Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A trip across the ditch

I'm off across the ditch to play in the New Zealand vineyards and eat all their yummy food, so no posts for a while, readers.

I'll take lots of food pictures and relive my experiences when I get back.

bye for a while!

The Wrap Up: Good Food Month 2006

The belts have been released a few notches, the elastic-waisted trousers have been retrieved from the drawer, the box of antacid tablets is empty, and the gym looms ominously before the round of Xmas excess. Yes, Good Food Month has come to a close. We’ve lunched and dined our way around Sydney, noodled ourselves senseless, marketed and faired to our hearts’ content, given ourselves sugar highs, and envious lows if we missed that special event.

So here’s what we all enjoyed organised by event type.

Let’s Do Lunch!

Dispatches from a selection of yummy establishments were posted including Anna at Yoshii, Georgia at Forty One, Jen (Milk and Cookies) at Galileo, Kat at The Wharf, and I crammed in a massive four lunches at Zaaffran, Bécasse, Quay and Tabou.

Sugar Hits

Great dedication was shown by Helen who checked out The Park Hyatt, The Four Seasons, The Intercontinental and the Sofitel. Kat is neck and neck with her, squeezing in Sebel Pier One. Sofitel, the Swissotel and the Park Hyatt.

Jen got into the Sugar Hits at Sofitel Wentworth as well as the Westin. , Jen from Milk and Cookies covered The Four Seasons, and Swee took in the Sheraton on the Park.

Markets, Fairs and Tours

The Good Living Growers Markets got the once over from Helen, Jen, Julia, Swee and Yours Truly.

The Hyde Park Night Noodle Markets enjoyed an extended run this year and received thumbs up from Jen (Milk & Cookies), Helen (twice), Kathryn , Jen, and Swee. The Noodle Markets provided a venue for a food blogger rendezvous and you can read about it in pots from Kathryn, Julia and Helen.

Both Kathryn and I headed west to the Mangia Italiano, while the Spring Picnic fared well with visits from Jen (Milk and Cookies) and Helen.

Winding down to the close of the month one of the last and most festive food events was the Sydney Food and Wine Fair at Hyde Park. It got a look in from Helen, Y and new foodblogger Ali K. A late addition from Kathryn told us about the Kathryn and Swee are not to be missed!

Hat’s Off! Degustation dinners and Special Events

Helen covered Bécasse, while Anna braved the Manta Oyster Forum. I went to the Gordon Ramsay Lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel, as did Julia, and we both got to have goes of Gordon. Jen made it to the Hat’s Off at Forty One

Hands on

I slipped in to Oh Calcutta for Afghanistani and Pakistani dishes as well as Sonoma Bakery for their Sourdough ‘class’. Jen (Milk and Cookies) dusted off the ice cream churn at Serendipity in a two part post.


Kathryn followed an artistic bent to take in the Shoot The Chef photography exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW. She also did some creative tours of her own based on the GFM Guide at Campsie and along Hawkesbury Growers Trail.

While these weren’t official GFM events they certainly are in the spirit of the month. Helen showed us the Danks Street Festival and Gordon Ramsay’s appearance at David Jones and I welcomed in the light at the Dewali Banquet at Aki’s.

I think some special mentions are in order. I want to give the Industrial Pancreas Award jointly to Helen and Kat. Attending four sugar hits each, never was so much sugar consumed by such dedicated dessert eaters. The Devilish Detail Award has to go to Anna for her post on the Manta Oyster Forum. When it comes to oyster information, if it’s not in her post it’s not worth knowing. The Girl Guide Be Prepared Award should go to Kathryn who didn’t let little things like overbooked events and date miscalculation stop her from getting involved. And finally the Hands On Award goes to Julia for getting near enough to Gordon Ramsay to almost get a proper snog. Lucky bugger. What was your favourite post or special mention? Leave a comment here or on the blosposts themselves by following the links. Here’s to next year’s GFM and thank you to everyone who participated in the round ups.

Have I had enough, I hear you ask? No way! I’m off to New Zealand for the next three weeks to check out the new year’s vintages in Marlborough and the Wairarapa, sample the delights of Kiwi produce, and check out the restaurants in Wellington and the top of the South Island. All to be documented for you in Technicolor when I return.

