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Fattus Duckus – or How I Fell Down The Gastranomic Rabbit Hole and What I Ate While I Was There

A WARNING BEFORE WE BEGIN
THIS IS BIT OF A SAGA
NO DETAIL SPARED
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED
ENJOY

A single beam of light spills onto white china,
a pool of warmth in the darkness.
My eyes are drawn to this small stage, this ivory theatre.
How can I look anywhere else? 
The walls are lost in velvet blackness and for a moment I feel alone in this place… 
Next stall over, someone flushes…
When even the toilets are this dramatic,
what am I to expect
from the next 5 hours of Food Theatre?

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Photo by the incomparable Geneva

I have gotten ahead of myself… some of you know where I am: some of you may not.
I stood, in that moment, in the bathroom of one of the best restaurants in the World.
Lets be honest for a moment, this is not the most extravagant toilet that I have ever been in and nor the most extravagant restaurant… Rather they have chosen a simple aesthetic with eyecatching flourishes.
One wall boasts a large clock resembling an over sized fob watch (By Jove, I want to steal it!) that not only displays minutes and hours but also, strangely, months.
It takes me a moment to realize that there are only four months arrayed around the Fob Clock and the largest arrow points to how long this Culinary Beast has been residing in Melbourne… counting down how long till it will depart our shores once more. More on that in a moment my freaky darlings… I am setting the scene.

fob and glass

Photo:supplied

We are currently on the 3rd floor of Crown Towers and one whole wall is taken up by a glass window overlooking the Yarra River and the far bank of Melbourne. You can spy graffiti and big signs advertising ham across the way. I enjoy the juxtaposition of lived in city and shiny new restaurant.
A large table runs down the centre of the room, laden with gleaming glassware, each piece worth roughly twice as much as my kidney. Riedel, I believe.

The last wall has been taken hostage by a half finished puzzle.
If one were to describe the Atlantic as BIG or space as ENORMOUS, one might call this puzzle RATHER LARGE… When finished it will be the largest puzzle in the world, so its best to be understated about these things. The picture emerging from this NOT SMALL puzzle shows the man himself, Heston of the house of Blumenthal, striding, mad-scientist-explorer style, from Britain, across the globe, to the Land of Oz.

puzzle

Photo supplied

No, not THAT Oz, this one. The one without tin men or talking scarecrows or an evil lying ruler. Ok, we might have one of those things, but now is not a time for politics. Now is a time to rant about the Terrariums lining the sill below the large glass window, filled with abstract arrangements of cacti and bleached wood that catch the early afternoon light.

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Photos by me

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FOOD, WOMAN?!
I hear you screaming at me through your computer screen. I CAME FOR THE FOOD PORN, BY ZEUS’S TESTICLES!
As did I, my dears, as did I.
Ok, ok, let me give you an appetiser… We are seated by immaculately dressed waiter on the far side of the room. There is a booth that curves around half our table and two seats. Like so

:booth

Photo Supplied

The first plate is placed. A Moroccan style mosaic design that geometrics its way into a small white circle in the centre. Placed just off-centre of the aforementioned circle is a sphere of deep burgundy, split by a layer of cloud-white cream: aerated beetroot with horseradish cream.
We are informed that it is best when eaten all at once, so in I go.
Gently, oh so gently, I pick up this burgundy baby and pop it on my tongue. The texture is like that of Maltesers crafted by tiny fairy foodsmiths. Or summoned perhaps… Sweet roast beetroot flavours that tingle and crackle and gently grasp your tongue while dancing a smooth tongue with the cool bite of horseradish cream.
Classic flavours – on a date with science.
It is sweet, salty, intense and brief. Like a one night stand with a pirate. Made of beetroot.
I should probably apologize now: Food makes me whimsical.
Are you tantalized? I was.

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Photo by yours truly

We order drinks with the charming Sommelier. My friend Jack gets the matching wines, but I decide to drink it bit by bit – this is not a time to get too drunk to appreciate the show.

Talking of drinking… Our next course is wheeled out on a gleaming trolley manned by a stylish chap with a vest and fob watch. An aperitif, he says. Not what you expect, he says

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He offers us vodka and lime, gin and tonic or tequila and lime. I choose gin, because of course, and he picks up a silver bottle and a spoon. With much pomp and a cheeky smile he pipes a mousse onto the spoon and slips it into his pot of gently steaming liquid nitrogen. Before long a crisp little white meringue type creature emerges and he places it before me. Again, all at once.P1000356

Photo also by me! (what a clever gal I am)

It explodes! A crisp outer shell gives way to a fine crisp gin flavoured mist on my tongue. Crisp is the adjective of choice here. I wish for another but alas! Tis not to be. I will have to try and recreate these bad boys at home…

Next up is a Red Cabbage Gazpacho with Pommery Grain Mustard Icecream. A royal purple chilled soup that is beautifully balanced sweet and salty.  The icecream is peppery and hits you gently in the nose. The most enjoyable this about this dish is that the soup tasted like cabbage and the icecream tastes of mustard and it works.

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The presentation of this dish is nothing to write home about, but the flavours speak enough beautiful words to fill the gaps.

And on that note, let’s rewind a moment.

Two months or so before I logged onto my fb to see that I had about 20 increasingly frantic messages from my friend Kit. I messaged her back to see what the matter was.
She told me she had tickets to eat at The Fat Duck.
My brain did a series of confused acrobatic tumbles. (The Fat Duck in England? Heston’s restaurant? How amazing! Why was she trying to tell me so frantically? Did she want to sell me the tickets … How would I even get to England?!)
“Do you mean THE Fat Duck?” I typed back. “The one in England?” (Perhaps there was another restaurant with the same name?)
“Didn’t you hear?” She asked. Heston has closed down the one in England for renovations. Then he announced that he was opening it in Melbourne for six months only. Shipping over his whole team.They had a ballot. 90,000 people applied for 14,000 tickets.
We got some.”

