28 August 2008

Do you know the way to Sunnybrae?

Do you know the way to San Jose?

I've been away so long. I may go wrong and lose my way.
Do you know the way to San Jose?
I’m going back to find some peace of mind in San Jose.

Kisch Tini stood resplendent in a leopard skin turban and matching one piece swimming costume in the shallows of Sorrento front beach. The light bouncing off the water glinted against ropes of gold jewelry nestling in her magnificent bosom and reflected the seascape in her bold framed sunglasses. With her feet sinking into the sand hiding gloriously scarlet toenails, and her jewel encrusted hands planted firmly on her generous hips, the dark tanned skin around her wrists was as wrinkled as an urban road map.

Tonight, Susi, her daughter in-law was making Paprikas. So Nana Tini was hurrying me, her ‘schweetie darlink’ and her ‘beeeeaudi-full grandsons’ out of the water to get across the road to Shirley, the house where I spent my childhood summers surrounded by Austro-Hungarian émigrés who had lost their children, siblings or parents in the Second World War. My not being Hungarian didn’t matter to them. I was, in my own way as alone in the world as they were, and like them, another stray to add into the collective like family, an honorary Magyar.

At Shirley, the dish of Paprikas evoked the fairy tale of the cooking pot that never emptied, that always had enough for whoever asked for a meal. At any time, a jumble of ‘relatives’ would pull up at the white, timber 1920’s beach house with gifts of food – goose or duck fat or livers, sourdough and dark rye bread, Kerueseut (Liptauer), Csabai (Salami), Preserved peppers, foraged or home grown items, pickles, home-made tomato paste, eggs, cheese, Kughelupf (Bundt cake)- whatever they had. And they were always greeted by Susi, with cries of “Can I offer you something to eat Mutsi? Some cake, a toast, something for you?”

For a crowd, Paprikas – Paprika Chicken with sour cream and caraway – served with Nokedli (Spaetzle) or sometimes Rakott Krumpli (Scalloped potatoes) with dill cucumber or zucchini salad was always on the menu. It was our comfort food. Our family fare. Food to be shared by people who did not judge, who loved openly, shouted boisterously at each other, who loved passionately and married many times; food that anchored us in our joys and our sentiments.

Whenever I feel that the world is slipping out from under my feet, I go instinctively to the fridge, pull out paprika paste and begin to make Paprikas. Only then, does the vortex of life’s complications begin to feel less claustrophobic as I fall into the rhythm of a tradition I have inherited from dear and generous souls.

It was with this embedded in my psyche, that on Sunday, when Bruce our waiter at Sunnybrae announced that George Biron was offering Paprikas as one of the main courses, a warm golden happiness shimmered from my heart.

I was already trembling with the excitement of being at Sunnybrae, talking to George, meeting Di, Angela and the rest of the gang, that I felt sure that I would surely spill my food down my front. George said to me “Have a drink, and calm yourself’.

The moment of calm came when Bruce brought to the table potato bread fresh from the wood oven, Sunnybrae’s extra virgin olive oil and a dish of their delicate home grown Alberquina olives. Sinking my teeth into the bread, I realized why Susi had always offered food whenever someone crossed the threshold. Focused on honest flavours, a crowd of jostling thoughts can easily dissipate in a primal and nurturing way.

Sunnybrae for me was like stepping into the home I’d always dreamed of but never had. It has innate warmth, a strength that comes from depth of friendship and an exuberance emanating from both Di and George’s personalities and skills, whether in the garden, artistically or culinary. It made me feel that I have not yet found the things in my heart that should ground me, that I am still a nomad on the path of my own discovery.

Just ninety minutes on the highway from our home, Birregurra was a simple drive, arriving at Sunnybrae in time for Sunday lunch. The meal stretched out over multiple courses with intermittent strolls in the garden, hanging out by the woodfired oven with Kenny the cat and a cuddle with another gorgeous black feline in the veggie patch. By the time we left we had been there six hours. We were of course, the last to leave and as the darkness crept in I went home with a happy heart.

For those who do not know of Sunnybrae, celebrated Chef George Biron and his partner Di quit the rat race for Birregurra many years ago and set up a country cottage with a dining room seating 65 and a purpose built kitchen for the restaurant and cooking classes.

George’s kitchen is charged with positivity. It’s light colourful and airy. Di has created a magnificent collage on one of the doors, there is a wonderful feature painting and the blue and yellow colour scheme in the room lifts the space from utilitarian to being a place to happily create. All hands on deck seem to work fluidly and there is an unspoken trust that sews it together.

Long before the current crop of feted Chef’s were recently anointed as forward thinking by the media for having kitchen gardens and small farms to grow their own fare, George was doing it for himself. Before Maggie Beer and Simon charmed TV audiences with regional fare and before the 100 Mile Café was an idea, George was there. In fact he could be referred to as Melbourne’s Godfather of SOLE.

In the Mittle European tradition he is a forager from way back, grows as much of his own food as possible with the remainder sourced locally within the region and from backyard artisans. Some produce is traded for others or for contra and the provenance of the food is exemplary.

George’s touch has reached many regional venues. Eight years ago they closed seven day operations at Sunnybrae’s restaurant and George instead began to consult, setting up kitchens for other venues, while Di focused on her Art. Time on the road takes its toll and Sunnybrae has such charisma that this year, luckily for us, George and Di decided to reopen. With slight modifications to the space service is open for lunch on Saturday and Sunday. Cooking classes are held on Monday.