Tabou: Let's Do Lunch

Left: Kir Royale.
Coming in on the last day of the month, our final GFM lunch was everyone's favourite cute French Bistro in Surry Hills, Tabou. Rare roasted duck breast with blood orange, watercress and kipfler potatoes was the menu of the day, so we saved it til a delectable last. I felt like a real stayer fitting in as much as I could right up to the dying light of October.

As always with these lunches you have to have extra. We started with a Kir Royale to toast the month and welcome in November. With our mains we threw in some blanched snow peas plus a lovely, and architecturally impressive, beetroot, walnut and fetta salad.

Of course we needed afters. The PoD went for the creme brulee, served in a wide shallow dish allowing for maximum caramelised sugar crust. M sensibly partied with the Dessert Assiette and MN, L and I shared the cheese plate. Light on description today, but plenty of pix. I'll let them do the talking :)

Above and below: Rare roasted duck breast
with blood orange, watercress and kipfler poatatoes

Beetroot, walnut and fetta salad

Snow peas tossed with herbs and butter.

Dessert assiette

Vanilla creme brulee

Cheese selection

Sunday, October 29, 2006

GFM: Roundup # 4

The city has been a hive of activity this week as food soldiers grab the last offerings of GFM.

Jen from Milk and Cookies has been a very busy girl fitting in the Spring Picnic, a Sugar Hit at The Four Seasons, Let's Do Lunch at Galileo and a Hands On Ice Cream class at Serendipity.

Jen from Jenius dived into the Hat’s Off! Dinner at Forty One and Kathryn ventured to Five Dock for the Mangia Italiano.

Sugar Hits are always popular and Kat has been beavering away in the spirit of research at the Sofitel, the Swissotel and the Park Hyatt. Helen checked out the Spring Picnic and the Danks Street Festival. I guess it's not an official GFM event, but Helen also caught the special appearance of Gordon Ramsay at David Jones during the week if you want ot have a look. Great pictures on the man in action.

The culmination of the week was the Sydney Food and Wine Fair in Hyde Park, a charity event for the AIDS Trust of Australia. I didn’t cover the event itself but I volunteered to help set up the Fair in the morning and Kathryn and I worked away helping stallholders set up and marshalling cars around the park. I know someone out there must have gone along and blogged the feast to be had, so send me a link and I'll add it to the round up.

I started the week with a fun lunch with Gordon Ramsay as did Julia and we both agreed it was a I great event. I fitted in the Dewali Banquet at Aki’s which I’m not 100% sure was part of GFM, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt as the SMH promoted it so extensively. I also swanked into three hatter Quay for Let's Do Lunch … I have one more lunch to do, the month’s not over yet!

However I will be closing off my round ups on Tuesday 31st at 6pm and publishing a list of the whole month’s activities. So if you’ve left something out, send the link to me before then if you want it included in the final version.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Quay: Let's Do Lunch!

Left: the bunny
This restaurant is among the most consistently awarded three hat restaurants in Sydney. Chef Peter Gilmore’s ability to not only win but maintain this rating is legendary and well deserved. And he’s a dab hand with the sweets. Ok, the interior looks like its been refurbished with 70's disco remnants, complete with LSD inspired carpet and mirror ceilings, but in a room with these views you don't look inside, you look out ... and at the plate.

What attracted us to Quay was not only its stellar status but the published lunch offering for GFM. “Slow-braised Macleay Valley rabbit with spring-vegetable risotto”. While slightly over punctuated (kind of like the decor) it sounded fantastic. I love bunny. And of course you get the celebrated view of the Opera House to go with it. The matched wine was Brown Brothers Sangiovese which I humbly thought was a little heavy handed given the delicate flavour of the rabbit. What was worse was the waiter trying to pour it into L’s barely finished glass of Spy Valley Pinot Gris. We had to request a new glass. (Mon dieu! Trois chapeaux? Quelle scandale!).

