Tuesday, December 8, 2009


I’ll get the grumble out of the way first.

One night this year I visited Formaggi Ocello for the first time. I am ashamed to admit this. I should have been there much earlier as this amazing cheese providore in the inner east of Sydney has been open now for many months and is an absolute must for cheese-lovers. Cheese freaks. Food aficionados. Anyone with a tastebud or two.

It has perhaps the longest display cabinet of cheeses in this city, and the shop’s shelves and refrigerators are packed with anything to partner your formaggi that you could ever want or think of – we’re talking syrupy balsamico, relishes and olives and Italian-style conserves, bottled figs – the works.

All this, and a huge and tempting cheese room. And herein lies the grouch.

Just at the entrance big glass windows allowed us to gaze in on a large room stacked with giant wheels of Grana Padano, balls of ash covered cheeses and wedges of other things. I say ‘other things’ because the sign on the door firmly said: ‘Staff Only’, so we could explore no further. There was to be none of that rapturous gasping-in of cheese fumes as the door opens; no involuntary cries of ‘I want to live in here!’ (that’s me); no judicious fingertip pressure on a rind here and there; no voyeuristic reading of labels and trying out the pronunciation; no……. well, no interaction with the stars of the show.

No lingering, to-be-relived-later, whiff of washed rind clinging to our clothes or hair, either.

I was disappointed, although I could understand the reason. Hot and unhygienic customers could disturb the room’s carefully maintained balance. These cheeses, their maturation and their prime condition is what the shop is about, after all, and absolute cleanliness is required where cheese-handling is concerned.

A few times in the past couple of years I have caught up with the shop’s owner, Carmelo Ocello, at various farmers’ markets around town where he and his heady products have become ubiquitous. One time I bought an amazing cow’s milk cheese, testun al Barolo, that is matured on the residue of nebbiolo grapes which add quite another dimension to the flavour. Another time he persuaded me to buy a ‘real’ stracchino and I knew then he meant that this soft silky one had been made far in the north of in Italy. Each time, my purchases were carefully wrapped in heavy white paper, just like the true gifts they are.

The thing I like most is that Ocello not only imports the cheeses, he brings their stories along for the trip as well. He knows those makers by name. He has visited their dairies – some of them very small – in distant corners of Europe. But before you huff and say, why not Australian cheeses too, I have to say he does also stock the best from this country as well, including Victoria’s multi-award-winning Holy Goat and a handful of others.

We’d all end up with mental indigestion if I even attempted to list the cheeses in this place. Ocello keeps about 200-250 on show at any one time, but in the spirit of this blog – highlighting the unexpected – here’s just one for starters.

Formaggi Ocello is perhaps the only place where you can order a ‘cheese wedding cake’! Yup! Wheels of premium cheese stacked and lightly decorated with fruit and flowers. I’ve seen a brochure about it. So it must be true.

You know, I reckon many wedding guests might be happier with a wedge of this to take home than fruitcake.


Formaggi Ocello, Shop 16, 425 Bourke St, Surry Hills (St Margaret’s), NSW. Parking available under the building – one hour free. Phone 02 9357 7878, www.ocello.com.au

Open weekdays 9am to 8pm, Saturday 9am to 6pm, Sunday 10am to 6pm. Order an alcoholic drink during ‘Aperitivo’ at the shop every weekday from 5pm to 8pm and enjoy the Milanese-style custom of receiving a complimentary appetiser.

Also market stalls at: EQ Markets, Moore Park, Wednesday and Saturday; SMH Good Living Market, Pyrmont, 1st Saturday of the month; Northside Produce Markets, North Sydney, 3rd Saturday of the month.


This is the first of what will be a growing collection of ‘Sydney Food Finds’.

This city, to me means much more than the CBD and inner suburbs. It’s the whole urban sprawl, and it never ceases to amaze me with its variety and scope of food places – whether it is producing the stuff which others use, or preparing and serving it skilfully.

OK, Melburnians, I hear you! Your city rocks too, and could certainly quite often show Sydney a thing or two, but this is my town and I love it……and its food and dining.


Saturday, December 5, 2009


I just love new foods. The thrill of finding something I have never tasted before. Especially one I have never even heard about!

It was a night of firsts, actually, this week – first taste of an achacha (pronounced ah cha-cha, as in the dance), and also in visiting Baroque Bistro & Patisserie. The latter, newly-opened upmarket premises on the pointy-end corner of George Street and Hickson Road in The Rocks, was the venue for the launch of achacha fruit in Sydney.

