I made a work trip to Melbourne last month, and was lucky enough to share a home-cooked meal with Gill and Lucy – a beautiful and grounding way to begin a week of restaurant dinners. As a little present, I took them each a jar of kimchi. Lucy gobbled hers up straight away, and asked for the recipe, which you’ll find at the end of this post.

I first decided to make kimchi after buying David Chang’s Momofuku, a cheffy cookbook that for once lived up to the hype. I’m not often prone to food and food celebrity crazes, but the #momofukurage campaign started by would-be diners at Chang’s first Sydney appearance suckered me in and I’m glad I succumbed.

I’d been interested in Korean food for a while, having picked up Chang Sun-young’s A Korean Mother’s Cooking Notes at the “fill a bag for $10” stage of the Lifeline Bookfair one year. It’s a great introductory book written by a woman whose sons have emigrated to America. It gently leads you through some fundamentals of both Korean home cooking … and what it might be like to have a Korean Mother-in-Law. From the epilogue, “Tales of my mother in law”:

I think she has written this cookbook for me instead of chiding me for my failures. It is her gentle way of teaching the family tradition and cooking to her sons and daughters in law who live far apart from her. I must confess that Mother’s particularities in cooking caused me quite a bit of stress. I thought she was obsessed with food and complained that her attitude was breaking the balance among food, clothing and shelter for our family. I vowed that I would not be like her, but unbeknownst to myself, I must have been brainwashed because I find myself thinking of cooking ever more often. My suspicion is confirmed by my friends who comment on my cooking, saying “like mother-in-law, like daughter-in-law”.

As you’d expect, Chang Sun-young has some pretty firm ideas about kimchi, including:

  • a woman’s cookery and hostessing skills can safely be judged by tasting her kimchi
  • it is a sign of a lack of care to buy kimchi
  • leave your kimchi on the bench for a day or two to start ripening – refrigerating it before it has had a chance to start fermenting will make it unpalatable and “frost-bitten”

Her recipe involves brining the chopped cabbages before salting and combining with the other ingredients, which include ginger, garlic, green onions, red pepper powder and finely chopped fresh or frozen shrimp. She notes that a more traditional method involves using cabbages that are halved or quartered and rubbing the other ingredients between the leaves, and that if you’re putting up winter kimchi in pottery urns buried in the backyard, that’s the way you should do it.

If you are contemplating such a backyard full of kimchi , Michael J Pettid’s scholarly but readable Korean Cuisine: An Illustrated History has an account of the traditional autumn p’umasi where families would gather to process the 100 – 150 heads of cabbage that were the minimum needed to see each through a long winter of little or no fresh vegetables in pre-modern Korea. If you’re interested in fermentation in general, Sandor Katz’s site is a brilliant place to start, and his book Wild Fermentation has a vegetarian kimchi recipe.

Like most homely and centuries-old foodstuffs, you can take considerably more leeway than a Korean Mother-in-law might allow when you make your own; Chang for instance has adapted his mother’s recipe by starting the fermentation in the fridge and using more sugar. He describes the level of fermentation that takes him to his kimchi happy place:

There’s a point, after about two weeks, where the bacteria that are fermenting the kimchi start producing CO2 and the kimchi takes on a prickly mouthfeel, like the feeling of letting the bubbles in a soft drink pop on your tongue.

Gill was a little alarmed that her jar of kimchi had started bubbling so she should be in a good position to describe that for us!

As a rule I make a mixed kimchi using a variety of vegetables. There is ALWAYS some in the house, or Owen gives me wounded looks when he can’t have his favourite cheddar, kimchi and kewpie mayonnaise sandwiches. When I was making some to take to Melbourne, I found a note on the fridge that said “All kimchi is to remain in Canberra. No kimchi is to be taken to Melbourne”. It is quite addictive, and a little each day does seem to do good things to your insides. Once you’ve made it, you can find lots of delicious things to do with it at Ellie’s site.

crazybrave’s kimchi, adapted from David Chang’s recipe

Tips on ingredients:

It’s really important to use a Korean red pepper/chilli powder, which can be much harder to obtain than Chinese versions. Canberrans can go to the Korean grocery where Impact Comics used to be downstairs in Garema Place, which is the only store where I’ve found it here – even Asiana in the Canberra Centre, otherwise excellent for Korean ingredients, only seems to have the Chinese version.

Most of the other ingredients I use are from the Food Co-op and I’m convinced that minimally refined salt and sugar make a difference. I use a very mineral-rich but carbon-unfriendly damp grey Celtic sea salt and rapadura sugar.

