Monday, December 28, 2009

Dear Mr Slater

Dear Mr Slater,
Your latest book Tender Volume 1 was on my Christmas present list and I have spent the last couple of unexpectedly wet days reading and making lists of what I am going to grow and what I am going to cook.
We have been in our house for four months now and the garden is still a wasteland. Like you we live in an inner  city Victorian terrace - akin to living in a tunnel. If you stand at the front window you get a clear line of sight through to the end of the garden. We do however have access to the rear lane through the garage so all the messy bits, the manure and the mulch, will not have to be carried through the house.

Once the layout is complete - pathways and garden beds - we will have two major growing areas each about 12 metres long running the length of the garden which is only 5.4 metres wide at the widest point. Cramming all the fruit, vegetables and ornamental plants I would like to grow into this space will be something of a challenge.
The garden faces north west and so most of the area gets sun for the whole day. Although it has rained steadily in the few days since Christmas and our water tanks are full, providing sufficient water to keep the garden lush and productive may yet be our biggest hurdle - it is highly unlikely that we will ever see the garden covered in snow. Foxes are not a problem in our part of Sydney, we are however prepared to be troubled by possums who have a fierce reputation for finding the tastiest morsels in any garden - grow something they fancy and they will find it. Late in the afternoon just at dusk we also often see fruit bats flying over so perhaps they too will find our new garden a temptation.
Already there are some plants in the ground - rosemary (a house warming gift from friends who already have a well established vegetable garden), lemon balm, thyme and rhubarb crowns which I have been keeping alive in pots for months while  the renovations to the house were being completed and we were moving from one temporary home to the next. Also in pots are lemon thyme, marjoram, sage and tarragon all waiting for their permanent home.
Reading about other gardens always makes me lament those plants our climate mitigates against such as apples, quinces, rasperries, and I can only hope for success with gooseberries and elderberries (what joy to be able to make elder flower cordial). On the other hand citrus and olives  and passionfruit should present few problems. For advice on what to grow and when to plant here in Australia my reference is Stephanie Alexander's The Kitchen Garden Companion. In the right position Stephanie promises as many as 30 aubergines per bush per season - all your wonderful eggplant recipes will be put to good use.
If all goes well we will be planting in late February in time for broad beans and beetroot and chervil and spinach and masses of salad greens. Like you I have always been something of a gardener with a few herbs and vegetables grown in various gardens over the years but this is our first attempt to establish a garden which is largely edible and organic as well as a pleasant place to relax. I hope we are well on our way to establishing our own little oasis on this side of the globe by the time Tender Volume 2 is available.
Thank you for your books - I have many of them on the shelves. They are always very seductive - beautifully written and presented -and endlessly inspirational.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Julia Child and thoughts on the demise of cooking

Most of the last month was devoted to Julia Child. I started off reading the special edition of Gastronomica devoted to Julia (Summer, 2005). This was my real  introduction to Mrs Child  and I was immediately charmed by her no-nonsense approach, her sense of humour and the wonderful relationship she had with her husband Paul. The magazine also includes some terrific photographs. I found her passion and enthusiasm and the obvious pleasure she gained from her devotion to good food both compelling and invigorating..

From there it was off to the movies to see what sort of a job Meryl Streep would do with this character. You probably don’t need to be a foodie to enjoy the film Julie and Julia but it certainly helps. I found it very satisfactory although I would have loved a bit more of Julia’s relationship with her husband and I could have taken a lot more of the gorgeous costumes.

From the cinema it was a very short walk to the bookshop but I have since been pondering how many others would be inspired to go home and actually cook some of the food they had seen on the screen. Nora Ephron, the director, is justifiably proud of the way the food looked in the film and it seems many people may have come away  feeling hungry but simply being interested in food and eating food are not the same thing as preparing food.

Of course I am not the only person in the universe who is pondering the paradox between the number of recipe books available, the number of food programmes on television and the decline in home cooking. Michael Pollan makes a much better job of presenting this conundrum that I could ever hope to do ('Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch' ). So how many people will sit down and take time to read what Julia Child took such care to write for us in Mastering the Art of French Cooking? ( Regina Schrambling suggests not many ). And this is a book which needs to be read – it is dense with information and light on pretty pictures in contrast to many of the more recent books on the shelves which are full of gorgeous, lavish photography (usually not just of food ) but seem to be a bit light on substance. Michael Pollan would argue that in fact most people who buy these books are more interested in the pictures than the recipes, more interested in eating food than cooking. This would seem to be borne out by the recent demise of Gourmet magazine. Yes it was a bit elitist but at least there was an attempt in a popular magazine to offer more than just recipes and advertising. Isn’t it more than a little ironic that in Julia Child’s new recognition is based on an internet blog? The internet is now where most people find their recipes. (This article makes interesting reading on the shift away from magazines and Gourmet in particular.)
Thanks principally to television, food consumers are now well educated about ingredients and terminology which makes for confident ordering in restaurants and engaging conversations about esoteric ingredients but doesn’t seem to translate to getting their hands dirty. Michael Pollan suggests that there is no longer a sense that food preparation is a ‘gratifying, even ennobling sort of work’ or that there can be any satisfaction or pleasure to be gained from something as mundane as feeding ourselves. Cooking on television tends to emphasise quick results. Pollan argues our relationship to cooking has become voyeuristic – we enjoy watching people cook because we enjoy eating food not because we want to cook the food ourselves and that our relationship to watching food preparation on television is much like our relationship to watching sport. Not surprisingly there is an inverse relationship between obesity and the amount of time spent on preparing food.

Pollan also raises the serious issues of what our fast world, what loosing a culture of every day cooking is doing/will do to our civilisation if cooking really is the activity which distinguishes us from the animals. (Similarly Jamie Horwitz ('Eating on the Edge' in Gastornomica, Summer 2009) contemplates the changes in where when and with whom we eat.)

Like Carlo Petrini, the champion of Slow Food as the antidote for the fast life, Michael Pollan would argue that the best food is the food you prepare yourself from fresh ingredients. Not only our own personal health but the health of our society and of the planet (think environmental degradation, soil contamination, water usage, loss of biodiversity caused by modern farming practises) could all be improved if we simply spent more time preparing food at home.

