Friday, June 28, 2013

Tasmanian Travels Part 2

It's well over a week since we returned from our Tasmania trip and I thought I would share a few more snippets of food related highlights with you all,  before resuming standard post holiday transmissions.

One of the most exciting and pleasurable parts of the trip for us was heading to Longley, up in the mountains just out of Hobart to meet artisan knife maker and blacksmith John Hounslow-Robinson. We discovered John whilst watching a documentary on Chef Tetsuya Wakuda and were blown away by the beautiful handmade Damascus steel knives that he was making for the chef. My metal obsessed husband did some research and managed to track him down and we commissioned John to make us two knives - a chef's knife and a slightly bulkier Bushman's knife.

We were absolutely thrilled with the result, all handmade by John from found, local materials. The chef's knife has an almost luminous Huon Pine handle with beautiful striped grain - reminds me of  a Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger) pelt. The Bushman's knife was made with a deer antler handle with a natural curve that makes the knife feel so great in your hand. John collects old metal, fallen wood and bones, antler and other material from road kill - which unfortunately you see so much of in Tasmania. I think it makes absolute sense not to waste these precious materials, and John turns them into objects of such practicality and great beauty.

Damascus steel, hand forged knives
made by John Hounslow-Robinson
When we arrived at John's house in the bush, he was in the process of smoking his own free range bacon and local salmon in a home made smokehouse he had constructed. We soon discovered that as well a passion and talent for metal work, he is also a cook who loves good food. We even left with a few recommendations for places to eat in Tasmania as well as a gift of 1.5kg of his raw bush honey - the bees had been particularly busy in his neck of the woods!
John's House in the bush
-The smoke on the right is from the smokehouse.
Andrew and I were both so grateful to have had the chance to meet John and spend some time with this remarkable person. As well as a talented artisan, he was a storyteller, and a warm, generous and gracious host. It makes me so happy that in a world of mass production and disposable everything, that John  is up in his mountain home creating such lasting beauty with what he finds around him. To own two examples of his amazing work is such a privilege.
John Hounslow - Robinson
Longley Tasmania
Back in town, walking around Salamanca Market in Hobart on Saturday morning, I loved seeing all of the fresh winter produce being sold direct from the farmer to the public. Everything was so vibrant and fresh, particularly the winter root crops. So many ideas for dishes were swimming around my head when I spied all of these beauties......

Winter Root Vegetables @Salamanca

Such beautiful jewel coloured produce
@ Salamanca
Any of you who are fans of the wonderful Gourmet Farmer on SBS will recognise A Common Ground - the tiny shop under the stairs in Salamanca that sells produce from Fat Pig Farm, as well as other small Tasmanian producers. It is the brainchild of Matthew Evans and Nick Haddow who wanted to showcase the very best of Tasmanian food in one place. They stock Bruny Island Cheese,(including Australia's only raw milk cheese -  C2 - made on Bruny) charcuterie, free range pork, small batch artisan wine, whiskey and ciders and all sorts of other gourmet treats made from Tasmanian ingredients, with a focus on sustainability. You can now order from them online, but it was great to be able to visit in person. Check out their website or on Facebook for more information - they really are something special.

The shop under the stairs
A Common Ground
I'm not much of a drinker these days, but there were a couple of alcoholic treasures that I discovered on our trip. The first was a bit of a fluke - a while ago I had tried to order a bottle of the small batch Sloe Gin that I had seen them make on Gourmet Farmer from the Common Ground website, but it sold out so fast that I missed out. Sloe Gin is made from ripe blackthorn fruit (related to plums) and this gives the gin an extra herbal and fruity character, as well as a lovely pinkish/purplish blush. I had forgotten about it until I got to the shop but the subject came up with the lovely Common Ground lady as she was putting together a dinner hamper for us. We really hit it off with her and the end result was that once the shop was empty and there was no one but us about, she revealed there had been a mix up with an order and because of this she had the very last bottle under the counter - would we like it? HELL YEAH! I am considering having a go at curing salmon with some of the Sloe Gin, as well as drinking it.
Another boozy highlight was the discovery of the delicious locally made Pagan Cider. I rather like ciders, and this one is a beauty. Made from a mixture of local apples and cherries I was initially concerned it might be too sweet for me - I'm not a fan of sweet alcohol - but it was perfectly balanced and not overly sweet at all. It comes in two varieties which have different amounts of cherry in it. The one pictured below has the most cherry, but I still didn't find it overly sweet, despite the rich colour. I brought home 4 bottles with me and think I will have to do some research to see if I can buy it online and have it shipped. It really is delicious. The label is pretty too.

