I'm not deceived by the brightness of the sun. This is still winter. It's the time of root vegetables and cabbage, of all kinds of citrus, or fennel and artichokes. I still want soup - and I'm exploring soups beyond my favourite minestrone. I made krupnik this week. That's a Polish soup, and probably best known as a Polish Jewish soup, with barley and mushrooms.What I have learnt after the first version (one and a half cups of barley, a litre of stock, a litre and a bit of water). is that less barley and more vegetables are better. Next time I shall try it with four carrots, four celery stalks and their leaves, two chopped onions, maybe a chopped turnip, and only three quarters of a cup of barley, along with 400 gram of fresh chopped mushrooms, and about 20 grams of dried porcini slices, soaking. The mushroom water goes into the soup, too. The advantage of it is that everything is added all at once and cooked for about an hour an a half, until the barley is soft. There is no fat added. It may be very nourishing, but it needs a kick at the end. A lot of chopped parsley is good, a few minutes before serving. And salt and pepper, of course. Those quantities will need a good two and a half litres of stock (or stock and water).
I'm still fond of pumpkin and sweet potato soup. I start with a large sliced leek, cooked with butter or olive oil, then I add a whole peeled clove of garlic, the peeled and roughly chopped pumpkin and sweet potato. Sometimes I add some ground cumin and a little coriander, sometimes not. It all get stirred around well, then I add stock, parsley stalks and a bay leaf. It's simmered until the vegetables are quite soft, I remove the bay leaf, and puree it. Some cooked chestnuts are good, too, in the mixture.
Autumn is here. Apples, pears, quinces, chestnuts, walnuts, the first mandarins, oranges on their way, along with Brussels sprouts. I love autumn cooking. I’ve been cooking quinces a lot, thanks to a friend with a huge tree. The magic of them is the way they change colour the longer they cook: from pale apricot to deep red. I like the way they can be sweet or savory, long-cooked in syrup, or lightly poached and added to tagines. Chestnuts have the same sweet/savory purposes, for me. I love them as a soup, or used in stuffing for cabbage, cooked with Brussels sprouts, or cooked in syrup.
Neither is easy to manage. I know people who cook quinces whole and then peel them, but I prefer to peel them, then cut into quarters or eighths (depends on the size, remove the core, and bake or poach them. They are woody tough, and discolour easily, so they can be put into acidulated water as you go. One of the advantages of peeling and coring them before cooking them is that you can discard any wormy bits.
If I’m poaching them for dessert, I add a little cinnamon stick and a clove or two to the syrup, and cook them on as low as heat as possible for at least an hour. If I’m baking them, I add some orange juice, a little red wine, brown sugar, a couple of cloves, a little cinnamon stick, and cook them for three hours in a low oven – shaking the pan occasionally. The longer they cook, the richer the colour.
Other uses for quinces? I’m about to make a chicken tagine with quinces – and chestnuts, for fun – and I’ve used quinces with beef, too.
As for chestnuts, all I can say after some years of practice is that the fresher they are, the easier to peel. Which isn’t saying much. They’re never easy. Make a deep slit in each, and then put into boiling water. Remove after a few minutes, and then prise away the two skins. They do not come away unless the chestnuts are hot. A couple of years ago I managed to peel them more easily by putting two or three at a time into the microwave with a tiny amount of water. Two minutes, and they split open in a way that made peeling them easier. Roasting sometimes work, and there are French chestnut pans with perforated bases so they can be cooked on the stove top.
Uses for chestnuts: I love them with Brussels sprouts that I blanch for a minute beforehand. The chestnuts and sprouts are cooked together with some chicken stock and a knob of butter until the chestnuts are soft, and the sprouts have absorbed all the stock. Not for those who like crunchy vegetables… Gorgeous with roast veal, roast chicken, or even good sausages.
Try cooking one or two with some potatoes to be mashed. The chestnuts don’t mash smoothly, but add texture and a wonderfully nutty flavour.
I think chestnuts and the cabbage family have an affinity. Not only sprouts, but cabbage green or red benefits from being cooked with chestnuts.
I had a fancy some years ago to cook a meal of chestnuts. Starting with chestnut soup, followed by a whole stuffed cabbage that included chestnuts in the stuffing or perhaps just roast veal with some chestnuts, with sprouts and chestnuts. It would have been followed by Mont Blanc (cooked chestnuts, sweetened, forced through a food mill to make little mountains on a plate, topped with whipped cream. Looks like a snow-capped mountain). Then, at the very end, some marrons glaces. I didn’t ever do it – too hard on the fingers – but it seemed to be that chestnuts were the only nut that was so versatile. There could have been chestnut bread, or pasta made with chestnut flour, and chestnut flour cake, too.
