Eating France & Spain 2016


When Brendon & I host small groups for our overseas destinations we have some criteria which remains the same regardless of the destination. We seek to attract like-minded participants so the group dynamics are easy and comfortable, we keep the group small, generally a maximum of fourteen, and we ensure that your holiday is a great mix of culture, history, relaxation, gorgeous accommodations and of course fabulous food and drink along the way.

So started our Eating France & Spain tour in September 2016. Without writing a blow by blow daily account of our twenty days away, I might try and capture some great moments, meals and memories and let the photos fill in some gaps too. Paul Muntz came along as our wine guide and brought to us his fabulous knowledge of wine and love of all things French. Chloe also joined us, as a Parisian resident, fluent French speaking, knowledgeable on art and history she was an absolute treasure. As an Australian hailing originally from Albury, Chloe had plenty in common with our group, and she brought the average age down too!

We met in Paris, arriving at our home for the next three nights, Hotel Saint Paul Rive Gauche in Saint Germaine. Some of our group had been to Paris many times, some were first timers and everyone spent their time accordingly, visiting the iconic sights or re-visiting old haunts and coming together for dinner, one night a classical French bistro, another a modern Parisian bistro. Our food walk with Ute was an absolute treat, wandering the old market precinct, seeing the current change makers in the food scene and much in between. A lunch at Canard et Champagne,the family who grow the ducks are also the family who run the restaurant and it was delicious from start to finish. Another group favourite from the walk was the dessert shop - a small modern franchise featuring one signature cake from every Michelin starred dessert chef in Paris. The cakes were stunning, and you don't need to travel all over town to discover.

One of my Parisian highlights was completely accidental - often the nicest way - unplanned, unexpected. On a free evening after a pretty busy day Paul, Brendon & I were sharing a quiet glass of champagne and going over the logistics of the next days move to southern France. We were heading out for a simple single course dinner at a bistro a couple of doors down, Paul decided to come after seeking assurance that it was to be quick and simple - everyone was tired! Leaving the hotel, chatting as we went, we had strolled half a block before realising we had headed out in the wrong direction. About to turn around Paul spotted a previously unnoticed wine store across the road, he dashed, we followed and on entry spotted a short menu board by the door too.  Among wall to wall, floor to ceiling wine bottles sat a couple of big old tables set for dinner. We asked, our host cleared settings and the dinner decision was made. His rough English and our dodgy French meant we were getting the set dinner offer, easy! Paul had chosen a wine to start and one to follow, by the glass thankfully, but we could see our simple meal diminishing. Next appeared two large ceramic terrine dishes with an equally large chef's knife protruding out of each. Terrines - two types, pickle, bread & wine, help yourself, we were happy, very happy. Thinking we were about done, main course appeared - a bowl full, I kid you not, full, of quail breasts lightly grilled, carrots, zucchini, beans, potato, simple delicious - oh and a red wine to go with, of course! By now we were relaxed, very, still tired but thrilled to have found this little gem. Our host was completely downcast with our refusal of cheese as he had warmed to Paul and Paul's wine knowledge, he had a red lined up to go with cheese - so, we had to have it! Not bad for a simple dinner, three courses, four wines, but happy, that's why we love Paris!

Eating Truffles

10 August 2016 - Eating Truffles

It's been four months since I no longer fall out of bed in the early hours of the morning to head down to the cafe. Particularly in the dark winter months I never found that to be a particularly joyful experience, waking to an alarm, rising in the dark and heading for the shower at great speed before the temptation of a warm bed can drag me back. So on a very cold, very dark and very early August morning I was not only up, but happily packing egg & bacon tartlets hot from the oven into a warmed tea towel lined tin ready for an early breakfast. Onto the bus they went along with little jars of bircher muesli, everyone's coffee order as requested and away we all went. Fourteen keen but uninitiated truffle hunters!