Pagan Cider
Made from Tasmanian Apples & Cherries

Driving through the countryside around the Huon Valley and Cygnet, many of the apple trees had the last apples of the season still on the branches. They made for a pretty splash of red in the winter landscape. Apples and apple juice was for sale everywhere, at un-staffed roadside stands where you just take what you would like and leave the money in the tin. Love that.

 Winter Apple Fall
Cygnet, Tasmania

Dining out wise, here are some of the things I particularly enjoyed.

We visited The Source at MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) to experience Michelin starred chef Phillipe Leban's food. We chose a seven course degustation menu and loved the local ingredients served with technical flair and creativity. We really rated our meal there, particularly the Scallop Gnocchi which was knockout - such a beautiful texture and pure scallop flavour.

 Tasmanian Scallop Gnocchi with Yuzu Foam
@ The Source

The roasted duck course took those rich, robust winter flavours and gave them a light touch. All of the flavour was there, without the heaviness. I really enjoyed this one.

Roasted Duck with Daikon and Winter Cabbage
@ The Source
I love the flavour of green tea (yes, I know it can be a bit of an acquired taste) so the green tea dessert was right up my alley. An edible receptacle of green tea "glass" was filled with a creamy, punchy lime mousse that you had to crack open to get to. Great contrasting texture of the creamy mousse and the crackly green tea covering. Served with a Sencha green tea sponge and a sweet and sticky black sesame paste, this was a winner. Only thing I wasn't fussed about was the chocolate drizzle on the sponge - seemed a bit random and not really necessary. The rest of the flavours though were to die for.
 Green Tea Crust, Lime Mousse, Sencha Cake and Black Sesame
@ The Source

The following night we visited Smolt, a restaurant in Hobart that I had been reading very good things about and was keen to try. (If you are wondering about the name - a smolt is baby salmon)Unfortunately the place was quite dark so I can't share the photos of some of the best dishes - they just don't do the food justice. Although they have an A-La-Carte menu, we wanted to try lots of things - so we asked them if they could possibly do a degustation menu for us with smaller tasting serves. They were happy to oblige and the result was our best meal of the trip! Like The Source, they are very focused on Tasmanian produce but using them in a more rustic, free form way. The menu had a very Italian/Mediterranean influence and the flavours were robust and generous. We started the meal with ultra fresh Tasmanian oysters which I can't get enough of.

 Tassie Oysters @ Smolt
A simple salad of winter apples, locally produced prosciutto and salad leaves showed that the very best dishes are those that let the superior produce speak for themselves. We had 7 courses in all - all savoury (we asked them not to do desserts as we aren't huge dessert fans) The dishes were all generous and colourful and full of flavour. Slow cooked pork, dishes of richly roasted vegetables, local creamy goat cheese, perfectly cooked seafood - all delicious.
Rustic Winter Apple & Prosciutto Salad
@ Smolt
The Tassie Cheese Arancini  was decadent and rich, with a creamy, stretchy risotto and cheese centre, but a super crisp shell. Just heavenly. As well as a fantastic meal, the service was very good, relaxed and friendly but efficient. The other big plus was that it was moderately priced and brilliant value for a top notch menu, great service and lovely surroundings. If you are visiting Hobart it is really worth a visit. They apparently do fantastic breakfasts and are open for lunch too.

Tasmanian 3 Cheese Arancini
@ Smolt
For more information, opening hours and sample menus for these restaurants, visit their websites - I've posted the links below. I would recommend both of them. Completely different styles of food, but each do what they do brilliantly. 
As to my own cooking - well the weather is wintry and rainy and I have a rostered day off today so I am heading to the warmth of the kitchen in a moment to cook up a big batch of proper Bolognaise sauce (a mixture of half free range pork, half organic beef mince). I plan to freeze some but a lot of it will be destined for a tray of Lasagne for the weekend. This chilly weather makes me want comfort food and Lasagne is comfort personified I reckon. Also thinking that a batch of walnut muffins might be in order.
Until next time - stay warm and eat something delicious!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Tasmanian Travelbug

Greetings from the gorgeous southern island state of Tasmania! I thought I would give you all a brief progress report on what we have been up to food wise, in this place that seems to have stunning produce and food experiences at every turn. It has been wonderful returning to Tasmania in the winter - the last time we were here the landscape and the seasonal food for sale was very much in Spring mode. Now at the beginning of the cold season, the landscape and the weather looks very different from when we were here in November. Still beautiful and wild, but harsher and less forgiving. Everyone is rugged up for the new conditions, and as you drive around you see tendrils of smoke drifting from farmhouse (and urban house) chimneys as everyone lights their fire to create a cosy respite from the winter cold.

