Monday, 9 June 2014

Real cider from Western Australia: Custard & Co

Custard & Co Scrumpy cider
Most of the time I say no when I get offers of promo samples, but I made an exception to say yes to Custard & Co when they approached me because I have FEELINGS about all the sickly sweet RTD fake "ciders" flooding the Australian market. In contrast, Custard & Co is the genuine article: real cider made in southwest Western Australia using local, hand-sorted fruit, their own strain of wild yeast and open top fermentation. You can read more about the processes used by Somerset-born owner and chief cider maker Ian Rayner here. This is their Scrumpy (unfiltered and uncarbonated) and it's bloody DELICIOUS - fermented and full of the flavour of real apples. Melburnians can buy Custard & Co cider at Blackhearts & Sparrows and Slow Beer, and look out for it on the menu at discerning venues like Cumulus Inc, The Town Mouse and The Meatball & Wine Bar.

Thanks for the free sample, Custard & Co - I didn't drink it on #FlagonFriday so I missed the promo hashtag, but this flagon will go down a treat at today's Queen's Birthday Game of Thrones viewing party.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Melbourne's own Mister Bitters bitters

Mister Bitters

As my overladen cocktail trolley at home will attest, I'm an ardent fan of good gin and other spirits, and I particularly like to support Australian distillers in the small-batch liquor boom. Lately I've been experimenting a bit more with tonic syrups and different kinds of bitters, and was delighted to learn in February that two chaps in Fitzroy were about to launch Australia's first dedicated bitters company.

Mister Bitters is made by Melbourne bartenders Benny McKew and Jacob Taylor, in a partnership that includes Lily Blacks owner Lachlan McAllister. The flavours that they've launched so far are fig & cinnamon, pink grapefruit & agave (a bedmate for tequila if ever there was one - as it happens, it was developed with the guys from Tromba) and honeyed apricot & smoked hickory.

I was gifted a small sample of each at the Mister Bitters launch last week, and have been playing with them at home since then. Of the three flavours, I'd say fig & cinnamon is the most versatile (it tastes terrific in an Old Fashioned, or really any other old school cocktail that benefits from Christmassy spice) but my favourite is perhaps the honeyed apricot & smoked hickory, which gave my Negroni a smoky extra kick. You can purchase 100mL bottles of Mister Bitters bitters from Only Bitters, a Melbourne-based website that every cocktail aficionado should have bookmarked. I encourage you to do so!

Mister Bitters

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

My nonna's sugo

Gnocchi con sugo

Three times over the last fifteen years I've tried to learn my nonna's recipe for making her signature sugo, ragù alla bolognese. I've watched and listened and scribbled in my notebook as she's talked me through the process in a mishmash of English and Italian. Soffritto of garlic, onion, celery, carrot. Herbs and spices. Tomato. Meat. Wine. Time. But whenever I've tried to replicate the recipe at home I've been dissatisfied with the results, no matter how meticulous I've been. There's an intangible spark, an Italianness, that my sauce lacks – which I consider supremely ironic, given that her sugo was created then developed in Australia, rather than in the country of her birth.

My nonna Livia grew up in a village in the Veneto near Treviso, then lived in Monfalcone, a ship-building town in Friuli-Venezia Giulia that was bombed into ugliness during the war due to its military significance. As the 22-year-old bride of an Istrian Italian disillusioned after his home town became part of Tito's Yugoslavia in the post-war redrawing of borders, Livia boarded a ship in 1950 with her new husband for a new life.

Nonna e Nonno

It was a hard life. For the first six months in Australia, including several weeks interned in Albury's Bonegilla Migrant Camp, she cried every day for the parents and siblings she'd left behind. She was disgusted to learn that Australians cooked with dripping, and that olive oil was available only from a pharmacy for presumably medicinal purposes. And for all her continental snobbery, Livia found herself unable to produce dishes that met with her husband's exacting standards. Although her parents had run a trattoria/bar in the shadow of Monfalcone's train station, her duties had been confined to front of house and as the youngest daughter she had never been taught to cook.

