Thursday, August 27, 2009

Russian Ballet & Midnight Suppers

In 1987 the Bolshoi Ballet came to Launceston in Northern Tasmania. I know, I know, the picture above is the badge of the Kirov Ballet and the Kirov lives in St Petersburg and the Bolshoi in Moscow and the two are totally different. Patience please, I will get to the Mariinsky in a minute. That, as Groucho Marx would say, is new business, you can't bring that up now.

The main feature of the Bolshoi performance was Giselle - Act II, danced by Nadezhda Pavlova and the occasion was plainly one that called for my mother and Mary's to be collected after the ballet by a mate in his Rolls Corniche ( a car, not a food pun), and together with his mother, driven back to our house for a midnight supper for all.

Inspired by an article in Gourmet by Meg Thomason on late-night suppers we dimmed the lights, set the table with a black cloth, best silver and stemware and loaded it up a with a tureen of double consomme with cognac, cheese and herb scones, crab cakes, cucumber with hand made creme fraiche, amaretti and mascarpone pots de creme and fresh pineapple and strawberries with a strawberry Cointreau sauce.

It's amazing what a silver service supper can do for the appetite. Ten of us grazed and re-lived the magnificent dancing of Pavlova and the Bolshoi company until the small hours. Champagne was the order of the day for refreshment of course.

The experience was a most memorable one, no doubt because it is not something we did every week and our mothers regarded it as a treat of a lifetime. It is certainly to be recommended as a means of extending a pleasurable experience and making it last a lifetime.

Ten years later Mary and I were Christmas-ing in Finland, very close to Santa Claus, at Iso Syote, literally within walking distance of the North Pole. Tiring of bear stew with lingonberries and reindeer casseroles with mashed potato we decided to take the Finnish train from Helsinki to St Petersburg for New Years Eve. As it happened when we got there, Russian friends wanted to take us to the ballet and as it happened, New Years Eve meals traditionally commenced at midnight, amidst the festivities.

The ballet was the Kirov ( patience is a virtue - Harpo Marx would say you can't bring that up now, that's old business), and we traipsed through snow along a frozen Neva in -9 degrees Celsius. Passing Dostoievsky's house and the Pushkin Cafe and under the window from which Rasputin was thrown we walked to the beautiful Mariinsky Theatre wearing our evening clothes and gumboots with our dress shoes in our bags.

At that time there were two radically different prices for ballet tickets, one for tourists and another for locals. Our Leningrad friends, who insisted on shouting but who could never have afforded tourist tickets, passed us off as locals and smuggled us in on their arms chattering loudly to us in one sided Russian conversation.

The ballet was Le Corsair and featured the Kirov's prima ballerina Julia Makhalina. The theatre is of stunning beauty and the dance was breathtaking. Afterwards, not wishing to again brave the grand but intimidating St Petersburg Metro with its cavernous descending escalators, we wandered back to the Hotel Moskva on Nevsky Prospekt some 4 kilometres away, oblivious to the ice cream sellers displaying their delicacies on the sidewalk without the need of refrigeration.

Back at the Moskva things were hotting up and we sipped Champanski with Russian cognac, (a drink known as a brown bear) and found our table on the balcony overlooking the huge hotel ballroom where the entertainment and dancing was to be.

This midnight supper did not resemble our home cooked version a decade earlier but it was indeed interesting. We had sour soup - selianka and borscht, pancakes and caviar and beef stroganov. Ice cream was served at 2.00 am after the show was in full swing with live snakes, jugglers, fire-eaters, gypsies, cossacks, wrestlers, singing, dancing and St Niklaus.

We retired about 4.00 am and then found, having slept through the hotel breakfast hour, that it was impossible to find anything to eat apart from a bottle of Fanta and a Cherry Ripe from a street vendor. We were never so happy as to be back aboard the warmth and comfort of the Finnish train later that day. We cracked a bottle of Champanski as soon as we boarded and were starving by the time we made it to the dining car for a plate of a classic railway dish of Swedish hash called pytt panna - made with pan fried cubes of smoked sausage and ham with potato and onion and a fried egg on top.

Two amazing ballet performances, poles apart and two sensational suppers with a world of difference. So get to it and shake out the black table cloth, get out La Fille Mal Guarde and invite some friends over for a midnight supper.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Eggs and Food Lies

Not 15 years ago my friend Clarrie loved mutton birds and Mary's Uncle George adored avocados.

They were each told they couldn't eat their favorite food because they had elevated cholesterol levels and mutton birds and avocados were bad for their hearts. Eggs of course were out of the question.