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Photo of me freaking out in Hobbiton a couple of years ago as a reference for excitement levels

Cue my brain turning into a world class acrobat specializing in flippy floppy fishnastics. (THIS MUST BE A JOKE. IT CAN’T BE REAL. AM I BEING FILMED? OH SHIT, IT IS REAL. OH LORDY SHE IS ASKING ME TO GO. STAY CALM. HOW MUCH IS IT. I DON’T HAVE A FIRSTBORN CHILD TO OFFER. ARGH.)

It turns out it costs 525 per person. Just for food. Without wine. Before flights. I am currently saving to go to Thailand on a part time job.
She says we have to confirm before midnight or the tickets get given to someone else. I say Yes. Ill make it work.

So here I am. My friends crowd funded me to be here. I offered cakes and recipes and love and you gave me your hard earned cash so that I could experience this crazy dream. Its a bit surreal, let me tell you. Anyway, where were we? Oh yes, Gazpacho.

Hold onto your seats boys, girls and gender rebels, because the next course is crazy exciting: Savoury Lollies.

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Photo by me

Now those of you who have watched the show Heston’s Feasts may remember these from his 1970’s special. The first one is a Waldorf Salad Popsicle. Each coloured layer is a flavour. The tippy top is walnut. Then celery followed by apple. You lick it from top to bottom (quite the most kinky form of eating I have been instructed in by a black tie waiter) and the fresh flavours of a waldorf salad make a party on your tongue.
The second ‘lolly’ is a tube of beautiful salmon rolled in avocado and wasabi ribbons. Perfect sushi in retro packaging.

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Photo by the wonderful Tam

And last but definitely not least, Duck Liver Parfait with fig jelly and nuts. It is a perfect miniature of a Golden Gaytime, that wonderfully kitsch giggle-worthy Australian Icecream.

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Photo by Tam

A momentary confession. I do not like offal. I do not like kidney or live or heart or tongue or brain or tripe. I WISH I did. I mean if you are going to kill an animal to eat, you should bloody well eat the whole thing, but no matter how many times or how many different ways I have tried all these crazy innards… I just did not enjoy them.
Until now. It is sweet and salty. A rich creamy meaty cloud of a mousse coated in a fruity little dress of fig jelly. Crunchy little nut friends add texture. I could eat ten. I could eat twenty. Lets have a parfait party.
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                                      This photo is because there was a wonderful add for Golden Gaytimes some while ago with the tagline ‘Its hard to have a Gay Time By Yourself!’ (Photo by Tamala)

A table over from us is looking at their Baby Gaytime with distrust. “Its amazing!” I call.
“But it’s liver.”
“I don’t normally like it either,” I offer, “Trust me. It’s amazing.”
They love it too.

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Lets take a breather for a moment, dear readers,
because the next dish blew me away and I want to do it justice.
Deep breath in… Ok, are you ready?

The waiters place a small dish filled with moss into the centre of the table. Nestled atop the moss is four little plastic containers, marked simply ‘film’.

We are told to take the strip from within the container and place it on our tongue. We remove the ‘film’ and into the mouth it goes. Oak. Smokey. As this melts on my tongue the waiter pours a mixture of oak moss essential oil, alchahol and hot water onto the bed of moss. An incredibly dramatic fog rolls down the side of the box and across the table. It smells of the forest. More oak. Tannins

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Photo supplied

Two dishes are placed before us. A little cave of a bowl. There are layers. The first layer is pea. Silk sheets would weep with jealousy. Tiny cubes of of turnip. The next layer is cream infused with marron. Somewhat like a bisque panna cotta but more subtle. Topping this creamy beauty is the piece de resistance… a deeply rich quail jelly.  The jelly is just set, the moment it hits the heat of your mouth it turns to liquid. Its robust and complex, a roast gamey base with a perfect balance of sweet and salty. It is served with truffle toast and I breath in the heady scent of forest fog as I nibble. Balanced atop the amber-sap coloured jelly is jet black quenelle of caviar sorbet. Hot Damn

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Photo by Tamala

Somehow the quail and seafood flavours weave to create something more than the sum of their parts. I will dream of this dish.
Later, when we are giving menus as momento’s the sub heading to this dish is ‘Homage to Alan Chapel.’ I took a moment to read up about Mr Chapel, an idol of Heston’s. One line about him in particular caught my attention. ‘A meal at Chapels restaurant was like a symphony.’
This dish, then, does him Justice.

(Kit said I would gush. You were right. Shhhh. )

Dish number Six. This one needs a little introduction. It is one of the restaurants signature dishes. The legend goes that Heston was making porridge for breakfast one morning when a delivery person arrived with a crate of fresh snails. Tick, tick, tick went the hands of Heston’s brain clock and he started thinking about oats and snails. He knew that Snail Porridge would be a hard sell to the eating public, so he based it around flavours classic-ly paired with snails. Fennel and herbs and ham. He wanted to create a dish that seemed surreal in concept but comforting in the eating. And it is.

The well oiled machine that is the waitstaff bring out our little pots, all shyly hiding their gastropod glory beneath demure lids and in almost perfect synchronized harmony they remove the lids and announce, “SNAIL PORRIDGE” with cute smiles before gliding away. They both have slightly sheepish looks at the tweeness.