So how was the Paprikas? Like everything that day, it was faultless. Two succulent pieces of chicken and their rich paprika sauce scented with caraway sat on the plate with delicate Nokedli. In one side dish, cucumber and peppers formed a classic accompaniment to the meat, along with another small bowl containing sour cream to melt into the sauce.

When Mr Sticky stopped eating, I realised with a sinking heart that as we always share whatever we eat, I was about to have to part with my plate of delicious sentiment midway through eating it. To lose it was indeed a tug, but the rabbit dish he had chosen was also exemplary. A robustly delicious rabbit fillet wrapped in juniper scented minced rabbit, bound with caul is one of George’s signature dishes. I mopped up the sauce with glee.

For full details of what we ate and what it cost, please visit the restaurant section of the forum at SOLE Mama called The Dining Room.

The sum of the courses easily made this the best meal I had eaten in a long time. To enjoy George and Angela’s food at Sunnybrae is to totally understand why it is I bang on about eschewing processed food, eating local produce direct from the producer and why some restaurants disappoint me.

A visit to Sunnybrae is a must for all who wish to grasp how good simple fare can truly be. Here you see ingredients we have forgotten how to cook and techniques that are honest. In fact to eat here is to have a reality check about how modern dining is too often full of hang ups and neuroses. The fresh food used at Sunnybrae is innately flavoursome and George strikes a respectful balance between the use of unusual produce and inspirational culinary execution, free of pretension and faddishness.

And while service front of house in bucolic environs is often forgettable, we had a marvelous time being taken care of by Bruce in the private room overlooking the courtyard and wood oven.

I strongly suggest you do yourself a favour and visit Sunnybrae. We’re planning to visit again soon. Who knows what nostalgic musings it will unearth in me next?

I've got lots of friends in San Jose
Do you know the way to San Jose?
Can't wait to get back to San Jose.

Sunnybrae Restaurant and Cooking School
Corner of Cape Otway Road & Lorne Rd, Birregurra, Australia
Ph: 052 36 2276

21 August 2008

Cheeses Geist! Please submit for the sake of our Cheesemakers...

Roquefort Carles from Will Studd's Cheese Slices
Photograph & Copyright by my talented friend Adrian Lander

Traditional consumption of raw milk

Domesticated animals were first used for milk eight to ten thousand years ago, as a genetic change effecting mostly people in Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Africa enabled them to digest milk as adults. Milk from domesticated animals then began to become important as a human food. With domestication and settlement, fewer wild animals were available; as groups of people roamed less, they hunted less, eating more grains and vegetables. In some cultures, milk replaced animal bones as the chief source of calcium and some other minerals.

In indigenous cultures where adults used milk, often it was used as cultured or clabbered milk. This is similar to homemade raw yogurt, and it is partially predigested-much of the lactose (milk sugar) has been broken down by bacterial action. This process must be accomplished over a period of several hours in the stomach when one drinks fresh milk; yogurt or clabbered milk is much more easily digested than fresh milk.

Adaptations in evolution are always the effects of particular causes. Humans developing the ability to digest milk into adulthood possessed a survival advantage; such change is the basis of evolution. Put simply, many human beings evolved the ability to easily digest raw milk because raw milk from healthy, grass-fed animals gave them an adaptive advantage; it made them stronger and more able to reproduce. Such milk remains a wonderful food that provides us with fat-soluble nutrients, calcium, and other minerals that are by and large in short supply in the modern diet.


It isn't legal to sell raw milk for consumption in Australia. It is legal to sell it for cosmetic purposes such as for taking a milk bath. It is not legal to make cheese from it, and yet some of the world's most sought after and oldest traditional artisanal cheese are made with raw milk.

The milk we drink and use in cheesemaking in Australia is required to be heat treated in order to kill certain bacteria. Many of the foodstuffs we eat today that are produced in commercial quantities have been heat treated and processed with chemicals. There is now a growing awareness that these foodstuffs are part of the cause of the growing numbers of allergies in our children today. In fact most people who are lactose intolerant can drink raw milk and eat raw milk cheeses with no ill effects.

Why? Because the human body evolved to have various gastrointrestinal bacteria in our gut to process and digest the food we eat. In turn our bodies have acquired the ability to draw nutrients and produce disease preventing antibodies from certain food. Modern society however has taken a path whereby it polices food and tells us that we can only eat food prepared in certain ways for the benefits of our health.

However in the case of raw milk, a number of credible scientific research projects have proved that it has a beneficial effect on the body and can reduce allergies in children. Those beneficial bacteria are removed when the milk is pasteurised.

Have you noticed that our dairy corporations now offer enriched milk? They now use oil as a carrier in milk, to try to restore the nutrients killed off in pasteurisation. But added synthetic nutrients are not easily absorbed by the body. Have you seen lactobacillus, acidophilus products in stores? These are some of the healthy bacteria in raw milk, but we are now encouraged to consume them in pill form, where once they were innate in our diets and raw milk products such as yoghurts and soft cheeses.

Once you understand these things it looks like a case of the tail wagging the dog. Why would anyone in their right mind choose synthetic over natural?

Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) have finally announced a review of domestic dairy processing standards that currently ban the production and sale of raw milk and the cheeses made with it.