But like most problems offering a solution is one thing actually making it happen is something else. Which puts me in mind of Stephanie Alexander and her Kitchen Garden Foundation. She promotes the idea of children being encouraged to learn about growing their own food but emphasises that the process is not complete until the children actually take the ingredients to the kitchen, prepare a meal and then sit down and share the food they have made.

Julia Child and Mastering the Art of French Cooking may not be to everybody’s taste. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if the audience doesn’t go away and cook any of her recipes. But doesn’t the film also carry the message that there is satisfaction to be gained in challenging ourselves and following through on those challenges? Wouldn’t it be good if just a few people went home from the cinema and decided to cook just one or two more meals a week and share them with their family and friends?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Waste not - Compost!

Whilst progress on the garden per se is slow to the point of being non-existent we have at least commissioned the compost bin. Over the months of moving from one temporary address to another we have been without a compost facility and therefore very aware of the quantity of fruit and vegetable scraps we have been consigning to the garbage bin. Our enthusiasm to get started was spurred both by recent articles in the newspaper about waste and by hearing Stephanie Alexander speak about her passion for growing her own fruit and vegies.
Discussions around the dinner table with friends last weekend convinced me that we are composters and not worm farmers. Worms appear to need care and attention, more animal husbandry, altogether more of a commitment. Compost on the other hand seems to require only the ability to collect suitable material and a degree of patience.
Apparently there are however things that can go wrong. Rats and other nocturnal marauders find compost irresistible so there needs to be some way of ensuring that creatures cannot gain access to the bin if you don’t want to encourage them. Balance also seems to be important – too many orange peels was a bit of a disaster I remember when we tried composting the remains of children’s school lunches – but I have discovered a simple formula for layering the bin. Thanks to Stephanie’s Kitchen Garden Companion I am layering green waste (all the peelings and trimmings from the kitchen plus anything else from the garden) with an equal amount of dry material – in our case leaves and shredded paper – all helped along with a cup full of blood and bone.
In the past we have accumulated the kitchen scraps in a bucket or some other container in the kitchen which hasn’t been especially successful – the contents attract vinegar flies and the container takes up valuable floor or bench space. Thanks to my friend Jan we have now implemented another method. Each day the scraps go into a bag in the freezer. The freezer is then emptied at the weekend and the frozen lumps go into the bin with the shredded paper and the blood and bone. Not only does this keep the kitchen clear of debris but the freezing actually starts the breakdown process and it is easier to keep a track of the ratio of green to dry material – not that I have ever been very rigorous about this in the past.
No doubt there is room for refinement but at least the compost has begun!
And I also have to thank Stephanie Alexander for finding Giovanna Garzoni who is responsible for the wonderful painting at the top of this post.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Long live the cook!

Found time last week to sit down and watch the last episode of ‘The Cook and the Chef’. Whilst not entirely a Simon Bryant fan – you can only hear him say ‘I love it’ so many times – Maggie Beer’s enthusiasm for food is intoxicating. And how inspiring to see a real person cooking food in what at least appears to be a real domestic kitchen. Obituaries and tributes to Keith Floyd made reference to the way he reduced the distance between the ‘chef’ and his audience. In Floyd’s case it usually involved him consuming large quantities of alcohol resulting in what the Guardian described as ‘cheerful mayhem’. All of which led me to think that what we need, and not just on television, is more cook and less chef. Although that would seem to be out of step with what is actually happening with a series of ‘Celebrity Masterchef' about to be foisted upon us.
Thanks to a friend I have just finished reading through The Food Life. Inside the world of food with the grocer extraordinaire at Fairway by Steven Jenkins – the grocer extraordinaire.(Harper Collins, New York, 2008) .Fairway ("Like no other Market") for those who don’t know is a grocery store, well now five stores, in New York which claims to be the busiest food store in the world. Jenkins is a food enthusiast extraordinaire with the motto that ‘no edible is so precious that it should be cloistered as if one needs an appointment to regard it’. His whole adult life has been devoted to sourcing wonderful ingredients starting with cheese and working through just about everything else in the deli section. He believes we should spend less time and money in restaurants and more time entertaining at home using the old tools and the old recipes. He is against food fads and believes that ‘the more somebody messes with a foodstuff, refines and improves it, the less good its going to be. The recipes in his book are provided by Mitchel London who runs restaurants of his own and for Fairway. His motto is ‘very simple, very fresh and very delicious'. How soon can I be on a plane to New York?
Which brings me to the programme for the Sydney International Food Festival due to roll out next month. The number and range of events is very impressive and there should be something here for anyone with even a passing interest in food and eating. What concerns me a little is that there is a big emphasis on eating out with restaurant dinners of one sort or another and brunch and lunch deals (which do represent very good value and the opportunity to eat at places you might not be able to afford otherwise). The highlight of the month is the World Chef Showcase which is meant to ‘give serious food lovers an insight into the best from the global food scene’. I am prepared to be proved wrong but it sounds more like this event will give serious restaurant goers insights into the global restaurant scene and what chefs think we should be eating. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t very much like to hear what Fuchsia Dunlop and Sergi Arola and Sebastien Bras might have to say I just can’t justify spending $285 for the day and risk being disappointed.
I had hoped to go to the Food Blogger’ Secret Dinner but that was booked out before you could blink! With luck we will get to the 100 mile meal at Mamre Homestead and I have booked myself in to hear Stephanie Alexander talk about her new book Kitchen Garden Companion. My putative vegetable garden is still a pile of rubble which covers the area between the back door and the garage but one day it will be, well, at least productive. My inspiration is Lolo Houbein’s One Magic Square (Wakefield Press, Kent Town, 2008) – no one could read this and not want to rush out and grab a shovel. And I was interested to read extracts from Nigel Slater’s new book Tender: A cook and his vegetable garden - can’t wait to actually be growing something again rather than just reading bout it!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Supermarket-free week

One of the great joys of moving house is that I am now within walking distance of a terrific local shopping ‘village’. We are also in easy reach of two farmer’s markets which run every Saturday rather than the second Saturday of every month with an ‘r’ in it or some such other complicated formula which means that you both forget when it’s on and you can’t possibly survive without having to top up the fruit and veg. supply in between times. So I can record that I have gone for a whole week without setting foot in either a Coles or a Woolworths supermarket. I have had to make a few trips to the local IGA for t-bags and milk and the like but surely that doesn’t really count as a trip to the supermarket? At the IGA on the corner you can actually speak to the owner and the staff are cheerful and friendly and know you by sight if not by name. At the local Coles or Woolworths you can do all your shopping, go through the self-help check out and never have to talk to a soul – if indeed there were any souls with whom to converse.
These fabulous mushrooms were at the Everleigh Markets last weekend – how could you resist?