Well we all know now that mutton birds are loaded with omega 3 and avocados are high in monounsaturated fats and vitamin E and contain one of the healthiest edible oils. But while these food lies are well understood not everyone yet realises that health authorities have backed away completely from the myth that eggs are bad for you because they are high in cholesterol.

Over 30 years of epidemiological surveys have consistently found no independent relationship between egg consumption and heart disease risk. The misconception around eggs and cholesterol stems from incorrect conclusions drawn from early research.

So Clarrie could have eaten his mutton birds and Uncle George his avocados and you don't have to limit the number of eggs you eat simply because they contain dietary cholesterol. How many more food lies are we currently being told? I for one am not waiting to hear that it's ok to eat the hand churned butter from the Agrarian Kitchen at Lachlan or the Pigeon Hole in Hobart. I will eat what I enjoy in moderation and sit back and watch the myth busting continue.

In case you are wondering, the egg pictured above is a quail's egg. It is atop a yellowfin tuna tartare mixed with green chillies and dressed with rocket. The plate is the stylist's own as they say. It bears my food crest designed and crafted by artist Tom Samek and his partner Tracy for my 55th birthday. The crest is a stylised E with the E formed from a rosemary stalk skewering the heads of a duck, a hare and a tuna.

Quail eggs are also very useful for topping escalopes of veal along with crossed anchovies to form tiny Schnitzel a la Holstein. They are also just the right size for making Scotch Eggs, wrapping them hard boiled with minced ham instead of sausage meat before crumbing and frying.

Duck eggs of course make wonderful omelettes and recently at the Agrarian Kitchen Rodney Dunn and Katheryn Wakefield made duck egg tajarin pasta served with hand made butter and julienned truffles.

On the subject of chook eggs a very special mention must go to those used by Steve Cumper at the Red Velvet Lounge at Cygnet. His own free range eggs dressed with a Hollandaise sauce and paired with his take on corned beef hash are almost as good a breakfast as his roasted black pudding with cider sauce and sautéed Huon Valley apples.

On the humble omelette I cannot finish without mentioning Annie Parmentier's cheddar and herb version (pictured below) served at Dev'lish Espresso in Hobart. Annie finishes the omelette in the oven so that, in contradistinction to the French version made with water, hers comes to the table fluffy and soft, deep and yellow and piping hot. I have not eaten a better omelette anywhere in Australia and Marco makes the best coffee in Hobart from a blend of two single origin Mexican beans. Thanks Annie and Marco and thanks also for helping the Tasmanian Devil with tips and donations through your eatery.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Mushroom Memories

That's not a mushroom you say. Well, no it's a slice of Tasmanian truffle atop truffle ice-cream, but when I started mushrooming truffles came from Perigord and Umbria not Plenty and Deloraine.

Mushrooms and Mother's Day are associated in my food memory not just because my mother taught me where to find mushrooms and which ones to pick but because the best one always seemed to mysteriously appear overnight around the second Sunday in May.

We would scour the paddocks on dewy mornings and hunt for perfect specimens which would become breakfast, pan fried in yellow farm butter with a large handful of parsley and a pinch of black pepper thrown in to the pan as the mushrooms softened and turned golden brown. Later my brother Tony, a chef, taught me to speed the process up with a generous splash of white wine reduced as the parsley was added, by then Italian parsley of course.

I discovered one of my favorite mushroom recipes in the early years of my marriage after Mary and I had eaten with Fredy Giradet in Switzerland - the first 3 Michelin starred chef outside France. That lunch at Crissier near Lausanne was one of the best meals I have ever eaten and has a tale associated with it worth telling sometime. However for the moment it suffices to say that when I later purchased Giradet's cookbook it came with a free book by Nathalie Hambro called Particular Delights. The recipe to which I refer is Hambro's Steamed Horse -Mushrooms and the dish is accompanied by small new potatoes, steamed in their skins and seved with a sesame sauce.
The method is to spoon sour cream into each mushroom, dribble a few drops of sesame oil, dust with Hungarian paprika and salt and pepper and steam for 5-7 minutes in a bamboo steamer.

These days Tasmania boasts a wonderful array of cultured mushrooms from Huon browns to oyster mushrooms, shitakes, wood - ears, and inokes. In winter when Mary and I have Thursday dinners for our friends I often butterfly medallions of eye fillet, saute potatoes with garlic and parsley and pan toss a melange of two or three different types of mushroom. A marvelous meal when preceded by onion soup with gruyere croutes and followed by a large dish creme caramel.

