Tuesday, 9 December 2014

A weekend in Tasmania, and the Red Velvet Lounge online auction fundraiser


The Guardian asked me to write a short piece about the food highlights from my recent weekend away in Hobart with my partner: you can read it here! And I don't think I mentioned it here on the blog, but I also contributed a few entries earlier in the year to the Guardian's Unsung Food Suburbs series (read my guide to Dandenong here, and about Sunshine here).

MasaakiPossum confit

But back to Tassie for a sec: those of you lucky enough to have visited Southern Tasmania's beautiful Huon Valley may have been familiar with the Red Velvet Lounge, a fabulous cafe in Cygnet owned and run by the inimitable Steve Cumper. I had a terrific lunch at the RVL on my previous trip to Tasmania in 2012, and Steve's idiosyncratic blog is one of my favourite chef blogs.

In November, the Red Velvet Lounge was destroyed by fire, devastating Steve and his team. Friends in the industry have rallied to help get the RVL back on its feet: you can get involved by bidding in the #assistRVL Online Auction. There are some fantastic auction items up for grabs, including: dinners at Hobart's hottest restaurants Garagistes and Franklin, accommodation at various Southern Tasmanian bed and breakfasts, a year’s supply of Bruny Island Cheese, an Agrarian Kitchen cooking class for two, French Black truffles from the Perigord 2015 winter truffle harvest, lots of excellent cases of wine, and the opportunity to accompany John Lethlean as his dining companion for a review dinner for the Weekend Australian. Please get bidding! You can do so on the Facebook page, or email tori@brunyislandcheese.com.au to place a silent bid.

Red Velvet Lounge

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Tonics and gins: news round-up

Dutch Courage Officers Mess, Brisbane

There are all sorts of interesting things happening at the moment in the world of local tonics and gins, so I thought I'd list them all in the one place in this here round-up.

Blood Moon Tonic

There are just THREE DAYS LEFT to pledge for Blood Moon Tonic, so what are you waiting for?

If you missed my earlier spruiking of it on social media, Blood Moon Tonic is a new business run by my very good friend Karolina. She's producing Australia's first handcrafted tonic syrups for commercial sale, using whole cinchona bark instead of the synthesised quinine and artificial flavours used in most sugary commercial tonic water.

For those who haven't tried tonic syrups before, they're a bit like cordial in that you dilute them with sparkling/soda water (or still water, if you prefer) to your desired strength. You can drink it with gin or other spirits, or as a grown-up non-alchoholic beverage, or even use the concentrated syrup as a cocktail ingredient.

There are three initial flavours: one traditional recipe, one with Australian native botanicals, and one which is wholly unsweetened (ideal for those who are quitting sugar or who prefer to add their own non-sugar sweetener like stevia). I was lucky enough to taste some test samples in June and can confirm they are the bee's knees - I love being able to tinker with my tonic strength depending on which gin I'm drinking. But don't just take my word for it: Mr Max Allen wrote a terrific article in The Australian about Blood Moon Tonic and what he thought of the syrups.

My gal Karolina is doing the whole thing by hand, grinding up spices in her mortar and pestle. To kickstart producing Blood Moon Tonic in commercial quantities, she launched a crowdfunding campaign on Pozible which has been wildly successful (she met her initial target of $10k in less than three days!) and which ends on Friday. Pledge before Friday by pre-purchasing some tonic syrup and you'll be getting numbered bottles from the first batch, delivered just in time for Christmas. Get on it pronto, people! I'll see you at the launch party.


Blood Moon Tonic

Daylesford and Hepburn Mineral Springs Co.

Also in Victorian tonic news, it's awesome to see that Daylesford and Hepburn Mineral Springs Co has launched what they believe to be the world's first certified organic tonic water, using their terrific natural carbonated spring water and quinine from chinchona bark (read their lively blog post about the process here). Barely a month since it launched, but already an Australian Made Award finalist at the Fine Food Australia expo last week. I haven't got my mitts on a bottle yet, but am really keen to do so - if you'd like to do the same, check the DHMSCO website for stockist details.

Photo source

And in gin news:

- Later this week Yarra Valley distillery Four Pillars Gin is launching its 'Gunpowder Proof' navy strength gin, which clocks in at a hearty 58.8% booze by volume. The Gunpowder Proof replaces half of the oranges used in production with NSW finger limes (a native botanical also found in Stone Pine Distillery's dry gin) and will be a limited 2015 release, produced only while finger limes are in season. To get your hands on a bottle, place an order on the Four Pillars website from Friday.

Photo source

- Sydney has its first local gin! Newtown brewers Young Henrys launched their Noble Cut gin on the weekend at the Small World Street Festival in Marrickville (Broadsheet has photos). As noted by Callan Boys in Good Food, the Young Henrys Noble Cut gin is made with hops, cascara, Australian green tea, native pepperberry, coriander, bush tomato, juniper, coriander, angelica root and other botanicals. Look out for it soon in discerning stockists near you.