I haven’t been able to find the jarred salted shrimp that Chang recommends, so often throw in a dash of stinky Vietnamese fish sauce, mam nem. It and the seaweed I add are enough to get the level of brininess to my taste. And I use a Korean light soy sauce because the Taiwanese sauces I otherwise use seem a bit heavy in kimchi.

First step:

  • 1 head of wombok, or any other nice cabbage you fancy, chopped in one inch pieces
  • 2 long daikon, sliced thinly into medallions with a mandolin

Toss vegetables with 2 tablespoons salt and 2 tablespoons sugar and leave in a covered container in a cool place overnight. You may wish to move all your sheets and towels to convert your linen press into a fermenting cupboard, but then again you may not.

Second step:

In the biggest bowl you own, or a clean bucket, combine:

  • 20 minced cloves of garlic (less at this time of year when garlic is out of season)
  • a finger length piece of ginger, minced
  • 1/2 cup Korean chilli powder (kochukaru)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce (I use Megachef)
  • 1/4 cup Korean light soy sauce (usukuchi)
  • a splash of mam nem

Add water until there is movement in the mix, but stop before it gets too thin. Then add:

  • 1/2 cup of green onions cut in 2 cm pieces
  • 2 or 3 carrots, peeled and cut into medallions with a mandoline (I peel mine with a wavy Thai peeler for kicks)
  • a handful of hijiki or another thinly sliced sea vegetable such as arame

Third step:

Drain cabbage and daikon, and add to the mix. Pack into clean jars. Leave in the linen closet overnight, and then refrigerate.

Eat with everything.


You say “tomato” and I say “Imma make passata every week for the next month”

I think that being an even mostly self sufficient household in the suburbs is a pretty mean feat to pull off. Some friends of ours two streets away are about 70% self sufficient in fruit and veg on their ordinary-sized domestic Canberra block, but goddamit, it’s a lot of work. Although it’s true that all veg you grow yourself is going to be a lot better than something you can find in the stupormarket, some things massively over-reward you for the effort you put in. That’s what we try to focus on in our own gardening – things that aren’t easy and cheap to get fresh, and that are particularly delicious when grown organically and harvested when perfectly ripe, like globe artichokes, asparagus, berries, etc.

Clockwise from 12 o’clock – Vietnamese mint, Vietnamese Basil, a flower and common mint.

We grow at least 20 varieties of culinary herbs, and at this time of year we eat something from the garden every day. The asparagus has finished long ago, but the eggplants are just flowering, and there’s rhubarb, sorrel, celery, beetroot, Malabar spinach, gherkins to preserve and chillies. Our Jerusalem artichokes have gone completely beserk and are more than 3 metres tall, twice the maximum height given in my new gardening book.

I planted three heritage varieties of summer squash this year to defeat the “omg I fucking hate zucchini” thing that happens when you are insufficiently vigilant.

But the classic big pay-off Summer crop is of course, tomatoes.

I eat a few cherry tomatoes occasionally out of season, and I eat preserved tomatoes year round, but there is a real tomato gorging going on around here at the moment. The kitchen garden crew made bruschetta for the parent information night at my son’s school last week, and I worked out afterwards there were nine varieties of tomato in the mix (on home-made bread, with a little very good olive oil and salt). People went nuts for it, as you can imagine.

Clockwise from top left: Black Russian, golden grape, tommy toe, green zebra, tigerella, an amazing yellow oxheart variety I don’t know the name of and black krim.

This year I’ve been experimenting with different ways to support growing tomato plants, in a quest to find the One True Method of Tomato Supporting. I made one metre round towers of 100 mm square wire 120cm high, but despite my high hopes they turned out to be pissweak and unable to cope with the weight of the ripening fruit. While picking was easy from the middle of the tube up, the bottom had way too much foliage and there was fruit on the ground which meant slaters and fruit flies and the deep sadness that is homegrown heritage breed tomatoes in the chook food.

I’ve also been experimenting with tomato preserving this year, and so far I have a frozen pureed roasted tomato sauce (with beetroot, carrot, bay, butter, red wine and vinegar), one precious cup-sized jar of tomato paste cooked down from a couple of kilos of San Marzano tomatoes I grew from Digger’s seedlings and most excitingly, several jars of passata.

Last year a lovely friend gave me a manual Italian tomato press, and I am in love with it. If you have to look after an end of Summer school holidays glut from a school garden, the “passatutto” considerably speeds things up. Even things like this:

If I were telling someone how to stock their kitchen, I would tell them to get a tomato press and a potato ricer and not to get a food mill. It is so simple a child can use it.

So if anyone who lives in Canberra would like my food mill, leave a comment.

