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.


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.

Zoe, she’s here to help

So my women’s group tries to have one session each term run by one of the members because this is cheap called “capacity building” and helps the government justify giving us money.

I put my hand up to do a “demystifying what is in the Asian supermarket” kind of session, and I need your help, because it’s on next Wednesday and I’ve just remembered. For many years now I have been wandering home with random bags of things from the Asian grocery and I’ve lost track of what might freak out your average whitegirl. I don’ t know it all by any means, but I know where to find out and I’ve quite a few Asian cooking reference books. I’ll be concentrating on Chinese and Vietnamese foods, as they’re the cuisines I know best.

I should be able to get whatever groceries we need, and I’ll take a rice cooker, gas ring and wok. I’ll also set up a table with the reference books. Ideally, I’d like it to be part demonstration, part chatting, part Q&A.

When I think about what would be the most useful things to show someone who was starting to learn about cooking Asian-style food, this is what comes to mind for me:

  • why you shouldn’t spend a lot of money on a wok and how to season one properly
  • light soy sauce and dark soy sauce, which are very nearly the same shade of black although that’s not the point
  • what “hot” means (hint: fucking hot)
  • that stir fries are much better if they have one or two ingredients (not counting oils or seasoning)
  • bottled sauces that are worth it (eg toban djian, aka broad bean chilli sauce) and those that are not worth anything at all (black bean, plum, lemon, etc, etc, etc)
  • how to make aromatic oils to dress veggies, etc, with
  • the logistics of cooking a Chinese/Vietnamese dinner

I might pre-cook a red-braised dish, take the rice cooker, and do a veggie stir fry and maybe another dish – perhaps the insanely good steamed chicken from Fuchsia Dunlop’s Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. Enough for the 15 or so people to have a taste of a few different styles

I’m also wondering what “novel” ingredients it might be most useful to spend some time on – maybe fresh rice noodle sheets, jicama (aka Mexican yam bean, often used as a water chestnut substitute). dried black beans, kang kong (aka water spinach, aka water convolvulus), frozen edamame and ….

I’d be interested to hear any good or bad experiences you’ve had with Asian supermarket shopping, and what you think it would be useful to teach some noobs. If you and I were wandering through the Asian grocery, what foodstuffs would you be asking about? Would you just be so excited to use the word “foodstuffs” that nothing else mattered?

[Disclaimer: I am 5’11” and of frecklishly obvious Irish heritage]

Nigel asks: “Is this the best gelati in the world?”


In sleepy Bermagui – the last unspoilt fishing village on the south coast – for the past six years Francesca and Alberto Cementon have made the most sublime range of gelati we have encountered outside Italy. (We still remember, don’t we, a kind of creamed rice gelato we sampled on the Piazza del Campidoglio, which set an aspiration standard for tradition and innovation). Go out of your way to visit the Bermagui Gelati Clinic – you can see from the snap below that it used to be the Veterinary Clinic, but the professional tone is appropriate. It’s between the Bottle Shop and Mitre 10. Here you will find an extraordinary range of gelato experiences, all freshly made on the premises.
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Know your product

Melbourne Gastronome seems to be outrageously fortunate in the extended family department. My own good luck runs to having a sister-in-law who has a family farm in Bombala. It’s very pretty, but it can get quite rugged –

Here’s the timber of the old shearing shed inside:

and out:


As you can see, we don’t use the freezer for much. Usually just stock, a giant bag of my favourite dried chillies from the Asian Grocery, cold packs and a beast. This is a fat lamb from my sister-in-law’s farm, a whole one, 25 kilos.

We’ve had braised shanks and ridiculously tender and juicy cutlets, and there’s a lot of baggies left in there. I reached in and grabbed one this morning, and when I work out what it is it’ll be dinner for tomorrow.