The first raspberry jam was made on December 14. December is the best time for jam-making, I have found over the years. I never use so called "jam berries" because they're not in good enough condition, and one year I found (months later) that the flavour of the whole batch had been spoiled by a couple of berries that were on their way to being mouldy. This year is such a funny year, hot and wet, and when I saw berries at Toscano's, the greengrocer, I thought it was a good time. Patrick Toscano confirmed that. "This year, I don't think they'll be better. Or cheaper." Raspberry jam is easy - in theory, anyway, and in practice once you've done it about eight times. You need as much sugar as berries. Heat the berries in the preserving pan, then add the sugar, and when the bubbles start to charge, add the juice of a lemon. Boil until setting point, then bottle. I usually seal with paraffin wax when cold.
Other treats of early summer: beautiful mangoes, white peaches, nectarines. And this: Orange tiramisu
Old recipes finding new life. Years ago, when my son Mark was only two, I invented a kind of citrus tiramisu for the adults who came to his birthday party. Because of the glass bowls I served it in, I folded the sponge fingers through, rather than layering them. I recently gave the original recipe to a friend, who said everyone adored the flavours, but preferred the layered style of a more traditional tiramisu.
So here is the original recipe, amended. The other change I made was to add a little orange blossom water. Not essential, but beneficial. The sponge fingers I used were rather small, and came in packets within the large pack. I used about three packets – say, 15 or 16 savoiardi. This time, I used a large white bowl, like the Apilco and Pillivuyt salad bowls.
You need: 100 ml Grand Marnier, grated rind of one large orange, juice of one orange, sponge fingers, 3 eggs (separated), half a cup of caster sugar, a little orange blossom water, 300g mascarpone.
Mix the juice, Grand Marnier and grated rind in a large shallow bowl. Dip the savoiardi in, turning them so they are soft, but not disintegrating.
Beat together the egg yolks and sugar until thick and light (an electric beater is useful for this). Add the orange blossom water. Mix in the mascarpone. Beat the egg white until stiff, fold into the mixture.
Put a small amount of the mixture into the bottom on a large bowl, then add a few savoiardi. Another layer of the mascarpone cream, more savoiardi, more cream, the final layer of savoiardi. There should be enough cream left for a final layer of that over the savoiardi.
Cover it, refrigerate for a few hours. Decorate with a scattering of raspberries, or some grated dark chocolate. It serves six to eight people.
Spring is back. Thank goodness. Brussels sprouts, the new darling in the restaurant vegetable list (who would have thought?) are just fine, but I'm at the end of the season now. The first asparagus of the season is in. Bless its green stalks. The new season favourite for me is steamed asparagus topped with a soft-boiled egg (carefully shelled) and shavings of parmesan. Break the egg open, the yolk combines with the parmesan.
Broad beans are in, too. I love them cooked with artichoke hearts, or with peas. And new season's Queensland strawberries are surprisingly good, although I hang out for Yarra Valley strawberries in November. I bought some northern strrawberries for a big lunch at the end of August, and had a bowl on the table, alongside a splendid chocolate cake that I served with whipped cream to which I added some confit orange slices, very finely sliced. All the diners helped themselves to everything - a great combination of flavours, as it turned out.
Mushrooms: It’s mushroom season in earnest. Doubly good news, that, since the evidence is mounting that mushrooms are seriously good for us. Even white cultivated mushrooms – and, according to the research, they are especially good for us. They’re thought to stimulate the immune system, may help to protect against certain cancers, are a rich source of antioxidants, and have a high satiety value (that is, you don’t feel hungry after you’ve eaten them).
What struck me at the event that presented the latest research was how versatile mushrooms are in cooking There were little things to eat, of course: mushroom soup, in quiches, on bruschetta, in risotto, on pizza. I got home and my own mushroom soup, which relies on a recipe in Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking. I soaked a couple of slices of dried porcini in 100ml lukewarm water. Then I sliced 250g of white cultivated mushrooms, and cooked them with a tiny clove of garlic and some parsley sprigs in 30g butter. Then I added a slice of bread (it was a dense white sourdough), soaked in water and squeezed dry, and stirred it around. Then came 550ml chicken stock and the dried mushroom slices, and a bayleaf. It simmered for about 20 minutes, was allowed to cool. The bayleaf was removed and it went through the blender.