Thursday, September 3, 2009

Month in Review - August 2009

If a blog is supposed to be an on-line diary then it isn't much use unless there are regular entries. Nothing is more frustrating than following someones blog where nothing happens for weeks at a time. That is of course unless they have a good excuse.
Well my excuse is that we have been moving house. In fact we have been on the move since the middle of May. Three months camping in other people's houses with one saucepan and a rice cooker and far more boxes of 'essentials' than we really needed have finally come to an end.
Although still surrounded by unopened boxes, with no door to, nor shower screen in, the bathroom and a potential vegetable garden which is a wasteland I am at least using the 'perfect' kitchen which we spent so many hours designing.There probably isn't a perfect kitchen - there can never be enough bench or cupboard space. And by the time you factor in all the limitations of size, plumbing, electricity and gas connections, and then add up the cost most ideals of perfection suffer a fair degree of modification. Nonetheless I am thrilled with the result and especially my new stove.
My criteria for the perfect stove were simple

  • gas cook top with plenty of burners and room for big saucepans

  • electric oven - preferably two ovens so that it would be possible to cook a roast dinner and a sponge cake simultaneously (this is not something I plan to do often but I need to know that I could)

  • a separate grill! What has happened to the separate grill? I still fondly remember my mother's eye-level grill on our gas stove at home. And even my Early Kooka had a separate grill.

  • something which looked attractive - practical but not too agricultural - and was easy to keep clean

  • and of course something which would fit the space we had available. It needed to be reasonably compact - I didn't want to take up valuable cupboard space to get an extra oven and I couldn't afford to give up bench space for extra burners.
Believe it or not there is such a gem - a Falcon Toledo 90! It is gorgeous- looks fabulous, has the best simmer settings ever and works like a dream.

But the news this month isn't all good. I had had my heart set on doing a postgraduate diploma in Gastronomy at the University of Adelaide but because of all the house moving I had put this on hold until next year. So it was very disappointing to discover that the course has been discontinued. Lack of interest? Lack of financing? Who knows but they are not accepting any more enrolments and I am on the lookout for some other intellectual stimulation.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Month in Review - July 2009

No doubt I am not the first to discover that starting a blog is much easier than keeping it up to date. I am very good at making lists of things that I should/could write about but finding the time to do so is a bit problematic. So herewith a summary of what happened in my food life this month.

  1. The end of the first Australian Masterchef series. Was I the only person who didn't really get into this? What is the fascination about food as competition?

  2. On the subject of television I have had access to cable TV for the last couple of weeks and was very excited at the prospect of the Lifestyle Food channel and seeing Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in the flesh only to discover that the series on offer had been made in 1999! And people pay to see this stuff? Also came across something called 'Come Dine with Me' - more food competition involving a very unlikeable crew.

  3. A birthday dinner at Bird, Cow Fish -cod brandade with a salad of celery leaf, parsley and lemon followed by Coorong hanger steak with a sweet and sour garlic, anchovy, oregano, raisin and veal jus sauce. Alex Herbert is a bit of a gem.

  4. Bécasse Producers Winter Forum Lunch. Introduced by Simon Marnie, food by Justin North which included Coffin Bay pacific oysters, Woodbridge smoked trout, local prosciutto, prawns from Kinkawooka (Spencer’s Gulf Prawn Fishery), duck from Cornucopia (in the Upper Hunter on the Patterson River) washed down with beer (more specifically Organic Pale Ale) from Redoak, chardonnay from Lakes Folly and coffee from Single Origin Northern Rivers. Can't wait for the next one.

  5. Living temporarily in Petersham within easy walking distance of Sweet Belem and their addictive tarts.

  6. Another dinner this time at Abhi's Indian restaurant with friends. This is a great local restaurant, very popular and very good.

  7. Received the latest edition of the Art of Eating (number 81). Edward Behr might be a tad opinionated but there is always something thought provoking in his little magazine. And its arrival led to my perennial complaint - why isn't there a good, locally produced food magazine - of any sort? Not one chock full of recipes and celebrity chefs but one that really talks about the who, what, when, how and why of eating and food production. Think Gastronomica and even the Observer Food Monthly.

And that's it for this month

Friday, July 24, 2009

Michael Shuman and the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance.

Michael Shuman is the author of The Small-Mart Revolution which is all about how local businesses are taking on and beating the global competition. He contends that locally owned businesses are more reliable generators of good jobs, economic growth and social stability and by being innovative and creative they can take on BIG business and local communities can thrive.

I was fortunate to be able to hear him speak on 'The local food revolution: Why it is happening and how Sydney can accelerate it' at a forum organised by the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance.
To be honest until a friend alerted me to this event I had heard of neither the SFFA or Michael Shuman so the afternoon was something of a revelation.

The SFFA was formed in 2005 and aims 'to coordinate the efforts of rural producers, health professionals, community workers and community based advocates active in developing a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable food system in the Sydney region'. The forum I attended was one of several being held to provide the opportunity for interested parties to identify issues and actions that could be considered at the SFFA Food Summit which will be held on 22nd and 23rd October. The forums discussed issues under four broad headings

  • access to healthy food
  • planning for healthy food supplies
  • sustainable agriculture
  • food safety and health
In my capacity as a professional shopper and eater I felt a bit out of my depth given that most of the other attendees were rather more professionally involved in some way with local government, urban planning, community gardens, etc. etc. None the less it wasn't too hard to work out what was going on and to be able to recognise some of the important steps that need to be taken to ensure a sustainable food supply for the city.