Left: THAT dessert

I browsed the wine list, which is about the size and global breadth of a National Geographic magazine, and while it is amazingly extensive and thoughtfully compiled, I notice that the NV Pelorus – a sparkling pinot noir chardonnay from the Cloudy Bay vineyard in Marlborough, is $81 in comparison to the same wine at Aki’s (where we dined earlier in the week) listed at $52. I can handle variations in prices at restaurants, but $30 on a single bottle? For the bargain hunter or bulk buyer it retails for around AUD$25-27, so you do the sums.

Left: Cheese selection

Anyway, back to the bunny. Gorgeous. A luscious fillet, sweet and tender. If you haven’t eaten rabbit before, or have had a bad experience of a stringy, overcooked lump of tasteless meat, take heart because the restaurants and butchers of Australia are reacquainting themselves with it. I’ve read and heard about the Macleay Valley white rabbit, farmed on the north coast of NSW, but this was my first taste of the produce. And where better to sample it than Quay? I was well impressed. Perfectly executed, a melting morsel of aromatic lapin swathed in rich jus. The fillet is stuffed with a herbed rabbit farce, providing both an heightened flavour dimension and texture counterpoint. The risotto was a little undercooked. It was a good five minutes prior to al dente, so the centre was hard and flinty rather than just giving yet firm. The vegetables were great. Succulent baby peas, teeny weeny spring onion bulbs, sugary and just set. We order an extra salad plate of green leaves to accompany it.

Salad leaves
As always with a set one course menu, you have to gaze at the afters. J ordered the Mille Feuille with rose water cream and raspberries ($22). When you look at my snaps, you might recognise this as the dish whose picture graces the cover of the 2007 SMH Good Food Guide. Garnished with toffee and gold leaf, it whispers to the palate every bit as seductively as it looks. L and I share a well sized selection of the four cheese plate ($25), comprising (from bottom to top of the pic) a vine leaf wrapped goat cheese, Roquefort, washed rind, and young herbed sheep’s milk cheese. All were delicious and a talented choice of combination served with crispy lavosh and fruit bread (below).

However… there always has to be a ‘but’ doesn’t there? As a product of dining at so many fabulous places this month, I can’t help but compare. When one dessert among four was ordered at Bécasse we were treated to a palate cleanser and petits fours with coffee. At Quay, despite a dessert and cheese plate, nearly $50 on top of the GFM menu price, no such amuse gueule hospitality was offered. Despite the brilliant meal, and considering the waiter’s faux pas, it made us feel as though Bécasse had the slight edge on this Sydney institution – another indication that Bécasse is definitely punching above its headwear.

Aki's: Diwali (Deepavali) Festival Banquet

Menu cover at Aki's
I’m going to start with an apology. These pictures are crap. The light was low, beautifully moody with candles, and I hate using a flash if I’m in a restaurant. I don’t want to encroach on the pleasure of other diners because I happen to have a penchant for photographing my food and writing about. I can get away with a great deal at lunch, but sometimes dinner is much more difficult. So through wrestling with the night conditions, my respect for others, and my desire to be unobtrusive, you have to put up with bad pictures. Sorry, but don’t let that detract too much from the experience, the food was divine. And the dishes are just as they came out on the plate. I'm not taking the rap for odd food styling as well as the crap photos.

What I can do is give you an extensive menu description for this $58 multiple dish banquet menu to celebrate the Hindu festival of Diwali, or the coming of the light.

The menu was divided into four sections. The first entrée (left) was a trio of vegetable morsels. Kulzhi Paneeram, a fermented rice and coconut dumpling served with sesame, tamarind and red chilli chutney (top right). Tawa Paneer Anari, a cubed paneer tossed with Ajwain, ginger, fresh chillis, coriander and pomegranate seeds (botton right). The last was Baingan Kachri, chickpea battered eggplant fritters served with date and tamarind chutney (top left).

These were all outstanding and very different in flavour. The paneer was the most intriguingly spiced of the three and the soft cheese texture mingled with the spice seeds to produce a wonderful mouth feel and sparky palate pepping taste. The eggplant was crisply battered and the tamarind blanket provided a foil for the batter with an intense sour sweet syrup.