You could use a stick blender, but I’ve just got a new Cuisenart blender, so I’m using it a lot.
Too thick? Add a little water or stock. Me, I quite like it moderately thick, and I add a dollop of sour cream and some snipped chives. You could add a slug of madeira or oloroso sherry, and serve some oloroso with the soup.
I have milked my first salmon! That’s the correct word for harvesting eggs, or roe, from salmon, and it’s not nearly as hard as milking cows or goats. I was at Yarra Valley Caviar (which is technically in Upper Goulburn, rather than the Yarra Valley), on a property fed by the Rubicon River.
Nicholas Gorman took us through (I was with the wonderful Lyndey Milan from Sydney) the process of raising salmon. They are hatched, kept indoors for a time, then move out into increasingly large ponds every six months. The water comes from the river – beautifully clean water, monitored constantly, on entry into the property, and on its return to the river. When salmon are about three years old, they are mature enough to breed. In the wild – in Alaska, for instance – salmon will have gone out to sea, and will return to their spawning grounds to breed. They swim upriver, make a kind of nest in the gravel, and lay their eggs. Male salmon squirt sperm over the eggs. And then the adults die. The smolt (as salmon is known at the egg stage) do the best they can.
It’s a pretty rugged process that involves huge physical changes in both male and female salmon at the end of their lives (the males look hideous at this point). Female salmon stop eating, they change colour – all their colour goes into their eggs. If you found them in the wild, you wouldn’t eat them. They’re falling apart, just about. Good eating for bears, but not people.
When they are farmed, the process is modified. The first owner of Yarra Valley Caviar (who was raising salmon for fish, not eggs) discovered that it was easy to milk the fish. They were dying because they were egg-bound, and he discovered that if you lift a salmon, its eggs will fall out.
It’s slightly more complicated. The female fish are sedated, then fished out of the water and held over tubs. Their bright orange eggs tumble out of them, and a little gently massage gets all the eggs out. They’re thinner, their bellies flaccid, and they are returned to the water. They come to – like people coming out of an anaesthetic. They open and close their mouths, move their tails, and gradually begin to swim again. They’re in pretty poor condition, really. After about ten minutes, they are returned to their ponds, and after a few months, regain their condition. At that point, they can be eaten. Or they will repeat the process, and be milked the following year.
This year, Yarra Valley Caviar will be releasing first harvest salmon eggs – that is, the roe of fish that have never been milked before. The eggs are softer in texture, with a slightly different flavour – a bit brighter. But the older roe are delicious, too. I’ve been eating them on toast, on potato pancakes with sour cream, with smoked salmon and crème fraiche. And at Rochford Winery restaurant, where we lunched after the milking, the chef scooped the eggs on to oysters. Very very fine.
Yarra Valley Caviar scores for me on every count. A great product to eat. An environmentally sensitive product. Sustainable in every way. As soon as you see it again, go for it. It’s seasonal. I’ll list some of the stockists as soon as I have them.
The first big soup of the season…. I’m very fond of an Italian-style minestrone that is predominantly beans, greens, and pasta. For all I know, I have reinvented a little-known regional soup. I start by cooking a finely sliced leek in some olive oil, then add some finely chopped garlic and parsley. I usually add a finely chopped carrot, then beans and chicken stock. The beans of my preference are fresh borlotti beans, but dried cannellini are fine. They should be soaked and half-cooked.
I take a bunch of Italian chicory, also known as endive. I chop up about half the stalks and add them, then after about half an hour I add the shredded leaves. I add salt when the beans are cooked.
About 20 minutes after adding the leaves, I add some soup pasta – either little shapes, or spaghetti broken into short lengths. When the pasta is cooked, the soup is ready.
Actually, it’s not. This soup is better if it rests for a day. Serve with generous quantities of grated parmesan and a thread of really good olive oil.
For the first big soup of the season, I made one mistake. I used a dark carrot, one of those purple carrots that are thought to be what carrots were like before the Dutch bred them orange. The thing about those carrots is that they bleed, rather like beetroot. So the soup has a crimson tinge. A bit disconcerting, but still delicious.
There are some good new ingredients about, as we saw at the Harvest Picnic, the annual event at Hanging Rock that is always held on the last Sunday in February. I was chief judge this year, working with an excellent team that included Gail Thomas, Laurie Cavallo, and Michelle Potts.