Will Studd, whom some of you may have seen on the TV series Cheese Slices or from his excellent Cheese books, is founding director of Fromagent Australia and Calendar Cheese Company who import and distribute many of the wonderful Cheeses that come to table in Australia. He has been leading the battle tirelessly to change the code in relation to raw milk cheeses for twelve years. That's a hell of a lot of lobbying.

This opportunity to effect change may not come again for another ten years so it is vital that anyone who would like to liberate Australian Cheesemakers make a submission to FSANZ. That's you, as an individual, even if you have nothing to do with the food industry, even if you (heaven forbid) don't eat cheese. It's about the right of the consumer to choose what they consume and the support of traditional practices such as the production of raw milk cheeses and other products to ensure that they don't die out. Please, please, please?

Should you wish to read FSANZ discussion paper it is available to download from Will's website - here.

To make your submission I have received the following template (see below) from Will Studd via Kelly Donati of Slow Food Victoria that you can copy and paste and email. Slow Food Victoria will make their own submission. The deadline for public submissions is September 17, 2008.

Send to: Submissions@foodstandards.gov.au

Re: Proposal P1007 Primary Production & Processing Requirements for Raw Milk Products (Australia only)

I would like to register my support for an amendment to the code to bring Australia into line with other major international cheese manufacturing countries. My objections to the current standards that prohibit the production and sale of most cheese made from raw milk in Australia are as follows:

1. The purpose of the Standard is to guarantee safe cheese – however the assumption that pasteurisation as a single step will guarantee safety is not scientifically valid.

2. The single critical control point that guarantees safety for all cheese varieties is starter culture activity that creates a hostile environment to pathogens in the cheese. Starter culture activity comprises two biological components, the first is primary fermentation of milk sugar to organic acids during cheese making and the second is secondary fermentation/metabolism of organic acids, fat and protein during ripening. This principal is supported by scientific studies and accepted by all of the major cheese producing countries of the world i.e. European Union (EU), USA, and Canada.

3. The standard is anti-competitive and trade restrictive. The standard does not encourage world best practice in cheese/milk production and allows the use of milk of poor microbiological quality for cheese making.

4. The microbiological standards for cheese are overly onerous in relation to E.coli and have led to very questionable practices in domestic production. The standard is out of step with scientific studies and the microbiological standards applied in overseas countries.

5. The standard is a breach of Australia’s commitment to WTO Policy, as it cannot be justified on scientific grounds for food safety. WTO Article 5.1 requires members to 'ensure that their sanitary or phytosanitary measures are based on an assessment, as appropriate to the circumstance, of the risks to human, animal or plant life or health, taking into account risk assessment techniques developed by the relevant international organizations'. Article 5.2 states in the assessment of risks 'Members shall take into account available scientific evidence'. Article 5.4 states 'Members should, when determining the appropriate level of sanitary or phytosanitary protection, take into account the objective of minimizing trade effects'.

6. The Standard is overly prescriptive. It does not meet the Council of Australian Government (COAG) guidelines on primary production and processing standards that stipulate an objective of minimal effective regulation.

7. The standard is highly discriminatory. It provides for international exemptions such as Roquefort and Swiss cheese but denies Australian cheese makers a choice of making similar cheese from raw milk. Australian artisanal cheese makers deserve to have the opportunity to develop a significant point of difference to enable their products to survive in a competitive market.

8. Over the past two decades international artisan and farmhouse cheese production has enjoyed a significant growth in demand due to a revolution in consumer interest. Many of these cheeses are made from raw milk and are recognised as having an infinitely superior flavour and regional character when compared to similar cheeses made from pasteurised milk. However unlike their overseas counterparts Australian consumers have been denied a choice of cheeses made from raw milk.

9. There is no reason why cheese made from raw milk should represent a greater degree of risk than those produced from pasteurised milk provided recognised international guidelines are adopted in Australia.

Signed (Your name)

Address (Your address)

08 August 2008

SOLE Mama Forum

Introducing SOLE Mama - she's a sassy wench ain't she?

She's about sharing the love and pooling everyone’s resources to find the best value nutritional food you can locally for your family’s health, but not spending a fortune in the process.

She's a forum...a website...a blog.

But mostly she's about swapping ideas and knowledge.

She won't beat you around the head for not eating Sustainably, Organic, Local or Ethical, but if you're even remotely interested in that stuff, take her for a spin and join in the chat. Nestle in her comely bosom.

The Purple Goddess and I have entered the fray to build her, after hearing that there's a growing number of people want a cosy corner of the Internet to get ideas and information. SOLE Mama's free and just for fun. Here's how it works:

Forum - Open and free to use. Enabled to be viewed without signing up to comment.

Once registered (enter your email - too easy) chat and chew the fat. Swap recipes, nominate your locally sourced food suppliers, nut out
with your peeps how to convince the little tackers to eat their tucker. Get the inside knowledge on why your veggie patch is flinching when you go near it. Find grog that doesn't bring on an allergy. Get advice on how to stop setting your oven mitts on fire. Tell stories and meet people. We'll send you a quick e-newsletter that will fill you in regularly too. Down the track there will be menu planning etc.

Website - Open and free to peruse.
A work in progress in my spare time.

It supports the forum to explain SOLE Mama's ethic and to give anyone with an interest some background knowledge on what the elements of SOLE are.

In terms of suppliers, so far there is a list of Victorian delivery services of locally sourced fresh food - some of it organic.