Things got on a roll, as they do, and last Saturday morning my sister’s lovely elderly Italian neighbours invited us around to see how they did their tomatoes and to do some of our own. I’d read a squillion accounts of “passata days” but was still unsure how exactly to go about it. I knew that seeing it done by experts would be really helpful, and Angelo and Jenny were happy for us to join in.

They are completely delightful people, and the mental passata pieces fell into shape as I worked out what to do with the puree to ensure it was safe and would last the family a year. Put the puree into clean (not sterile) dark glass bottles, leaving a substantial air gap and cap them with crown seals (almost all home brewers will have ths equipment, and if you don’t know a brewer it’s all easy and pretty cheap to track down and use). Pack a large stock pot, Vacola boiler or 44 gallon drum with bottles laid sideways (aha! she says! sideways! that was the missing bit of information ! HOW VERY CUNNING!) with towels tucked here and there so the bottles don’t smash or make irritating jiggly-scrape-y noies. Bring it all slowly to the boil, boil for an hour and don’t remove the bottles until everything is completely cool – that might be the next afternooon.

During this period, lucky people will be taken for a burn in a 94 year old Ceirano, one of two of that model remaining in the world, and the only one in working order.

Some more pictures from the day follow, and even more for the very keen here.

The electric machine is very sexy and cool, but they they cost exponentially more than the $40, entirely satisfactory, manual one. The manual one really comes into its own when you’re processing a couple of kilos of tomatoes each week as they become ripe rather than having a crazed tomato frenzy.

What I really noticed, apart from the smell of properly ripe tomatoes and the extreme comfiness of the backseat of a WW1 era touring car, is that there is a kind of learning that no amount of book-learnin’ will get you. You have to watch, and talk, and muck in and ask questions and then you’ll start to work out what’s going on.

On sneaky racism and “other culinary horrors”

I started writing this post in June, but never finished it. I thought the moment had passed, but a conversation with my dear fellow food nerd Tammi about her PhD thesis brought the original article to mind, and when I read it again I was still pissed off. I’ve edited it a bit here and there.

The article is “Saucing the best”, written by Necia Wilden in The Weekend Australian Magazine on May 30-31.

For those scoffophiles who’ve had their head under a giant jamon for the last couple of several months, Wilden and John Lethlean have taken over the food and wine chairs at The Weekend Australian Magazine. I’ve stopped getting the Weekend Australian regularly – I almost never buy a dead tree newspaper anymore – but have checked out a few of the issues since the Food & Wine relaunch.

There’s potential for a beefed-up F&W section in a weekend broadsheet daily to really sing – but it will take more than I”ve seen so far. There was quite a bit of fanfare around the first edition, including a cover shot of Wilden and Lethlean, but it’s hard to work out who the section is trying to appeal to. The part I liked best was the double page focus on a particular ingredient, but I’m yet to see it repeated in the section. (Updated – still haven’t seen it again, but I’ve pretty much given up on it. I wonder if the new Simon Thomsen/Matt Preston section “taste” in the News Ltd tabloids on Tuesdays will be any better?)

The article rankled, but the reason why took some time to percolate through (updated: however the depth of the rankle proved long-lasting, as it turns out) It begins by saying that Ms Wilden’s Asian cooking has passable technique and execution but suffers because she can’t access the top drawer ingredients she uses to cook more familiar ie, European, food. Fr’instance, for Italian, she buys “the best”:

“costly extra virgin olive oil, Ortiz anchovies, imported durum-wheat pasta .. you name it, if it achieves a great result I buy it”.

She doesn’t mention how she learned to cook Italian food or where she buys her Italian delights, but it’s certainly a bit more glam than the Asian grocery, which is mysterious, confusing, and probably poisonous:

“I’m faced with row after row, jar after jar of anonymous muck loaded with sugar, preservaties, artificial colours, MSG and other culinary horrors. It’s odd how so many people seem to turn a blind eye to the truth about the staples of the Asian larder.”

Isn’t that creepy!

“I don’t know why food writers and chefs who should know better tell us to use hoisin sauce in our Asian cooking. Have you checked the ingreedients list on a bottle of standard hoisin lately? Or a bottle of so-called oyster sauce, for that matter?”

Well, inquiring minds and all, let’s see what’s in the fridge. A bottle of Tung Chun Hoi Sin sauce from Hong Kong, which lists these ingredients:


What’s the scariest sounding bit, maybe that “E129” there? It’s a red food colouring, Allura Red AC, the “E” indicating it’s approved in the EC. According to Wikipedia, it’s banned in a number of European countries, and approved for use in food, drink and medicines in the US.