Gold medal winners were Snowy River Samphire, Highland Beasties (within the regional 21 Apostles group), Salute Olives, and Mount Macedon Kitchen.
Silver medals winners were Huon Salmon, Auntie Elda’s felafel, and Beechworth Honey. Bronze was awarded to Pukara (olive oil), Wildings, and the coffee place Bean, Ground and Drunk.
Samphire the least known. It’s a kind of sea-herb, small, succulent and salty. I’ve seen it and bought it from Toscano’s (in Kew, Malvern and Richmond). I like to add a handful to pan-fried crisp-skinned salmon, adding it for the last minute or two. I also like it in sandwiches – really good with smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels, or roast beef and chutney, or chicken and mayo.
I've been exploring some old favorites that are so old they look very retro. Vichyssoise, for example, which is a chilled leek and potato soup. Despite the name, it’s probably American in origin (Julia Child thought so, anyway). Creamy cold soups are so out of favour that I was curious to see what it would taste like as part of a contemporary dinner – but I served the soup in demi-tasses, just as a little something as soon as we sat down.
This is how I made it. One onion, three smallish leeks (only a hint of the green), 50g butter, one large potato (about 160g), 320ml light chicken stock, about 200ml milk, salt and pepper. Cream and chives to finish.
Slice the onion finely and cook gently in the butter with the saucepan lid on. Add the washed and sliced leeks, cook until soft and almost pureed. Add the peeled and diced potato, salt, and the chicken stock. Cook until the potatoes are very soft.
Puree in a blender, adding some cold milk and a seasoning of white pepper. The texture should not be too thick. Chill, adding some cream before serving, and a generous quantity of snipped chives.
It’s important not to have too much potato, because it will go gluey when blended. The flavour of leeks comes through very nicely; and the chives at the end stop it all being too creamy.
THE other favourite I’ve been making occasionally for lunch is Caesar salad. It’s such a good salad, properly made. Cos lettuce, croutons, anchovies, parmesan, dressing made with a coddled egg. Nicely creamy, crunchy, salty, all at once.
To make the croutons, I cut a good slice of sourdough into cubes. I head some olive oil in a pan with a cut clove of garlic, and when the garlic is browned (and has flavoured the oil), I discard it and fry the croutons until golden brown.
Cos lettuce only, for me, washed and dried. Then the croutons and anchovies (I’ve got a thing for white anchovies at the moment), a scattering of shaved parmesan. I make the dressing by boiling an egg for a white, then cracking it into a bowl, whisking it with salt, a little vinegar, a tablespoon or two of grated parmesan, and some olive oil. Over the salad it goes, it’s all tossed gently, and then served.
Its other advantage is that so long as you have lettuce, parmesan and anchovies in the house, it’s made within minutes.
Creme Caramel was another old favourite I made for a big family dinner. It was really made for one of the grandchildren – he likes custard, and had a large helping of Christmas pudding with custard. Me, I’ve got little time for pouring custard, but a baked custard in the form of crème caramel is acceptable. I steep some orange rind in the milk, and add a spoonful of orange blossom water when I’m mixing the eggs and hot milk.
The caramel (for me) is half a cup of sugar in a frying pan, melted until caramelised and poured carefully into a mould (or several, if I’m making individual ones). For the crème, my proportions are 600ml of milk, four eggs and two or three egg yolks, and a quarter cup of sugar.
Heat the milk (with a strip of orange rind, if you like). Whisk together the eggs, sugar and egg yolks. Gradually add the hot milk. Strain into the caramelled mould. (Yes, it’s a bit fiddly, but it means the texture is SO fine).
Bake in a bain marie at 170 until the custard is just set (use a fine-bladed knife: if it comes out clean, the custard is done).
Then chill it and unmould it. It’s good to made the day before.
These quantities serve six to eight.
For the grandchild, I’d made a couple of individual moulds, so he had his own special serving. He was very interested in the way it sat on the plate: “Jelly custard!” And had two helpings. It went down well with the adults, too.
Quinoa salad: Funny stuff, quinoa. Cooks quickly, meant to be very good for us, but it’s got very little flavour. Which means it’s a great basis for other flavours. I made a salad last that serves eight to ten people as a first course. It’s a useful summer dish, I think, but can be made in spring, or earlier, if there are broad beans around.
