29 September 2007

Mama Ganoush

‘The true Gourmand never ventures out without an emetic; it is the quickest and safest way to avoid the effects of indigestion.’


To eat at Chef Greg Malouf’s table is to leave with a desire to loosen one’s belt and take a happy little siesta. Or even in some instances to push one's belly along with the aid of a wheeelbarrow. He once said in a cooking class, that his mother would chop off his legs if he ever dared to reduce the serving size of his dishes.

So here I was, standing in Melbourne’s soon to be hottest ticket restaurant, bristling with anticipation for the feast to come. Following the line of stars along the wall we made our way into the romantic gloom of the restaurant, where I groped my way along our table to sit on a leather banquette.

Beside me stood a carved wooden Middle Eastern inspired screen. When my eyes gradually adjusted to the dim light, I was finally able to read the menu and peer through the cut outs in the screen to my right, like a concubine about to enter a harem.

We had with great excitement arrived at Mama Ganoush. Our expectations were high, as fans of Greg Malouf’s talents and of his brother Geoff’s previous ventures - Aziz in South Melbourne and Zum Zum in North Carlton. This venue, Geoff’s latest restaurant, is a small, comfortable and intimate space compared to the cavern that was Aziz and a much more appropriate size and location for the offering.

I felt instantly at ease. The décor is warm and leathery, with chocolate being the dominant colour. One feature wall is lined with backlit panels featuring laser cut stars. These are repeated on the ceiling, but were not illuminated on our visit and hence the pitch-black conditions, punctuated with manufactured starlight. To the front of the restaurant the Middle Eastern theme is hinted at with the construction of an MDF wall of alcoves housing decorative urns.

The wine list is small and conservative with price points to suit most and the menu did not disappoint. With eight entrees and mains on offer, we as a group of six were delighted that we could sample nearly everything on the menu. A happy gurgle greeted our vivacious waitress when she instructed us that the dishes were best shared.

Sadly the oysters were not available, but that allowed us to order two serves of three crisp and light Cheesy Ladies Thigh pastries with sublime honey cardamom stewed leeks.

Deceptively substantial was the Avocado Fattouche with salmon and a chilli egg. Punctuated with parsley, tomato, pickled pearl onions and barberries, it was rich and tasty, dusted with sumac and flecked with onion. The smoothness of the ingredients was broken up by the crunch of fried Turkish bread.

Alongside were Greg’s marvellous and familiar lamb kibbeh and we chose a dish of shaved smoked ox tongue with a salad of cucumber, micro leaves and pomegranate seeds dotted with crumbled shanklesh. The deep smokey flavour of the meat was definitely a highlight, like a moist melt in the mouth pastrami complemented by the sour notes within the salad and the creaminess of the cheese.

The other palate startler amongst the entrees was, for me, the Vine Leaf Wrapped Quail on a la Grecque style white cabbage, which consisted of succulent de-boned quail perfumed with vine leaf and I think dried wild thyme. When eaten with the crisp cabbage, onion and mint salad it was a beautiful layering of textures and flavours.

We began our sojourn into the main courses with a bottle of La Zona Sangiovese and the first dishes to arrive were the sides. We had chosen Greg’s standard pistachio pilav - which is always a favourite with one of our group - and the delicate spinach with caramelised Spanish onions and yoghurt tahini.

Then came the delicious Claypot Roasted free range chicken with Mougrabieh, tomato, sweet spices and Turkish sausages. It sat in a complex broth flavoured with Ras el Hanout and possibly Baharat. In an outstanding melding of flavours from the sausage, spices and chicken juices, the ball bearing sized couscous known as Mougrabieh gave you yet another reason to forage in the pot.

I followed this with a sample of the Spatchcock roasted in Turkish bread. Here the integrity of the flavoursome meat was simply showcased whilst retaining a succulence as to be falling off the bone. Labneh and sumac provided an aesthetically pleasing garnish.

Another meaty concoction came in the form of tasty lamb cutlets barbecued with za’atar - a zesty mixture of dried wild thyme, sesame seeds and sumac. The simple execution allowed the sweetness of onions, perfectly roasted until caramelised, to shine through in harmony with the tang of the herbs and lamb juices.

Baby Snapper roasted on the bone with green chermoula and fennel came next alongside Baharat roasted farmed rabbit with warm fresh and dried broad bean salad. Although excellent they paled into insignificance when I turned my attention to the Crisp honey and orange blossom pork hock with butternut pumpkin and chickpea tagine.