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Photo by Miss Nom (That’s me)

It is comforting and hearty. A little tangle of thinly shaved fennel perches above this surprisingly fresh oaty porridge redolent of herbs and studded with meaty little morsels of snails.The dish is served with fresh farmhouse style bread (soft in the middle, chewy on the outside, smoked to finish) with a generous slab of golden butter.P1000376

Photo by me

The concept may be odd, but the dish itself makes me want to curl up by the fire with a big ol’ book and a bigger bowl of porridge.


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Credit to I
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Omg Snail Porridge! Photo by Tam

BUT THE SHOW MUST GO ON.
(to be sung in your best Freddie Mercury voice)

Lets talk about Umami. Prepare your brain, because I have some knowledge for you. Did you know that their are five flavours? Most people, if questioned, would name salty, sweet, bitter and sour. For many years chef, cooks and scientists alike would have agreed with you. But there is a fifth flavour. It is called Umami. Most often associated with seafood, this is a complex flavour to describe. I won’t go into the science of it too much here, but it is in ripe tomatoes, beef, mushrooms and, most noticeably, seafood. That ‘sea’ flavour.

And that brings us to Roast Marron with shitake, confit kombu and sea lettuce. YES, YES, BUT WHAT DO THOSE WORDS EVEN MEAN?

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Marron is a crayfish from the West Coast of Australia and is similar in taste and texture to lobster. Rich and dense and moist. This particular piece is possibly grilled? Or maybe roasted? Shitake is a Japanese mushroom, with a distinct flavour. HOW CAN I EXPLAIN IT. I CAN’T. GO EAT ONE.

Kombu is a type of seaweed, also from Japan, and has the distinction of being the only seaweed that is used to make stock. The particular stock made from Kombu is called Dashi and it can be a soup or a seasoning. Chances are, if you have eaten at a Japanese restaurant you may have had Dashi. Kombu is known as “The King of Seaweed”. Its rich in the aforementioned Umami flavour.

This whole dish is a choreographed battleground of flavours. Bam! Rich Marron! Kablam! Umami attack! Whack! Crispy seaweed parry!

My taste buds are on high alert. A punchy dish indeed.

marronPhoto supplied

And of course, following the fight comes the seduction.
A glass cup is placed in front of me bearing a faux egg.
An inside out egg at that. Tiny enoki mushrooms sprout from the inverted yolk…
My tummy is aquiver…
We are about to take a tumble down the rabbit hole.

This dish is also featured in Heston’s feasts

(seriously, if you haven’t seen the show, pop it on the top of your watch list) so I know a bit about the inspiration for this madcap dish.

In the time of Lewis Carol Turtle soup with fabulously popular with the rich and famous of the time. Of course, as with most trends, the poorer folk wanted to get in on the action. Part of the appeal of turtle soup, so the history books tell us, lies in the fact that turtles were no where near Britain and had to be shipped so far to be fed to the elite.
A clever businessman made a working mans version from beef: a mock turtle soup. The character of the Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland is in fact a nod to this gastronomic evolution, thus the turtle with the cows head…

mock turtle

Our old mate Heston is inspired by all things Wonderland and so he based this dish around the Mad Hatters Tea Party.

The Mock Turtle eggs are made from Turnip mousse and swede jelly and teeny tiny enoki mushrooms sprout forth. Little chunks of pressed beef and miniature herbs for a ‘garden’ of sorts in the base of the bowl.
Then there is a teapot. Glass also filled with hot water. And then, and then. A velvet box displaying four gold fob watches with tea strings instead of chains.

You dip the watch, into the hot water and swirl. The watch is a cleverly disguised soup coated in edible gold leaf that melts to turn your water into a rich beef and mushroom broth flecked with gold that is then poured over the faux egg.

dramatic fobmad teapour the tea

Photos Supplied

Oh yes.  I love broths. The art of turning water into flavour using food is an incredible thing. The ability to then turn that broth into a fob watch is probably just magic. And it tastes good. Really good.

It is finished off with the ‘toast sandwhiches’ which were unfortunately not up to par… Perhaps I am just not a fan of thin white bread?

toast sand

Photo supplied

And the signature dishes just keep on coming…

The Sound of the Sea

We are given shells with headphones trailing out of them.

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I remember reading about this dish years ago. Scientists have found many links between sounds and memory and they can affect they way we taste things. Heston first came across this theory because an experimental psychologist at Oxford had asked him to be part of an experiment exploring has sound affected taste. One of the experiments included eating a bag of crisps while listing to the sound of crisps. Apparently if the soundtrack had more crunchy sounds it seemed the chips themselves seemed crunchier…

The gentle hshhsh of waves hitting and rolling on a pebbled beach fills my ears. Occasionally the squawk of seagulls. The accompanying dish is served on a rectangle of glass suspended above a picturesque bed of sand.P1000417

I am going to have to come right out and say it: I didn’t love this dish. It was an adventure, to be shore, (Ha! Adam, that one is for you) but the flavours tasted just a bit too much like the sea. Umami overload perhaps. There is edible sand made from dried eels and breadcrumbs, a ‘ocean foam’ that tasted just a little too close to the actual ocean. There were three kinds of raw fish (which I loved, but can’t for the life of me remember what they were) and more kombu and seaweads. P1000418

Last few photos by me

Tamala said it took her back so vividly to getting dumped by waves that she was a bit unsettled. None of us adored this dish, though perhaps if you grew up around the ocean it would tickle all your boxes. I did enjoy eating this dish – not for the flavours this time, but rather because the nostalgia it evoked was thick. Despite the fact I was surrounded by waiters and white tablecloths and cityscapes… I felt I was at the beach.

