Friday, November 19, 2010

Hamming it Up

When most of us think about ham we immediately know where it comes from. Right?


‘Ham is a process,’ I am told by Glenn Martin at the recent Restaurant 10 Exhibition at Moore Park, Sydney. ‘Almost any meat can become “ham”.’

Martin works with Seven Hills Tallarook, a Victorian breeder of Australian Boer goats and a purveyor of goat meat, and he should know.

I tasted the Seven Hills chorizo sausage, one of the range of smallgoods supplied by this firm and it was really good. Not too spicy, with a beautiful rich flavour. It cut well and the pack I bought did us very nicely in a paella later that week.

Goat meat may be referred to as cabrito when it is from kids, and chevon from older goats. The meat from these fine-looking Boer goats, which originated in Africa, is also used to make ham which is sold whole or sliced in packs. There is also a variety of meat cuts available online. Seven Hills also have Arabian goat sausages and Mediterranean goat sausages.

So what does goat ham taste like?

It has a slightly more meaty flavour, but the texture is so much like ham you would not really pick it as from another animal. And of course it can stand in for regular ham in any way you would normally serve it. It’s also a useful alternative for those who cannot or will not eat pork products.

Goats are raised and their meat is eaten in many countries worldwide. It is lower in total fat, saturated fat, calories and cholesterol than traditional meats, higher values in iron, potassium, and thiamine together with less sodium. Chevon is usually around five percent fat, 50 percent less fat than beef, 45 percent less fat than lamb. By comparison, kangaroo has about two percent fat.

More details

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Stone Pancakes

There’s a joke in Australia that if you want to make a soup from a cockatoo, or any member of the parrot family, you need to add a stone to the pot. Cook the soup until the stone is tender, old-timers will tell you, and then maybe the parrot meat will be edible!

These days it’s illegal to eat these native birds, and anyway I wouldn’t want to. But it sounds as implausible as ‘stone pancakes’.

We were at the restored village of Pinyao in Shanxi province, northern China, where the 14th-century Ming dynasty buildings have been painstakingly restored.

The nearby Qiao Family Compound was the set of Raising the Red Lantern filmed in 1991. A few years ago a popular TV series was also shot there, so we found endless groups of people posing for photographs in front of the stars’ posters on the walls.

But the thing that got my attention was just outside the compound gates where dozens of vendors had set up their stands and charcoal braziers. The cooks were using a short rolling pin to roll out small pieces of dough into thin circles the size of a dinner plate. These were then draped over smoking hot stones in pans and then covered with more round hot black stones.

These wafer thin pancakes – breads? – cooked in just seconds and kept the shape of the stones. Their dimpled surface was intriguing, almost waffle-like, and of course I had to sample them – as did every passing tourist, because the scent was irresistible. They were meltingly delicious with just a hint of the black sesame seeds or finely sliced green onion with which they had been sprinkled. We discovered later they were unimaginatively called shi tou bing (stone pancakes).

It was impossible for me to get the recipe, but my guess is it was simply a dough of wheat flour and water, the sort of basic bread people have always baked. They were cooked in the simplest way, using a pan that possibly did double duty for other cooking, the stones adding weight to prevent the pancake curling up, as well as an even heat to cook them quickly and keep them crisp.

When I think about it, I’ve got something similar in my own kitchen. Except it has two flat metal plates and I call it a sandwich press!

Monday, November 1, 2010


English writer, Evelyn Waugh, once famously accused the whole country of Norway as ‘smelling of kippers’.

I reckon I’m smelling of kippers as I stand surrounded by thousands of herrings, gutted, salted, split open and tanning slowly in the smoke of perhaps Britain’s most prestigious kippery.

Craster Kippers has been catching, smoking and distributing this breakfast-time delicacy for over 150 years in the small Northumbrian coastal village of Craster, near the picturesquely-named Seahouses. Until now, I have only encountered them on the occasional British breakfast menu. Now I am in danger of becoming smoked too.

Experimenting with local flavours, I once ordered one in England, then my companion warned me “you’ll enjoy that for the rest of the day”.

Well, “enjoy” may not have been the correct term, but I certainly remembered my morning kipper for several hours as its fumes indigestibly returned to me.

So what is a kipper? Kipper-meister, Neil Robson, who guides us around the smokehouse, explains that the fish used today are mainly Norwegian herring, available year-round, although when the North Sea was fished out and there was a ban for seven years, they bought their herring from Western Scotland.