This little bourgie goes to market …

The Minister for Competition Policy and Consumer Affairs, Chris Bowen, announced today that he’d formally received the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC’s) report on grocery prices. It’ll be public next week, but it’s already apparent that it will recommend unit pricing. At least that will save those poor blokes you see in the “baby aisle” doing mobile phone calculations to work out which size package has the cheapest unit price on nappies – hint, fellas: it’s always the smallest packet.

I don’t hold out much hope for the ACCC review. There will be Strong Measures to Increase Competition amongst supermarkets, of course. Zoning laws to stop capitalist bullies. And even a “GroceryWatch”. I shit you not. Why bother when “Coles and Woolworths together control 78 per cent of Australia’s packaged grocery sales worth $59 billion a year.”

The issue of food security and how we should eat is getting a lot of coverage on Radio National, in part connected to the delivery and release of the report. Life Matters today featured a great discussion about how pricing and availability affects people on lower incomes (you can hear the segment here for the next week, after that this site will give you the idea) and Encounter looks to be covering it from a more global perspective. (Sunday am/Weds night or podcast).

So with all this earnest concern I’ve been pondering t h e – g o b b l e r ‘ s question of whether a “War on Foodies!” is coming:

‘Aren’t they just pushing a very sophisticated & elite point of view?’ was the point I gleaned from tonight’s Counter-point on ABC’s radio national.

This implication combined with the very real emerging divide between the realities of nourishing your family within your economic actuality & the constant barrage of cooking celebs insisting that unless you are buying free-trade, seasonally, locally, SOLE [sustainable, organic, local and ethical] etc somehow you are not doing the right thing & you have a compelling recipe for disenfranchisement. This is what is pounced upon by those who are keen to get traction with this cultural-divide argument.

I agree that celebrity chefs can be annoying, but anyone that driven in their life is usually a bit painful. And while equitable access to food concerns me, truth be told I’m not that worried about ending up in a food culture war, for I shall beat their puny warriors over the head with slabs of my frozen homemade veal stock and their inadequately nourished bodies will crumble before my righteous wrath. Ha!

Cooking at home is a joy for me, but it isn’t for many people. Apparently some of them get pissed off finding out what they’re missing out on. More fool them.

If you’re attempting to make a convert, you could do worse than Mochachocolata-Rita’s list of reasons in favour of home cooking, which boils down to it’s fun, cheap and gets you the sexies. (Usage note: that final term being the one currently employed by my kindergartener son and his best mate; the correct construction is that you “do the sexies” on someone.)

While I’ve always been interested in food and cooking it wasn’t until my first stretch of stay-at-home mothering that I began making almost all the food we ate each day. It’s what made me a good cook, rather than a just a bourgie girl with a lot of cookbooks and a well stocked pantry.

Because we were living on one income, and not a huge one at that, I needed to wise up. I started shopping at the Fyshwick and Belconnen produce markets, and for a while when we were really skint I would buy a week’s worth of fruit and veg in the last hour of sales on Sunday before the Fyshwick markets closed until the following Thursday. We never ate badly, but I’m glad that I don’t have to fight my way through all the diplomatic plated cars for a park at Fyshwick on Sundays anymore.

Grey industrial sceneFor a long while, I became a serious fan of the Canberra Farmer’s Market. I don’t remember hearing about it starting up, but it wasn’t long after it was begun in early 2004 by the Rotary Club in nearby Hall.

My joy came partly because I could buy Infinity sourdough there. One of the biggest (and saddest) adjustments following moving to Canberra in 2002 was the lack of proper bread, particularly since I’d been living in Enmore in inner Sydney and was accustomed to being able to buy La Tartine bread at the Alfalfa House Co-op at end of my street. *sigh* But then I found Silo, which makes better bread than Infinity.

Still, many of the good things at the Market are very, very good. Like the warm spiced apple cider you can see my shadow clutching over there ⇐

Despite being generally very happy with the produce, I stopped being a fan of the whole “Farmers’ Market” experience. It was a combination of little things. There was an element of the Free Range Children Market For Inner City Pretentious Wankers, to borrow a term from Purple Goddess – I’m looking at you, posh lady with the $9 jars of “breakfast prunes” – but it wasn’t just that.

