Thursday, November 26, 2009

Meeting Matt Preston

Cue MasterChef music.
It's official. I'm in love. I'm leaving Patience to run away with food writer extraordinaire and TV personality Matt Preston.
Or more correctly, I'm leaving Patience to run away not just with Mr. Preston, but to carry on a torrid and florid affair with his cravats.
After all- the man and his neck-ware of choice are synonymous. You simply can't have one without the other. Thank goodness.

But there is much more to this bear of a man than his cravats and TV personality. And I would be telling a lie if I said that I didn't have a writers crush on this man long before he appeared on TV rolling chocolate over his tongue whilst staring into the middle distance.

My crush began several years ago reading his wondrous and transporting accounts of food and dinning that appear regularly in The Age's Epicure and weekend supplements. It was only reinforced by seeing his passion for food moved from the page to the screen. Though that tiny box is sadly ill equipped to hold his enthusiasm for flavour and food history.

I went weak at the knees recently when I was asked to read his book 'Cravat-a-licious' and interview the man.
(You can check the interview out here on the wonderful Sassi Sam website)
Sassi sent me the book along with the details of the publicist 'should I be available' to set up an interview.
Available? .... Whose gonna stop me?!

I was thrilled to be granted 20-minutes in between radio and TV appearances- and was determined to bridle my enthusiasm and maintain my dignity during the process.

I should confess right now that about two months ago I spotted Preston dinning at Sydney's Bodega with Chef extraordinaire (and Melbourne's favourite son) Andrew McConnell.
I tried to work up the courage to say hello and express my love of his work.
I told myself to wait till the meal (mine and his) was over and try and catch him outside, but after several glasses of sherry my confidence failed me and I simply smiled on the way out- telling myself that no-one wants to harangued by ditzy fans while sharing a meal with friends.

He assures me that he would have been delighted if I'd said hello.
I'll know for next time...

In a candid moment during our interview- a moment that I was NOT prepared for- he did the unthinkable and .... removed hi cravats!
I almost stopped breathing- what was wrong with this picture?

Then, he offered them to me to examine. When I told my sister this, she asked if I had managed to steal one or tried to trade them for my underpants. Sadly, I did neither- where's a sister when you need her!

Still, despite failing to make off with a cravat (and forgetting to ask for an autograph on the book)- the interview was thoroughly enjoyable. It's hard not to love a man so clearly passionate about what he does. Luckily what he does is write about food... and we love to read it.

Note: I have no doubt that Patience is tired of hearing my declarations that I am leaving him for this or that chef/food writer/insert other ridiculous idol here.
It must be said that he is called Patience for a very valid reason and that indeed, I have no intention of ever leaving him- unless I meet Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal... and maybe Fergus Henderson.
What!? A girl can dream can't she...?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Grandma- my cooking heritage

My Grandma- Dorothy Noel Finlayson- cooked until the day she died.
She cooked until she could no longer taste or see what she was cooking and had little appetite.
She cooked because she loved it. She cooked because it made her happy.
She cooked because food keeps family close.

When her sight began to fail her, Vision Australia marked her tins so she could find what she needed- though 2 marks for sugar and 3 for salt was not always a fail safe.

A large number of her accidents were the result of midnight forays into baking. And one broken nose was the result of her frail arms no longer being able to lift the glass flour jar down from the shelf. It was then that she switched to lighter plastic containers- ain't nothing gonna hold Granny back.

She'd try anything once- twice of she liked it, and then one more time again to perfect it if we liked it too.
You had no more to mention an interest in haggis or a hankering for pavlova and ten tonnes of the stuff would appear in her fridge along with the words 'you take it home dear, it's only me here and I couldn't possibly eat it.'

Cooking was Gran's way of loving, living and (as previously mentioned) entertaining herself in the wee hours of her insomnia.
When we stayed over, she served us porridge like mum suggested- but she added cream. Her meat loaf was moist and rich and her kitchen often smelled of freshly fried chops (she just loved their fatty little tails). There were always new cakes and biscuits on offer and every Christmas she contributed a much anticipated ice-cream plumb pudding to the spread of turkey, ham and seafood.

She is the only woman I know who got smaller as her cooking skills grew.
She is also the only person I know who would think nothing of whipping up a batch of meringues.
She wasn't any good at the light touch for scones... but the delicate meringues never failed her. Almond, vanilla or coffee.
My Gran used to cook with us in the holidays. My Gran always smelled of baking. She was an excellent cook and an excellent teacher. And that is my cooking heritage.

I'm lucky because she shared her cooking secrets, and the time we spent together in the kitchen was about passing skills on. We have the luxury of her hand written recipes- all gathered together in one place. I'm holding on to them and I plan to hand them down to my own children, along with the skills she taught me.

Some people are not so lucky.
Some people never get the chance to ask Gran for that recipe, that secret ingredient.

Thank you Gran.
For the sustenance, the love and -most of all- for the cake.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A whale of a time- thanks for the memory

Recently, in thinking about my most confronting culinary experiences, a memory that I had carefully hidden away to protect my moral fiber came popping to the surface.

The year was 2004. The place was a huge drinking party in downtown Tomiai- a semi rural town on the outskirts of Kumamoto in Kyushu, Japan.

Myself and one other Gaijin (westerner / foreigner) were the guests of honour and every tray of brilliant food at that feast came directly our way, before being passed to the rest of the raucously drinking group at the banquet table.

There was a lot of noise; cheers every time we declared that a dish was 'oishi desne' (delicious), much clapping and shouting whenever we managed to collect a particularly delicate morsel with our chopsticks (Westerners are notoriously not so good at these things) and rousing choruses of 'Kampai' as hot sake was delivered to the table.