SOME DRAMA OUT OF NOWHERE

A bit of the way into eating this meal Jack leans over and asks me quietly “Is that meant to be there?” pointing to a small piece of seaweed. I nod, in my seascape haze. A few moments later he asks us again and we realize there is a small live insect (or very tiny sea creature) happily nestling in his seaweed.
“Nope,” I say this time. “I don’t think that is meant to be there.” We get the waiters attention and point out the small creature. He is instantly apologetic and asks if Jack would like another or just a totally different dish. Jack is fine with another. The little dude and his habitat are whisked about and moments later the restaurant manager is at our table checking, double checking that Jack is ok. He’s all, Its fine! I just wasn’t sure if he was meant to be there? Extra protein, I guess?”
The manager checks again if he would like another dish and he insists its fine.

As a chef I seriously commend the beautiful and proper way they treated the gravitas of the situation. Jack didn’t care: but he could have.
Later they give him a glass of 18 year old whisky, on the house. Jack says he wish he found bugs in his food more often.

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SALMON POACHED IN A LIQUORICE GEL

THIS IS THE KIND OF DISH TO PROPOSE MARRIAGE OVER.

sous vide salmon

Photo supplied

The salmon was sous vide (which involved cooking the fish at a
super slow-and-low temperature in a sealed bag inside of water)
that results in fish like butter with a brilliant pink texture. This little gem was then coated in a liquorice gel and served with vanilla mayonnaise, grilled endive and golden trout roe.
Once again it is a symphony.
The individual flavours combining to become more than the sum of their parts.
I am at a loss for words over this one.
I managed not to lick the plate.
I may have wiped the last scerricks off with my fingers and
licked them unabashedly though,
no promises on that one.

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Photo by me

We are well into the swing of mains by this time and they bring out a baby portion of tender lamb cooked to perfection and served with lamb and mint jelly, confit cubes of the tongue, cheek and neck of the lamb (on the little side plate there). Great flavours, classic flavours, given the Heston touch. Mmmm, dat lamb and mint jelly. I’d spread that on my face.DSCN0161

Photo by Tam

Righty ho, back to business, or was it pleasure.
Definitely pleasure…

AND THUSLY DO THE DESSERTS BEGIN

Hot and Cold Tea

A small double walled class filled with a simple amber liquid is placed in front of us. Drink from just here, they tell us and look good little diners, we do.
It is hot. And cold. Its a beautiful Earl grey brew but also its magic. Some parts of my mouth are hot and some parts are cold and before long we are all giggling as our brain refuses to understand what is happening.
They did tell us how this is achieved, but Ill keep that to myself.
Ask me sometime… Over tea

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The next dish is intriguingly named “Botrytis Cinerea” and it refers to a special kind of grape. Well, when you get right down to it is actually a particular type of bacteria that infects plants but when it comes to grapes they use it deliberately (somewhat like mould on cheese, I guess) as it imparts a particular flavour. Apparently the mould can rot the grapes (not good) or ferment them (good) and these are used to makes Sauternes, a popular dessert wine. The latin name Botrytis Cinerea in facts means ‘grapes like ashes’ possibly one of the most gothic food names I have heard, and this dish is inspired by the flavours of these grapes

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The dish is presented like a art nouveau painting of grapes. Each ‘grape’ is flavoured of these fermented little beauties but presented as a sorbet or a jel or a puree or a chocolate shell filled with popping candy… It is sweet and a little sour. And so much fun. It is and adventure of tasting. A motley assortment of the same flavour in different forms. It is the Orphan Black of desserts.
There are even edible stems

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THE NOT SO FULL ENGLISH BREAKFAST

Part one of this dish comes in a box bearing the wizard explorer Heston picture emblazoned with ‘A PIECE OF THE PUZZLE.’

And a sachet of vegetable cereal. That’s right. Carrot and swede ‘cornflakes’ served with parsnip milk.

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I loved the milk. The vegetable corn flakes were tasty but they suffered from that cornflake problem… they got soggy too fast. Parsnip milk though, I could drink a tall glass of that, let me tell you

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We were also given a piece of the puzzle to add the the wall. We got to write on the back before it was places into the giant (ahem, decently sized) mural to my left. I bypassed writing anything hilarious and simply wrote ‘Not all who wander are lost’ because it is one of my favourite quotes and it seemed relevant for that to be a part of the puzzle on the wall of a wandering restaurant.

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THE SECOND PART OF THE DISH

The liquid nitrogen man is back with his trolley! As dapper as ever with his vest and fob watch pocket this time he arrives at the table and announces, “We have a lot of chickens on the roof and we feed them nothing but bacon. They love it.” He deliveres in a wonderfully deadpan manner.

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On his trolley there is a carton with four seemingly normal eggs in an eggbox stamped with the Fat Duck Insignia, a beautiful copper pan atop an even more beautiful copper contraption, some liquid nitrogen in a silver jug, a spoon  and a teatowel. “We discovered that these chickens produce extraordinary eggs.” Explains the waiterwizard. With deft practice he cracks the egg into the copper pan and out pours a smooth custard. In goes the liquid nitrogen and with that more impressive fog pours forth.

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It is the famed ‘Egg and bacon icecream’.

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It is lusciously smooth and redolent of bacon with a notes of egg.
It is served with a perfect little caramelized rectangle of buttery brioche, crispy pancetta and
a tub of Earl Grey marmalade

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See that little checkered top on the marmalade?

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You can eat that. It is white chocolate. Of course.

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Whisky Wine Gums

Im sorry whiskey lovers. I will be terrible at giving you anything exciting about this dish because I just don’t love whiskey… The smokiness is wonderful but that aftertaste is just not my cup of… spirits.