Four hours up the freeway and down a few country lanes and we arrived at the chosen truffle farm, Blue Frog Truffles, and a pretty cold, greyish Canberra morning. Wayne, our truffle farmer, greeted us in the doorway of the bus, allowing us a little longer in the warmth, while he outlined the next couple of hours of truffling. Wayne gave us a thoroughly informative, educational and interesting outline on the Australian Truffle Farmers' Association, an industry overview, his own personal truffle story and details of the truffiere. Wayne introduced us to Colin, as owner and trainer of Leroy, the Border Collie who was about to show us a thing or two about finding a truffle. Colin's story was as interesting as Wayne's, perhaps more fascinating because we had not realised the complexity of training the dogs to find truffles, nor witnessed the special bond between dog and handler up until this point. 

The day was windy and Colin warned us in advance that this may throw the scent off by as much as 30-40 cm for Leroy, as he sniffs and searches. Off we went and Leroy races up and down the row concentrating very quickly on a preferred tree before he flops and drops on a chosen spot. Then Colin and Wayne, looking much like archaeologists remove their spoons and brushes from their tool pouches and begin to scrape away the soil.

It was fascinating to see them scrape a little, smell the soil, scrape a little, smell the soil, each time taking them closer to the prize as the soil weakens or strengthens in smell. Very quickly Wayne could locate the firm shape of the truffle and then the brush comes in to play as well so he can move the soil gently and carefully to disclose the size of the truffle without cutting into it by bringing the spoon too close. Leroy sits by patiently with an air of bored attentiveness, recognising there is a job to be done in bringing the truffle up but very aware that he will be rewarded, and rewarded for size as well as for locating!

Sure enough, up comes a good sized truffle, worthy of more than a liver treat, big enough for roast chicken, not quite big enough for raw beef. Colin says all dogs can be trained to truffle hunt but your beloved pooch may only do it once and call it a day whereas a working dog, Border Collie, like Leroy will chase and hunt for good periods throughout the day. Our delight was to smell the newly unearthed truffle which Wayne says can have as many descriptors as a good wine for the range of smells various people pick up as the predominant scent. For me it was the smell of super fresh crayfish, straight from the sea.

Once we had a good haul of truffles Wayne called it a morning and we gathered in the shed to see him wash and clean the truffles so they shone dark and black. While we enjoyed a warming mug of truffled pumpkin soup, truffle butter and slices of fresh truffle, Wayne washed and weighed our purchases! Buoyed by our new found knowledge it was back to the bus and into Canberra where our teachers awaited to guide us through the production of a four course truffle lunch.

A glass of prosecco greeted us, hopefully allaying the nerves for a few who just at this point realised it was a hands on session, a break down into three teams and away we went. For the next couple of hours each team produced cheese & truffle souffles, truffle fettucine, and a fluffy chestnut roulade with spun sugar to accompany truffle ice cream. Truffled brie was the pride of the cheeses for the fourth and final course. We sat, wined, dined, laughed and learnt a good deal about truffling. Tumbled back on the bus, greeted by the now almost too pungent smell of truffles tucked away to take home, and headed for home. A terrific day, a July fixture for 2017, see  you then! 



Winter, I have you whipped!

Those who know me best also know I am not a lover of the cold weather. Even inside by a warm fire, or in a warm bed, somehow your bones know it's bitter outside. Similarly I can cope with one grey day as well as the next person (well, maybe) but multiple grey days do nothing for my enthusiasm. 

Today, as on most other mornings, we, along with the dog, headed out for a walk in the misting fog. Now Winter kicked in pretty early in the season this year and with quite a vengeance. I've been resigned to it, trying not to spend to much time calculating how many more weeks this might go on for. So today, I'm feeling a little jubilant, admittedly it wasn't a particularly cold morning but definitely wintry, but somehow I think I feel an upper hand playing out!

There are jonquils out, daffodils not yet but they are pushing forward, poppies are full of foliage, hellebores already well in bloom. The birds are all having a chat, and somehow, just a little, it feels the worst is behind me. Now I'm equally aware Winter has a sly way of giving that false sense of security one or two last times before it leaves but I've smelt the finish line! With a spring in my step, I made omelettes for breakfast, eggs, mushroom, tomato, hard goats cheese and parsley, knowing that soon, soon I can look forward to asparagus, broad beans, peas, ah Spring, good to see you!