‘Once nearly every village had a smoker,’ he tells us. Only one was left in 1856, so for four generations since then his family, the Robsons, have been keeping the fires alive. Literally.

Only the plumpest fish are used, he assures us, and today they are split by machine, before being washed, brined and hung on hooks) before their time in the smokehouse.

‘They go in as herrings,’ says Neil, ‘and come out as kippers!’

It’s actually the smoke that gives each kipper a distinctive flavour. At Crasters they use oak shavings and the fish stay in those scented fumes for 14-16 hours.

Seems no one is too sure where the name came from (maybe Old English, maybe German, maybe Icelandic) but “kipper” has entered our language. Originally salmon were used, but herring became the fish of choice for kippering after the 19th century. Now other meats may be “kippered” which means they have been salted and smoked.

Kipper season comes at a time when salmon are off-limits for fishing, and it makes good sense that throughout the world’s colder countries fish is salted, smoked, cured or processed to keep it available for winter.

With facts and figures swirling like smoke in my head, there was just one more thing to ask Neil Robson: How do you actually cook a kipper?

‘Easy,’ says Neil. ‘This is my way. Take a jug of boiling water. Stand your kippers in the jug for two minutes with their tails sticking out of the top.’ Now that’s a technique from an expert I shall use – if I ever need it.

So far I have tried Arbroath smokies (smoked haddock) in Scotland on the famous train, the Royal Scotsman – at breakfast of course! And I’ve sampled bacalau, Portugal’s iconic salted cod, used in a multitude of dishes. But I’ve yet to have Finnan Haddie, Scottish smoked haddock.

As you’d expect it’s possible to order kippers online but don’t be surprised if you get a funny look from the postman.

Just tell him you’re expecting him to wish you Many Happy Returns!

Thursday, September 30, 2010


How would you reply if you were asked “now, would you like white pepper and black salt with that?”.

Excuse me? Sounds a little Heston Blumenthal doesn’t it?

Until recently I would have laughed at that question. But recently I bought a small packet of black, yes black, salt – a little cellophane bag of lovely flakes as black as coal.

I’ve already got all shades of salt in my pantry cupboard – palest pink Murray River salt, dove grey Esprit du Sel, sparkling white Fleur de Sel de Guérande from France – and now I have added black Cyprian salt from Cyprus.

Victor Churchill butchers in Woollahra, Sydney, have a whole wall of magnificent blocks of Himalayan salt, carved from immense slabs of pure salt, glowing an icy apricot. They are used to help age the meat.

But I had never seen jet black salt before.

A little research in a book I have, The Salt Book tells me that there is a Hawaiian black lava salt as well. And no, neither salt comes from the ground black. Volcanic charcoal is added to the Hawaiian one, and the Cypriot salt has activated charcoal added. Both salts are seen as being healthier because of this, with a detoxifying effect, which many believe makes it healthier.

I’d rather think of it as a rather wacky seasoning. One that adds a dramatic twist to dishes. A certain zappy colour accent.

Consider these recent menu items and picture the effect: butter poached Western Australian marron, foie gras parfait, sprinklings of salmon roe and black Cyprian salt, (The Point, Albert Park, Melbourne) and a salt and butter flight of goat's butter with red Hawaiian sea salt, Vermont butter with black Cyprian salt, and parmigiano reggiano butter topped with truffle salt, (Juicy, Chicago).

Interestingly there is another salt, Indian black salt or kala namak that is a powdery pink. Some say it has the aroma of cooked eggs, and is recommended in ayurvedic medicine as a digestive, and in India is thought to be useful for people with high blood pressure and those on low-salt diets, and also generally for indigestion.

Who knows!

First-century AD Roman author and naturalist, Pliny the elder, not always the most reliable scientific guru, refers to Cyprian salt as a “precious stone”. In its white state it was also mentioned by Hippocrates, the father of medicine. It is usually collected from coastal rocks as well as from the island’s salt lakes.

No wonder these scholars mentioned it. The Romans valued salt enormously and even paid their workers in it, which is where we get our word sal-ary from. The ancient Roman road, the Via Salaria, is still a major road leading to Rome.

And finally, just a bit of trivia: A couple of years ago I visited the Ile de Ré, just off the Atlantic coast of France. Esprit du Sel salt is still harvested from the marshes at the far end of the island and the local donkeys were once used to transport it. Unfortunately the mosquitoes and the corrosive salt irritated the legs of the poor beasts and so the farmers clad them in checked trousers for protection. The donkeys in their unusual garb became a sort of unofficial emblem of Ile de Ré.