Five little ‘bottles’ of whisky infused jellies were placed on a map in relation to where the whisky came from. Four from Scotland and one from Australia. I wish you could try them and love them for me…

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AND WE ARRIVE AT THE LAST

APTLY NAMED ‘Like a Kid in a Sweet shop’

The cutest little bag with pink and white stripes and a matching plate. In the bag where five fascinating sweets and a menu that was scented like a sweet shop. After we finished up Tam and I went for some drinks with friends of mine and she kept approaching people and saying ‘Hello stranger, smell this’ and proferring the card at them. Enjoyable for all.

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Back to the sweets.
Aerated chocolate with mandarin jelly – a mandarin aero! Om nom nom
Apple pie caramel … exactly as one might imagice
The Queen of hearts – It looks like a card! But it was a white chocolate and jam tart. A bit sweet for me but so cute…Queen of hearts

Photo supplied

Aaaand. My favourite! The Ox Choc! A beef flavoured nougat. Steak crossed with a mars bar. Forget vegemite chocolate, my friends, this is where it is at.

IN SUMMARY

I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to have eaten at this crazy wonderful place. Was it worth it? Yes. Not because you can’t get delicious food for affordable prices, you can. Ten dollar ramen slowly simmered for ten hours from Sunnybank is still one of my favourite things in the world. In Italy I had handmade taglietelle with porcini cream sauce that nearly made me orgasm right there in the restaurant. It cost me 20 bucks. A ripe tomato fresh from the market sliced with a sharp knife and scattered with torn basil and extra virgin olive is a thing of beauty.

But as an experience? Yeah, this was once in a lifetime. And the rollercoaster that my mind, body, mouth, ears, eyes and nose were taken on will stay with me for years to come.

In fact in took me over a week to be able to form coherent sentences about the experience.

THANK YOU TO ALL THE PEOPLE WHO MADE THIS POSSIBLE. I LOVE YOUhappy tash

AND THANK YOU TO THE MAN HIMSELF, HESTON, FOR BEING A SCIENCE FOOD WIZARD WITH A BIG CHILD IN HIS HEART. YOU BRING MAGIC TO THE WORLD AND FOR THAT WE ARE GRATEFUL

Heston himself


Warm Green Bean Salad

                           

                                           What Is The Long and Short of It?

                                  Who says you cant eat salad in the Winter?
                               This is the stuff that Cravings are made from…

Serves 1 (multiply as necessary)
200gm of green beans, fresh as possible, the knobbly bit cut off
Squeeze of lemon juice
Splash of olive oil
salt and freshly cracked pepper
a few chunks of acreamy white cheese of your choice, or a mixture (chevre, fetta, buffalo mozzarella, cream cheese, labna)
A few capers
Bread, if desired

Boil a little water.
Stir lemon juice with olive oil and salt and pepper in the bowl you are going to eat from.
Pop green beans in hot water for 1 1/2 minutes with a lid on. No longer.
Drain. Toss in the lemon mixture. Sprinkle with chunks of cheese and capers.
Devour. Mop up extra juices with bread. Smile.


The Long Of It

I have had a craving for green beans for a couple of weeks now so I was super happy when I saw them at the market Today. I purchased some soft goats cheese and 1 luscious ball of buffalo mozzarella and whipped up this little baby for the quickest lunch ever.
I have been making versions of this salad for years now.

If you have an egg in your fridge you can poach that right on up and balance it atop your steaming beans. Poke it with your fork and watch the rich yellow yolk ooze over the crisp green morsels.


To make this into more of a meal top it off with a piece of panfried fish or a golden fillet of chicken. Or if you are a vegetarian  I would boil some baby potatoes and soft boil 1-2 eggs and toss that through. Mix in some roasted cherry tomatoes. Heaven.

To take this to a whole new level of decadence mix a little truffle oil with the lemon juice and olive oil and fill your senses with the heady wonder.

If you want to make this in advance you can do a cold version. Just blanch the beans for the same amount of time and then plunge them into some seriously iced water for 1 minute to stop them overcooking. This keeps them crisp and green. When you are ready to eat toss them as before and bobs your uncle.


On Snow


And Lo! Italy donned a white velvet cape, a luxurious garment;  dove-white and soft to the eye. It sparkled when the sun came out, like milk diamonds.

It lay across houses and hills. It alighted on pine needles and berries. It washed over mountains and formed on fence posts like waves about to crash – and stopped there, mid-crest.

It flowed like a river of cream down the roads and paths and tracks and cracks.

Laying in folds across neatly stacked fire wood and forming small tufts along windowsills

It is so grande that it begins to drag on the ground a little. Here the river of cream was pushed back to make way for the cars that are  dug out of the hills of sparkling white. Driving cautiously, topped with precarious mounds they dirty the pristine garment beneath their wheels.
Little jewels of light shine from within the postcard houses, the steepled churches, the antique brick cottages.

Necklaces of pointed ice dangles from sloped shingle roofs, beautiful as they are deadly.

  The wind ruffles the garment as it passes by. It  brushes past the imperial pine trees and small clumps of white shake themselves loose to hit the ground with a dull whump! or a soft pfff.

And the girl from Australia gazes apon Europes winter cape with wide eyes. It coats her hat and tries its hardest to smother the tenacious winter berries.

(Or perhaps they’re flowers?)

She nibbles tentatively on it, humming ‘Glad to have a friend like you’ under her breath. It dampens her gloves.

After she watches it from inside the warm house with her hands wrapped around a mug of chai tea as it she tries to put into words her first experience with snow…

….

Note: My camera seems to be working again folks, so all these photos are taken once again with my wonderful little beast…


In Which Miss Nom Talks About Couchsurfing

So its time I told you all about Couchsurfing.
Gather round, sit down, would you like a cup of tea?
Are you comfortable? Good, then let us begin.