Artist and chef Tom Samek is an authority on edible wild mushrooms and has a signature dish of slippery-jack souffle which he makes from this delicacy which he conjures up from under pine trees at his hideaway near Franklin. He cooked it at home for me at a dinner on my birthday last year. Tom cooked again in my kitchen a few weeks ago and we paired wild duck with large slices of a huge horse mushroom which was so meaty it matched the gaminess of the duck beautifully. Especially when washed down with a Volnay Champans Premier Cru and a Clos des Papes Chateauneuf-Du-Pape.

Truffles are not your average mushroom I know but the fledgling Tasmanian industry will produce 200 odd kilos this year and many acres are now planted all over the State with inoculated hazelnut trees and deciduous oaks and more recently the evergreen, ilex oak trees.

Mary and I were lucky enough to attend 3 truffle dinners this season at the Wursthaus Kitchen cooked by Simon Webster, at Glencoe Rural Retreat cooked by Remi Bancal and at the Agrarian Kitchen cooked by Rodney Dunn and Katheryn Wakefield. We had truffled dishes as diverse as Coquilles St Jacques, Tasmanian rock lobster with foie gras and Chicken in Mourning. The most amazing discovery of the truffle season was however a red wine. Dirk Meure's 2004 D'Meure Pinot Noir is an amazing wine and in my view one of the finest produced in Tasmania. Matched with Rodney Dunn's Chicken in Mourning, Dirk's naturally produced pinot actually reduced me to tears. The agrarian philosophy of Rodney and Severine's kitchen farm matched that of Dirk's vineyard uniquely and movingly.

Amazing how food has developed in this little State of ours since my early mushrooming days. And to think my Mum told me never to pick the mushrooms from under pine trees. Tom!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Mutton Fish & Mutton Birds

When I first heard of Jacques Yves Cousteau I was about 9 years old.
I had already discovered mutton fish some years earlier.

I had learnt to prise them off their rocks at low tide with a long handled trident while leaning over the side of a wooden dinghy looking through a 5 gallon drum my father had glazed a glass bottom in for me.
There was no abalone industry then and when there was the divers were allowed to shell their fish on their boats. My pristine sea bed soon became littered with empty shells and the weed started to become muddy.
The prospect of going under the water to catch mutton fish excited me beyond belief.
When I was 10 my father bought me a second hand set of police search and rescue aqualungs and so began a hobby of scuba-diving that I pursued until a few years ago when I broke my ankle mountain climbing and could no longer push a flipper with ease.
I was always a food diver and abalone and crayfish were the prize.
The sight of red lobsters lurking at the back of a rock ledge just out of reach still haunts my dreams.
The joy of picking them up by hand while they marched across huge underwater boulders covered with short green sea grass that resembled pig face was beyond compare.
Crayfish were curried and mornayed and in summer were the centre-piece of salads.
No-one who came to our house by the sea in those days went away without a crayfish.
Abalone were sliced, pounded, crumbed and cooked quickly in butter and oil.
I have always cooked them that way, although in recent years I have used Panko breadcrumbs, the Japanese honey baked crumb and I have sometimes cooked them French style as whole ormers with a sauce made from the beards and trimmings reduced with white wine and cream and garlic.
It was common on long summer evenings for my family to have cray bakes and fish fries when the crumbed abalone would be served with home grown pink- eye potato chips and a lettuce and tomato salad dressed with and egg and mustard dressing.
Mutton birds were also a seasonal delicacy around Easter time as the Tasman Peninsula in those days had many rookeries which were open to non-indigenous Tasmanians to hunt and gather.
I well remember taking mutton birds on Wedge Island off Nubeena where in order to leave the island we would throw the bags of mutton birds into the water and jump in on top of them and swim to the waiting boat on the outward surge.
Mutton birds were plucked and skun on the rocks by the sea where conger eels would clean up the remains. The birds were cooked outside on the barbecue and so were the eels (smoked) if they were unlucky enough to come in to the shallows.
I still buy Yolla each year from a little place near Doctors Rocks on the North - West coast of Tasmania . These days I cook them in an old electric fry-pan at the end of a 20 metre extension cord at the top of Mary's lovely garden, or even better, to avoid any smell, I bake them in a floured and seasoned oven bag at 180C for about 30 minutes.
They are just wonderful consumed with a rye bread and washed down with Newcastle Brown Ale.

