LOAVES and fishes. Evocative words. Simple fare. Egalitarian food for the masses. No restaurant could get them wrong - right? Wrong - cooking school has cured me of that delusion.
Cooking schools have taken off in Tasmania, as elsewhere, and we are particularly fortunate to have two of Australia’s best in Rodney Dunn and Severine Demanet's Agrarian Kitchen at Lachlan and Lee Christmas’ Red Feather Inn at Hadspen.
I have not visited the Red Feather Inn since its recent conversion although I must confess to one of Lee’s ethically bred and raised Wessex Saddleback pigs converted to a casalinga ham last Christmas. That I think though is another story.
My wife Mary and I have however, been fortunate to be able to attend a number of cooking classes and lunches at the Agrarian Kitchen. Rodney, a former food editor for Australian Gourmet magazine and a Tetsuya Wakuda trained chef last year won the Australian Traveller magazine’s Greatest Australian Gourmet Experience award.
Attending these cooking classes and learning about subjects such as Tasmanian truffles, processing heirloom tomatoes and the art of pastry making under the exotic names of Truffle Experience, Tomato Gluttony and Pastry 101, from such masters of their subject as former Gordon Ramsay pastry chef Alistair Wise, is in itself foodie heaven but I couldn’t say those classes have affected the way I look at how those foods are presented in restaurants. Loaves and fishes on the other hand – well, I am ruined for life.
Learning the secrets of sourdough from Oatland’s baker Graham Pritchard, (pictured above with Rodney Dunn), who bakes with dough made from wild yeasts in a wood fired oven under the shadow of the recently restored Callington Mill and being immersed in the passion of iki jime sensei and former Tokyo fish market doyen Mark Eather for the Tasmanian seafood he supplies to chefs including Neil Perry and Kylie Kwong, have forever changed my life. These cooking classes have totally revised my expectations of the loaves and fishes served to me in a restaurant.
I now want a high quality crust and good crumb in the bread that is served to me and I feel that chefs who serve house made bread should know about the hydration of their dough and about baking with steam and in a descending oven. And if fish has that metallic cloying smell that has put so many home cooks off cooking fish in their own kitchens, then no thanks, I know it is not sparkling fresh and I don’t want it. As Mark Eather (below) has proved to me the best fish doesn’t smell at all when being cooked or when it’s plated. If it smells of anything but the pleasant smell of the sea then it is the odour of decomposition you are smelling. Not nice.
So am I better off for my cooking classes or have they just caused me to eat at home more? Certainly not the latter – with so many good restaurants in Tasmania such as Garagistes in Hobart and Ut Si at Perth who bake sublime bread and understand it and with such talented chefs as Philippe Leban at the Source at MONA and David Moyle at the Stackings at Peppermint Bay, who only work with the freshest of fresh fish, I think the experience has just made me more discerning. Ultimately such a result will benefit everyone in the industry and will enhance Tasmania’s reputation as a serious contender in the Australian food market.