North Street Salami Party

Friends in food! For all my years in kitchens, never being able to find the time, space and energy to pursue some of the oldest food traditions was often a frustration, and indeed an envy. In the depths of winter you heard of the preparations and stories from others as they readied for the annual salami production and I hungered to be involved. Perhaps three seasons ago, we were invited by friends to take part, over whatever part of the day I could manage. It was every bit of the fun I thought it would be and the level of interest and learning has increased forthwith.

The host and leader of our crew, named "North Street Salami Party", has spent many hours reading and researching, sharing his thoughts, considering the detail, and each year he pushes the holy grail of salami just a little further out. We have learnt so much and the quest for a great product burns bright. This past year we feel quietly pleased about several things, we have honoured the two large pigs, ensuring that we used every possible piece. We have produced coppa, pancetta, five styles of Italian salami, French saucisson, Spanish chorizo and kabana!  While it is still to soon to see all of our results the saucisson and chorizo are complete and there are smiles all round! Much hard work, many laughs along the way, and a real reward at the end. Without feeling too cocky, but certainly prepared and ready for some constructive feedback North Street Salami Party will lodge some entries in the North vs South Salami contest running in the King Valley, late August/early September. Will it be North, will it be South, will it be the bastardo entrant? We look forward to seeing ours judged and having a look over the many other salami styles put forward. 

I'll post a resulting update in September!

WE WON! Well we didn't enter the King Valley competition as we didn't feel the requested quantity plus the entry fee equated to a fair situation so instead we entered the local Albury Club competition which took place on 28 October. What a great day, we saw other entries, heard other processes and took home the perpetual cup! Proud indeed! Needless to say the challengers are already staking their claim on next year but we feel pretty pleased with the results for this year, we have learnt, again, we've progressed and the salami tastes great!

Just a little bit of cooking - daily!

Be careful what you wish for? No, not really....people ask me every day, how I'm adjusting to non-cafe life and my response is, generally pretty good. There are lots of things that are very novel, like getting out of bed in the daylight, and not hearing the washing machine and dryer churn away every night with a load of tea towels or chef whites. But on the whole my body needed a bit of a rest and I was ready for a change. 

Having said that, it's now been two and a half months and I miss the daily interaction with my kitchen crew and customers, and I miss cooking enough! Cooking for two people, especially when you are two people who are sitting much of the day, just isn't quite cutting it! We can't eat more, even if we'd like to, at risk of becoming heavier etc etc health blah blah, but how do you respond to the weather and make soup and braise and biscuits and cake and not have anyone to feed it to? 

I have breached this morning and made coffee amaretto biscuits because the recipe looked great, but maybe I'll just have to go for intricate or involved rather than volume! Anyone for dinner?



Kim & Kim's Table

Kim Caunt was my friend and food confidante, not only mine mind you, she was that to many others. In her way she was enveloping of many but with the ability to make every food story shared and special, as though we were five and it was the most secret and exciting discovery and known only by two! This of course was not the case, but her enthusiasm and love of food, and food in travel was contagious and joyous and we miss her.

I think of her often, particularly in the Winter, which she loved and I dislike. I guess I'm reconciled to the fact that I only dislike it for physical reasons, I'm sensitive to feeling cold (despite being generously layered with a bit much fat) and somehow my body knows it's Winter outside no matter how warm I am inside. Whether it's too many punishing years in kitchens or whether it's genetic, I have lots of achy joints which much prefer the C' to be above 20 degrees.

What I do love about Winter is soup, all types of soup, slow-cooked meats, curries and braises, red wine, cheese, mushrooms, a negroni by an open fire, oops, better stop's an endless list and not enough walking, running, gym and copious amounts or water to stop me feeling guilty! Kim would be the same, she would whoop with laughter at our shared despair of the difficulty of balancing food, figure and fitness.

When Kim passed away and we shared a celebration of her life with family and friends, we began a memorial fund aptly named Kim's Table. It's only small, but we hope will always bring some longevity to her memory. The essence of the fund is to award each year an individual in the food industry who is creating, making, baking, growing, establishing something great in food. When we gather to award the nominated person we will share with them a few pertinent stories about Kim, her love of food, her passion for the industry and her contribution to the lives of many in and through food. This way they may take a small piece of her forward in their endeavors, and continually grow Kim's table.