Salvation came in 1952 in the form of a cook book in a language she could read, transported by special request from Italy by her brother when he too migrated to Melbourne. Il tesoretto della cucina italiana by Giuseppe Oberosler was a 600-page tome containing 1,700 'practical, economical and tasty recipes for family use'. She still possesses it to this day, and claims it taught her everything she needed to know to become a good cook.


For decades though, she steadfastly ignored the Southern recipes. Unlike most of Australia's Italian migrants who had come from the rural agricultural South, she and her husband came from the industrialised North (albeit from the then-poorest pocket of the North, well outside the industrial golden triangle of Milan-Turin-Genoa). Their staples had been polenta and risotto.

To my grandparents, who'd left Italy just before the advent of television sped up linguistic homogenisation, most of the Lygon Street Italians with their incomprehensible dialects and love of pizza were completely foreign. My grandparents' social circle was mostly limited to other Northern Italian migrants, and Anglos who'd good naturedly tease them for drinking 'plonk' rather than beer. For forty years Livia's sourced-from-Italy, learned-in-Australia recipes stayed true to her Northern roots, and avoided peperoncino at all costs ('Che schifo!', my nonno would grimace, at the mere mention of chilli).

Then a curious thing happened. In the late 1980s, they were persuaded by friends to join an Italian social club, the kind where the pipe-smoking men would play card games like briscola or scopa for hours while the women worked together to prepare a hearty communal dinner. For the first time, they were socialising regularly with a large group of Southerners and sharing meals with them. Frequent exposure to Southern Italian cuisine at the club transformed their tastebuds, making them more adventurous diners generally – but above all developing their love of chilli, to the point where nonno would clamour for more and more peperoncino in his sugo.

And so nonna's sugo, which had been evolving since 1952, underwent its most dramatic change, receiving a turbo boost of chilli. The recipe continues to evolve to this day, though as a widow living alone with declining health she makes it less frequently now. I remain touched that my grandparents were able to adapt and appreciate good Southern Italian food, even at a late stage in their lives. Now let me just nail this damn recipe.


For more stories about Livia, visit my aunt Paola's excellent blog Italy on my Mind - grazie Paola for letting me use two of your photos. x

Monday, 31 March 2014

Top three city venues for ramen in Melbourne

Fukuryu Ramen

It pains me to admit it, but the ramen in Sydney has always been better than the ramen in Melbourne. Until about a year ago, going out for ramen in Melbourne was a regular exercise in disappointment: at Kokoro the broths were too salty, at Ramen Ya the egg was hard-boiled (nooooooo!) and the watery broths were often served lukewarm, and at Ajisen the noodles were soggy. Fast-forward to 2014 and the state of ramen in Melbourne has improved a great deal - these are the three venues in the CBD where I will happily order ramen.

Fukuryu Ramen
22-26 Corrs Lane, Melbourne (map)
9090 7149
Open Monday to Sunday 11:30am - 2:30pm and 5:30pm - 9:30pm

Fukuryu Ramen

Fukuryu ("lucky dragon") Ramen opened just two weeks ago, but I've already dined there multiple times. It's located in Chinatown's Corrs Lane between Brutale and Sichuan House, occupying a large, pristine warehouse space on the second floor with west-facing windows. Jeff and Yenny Tsao have opened the restaurant with partners from Hakata Ikkousha Group Indonesia, a group with ramen restaurants all over Asia. Staff are very polite and enthusiastic.

Fukuryu tonkotsu

The broth, the broth! It was the best tonkotsu I've had in Melbourne, with plenty of depth and pork and garlic. My friend's miso ramen with butter and corn was also excellent, the noodles were not-too-soggy-not-too-bouncy, and the ajitama (marinated soft-boiled egg) was gloriously gooey. While the bowls are a bit smaller than at other ramen joints, they're priced accordingly ($8.90-$9.90, and you don't have to pay extra for the ajitama) and are a good size for those of us who have to concentrate at our desks after lunch. Fukuryu is gradually rolling out an expanded izakaya menu, and until 7 April the soft-serve green tea ice cream is free.

