Tuesday, December 8, 2009


CHEESEY PEASY

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




ACHACHA – A FRUIT YOU COULD DANCE TO

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 achchair├║. 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?