. She told me that, in Hong Kong, the traditional meal involves preparing lots of small and varied dishes to place on the table together, offering diners a dizzying array of delicious choices. Generally, there will be a variety of meats like steamed chicken and roasted pork belly, as well as fish and other seafood such as crab, prawn and clam. Water chestnut and taro (a kind of root vegetable) are also signature features. It’s a mouth-watering feast and it doesn’t finish there! Star fruit and persimmon make for a refreshing dessert, and we can’t forget the classic mooncake. Mooncake is a thick, round pastry usually filled with bean or lotus seed paste. Served in slices with tea, this rich delicacy is often imprinted with the Chinese characters for ‘longevity’ or ‘harmony’, marking a moment to savour.

You might think that serving a variety of dishes at once – rather than one course at a time – doesn’t lend itself well to pairing wines, and it certainly does present a challenge. However, there is also an exciting richness in such a feast for the senses, and surely the addition of a few, good bottles could only heighten the experience! No need for the pairings to be too rigid, either, meaning that guests can lean into preference rather than convention. Alva recommends Champagne as a possibility that covers all bases, since a charming flavour profile like this will likely find a friend in any of the dishes mentioned above. A bottle from Larmandier-Bernier, Jacquesson, Selosse, or Dom Pérignon would be more than appropriate for such an occasion! In the same vein, any fine wine, including a dessert wine or even a spirit, is welcome at the table to add a touch of luxury. Spoilt for choice, Alva’s favourite dish is steamed whole chicken, and she likes to serve it with a Meursault such as this one from Domaine des Comtes Lafon or this one by Henri Darnat: ‘the minerality found in the wine pairs nicely with the subtle saltiness of the chicken’.

I asked Alva if the festivities would look different this year. She explained how gatherings are tightly restricted in Hong Kong at the moment, meaning that the usual, convivial get-togethers will simply not be possible. In the true spirit of the occasion, though, she can look on the bright side: ‘it’s good to be able to focus on even just one loved one’. Whilst there’s usually a certain excitable buzz that surrounds focal events like this one, it’s true that the deeper meaning of the day can sometimes get lost in amongst the chaos. A celebration isn’t quite the same without our nearest and dearest around, so the best we can hope for is that this year’s festival will offer a chance for reflection. And when the full moon comes around, we’ll be making a toast, too.

See our article about pairing rosé with Chinese cuisine

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