For me this dish was heaven. It most probably had been braised, allowing the flavours to infuse, and then deep-fried. The textures and sweet-sour flavours of the pork reminded me of a rustic Chinese dish of pig’s trotters in sweet red vinegar, served in particular to pregnant women. The accompanying bright orange tagine had overtones of cardamom with golden ras-el-hanout and was dominated by chickpeas, making it a very filling meal.

My stomach found some respite with the arrival of a glass of Moroccan Mint tea, served from an ornate footed silver teapot. Gradually I worked up the courage to broach dessert. We chose four dishes to share: Chocolate Halva ice cream with pistachio dusted fig beignets; a burnt honey sorbet with fresh fruit; a creamy passionfruit panacotta served with shortbread Lokum biscuits; a smooth, milky Blood Orange Mouhallabieh flavoured with Mastic and served with Persian fairy floss. They proved to be a light and refreshing selection - the ideal flourish to end the marathon feast.

As the boys sipped thick Turkish coffee served in a traditional copper pot with an elaborate handle, I loosened my belt. The night had surpassed expectations and I was ever ready to slip into my nice warm bed and reflect on the evening.

Mama Ganoush, 56 Chapel Street, Windsor, Victoria. Ph. 03 9521 4141

Greg Malouf will only be in the kitchen initially. In the first week of October he will be moving on to Ikarus at Hangar-7 in Salzburg Austria and will later be involved in promoting his latest cook book collaboration with Lucy Malouf. Tourquoise – a culinary journey through Turkey is scheduled for release in November 2007. Greg’s restaurant Mo Mo will re-open in 2008, in the basement of the Grand Hyatt Melbourne. In the meantime, diners can also find him at Stones of the Yarra Valley on Sundays, presenting Arabesque, a weekly degustation.

24 September 2007

Underground Restaurant Movement 101


Many people who are passionate about food have been following the stories about Zingara Cucina and the supposed global movement towards alternative dining scenes. There seems to be as much interest in attending as there are nay sayers.

It’s really easy to knock these ventures, but they do in fact work. When you have not received an invitation there is an element of saving face in saying that you don’t care for such things. I know I have a tendency to do this, but inevitably I am an eternal optimist and find myself all too often in the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ camp. This time however, it is a case of been there, done that.

With this in mind the following discourse is your own guide to setting up a similar venture, based on my own experiences. If it’s something you aspire to, have faith and steel yourself for an interesting exercise. Be careful to only publicise your group in relevant places and be mindful of the potential pitfalls. You will become more aware of the fickleness of human nature and witness some of the ugliness in mankind. By the same token you will also be left with some great memories and love the outcome of your efforts.

I wish you all the best in your own culinary adventures.

How to set up your own vaunted
underground restaurant movement

What you will need:

1. Social networking skills

2. Hospitality Industry contacts

3. Event Management or Production skills

4. Marketing or PR skills

5. Social Media contacts

6. Spare time & the ability to call in favours

7. A passion for what you are doing (or Enormous Balls/an ability for self promotion)


Exceptional entrepreneurial spirit

Selling skills in lieu of one or all of the above

Partners with any of the above skills

First, recruit six to twelve of your friends who will become your core group. Choose people whose company you enjoy, but also have the ability to compellingly brag about their experiences. Food appreciation is not necessary, as long as you, or one member of your group is considered a gastronomic aficionado by the rest of the posse. These people will be entitled to attend every future event and will provide the means for the initial growth of the group.

Add a venue to the mix. To begin with it could be the home of one of your group, but once started you will need to keep a keen eye out to spot potential venues. Beg, borrow or use your cunning to get yourself into quirky locations. Failing that, find yourself a location scout who is willing to do contra deals or an event manager who already has access to venues. Venue Logistics should include access to toilets and possibly lighting.

If the venue does not include facilities, your production skills/event management co-ordination should come into play for the hire or borrowing of anything you need from Linen and flatware to porta loos. Call in favours, exchange items for other stuff you’ve been given that you don’t need, swap invitations or freebies for goods and services.

Create a roster of chefs who can help you out, this could include your fellow diners or industry professionals. Best case scenario - find up and coming chefs who are busting a gut to show what they can do outside the confines of their working hierarchy. Let them work out for themselves what they will cook and how. Work with them on a budget per head for the meal. They have access to food suppliers and equipment, so leave that to them.