Photo source

- Here's a fun upcoming gin event: the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) is holding a pop-up gin bar *inside* the Old Melbourne Gaol on Friday 17th October. I went along with friends to a pop-up whisky bar in the Gaol that NTAV ran earlier in the year (pictured below), and we had heaps of fun wandering in and out of the cells, learning about single malts and 19th century penal reform. The $40 ticket price includes two drinks from a selection of gins and gin-based cocktails (or wine or beer, but come ON), with additional drinks available for purchase and an optional Gin Mare masterclass for an extra $15. There'll also be food, a band and uniformed sergeants rattling batons menacingly along the prison railings, to really get you into the gaolhouse spirit. Bookings can be via Trybooking here (and NTAV will also be getting piratey on 21st November with a pop-up rum bar on the Polly Woodside (!), bookings for which can be made here).

Pop up bar at Old Melbourne Gaol

- Mornington Peninsula distillery Bass & Flinders has been running a great series of gin masterclasses, both at the distillery in Red Hill and in Melbourne, which give participants the opportunity to not only learn about gin but to play with different botanical distillates to create their ideal blend. At the end of the class you get your own bottle blended to your specifications! The October masterclass held at Southbank's Wine House has sold out, but keep an eye on the Bass & Flinders website and FB page for the November and December masterclass dates that will be announced shortly.

Dutch Courage Officers Mess, Brisbane

(By the by, gin lovers: if you find yourself in Brisbane anytime soon you MUST visit the newly opened gin bar Dutch Courage Officers Mess - 105 gins and counting! I was up in Brisbane on the weekend speaking at the Eat Drink Blog conference, and went to the bar with Elly from gin blog The Ginstress and some other conference delegates. I *ahem* got through five gins - just 100 to go next time...)

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Shortstop Coffee & Donuts comes to Melbourne (batter up)

Shortstop Coffee & Donuts
12 Sutherland Street, Melbourne (map)
9642 0807
Open Monday to Friday, 7:30am to 4:30pm
Website, Facebook, Twitter, Urbanspoon

Earl Grey and rose

Yesterday saw the soft opening of Shortstop Coffee & Donuts, a cafe in a sidestreet off Little Lonsdale bringing next-next-level donuts to the hungry masses. Shortstop is the brainchild of Anthony Ivey (who just under a year ago teamed up with the guys from Doughboys Doughnuts to run Melbourne's first coffee-and-donuts pop-up) and his kitchen guru Sinye Ooi. Open Monday to Friday (sorry, weekenders), but with plans to open on weekends down the track.

Shortstop Coffee & Donuts

Much like Anthony's previous longtime employer Market Lane Coffee (which serves specialty coffee, no decaf, no skinny milk, no tea), Shortstop has a similar purity of vision coupled with an absolute dedication to quality. They do excellent coffee and they do excellent donuts, and that's the whole menu. The meticulous consideration that Anthony and his team have given every step of the project - the extensive overseas research followed by months of recipe testing, the selection of flavours and ingredients, the chic fitout, the branding etc - has been evident to those of us who've followed Shortstop's realisation over the last year. The coffee is Market Lane, natch, and you can have it black or with Schultz organic milk.

Shortstop menu

In addition to the fluffy yeast-raised ring and filled donuts more commonly seen around Melbourne, Shortstop is serving cake donuts (made from a moist crumb cake batter) and French cruller donuts (made from choux pastry and piped by hand). I tried a few cake donuts on my US trip last year and wanted to reacquaint myself, so I tried the beautifully perfumed Earl Grey and rose: Earl Grey cake with an injection of lemon myrtle and a rose water and rose petal icing. What really stood out for me was the nuanced flavour of the dough - in my experience, some of the other fancy donut places around town tend to coast on the flavour in their glazes or toppings, with somewhat flavourless dough. That wasn't the case here.

Earl Grey and rose

I also had a taste of the banana and chocolate hazelnut cake donut (I'm breaking my usual rule about photos of half-eaten food in order to show you the banana cream custard hiding inside). Shortstop makes its gianduja (Nutella-like spread) from scratch. Totally worth the sugar headache I had later in the day.

Banana and chocolate hazelnut

A heads up before you visit: don't be surprised if there's a queue. And although the generously staffed kitchen will be baking fresh batches of donuts continuously throughout the day, some flavours will probably be unavailable when you saunter in. The good news? To be guaranteed the flavours you want, you can pre-purchase your donuts the day before (orders placed by 1pm can be collected the next day; minimum of 5 donuts per order) via Shortshop's nifty website. Everybody wins!

Shortstop donuts

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, rag├╣ 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