We didn’t see any wearing these natty PJs, but here’s one we found in a mural on a cottage wall.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


I’ve been passionate about passionfruit all my life.

As a kid, growing up in a small country town in Western Australia, everyone I knew grew passionfruit – especially the long yellow ‘banana’ passionfruit. These hung off creepers that many people trailed up over the walls of the outside toilet to discreetly camouflage it – yes, it was that long ago!

I must have eaten hundreds of those. For a kid, the soft velvety skin made it so much easier to break into the fruit. Those hard purple passionfruits – much more common – required a knife and possibly adult help to open. And that was a problem, too, as they could then keep tabs on how many you were consuming.

The banana passionfruit (tacsonia) was fun to eat. Peel the skin and you then had a long ‘banana’ of closely packed, sweet, orange-fleshed seeds that broke away from each other cleanly with no juice. You could legitimately spend half an hour savouring one fruit, picking off each individual globule.

Often I didn’t, though, simply eating it monkey-fashion, the peel laid back, gobbling the sensuous sweet flesh.

Years later I found myself in Bali and met the fruit to rival my previous passion.

Like many a romance, it began fairly slowly and inauspiciously. A yellow egg-shaped fruit appeared in the breakfast buffet fruit bowl. Hmmm! A bit spotty, not much to recommend it. Unlike a ripe purple passionfruit, the skin was hard and smooth, not invitingly wrinkled.

It wasn’t much better when I cut it open. Silver grey gooey flesh around black seeds – almost like fish roe.

A cautious sniff. And a taste. This was certainly better!

I put a spoon into the half-shell and the entire glob of flesh came out obediently. No scraping as I was used to with the golden flesh of the purple passions.

And then the taste – fragrant, floral, sweet, tropical. Lychee-sweet, but the texture of passionfruit.

Of course for the rest of my time in Bali, I could not get enough of them. Everywhere, from the hotel breakfast buffet to roadside stalls where they sold for a pittance, I would fill my pockets with them, to savour them in my room as long as they lasted.

Originally I thought the name was Marquesa. It took me months to learn the Balinese name was makisa, pronounced, mah- KEE-za. I now know that the makisa has a more proper Latin name - passiflora ligularis – and that it is said to be native to the Andes. How it became so entrenched in Bali (and only few other places) is a mystery to me.

Sadly this passionfruit is rare in my corner of the world. In Bali, I am told it ripens year round, but even in Jakarta earlier this year, it took a patient hotel employee some time to track some down for me when he heard of my addiction. Thank you, Adeza, at Hotel Mulia Senayan!

Is it just me, or are there other people who plan their trip around which rare or much-covered foods are in season?

My mouth is watering, just mentioning makisas, so I’m scanning the deals on flights to Bali, right now!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


The first time I heard about kopi luwak I checked the date. Was it April Fool’s Day, perhaps?

After all, who, seriously would consider drinking coffee that has passed through an animal’s digestive tract? And why would you anyway?

I must admit I find it difficult to refuse a nice cup of coffee, but in this case my imagination was getting the better of me. Sure, it had made it onto Jack Nicholson’s ‘bucket list’, but did I want it on mine?

In case you haven’t heard, kopi luwak is made from ripe Arabica coffee beans that have been ingested by a sort of wild cat – the Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), found in Indonesian forests to be exact – which then defecates them onto the forest floor. Enzymes act on the berries in its gut and this is widely believed to be the key to the enhanced flavour.


Stop right now and just think about this for a moment. You’re strolling through a tropical forest and come across some rather lumpy animal poo on the ground. What would be your first reaction? Would a steaming cup of coffee spring to mind?

Who would have been the first to think to collect the faeces, wash out the coffee beans, dry them, roast them, grind them – and then (ahem!) drink the brew? It is quite frankly well outside of my own realm of usual Health and Safety considerations.

And yet it has been done for quite a while and sold at exorbitant prices, up to $50 a cup (goes to show, doesn’t it?) at good addresses.

Earlier this year I came across it a little closer to the source. I spotted a kopi luwak sign in a shopping centre in Jakarta, and then later at the opulent Hotel Mulia Senayan, perhaps Jakarta’s most upmarket hotel, where the sparkling coffee shop sells it. I knew then I had to taste a cup. Squeamishly.