The morning we arrived we dumped our bags at the hotel and headed straight down to Salamanca Market (my favourite market in the country) to explore and grab some lunch. The market is bursting with fresh local produce, hand made items of wood and metal and wool, sweet treats, fresh flowers, vintage goods and all kinds of treasures. As we wandered around we couldn't resist the delicious aroma of wood fired pizza cooking. A portable wood fired oven was cranking out hand made pizza made from all local ingredients - including scallops, Huon Valley mushrooms, organic beetroot and local goat's cheese. We grabbed a couple of slices to munch on as we strolled around the market - the delicious roasted pumpkin and feta was a standout.

Wood Fired Pizza
- with great local produce on the menu.

Those of you who have been watching Gourmet Farmer on SBS would be familiar with their small gourmet shop under the stairs at Salamanca Arts Centre - A Common Ground. We dropped in to see if their eagerly awaited raw milk saffron cheese had arrived yet - but alas there is still a few weeks before it will be available. This means we will have to purchase it by mail order and have it shipped to Sydney when the time comes! We did however buy some beautiful free range ham, raw milk cheese and pickled cherries to take home with us. The biggest score though was managing to procure a rare bottle of their small batch sloe gin. Although technically sold out, (I had already tried to buy it online) we got chatting to the delightful Common Ground lady and in the process ended up with the very last sneaky bottle from under the counter as the result of an order mix up. Score!! I'm thinking that I may use the sloe gin as a component in a dish when I get home.

Just down the hill from our accommodation, we found a brilliant European old style bakery - Daci & Daci - that is choc full of the most delectable breads, pies and pastries to suit every taste. We have ended up there for breakfast a few times so far. This place pretty much sets the standard for baked goods, and to be honest I thought it was even better than a lot of the bakeries we have visited overseas - even France where they have such a big reputation for patisseries. As well as breakfast, we have been getting treats to take away when we have been road tripping around. They have a huge variety to choose from, and so far everything we have tasted has been exceptional.

Freshly Baked
-Treats from Daci & Daci

 Daci & Daci
Just one of the counters full of delicious things

A few days ago we took a drive to Port Arthur, site of one of the most notorious prison colonies in Australia. The day was suitably sombre and grey for such a sombre place. A lot of the buildings are now ruins, but the Commandant's convict built house is still complete. They have turned this into a museum, showing a bit of how the ruling classes lived there - including the original kitchen. I thought it was rather lovely to look at, but you can imagine it would have been less than lovely for the servants who had to work with this very basic arrangement - carting water and keeping fires going and managing on supplies brought in by ship. I'm always intrigued by historical kitchens - they tell you so much about how people lived.

The Commandant's Kitchen
Port Arthur

We could not visit Tasmania without crossing the water to one of our favourite places - the wild and lovely Bruny Island. This island is the source of a whole lot of amazing produce and there are lots of folks making really exceptional products there. If you love oysters, then you are in for a treat. They have what are easily the best oysters I have ever eaten. The day we went, we actually ate them for breakfast - shucked while we waited, sitting under a tree at the oyster farm. They taste so clean and fresh, with that gorgeous salty brine of the sea. I love the taste of oysters and seafood from very cold waters - they have a pristine character about them that warm water varieties just don't have for me.

We checked out some of the beautiful smoked trout and salmon from the Bruny Island Smokehouse, as well as smoked wallaby (you will commonly find wallaby on the menu in Tasmania) and free range smoked ham. We came away with some of the ham, their award winning trout pate and the delicious buttery tasting salmon pate too. Next stop was the Bruny Island Cheese Company for second breakfast - a simple wood fired pizza topped simply with tomato and their stunning cheeses. They also bake excellent rustic wood fired bread, so we came away with a loaf which ended up being dinner that night, along with their excellent cheese - particularly the delicious C2 raw milk cheese which is a favourite in our house.

Bruny Island Smokehouse, Get Shucked Oyster Farm,
Bruny Island Cheese Company.

Yesterday we drove out to Cygnet, an area we really love and where we hope to live eventually. As well as exploring, we had lunch at The Red Velvet Lounge, a local cafe/meeting place that I had read about recently. I was surprised to find a quite large, but very cosy and welcoming place that seems to be a hub for locals as well as visitors. We had a delicious comfort food style lunch in front of the fire there, and was really impressed by the very simple, but beautifully prepared food. I chose a slow cooked lamb shoulder with roasted potatoes and salad. This was served with a little jug of lamb jus and a great punchy salsa verde - all local ingredients and just delicious.