Sourcing wine can be through a wine rep or you could approach local wineries yourself for some contra. This way a different wine maker can be featured each time. Promise to include the Winery’s branding on all publicity material in exchange for the grog. They do it for art gallery openings - they may do it for you. Use your network; find people who can call in favours.

Wait staff may come from the venue or could be your kid sister and friends looking for pocket money. To find your entertainment, walk around the city and peruse the buskers. There are talented people out there happy to work for a small fee. Be quirky, a string quartet is more appropriate to a wedding - unless they have a quirky playlist – so also consider a magician, a mime troupe or a DJ on L-Plates from one of the DJ schools.

Decide on a name. Be conceptual - it could be an utterly nonsensical name - but ensure it is something that adds to the group with some mystery. Once decided, extend invitations, get someone in your group to design something that looks professional and includes sponsor logos. Make sure that the text within the invitation is used to hype the anticipation, but don’t reveal the venue. Ensure that there is an RSVP date and if your mates are unreliable, get a deposit.

Once you have established who will be attending, follow up with phone calls to build excitement amongst your group. Release the location of your venue on the day of the event via sms or email. Some groups have been known to further heighten the anticipation by establishing a set meeting point instead, where a hired vehicle waits to whisk them en masse to the venue. Collect your money upfront from your guests and if the venue’s bar is providing beverages, have them agree to allow your group to pay per order.

Make it a great night with your best hosting skills. Take the time to chat to everyone individually. By the time the meal has been consumed the posse needs to be convinced that they are onto something really special. You want them spreading the good word with their contacts and you want them to recruit people who can bring something to the movement, from wit and repartee to tangible things that can help fuel the running of future events.

Don’t hold the next gathering too soon after the first. Try for a gap of at least 6weeks to allow sufficient time for the desire for a second outing to build. Include more people next time by inviting your friends to bring friends.

Gradually build the size of the group via personal hype. Mention it in emails, talk about it on forums or facebook, Myspace or with colleagues on intranets. You will find that the founding members of your movement and their guests will do likewise. Anyone who has attended will become an ambassador for your movement. When you have got to the point where you are over subscribed and limiting numbers it’s time to build a website and get it discussed in blogs. Then, if you have a media contact, milk it. If someone of note has attended your gatherings, milk it: talk, talk, talk and talk!

The hype will continue to snowball externally, but you must ensure that the nights are still special enough to support the upswing in expectations that comes with the hype, so cap the numbers at each event and mix up the group. Underground movements are an alternative form of networking, and for the best results you must ensure there is a synergistic mix of personalities. At this stage, only the initial members should have the option to come every time, though you’ll find that they don’t as time goes by.

By limiting who comes and when, you build further anticipation. The harder it is to get in, the more desirable it becomes. Be aware though, the bigger it gets, the higher the expectations and the harder it is to manage. With size comes significantly more work and it is often at this point that underground dining experiences self-combust. As in any growing business you arrive at the point where there is a choice to be made. Do you take on more partners, franchise the concept, make it a serious enterprise and sell out, or pack it in while the going’s good? The decision is yours.

I chose the path of the enigma over fame or financial gain. It is in my nature to do this, but not necessarily your path. Whatever you choose, enjoy the ride.

22 September 2007

The 200lb Muffin Club

The room was abuzz with chatter as the staff descended with the main course and glasses were charged. Candles flickered giving everyone a perfectly romantic glow.

The playboys were working the room as I finished re-counting the money. A Photographer chatted animatedly to a Banker while an Ad Man was chewing the ear of a florist. One of my dining companions had pulled up the piano stool and was beginning to launch into a piece on the grand piano.

As the waitress bent over me with a plate she said, “Can I come to your next club night? I’ve never seen a better looking group of people – and you’re all having such a good time."

I laughed and said, “You’ll need to have a friend who is already a member of the club…
…or convince one of these guys to bring you next time.”

There has been a fair amount of media coverage on Zingara Cucina as a self-proclaimed underground restaurant movement in Melbourne. It has had an unnatural amount of coverage in the traditional media with many wild claims being made by the protagonists. It’s proving to have its fans and detractors, causing quite a kerfuffle in the blogasphere. Even Facebook has two groups devoted to the desire to eat at Zingara.

Last week journalist Ed Charles speculated that it was in fact an elaborate ruse. I wonder is it really a fake, or some elaborate self-promotion for the individuals involved? Based on my own experiences, I wondered if the founders were trying to drum up collaborative support in order to bolster their ambitious claims. If so, they are doing it in a very clumsy way. I believe that time will tell and that this enigma will eventually be laid bare.