Now, my head told me that there should be no problem, healthwise. All the literature explains patiently that the washing, drying and roasting of the beans at high temperatures kills whatever ‘baddies’ might have been lurking in the civet’s gut, but……. Hmmmm!

Aficionados of this unique and expensive cup of caffeine have waxed lyrical about the ‘earthy aromas’ (well, you’d expect that wouldn’t you?) and full bodied flavour (ditto). Milkier. Smoother. A pleasant touch of sweetness. Some call it one of the world’s greatest gourmet experiences.

As it happened, my cup of kopi luwak looked like any other coffee. It came in a regular cup, on a saucer, and tasted fine – but not sensational. What did I expect?

Now back in Australia, I am off to another place I have heard of in Sydney that does a good brew of it, for $9 a cup, to try to see what all the fuss is about.

Has anyone else tried kopi luwak? What did you think of it? Or have you drunk something else that was a little off the radar?


Hotel Mulia Senayan, Jl Asia Afrika Senayan, Jakarta, Indonesia,

Olio Mediterranean Brasserie, Shop 1P1, 201-205 Pacific Highway, St Leonards, 02 9439 8988,, B, L, D, Bar and catering.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


“Will you be able to keep what you find?”

That’s the question everyone asks when I tell them we are going on a truffle hunt.

Of course it’s not that sort of a ‘hunt’, I explain. Ex-Customs sniffer dogs do the actual searching, and anyway at around $2000 or so a kilogram, truffles are far too valuable for tourists like us to simply scavenge.

Besides, I’m not sure I’d know what to do with one – a whole one – if I ever found myself in possession of it. While I’d never say no to a truffle of the chocolate persuasion, these fellows are the real deal: roundish, knobbly, pockmarked and liberally covered in soil, not with a genteel dusting of sifted cocoa ready for afternoon tea.

No beauties these, to be sure, yet their flavour and scent have evoked crimes of passion and intrigue, and at the very least, seduction. “Mud cooked by lightning”, Plutarch called them.

Right now it’s truffle harvesting time in Australia, and they’re popping up all over the country. Tasmania was the first state to plant and harvest them, but now good finds are being made at groves in NSW, Victoria and WA.

Black beauties from Truffles Australis

These are the winter black truffles (Tuber melanosporum) beloved by the French, and found most notably in the Perigord region. Word is that some places in Australia are also currently trying to raise the rarer white truffle most commonly unearthed around Alba in northern Italy.

But something you may not know is that Australia has its very own truffles. You won’t find theses indigenous, native truffles on anyone’s menus, though. Not unless you’re a potoroo, bandicoot or native mouse. These animals must be natural gourmets because they love them, digging them up from the base of paper bark trees, eucalypts, casuarinas, and many other native shrubs.

I’ve never seen these wild truffles, but I’m told they may smell faintly of peanut butter or bubble gum. Or several far worse smells – just use your imagination for those!

What’s more, although about 250 species have so far been indentified in this country, it’s possible there could be as many as another thousand or more varieties lurking out there in every sort of environment from lush rainforests to the arid inland mallee areas.

So, although it seems Australia has an inexhaustible range of truffles, in all shapes and sizes (and odours) they’re not about to catch on too soon. I reckon I’ll stick to the good old black ones.

That’s if I can afford them!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


It’s hot. It’s steamy. It’s Tahiti. Well, Moorea anyway – one of French Polynesia’s many, many breathtakingly beautiful islands.

OK, we’re not even there. We’re actually on a motu (a coral island) off Moorea.

Our pareo-clad hostess has seated us at a rustic table on the sand, just a couple of metres from the water’s edge. And we’re about to deal with a huge platter of speckled ruby red coconut crab.

But before we start to hammer open the claws (forget regular crab tools, these fellows are whoppers: we have each been equipped with a small mallet and a block of wood to get at the sweet flesh) our Polynesian hostess, Maire, wife of French-born chef, JP, shows us an even greater delicacy.

“Before we prepare the crab we feed it on coconut for days,” she says, cracking opening a section as big as the body of a normal crab. “When we cook it, this – the crab’s liver – becomes our foie gras!”

Crab liver? Not force-fed goose liver? Could this be the South Pacific’s answer to an ethical dilemma?

At Maire’s urging we dip our knives into the creamy mass and spread it on crusty French bread. It turns out to be just like the real thing, too, but with the faintest hint of coconut, as you’d hope. Who cares that we never knew crabs had livers until this moment?