Next will come all the listings of meat suppliers, any farmers Markets details I can lay my hands on, then farm gates and Grocers, wine, beer etc. Other states will roll out progressively as I acquire details.

Blog - an adjunct to the lot and as yet nothing meaty is lodged there.

It will be a spot for profiling suppliers, Heirloom and Heritage products, food artisans and wacky stuff you may have seen at the market but have no idea how to use. We'll also flag great stuff from the forum.

So please visit, if you have any interest in eating well at home, on a budget and perhaps growing a bit of tucker yourself. Or you want to put something back into the community and the planet, jump on in. It's going to be fun.

All are welcome whether consumers, producers or providers. Why not tell your friends to meet you there. The chat room is open too.

Oh and keep your eyes peeled for PG in the next edition
(September) of Notebook Magazine, when she is showcased herding the magazine crew around her SOLE food haunts.

07 August 2008

Tightening the belt. A silver lining

Starbucks may not be the last casualty of the economic slowdown on the Australian Capital Territory's food and catering scene, according to an expert.

The coffee chain is closing 61 outlets across the country blaming challenges unique to the Australian market. All four Starbucks branches in Canberra will close from Sunday with the loss of about 50 jobs.

Fiona Wright from the ACT Restaurant and Catering Association says Starbucks will not be the only cafe to close its doors.
"Unfortunately it won't be the only one and it won't be the only one in this town," she said. Wright says people are spending less on eating out as petrol and grocery prices rise.

"The cafe industry in the ACT is doing it tough like a lot of other places," she said.
"Unfortunately because, even though people will see full cafes and restaurants, you have to be full 80% of the time to make money, just to break even.

Because people will no longer be buying the two courses, they'll buy one course. They will no longer buy two bottles of wine, they'll buy one. Or they won't go at all.
"We will weather the storm. It does shake the tree a lot and we will find that a lot of people, unfortunately, who just can't hang on any longer will close." FOODWEEK

The band room at The Prince of Wales last night was swathed in coloured light and packed to the gills with a polite crowd of enthusiastic punters. Fashions ranged from skinny jeans and hoodies to carefully reconstructed looks from eighties B grade movies.

By the end of the night the smartly pressed, button down collar shirts of the Ivy League Collegiate boys in the headline act, were stained heavily with sweat. After bouncing around in his seat like a pinball ricocheting in percussion, the lanky drummer had draped his long body over his kit, but the keyboard player - a baby faced Robert Smith look-alike sans make up - seemed composed and detached. His touch had added joyful piped arpeggios to a Soweto sound, adapted to tales of NYC, that saw the audience singing along in full voice the whole way to their adored grinning musicians.

The crowd around me were largely in their late teens and early twenties, full of enthusiasm for their new found adult lives ahead.
Earlier in the night, the local support band they had cheered on enthusiastically, had looked young enough to have mum waiting in the Tarago at the stage door. But these young guys had startled me with their original take on songs that borrowed heavily from the Easybeats and the Beach Boys.

How was it that suddenly kids were connecting to these joyful clean-cut
sounds that had been abandoned since grunge and doof-doof had cut an aggressive swathe through popular music? I have to admit that I was happily gob-smacked. As I walked through the dark streets of St.Kilda afterwards, I came away with no doubt that we are entering a new wave of clean cut optimism and new values, led by youth who are yet to be classified by researchers as to whether they are Gen Y or Z. Personally I think they deserve a better title.

So we come to the article
above, referring to the ACT, and although the issues described are not confined to our Capital Territory we seem faced with doom and gloom, not joy. The Starbucks angle has been milked for easy sledging in the tabloid press here and even in the UK, The Guardian and its blog have explored the Aussies Vs Starbucks theme - and well, it's old news now. The interesting part of this particular piece of prose that I've quoted is the acknowledgement of what lies ahead for both the hospitality industry and the punter.

The R word - recession - is being avoided as much as possible but in real terms, the average Australian has already been subjected to significant economic change. According to AMP capital, the average Aussie family now has $95 a week less to spend than this time last year with three quarters of that amount going towards increased mortgage payments.

The impact of this shift has resulted in less money to spend on the family and less work manifested by the effects of an economic downturn that has come from the fall out of the American Credit Crunch and unstable stock market. Bring to the table higher interest rates, the increase in Fuel prices and the global food shortage.

In order to gain that ground, people are having to relinquish certain 'nice to haves'. Starbucks was one of these little indulgences, but sales of all convenience food will to some degree be affected. The next businesses to be affected will be food retailers. Naturally - and sadly - this is going to spell trouble for a great many mid-sized businesses and chain stores, but it will also be felt by caterers, reception centres, dining venues and bars.

While the City of Sydney Council is now offering grants of up to $30,000 to businesses hoping to open copycat Melbourne-style hole-in-the-wall, lane way venues, I have to wonder how many of them will stay afloat in the coming economic downturn?

In order for hospitality venues to survive by being full 80% of the time, the business model for many of them will need to change in order for them to survive in Australia's tiny market. Many will drop out of the equation or be forced to evolve and to create a different kind of
offering which will still attract spend when the discretionary dollar has dwindled.

Amidst the pessimistic economic forecasts that I've been reading, in my professional practice I am hearing more about certain positives and the creative approach that some consumers are taking to their new circumstances. In some cases a holistic approach is evolving which also takes in fresh approaches to the issues besieging average consumers.