Fukuryu miso ramen

Mensousai Mugen
11 Bligh Place, Melbourne (map)
9620 3647 or 9620 9000
Open Monday to Friday 11:30am-2:30pm and 6pm-11pm, Saturday 6pm-11pm, closed Sunday


Yoshi Kurosawa, who owns longtime favourite Robot Bar in Bligh Place, opened Mensousai Mugen just across the way in November. While Mugen offers izakaya dishes and regular bowls of ramen, their specialty is tsukemen (dipping ramen): thicker noodles served cold on a plate with chashu pork, nori and pickled bamboo shoots, all of which are dipped in a thickened, strongly-seasoned sauce made from pork, chicken and dried fish to deliver an umami KAPOW. When you've finished dipping, a delicate dashi is added to the sauce to make a hot, sippable broth. It's a terrific variant on ramen.

Mugen tsukemen

The kitchen is at ground level, but the dining area is downstairs in a small, bunker-chic room with kozyndan art prints on one wall and looped Kurosawa movies on the other. There's also a good range of Coedo beers, including the Beniaka brewed from Kintoki sweet potatoes.

Kurosawa at Mugen

Little Ramen Bar
346 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne (map)
9670 5558
Open Monday to Saturday 11:30am-2:30pm and 5:30pm-9:30pm, closed Sunday

Little Ramen Bar

Less flashy than the new kids on the block Fukuryu and Mugen, quiet achiever Little Ramen Bar opened a year ago, occupying a tiny shopfront on Little Bourke Street. They dole out consistently good broths and bouncy noodles - my favourite order is the buttery miso ramen with added ajitama and lashings of kimchi. Prices are up there (ramen $9.90-$14.50 plus any extras) but the ramen servings are enormous, the gyoza are top-notch and there's fresh Sapporo Draught on tap.

Little Ramen Bar ramen

Got a favourite CBD ramen joint that isn't listed here? Tell me which one it is.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

NORA charcoal tarts, Melbourne

Coconut caramel and bacon candy tart
Coconut pandan tart
Chocolate ganache tart and ginger lemongrass tart

Expect to see these little black-shelled beauties cropping up soon in a discerning cafe near you. Launched just last week, NORA is the project of young Melbourne couple Tong and Jean, supplying tarts to cafes around town and with plans to open their own cafe in the future.

A former artist and photographer, Tong worked for a couple of years in the coffee industry at St Ali, Seven Seeds and Traveller, and more recently turned his hand to cooking with stints at The Commoner and Mr Nice Guy Thai. Jean is a self-taught baker, honing her skills over years of baking at home for family and friends while working in tax and accountancy. The flavours in the tarts draw on the couple's South East Asian backgrounds and use fancy ingredients (including on-trend favourites caramel, popcorn, bacon and popping candy) to marry sweet with savoury, something that Melbourne diners can't get enough of in their desserts these days.

The five tart varieties are as follows:
- buttered popcorn coconut caramel, topped with candied bacon and butterscotch caramel;
- coconut pandan with toasted puffed rice, coconut flakes and fried shallot crumble;
- lemon and lemongrass ginger brûlée;
- Callebaut 70% dark chocolate ganache with popping candy and navel orange puree, topped with freeze-dried mandarin and pistachio; and
- pumpkin egg custard topped with spiced Kent pumpkin, salted pepitas and hazelnut crumb.

NORA's point of difference is their distinctive black pastry shells, an effect achieved by the addition of a small amount of food-grade activated charcoal made from coconut shell. Food-grade activated charcoal is safe to ingest and has reported health benefits as a detoxifier; on my recent trip to Japan I saw bamboo charcoal used in baking. NORA's reasons for using charcoal as their signature ingredient are largely aesthetic, but they see any health benefits as a happy bonus.