Coconut crabs are the world’s largest arthropod. That’s any beastie with a shell, not a spine. Technically they are in the same classification as spiders and scorpions and a whole host of other things I don’t want to eat and which probably don’t have livers anyway.

As you’d expect from its name, the coconut crab is happiest hanging around coconut palms, of which its habitat – the Indian and Pacific Oceans – has many. While they can climb trees, they wait until the coconuts fall to the ground before relishing them.

Just imagine how a quiet beach walk would turn scary if you encountered one of these individuals as they often measure a metre across and are said to weigh as much as 16 kilograms.

Predictably, coconut crabs eat coconut, which would be a problem for them if they were not strategically equipped with pincers strong enough to crack the shells and allow them access to the sweet milky flesh. Comparing my fingers, arms, legs to the toughness of a coconut, suddenly I’m glad the one I have encountered on this beach is safely cooked and glowing temptingly on my table!

As we get our mallets and stones to work on the flesh of the crab, it turns out to be tender, delicious and of course plentiful. Some say it’s an aphrodisiac.

I know I have certainly been smitten by its foie gras. Just my luck to fall for something so rare, so distant, I may never come across it again, I think.

Oh, well, that’s love for you, I guess!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Our Malaysian guide Ping Ping loves her food. We know this because she talks about it – a lot. When we walk on along the riverside in Melaka for a few minutes, she stays behind, and admits to us when we return that she has used her time well.

Call it reconnaissance if you like. Maybe research, but she’s been snacking on a special – ‘very special,’ she says – delicacy.

She quickly hustles us into the air-conditioned and spotless Yong Ann Birds Nest restaurant ( where we are seated on wooden chairs. She urges us to taste the café’s specialty which, she underlines, has been harvested at great risk. We give in to please her, and Ping Ping orders a second helping of bird’s nest tart for herself.

The menu in this small unprepossessing café offers a range of dishes, all featuring this rare ingredient. Under Ping Ping’s close scrutiny we order some desserts and a ginseng birds’ nest drink. She has already half-consumed the last tart in the shop.

I feel she really doesn’t mind at all if we don’t like our choices as she will happily clean up the leftovers. Did I mention she quite visibly loves her food?

It’s only when, as the sweetly gelatinous substance slips between our teeth, that we are told what it really is, and realise queasily what we are eating. This bird’s nest is not exactly the bird’s nests, the bedroom and nursery built by tiny cave swifts. That had seemed bad enough. But it’s worse. It’s the bird’s own dribble!

Melaka is one of Malaysia’s oldest cities and perhaps the second most important tourist destination in the country after KL. The food here showcases Malaysia’s wonderful mix of Indian, Malay and Chinese, with a touch of Dutch and Portuguese and the magic fusion of Malay and Chinese in its Nyonya cuisine

But Ping Ping wants us to experience a Chinese delicacy- and we’re not sure we want to.

First some history. The shallow cup-shaped nests are built by tiny male swiftlets, and are usually stuck on to the walls of coastal caves in Indonesia. Harvesting these is perilous and, you could argue, ecologically wilful. They are said to be one of the most expensive animal products in the world. Regardless of this, the Chinese have been savouring this delicacy for at least four centuries.

Because these nests are not made from straw and hair and the usual bird’s nest building materials, the ‘interwoven strands of salivary laminae cement’ are able to be dissolved in water to give a silky texture to soups and desserts and to impart a certain flavour to ice creams.

Typically, the health-conscious Chinese believe that eating these nests (which are high in calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium) provide health benefits. It seems that after this our digestion, concentration, immune system, and, yes, of course – the old standby­ ­– libidos, will improve.

There are both red and white nests, and a red sells for about five times the price of a white one. To one side of the café there are shelves holding packages of bird’s nests products and they are certainly not cheap. However, even if the flavour or cost or ethics don’t stop me buying one as a souvenir (and they do), I am pretty sure my own country’s quarantine restrictions would.

So what does it actually taste like? I nibble some mango bird’s nest ice cream before pushing it across the table to the helpfully available Ping Ping.

Hmmm, unremarkable, I decide. Sweetish. Nice texture. Certainly not worth the danger for the harvester or the loss of a home for the swiftlet family. And, although it’s a possibility that perhaps I need to have consumed more, I just don’t feel markedly healthier afterwards.