What impressed me most was that so much of what Michael Shuman was advocating is already happening here in one way or another - the popularity of local growers markets for example is surely testament to the fact that consumers are aware of and unhappy with the stranglehold that Coles and Woolworths have on our food supply. Our gravest concern should be the fate of these suppliers who farm on the urban fringe. The farmers of the Sydney Basin (the Hawkesbury-Nepean catchment on the edge of Sydney's western suburbs) provide 90 per cent of Sydney's perishable vegetables and almost 100 per cent of the state's Asian vegetables. Agriculture in the Sydney Basin is the largest industry in Western Sydney, employing around 12,000 people. We should all be doing anything and everything we can to ensure that this industry remains viable - our future depends upon it!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Healthy Diet

Archimbaldo perhaps took the idea of you are what you eat a bit far! Generally speaking what you had for dinner is not written all over your face – unless of course you have very messy eating habits. However, it can be a bit of a surprise to review not just what you eat every day but how much of everything you consume. Keeping a food diary is a worthwhile if somewhat tedious undertaking. What is even more alarming is to compare your daily intake with what the dieticians would have us believe is a normal healthy diet. What made me stop and think was the suggested quantity of vegetables we should be consuming each day.
The recommendation is 5 – 6 serves of different vegetables every day. Now a serve of vegies consists of ½ cup of cooked vegetables, dried peas, beans or lentils or 1 cup of salad or raw vegetables. So we should be eating 3 cups of cooked vegetables or 6 cups of salad each and every day. That means, for a family of four, preparing 12 cups of different cooked vegetables every day or preparing a whopping 24 cups of salad!
I think the first thing to do is go out and get a compost bin or a worm farm, if you don’t already have one, to cope with all the peelings and trimmings! This quantity of vegetables also involves a lot of shopping and preparation – trust me, I know. To say nothing of the extra time involved in simply eating your way through this amount of vegetation! Our family diet has had to shift from meat served with vegetables to vegetables served with meat - which is of course exactly what the dieticians are aiming at.
An added complication is that with most of the family either at work or school during the day most of these vegetables have to be consumed as part of the evening meal. Presenting at least three different vegies every night can be a bit of a challenge. One thing I have started doing is serving the vegetables as a separate course such as an entrée of salad or a platter of vegie antipasto (grilled eggplant, capsicum and zucchini with roasted tomatoes and perhaps a bit of fetta or goats cheese). The next step is to start growing our own but first of all we need to have a garden.
Watch this space for further progress with the healthy diet.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

To market, to market

Last week there was an article in the newspaper which talked about the changes supermarkets were making to attract more customers. Apparently only 60 percent of Australian consumers shop in supermarkets. This statistic came as something of a surprise. Where do the other 40 per cent buy their toilet paper?
It appears that the marketing genii at the major supermarket headquarters have decided that shoppers like the market atmosphere and so they are setting about creating that atmosphere in the local shopping centre. To do this the supermarket is being transformed – wider and shorter isles, better displays, even bringing butchers and fishmongers back into the stores.
Who do they think they are going to fool?

As it happens my local supermarket is one of those flag ship stores where these changes are being introduced. Having changed the layout of the store every week for a month or more the customers now wander the albeit wider isles in a daze unable to locate anything much. Thankfully the aisles are also full of uniformed helpers who are unfailing cheerful and do indeed seem to know where to find things. When I asked for polenta I was told various brands were located in no fewer than four separate convenient locations. Yesterday shoppers were greeted by a very happy chappy in the meat section extolling the virtues of the sausages he was cooking alongside a sign which proclaimed that butchers would be back in-store from next week.
I have to admit to being old enough to remember the last time butchers were in-store at supermarkets. Behind the meat counter you could see the ‘butchers’ cutting the meat and laying it out on the little black trays and then wrapping it in plastic. On the meat display there was a bell you could ring and a real person would come out of the preparation room to talk to you. The big advantage of this set up was that if you only wanted two chops and all the pre-packaged trays held eight chops you could get someone to pack up what you wanted. And let’s face it the reason most people shop at the butcher is not just the personal service but because they desire to buy what they want in the amounts they require.

Apparently the aim of the supermarket management is not just to recreate the market atmosphere but also to re-invent the conversation that buyers have with the stall holders in the market place. Is being able to talk to the man who wraps the meat in plastic the same as talking to the man who raised the lambs, slaughtered them and then drove the meat to the market to sell it to you? Surely talking to the man who unpacks the boxes of tomatoes and arranges them on the display is not the same as talking to the man who grew them. What chance that my conversation with the in-store butcher will be stimulating enough to sustain me through the wait at the checkout?

And could any supermarket hope to re-create the atmosphere of a market? In so many ways the supermarket is the antithesis of the open market and was surely created to be just that. Food markets are noisy and crowded, sometimes a bit smelly, often very messy. The market changes from day to day and week to week – the stall holders change, the weather changes, new products appear and disappear, seasonality is everything and many items are often available in limited amounts. Markets offer the opportunity to compare quality and prices, to taste products, to chat to growers and to meet friends, share a coffee, be entertained by real people rather than mesmerised by piped music and bombarded with incomprehensible announcements. There is a sense of fun and entertainment and surprise associated with shopping for fresh food at the market in direct contrast to the predicability and uniformity of the supermarket.

When I go to buy my toilet paper and toothpaste I do want them to be on the same shelf and in the same place especially given that I can buy all the toilet paper and toothpaste I need for a month in one visit to the supermarket. I’m choosing and buying food almost everyday. Hunting and gathering takes up a lot of my time. I don’t see why it should be reduced to a chore when I could be enjoying the experience.
I can’t say that I am anticipating the return of the butcher to the supermarket with the same excitement as my trip to the market this weekend.

All these photographs were taken in the Campo dei Fiori, Rome.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Sunnybrae - Saturday Lunch

The first time we ate at Sunnybrae was destined to also be the last because we had managed to book for the weekend before George Biron was due to close the for want we then thought would be forever. Happily George and Diane have reopened the restaurant but getting there has become more of a challenge because we now live in Sydney. However there is no eating challenge which can’t be overcome!