Here’s the ingredients list on the Lee Kum Kee Premium Oyster Sauce:


Not knowning that this brand was the one recommended by Tony Tan “if you must buy oyster sauce”, I picked this brand for the excellence of the label:


If you chose to completely avoid artificial additives, colourants, etc, you won’t want to eat this stuff. If MSG has a nasty effect on you, as it does on some people, ditto. I certainly don’t have any a box of MSG in the cupboard, but personally I have no difficulty with small infrequent amounts of it. Barbara Fisher of Tigers and Strawberries has a post about it here.

Eventually Wilden gets to the nitty-gritty:

“Let’s cut to the chase. In a country where I can buy jamon made from pigs fed on acorns, real buffalo mozzarella, parmigiano-reggiano, carnaroli rice and single-origin coffee, why and I still only dreaming about their premium Asian equivalents?”

“It’s a minefield even for Asians … (says Tony Tan, man of impeccable credentials in respect of both food and personal Asian-ness)… This is a relief to hear, because so far in our tour the usually simple act of identifying the right product has involved so many bizarre clues and riddles I’m starting to feel like Tom Hanks in a Chinese remake of The Da Vinci Code.”

(Updated – as the months have passed the usefulness of twitter has become more obvious for those who lack (or have temporarily misplaced?) “an Asian friend” – there are a huge number of food bloggers and tweeters, particularly in Sydney, who either have Asian heritage or are extremely knowlegeable about Asian food. Twitter operates so often as a gift economy, and I have found people I’ve developed online relationships with really helpful with the round-eye questions – lookin’ at @stickyfingers and @thatjessho here in particular.)

I don’t have a problem with food snobbery, but while here it’s dressed up as a cry for excellence it’s standing on the shoulders of white bourgie entitlement. It sets up European food traditions as normal, and Asian food traditions as deviant. What if it’s more than a case of you say vanilla, and I say pandan?

She does provide some pointers, of course –

“It is possible to find good quality in Asian supermarkets here, You just have to know where – and how – to look.”

That’s putting the cart before the horse. To my mind, what you need to do is buy and taste. When I started learning more about Asian food, I never finished a bottle of soy sauce, fish sauce, any bloody thing without having another ready to go in the cupboard. Not out of some freaky survivalist mentalitity, but out of a desire to educate my palate and learn. If the soy sauce was nearly finished, I opened the new, different bottle. I poured some into little glass saucers and tasted, sniffed, looked. I asked Owy to do the same, and we talked about what we sensed and thought.

The article suggests that you buy fish sauce with “Nhi” on the label, which “means first-pressed and is a designation of high quality. Aha! The extra virgin olive oil of fish sauces.”

Did you know there’s three other methods for working out the good fish sauces? (1) choose a bottle wrapped in plastic. If you peer through the plastic, you’ll see the magic “Nhi” on the label. (2) Choose a bottle that costs more than $3. (3) Ask the shop attendant.

It’s this last one that’s the sticking point, innit? Christ knows I’ve bumbled my way around enough different tiny bloody grocery shops of one flavour or another to know. In general, if you’re keen and polite and have a specific question, people will help you where they can. But they might not know the name of that handsome shiny dark green leaf in English, having never had need to call it by its English name before. It’s nothing to get cut about, or feel your sense of entitlement under threat – in general it’s just a fact of life dealing with a small low profit margin business run by people who work really hard.

(Updated – of course that whole discussion of fish sauce is now moot, a white guy having decided to bring us the best fish sauce available to humanity. Haven’t tried it yet, as I haven’t seen it in any of the places I shop.)

Part of the problem Wilden sees is that we don’t have a “one-stop, upmarket Eastern shop, no Simon Johnson of Asian ingredients“. It’s part of her problem, anyway, because she might live close enough to where it might be profitable to locate that shop. Unless there’s some kind of “trickle down” culinary effect she anticipates, the rest of us are left shopping at whatever little Asian grocery we can find near us. Much better to teach people to taste, to eat, to read and to trust their palates than to tell them to hold fast for announcements from on high.

The article makes me shitty enough to write a response to it a many months later because it’s something I really care about. I want people to love, and understand and cook Asian food at home. I want them to know the excitement of coming home with a bag full of stuff that they don’t understand yet, and coming to understand it. I don’t want people like Wilden to take all the risk, iniative and excitement out of learning about ingredients from an Asian grocery store. It’s not like you’re paying the prices that get asked for acorn-fed jamon, after all.

While it’s a low-cost high-return activity it’s important not to be stingy, as I mentioned in an earlier article about demystifying Asian ingredients – for example, buy the relatively expensive paler dried shiitakes with lovely cracks across the top of the cups instead of the dark, tight brown ones. They cost about four times as much by volume, which is still, frankly, bugger all for what you’re getting.