Thank Your Mother for the Rabbits

Sadly my mother died last year.
She starved to death.
Not a pleasant way to go for someone who so loved food.
Having sat with her through her illness, trying to cook her the ever decreasing range of foods that her cancer would allow her eat, I don't much care to hear about palliative care bringing families a time of peace and joy.
I digress.
My mother was a wonderful cook and rabbits were a staple in my early years.
Rabbit pies were a way of preparing this plentiful food source before the very cruel disease myxomatosis was introduced in a futile attempt to eradicate the bunny.
These days I often cook Rick Stein's rabbit pie with thyme dumplings atop the pie mixture to support the pastry (one of mine and Mary's pictured). Quite the best rabbit recipe I have encountered.
As a kid I spent many of my holidays on a farm near Jericho in Tasmania and my best friend David and I would snare rabbits and skin and prepare them for the farm dogs, keeping the best for the table.
David's mother baked such tender rabbit I can taste it still. Stuffed and covered with foil and cooked with dripping and a little water in a moderate oven for one and a half hours and then uncovered for a further half an hour. So simple but sublime.
I was at lunch at Cygnet on Sunday with a friend who remembers eating rabbits three times a week during her childhood. The "rabbitoh" would come around each house selling his rabbits for eight-pence a pair. Her mother prepared them curried, casseroled and baked in heavy brown paper.
It was many years before my friend Tom Samek introduced me to the wonderful flavor of hare cooked by him at the historic St Andrews Inn at Cleveland, an old coaching inn between Hobart and Launceston. It was Tom who introduced me to the joy of cooking game. But that's another tale.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Mussel-ing in on Mary

My early life by the sea in Tasmania taught me many things.
Digging for cockles in the sand with my toes and scraping mussels from the rocks at low tide came well before I heard of Jacques Cousteau.

These things gave rise to the need to cook and eat and fortunately for my future wife, they coincided with the advent of the 26 oz beer can.
Cold winter afternoons on the Tasman Peninsula were warmed by lighting a fire on the beach and heating seawater in a steel beer can to cook and eat vongole and blacklip mussels.
A wonderful pastime for a small boy.
Years later I took my wife to be Mary on a boat trip to an island off the Peninsula and anchoring off a calm rocky bay we went ashore to investigate the rock pools.
Mary was fascinated with the star fish and anemones but more-so when we lit a fire and shared a feast of mussels cooked in beer in the can.
That was the beginning of a lifetime (til now anyway) of love and a lifetime of cooking with love for the love of my life.
The wedding breakfast on the eastern shore of Hobart, after the bridge over the River Derwent collapsed on the night I proposed to Mary, was a pale thing by comparison to mussels on the beach.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Attempts on My Life

Shortly after I was born I died.
I was allergic to almost all of my favorite foods. Milk, eggs, bananas and peanuts.

An anaphylactic shock took me. The assassin was a Friesian (pictured above).
Like Lazarus I rose again after the nuns had covered me with a sheet and consoled my mother. Fortunately for me, having two living sons, Mum had mastered the memory of individual infant bawling.
After some not inconsiderable argument about the finality of death my mother was allowed to lift the shroud and take me home to a life of goats milk.
That was the last I saw of the nuns but there have been other attempts on my life. As recent as last year in fact.
Like the Friesian's they have been pretty black and white. Crude attempts.
Like the Friesian's they failed.

So my earliest food memories were associated with doctors. Not a good start.
My mother would break an egg in the kitchen and my tongue would go furry in the lounge room while watching the Galloping Gourmet on the Echo. Off to the doc for an adrenalin shot.
A Candy Nut chocolate, alas made no more, would send me off to a steam tent for a weeks camping in.
One small consolation came in the form of the denouement of an Arthur Miller stereotype selling a prehistoric food processsor. Said salesmen staked his credibility on the proposition that he could mix an egg nog, shell and all, in the Burge Supermix and no-one could tell the difference. Hello! The toddler with the Epi-Pen could.

My mother was a farm girl and a fabulous cook. My brother Tony was a chef. My father was a gardener who grew the most amazing vegetables. One of my earliest food memories was next to my father in the vegie patch while he nipped out new season's asparagus with his Joseph Rogers (aptly named a Bunny Knife - and it was. Another early memory - rabbit pie).
It was inevitable therefore that I would form a relationship with food produce and cooking from a young age and I did.
I became a hunter gatherer as a child, a love that has stayed with me and excites me now as much as it did then.
Rabbits, hares, duck , quail. Muttonbird, Cape Barren geese, wild turkey. Mushrooms, walnuts, rosehips, sloes. Crayfish, abalone, mussels, oysters. Boarfish, ling, trumpeter and tuna. This is the stuff of my food memories and these ingredients inspire me still. These are the reasons I had to cook. To this day I have dreams of catching rock lobster by hand underwater (pictured above - the lobsters, not the dream). A pull as powerful as this is not to be denied, notwithstanding the early attempts on my life.