250g white quinoa, 950g broad beans (shelled weight 350g), 1 fresh salad onion, 1 red capsicum, 1 pickled lemon (rind chopped very finely), marinated goat’s cheese, lots of basil and parsley, a robust olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Rinse the quinoa, and cook in boiled salted water for about 10 minutes, until done. Drain and leave to cool.
Pod the broad beans, blanch in boiling water, drain, rinse in cold water, and slip off the outer skins.
Chop the red capsicum into fine dice. Cut the onion into quarters, and slice very finely.
Mix the vegetables into the cooled cooked quinoa. Add a generous quantity of olive oil (at least two tablespoons), and a squeeze of lemon juice. Add the chopped pickled lemon, and a good handful of chopped parsley and roughly torn basil. Taste it: more salt, perhaps? More oil? Finish with chunks of marinated fetta (not too big).
You can make everything a little ahead of time, and it should be made at least an hour before you want to serve it, so the flavours blend together. The goat’s cheese should be added just before serving. If you’re planning ahead, prepare all the vegetables and cook the quinoa a few hours in advance. But it is best made on the day it is to be eaten.
No broad beans? Use fresh peas instead, very lightly cooked.
We're heading for braises and roasts and hearty soups, with lots of citrus to lighten things. I've been cooking shoulder of lamb quite a bit, using a version of the recipe in Dee Nolan's Food Lover's Pilgrimage to Santiago to Compostela. The recipe called for a boned shoulder, but I prefer to cook it on the bone. Dee came to dinner recently, and I cooked it in her honour. At the family property Nolans Road, she and her husband John produce lambs, grapes, and an excellent olive oil.
But if you're in the mood for something sweeter, then there's some good shopping for chocolate and other treats at Xocolat - two stores, at 123 Maling Rd, Canterbury (tel. 9836 3100) and 11 Strathalbyn St, Kew East (tel. 9857 09 71). The family-owned business makes really fine chocolate, sells wonderful chocolate (as confectionery or as chocolate bars), and makes a mean hot chocolate – and coffee. They import Del Rey chocolate from Venezuela – wonderful stuff, really interesting spicy/fruity notes. The hand-dipped and decorated chocolates are beautiful gift if you’re going out for dinner, or perhaps for youself if you’re not. I like Xocolatl a lot because they’re a family company with that combination of passion and skill that’s irrestistible. And try the new chocolate bar with balsamic strawberries. I don’t normally eat much chocolate, and I was a bit embarrassed to realise how much of the bar I had eaten. www.xocolatl.com.au
But my mind is with cakes, specifically, chocolate cakes, and the cakes of Bordeaux.
Canelés – the name means ‘ridged’ – can made outside the city, and we have a very enterprising people baking them in Melbourne, Australia, but they are unquestionably at their best in their home town. They are a challenge to bake well, and good ones are hard to find. A good canelé has a dark golden thin crust with slight but definite crunch; its interior is densely spongy, flavoured with rum and vanilla.
This little cake represents an edible history of the city, the sweet taste of a less than attractive past. This little cake is about the 18th century. Bordeaux’s best architecture dates from then, as everyone who admires the city's buildings knows. Its most handsome space, the Place de Bourse dates from the middle of that century, and shows its neo-classical architecture at its prosperous best.
The prosperity owes a lot to Bordeaux’s location. It’s a port, but on the Garonne river, well protected from the seasonal fury of the Atlantic by the land that includes the great wine area of the Medoc. Bordeaux is best known for its wines, which are its enduring success, but in the 18th century fortunes were made by sugar and slaves.
Canelés depend on sugar and wine-making, and by-products of both. They need egg yolks and rum, as well as flour, sugar, whole eggs and vanilla. Egg yolks used to be plentiful in wine-growing areas, because egg whites were used to fine (clarify) wine. (In Portugal, another wine-centred city with sugar connections, there’s a whole world of cakes and desserts using egg yolks and sugar, but that’s another story.) Rum is essentially distilled fermented sugar cane.
And the vanilla bean that is so crucial to the flavour is another part of the story of slavery and sugar, since it probably came from Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, claimed by the French in 1643. Slaves were brought from Africa to cultivate sugar; even now, the island's main exports are sugar, rum, vanilla - and seafood. Reunion Island was first known at Ile Bourbon, or Bourbon Island, which explains why some of the best vanilla is known as Bourbon vanilla.