One strong positive in gastronomic quarters is the rising numbers of Aussies
looking to find good, fresh locally produced nutritional produce and where to get it on a budget - rather than fall back on junk food because it is cheap and easy.

This is pushing social change forward, along with a drive from increasing numbers of parents who are worried about what they are feeding their children. More people than anticipated are endeavouring to counter the rise in childhood food allergies and behavioural disorders exacerbated by poor diet and food additives, so are looking for cost effective alternatives. And I'm not talking solely about comfortably well off, white collar Australia.

This is a strong trend in sectors of blue collar Australia too. You could put it down to Oprah, Women's magazines, celebrity chefs, or even the Internet. But I feel it is emerging because women in particular are genuinely looking for better alternatives for their children's health.

And then there is the growing group who have less money to go around and just want to know where to get restaurant style produce to enjoy in their own kitchens, without suffering the expense of dining out at the more mediocre, moderately priced venues. Add to that the finding that many more people now want to know how to cook like Granny did and they want fresh food that has innate flavour and more nutrients, just like it used to be. Nice.

These consumers are even leaning more towards growing some of their own produce. This is benefiting
nurseries, seed producers and raisers of heritage vegetables. As a consequence of the increased market interest in better produce, sales of organic farm-gate produce have lifted 80% with the Australian market is now worth over $230million and showing significant growth.

Meanwhile supermarkets are feeling the negative effect of shoppers voting with their feet in the wake of this new wave, as their customers realise that although supermarket organics are a better alternative to what they have been eating, they are more costly and less fresh than farm-gate sourced food.

Something that has also lifted my optimism have been the reports about Celebrity Fatigue. This is used to describe a cycle where the spoilt young entertainers that fill the trash magazines are becoming irrelevant to young consumers. The new consumers have a global awareness, concern for the environment and their futures, which manifests as wanting to recycle everything down to building materials, furniture and clothes, to discovering Freecycle as an alternative to eBay. I suspect that I was surrounded by a number of them last night.

These people are abhorrent of waste, branding and obvious consumerism.
They're immune to advertising - much to the frustration of traditional marketers whether in selling an item, a service or a venue - because these people are taking a holistic approach to their lives, making choices that are not influenced by branding and traditional hype. Instead of feeling that they're being shouted at by the media, they're thinking for themselves.

They prefer word of mouth and personal recommendation to advertising campaigns, traditional 'Best Of' guides or
keeping up with the Jones'. They discern by processing media communications, particularly online and respond enthusiastically to spontaneity. I'm excited by their eclectic approach to life and particularly their passion for redressing the damage done to society and the planet by boom era excesses. And you know what, they're not all generation X, Y and Z, some are definitely older.

As they too feel the economic pinch,
they're returning to recreating home comforts. One aspect of that is looking to learn how to cook the basic dishes again as they are forced to reconsider convenience food. This movement is also giving rise to a new wave of Crafting and the reawakening of traditional artisanal skills across the board.

In my 'cool-hunting' aka trendspotting, I'm now hearing more about co-ops whether food oriented and devised to bring farm food direct to the consumer, or as services exchanged within a particular community for other useful tasks. The words 'Working Bee' have recently made a big comeback too, as people pool their resources - and shared community cars are now made available to urban dwellers. The
Mountain Goat and Little Creatures Breweries have incentivised their staff to ride bicycles to work, with the latter having purchased 20 bikes specifically for this.

This turn in mindset is bringing us back to old values. Possibly even war era values. Economic downturn forces people to be creative and to co-operate in order to survive. In the coming era, we may not necessarily have the freedom to go for what is convenient. Instead most will be challenged to make better lifestyle choices. And to me that's another positive.

On the topic of economy and turning away from popular culture, my post about the $90 roast chicken meal seemed to resonate with a number of people. Thank you to those who commented or contacted me via email. It was refreshing to hear how the Internet savvy public are reacting.

While some go on as they always have, there are significantly more who are quietly emerging as early adopters - without flagging a particular handle - of being pro cause such as Slow Food or Locavores. In fact perhaps to some degree as these themes move slowly into the mainstream titles are becoming redundant. What is now key is eating better on a budget.

In the last month more Aussie bloggers with families have concentrated on posting about simple home cooked fare and less on what's the hot new venue in town. For my part, this will probably also be the case. I've seen the writing on the wall and know what is ahead. The shekels in our pouch will need to stretch much further in order to sure up our future financial goals, so like many others we will mostly be turning inwards for culinary comfort. Our wedding plans are
postponed too as a consequence of unrealistically high venue mark-ups versus available funds in this depressed market, but I know we're not alone there.

I'm not crying poor though. After all our household has it pretty bloody good. Compared to the three year old child - pictured above - who we met last year at
Angkor Wat where she and a slightly older sister had been deployed by their family to sell postcards to tourists, we are on easy street. And remembering people like her helps to put life in perspective. So, as time ebbs, my priorities are changing. Some pleasures will remain, while others will become dormant. Just as in nature, survival depends on adapting to the seasons, with the optimism of things to come in spring.

In the meantime there will be more entertaining at home and at friend's houses on great produce procured from the farm gate, garden and markets. This will be a time where we establish who our real friends are and enjoy true heart-felt hospitality in convivial surrounds.