I too once hosted an underground dining movement. The Two Hundred Pound Muffin Club was a dining club in two incarnations. The first was in the late eighties and the second was in the mid nineties. Some outings were in restaurants, some were rural and a few were event based. They were an absolute hoot; I made a ton of friends and watched the group evolve in a way that left me with a deep interest in social anthropology.

As a bon vivant, the people who gravitate towards my company have a slightly hedonistic urge, so it’s not hard to find dining companions. In my twenties I was a much more experienced diner than my friends, having grown up with parents who embrace the term Foodie, and who took me fine dining from an early age. Looking around me I realised that there was a niche for orchestrated fine dining experiences where my friends could broaden their food and wine knowledge, and thus was born my concept of a club.

At the time of the second incarnation, I was beginning to meet some young chefs socially. Most were about to break into their own ventures and were hungry for an audience, so I set up my club around these sorts of venues. I would work with the restaurant on the menu and a wine selection and we would come to an agreement on the price per head. They got an audience of budding gastronauts who went on to publicise the venue socially and some became repeat visitors.

The Club offered not only an epicurean experience, but also a simple forum where members could meet like-minded people. Most extended their social networks and quite a few people met their future spouses there. One couple have even framed the menu from the night where they met. As I recall, the woman in question garnered three phone numbers that evening, so the guy she ended up with was very proud of himself.

As the host, it is a very big task to undertake this kind of venture. Ensuring that you have the right numbers, adequate resources and that the financials are worked out accordingly is stressful. The success of these ventures rests on the right PR and hype. As I mentioned to Ed, the food doesn’t have to be great or even the best element of the night. You are selling the sizzle, not the sausage. The key is to convince people that they are a part of something particularly unique, that it is in fact, a ‘money can’t buy’ experience.

Ultimately we are all drawn to the desire to be considered just that little bit better than the next man. The coveted ‘hard to get invitation’ can arouse anxiety and at the same time will draw criticism, but it is the base desire for a certain cachet that leads to the evolution of underground movements, whether they are gastronomically inclined or otherwise. Regardless of the public’s distrust of PR, marketing and spin, the deployment of these tactics are pivotal in guaranteeing your club’s success. After all, you are actually making something out of nothing, without which you have a standard dinner party or fancy picnic.

The bottom line though is that these clubs are great fun to be a part of and can be a heady experience for all who attend.

Tomorrow: Underground Dining 101, or how to start your own underground restaurant movement.

18 September 2007

La Petite Parisienne

Paris, the summer of 1973 - I am a diminutive 6 year old. Dressed like a porcelain doll in my favourite crisp peach cotton dress that falls from the hip into three deep frills scalloped with lace, I feel special.

Across my bodice are intricate embroideries of flowers, birds and butterflies forming exotic, random circular motifs – to wear this dress meant that we must be going somewhere extra nice – for this is an expensive dress. But as fate would have it, my pride would tumble during an altercation with my food. That afternoon I was to walk in the glaring sun feeling humiliated down the Champs Elysées, ashamed of the bright splashes of Bouillabaisse
on my skirt.

My dramatic self-saucing happened whilst lunching in the care of my parents under a portrait of a young HRH Queen Elizabeth II, herself dressed in an extravagant yellow tulle evening gown. It was said that she too had dined on the same classic Mediterranean seafood dish in the very same venue. Even after all these years the flavour of that particular Bouillabaisse lingers in my memory today, redolent with saffron and tomato, rich, warm and fishy - like a stroll on a pier at the height of a summer’s day - and the garlicky stains it left as I missed my mouth and launched it into my lap, leaning up to a too high table.

But in fact, that was actually to be the second humbling moment of the day, in my precocious epicurean upbringing. For that morning I had another more simple, though thoroughly iconic Gallic awakening of the tastebuds, accompanied by yet more childhood embarrassment.

I was standing in a pool of the morning sun streaming through the window of the Pensione dining room. I squinted upwards to look at the lovely Châtelaine, when she produced a small triangular silver parcel from a round cardboard box. Pulling a red tab, she deftly unwrapped it and placed it in my palm, motioning for me to eat it. I looked at the creamy triangular lump on the splayed open foil and gingerly stroked the surface suspiciously. Afraid of offending the kind lady I bit it in half. THOCKKK! The gooey concoction glued itself determinedly to the roof of my mouth and as my little face contorted with discomfort and confusion, Madame doubled up with laughter at the sight of it. This was my first experience of La Vache Qui Rit.