I first heard about Couchsurfing a few years ago. Now to explain the image that popped into my head on hearing this combination of words I first have to tell you about something in the Guiness book of Records.
There is, in said book of incredible feats, some gentlemen in England who took a couch and made it into a car. A car which you can drive on the road, complete with a pizza tray steering wheel. It has vehicle registration.

They are in the Guiness world records for highest speed achieved by furniture; but between you and me I think the old boys at the Records department just wanted to put this fantastic piece of invention in their book.
Now you can imagine that when I heard someone say ‘Couchsurfing’ I immediately pictured a vivacious and plucky young fellow sailing bravely atop the ocean on some sort of couch-surfboard. That is just the way my mind works.
Unfortunately so far no one has invented a couch-surfboad.
Fortunately someone did invent Couchsurfing.
It is, in essence, a way to travel and meet people.  You stay on someones couch or spare bed or hammock…. And you spend a few days with this person, or people or family.
But more than that. It is a way to immerse yourself more in the culture of the country you are travelling in than when you stay at a hotel. A way to meet the locals, to meet like-minded people and to be reminded that not everything in this world is a business transaction.
It is free. And it is wonderful.
To begin is simple: you join. You make a profile of yourself. Of your likes and dislikes, interests and experiences. You put a photo of yourself. Then before you head to a city or a town that you will be staying in you look at people in the area. People with similar tastes to you. Or different, but something you find interesting. You can send a message to this person telling them why would like to meet them and the fun begins. Of course they have no obligation to accept. But its fantastic to be a host too. A way to travel without leaving your house. To meet interesting people and share your life with them for a moment.
But how safe is it, you ask.
Pretty darn safe, actually. After you stay with someone you leave feedback on your stay. And they leave feedback on how you were as a guest. So when you are looking for a host you simply read about other peoples experiences with them. And if you are, like me, a woman travelling alone, you stay with people who have had lots of guests. And you read about them and you trust your instincts.
In the words of one guy I told about it, and I quote -‘Ah! Its like Ebay!’
Well, sort of, but not really…
Of course occasionally people may be less than great but then they have bad feedback on their profile and you simply dont stay with them… But so far, let me tell you, every experience I have had has been amazing.
I have cooked and danced with these people. I have been to islands and natural hot spring. To concerts and bars. I had a picnic on a bridge in Florence and explored the valley of temples. I have shared stories and met people from all over the world. And my experiences (so far) are just in Italy.
Travellers from Spain, Turkey, Isreal, Syria, Romania, Hungary, America, Mexico, Canada, England, France, Iceland, Ukraine, Nepal, Norway, Germany, Africa and Belgium. I have met people from all over Italy. Young people and old people. Doctors and volenteers and bus drivers. University students and english teachers. Marine bioligists and concert musicians. A single mother who is a physological journalist.
In the last four months, since I started travelling so much of my journey has been with couchsurfers. And couchhosters.
But wait – there’s more.
Let me grab a hunk of local cheese from the fridge… Would you like a slice? I have some fresh sourdough breading knocking about.. Delicious, wot?
Ok. So say you feel a little uncomfortable staying in someones house. Or say you have a gorgeous hotel already set up in London (or Bangkok or Timbuktu) but you would like to meet some people. A traveller or a local. You can. People can put a little coffee-cup symbol on their profile to let you know that they would like to meet for a coffee. Or a tea. Or perhaps to show you around their favorite part of London (or Tokyo or New Orleans)…
Say you would like to meet some people in your own city or small town but you are fresh out of couches or have a difficult housemate or you live in a shoebox size house… No problem! Just pop that little coffee symbol on your profile and a note about meeting people and you can meet travellers from around the world and show them YOUR favorite bookshop or rock climbing place. You can tell them of your trip to Norway last year and they can tell you how they just couchsurfed their way across Brazil. You can meet new friends like this and the world seems a friendlier place.
There is some cynical part of us in this day and age that forgets that people can do acts of kindness, not for monetary gain or work exchange, but simply because its a wonderful thing to do.
And people of every race, of every religion, of every country are sharing their homes with the world. And you can too. It may just change your life…


Flowering Almonds

Today is my last day in the south.
I came here with the plan to stay four or so days in Palermo and then go Wwoofing. But, as everyone knows, when you are on a trip with no plans and you try and make plans, well, things are bound to get twisted.
But how wonderfully twisty these last two months have been. I stayed a month in Palermo, spending Christmas and New Years with the amazing people I met here. Then I did indeed go Wwoofing. I spent three weeks atop a hill in the Sicilian countryside, working on a farm, meeting beekeepers and dairy farmers, seeing old tombes and castles, spending time with my wonderful hosts over long outrageously delicious hand made lunches and learning to make ricotta.

It was often cold when the wind blew off Mt Etna, but when the sun came out you could sit on a rock and see all the way to ocean, across valleys of trees. Old rock walls snake their way hither and thither across the countryside, sometime going nowhere or joining nothing. Painstakingly put together hundreds of years ago in an effort to de-rock the ground, they are quite simply a work of art.
My first wwoofing experience was a wonderful thing.