Just outside Birregurra, a short drive from Geelong through beautiful countryside, Sunnybrae is my idea of paradise. George and Diane have restored a little 1860s cottage for their home and added a huge kitchen and cosy restaurant surrounded by a garden which grows many of the ingredients used in the wonderful long lunches they serve at the weekends. The atmosphere here is warm and homely - as it should be since all that separates the diner from George’s lounge room is the kitchen. The big windows in the dining room look out on to the garden, the walls are lined with George’s food books and Diane’s artworks, the menu is handwritten and features the best of what's available locally which George can source on the day. It is just like going to lunch with friends except that none of my friends can produce food quite like this.

We started with a Roman-style broth with drizzled egg and parmesan served with potato bread - one of those deceptively simple dishes that only work because of the care put in to preparing the broth. What I like most about George’s food is that there are always a few surprises, flavour and/or texture combinations which make you stop and think. Here the food is not just about demonstrating the ingenuity and skill of the chef and there is no pretentiousness or artifice. Rather the menu is about the ingredients and demonstrates George’s enthusiasm and curiosity and intelligence.

So we get to try tarama with fennel and garlic salad; a fresh cheese, lightly smoked in the wood oven with young carrots; Spanish-style jamon; tomatillo guacamole with pomegranates; and celeriac, parsnip and leek strudel with an anchoiade.

By the time we’ve sampled all these delights a stroll around the garden is pretty much mandatory. It is one of those early winter days Victoria does so well – still and grey, slightly damp, cool but not cold – and the vegetable garden is resting, getting its strength back ready for the spring. On this weekend there are also two private parties in the two other rooms adjacent to the main restaurant so there are quite a few others wandering in the outdoors with their wine glasses. On a sunny afternoon it would be perfect to spend a bit of time in the courtyard (with the wood fired oven and the barbecue) or sitting on the verandah contemplating the landscape.

Refreshed we settle back for the main dish of slowly braised goat shanks with chestnuts and quinces served with potatoes baked with garlic and thyme and a salad which incorporates succulents from the garden – rock samphire and Aptenia cordifolia (which is one of those things I’m sure you would recognise if you saw it). There were other dishes available for those not keen on goat but if goat was what George thought we should try then it was good enough for me. And good it was – tender and juicy with that indefinable something that tells you that these are not lamb shanks. For me the salad was a bit of a revelation. Here were the fleshy leaves of plants I have growing in the garden for decoration and here we were eating them!
The dessert list was extensive – seven choices in all including a cheese plate. I can never go past quinces – pot roasted, served with bay leaf and honey ‘panna cotta’ and a quince ice-cream – my other half can never go past rice pudding – saffron rice pudding with mandarins and a nectarine and lime ice-cream.
Lunch started at 12.30 and it was 5 o’clock before we waddled out to the car to make our way back to Geelong!

This sort of dining is more than the sum of its parts – the comfortable, relaxed, not-all-the-chairs-match atmosphere; the friendly, attentive service; the thought and care which goes into the food preparation and sourcing the range of tastes and ingredients; the obvious enjoyment of all the patrons - these all add up to something that is more than just a very enjoyable lunch. You come away feeling that you have been part of something, learnt something, shared a little bit of George’s passion.
And you can keep in touch with George’s passion through his blog .His recent posting (A Winter’s Tail, Tongue and Cheek 23 June 2009) is a perfect example of his approach to food. Next on my wish list is to spend more time in Birregurra, have lunch with George at the weekend and then attend one of his cooking classes on Monday.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Food Inc.

Imagine taking Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin with you to the supermarket and then buying him lunch at the local drive through take away on the way home. Having shown him what you were eating what would he tell you about what you are?
Any day in the newspaper we can read about what our diet is doing to us as individuals – obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, bowel cancer, even the mental health of our children, all linked to what we put into our bodies. Tell me what you eat and I will tell you that you are fat and unhealthy.
But what we eat has far wider reaching and more insidious implications. What we eat also tells us what we are as a society. What we eat reflects our values and defines our culture. And if you are concerned about what those values are you should go and see Food Inc.
Essentially the words of Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma) with pictures, Robert Kenner’s film aims to ‘lift the lid on the food industry’ by exposing the greed of the huge corporations who bring us the food we eat with, he contends, the collusion of the USDA (The United States Department of Agriculture) and the FDA (the Food and Drug Administration).
Kenner sets out to demonstrate that the food industry puts profit ahead of the health of consumers, the livelihood of farmers, the safety of workers and environmental concerns by considering a wide range of issues associated with food production including the omnipresence of corn syrup in the food chain, how the animals we eat are raised and killed, genetic engineering, cloning and food contamination.
Schosser and Pollan both appear in the film along with Joel Salatin (who farms poultry and pigs in the Shenandoah Valley and features in The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and individuals who do try to make a difference – the mother whose son died from eating contaminated hamburgers and now acts as a lobbyist, the seed cleaner who in his own quiet way tried to take on Monsanto, the family that simply can’t afford to eat healthy food and the organic yoghurt manufacturer who has converted WalMart. There are also fairly graphic scenes of how meat is processed which won’t appeal to the squeamish or the vegetarian.
Whether this is a good documentary or not is open to discussion but I would hope that it will bring the issues raised by Schlosser and Pollan to a wider audience and make more people think about the choices we make when it comes to the food we eat. And perhaps more importantly make people realise that there are choices to be made. It can’t be denied that the industrialisation of food production has changed the world we live in. Eating, the food we choose to eat and the food available to us, have always had political and social implications but it is worth remembering that we do get the opportunity to vote three times a day.
This is a very American film and of course all the examples and statistics refer to the USA. If you have read Eric Schlosser's book you will know that some of the things he talks about - fast food chains sponsoring school canteens for example - simply do not happen here. But that isn't to say that they couldn't. What is happening here in Australia? What effect has fast food had on food production here? What do you know about GM crops in Australia? Who controls meat processing in Australia? What do you know about the effect of mining operations in the Hunter Valley on local food production? Do you know who manufactures the food you purchase at the supermarket? Don’t assume that Food Inc. won't/doesn’t happen here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Cuisine du Moi