As for Starbucks being the first large retail casualty of the economic downturn, it was really no surprise. They followed the McDonald's model of buying the real estate in the USA where their venues were located and made some very poor decisions. Compound that over here with an arrogance that Coffee drinkers who prefer their coffee properly roasted and unfettered by additives that smother the favour, would somehow come around to the brand seem preposterous.

I do feel however for their 685 staff, particularly as they are largely made up by the young and hope that they can find a foothold elsewhere. I feel the same way for the 110 employees of SPC now owned by Coca Cola
who have lost their jobs in two hits so far this year and for the 640 from Don Smallgoods - owned by multi-national corporation British Foods - who are losing or have recently lost their livelihoods. Then there are the 200 Arnott's Players Biscuits employees that have been axed by the multinational Campbells Soup company and the 600 at South Pacific who will lose their income when cheaper imports come in from India and China instead. In total it is being flagged that over 2000 people will be let go in the months to come by large companies.

This makes me even more determined to continue to buy locally produced goods and to help my clients push back against the supermarkets and department stores who force the production of Aussie products offshore by screwing manufacturers and farmers on price. Perhaps it will also encourage more Aussies to think twice about who they now support in the marketplace.

The people who do seem to have something to gain at the moment are the simple, low rent, sometimes ethnic grocers, sometimes 'Mom & Pop' stores who are selling cheaper groceries and home grown produce or fresh food from the wholesale markets at lower margins. Also certain well run Farmers Markets are seeing a surge in popularity.

The other group who will gain are those who sell or buy in bulk. I recall as a child my parents spent most of their housekeeping budget split between a place called 'Half Case House' and the rest at The Victoria Market or Asian Grocers. It would seem that those days are coming back as the way for many families to survive when there's less money to go around and if an extended family pool their resources this could may be the best bang for buck they can get under the circumstances.

I'm really taking heart that as we tighten our belts, forecasters suggest that we will witness the 'We' generation taking the lead away from the 'Me' generation. Perhaps this coming societal change in circumstances is also a manifestation of the Confucian philosophy which uses the analogy that water is the most powerful natural medium? For when faced with a blockage in it's path such as rocks, water will find a route over or around it.

trickling enmasse over the obstacle over time, water gradually causes the right amount of erosion required to create a new path, or if it freezes within a crack it will eventually expand to split the rock wide open. In society - just as in nature - because change seems innate, we probably will barely notice it happening - and once it comes we will take it in our stride. We may even perceive that it was just meant to be or always was. I see hope and positivity in the future.

They must often change who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.

Confucius, Analects

05 August 2008

WTF? Pizza's a snip now

Does the act of cutting up a pizza vex you to no end? Do you find yourself with numerous nicks and cuts on your palms because you constantly use the wrong end of a pizza cutter to slice pies? Lucky for you, there's pizza scissors. The manufacturer claims the US$20 shears-and-spatula design won't damage plates or trays like a pizza wheel or knife would, but we think if that's the main reason you purchase one of these, you probably have bigger issues on your plate than a few dinged pieces of china.

'Slice and serve with one hand' is the claim of the makers of the innovative Pizza Pro. With a 10 year guarantee, it works for
both right and left handed pizza eaters and fits in a standard kitchen drawer for Brobdingnagians.

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01 August 2008

Taking Stock Chinese Style

To possess the services of a good Chinese Chef in one's home is like having a prima donna in close vicinity. He includes all the talents of a connoisseur with the knowledge of a herb doctor, the sensitivity of a mother-in-law, and the benevolence of a clucking hen.

He once held the title of Dai Si Mo which means "Grand Charge of Cuisine Affairs" and through the ages his title has grown in dignity and expanded to Dai Si Fu which identifies him as the "Grand Maestro of the Culinary Arts". Being a Dai Si Fu, he must be handled with the diplomacy and gentleness learned through time and experience.

No Dai Si Fu will remain in your home unless he loves you: and lucky and envied are those blessed with his solicitous attentions over the satisfaction of the stomach and health through the delicacies of his works of art and the science of leung-hay and yeet-hay (cool and hot chi force).

The Joy of Chinese Cooking, 1952

Ah Lung was a little girl when my family purchased her. It was the tradition for poor Chinese families with no money for a dowry to sell their daughters into service for life. In return for a new life in the household of a wealthy family, they worked as servants until they were old and many who never married were cared for by their employers until they died. Ah Lung died of cancer in the care of my grandparents in the nineteen seventies.

Little girls often started in the kitchens of the great Chinese houses and moved on to other tasks such as being maids as they grew. Ah Lung had been in the service of our extended family when my father was born and was chosen to be his nanny.

Becoming the nanny of a 'number one son' would have raised her standing in the hierachy of the household retinue and was a commendation of her skill. At that time she was probably around the same age as my grandmother, who had come to Hong Kong from Vietnam to find a husband. While my grandmother revelled in her new found life as a married woman in a sophisticated and modern family of influence, in a cosmopolitan city of the nineteen thirties, Ah Lung spoilt my father rotten.

My father is a stubbornly obstreperous character at times, and like a little Emperor he took advantage of her nurturing and kind heart. While my aunts and uncle dined together at the nursery table, his majesty was allowed to sit in his red pedal car and was fed mouthfuls of his favourite dishes.

My uncle - his younger brother - also had a personal nanny and their sisters shared another. I don't know anything of the other servants, but when my father's generation had left home and my grandparents downsized to just the one home on Hong Kong Island, Ah Lung became their housekeeper and Dai Si Fu chef.