The smoked unagi (eel) went down a treat to the great surprise of many at the table and there was endless fascination with our apparent enjoyment of basashi (horse-meat sashimi).

We were on a roll and the party was in full swing.

Then a small dish of jewel red meat made its way to my place in the next round of culinary roulette. I was intrigued by it's marbled appearance and at this stage was still enjoying the game of 'how will the westerners eat this.' So far all the food was delicious and the unexpected array of dishes was like hearing all your favourite songs played randomly back-to-back at a party- you uttering 'oh I LOVE this song' at every new tune.

I asked my travel partner (who spoke some little Japanese) what this next delight was. He in turn asked his closest companion. Listening to her answer, he nodded, went pale and then whispered to me those dreaded words: 'it's whale'. And I immediately went cold as I eyed the small plate.

From memory this dish was particularly tiny, with only about five strips of the dark pink meat fanned neatly upon it. It was one of those dishes that was a rare delicacy for the guests at the table and -after myself and my companion had taken our obligatory pieces- there would be only three others privileged enough to have a taste. That's no small compliment to us awkward dinner guests.

The thin strips gleamed dully up at me, sliced so finely that you could almost see the pattern on the plate below. My hesitation was palpable and as I wavered the party atmosphere around me began to hush. I leaned in to my companion and whispered 'I can't eat it- it's whale, I just can't- it's a problem for me.'

By now there was a definite dimming of noise as the guests sensed that something was amiss, and inquiring eyes began to turn our way. I started to sweat and I swear the music just faded away. Our heads still together, my companion hissed back 'Looks like it'll be more of a problem if we don't' eat it'. He briefly conferred with his translator, her quiet manner helpfully more muted again so that no one could hear what was going on. Then came the mumbled decider; 'if you don't eat it they'll want to know why and it's been ordered specially for us...'

As an ungainly Westerner blundering through the polite and delicate details of Japan, I decided I had already unintentionally offended enough strangers on my five-week trip- I didn't need to embarrass our generous hosts as well.

I nodded and smiled, trying to look pleased and grateful, then sitting up very straight, composing my chopsticks and with great poise, I took a piece of the dewy meat and raised it to my mouth. All eyes were on me as I ate, so I added in some convincing groans of pleasure to appease my hosts and assure them that the honour 'was all mine'.

Then, I swallowed the biggest lump of guilt, shame and horror ever presented to me on a plate. I decided that I was probably full after this and begged off before anymore tasty surprises arrived.

Later that night my partner and I discussed the whale offering beyond the moral and ethical doubts we had about eating it. What we wanted to discuss was how it tasted. To our sad and common disappointment we realised that not only had we chosen to over-step our personal ethical boundaries in the interests of avoiding embarrassment (to our hosts and ourselves), but that due to the tiny offering of the prized flesh, neither of us could really tell what it tasted like beyond being meaty.

Perhaps our senses had been dulled by the sake and party spirit. Perhaps our palates had been overwhelmed by the vast array of unusual flavours and sensations on offer. I think it more likely that I subconsciously blocked it out.

That was my first and last experience of whale- I'm sorry that I can't tell you exactly what it tasted like (except to say that it's remarkably similar to guilt with a side order of regret), but I could have happily lived my life never given the opportunity to find out.

Note: image borrowed from:

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Meeting an Idol- Frank Camorra

I thought I was past it- the idiotic giggling and gushing like a school girl. I thought years of working in radio and meeting celebrities both A and B list had dulled me to the jitters.
It is not so.
Yesterday, whilst waiting at the bar of the new MoVida Aqui on Bourke street in Melbourne's CBD, I worked myself into a nervous sweat.
True it was 30degC + outside, so the sweating might have been obligatory, but I was in a tizz- and this is not a good look for a journo.
You see I am a Frankophile- but not in the traditional sense. Nope, I am a deciple of Chef Frank Camorra and his brilliant Spanish food, so perhaps a 'Camorraphile' might be a better descriptor? And in meeting him for a chat about his latest MoVida brand venture, I was meeting an idol.

I waited while he finished up another chat on the terrace of the new Aqui, nursing a cool drink in the heat in his chefs whites.
I sipped my water, tried to look calm as I made notes about the layout of the bar, the Euro posters on the walls and the menu that finally included paella into the long list of Camorra dishes that foodies love.
I glanced at the great man, trying not to look nervous. I'm sure I failed miserably. I made some more notes. I poured another drink. I sweated it out.
When Frank finally got to me, I had downed so many casual glasses of water that I felt like a water bomb about to explode... and I'd run out of time to go to the bathroom.
See, I'm all professional disinterest and poise.
Despite my discomfort, the half-hour chit-chat just flew. It's so nice to be able to speak to the chefs of this city and find out what they are hoping to achieve.
It's nicer again to meet a chef who is doing stuff that you simply adore.
*gush gush gush*
You get to ask all those deep and interesting questions like "are you excited about anything in particular on the menu" and "can you sign my left breast".
*again- gush gush gush*
I thought I was past it- the silliness and the jitters - but I think I finally understand what some teenagers feel when they see Robert Pattinson (twilight) in the flesh. I didn't quite scream myself hoarse or faint dead-away, but I'm sure I was nodding all together too enthusiastically as I scribbled notes.
Laugh all you want- but I think I handled it well, and next time I'll hold off on the water.

Note: Image borrowed from

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

To Market, to Market: Broadsheet

To Market, To Market:

-Jane de Graaff, for

I just love farmers' markets. There's always such a beautiful and enthusiastic energy in the boundless fresh fruit and veg- an almost carnival atmosphere that makes the grocery shopping so much more than a grab'n'go exercise.
Why not take your picnic blanket and make a morning of it?
Hopefully I'll see you there.