I spend hugely on food, a lot of it organic, artisan-made, etc, etc – so if I’ve got a problem with this stuff I’m guessing Wilden’s on pretty shaky ground. I think she wants to be, actually, as the article ends:

“And will I get accusations of elitism from some? Of course.”

I don’t have a problem with culinary elitism, but the average journalism and exclusivist underpinnings of the whole article are a killer.

I suppose you can’t criticise an article for not acheiveing something it didn’t set out to do. But what it did set out to do is provide guidance to entitlement-minded foodies who need to be told what to think. There’s as much trickery and marketing guff in Asian food items as there is anywhere else. Look at things carefully – as Tony Tan points out in the article, one golden pagoda Shao Xing wine is great, two golden pagodas is crap. You should investigate and draw your own conclusions.

Saltbush City Limits

I haven’t been blogging, but of course I have been eating. Rather well, actually. And although twitter often provides a distraction from actually writing something on the blog, occasionally it fuels it too.

A couple of weeks ago, I won a twitter competition held by Tim Elwin of posh wholesale delivery firm Urban Food Market (he’s @urbanfoodmarket). If the words “twitter competition” make you think of winning a lollipop or nice warm feeling, think again – I scored a $150 box of Bultarra saltbush lamb.

Bultarra lamb

I’ve only had saltbush lamb once before, and was disappointed. I bought it from a person at the Farmer’s Markets in Canberra who was an agent, not the producer, and there was nothing about it to justify the extra cost. I’ve since found out from friend-of-a-friend Graham Strong who runs Arcadia Saltbush Lamb that many producers don’t graze their flocks on Old Man Saltbush for the extended period that’s necessary to really ramp up the flavour. As always, it pays to investigate your food, particularly if you’re buying a premium product.

Still, I was eager to try it because I’d read very high praise for Bultarra lamb from Neil of At My Table, whose blog has happily come back to life. It’s free range, naturally grazed, doesn’t have any nasty shit in it and the lambs aren’t mulesed. And, according to Neil, “the salt bush confers a concentrated lamb taste, not gamey in any way, just full on, robust, flavour; it was almost like eating lamb for the first time“.

When Tim announced he’d be giving some away, I sat glued to the computer. I whizzed in superfast with the answer to his question (about his site) and did a little happy dance when I found out I was in luck, because I am always greedy keen to try new artisanal Australian produce.

Urban Food Market is a Sydney-based business, but Tim arranged delivery to the in-laws when we were passing through town for family visits and packed it in an esky to bring home. As it lasts well refrigerated for a couple of weeks in its packaging we decided to not freeze any and have a lamb-fest instead.

The pack included a couple of rib racks. I’ve only encountered lamb ribs once before, and it wasn’t a happy experience. We’d bought a whole beast from my sister in law’s farm, Coolumbooka, in Southern NSW. It’d been butchered down there, and they’d bagged up the ribs in some vile sweet gunk that was no doubt purchased in an industrial drum.

With meat this good, I wanted to keep it fairly simple and focus on its inherent flavour. Serendipitously, the November Gourmet Traveller has a recipe for lamb ribs that looked perfect. You make a paste of lemon zest, dried oregano and mint, a tiny bit of chilli and EVOO. Fortunately oregano and mint are the only dried herbs I believe in, and it all was on hand to marinate overnight.


I copped the 34 degree heat today to bake them at 150 degrees. You need to use a rack in a baking dish to drain the fattiness, and cover the trays with foil to keep them moist. Then a rest until dinner time.

lamb 2

You finish the racks over a hot chargrill, which leaches out any last too-fatty bits, and crisps and colours them. I decided against the GT salad, but made one with watercress, cos and fennel from the garden. I had some fresh borlotti beans, and some broad beans from my friend Lyn’s garden, so used the GT’s thyme and mustard dressing on them. I also made a tiny bowl of cherry tomatoes with chilli and lemon juice and some fritters of corn and our own asparagus, adapting a recipe from Michael Ruhlman’s brilliant cookbook Ratio.

eating lamb

Owy started eating first (I was still pouring the wine) and he made some very odd noises. I asked him if it was OK, but he kept chewing and didn’t say anything. He finally answered in two words, the second of which was “Yeah!” and first one of which was rude. Very rude, in fact. Then he said “Spectacular”.

The meat had the depth of flavour and rich intensity that I was hoping for, but the real blowout was the incredible melting texture. I finally get why people rave about Saltbush lamb – and I’m very excited about the other cuts still waiting. A big fat thank you to Tim and Urban Food Market. Any suggestions or recommendations for particularly delicious ways of cooking the other cuts (a beautiful rack, shanks and an easy-carve leg roast) are welcome.