So, of course, we were greeted on arrival with a sparkling achacha cocktail, and invited to sample the yellow egg-shaped fruit from baskets around the room. They look like large loquats, but Bruce Hill, a member of the four-member group responsible for growing them in far North Queensland, shakes his head when I ask him if this is right.

After he teaches us the trick to opening them – fingernail to pierce the skin at the midline then a twist to release the firm, soft skin – we gingerly taste the tangy, pearly white flesh surrounding one or two large seeds.

A relative of mangosteen, maybe, I venture? But no, wrong again.

It seems these are stand-alone fruits, from the heart of the rainforest in the lowlands of Bolivia where they grow wild and are called achchairú. Never grown in Australia until Helen and Bruce Hill’s group got permission from our vigilant quarantine services to plant them, this is perhaps the most exciting new fruit in this country in decades. In fact it is the world’s first commercial achacha (Garcinia Humilis) plantation. The Achacha Fruit Group plantation overseen by plantation manager and grower Ross Oliveri, has 17,500 trees, which means NQ now has more achacha trees than anywhere else in the world.

Bruce Hill

While most of us in the room were content enough mastering the pierce-twist-open technique, and devouring the fruit, it seems there is more to this fruit than just its use as a snack food.

The skins can be used to make a refreshing drink which has been called an natural appetite suppressant (yes - now they are talking!) and the low-sugar flesh is high in Vitamin C, potassium, folate and riboflavin. Achacha works well in cocktails, as we’d already discovered, and also in sorbet, ice cream and jellies, even in salads.

This unusual fruit grows on an equally strange-looking tree. The shaggy foliage conceals the flowers, and bees love them. When hives were placed in the plantation this year, the result was a rosy honey said to be full of medicinal virtues! In Bolivia it achacha honey is an expensive delicacy.

Achacha is the traditional New Year fruit of Bolivia. Here the harvest season is expected to run from November until the end of March. Right now you should find it in distinctive and colourful paper carry bags in Harris Farm stores, Thomas Dux the Grocer, Norton Street Grocers and other fine fruit and vegetable purveyors.

So what do I say to these people, the Hills, who have spent the past seven years of their lives and untold $$$$s when I congratulate them on this landmark event?

Sure, I tell them it is an amazing achievement, but – greedy and hard-hearted soul that I am – I can’t help but ask them can they please grow me makesas as well.

Don’t know these, the world’s best passionfruit – Bali’s answer to Panama? Hmm, let’s wait for more on that another day – or maybe until Bruce and Helen begin to grow them as well.

Want to know more about achacha? www.achacha.com.au

STOP PRESS: Australia's devastating 2011 cyclone Yasi fortunately spared this years achacha crop. Read more.

Or why not share what is your favourite fruit – and why?

Sunday, November 15, 2009


The other night I attended a media evening to celebrate the discovery of an amazing ‘mummy’, Senora de Cao (the lady of Cao), who has been uncovered in coastal Peru complete with her favourite keepsakes and ornate carved jewellery. Very impressive.

I have to admit I was a bit hazy about Peru. I knew a few things, most of them sticking in my mind from primary school – you know, Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest lake, for example, and that the local people travel on it in reed boats. I’ve always wanted to see that.

But my knowledge base falls into a complete abyss when it comes to Peruvian food. I guess I imagined it was like Argentina’s cuisine – meat, meat and more meat – which is silly as it is across the continent, and far north with a totally different climate and terrain.

One thing I learned is that Peru has three thousand varieties of potatoes. Not really surprising as, after all, these were one of the New World finds made by Columbus – but three thousand types? Later I discovered there are 200 varieties around Lake Titicaca alone.

After the presentation we were taken to the hotel’s rooftop terrace overlooking a part of Sydney where some of the city’s older buildings make a gracious foreground for the glittering highrise of the CBD.

A small group of Peruvian dancers in hot pink, black and lime green, blue and yellow national dress entertained us. If it was a courtship dance, as it seemed to be, then the guys were certainly being persuasive, and the girls provocative. The fast-tempo panflute music was evocative of the era in the seventies when it became a hit here too.

Finally – by now we were starving – when the canapés arrived, prepared by the Mercure Hotel’s chefs but to Peruvian recipes, of course, we fell on them. Some were recognisable enough. There were tiny empanada-type pastries, a chicken ‘curry’ sitting on a deadly-hot Tabasco base, but one I puzzled over.