After many a tearful goodbye I leave the Sicilian countryside to head back to Palermo for a week to catch up with my friends here. I have caught a bit of a cold and feel a quite silly as I spent most of the week reading and watching movies on my laptop that I have already seen.
On the weekend there is a festival called Mandorle In Fiore, which is a festa to celebrate the almond blossoms and I am wildly excited to go to this festival. There will be processions and stalls apon stalls with many different things made out of almonds and music and…
Well before you get too excited let me tell you that it was my first disapointment of this trip.
I rode a bus two hours to Agrigento. It was a cold and windy day. When I arrived I discovered the people I was meant to be meeting couldn’t make it. The procession was fantastic, almost and hour of group apon group of people in medieval dress dancing and singing and throwing ceremic vases in the air, or flags at each other like colorful javelins.
But after I went to where the stalls were and they were all very commercial and mostly had nothing to do with almonds, flowering or no.  I walked around in the drizzle staring at imports from countries, the same that you can find at almost any market. There were some almond nougats and pralines, but that was about it.
So I spent the day reading Huckleberry Fin on my new E-reader and drinking too many coffees in my attempt to stay out of the rain.
Which was grande, because Huckleberry Fin is a wonderful book (read it, I tell you) but all in all a sad disapointment overall for this flowering almond festival…
Perhaps on other days it was better, and the weather put a damper on things… I dont know.
But tomorrow, ladies and gentlemen, I fly back to Bologna to catch up with people there and to see snow for the first time! By the time you read this, I may just well be making a snowman or else hiding by the fire and trying to keep warm.
One of the two. After Bologna I head to Verona to see the city of Romeo and Juliet before getting crazy at Carnevale in Venice.
I believe its going to be packed full of people like sardines in a tin… But they will all be wearing masks and gowns, and that will make it all worth while.
See you in the land of the snow…


Meltingly Tender Fennel Bake

 

What Is The Long and Short Of It?

The short Of It

1 large brown onion – roughly chopped

4 cloves of garlic, finely sliced

A good glug of Olive oil

4 bulbs of fennel

2 handfuls of grated Parmesan

100 gm of butter

100 gm of flour 800 ml of milk

Nutmeg (freshly grated please) 

A few peppercorns and a bay leaf

Salt

Rosemary, finely chopped

Splash of white wine if you have some hanging around

 Put the onion and garlic and finely chopped rosemary in a large frypan with the olive oil. Turn the heat onto low and cook for 6 minutes, stirring occasionaly, not allowing any color.

Meanwhile cut the fennel bulb into long wedges and put aside the frilly leaves for later. After your onion and garlic is fragrant and translucent add the fennel wedges. Stir to coat with onioney oil. Add a pinch of salt. Splash in about 1/4 cup of water or white wine if you happen to have some and turn the heat to the lowest it will go, cover with a fitting lid and allow to infuse with flavor and soften. After 10 minutes turn off heat but leave the lid on. The fennel will go right ahead and get more tender as it sits in its owner little sauna.

For the bechemel sauce; (don’t be intimidated: its just a white sauce)

 Put a pot on the stove with the milk, a bay leaf, a few pepper corns and any tough trimmings from the fennel and onion. Bring to almost boiling. Turn off and strain.

Melt butter over a low heat till liquid. Bung in the flour, all in one go – Bam! Whisk till smooth. Whisk slowly for 1 minute, allowing flour to cook a little. Add a ladle of milk. Be careful, it may hiss at you. Whisk till smooth. Repeat a ladlefull at a time until all the milk is added. Cook 5 minutes, whisking gently. Add half the grated parmesan, a good grating of nutmeg and adjust the salt as necessary. Tada! Bechemel…

Mix Fennel and all its juices into the bechemel and pour into a baking dish with a lid. Failing that, some foil. Sprinkle with other parmesan and bake at 160 about 40 minutes. Finely Chop fennel leaves (or snip with scissors) and garnish just before serving. Devour.

 

 The Long Of It

Fennel is one of my favorite vegetables, and a poor misunderstood little lady she is.

Sure if you chew on a large hunk you may find it to taste far too aniseedy for your liking, but dont be dissauded. Slice it thinly and dress it with a little olive oil and lemon juice.

 Cook it slowly with your onion and garlic to add extra flavor to the base of your soup.

Buy a nice small one and cut little chunks for a perfect addition to your cheese fondue.. What you dont make fondue? Ill show you how soon!

Bake fennel slowly for a sweet caramelized vegetable similar to whole baked onions. The limits are endless and I encourage you to start buying these pale green beauties and give them a go.

This dish is a great way to start. As the title suggests its meltingly tender, rich and creamy like the best kind of potato bake. The fennel has a wonderful sublte flavor, a hint of aniseed, so fleeting you may not even place it. If fennel happens to be a little pricey when you make this dish you can (and I often do) replace half the fennel with chunks of potato. I served this dish most recently to three Italians and two americans who am am staying with in Sicily and it was one of those moments where two bites in everyone was insisting on the recipe and buy the end Peter and Dylis, who grow vegetable on their farm, had decided that growing fennel was an idea worth persuing. It works beautifully as a side dish and is wonderfully warm on those chilly windswept days. Enjoy.


The Day Of The Ricotta

Saturday was to be The Day Of The Ricotta.

 Friday afternoon we went ona little venture to organize the milk. In the Sicilian countryside this is not as quick as it may seem. We are shown the cows. There are small gambolling calfs and large cynical mothers who regard us through half open eyes as they methodically chew their cud. Next we are taken inside where the farmers wife pulls a bottle of limoncello from the cupboard and puts out little plastic cups. It is only four in the afternoon, but you dont serve coffee this late in the day. And so we sit sipping on the tartly sour lemon liquer as we are shown photos of their children as babies and told that they have relatives in Australia and ask Miki how it is going on her farm. We tell them that we are going to make ricotta tomorrow and they nod solemnly. The farmer looks like you would imagine a typical Italian farmer to look. Large belly, larger apron and a booming voice. Apon hearing that I am a chef he promptly tells Miki that he would like me to come and stay at his house, just for one day, to teach his wife to cook. His wife hits him around the head. We leave a huge plastic bottle for the early morning milking the next day and head back to the farm.