By the time I arrived in the family Ah Lung had a gold tooth, a gappy smile and was deaf. In fact Ah Lung - pronounced ah-loong - 'deaf one' was her nickname, but she was strong and wiry and as wrinkled as a steamed tofu skin roll.

Dressed in the traditional clothes of an Amah she wore a three quarter sleeved, fitted, starched white mandarin collared top, that sat wide, stiff and loose over her hips and wide black pants. Her greying hair was cut short to the neck and pulled back tightly from her face with a wiry alice band.

At three months old I was taken to Hong Kong for my Mun Yuet. This is the time when the birth of Chinese babies are celebrated and named. I believe the tradition began at the third month because infant mortality had always been very high in China, with many babies 'taken away by bad spirits' in the first months of their lives. Prior to the Mun Yuet party, babies were given pet animal names to confuse the spirits and many wore little hats with small pointed ears sewn on them to disguise the child as a small animal.

When my parents decided to stay in Hong Kong and not to return to Australia, Ah Lung and my grandmother became very much involved in my upbringing. In fact such was their influence, I didn't learn to speak English until several years later, when we moved to England. Respectfully in Cantonese, I called my carers Ma Ma and Lung Por. I loved and revered them both.

In spite of my mother arriving in Hong Kong unable to speak Cantonese, Ah Lung and Ma Ma patiently taught her a great deal about Chinese cooking and by default, me also in later years, as I watched my mother recreating their dishes in our kitchen and later, when giving Chinese cooking lessons in shopping malls and in our home.

Mum had a lot to learn, because with the exception of roasted meats and wind dried specialties, everything was made from scratch in the family kitchen with fresh food purchased in the wet markets every day.

As if by osmosis the notion of a healthy balance of elements, textures and herbs in cooking was taken in by us and because it is now second nature to me, I am often startled when these principles are not addressed by others in their Asian cooking. I earnestly try to live up to the legacy of their mastery and subconsciously even apply Confucian notions to western cookery. But memory is such a strong thing that I feel certain I fall short of their skills.

Today, in a time where households no longer have chefs and household servants, convenience is the driving force contributing to unnecessarily poor diets in the developed world, creating an obese population with all the medical complications that come along with it.

The same findings of poor nutrition and obesity resulting from a dependence on convenience foods have also begun to come out of China. In a country that has traditionally placed so much stock in the benefits of balanced eating with reference to herbal enhancement for well being - along with exercise through martial arts - western style convenience and apathy towards home cooking is emerging as a negative trend that is sadly mirroring the current malaise in the west.

While the Chinese turn their backs on centuries of tradition, in the west a few of us are looking back to restore the nurturing balance of days gone by and in one form this manifests as the Slow Food Movement.

Although there are people in the developed world who do not know a time when shopping was not done in the Supermarket - a time before packaged and processed convenience food became the norm - a number of us are taking stock of our habits and are questioning the notion of convenience, especially when it comes to the health of our families. What is the actual cost of packaged convenience in our lives? It saves us time and effort but is expensive per gram, not particularly delicious and loaded with synthetic additives that can impact negatively on the health of children. So in the long run is it really worthwhile to cut corners?

I - like many who claim that we are nuts about cooking and are agog about things gourmet - unconsciously used to reach for the convenience of a stock cube or vacuum pack of stock or veal jus. Although it is by no means one of the worst of convenience foods available, it is actually quite an insipid addition to meals.

While home made stock is the most simple and cheap of necessary items to have in the pantry, I used to put it in the 'too hard basket' and curiously turned a blind eye to the chemicals, stabilisers, flavours and colors in packaged stock that I would eschew in items such as packaged dressings and sauces. But I now realise that stock is the life blood of cooking; a fundamental.

If your dishes are to reach the dizzy heights of flavour, you have to be using a good stock. Once I turned the corner I found that this is what lifts home cooked meals above the fare cooked in some venues and I can picture Ah Lung laughing at me and calling me a silly girl, nodding knowingly with her wide gappy smile.

If you are passionate about cooking but not currently making your own stock or Bouillon - whether European or Asian - you are possibly, as the Chinese proverb says, "Riding a cow, looking for a horse". You're making do until you can afford - or can understand - better. Once you turn the corner, you just don't go back. And to be honest, I smacked myself in the forehead when I realised how cheap and easy it is to make. It is also convenient to have on hand and not difficult to store when you know how.

The Chinese Culinary Arts have recipes for a number of stocks. At their very basic, Chinese stocks are considered to be the life blood of good health, carrying the medicinal benefits of the same herbs and spices that ancient herbal medicines use as a base to eradicate toxins and to correct the balance of the life force.

The term 'Masterstock' is something that is now fashionably bandied about in the west, particularly in the Australian restaurant scene, but is not really understood in its correct form. Simply it is a basic meat based clear soup in which different meats have been poached. Then the solution is strained, boiled, added to and used over and over again.

Each time it is used to poach more meat, the flavour increases in pungency and it imparts a deep flavour to anything poached in it. In a restaurant the stock would be used every day for poaching and added to sauces. In a household this happens less often. There are two forms of traditional Masterstock. One is merely darker than the other, employing dark soy in the mix to create specifically richer dishes such as Red Braised recipes.