Perhaps Ping Ping does. She’s smiling and looking very content. But then she’s possibly put away three or four good helpings today!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Like most Australians, I probably met my first lamington before I can remember it. Kids love them.

And let’s face it, there has to be something about a country that has such a thing for stale sponge cake covered in chocolate icing and furry with desiccated coconut! There’s even a National Lamington Day – and today is it!

Over a hundred years ago, a French chef in Brisbane – now there’s a cultural divide to begin with – first knocked up an impromptu batch for some guests having afternoon tea with Lord Lamington, the second Baron of Lamington and Governor of Queensland from 1896 -1901.

No doubt wanting to keep his job, on the spot the chef obsequiously dubbed them ‘lamingtons’, and undoubtedly the good Lord did nothing to let the guests know that they weren’t biting into the results of an ancient family recipe handed down throughout the centuries along with his title.

The concept of lamingtons is simple: cut stale cake into large cubes, dip these carefully into thinnish chocolate icing, then toss in coconut. Please note: the pertinent word here is ‘simple’.

The one and only time I tried to make this staple of all good CWA cooks, P&C mothers and fundraising organisations (think, lamington drives) the word ‘simple’ was a long way from my vocabulary, which turned shorter and pithier as I became more and more coated with the major components.

Unless you have done this several dozen times, the whole crumbly cake, sticky icing, coconut routine is NOT simple. I had icing on my hands, face (well I had to lick my fingers!), cake rack, floor, clothes, cupboard doors, bench tops – ditto the coconut. Everywhere, it seemed, except on the cubes of cake which stubbornly sprouted bare spots as the icing refused to adhere and began to drip off onto my hands, cake rack, floor, clothes, cupboard doors, and bench tops.

In a clever example of role-reversal, the bowl of icing became crumbier, as an exchange plan between it and the cake cubes came into effect.

Despite my shambles of an effort, lamingtons remain a favourite of mine. A staunchly Aussie food icon they are available in every cake shop and supermarket and sold in dozens for charity. My private guess as to why they sell exceptionally well is that they are so tricky for the not-too-talented-and-coordinated home cook to execute.

Me? I’ll buy any number for a good cause. I am just happy to let the experts make them, rather than go through another ordeal like that.

National Lamington Day today – go buy a few dozen!

More information:

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Durian, known as the 'king of fruits' in south-east Asia has, to put it mildly, a distinctive odour. ‘Dis-STINK-tive’ would be more appropriate, many might say.

“How can you put something that smells so bad in your mouth?” a non-durian lover once asked me. “Well, what about washed rind cheese?”, I countered. “Or cooked cauliflower. Or gorgonzola.”

Durian has some pluses though. It makes up for its ugly look – picture a pineapple on a really bad hair day – and whiffy aroma, with a creamy sweet flesh. In fact once people know the taste-sensation in store, many quickly go from 'ugh! what's that dreadful smell?' to 'durian! where is it?'.

On a recent trip to Penang, Malaysia, as we leave Batu Ferringhi on the north of the island we know what we are craving. Durian. But it’s a problem. If we buy one of these huge thorny khaki beauties from a roadside stall the hotel will never let us inside with it. If we eat it in the rental car, the company will possibly add a surcharge.

Around the north-western tip of this lovely island, often called the Pearl of the Orient, the jungle is tangled with creepers, denser than on the eastern hugely-developed side. Here, nets hang hammock-like beneath giant jackfruit and durian trees to catch the heavy fruit, and somewhere in the shadows grow nutmeg and clove trees.

We drive on, past crude wooden roadside stalls sheltering mounds of this thorny football-sized fruit and are finally rewarded with the answer to our craving.

The 10 hectare Tropical Fruit Farm at 250 metres altitude, overlooks deep jungled valleys that disappear kilometres away into a glimpse of water and the haze of Georgetown, the capital, on the east coast. It should be called Eden because almost every known tropical fruit grows here.

In the farm shop we discover dried and fresh fruits, bunches of rambutans and mangosteens, pineapples and tiny bananas in crates and there is a whole stand of local nutmeg oils and balm. In a chilled cabinet, spotted and weirdly coloured Vietnamese dragonfruit and other fresh fruits are laid out ready to combine on fruit platters.

A spiky mound of durian lies on the floor to one side, and instantly we know what we will be ordering. The durian season runs from the end of February to August. It’s April, so we are in luck.