Towards the end of World War 1, Fromageries Bel in Jura, created La Vache Qui Rit as a result of melting down left overs, creating a “fromage fondu”. Bel were at the time a maturation house for cheese and did not produce any cheeses of their own, so unsold stock of Comté, Gruyere and Emmental, were melted down and milk was added. The cheese was cooked which allowed for a long shelf life and packaged.

The recipe was continually revised and was initially sold as a pasteurised product in round metal containers, becoming known as a “Modern Cheese” in that it broke the tradition of provincial cheeses by establishing a national product. It is reputed to be the first cheese to become a registered product (1921). The triangular portions came about in acknowledgement of a rising demand for snack foods. Innovative with marketing, they were one of the first companies to include promotional items such as free children’s trading cards and sponsorship of events such as cycling races.

The now famous laughing cow image, named the “Wachkyrie” was a parody of the cow that appeared on German supply trucks during the war, known as Valkyrie - in reference to the mythical creatures who provided sustenance and care to the Norse Gods in battle. Benjamin Rabier, the celebrated Graphic Designer and Illustrator was commissioned to draw the laughing cow from one of Leon Bel’s own sketches. That design was used until the 1950’s, when it was further simplified to the again slightly modified, graphic image still in use today.

Fromageries Bel exports La Vache Qui Rit to Australia from Slovenia, one of their 14 factories outside of France. The USA has their own factory, which came about when the South Beach Diet rocketed up sales by including the low fat version of LVQR in its list of recommended products. Bel were expecting a mere sales spike, but while the interest in the diet has receded, their market share continues to grow. The brand is also ingrained in the Vietnamese food culture as a consequence of the much-loathed French colonial period.

I didn’t touch LVQR again until I was an adult and it then became one of my pantry staples. Mr Stickyfingers shares my enjoyment, but we have recently moved on, preferring Vache Grosjean - La Vache Sérieuse, which is still made in France. We keep it in the fridge so as to avoid glueing up my chops during gobbling. I’ve found it’s also a wonderful addition to French style Macaroni Cheese, something quite irresistible to children - and adults in need of simple comfort food.

14 September 2007

Spring Tom

He plucked a small warm red orb from the vine and dropped it into my mouth. I bit down and with a caviar-like pop it released a sweet gush of sunshine across my tongue. With a grin I was transported back to my grandpa’s big old fruit and vegetable garden.

I was eight years old. It was a hot day and my heavy mane of shiny black hair was scorching to the touch from the brilliance of the sunshine. My Black Irish grandpa, gnarly and sun-beaten in his raggedy gardening trousers, checked shirt and dusty hat, and me - newly arrived in this peculiar suburban culture from London – dressed in terry towelling shorts, t-shirt and plimsolls, scrambling between the vines in furrows carefully groomed with back breaking precision. We picked only the lushest, ripest tomatoes for nana’s chutney.

Grandpa’s dozens of tomato plants had been transplanted carefully as seedlings into orderly rows and as they grew he had trussed them to tall, rough wooden stakes with a ragbag of nana’s old stockings. Lavishing hours of care and attention on them, he stole himself away from nana’s sharp tongue to hide amongst his plants.

The tomato seedlings had erupted and proliferated in their hundreds in my grandparent’s enormous compost heap and - thanks to grandpa’s thorough distribution of the compost - they had also sprouted throughout the garden, a consequence of purging the seeds from last year’s vast chutney making exercise. He had taken most of the little tomato plants and planted them into old milk cartons to be received gratefully by family, neighbours and the local thrift shop. The following spring I too would help with this task, filling my nails with warm dirt and my nose with the scent of Derris Dust.

With a nod, I was dismissed to the house. I washed the smell of the stalks from my hands with the garden hose and crept through the flywire door into nana’s dark kitchen with the last of the baskets brimming with red bounty.

It’s September. That’s spring in Melbourne and our cherry tomato vines are still fruiting and ripening. Is this a manifestation of global warming? I am amazed that they have continued right through the winter with no care, attention or fertiliser, in a self watering pot bound up with bird netting. They taste good, they are perfectly formed if a little on the small size, but totally acceptable for a salad.