Cuisine du Moi is the title of a new publication about Gavin Canardéaux (pronounced Canadew). Subtitled ‘True stories and original recipes from the world’s most authentic chef’. Canardéaux’s life and work have been recorded by Ben Canaider and I went along to hear Ben talk about Gavin at the recent Sydney Writer’s Festival.
Gavin began his illustrious career with Thai food at ‘Nylon Thai’ in Sydney and now has a signature restaurant in New York (Cuisine du Moi), another in London (Lad Gav) and amongst other roles he is the Honorary Governor of the Stationary Food Movement, consultant Chef de Chef at the United Nations and founder of the charity Children without Seafood. He sees himself as an innovator in taking chefs away from the kitchen and into the media.
At his restaurant in New York where, once through the trap door entrance, the interior boasts Louis XIV cutlery, a rainforest feature wall, airline chairs and an open toilet next to the open kitchen, diners can demand to see the fresh degustations in their tanks before purchasing them at a modest €150 for 150g. Gavin is committed to promoting the consumption of more amphibians. His London restaurant on the other hand is a charity fund staffed by disabled life prisoners from Mozambique, an idea which Gavin intends to franchise around the world. Devoted to seeing chefs drag themselves out of the food and wine section and into the main stream media Gavin’s food philosophy revolves around the 4 S’s - seasonable, sustainable, semi-fresh and seriously overpriced.
I haven’t read the book myself but those who have thought it was very clever and very funny. Ben’s creation does carry at least a semi-serious message – why should these so-called ‘celebrity chefs’ be allowed to get away with it? And why does their audience keep coming back for more? I think part of the current trend towards food that is easy and fast and has a minimal number of ingredients is in some ways a backlash against the pressure home cooks feel to produce family meals which look and taste like something out of a 5 star restaurant. Restaurant food is not home cooking – no one has the gadgets or the ovens or the staff at home for a start. And if we did we wouldn’t need to eat in restaurants. I wish I had thought to ask Ben for Gavin’s take on 4 Ingredients!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Jesus Almagro and the Golden Bocuse

June in Sydney means the Film Festival and the chance to see hundreds of movies, although I only manage to find time for a few. Choosing what to see is always a bit hit and miss but it is impossible to resist any film about food. Last year it was one with the intriguing title of The chicken, the fish and the king crab (which sounds even more interesting in Spanish El pollo, el pez y el cangrejo real).
The film follows the fortunes of Spanish chef Jesus Alberto Almagro Morales, then a chef at Restaurante Pedro Larumbe in Madrid, as he trains for and then competes in a bizarre competition know as the Golden Bocuse (which of course sounds much better in French -
Bocuse d’Or ).
Almagro represents his country at the 11th Bocuse which was held in January 2007 in Lyon (the competition began in 1987 and is held every second year). The brain child of Paul Bocuse the event aims to be a sort of culinary Olympiad with 24 chefs from 24 different countries performing in front of a live audience. In the 2007 version the chefs had to produce two full courses – a fish course based on Norwegian halibut and king crab and a meat course based on Bresse chicken each with three garnishes. The food must introduce ‘the culinary specificity of the country represented both in terms of taste and presentation’ (whatever that means) but be prepared using traditional French techniques. Twelve portions of each dish are paraded before the judges on a one metre long glass platter and each contestant is awarded points for taste (40), presentation (20), how well the ‘culinary specificity’ is represented (total of 15 – 10 for taste and 5 for presentation) and for overall hygiene and cleanliness (20).
The contest runs over 2 days with 12 chefs performing at each event. Each chef works in an 18m² cubicle and has 5 hours to present the fish dish and 35 minutes later must present the meat dish. The order in which each team starts work is determined by ballot and the first begins at 8.50 am followed by the others at 10 minute intervals. At the end of the 5 hours the judges are presented with a new platter of food every 10 minutes so how they manage to tell what's what is anybody's guess.
The film starts with Jesus Almagro and his assistant Felix Guerrero working away on some of their initial ideas only to have then torn to pieces by a panel of their peers all of whom have some criticism to make (a bit like MasterChef for professionals). Almagro is a very sympathetic character – determined and focused, but calm and self-effacing. There is no bad language a la Ramsay despite the obvious tension both in the kitchen and in front of the assessment panel. Almagro’s expressive baby-face says it all as numerous ideas are trialled and discarded until the team finally pack their bags for France.
The scenes of the competition itself are hilarious – senior chefs from around the world taking themselves so very seriously; Paul Bocuse, looking more than a little dazed by the whole experience, posing for photographs; the crowd waving flags, dressed in team colours and cheering wildly; the judges entering the arena like movie stars; a bewildered looking Heston Blumenthal towering over almost everyone else. There is an Australian contestant somewhere (Luke Croston who was Australia’s representative again this year - link
) but the film only has eyes for Spain in the fervent hope that Jesus will be able to save face – both for himself and his country which has performed dismally in the past. This time round Spain finishes ninth, which is a much better result than they have ever managed before, and our mild mannered chef and his assistant look justifiably quite pleased with themselves.
The winner Fabrice Desvignes (who is French) gets to take home a large golden statue of Paul Bocuse - which given his demeanour in this film is surprisingly life-like – and €20,000 which would perhaps justify all the effort. The young woman who was named best assistant (assistants have to be aged less than 22 whereas the chef must be at least 23) seemed none too thrilled to be taking home what appeared to be an almost life-size ceramic goose!
Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with Jesus and his team I couldn’t help coming away with the nagging question – why? What is this competition all about? Paul Bocuse and his bevy of judges appear, at least in this film, to be slightly ridiculous and what we see of the food looks contrived and fantastic but not necessarily appetising.
At the end of the film Almargro gives a run down of the tons of fish, crab and chicken that he alone used in his preparation, multiply that by twenty four then add in the cost of the time involved and the amount spent on sending teams to Lyon and the whole exercise begins to look like a spectacularly wasteful indulgence.
link The results of this year’s competition

