08 December, 2009

Ham or spam?

One of my favourite tasks in December is ordering the Christmas ham. When I was a kid, our ham always came courtesy of my grandfather, who inevitably won the necessary vouchers from his local club to pick up an orange-cellophane wrapped number from the supermarket. Christmas fun officially started on Saturday night, as we snacked on the long-wished for ham after getting back from Mass.

These days my tastes are more discerning. Sandwich ham has been replaced in work lunches by a favoured jamon or proscuitto. And the Christmas ham that takes pride of place in the fridge, wrapped in a vinegar-and-water soaked calico bag, is a different thing entirely, in terms of price and flavour.

'Epicure' ran an intriguing feature today on the state of Australia's cured pork industry. After organising a blind ham tasting, most of the tasters were surprised (that is, disappointed) at the results, and Richard Cornish provides a revealing background to how our December pork-fest is catered for.

Have a read, and let me know what you think. Were you surprised by its revelations? Are any of the tasted meats a feature on your festive table?

Our ham comes from Hagens Organic Meats, at Queen Vic Markets. It's $30 a kilo, which makes it one of the pricier ones. That price, however, means that we get Otway free-range pork (they're linked from the photo at the top of this post), and the legs are prepared for the season, minimising the need for sodium nitrate to be added as a preservative.

One thing that hasn't changed is the excitement that builds up during December, ready for that first slice to lay on top of toast, spread with Warrnambool butter...bring on the 25th!

Panettone: Va Piano II

126C Nicholson St, Brunswick East

Update: Va Piano is now Piano Piano

Brunswick East's new high performer has added a wonderfully seasonal breakfast to its succinct menu: panettone with cinnamon ricotta, honey, some macerated fruit and a sprinkle of nuts, crowned with a plume of pear.
It's a joyous way to enjoy this traditional festive season bread, and another example of how well Melbourne embraces European customs.

A quick bit of background: panettone is of Milanese origin. The acidic dough used to make the bread is proved for several days, helping to keep it fluffy. Embedded in the dough are candied fruit, zest and raisins.

As with many ethnic products, there are panettones and then there are panettones. Shop at Enoteca Sileno on Lygon St, and you could lay out $60 or so for the best, imported brand of the domed treat. Shop at a supermarket for a much cheaper, artificially sweetened version, turned out in the supermarket bakery (probably at the same time as this year's Easter buns!). Check out Mediterranean Wholesalers for the mid-range: theirs sell from $10-$20 (Va Piano use the Dias brand).

Try your panettone with a decent prosecco, for a delightful afternoon snack, and reflect on its wonderful suitability for an Australian summer celebration, in contrast to the English Christmas pud.

What about you? What are some of your favourite Christmas-time snacks?

04 December, 2009

Seven Seeds

114 Berkeley Street, Carlton; 03 9347 8664

The coffee pedigree of Mark Dundon must be the envy of roasters around the city. Dundan ran St Ali, the venerated South Melbourne cafe, before selling up and opening Brother Baba Budan in the city, an outlet so confident in the allure of its brews that it put its seating on the ceiling. And now, there is Seven Seeds, a shrine to the bean.

The warehouse space, slotted among the light industrial of the un-chic side of Carlton, hosts roasters, cupping sessions, a retail outlet and an excellent cafe. It's pumping in there, and not just with students and nurses from the closest institutions. It goes without saying that the coffee is worth crossing town for, but the food is playing just as big a part in keeping bums on seats.

The menu is a simple A5 page of delicious things on excellent bread (from Dench), augmented by some fine baked goods on display at the counter. A vivid snack at any time of day is their hommous on sourdough, with a superb dukkah and cherry tomatoes. The hommous itself is extraordinary - rich with oil and perfectly creamed chickpeas.

For lunch try a top-notch ham sandwich, with brie, rocket and onion jam.
But, if it's your first visit, don't try and resist the most delectable item on the menu: Middle Eastern 'nutella', served on sourdough with mascarpone and sesame seeds. My God. The nutella is precisely the consistency of golden syrup, and just as sticky. It's not as sweet though, and paired with the mascarpone it makes for a grown-up, indulgent, but not at all excessive brunch.

01 December, 2009

Lake House

King Street, Daylesford; 03 5348 3329

A peculiar coincidence occurred the day I finally dined at Lake House: reading 25th anniversary edition of 'Good Weekend' later that night, I came across an article from David Sedaris, a favourite writer of mine, in which he described a trip to Daylesford - parking across the road from our accommodation - complete with lunch at Lake House. It went further the next day, when I was offered a ticket to see his show in January...

But I digress from what was most certainly not a coincidental lunch occasion. I had hankered after sampling Lake House's renowned seasonal fare for some years. Alla Wolf-Tasker has run the venue for a quarter of a century, during which time the Lake House complex has expanded around its centrepiece restaurant - offering massages, spas, facial treatments, accommodation and conference facilities throughout the year - but the food on offer has stayed resolutely local and seasonal.

This is a restaurant that explains to every customer in a given sitting menu changes that include replacing a condiment - horseradish - which has 'just gone out of season' with something more current. They bake their own bread, and frankly a booking is almost worth it just for this sweetly spiced accompaniment.