I thank my lucky stars for this last crop; taken from withered, leaf barren vines. I place my precious little tomatoes into a Japanese ceramic bowl with rocket and wild fennel, resisting the urge to throw in the tiny Bocconcini di Mozarella, which might neutralise the flavour. After tossing the ingredients I season it, make an emulsion of honey, Dijon mustard and robust DanDaragan Estate olive oil then - as Antonio Carluccio would say - comes the vinegar. So simple a mix - and yet so satisfying - a bowl of spring-summer sunshine to flag the anticipation of the coming seasons.

As for my own chutney, I shall wait until deep in the tomato season when Mr Stickyfingers’ brother comes down from his home in Tatura with bags of the over ripe tomatoes that can’t be sold and the fallen green tomatoes that I shall put into curries inspired by my Thai aunt Che Seong. Mr Stickyfingers’ mother has kindly passed on her rusting Fowlers Vacola bottling unit to me in order to perpetuate the ongoing tradition of both our family’s annual chutney making exercise. It will be my first attempt. Now that will be an adventure in the making.

07 September 2007

No Rumi

Come, come, whoever you are.

Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.

It doesn't matter.

Ours is not a caravan of despair.

Come, even if you have broken your vow

a thousand times

Come, yet again, come, come.

30.09.1207- 17.12.1273

The phone rang for a long time. I was on the verge of hanging up.

“Hello Rumi” she answered the phone.

“Hi I have a reservation for 6 people tonight…”

“… no we don’t have a spot for 6 tonight.”

“I booked it more than a month ago”

“Under what name?”

“Stickyfingers. The gentleman I spoke to told me that 7.30pm would be the best time and he rearranged the tables accordingly.”

“No, you’re not here and we’re fully booked”

“Can you fit at least two of us in? We’ve been trying to get in for ages, that’s why I booked so far in advance.”


“What about next week”


“The week after?”

“For the next month, we can only offer a table for two from 6pm to be out before 7.30pm.”

“But YOU lost our booking - can you help us in any way?”


For months I have been reading great things about the East Brunswick restaurant Rumi. Articles about and photos of the place, the owner chef Joseph Abboud and his family, the restaurant alumni from which he hails and of course about the well-priced and delicious meals he has served, have littered the food media. But my attempts to get a taste of this for myself, has been foiled at every turn on more than one occasion.

It's frustrating as hell! I have got to the point where I am thinking that I will recreate the dishes instead at home, from the recipes I have gleaned from the papers and Gourmet Traveller. After all, having done the Greg Malouf master class, these recipes are dead easy in comparison. I can make Labneh - no problem. Meat balls, yoghurt soup with chicken dumplings and deep fried cauliflower - no worries - my pantry is full of Middle Eastern groceries from A1, fresh herbs and freshly harvested vegies from Gippsland. I have minced rare breed lamb for Kibbeh and what good Eurasian woman like myself doesn't have wonton wrappers hidden away for dumpling making?

Perhaps I shall also console myself with the MyRestaurant user reviews of Rumi and see if I can locate the new Malouf associated Mama Ganoush? Go to Arabesque, Zum Zum or perhaps we should lob in for one of Kurt Sampson's meals instead? Bring on the new Momo - it can't happen soon enough for my palate.

This year is The International Year of Rumi, declared by UNESCO to celebrate the 800th birth anniversary of Mystic Persian Poet Jelalludin Rumi, not the restaurant.

The great poet’s words and philosophy were written on themes of tolerance, openness, and the overwhelming power of universal love. His sentiments were cosmopolitan and transcended nationality, class or ethnicity.

A practicing Sufi, he had studied the Koran extensively and was already considered a mystic when he met his future master, Shamsuddin, a wandering Dervish, and progressed towards intellectual studies and philosophy. This defining moment led to his conclusion that the individual could use music, lyrics, dance and poetry in order to attain spiritual union with God.

From this evolved the order of the Mevlevi, the mesmerising "whirling" dervishes, their "Sema", the "turning", sacred dance where perfect union is gained in a spiritual trance, not unlike Shamanism.

04 September 2007

Where's Jim?

I felt a little queasy. I hadn’t drunk much champagne but I felt a strong nausea rising up the back of my throat. Inside the sleek mirror lined ladies toilets, the cubicles were full and a young woman stood with her legs tightly crossed. “I’m SO busting!” she said loudly. I suppressed the urge to retch.

It had to be the oysters.