Celery The punters began coming earlier and earlier, and some stall holders were so busy serving customers two hours before the markets were advertised as beginning that they didn’t have time to set out their produce properly. Part of the whole relaxed and friendly vibe of the markets was lost in the crowds of pushy people. And until they put up signs forbidding it, people took dogs into the food selling areas. Alright, you’re in a building that says “Sheep Pavilion”, but you wouldn’t dream of taking your stupid fluffy white dog to the supermarket, would you?

I became annoyed that some stalls were obviously reselling purchased items – the variety and seasonality of the produce ostensibly from one origin gave it away. And some smaller stallholders whose produce was really out of this world – like Tallabung heritage breeds pork, the best pork that I have ever eaten – sold their business and while the brand is sold there, it’s lost the artisanal flavour that made it so astonishing. And it’s a lot more expensive. So I was pleased to see the markets separated into a “direct producer” and “not” sheds last year, as it meant I had to do less wandering to find the stalls I was after.

Rose Muffins from Amore CakesBut even despite the consistently excellent quality of the best stallholders – my favourites are the fresh South Coast seafood, the Amore cakes, Li Shen exotic mushrooms, Yulin Shanghai tofu and street snacks and Glean Na Meala spuds and greens – I found myself going to the Farmers’ Markets less and less. Since Glenn Na Meala opened Choku Bai Jo, I’ve been to the markets on one exploratory trip, for this post.

I might have gone more often if their website wasn’t so difficult to use – it’s a great example of how to stuff up using the web.

The site is set up as an internal administrative tool rather than a communication tool; I want to know what people are going to be selling this week, not where to download a form to sell my produce. Fair enough that there be a admin area for stallholders, but how about a simple site that is useful for customers too? Even an email newsletter that says what’s on this week? What to make with it? Their PR people seem fixated on mainstream press coverage rather than making their clients’ goods accessible to lots of different types of consumers. In summer, there are fantastic peaches and nectaries straight from the growers in Araluen – but how do you know when they are arriving? (When peaches are in season, I know, but you get my drift.)

In discussions at playgroups and waiting to pick up kids from school I hear other food loving parents complain that going to the markets has become another chore, rather than a pleasurable way to buy your food. I’ve also heard complaints that it’s not always cheaper than the supermarket. To my mind it needn’t be, because the quality and freshness are so much better, but to many people Farmers’ Market = super cheap. Something else for the PR peeps.

The site’s photo galleries are terrible – it’s a popup and the images still bear their camera sequence names. But it’s surprising to see the difference between April 2004 and now; maybe twenty stall holders and a couple of dozen milling food lovers then and two big sheds plus two separate outdoor areas and hundreds of regular customers now. The rest of the set from my trip to the markets is up at my flickr.

I will still go to the markets occasionally, and probably more in spring and summer. But for now, it’s just not worth the bother, when $45 at Choko Bai Jo buys you this (including the bowl of local hazelnuts), most of it organically produced but not certified organic, and sorry about the photo:

The Capital Region Farmers’ Market is held Saturdays at Exhibition Park (EPIC), from 8-11 am

Hidden treasures: Choku Bai Jo

I’m not alone in enjoying a perv at the contents of someone else’s shopping trolley. Another Outspoken Female has posted her weekly haul from the Vic Markets at confessions of a food nazi and asks what other people’s shopping looks like; Stephanie from Elegant Sufficiency wants to see the receipts.

Choku Bai Jo is, so they tell me, the name of a kind of farmers’ outlet store in Japan. Luckily for me it’s also a fruit and veg shop in nearby North Lyneham (in the inner north suburbs of Canberra), and it’s where I do most of my shopping.

chilliesSome of the varieties of chillies available, clockwise from bottom left: Jalapenos, Harbaneros, Shisotou and that dead ordinary “long” kind you can get everywhere. To the right are delicious baby endives.
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