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.