15 November – updated to add: we’ve just had the second meal of the lamb, this time a rack seared quickly and finished in the oven on top served with a saute of dutch cream potatoes, asparagus and broad bean and a rocket salad. It is now officially Best Lamb Eva.

Marmalade Today, Jam Tomorrow

I find that after a piece of fruit, some muesli and yoghurt and a milky coffee, I don’t have the appetite for toast at breakfast anymore. But today I made myself a mid-morning snack of toast with mandarin marmalade accompanied by a cup of black lapsang souchong tea. Half the pleasure came from the fact that I’d made the marmalade myself.

+ tea

I’m not much of a jam maker: it’s probably anxiety associated with figuring out when ‘setting’ stage has been reached, and the fiddliness of sterilising lots of jars. One solution to the jar issue would be to make smaller batches, but this seems a bit counterintuitive. I tend to associate making jam with making lots of jam. It’s partly because, as Gay Bilson has pointed out, we tend to make the error of thinking in terms of the fruit, when we should be thinking in terms of the fruit and sugar combined. It’s also about seeing preserving as a way of dealing with gluts and windfalls: you know, that box you got from the market near closing time. Or we make lots of jam because we want to move large amounts of it at the school fete.

Anyhow, the recipe, which is disarmingly simple, is below, but it got me thinking about the history of marmalade, and food history is always insightful, not least because it puts some of our current concerns about globalisation into some sort of perspective.

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Truffles for Dummies: what to do with an Australian black truffle

I had only ever eaten improper truffle before this season (that is, flavoured truffle oil), but I have been making up for lost time. I had planned to make a rare restaurant visit for my birthday a few weeks ago, but Owen, I and our babysitter were all sick. The following weekend, I decided it would be wise to spend some money on a truffle as an alternative treat.


Black Perigord truffles are in season from late May to early August, although better from the middle part of that period because they need some decent frosts to mature. A co-op of local growers is selling local black truffles by the piece at the Farmer’s Market (Saturday mornings at the EPIC showgrounds in the north of Canberra). I got there early, but not horrifyingly so, and there was still plenty available. Considering that it was selling at $3000 a kilo, the upper end of the price for fresh Australian truffle, that might not be a big surprise.

That said, Reemski of I am Obsessed with Food found some fresh truffle in Sydney at $4896 a kilo. Simon Johnson stores are selling fresh truffle from Manjimup in WA at $2750 a kilo, but you need to pick it up from one of their stores; they recommend at least 15 grams per person. The info sheet handed out by the local co-op suggests a minimum entree serve per person of 3 grams, and a main course portion of 5 grams, but they’re restaurant portions, not homestyle ones. I bought 20 grams for $60, which came in a ziploc bag with a piece of kitchen paper.

truffle slice

truffle egg and riceThe first thing I did was grab the jar of carnaroli rice I had ready, stuff the truffle in there and put some eggs from our hens on top to infuse for 48 hours. I’ve since found out that for optimal truffle love the jar should go in the fridge – even if it’s just rice and truffle – and there should be a peice of absorbent kitchen paper in there, replaced daily, to collect any moisture. Truffle, of course, being a fungus and no friend to moisture once harvested.

It was hard waiting, but I found opening the jar and regularly sniffing it helped. The scent was described to me by a friend last week as “like sex and puppies”. It’s a low, intensely savoury umami-ness – penetrating, earthy, full and deeply, deeply appealling. Even now, a couple of weeks later, I can still get a good snoutfull of the aroma from the rice.

Slicing truffle super thinly (or grating with a microplane) is wise because a greater surface is exposed to release the aroma. And truffles love fat, which helps the aroma linger. They are also great friends to eggs, mushrooms, pasta, risottos, chicken and the pale end of the root veg scale – see the local growers guide for more info.

scrambled eggsOur first proper taste was truffled eggs for breakfast on the Monday morning. Mornings can be very long in this house, as we are usually woken very early by our youngest son and even though the Winter days are sunny and often quite pleasant, it’s uniformly dark and grimly mid-winterish at 5:30am . I don’t often make scrambled eggs and this time I did it in a bain marie, with just a spoonful of cream and the beaten eggs, and we ate it on some toasted sourdough.