The Day Of The Ricotta dawns. After a hot sweet black coffee and a bowl of yoghurt with homegrown oranges we head out to do some work before the ricotta making begins. There is a lot to do on the farm. This morning we are finishing varnishing the house of the donkeys. This involves climbing a ladder balanced somewhat precariously on a large several feet above the ground while Dylis holds the ladder in place and I use one hand to to paint, the other to hold myself steady using a nearby tree branch. After the top of the little cabin is varnished to within an inch of its life we get the news.

The milk has arrived.. The house I am staying in is over 200 years old, renovated and tastefully decorated. There is a large open kitchen, windows looking out over the vegetable garden. The countertops are sicilian handpainted ceramique blasted onto huge sleps of lava stone from etna. There are huge polished wooden drawers with a smooth tile floor and a little wood burning stove. Their are forget-me-not blue lace curtains crocheted by the amazing and multi-talented Gueseppina. For me it is a dream kitchen. But this is not where we will be making the ricotta.

 Enter the laundry. This is where the ricotta has been made for an age. There is a large ring gas burner atop which is placed an enormous pot filled with the fresh milk. Stage one involves waiting. We wait as the milk comes to temperature. As we wait we are shown what the ricotta is traditionally shaped in. Little handwoven baskets. But they are not used anymore due to hygiene reasons but nevertheless still adorn the walls of the room. Standing around the slowly heating milk are seven of us. Miki and Sylvio. Our hosts. Miki’s mother Guesepina, peering expertly through her glasses at the pot. Dylis and Peter, my fellow woofers. They are from Cape Cod in American where they passionately (and successfully) grow vegetables despite their soil being made almost entirely from sand. Lucia, the maid. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there is a maid. But not in the regular sense. Rather she is a friend who comes round twice a week to give their big old home a thorough cleaning. Apon arriving she is invited in, sat down with a cup of tea whereapon her and Miki have a half an hour conversation before she cleans the bejusus out of the house. Not that it isnt always spotless, anyway. But besides helping them clean apparently when ricotta making time comes around Lucia helps with the cheese making. She makes it at her own house and each time they are comparing techniques and tips. And me. The cheese-loving chef from Australia who is about to see ricotta being made for the first time.

 

The rennet is added and once the milk is brought slowly to 40 degrees a lid is placed atop, the heat is turned off and we all file out to go set the table. Setting the table today does not just involve placing glasses and plates, cutlery and a bottle of wine. Sylvio pulls a large sausage shaped hunk of cured meat reverently from the fridge and with great precision begins to carve it in wafer thin slices. He asks me if I know bresaola, the cured meat in question. I do. It is wonderful indeed. He asks me if I know carpaccio. I do. But I know it as seared (or totally raw) beef sliced paper thin and topped with oil, shaved parmesan, pepper and rocket. He explains that originally carpaccio was made with bresaola, the cured meat he is currently slicing. This I did NOT know…

We squeeze lemon all over the bresaola, drizzle with olive oil from their farm and a good grating of black pepper. Several layers later we sprinkle with shaved parmesan and place on the table. Photo’s are taken. And with that we all head back to the cheese making room.

The milk has set into a jelly like consistency. The jelly is first sliced into pieces inside the pot and then stirred. The heat is back and and once again we watch the slowly heating milk. Lucia is stirring, stirring. Boiling hot water is poured into the continuesly stirred milk. Now the contents of the pot have turned opaque instead of white and the time is near. Minutes later Lucia reaches her arms into the pot and pulls from deep within the liquid a soft white cheese. But, we learn, this is not the ricotta. Ricotta in Italian, literally means ‘recooked’ and is a method for extracting further cheese from the whey, the leftover liquid… I never knew that! The first cheese, the curd that is here called Tuma is pulled apart and placed into tubs.

We are all given chunks in bowls with plastic spoons and taste the still warm curd. It is quite soft but a little bland. A good base for making things, i think. Nevertheless it is delicious. Like slightly chewy warm milk. Now the ricotta begins. The liquid is heated for the third time. We take turns stirring and Lucia checks the consistency with her spoon from time to time. She takes a spoonfull and pours it back into the pot from a height. Miki and Sylvio have a thermometer but Lucia can see by sight. Or so it seems. Once the milk reaches about 60 degrees in goes 5 litres of cold milk, a glass of lemon juice and the salt. Again we wait. The pressure builds. There are murmers in Italian. What is wrong, we ask. It seems to be taking too long. Wait, wait, says Lucia. The tension in the room becomes palpable as ‘tiny tiny ricotta’ begins to form on the surface of the liquid. Small beads solidying whiteness. But is is enough? This pot is aluminium and it is much better to use stainless, they say. Lucia looks nervous. Gueseppina kneels down, almost eye to eye with the top of the pot and nods. The bead become bigger. Its forming! Suddenly everyone is yelling and hugging each other and yelling Ricotta! Ricotta! Just as quickly silence falls as we see Lucia’s face. Perhaps we cheered to soon. It still may not come good. Now the tension is like the set milk. You could slice it with a knife. You could put it on a plate and watch it wobble… The whole surface begins to coagulate and gently, gently, Lucia pulls the curd inwards and it continues to form. And yes. It is ok. A collective sigh of release. We take turns lifting the soft warm ricotta into little draining pots where the water slips away and more portions are served out which we ferry to the table. And we sit and eat a bowl of hot ricotta with fresh bread. It is soft and slightly salty and oh-so decadant. To be sitting at a table and eating a bowl of fresh cheese. Those of us that eat meat dive into the carpaccio and everyone sips on local wine and after we eat homemade almond biscotta with sweet moscatto.

Ah warm ricotta, it is nice to meet you…

 

Note: my camera is out of action so all photos are courtesy or Longneck Road Productions, my fellow wwoofer Peter.