The origins of the canelé are unclear, according to patissier Thierry Lalet, who makes some of the best in the city. He thinks there's a similar cake in Portugal, where the baking of sweet treats was mostly done in convents. Nuns travelled on pilgrimage, he says thoughtfully. Perhaps the recipe was passed on.
That's all speculation. What is known is that canelés are made like almost no other cake. The batter, rich in sugar and egg yolks, is made and left to rest overnight. The mixture is stirred in the morning, extra rum is added, and it is poured into small copper moulds. They go into a hot oven for 10 minutes, then the temperature is lowered. The result is a deep golden brown cake with a crunch on the outside and a chewy interior.
The texture is the key to its flavour, says Thierry Lalet. "You have to chew the cake," he explains. "Chewing is very important because then you get all the flavours."
They are at their best when they are freshly made and just cooled. They can be reheated, but you lose some of the crunch.
His recipe is for a large number, and is suited only for copper moulds. Silicone moulds need a different recipe, he says. These days, canelé moulds come in three sizes - the original, then a smaller size known as 'lunch', and a tiny version that is often served with coffee. The tiny ones, though nice, are usually soggy and, in my experience, never have the right crust, or proportion of crust to interior.
His final advice? "If you buy the silicone moulds, use the recipe that comes with them, because it works for them."
Thierry Lalet's canelés (for copper moulds)
1 litre of milk
1 vanilla bean
180g plain flour
a pinch of salt
8 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
2 tablespoons dark rum
Heat the milk with the vanilla bean, but not above 80 C. Let it cool a little (to 75 C), then add the butter to melt in it. Mix together the sugar andthe flours with the salt.
Beat the eggs and add to the flour and sugar. Add the hot milk - removing the vanilla bean. Stir well until the sugar is dissolved. Add one tablespoon of rum.
Strain into a container, cover it, and keep it in the refrigerator overnight. The following day, mix it well again, and add another tablespoon of rum.
Pour into greased moulds and bake at 200 C for 10 minutes, then turn the heat down to 160 C and bake for a further 40 minutes. Remove from the oven, allow to cool a little, then unmould.
It’s past the season for wild mushrooms, but there are still lots of cultivated mushrooms around. Mushroom cultivation has been one of the success stories in Australian horticulture. The Australian Mushroom Growers’ Association recently marked 50 years since the association was formed – and what makes it so remarkable among growers’ associations is that pretty well all growers are members. Even more remarkable is that since the beginning everyone has contributed to research and development, and promotion.
All of which means that our mushroom growing is state of the mycological art. It’s been amazing to see how many mushrooms are now cultivated: shimeji, shiitake, swiss browns of various sizes, as well as buttons, flats and portobellos. They’re no longer solely available in speciality stores, they’re in supermarkets, so they’re mainstream.
The industry has grown quite remarkably. The first recorded production was 6000 tonnes in 1975. Currently it’s around 65,000 tonnes, according to Greg Seymour, general manager of the Association. They’re predicting 90,000 within five years.
Some of that growth can be attributed to the research and development. At first, mushrooms were grown on straw and manure beds. They’re now grown on specially produced mushroom compost in air conditioned sheds. The airconditioning means that mushrooms can be grown all year round. Mushrooms growing in the wild may be mysterious, but cultivation is solidly science based.
There’s much research now into the health benefits of mushrooms, even the ordinary white button mushrooms that are so readily available. I know from working on the book Color Me Healthy: why you should eat almost everything with Dr Alice Murkies that mushrooms contain a whole range of phytochemicals. When the book was published in 2001, we wrote that the phytochemical composition of mushrooms had scarcely been studied, although we knew that shiitake mushrooms contained a polysaccharide called lentinan that was thought to be of benefit in preventing certain forms of cancer and stimulating the immune system. New research findings are due to be released soon, but the advice from Greg Seymour is that a few agaricus (the most common ones) are a good addition to the diet.
Me? I love mushrooms on toast, the mushrooms cooked in a pan and finished with a spoonful of sour cream and a handful of fresh herbs. I love mushrooms and chicken, and mushrooms and veal. And eggs and mushrooms.
King salmon is what I’m thinking about now, because I was one of a small group visiting the Regal farm and hatchery in New Zealand only a couple of weeks ago. New Zealand is in our minds for quite different reasons now. My view is that we should support the country as best we can, and since New Zealand provides much of our sauvignon blanc, some very good pinot noir and some excellent merlot, we ought to be drinking that. And eating king salmon.