On one platter, bamboo skewers held small cubes of meat, and of course potatoes. However it was the meat that had me guessing. It was dark brown and tasted decidedly beefy but the texture didn’t show muscle fibres. It was tender, but dense, and raised a long-lost taste memory that I just couldn’t immediately unearth. It wasn’t liver…….

“Chicken,” said one friend who had gobbled it so fast he plainly hadn’t looked.

“Pork,” said another, adding, “it looks like pork.”

It didn’t at all, so I waylaid the next server and asked him.

“Beef heart,” he said confidently, and then it all made sense. The density of the texture, that subtle long-ago flavour.

My mother used to stuff and bake heart – maybe it was a sheep’s heart, I was too young to take much interest – but it was delicious, and I loved it. Although you may shudder.

A little exploring on the internet taught me that I had eaten anticuchos, a popular snack in Peru. They are simply marinated and grilled cubes of beef heart served on skewers and often sold by street vendors or in Creole restaurants.

The downside is that, like lots of offal, heart is not actually so good for our own hearts because it is quite high in cholesterol. But you’d have to agree that it is still truly heart-y eating.

(Further reading: Everything but the Squeal, Wakefield Press, 2009, is a fabulous book which I enjoyed immensely.

It concerns John Barlow’s quest to eat every part of the pig as it is used in various local dishes throughout the pig-raising, pork-loving region of Galicia in Spain’s north-west corner. It is beautifully written account of his ‘year of pigging out’ – sometimes nausea-inducing, especially for his wife who did not participate and banned some recipes being tested in her kitchen. She is a vegetarian!)

So tell me, please, dear food-lovers and fellow eating adventurers…..what is the most unusual thing you have ever eaten?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Makan at the Airport

I am hankering for Malaysia. The sights, the sounds, the smells – and OK, the food. Yes, yes, let’s be honest here, especially the food.

Trouble is, I don’t have time to go – not even to make a reservation – but I did have an evening to spend at The Grove Restaurant at the Stamford Plaza Airport Hotel the other night, because the great thing was – Malaysia (and its food) was coming to me!

Makan, is the Malaysian word for eating, and I joined a few other food bloggers and writers at a long table and for a couple of hours we did just that – enjoy makan.

The Stamford’s Malaysian-born Chef Jacky Poon and Chef Daniel, from Singapore, are well-qualified to lead us through the spicy workings of a true Malaysian meal. They show us rojak, and gado gado vegetables with a wondrous peanut sauce, curried hardboiled eggs, chicken curry, stuffed squid, and of course a colourful range of desserts – mango pudding, creamy fruit sago, black rice, balanced by fresh fruit – and then they turn us loose.

Of course the other buffet offerings are not off-limits either and some of the group return to the table with plates heaped high with Balmain bugs and prawns, then later lush slices of tortes and cakes.

I’m happy enough though with mee goreng noodles and tender grilled fish fillets served on squares of banana leaf. I fall for an interesting vegetable called sweet turnip – and it tastes like a cross between radish and apple, crisp, ever so slightly peppery – that is part of the collection of rojak vegetables that we drizzle with a dark caramel-ly sauce.

Chef Poon spells the name of my new veggie-love for me but I get it wrong, and back home I don’t rest until I find it in my good friend and Asian expert, Carol Selvarajah’s definitive book The Essential Guide to Buying and Using Authentic Asian Ingredients. There she tells us my ‘find’ is a yam bean, bangkwang. It comes from South America where they call it jicama (hick-a-mah). It is the nashi pear of vegetables.

This Malaysian Food and Cultural Feast will be on until November 1st. The Stamford Plaza Airport Hotel is on the corner of O’Riordan and Robey Streets in Mascot, near Sydney Airport. And as if the food is not enough incentive, diners will also have a chance to win a holiday for two people to Malaysia.

Now that is makan sense!