Fourth Village Providore

More and more I find my enthusiasm for cooking is dampened by the necessity of having to go hunting and gathering. All that struggling for a parking space and then queuing to pay; seemingly so much choice but not really anything that you want to buy. How to avoid the tyranny of the supermarket? I am even more conscious of the need to shop pleasantly because it seems to me that in fact we should be spending more time buying food so that we can spend less time preparing it. That is we should be going to whatever lengths are necessary to buy the best and freshest ingredients we can so that when we get them home pretty much all you have to do is arrange them on the plate and then eat them. Well, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration but you get the idea – buy what’s in season and at its best and then mess about with it as little as possible.
When we lived in Melbourne I shopped at Leo’s supermarket in Kew. At the time I thought this was the one stop food shop to die for – wine, meat, fresh fruit and vegetables, delicatessen, cakes, bread and, yes even washing detergent and toilet paper all to the accompaniment of Andrea Bocelli. Nothing back in Sydney came close.
The arrival of Thomas Dux made a small but significant improvement to my suburban shopping centre if only because it meant that the competition lifted their game a bit. Thomas certainly has a better ambiance than your average supermarket, the range of products is reasonable – good lighting, well laid out, some good cheeses, more organics, friendly and approachable staff and, in my experience, always clean and neat.
Recently however we have moved and I am now in the process of evaluating a whole new array of shopping opportunities.
In the meantime I have been lucky enough to be introduced to the Fourth Village Providore in Mosman. Peter Quattroville and his team obviously know what they are doing! The atmosphere here is fantastic with a proper cool room for the leafy greens, beautifully presented fruits and vegetables, home made jams and relishes, a fantastic selection of vinegars and oils (including their own pressed from olives grown in the Hunter Valley) – a real foodie paradise with an emphasis on local products and the very best of those imported. They sell caramelised roasted tomatoes which are more than worth crossing the bridge for and the cheese room is absolute heaven (and I could happily take the young man who runs the cheese room – Anthony Femia – home with me too!). On my first visit I enjoyed lunch in the cafe area – a delicious antipasto platter which was served on a wooden trencher. All the food looked spectacular and tasted just as good (apparently there are two chefs – one Australian and one Italian and a pizza chef to man the oven which has pride of place).On a Sunday afternoon the place was full to bursting.
On my second visit I was there for a cheese tasting – four super yummy Italian cheeses matched with Italian wines. My mostest favouritist cheese was La Tur from Caseificio Dell’Alta Langa whose headquarters are in Bosia, a village in the mountains south of Alba in Piedmont. Made from a mix of sheep, cow and goat’s milk this cheese is hand made and matured for only a week to ten days. Each little wrinkled round sits in its own paper cup as much like a dainty cake as a cheese. It has a slightly denser texture in the centre and a gooey creaminess on the outside and a mild but deliciously complex flavour. Janet Fletcher in the San Francisco Chronicle claimed this cheese was ‘as close to love as a cheese can get’ and that it ‘provides the kind of sensory experience that makes tasters roll their eyes skyward and lean back in their chairs’ - which I’d say was about right. At the Fourth Village it was teamed with a spicy panforte and a delightfully citrusy quince paste – ambrosia!
The Fourth Village Providore, 5a Vista Street, Mosman

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Culinary Catastrophe - The Four Ingredients

For me the culinary catastrophe of 2008 was the success of a slim volume of ‘recipes’ by Queensland Mum’s Kim McCosker and Rachel Bermingham. 4 Ingredients has been on the best seller list for ever. The authors have received a good deal of publicity and the book has been widely discussed as a publishing phenomenon. The girls now have another book and their own television programme (check them out here).
However little if any attention has been given to the book’s contents.

The first positive attribute of 4 Ingredients is that it is cheap. At, the last time I looked, only $17.95 it is well within the grasp of its target audience - the busy, the impecunious and/or those with limited culinary skill. This unpretentious little book has no fancy photographs or clever graphics just the appearance and feel of something home produced (or more accurately in this case self-published) which is no doubt meant to be in keeping with the authors’ cheerful, no nonsense approach to food and clearly differentiates their offering from most of the other recipe books in the local bookshop.
On reflection the price is perhaps this book’s only positive attribute. I am prepared to turn a blind eye to the grammatical errors and the gushings of both authors who ‘absolutely love and adore’ their families, themselves and one another. Everyone it seems is gorgeous, talented, courageous or creative and the food is fabulous, sensational, wonderful, fantastic and adored by all. I can tolerate the waffle, the biographies, the handy hints and even the gratuitous financial advice. What makes me angry is the naivety and ambiguity- which I am tempted to call ignorance and blatant hypocrisy – inherent in their recipes.

Kim and Rach have their own eater’s manifesto (à la Michael Pollan). They believe that by simplifying cooking – reducing the number of ingredients and the number of utensils used – we can save time (both shopping for and preparing food), and money. I am uncomfortable with the assertion that by reducing the number of ingredients ‘you won’t need to buy as much’ and I am by no means convinced that a recipe with eight ingredients will even ‘generally’ cost more to prepare than one with only half that number of components. Surely for one thing it will depend on what those ingredients are and how many mouths you have to feed. My own experience tells me that one recipe does not a meal make. Nor am I persuaded that fewer ingredients per se will make food preparation easier. But it gets worse.

On the one hand the Misses Bermingham and McCosker recommend organic flour and eggs on the other they are singing the praises of French Onion Soup mix. How can they be advocates of both? Packets of French Onion Soup are staples in at least ten recipes – including the recipe for French Onion Soup! Soup – either from a can or a packet – features in at least another 15 recipes. Why would you buy pork tenderloin, a by no means cheap cut of meat, and drown it in a can of tomato soup mixed with a packet of French Onion soup mix? How can this be more economical or quicker than cooking the meat with crushed tomatoes, fried onions and some seasoning? Easy Roast Beef calls for a rib roast, a packet of French Onion Soup mix and a can of cream of mushroom soup. How can this be cheaper than a traditional roast seasoned with salt and pepper and perhaps a little garlic, cooked on a bed of onions and served with sautéed mushrooms? ‘Best Gravy Ever’ involves nothing more than mixing dry gravy mix with water. I would have thought that most people don’t need a recipe book to tell them that or how to cook some spaghetti and smother it with reheated pasta sauce from a jar. Surely all you have to do is follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Why, if you are interested in economical, healthy meals, make apple crumble with a can of apple pie filling? You can buy a whole kilo of apples for less than the price of a can of processed pie filling.