Yesterday’s post (For friends new to reading blogs, see below) was an excerpt from my novel-in-progress - Foodanista - describing the thrill of Oyster Frenzy in days gone by. Monday night’s adventure was actually a little different.

I’ve always looked forward to OF and the people it attracts. Oyster lovers are bold, interesting and fruity. Conversations are easily struck with total strangers enjoying the shared bond of the bivalve. I love it. My year pivots around it. I wallow in my gluttony; I kiss my friends and make new ones. Each time I’ve been, there have been more familiar faces, but not this time.

Earlier this year we missed out on May OF tickets whilst overseas. Things must have already changed then, as the crowd this time was very different. For a start there were only a couple of familiar faces, there were curiously less oyster eaters and more wine tasters. Some didn’t even eat oysters - bizarre.

We did make a few new friends, but what soured my evening were the new oyster suppliers. On arrival, as we strode up the mirrored corridor to the bar, the far wall was festooned with a banner advertising the fashionable fishmongers Clamms. My heart fell. I hoped that the formidable Ash Brothers were also plying their wares, but my hopes were dashed.

For me one of the highlights of OF was chatting to Jim Ntentis, GM of Ash Bros. He taught me so much as he stood and speedily shucked for three hours, carefully retaining the juices whilst deftly detaching the muscle that held the oyster in place, explaining about the different oysters he was showcasing, their environment, seasons and flavours. He even came along with the sacks of oysters and shucked at a friend’s private oyster frenzy in their home, showing us how to remove them for ourselves.

On Monday night Damian noticed that the new suppliers had pre-shucked many oysters well in advance, and were merely lifting them onto the ice from boxes, having left them to dry out a little. Much to our dismay those that were being opened during the course of the evening were being rinsed vigorously, so all the fantastic juices were disappearing down the drain.

That was enough to break my heart. The reason given to me was that the shuckers could not dislodge the oysters without scattering a great deal of shell grit all over the flesh. I looked at the dead dehydrated oysters sadly stretched tightly to their shells and opted for the live rinsed ones.

Mr StickyFingers continued on to achieve a personal best of 82 oysters, but I lacked gusto and fell short of my own PB. I think in fact, the lack of care paid to my beloved bivalves led to my visit to the conveniences. Feeling a little worse for the wear, I silently wished that we had brought our own shucking knives with us.

03 September 2007

Aw Shucks. Oyster Frenzy

At the far end of the room a fire was dancing in the large grate and wallflowers gathered around it, nodding knowingly to one another. I found Liz, Bronnie and Steve there. “Hi! Sorry I’m late, I had a long wait for a cab.” In fact the taxi ride was a frustrating episode in itself, not only did the driver not know his way around town, he could barely drive. I almost offered to swap places and drive the bloody cab myself. Anyway, there I was, buoyed with the anticipation of indulging in 14 different types of oysters. The room was abuzz with a hearty throng of hardcore bivalve imbibers.

At each end of the 20 foot marble bar was an oyster station, dressed in ice, upon which shuckers were piling freshly opened oysters, complete with their juices. The bartenders served from the centre. At one end the suppliers had been busy and prepacked a selection of freshly shucked oysters into cardboard trays, ready for consumption.

I scooped up two trays and danced through the crowd towards my friends. I ignored the glances of the men - as I always do there. Walking through that crowd across the polished concrete floor, in that long cavernous space, somehow always felt like running a lascivious gamut, and I found it unnerving.

Swooping down on my gang I plopped one of the trays on the table before them and pirouetted away to locate my other friends, Damian & Neil. They were but a few steps away, and were already on their second dozen. Damian handed me a disposable cocktail fork and I began upon my first. A glass of bubbles was pressed into my spare hand, forcing me to juggle my cardboard tray awkwardly.

I picked up a crusty grey shell, and took the live oyster onto my tongue, greedily devouring the sweet unctuous flesh. As the flavour hit my tongue, I plunged headlong into a rolling wave deep out to sea. As I threw each one back, I tossed the shells with great aplomb into a nearby bin - followed by the tray - and began on nursing my drink appropriately. That evening these would be the first of many waves of ecstasy to wash over me.

Oyster Frenzy is held bi-annually in May and September, usually on the first Monday evening of the month at The Botanical Hotel in South Yarra. For three hours from 6:00-9:00pm you are free to eat as many oysters as you wish and included in the $65 tariff are Asahi beer, a NV French Champagne, a selection of local white wines and a house cocktail.