The fish are farmed in the Marlborough Sounds; the hatchery is near Nelson, and fed by the Takaki springs, a vast clear spring that bubbles into a huge lake.
King salmon goes by many names. It’s a Pacific salmon (not Atlantic) of which there are a number of varieties. King or Chinook salmon is one of them (along with chum and sockeye), and it’s a tricky fish to farm. King salmon are flighty and quite easily stressed, so they need to lead peaceful and well-fed lives if they are to be good eating. Fish farming means there’s quite a lot of research into fish feed, as well as all other aspects of the process – the genetics of the fish, which fish should be used for breeding, the gentlest way to kill them, and so on. King salmon seem to be the most labour-intensive of fish: they are killed by hand (after being sedated first), gutted by hand, skinned and filleted, even pin-boned by hand.
It was actually quite moving to watch, because everyone seemed so respectful of the fish. The group developed non-religious grace before meals, because we felt we had to acknowledge the care that had gone into the food on our plates. It takes at least two years to put a portion of king salmon on our plates.
King salmon is an oilier fish than Atlantic salmon. It lives a gentle life, and needs gentle cooking, too. I think. It’s terrific as a marinated raw fish (try that with a sauvignon blanc, and the wine fills out), it’s great smoked, very good poached. Try it will poached with a chipotle mayonnaise, or a lime and chilli dressing. Or sour cream mixed with horseradish and freshly chopped dill and/or chives and some good steamed potatoes.
There are lots of restaurants serving king salmon: PM24, 24 Russell St, Melbourne. The European in Spring St. Esposito in Carlton. Nobu at Crown, Koko at Crown, Huntingdale Golf Club, Chateau Yering. Coda in Flinders Lane. the Grand Hyatt. Sofitel. The Flinders Hotel. Circa in St Kilda. So there's no excuse for not trying it somewhere!
More news of New Zealand king salmon. Six products picked up top awards in the annual International Taste & Quality Institute (iTQi) Superior Taste Awards held in Brussels. They did last year, too: three three-star awards (“exceptional product”) and three two-star awards “remarkable”. Three stars were Regal Hot Smoked Natural and Regal Hot Smoked Mixed Peppers & Spices products each received three stars.
Southern Ocean Cold Smoked Sliced Salmon, Seasmoke Cold Smoked Sliced Salmon each received a two star rating, along with Regal salmon caviar and Regal fresh fillets. I'm not at all surprised, they're terrific products. That salmon pastrami picked up an award in Australia, if I remember correctly.
Special treats at this year’s Harvest Picnic at Hanging Rock. Otway Forest Shiitake Mushrooms, grown on logs (not sawdust). That was everyone’s favourite, worthy of the only gold award from the judges, and also a people’s choice award. The guys behind the enterprise – Matt, Mike and Rob – are SO committed and knowledgeable, it was a pleasure to meet them. Fabulous mushrooms, and a sustainable enterprise in the Otways. The website isn’t up and running yet, but the telephone number is 0447 557 333.
Another special treat were the fresh pistachios grown around Nangiloc, in the north-west of Victoria. It’s been a bad year for them,too, because of the rain, and the crop is down. If you see fresh pistachios, as I did at Toscano’s in Kew this morning, and think they’re a bit spotty, don’t worry, that’s the rain. Where to find them? For those in Melbourne, they should be at the Collingwood Children’s Farm farmers’ market and the Albert Park Gas Works market. Otherwise, check out www.gojustnuts.com.au You can order them on line. These are so good – with that nutty sweetness (that is to say, no hint of rancidity) and flavour that’s full of life. I’m a bit embarrassed to realise how many I’ve eaten (we bought some at the Harvest Picnic), but clearly not embarrassed enough to stop eating them.
My favourite new bakery: at the Melbourne Zoo. True. The new catering company there, Liberty, has installed a bakery and a lovely baker called Mick Sheard. The food in the bistro is really rather good, and the sandwiches and pastries are outstanding. Go to the Zoo, and have one of the sandwiches. Then pick up a loaf of bread. The big loaves, with a sourdough starter and light rye, are very fine. The texture is really good - soft but not mushy, almost chewy. The fruit loaf gets my vote as the best fruit loaf in town. Nowhere but the Zoo - so go and see the tigers, the orang utans, the lions, the bears, the elephants and giraffes and anything else that takes your fancy. The Zoo is gearing up for its 150th anniversary, so of course you must pay it a visit. Take overseas visitors, take children, take a friend.