Isn’t the colour amazing? We microplaned some truffle over the top – not a huge amount, less than one third of the truffle. One of the best things about eating truffle this way is that the shavings are right under your nose and the intensity of the aroma is very powerful. The dish is all about the texture of the egg and the aroma of the truffle – we agreed that you could not put too much truffle on scrambled egg.

truffled soup The next dish I made was my masterchef fantasy soup using parsnip, celeriac and Jerusalem artichokes. It was very simple: sweat diced veg in butter and olive oil, add chicken stock and simmer, puree super fine, add a small amount of cream, season. I topped it with little truffle slivers and a drizzle of green new season local olive oil. It was great, but the truffle had by this time lost quite a lot of zing. It doesn’t have much to offer by way of texture, so to maximise the aroma (and value) it would be better to use it more quickly next time – even a couple of days makes a big difference. Owy didn’t love this, thinking that the subtlety of the truffle lost out to the Jerusalem artichoke.

I missed out on the final dish, a chicken and mushroom truffled pasta, which Owy made while I was down the coast for the weekend. He loved it, and is keen for a repeat. So am I.

I thought $60 was good value for the excitement and excellent meals we had with our truffle, and will certainly buy one again. Given the expense, I thought it might be a good idea to become a more savvy truffle purchaser so I found a particularly enjoyable way to find out more about them in a truffle and wine matching night at the local Mount Majura vineyard which happens to be a ten minute drive from home and next door to a trufferie. I wanted to get my snout into some really fresh truffle, so I could purchase more confidently, and to find out how I could take cooking with truffle it “to another level” with some good wine.

It was a little awkward arriving – on time, by myself – to find only two others there. But I was promptly handed a glass of the delicious 2008 Chardonnay which helped (they’d found out that week that the wine had acheived a gold medal at the 2009 Winewise Small Vignerons Awards). Gradually another twenty or so people arrived, most of whom seemed to know each other from the Canberra branch of Slow Food.

The evening began with a talk from Sherry McArdle-English, the owner of French Black Truffles of Canberra and a very charming and knowledgable presenter. She described the move to a farming life following her husband Gavan McArdle’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease and the process of finding the perfect crop. The local climate (blisteringly hot in Summer, plenty of Winter frost) and the limestone soil was perfect for black truffles.

Sherry had brought with her a jar of truffles harvested that day – about 200 grams/$400 worth in this jar:

200 g jar of truffles

She suggested that those who were unfamiliar with truffle should briefly smell, pause and repeat the process twice – we are somewhat hardwired to the scents we know by adulthood, and learning a new one can be a challenge for our system. (I’ve heard a dragonfruit grower from NT describe a similar process with getting to love that fruit – now my older son’s favourite.)

The first course was truffled cambembert, which had been split horizontally and infused with three layers of fine truffle slices for 24 hours, and unrefrigerated for the last 4 hours or so. It was great, although it could easily have been infused for 48 hours. Given how fricking cold parts of my house are, I would happily leave it unrefrigerated the entire time, but you may live in the tropics, who knows.

truffled camembert

With it we tasted more of the 2008 Chardonnay and the buttery, golden 2003 Chardonnay – the greater complexity and weight of which made it clearly the better match.

The next three courses were prepared by local French born and trained Eric Menard, a chef and pastry chef who runs the Le Petit Furneau patisserie in Chapman in Canberra’s south.

It was extremely pleasant and fitting to have a lovely Frenchman banging on about the joys of eating truffle on Bastille day, particularly given the calibre of the dishes he offered. The first was a “Robuchon style mashed potatoes with truffle” – that is, a very fluid, loose puree.

Robuchon style mashWith it we tasted a 2008 Riesling and a 2008 Pinot Gris. I preferred the buttery, passionfruit flavours of the Pinot Gris as a stand alone flavour, but the Riesling was the winner with the dish.

And how good was it?

mash licking

Thanks to the lovely Karen, who I met that evening, for snapping that photo. Karen is an ex-wine marketer (if I’d known you could do a degree in wine marketing I don’t think I would have gone to law school after all) and a thoroughly charming person. I was lucky to be seated near her and to get the benefit of hearing a much more educted palate than mine discussing in an analytical way how the wines worked with the dishes.

I would show you a picture of the next course, a pan seared pork fillet with mushroom and truffle jus, but we got over excited and I didn’t pick up the camera until this stage of things:

finger lickin' pork

That’s Karen.

The pork dish was just UNBELIEVABLY GOOD. Like so many magnificent dishes in the French tradition, it began simply with a bucket of good butter and eschallots, followed with mushrooms and reducing stock to make an unctuous sauce that was totally plate-lick worthy. I admit to eyeing off the remaining sauce smear on the plate of the chap next to me. Thank goodness I managed to not just snatch it up. I wanted to.

The wines with the pork fillet were a 2008 Pinot Noir and the winery’s flagship, a Dinny’s Block from 2004 (Dinny Killen was the original owner of the vineyard). Delicous as the Cabernet franc (69%), Merlot (20%) and Cabernet sauvignon (11%) blend is – and it’s a wonderful, mouth-filling wine – the lighter more minerally Pinot sat better with the pork.