Lamb Shoulder
- served with Lamb Jus and Salsa verde

As you all know, I'm not a big dessert fan - but my very favourite sweet treat in the world is a simple sponge cake with cream. The Red Velvet Lounge version of this looked so beautiful, we had to share a slice. Old school, just like your Nanna would make sponge was sandwiched between whipped cream and fresh local berries. Just perfect. And proof that simplicity and excellent ingredients rule!

The Red Velvet Lounge Sponge Cake
- with cream and local berries

All of the food we have been enjoying so far has been rustic and quite simple, but tonight we will change gear somewhat for a fine dining degustation menu at The Source. Located at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Michelin star winning chef Phillipe Leban creates dishes with all Tasmanian ingredients, but with a French influence. We are really looking forward to seeing what he comes up with for us this evening. I will report back, so watch this space.


Friday, June 7, 2013

Weeknight Entertaining

This week, as well as preparing for our Tasmania trip (more on that later) we caught up with our friends Dan and Louise, who are back in town after months of travelling around Australia on a mega road trip. We decided we would entertain at home and give them a home cooked meal instead of heading out to a restaurant. I thought they would appreciate it after living out of a four wheel drive for such a long time! I wanted to serve something rustic and easy to put together - who has time for fussy courses and lengthy preparation when you have just got in from a day at work? Entertaining mid week when you work full time can be a bit of a challenge, and given how bats-crazy-busy the last few weeks have been, I went for something low maintenance, but with lots of flavour. I also wanted to use what I had on hand, to help clear out the fridge before we leave for our holidays.

I pretty much did a variation on a family roast, but played around with the flavours a little. I baked a free range chicken, stuffed with a mixture of fresh breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, pine nuts, spring onion, garlic, fresh lemon thyme, parsley and oregano from our garden, a couple of teaspoons of finely chopped preserved lemon (the skin only), seasoned it well with salt and pepper and bound it all together with a fresh free range egg.

I added some thickly sliced onion, fennel and fresh lemon to the roasting pan, with a splash of olive oil, salt and some extra lemon thyme and baked the chicken for about an hour and fifteen minutes. For a bit of richness to contrast with the lemon flavours, I basted it a few times with a little melted unsalted butter.

 Ready for the oven - Free range chicken with lemon and pine nut stuffing
Baked with fresh lemons, fennel, thyme and red onion
I served the chicken with the vegetables we happened to have on hand - some French beans, fresh sweet corn on the cob and a batch of crispy golden roasted potatoes. I used the delicious Dutch Cream potato - a variety I really love. Grocers are starting to stock them now and they are worth grabbing if you see them. They have a wonderful texture and a beautiful yellow tint to the flesh.

For the sauce, I made a basic gravy, but enhanced the flavour with a little wholegrain mustard, a touch of honey, fresh parsley and a small amount of balsamic vinegar. I used a mixture of chicken stock and a little milk to achieve a slightly creamy sauce. The result was a dish that was easy to put together, but that was perfect to share with guests.

Ready to serve - Golden Stuffed Roasted Chicken
Served with Dutch Cream potatoes, corn and French beans.
Sauce - herb and mustard gravy.

I hadn't thought about an entree or a dessert, but my resourceful husband headed off to the fabulous Bourke Street Bakery during the day and picked up some of their delicious bite sized tarts - ginger crème brulee and chocolate and raspberry. They were a lovely sweet finish to the meal. He also arrived home with a nice selection of cheese, olives and Italian style bread - suddenly, we had a starter, just right to have with a glass of wine while we waited for the chicken to cook and caught up with Dan and Louise's adventures. So, the lesson for today is that mid week entertaining doesn't have to be hard. Choosing something rustic you can pretty much whack in the oven and forget about certainly helps!

Our household is now in pre Tasmanian holiday preparation mode, with lists made and the dining table currently covered in clothes and assorted stuff as we start to pack. It is going to be cold where we are going, so thermals are at the top of the pile, along with wool scarves, gloves and fluffy socks. We fly into Hobart on Saturday morning and I couldn't be happier about that. Tasmania is one of the real treasures of this country, with it's magnificent natural landscape, wildlife, incredible art (if you are ever in Hobart a visit to MONA is a must - the most exciting and engaging gallery you will ever see) and the magnificent Tasmanian produce. Think artisan cheese, seafood from the cold, pristine waters, bakers and producers who put love and artistry into their hand made creations and a real pride in local produce. I am in the midst of a complete love affair with the place - a place we will make home one day, complete with our own land where we can grow our own food. Yes, the whole deal - vegetable garden, fruit trees, chooks, beehives, a few pigs and cows.

That is a few years off however, so in the meantime - it's holidays and exploring Tasmania whenever we get the chance. I am hoping to do some updates during our trip - there is plenty of great food to report back on - so watch this space!