Here is Stamford Hotel’s Chef Poon’s recipe for:


Serving for 6-8 person


White Fish Fillet

Portion cut in 50 grams slices

Banana Leaves

Square shapes to cover

Sambal Paste

See recipe below

salt and pepper to taste

6 wedges of lemon

Sambal Paste:

Sliced Onion

200 grams

Peeled garlic


Fresh Turmeric

10 grams

Galangal, puree

100 grams

Hot chilli, puree

40 grams

Lemon grass, puree

40 grams

Lemongrass ,whole but bashed

40 grams

Shrimp block(Belacan)

40 grams

Lime leaves

3 pcs

Vegetables Oil


To cook the sambal paste

1) Place all ingredients into blender and process till smooth paste

2) Add in oil in pan and fry the toasted the shrimp block and add in onion and whole lemongrass

3) Added puree ingredients to the pan and bring to boil

4) Reduce to a gentle simmer and allow to cook for around one hour ensuring the sauce does not stick, or burn, and is periodically stirred

until most of the liquid has reduced and become jam like in consistency.

Place the fish fillet seasoned with salt and pepper on a piece of banana leaf on a hot pan, top with the sambal paste and cover it with another piece of banana leaf.

Cook it for half a minute and then turn the fillet over. When serving, squeeze some lemon juice on top of the fish.

©Chef Jacky Poon, 2009 (used with permission)

Friday, October 2, 2009

Toffee Tomatoes

Toffee tomatoes? Surely you mean toffee apples, I hear you saying!

No, toffee tomatoes. And that just about sums up this blog.

Once, only once, I’ve encountered these deliciously amazing snacks. I was in a night market in Taipei, Taiwan, years ago, and I came across a stall selling tiny cherry tomatoes skewered five to a stick, glistening in their golden toffee shells.

Yes of course I bought a stick, and you know what? They were fantastic – the acid softness of the tomatoes turned out to be a much better foil for the crisp sugary coating than a toffee apple could ever be.

In Lhasa, and again in the Tibetan outpost of Lanzhou in central China – actually on the far side of the Tibetan plateau – I was presented with fried potatoes drizzled with – you guessed it! – toffee. Before you gag at the thought, I have to tell you it was good. Very good.

No, it was great! For a carb-lover, it has to be the ultimate hit. The toffee had put a crunchy lattice over the fat-crisped potatoes and the sweetly starchy combo was something I will always remember. It was almost impossible not to keep sneaking one last sliver of toffee and a spoonful of potato from the communal plate.

The Chinese are pretty fond of toffee really, and I have many times seen Chinese red dates dipped in toffee (again, arranged on a skewer) and sold from roadside stalls, but those I just can’t come at. The unalloyed sweetness makes my stomach contract at the thought. They remind me of a fad I had a few years ago when I would dip whole strawberries in toffee as a garnish for desserts. They had to be done at the last minute, though (probably why the fad was shortlived) because they needed to be served immediately, before the moisture of the strawberries dissolved the toffee.

Much more attractive were slices of kiwi fruit and other fruits dipped in toffee and displayed like fragments of stained glass at the Wangfujiang night market in Beijing. Certainly any of these were a much more attractive option than the centipedes and snakes on sticks just a few tables away!

But in case you think this blog will be a toffee-lovers’ paradise, a dentist’s dream come true, you’re wrong.

Food is of huge interest to everyone on this planet. Sadly many never have enough to live comfortably. Some of the rest of the world’s population spend inordinate amounts of time and money trying to deal with the effects of too much of it.

And me? I travel. And eat. And cook. Sometimes all at once. But more often I travel, I investigate, I get ideas. Then I come home and get creative in my own kitchen and try out things I have seen or read about or dreamt up. At times the results are good.

These truly amazing and wonderful foods – and combinations of foods – I would like to share with you in this blog.

Like toffee tomatoes.

Allow me one last sugar indulgence and then I’ll stop.


The ultimate easy-as recipe. Massive wow-power when used to dress up a simple dessert. Spike a slice of cake with a fragment. Crumble it over custard or cream or fruit. There are dozens more uses than this recipe’s ONE (yes, one!) ingredient.

Line a baking tray with foil and scatter caster sugar evenly over it. Don’t have a very thick layer, just enough to cover it well. Place in a preheated moderate oven and cook for 10 minutes or so until it has turned golden all over. Guess what? You have made toffee of course, but it has to be the easiest way ever. No brushing down the sides of the pan with a wet pastry brush. Let the tray cool on a rack. Remove the toffee from the foil when cool and break up to use any way you wish. What you can’t use will also obediently wait for another day if you seal it up tight so the moist air won’t destroy it.

My favourite way to use it is broken up on top of an angel food cake that I make. It looks sensational amongst the cream and berries and always gets compliments which I feel a bit embarrassed about. Because as you now know, it takes so little time and effort.