You can currently find NORA's tarts at Traveller Coffee in the city and at the newly-opened Place Holder cafe in Fitzroy, with Tong and Jean looking to expand supply operations in the near future. I've been popping in to Traveller each morning this week to try one: so far my favourite is the lemon and lemongrass ginger brûlée (a terrific Asian variant on Bourke Street Bakery's most famous pastry). You can follow NORA on Twitter or Instagram.

Pumpkin egg custard tart

Friday, 14 February 2014

Sydney Gastronome: sensational Korean at Moon Park

Moon Park
Level 1, 34b Redfern Street (entry via Elizabeth Street), Redfern, NSW (map)
02 9690 0111
Open Lunch Fri & Sun noon-3pm, Dinner Tues-Sat 5:30-11pm
facebook, twitter

Breakfast wine and rice crackers

On my most recent trip to Sydney I had dinner at Moon Park, and months later I'm still thinking about that meal.

It's modern Korean, but not modern Korean as you know it. The young trio behind Moon Park have created a restaurant that feels different to every other Korean restaurant in Australia. Formerly at Melbourne's Cutler & Co before his move to Sydney, Ben Sears became head chef at Claude's in Woollahra. He met his girlfriend Eun Hee Ann while they were both working in the Claude's kitchen, and late last year they opened Moon Park as chefs and co-owners with their friend Ned Brooks (ex-MoVida and one half of wine agency Brooks & Amos), who runs front of house. The wine list is supersmart, favouring natural wines from Australia and France without going overboard. My favourite was the Patrick Sullivan 'Breakfast Wine' 2012, a naturalish skin contact Sauvignon Blanc from the Yarra Valley (not a wine I would ever have chosen off my own bat) that went brilliantly with the elegant food.

Cucumber kimchiBindaedduk: fried chickpea cake

Ah, the food. While some dishes on the menu are quite traditional ("This recipe is so Korean, my partner won't let me make it - only she is allowed to make it", joked Ben to me at one point), others reinvent Korean dishes quite radically. Yeah there's fried chicken on the menu, but it's shrimp brined; yeah there's bindaedduk, but instead of being a mung bean pancake here it consists of narrow bricks of fried chickpea cake ($5, pictured above next to the cucumber kimchi). The Bibim ($20) blends includes pearl barley, asparagus, corn, crab, cured egg and nori served with gochujang (pictured below - NB in our case the crab was served separately because my dinner date was vegetarian).

Bibim: rice & pearl barley, gochujang, corn, crab, cured egg & nori

In addition to tasting good, the dishes are beautifully plated. The whipped tofu is served with technicolor carrots, buckwheat and shiitake crisps ($15). Carrots also put in an appearance in the imjasutang ($17): traditionally a soup served to royalty, here a salad of delicately poached chicken, pinenut, mushroom, date puree, sesame paste and pickled rose.

Whipped tofu, carrot, shiitake and buckwheat
Imjasutang: royal summer chicken, pinenut, mushroom, date and pickled rose

Ben was Andrew McConnell's pastry chef at Cutler, so we ordered both desserts. The patbingsu ($13) consists of tiny sugared donuts served with strawberry, fig leaf shaved milk, red bean and omija (five-flavour tea). The "moon pie" ($14) is a deconstructed, utterly delicious combination of poached pear, maesil (green plum) marshmallow, ginger jelly and graham cracker crumbs.

Patbingsu: fig leaf shaved milk, strawberry, fresh donuts and omija
Moon pie: pear, maesil marshmallow, ginger jelly, graham cracker

The venue is a little tricky to find: the corner building faces Redfern Park, but entry is via Elizabeth Street and the low-key restaurant space is hidden above a decorative arts showroom. My list of places to visit on my next Sydney trip is long, but DAMN it will be hard to resist revisiting Moon Park.

The other standout meal on my last trip to Sydney? Cafe Paci. I didn't write about it, but judging from his review (which I highly recommend you read), Mr Lethlean and I had a very similar set menu. They only have a 12 month lease, so make a reservation quicksticks.