The final dish came with instructions – served in a wine glass, we were to stir before eating so that the layers of flavour would meld. It was a rice pudding heavy with a vanilla-y creme anglais, topped with acidic Granny Smith apples caramelised in butter (no sugar) and topped with truffle.


It was a brilliant presentation of Chef Menard’s proposition that truffle can work well in any type of dish that properly balances creaminess/fattiness and acidity. The wines – a 2008 Rose and Woolshed Creek Sticky – were lovely, but irrelevant. It needed no accompaniment.

Four tasting plates and eight tasting samples of wine cost me $50, which I thought was extremely good value. I was satisfied that the truffle I’d purchased at the markets was very fresh and a fair price. The just-harvested truffle from the neighbouring farm did smell a little different – more minerally, with almost a menthol, Eucalyptusy note. Julia, the vineyard’s knowledgable marketing person who had led the friendly discussion amongst the guests of their wine preferences with each dish, said that the vineyard’s new wines being launched at the end of the month (pdf) had a similar flavour profile – must be that terroir thing.

I know some people slag off Canberra, and to them I say – my birthday is in the middle of our local truffle season. Sucks to be not me.

(Or Cath from The Canberra Cook, who’s also been playing with truffles.)

More information

“Understanding Truffles” at The Australian Truffle Grower’s Association stie is informative and has links to even more info.
McArdle’s truffles can be ordered through the Mart Deli at Fyshwick Markets. Order by Monday/Tuesday and pick up at the end of the week – 02 6295 3604.


What’s the point of having a food blog if you can’t post your Asian aromatics snapped in Canberra’s perfect winter afternoon light?

Dried blood orange peel, green onions, ginger, sichuan pepper, sand ginger and cao guo ready to cook up a big pot of Sichuan red-cooked beef. The germ of the idea came from the fresh tofu skin I bought at the farmers market on Saturday morning:

I asked my twitter food friends for suggestions to use it, having only used dried tofu skin before. After I realised the skin was too fragile to stuff – and after the weather took a turn in the freezing effing cold direction – I starting thinking of a chilli laced braise.

The braise was thrown together after reading Fucshia Dunlop’s Sichuan Cooking and Irene Kuo’s The Key to Chinese Cooking

Sichuan red-cooked beef


1 kilo chuck steak in 2 cm cubes
2 Tablespoons corn or peanut oil
20 g ginger, sliced thickly and smashed (about the size of a ping pong ball)
3 spring onions (aka green onions, aka scallions), trimmed and cut in thirds
90 g chilli bean paste – about four generous tablespoons
4 Tablespoons Shaoxing wine
2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
2 pieces dried citrus peel – likely tangerine from the shop, or what you have at home
1 teaspoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
2 cao gao*
2 pieces dried sand ginger*
2 star anise
1 litre stock (I used half chicken stock, half water)

1/2 cup dried lily buds*, tied in a knot and the hard bud end pinched off, soaked for 30 minutes in hot water from the kettle
6 fat white capped shiitakes, soaked for 30 minutes in hot water from the kettle (use different containers)
the same volume of fresh tofu skins, in 2 cm lengths


Blanch beef cubes in a saucepan of boiling water, drain and rinse.
Heat oil in a wide pan, and add chilli bean paste and stir for a minute or so until the smell rises and the oil is red. Add beef and all ingredients up to (and including) the stock.

Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover and cook for about 2 – 21/2 hours until meat is ridiculously tender. Do not be afraid of the sea of oil on top – you won’t be eating it. You can cool it to reheat later which improves the flavour and allows you to defat it.

Reheat and add the second group of ingredients, and simmer until the flavours are infused, 20 minutes or so. Serve with coriander over rice and lots of green veggies.

red braise

Although it seems like a huge quantity of chilli bean paste going in, it’s not super hot, more of a deep background warmth. It will make your house smell better than you thought possible.

* There are some ingredients that you may not have on hand, but most Asian groceries should have them. The cao guo is the big ridged nutmeggy lookin’ thing, like cardamom in flavor but with a kind of peppery-menthol note. They might be labelled “Tsao Kuo”. Sand Ginger looks like slices of dry pale bark and might be labelled “sliced ginger”. Dried Lily buds are about 5 cm long and thin, and might be labelled “golden needles” or “tiger lily buds”. Fresh tofu skin is hard to come by, but soaked dried tofu stick works just as well.

As suggested by Mark in comments, you might want to check out my earlier post on demystifying Asian grocery ingredients for some background and more info.