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.