We select a top-grade one for under A$5 and the assistant chops it open to reveal smooth yellow segments buried in cavities inside. The rest they can leave to us. Seated outside at shaded picnic tables overlooking that magnificent view we pick out the creamy flesh slowly, eating with our fingers and dropping the seeds into a basket below the table. Bliss!

The smell? Well, it’s been described as eating first class custard in a sewer, but that’s too extreme, we decide.

“They smell like hell, but taste like heaven,” says someone else. Despite this, durian’s name has nothing to do with either. It just means ‘thorny fruit’.

It’s pungent, it’s exotic. Faintly redolent of rotting onion with a slight tang of sulphur. Not what you normally associate with fine fruit, but this is Malaysia. We’re in the tropics and this is durian.

And – for us – we are indulging in truly the king of fruits!

Thursday, May 6, 2010


‘I call this Gordon River chardonnay,’ says my new friend, David Goodfellow, holding up a glass of golden liquid.

I sniff it. Nup! Not like any chardy I’ve ever tried. I taste it. Definitely not a chardonnay.

Bewildered, I ask: What is it?

Well, it turns out I am drinking river water. But not from just any old river. This is the famed and fabulous Gordon River in western Tasmania, passing through a World Heritage region of the highest order.

The air is clearer here than possibly anywhere else in the world. We are in a pristine wilderness rainforest environment. It’s pure. It’s green on green. And constantly dripping with some of the couple of metres of rain that falls each year here.

So what’s with the brown water? You see, now I know it’s not chardonnay, it looks more brown to me, rather than golden.

‘It’s tannin,’ says David, ‘from the buttongrass. It stains it.’

And what does it taste like? Absolutely nothing, I have to admit.

I guess he could call it rainforest ‘tea’, then, if he wanted to, although it is not being marketed as anything yet. No one has caught on to the obvious sales pitch of ‘World Heritage Water’ or some-such, which is a surprise as Tasmanians are an entrepreneurial bunch. After all, someone on King Island in Bass Strait to the north of the island captures rain and markets it as Cloud Juice!

I doubt anyone has analysed this ‘chardonnay’ to get at its properties, but I am guessing antioxidants could be there, which might make it attractive to healthy types.

Right now the only place you’ll ever be able to taste this is on a cruise along the river from Strahan, a delightful picture book village about halfway down the west coast of Tasmania tucked up on the inner edge of the vast Macquarie Harbour which – get this – is over SIX TIMES the size of Sydney Harbour.

David Goodfellow is the manager of Gordon River Cruises, a company which offers passengers an unforgettable escape along one of the world’s quietest, most breathtaking and serenely beautiful waterways.

Funny thing, the water we are travelling on looks dark blue in the sunlight, but in my glass it is undeniably brown.

Oh, OK David – maybe it’s a bit golden. Perhaps it is a little like chardonnay!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Last year, on a trip to the UK, we visited a country fair in Northumberland, way up in the north-east of England. For the past six hundred or so years there has been an annual Goose Fair in the tiny town of Ovingham (pronounced, we learned later, after having said it wrong several times – Uv-ing-jum).

Long ago, flocks of geese were herded to this place for sale, but the practice lapsed and on the day we attended, despite its name and history, there were just two token birds in a cage on one side of the fairground.

The small field was packed with families and colourful displays, and we felt a little as though we were bit-players in an episode of Midsomer Murders. If you’ve watched this UK murder mystery series, you’ll know that one often features and can be a pivotal part of the story-line.

This one in Ovingham had no murders though, for which we were grateful, but it did have all the quintessential elements of an English fair – Morris Dancing, dunking contests, coconut shies, donuts, chips, hoopla – and soaking rain!

Despite the latter, we did what the Brits do and just ignored the drizzle, taking shelter when it pounded down occasionally, and continued to happily squelch our way around.

Finally I found what I had hoped I would. In a far corner some ladies in spotless white mob caps were set up at a stand making singing hinnies, a traditional dish of the area. These dried fruit-studded flatbreads are delicious, and I was hooked at first bite. They have a toasty buttery flavour from contact with the pan, and sweet bursts of currants as you bite into them.

Singing Hinnies are a traditional currant griddle scone, and perhaps as a food they are not so unusual – but the name certainly is!

Evidently they were originally made long ago on flat iron griddles over open fires in all the area’s small country cottages. Children haven’t changed, and the tantalising smell would have had each mother’s many children clamouring for them.