I went the entree-main option, while SG chose the latter two courses. An amuse bouche of Mt Zero olives, white bean puree and wafer started proceedings.(Note the plate design in the photo - it's the work of Allan Wolf-Tasker, as are all those around the walls.)

My entree affirmed why seasonal dining is such a joy. Spears of white and green asparagus, lined up like pencils in a box, had been bathed in a citrus oil. An inkpot of sauce Maltaise - a smooth blend of egg yolk, butter and blood orange, apparently a traditional match for asparagus - sat to the side. On top is a crumbed poached egg, marvellously holding its egg shape and its runny yolk, beneath its decadently salty coating.

Our recent European adventures have exposed SG and me as unequivocal carnivores. Lake House's menu is certainly swayed towards meat eaters, though it points vegetarians to its longer tasting menu for more, meat-free options. We both went the whole hog, as it were, particularly in light of our dinner the night before. I went so far as to welch on my resolve never to eat veal. Lake House's is milk-fed, and I did feel that if anywhere in Victoria was going to care for their young meat it was this restaurant. And, it came with sweetbreads and artichoke. I couldn't say no.The poached veal on the left sits on a leek mustard. In the middle are the artichoke fritters, a cruelly tiny portion. The sweetmeats (yes, they are the thymus gland on the animal - don't retch, they're delicious) have a texture similar to a very firm mushroom, and like mushrooms form an excellent partnership with butter. On this dish they sit atop a garlic custard, which was far too much how it sounds to be enjoyable!

The pork dish is a veneration of this versatile meat.Crisped rolled belly sits to the left, crowned with apple and smearing a 'cider braised trotter sauce'. In the middle is a divine piece of pork shoulder wrapped in agnolotti, and lastly is brined fillet, again topped with shredded apple and hiding behind some apple foam. The piggie who graces the plate hails from Western Plains.

Because it was that kind of weekend, we indulged with a side of nicola potatoes cooked in duck fat, with rosemary and garlic. Pretty unnecessary, since we'd also accepted the offer of a bread top-up (such a rare thing, and such good bread, I wasn't going to turn it down!), but very worthwhile.

SG's dessert was certainly the visual highlight of the meal.
The centrepiece is a warm orange 'clafoutis' (their inverted commas). Dotted around are pieces of citrus and blobs of perfectly formed meringue atop dollops of tangy lemon curd. The sweet to sour balance of the plate is spot on.

While in some ways it would be nice to access local, well-respected food with a little less of the pomp and ceremony that goes with high-end dining, Lake House do make an effort at egalatarian dining. Most mealtimes offer a two-course fixed price, ranging from $39 for a mid-week lunch to $69 for dinner. Their wine mark-ups, on the other hand, salute the serious drinker: a glass of Galli Estate pinot gris is $12. (It's labelled as Lake House, so I can't be sure if it's the same wine they retail for $20.) And diners are very well cared for, by a legion of floor staff happy to answer questions.

For more information on the local producers Lake House uses, check out their website and go to Restaurant & Cellar > Regional Producers.

Farmers Arms

1 East St, Daylesford; 03 5348 2091

If every town had a pub like the Farmers Arms, noone would live in the city.

Out the back is a one-hat restaurant, thronged with visitors - cosy inside or kicking back in the summer courtyard - enjoying dishes such as rosemary and polenta crumbed pork cutlet with parsnip puree and roasted apples. Out the front, locals and blow-ins jostle at the wide-topped bar for a stool, ready to order some of Daylesford's best food from some of its friendliest staff.

It's a very relaxed set-up. The menu is up on a chalkboard, and everyone's order is put on their tab (making an extra round or course all too easy!). How many pubs do you know with cutlery drawers next to their beer taps?

I'd been dreaming of sausage and mash since we decided to come to Daylesford. The butcher on the main street was closed for the weekend so I missed out on bullboar sausages, but I found a more than suitable substitute at the Farmers Arms: lamb chops with potato salad and roasted capsicum.No less than three glistening hunks of meat blockaded the salad, topped with strips of capsicum and a mess of spinach.

SG pretended to think about the beer-battered fish and chips, but there was really only one thing he was ever going to order (and if he hadn't, I would have!): the porterhouse steak, with rocket and onion salad and roast potatoes. The meat is house-aged and perfectly cooked - lightly charred and utterly succulent. The spuds were just extraordinary - who needs fries?

As delicious and well-prepared as our meat dishes were, we kept something back for dessert: cinnamon doughnuts with dipping sauce.A glass of chilled PX rounded out the ecstasy, which wasn't dulled at all by the arrival of the bill: two meat dishes, a serve of bread, dessert and six drinks came to $108. I think that is superb value. Particularly notable was the PX - the Arms serves Cardenal Cisneros, which is not entry level (it retails for about $60 a bottle) and they sell it for $8 a glass. On the flipside, as with all their desserts, the doughnuts were $15, which for fried flour is a bit cheeky, but it balanced out at a very reasonable night out.

Other Daylesford recommendations

  • The Grande, Hepburn Springs - a majestic old building hidden away from the main road, housing a bar, restaurant and accommodation, with stunning views from the back terrace
  • Spa and Fire accommodation - great attention to the little details
  • Ex Libris paper shop, 89 Vincent St - no item in this shop is short of exquisite
  • Cliffy's Emporium - for homely cafe fare and local produce