Perhaps the authors have not read the Forward to their own book (written by Cyndi O’Meara, Nutritionist). Cyndi exhorts the reader to make healthy meals and assures them that ‘Nature makes all the healthy foods’ and that purchasing good quality ingredients will guarantee that ‘all the recipes in this book will be healthy’. Whilst the authors are well aware that ‘natural, non-technically enhanced products are LOADED with essential nutrients’ (p.13) they seem to be unaware of the irony in recommending using cold pressed oils and organic products alongside ‘ingredients’ such as vanilla instant pudding mix. Haven’t they ever wondered how the onions got into the soup packet? Don’t they ever read the ingredient declarations on the packets and cans and jars of ‘ingredients’ they ask us to use? And don’t they know that organic products are generally more expensive? How do they reconcile the taste and health benefits of eating these ‘less technically altered’ and healthier products with their price?

The other criticism I have of this book is that no where is there any suggestion that cooking is a creative process or that it might be possible to enjoy food preparation as a satisfying act in itself and a means of nurturing and loving your own ‘gorgeous’ family. Nothing about 4 Ingredients encourages a young generation of cooks and eaters to value food as anything more than a means of survival and meal preparation as anything more than a chore. I have had enough experience of cooking for a family to know that preparing meals week in week out can become a bit of a bind. Limited time to shop and prepare meals is not however an excuse for not trying. Experience has also taught me that buying good ingredients means that you can do something very simple and produce a nourishing and tasty result at a reasonable price especially if you concentrate on whatever fruits or vegetables are in season. Good food is not only for the idle and the rich.

I am by no means against short cuts and convenience products per se. In my pantry you’ll find cans of tomatoes and pulses and packets of instant couscous. No, I don’t make my own bread or jams or chutneys and I am very partial to vegemite. I don’t always make my own mayonnaise and I use premixed spice blends but I do grow my own herbs and I like to think that I understand the implications of the choices I make in the supermarket. I certainly understand the difference between something that is processed – like canned kidney beans and frozen peas – and something that is manufactured – like condensed cream of mushroom soup. What disturbs and concerns me most is that in the end Kim and Rach offer no real guidance on how to prepare healthy food or how to shop economically and they avoid altogether the issue of eating ethically in the interests of ‘something you can whip up and get on the table’. (Herald Sun 5 April 2008)

Saving time in the kitchen has been the subject of far better books for example Take 3 and Very Simple Food by Jill Dupleix and Nigel Slater’s The Thirty Minute Cookbook and his very successful Real Fast Food. Edouard de Pomiane recognised that the pace of modern life left little time for food preparation when he wrote Cooking in Ten Minutes or The Adaptation to the Rhythm of Our Time. ‘Modern life spoils so much that is pleasant’ he says, ‘let us see that it does not make us spoil our steak or our omelette’. His book was first published in 1930.

Before you buy 4 Ingredients think about paying a few dollars more and purchase one of these or even Michael Pollan’s In Defence of Food. Rach and Kim would do well to reflect more on some of Pollan’s philosophies not least ‘Pay more, eat less’ and ‘Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle’.

Monday, June 1, 2009

To Blog or not to Blog

I have been ‘getting ready’ to start this blog for twelve months. My first inspiration came from hearing Michael Pollan speak at the Sydney Writer’s Festival in 2008.

Reading his In Defence of Food made me think more about what I’m eating and what I buy. By that I don’t mean that I haven’t always been conscious about making sensible and healthy food choices but I have come to the realisation that there is more that I could do.

For example ‘Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle’ and ‘Get out of the supermarket whenever possible’ both tend to add up to ‘Pay more, eat less’ and they also add up to having to take more time over shopping and food preparation. Which in turn means having to make shopping more of a pleasure and less of a chore (for example shopping at the farm gate) and being a bit more pro-active (making sugo when tomatoes are cheap).

I also realised that I don’t know as much as perhaps I should about various food production methods or about important issues such as GM foods. Nor do I really understand what many of the claims on food products amount to – ‘free range’ on eggs for example and perhaps more significantly ‘organic’.
I suppose too that I have rather tended to think that the choices I make only really make a difference to me and to my family. Michael Pollan made the comparison with political movements – who would have thought the Berlin wall would come down one day just because a handful of people had believed, for a very long time, that it could and should. So Pollan suggests that we work on the assumption that what we do is making a difference and eventually we will see changes. I suppose too that we can set an example and by discussing what we are doing and why we perhaps convince others too.

I am particularly interested in the whole question of avoiding the supermarket because of the current popularity of the ‘recipe’ book 4 Ingredients. If all the people who are buying this book also cook the recipes then there are an awful lot of people out there who see no problem with using cans and packets of soup to add flavour to their food because it is a fast and convenient way to prepare meals and makes shopping easier. How to convince them that spending more time and more money shopping is in fact a better way to go? How do we convince people who really do not like cooking that it is important to spend time in the kitchen if you want to present your family with healthy meals? How then to convince them that there are ethical issues associated with what we eat and how we shop?

Another inspiration was a comment by Fred Kaufman (author of A Short History of the American Stomach) on the Saveur magazine
(issue 111, May 2008). He was talking about cooking programmes on television. He sees these shows as presenting a fantasy of domestic bliss and regards the audience as ‘voyeurs’. He believes that ‘working for that domesticity, making a house, cooking and being together is not a simple thing in real life. We watch food television to get a bit of that feeling, and then we can just throw something in the microwave and eat crap alone in the dark.’

Finally after months of procrastination I have decided that this blog might help to contribute just a little something to making a difference, to getting people away from the television and the microwave and out of the centre of the supermarket – even if only one crumb at a time.