The use of Chinese Masterstock evolved from a technique known in Cantonese as 'Dunn'. This is steaming and double boiling. The meat involved is browned, then submerged with vegetables in a pot of stock, which itself is then placed into a shallow bath of boiling water and the lot is covered, producing steam. After some time, the ingredients are then removed and sometimes a little of the stock is thickened with cornstarch and served with the ingredients. The rest of the stock is then reserved for use on another occasion.

The older the stock - having been used multiple times - the tastier the result. For Malaysian buffs looking for the best Hai Nan Chicken Rice, you'll find that the best ones have always been poached in an old Masterstock - which you drink slightly diluted as a side dish. To round out the meal it is mixed with dark soy sauce and chilli for dipping and is used to cook the rice that is served with the chicken. Similarly it is used for Chinese Baak Jaam Gai (poached chicken), Yow Gai (Golden Oil Chicken) and See Yow Gai (Soy Sauce chicken).

Some people pass some of their stock down through the generations and a top Chinese restaurant will have a stock that predates the venue - which would have accompanied their first Dai Si Fu. My current batch is only approaching its third year, but if you taste a spoon of that and then a spoon of packaged stock, the difference is immediately evident. Masterstock is silky and rich. It has a sheen and a depth of texture as well as flavour. It makes all the difference to a sauce, a braise, a daube, a curry, a risotto or a paella and is fantastic simply served with fresh, fine egg noodles, torn lettuce and some won ton dumplings.

As with all things, the better the quality of your ingredients, the tastier the result. I choose to use free range, ethically raised local meat and locally sourced heritage vegetables because they taste significantly better and help to support other 'Aussie Battlers'. The intensity of the stock develops faster with these ingredients. I get the spices whole from my local Asian Grocer and suspend them in a muslin bag which can be bought there too. You can even buy the complete spice mix at some Asian Grocers.

My home made stock is cheap, dead easy to make and a wholesome convenience food. I keep it in sterilised glass jars with metal lids in the fridge and some of it becomes ice cubes that get tossed a couple at a time to season stir fries. At least one litre is kept frozen in reserve, to add to the next batch I make. If I poach meat in it I reserve that batch to use again too and it all goes into the pot when I make more of the basic stock.

The key to keeping your stock from going off is to keep the solution sterile. If you're not using it every day, once you have opened a jar of it you must boil the solution again before re-refridgerating, so as to rid it of micro-organisms. I just nuke mine in the microwave, replace the lid and allow it to cool and form a vacuum again before returning it to the fridge.

If you think you don't have time to make it, consider pulling it together before watching a DVD and let it simmer away while you relax. When the movie's finished, let it cool and then strain it. Heat again and bottle it. Simple stuff really.

Because I am a fuss-pot, I cook about a six litre batch over the course of a day. Usually after a saturday morning visit to the market, I start it in the pressure cooker and then remove the spice bag. Then I add the vegetables and simmer it down gradually, adding more water as it gets low, skimming along the way. Just before dinner, at the end of the process I remove the fresh herbs and vegies doing one last batch of water to simmer then switch it off and allow it to cool. After dinner I filter it twice through a Chux. But that's me. Mum does hers in a crockpot/slow cooker/electric congee maker from Hong Kong and leaves it alone.

Masterstock is not uniform in flavour, so my approach is adhoc now that I have an older potion. Depending on what is emerging as the dominant flavour over time I adjust the seasoning to taste. However if you want to start down this path, below the picture is the formal recipe that kick starts a Masterstock. Do you yourself a favour and revive a tradition.

Chinese Masterstock starter
In 3hrs it makes roughly 3 litres of stock

1.5kg Chicken carcasses (include necks and feet if you have them)
Optional - 650g pork spare ribs OR a 10cm square piece of pig or ham skin

For a vegetable version substitute the meat with:
500g bean sprouts
10 dried Shitake mushrooms

250ml Shaoxing Rice Wine
6 slices of ginger (if it's old, bruise it with the flat of a cleaver)
6 spring onions (scallions) tied in a knot, with the roots removed
2 large cloves garlic
100g rock sugar
3 tablespoon light soy sauce
4 or 5 litres of water
1 large carrot sliced in half vertically through the length
1 whole stick of celery
(Optional) a bunch of parsley stems (no leaves) tied with cooking twine

Placed in a muslin bag or a small cloth tied with string:
4 cardamon pods OR 2 large round brown cardamon
1 tspn fennel seeds
2 pieces of Cassia bark
2 star anise
1 piece of dried Mandarin peel
4 coriander roots
4 cloves
1 tsp Szechuan Peppercorns

Remove any excess fat from the meat and place in a stock pot with all the other ingredients. Bring to the boil and simmer for 20minutes before removing the spices, or do the same in a pressure cooker.

Cook over low heat for 2-3hours, occasionally skimming the surface - though you can leave this until the end. Taste the stock, if it is too weak reduce it further and then add back some water. Cool.

Line a colander/strainer with a fresh piece of Chux cloth or cheesecloth and place over a bowl to strain the solution. Repeat on returning it to the pot if there's still a lot of silt like residue sinking to the bottom.

Bring to the boil again and then bottle it or freeze in ice cube trays and then transfer the frozen stock cubes to a bag so you can grab a couple as you need them. Reserve some stock for the next time.

When you run low and need to make another batch, do exactly the same and add in the reserved stock. The Chinese ethic is to waste nothing, so the bones from the discarded carcasses feed my pets and some of the meat is made into rillettes or tossed into congee made with masterstock.