‘Mother, when will they be ready? Can I have one now?’ one country mother was supposedly asked, so the legend goes.

’Not yet. They’re just singin’ hinnies,’ she patiently explained – hinnies being the local word for ‘honeys’, her Geordie endearment for them. By ‘singing’ she meant, of course the squeak and sizzle of the butter and cream as it melted from the batter onto the fiery plate.

These words somehow kept the waiting children quiet for the few moments until the next cake was ready to be scooped off, buttered quickly, cut into pieces and dropped into their eager hands.

So ‘singin’ hinnies’ they became – and here is how to make them from the recipe given out by those mobcapped ladies who were making them at the Ovingham Goose Fair.


If you don’t have an open fire and a griddle, make these in a heavy frypan on top of the stove. Some recipes also suggest adding sour cream to the liquids.

2 cups self-raising flour

75g butter

75g lard

110g currants (about 3/4 cup)

pinch salt

2 tablespoons milk mixed with water (more if needed)

oil or butter for the griddle

butter for spreading

Rub the fats into the flour, add salt, currants, and just enough milk and water to make a soft dough. Roll out into rounds on a floured surface and bake each one on both sides on a hot griddle until golden brown. Spread immediately with butter and cut into quarters, serving immediately.

Makes about four rounds. Double or triple the mixture depending on how many ‘hinnies’ you have!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


‘Bitter’ is not a flavour many of us favour. Or think we do. When you get down to it, bitterness is essential in many dishes and often our favourite foods – think dark, dark chocolate, tonic water, marmalade, beer, some olive oils. Get my drift? The stomach welcomes it too. Bitters and herbal tonics such as Swedish bitters are said to help the digestion, getting everything get back to normal after a meal.

But a bitter dessert?

Come with me to a restaurant tucked away down a side street in East Sydney.

La Mint has been here four years, owner Leanne Lai told me. Sydney has a large Vietnamese population, but mostly situated in other suburbs to the south and west. Leanne and her husband wanted to reflect Vietnam’s French history – and little wonder when at least that colonisation brought fresh yeast breads and sauces and a style of cooking which worked well with fresh herbal local dishes.

In the dead-end of Riley Street they have created a little piece of Hanoi with candles, rattan backed chairs and elegant banquettes. On one wall a disconcerting gaze of a golden Buddha follows you wherever you go and we watched, amused, as diners walked back and forth in front of it to test it out.

The crowd here was not the pho-slurping youngsters, the students you might find in Bankstown. These diners were Anglo, affluent, and executive. They were picking the golden pavé de pork, pork belly with chilli sauce, and enjoying it’s melting tenderness as much as we were, I am sure. We passed on the escargot, though, and went for the more trad ‘shaking beef’.

Relax, vegetarians! The name refers to the cooking technique of tossing the eye fillet rapidly in a pan – not its mental state at execution. Despite not being marinated it was remarkably tender too, and served with an addictive lemon and green pepper sauce. But enough of our meal – read the menus on the website

I am here to tell you about the dessert.

Bitter melon looks like a squash or a marrow or even a light-skinned cucumber with a particularly bad skin condition. Its wrinkled, pitted, warty exterior gives little hint of its flavour or what is inside.

In Vietnam, raw bitter melon slices are often eaten with dried meat floss. But that’s another story. The melon may be stuffed with ground pork and used to make bitter melon soup. Or it can simple be stewed. That dish is usually cooked for the local Tết holiday because of its name – a reminder of the bitterly desperate conditions experienced by Vietnamese people in the past.

And so we order La Mint Pudding – as the name suggests the restaurant’s signature dessert, and cast on the menu as ‘exotic bitter melon jelly pudding and coconut milk’. Chef-owner George Lai, Leanne’s husband devised this dish using the juice of the bitter melon which turns the jelly a rich bottle green. It is mixed with cooked sago, set into a mould, and then at serving time drizzled with coconut milk.

It looks luscious, with the shine and colour of a satin evening dress. My tongue hunts for bitterness. There is just a little, a subtle tickle at the back of my tongue as each spoonful slips down. Yet it has not been laced with sugar either to mask the flavour. It is refreshing, elegant and sensuous. Most importantly it tastes nothing like the bitter melon looks.

And I imagine it has done wonders for my digestion.


La Mint Restaurant & Bar, 62-64 Riley Street, East Sydney, 02 9331 1818, ( has a cooking class on the last Sunday of each month. Maybe, they will teach you how to make this dessert!