The second triplet (left) took us to the sea. For the Meen Sunti, the publicised sword fish steaks were replaced by tuna and marinated in onion juice, browned coconut, cumin, coriander seeds, red chillis and pepper then smoked in tandoor (top right). Jumbo Prawn, was a tandoor roasted prawn in a marinade of Ajwain (carom seeds), lime, ginger and turmeric (top left), and the third, Balmain Bug Milagu consisted of Balmain bug meat tossed with shallots, fennel, mustard seeds, cracked black pepper and fresh curry leaves (botton centre). The bugs were soft an tender as you’d expect and although the tuna was luscious, I can only stand so much cooked tuna (I prefer it raw) and passed half to a comrade who gobbled it up enthusiastically. The prawn was a bit of a disappointment. Cooked in the shell it was well underdone so the spices hadn’t penetrated and the flesh had the squeaky mouth feel of partially cooked crustacean, in a bad way. I left it on the plate.

Our main course arrived with Hara Chicken Khorma (left), a mint and coriander flavoured chicken in a rich sauce of cashew nut and poppy seeds, and Lamb Dalcha (below), a slow cooked spicy curry with yellow lentil, cinnamon, fennel, and tomatoes, finished off with fresh coriander leaves. The potato Karakari, were cubed chat potatoes steam roasted and finished with black mustard seeds, sweated onions and chilli powder. The mains were accompanied with ghee rice, naan bread and raita. All were delightful and unique in their spice profile. Each complemented the other, but I couldn’t get through too many of the piquant potatoes with the wealth of food presented to us.

By this stage I was feeling well satiated but the desserts provided fresh relief. A Panna Cotta with Blood Orange and Berry Salad was light and delicate with the clean notes of citrus. The Date and Cashew Halwa looked admirable but I must admit by this time I was defeated. I had well and truly welcomed Rama and the light and I didn’t think he’d mind if I left a bit.

(left: naan bread)
I always struggle with the wine list at Indian eateries. If the food’s too spicy it will destroy a good wine, the palate will be assaulted with the other flavours. Too big a red and the subtle spices will get lost in a torrent of hand-to-hand combat berries and tannin. I know, you’ll say drink beer or lassi, but I wasn’t with that sort of crowd. They wanted their vino and they didn’t want white. I chose a 2003 Jaboulet ‘Parallèle 45’ Côtes du Rhône at $42. This wine costs about €6.55 which is about AUD$11.00, take shipping and import and GST into account, brings it up to about an RRP of AUD$20 to buy it locally. So their list was not too bad a price and it definitely matched well with the food.
(Left: dessert plate)
We lumbered under this feast, as truly sumptuous as it was. Generous servings, generous spirit, happy service and even the Australian Miss India was there to have her photo op.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Close Encounters of the Ramsay Kind

Love him or hate him, you can’t ignore him. Having only encountered his screen and print personas I was gigglingly exuberant at the thought of a direct encounter with Rammers. Well direct-ish. Just me and 500 other close Ramsay buddies at the Four Seasons Hotel in Sydney. An intimate lunch for 500, one of whom was GR. I got in on a cancellation so was seated at a back table far enough away to not be able to see the details of his famously battered visage.

I’ve never been much into celebrity. My brushes with fame are rare and usually obscure. I only count three as much worth recounting. Running up to Peter Ustinov in the Forum in Rome and then not knowing what to say to him. Hearing Jacques Derrida speak at the Sydney Town Hall and finally understanding his work on deconstruction in one blinding crystal clear insight. And when John Ralston Saul quoted me in a public lecture that I attended, well, that was swoon material. But other than Ustinov, don’t worry if you don’t know who these people are, I told you they were obscure. I wouldn’t know Paris Hilton if I fell over her, and many people I know wouldn’t have a clue who Gordon Ramsay is either, which just goes to show our fame preferences are all resolutely individual. But I digress.

After some champagne to start and the opportunity to purchase a range of Dymocks’ Ramsay collection, including the new cookbook and memoir, we settled down to have a chat with the people at our table who all seemed similarly buzzed to be there. A hush. Sotto voice. There he is. Where? There. Look. He’s here. Necks craned, eyes darting. GR nimbly waltzing through the tables down to the front. Right. Now we have action.

A few things crossed my mind while contemplating this lunch. Would we be treated to a famous Ramsay outburst? Would there be a tantrum of Krakatoan proportions? Would he drop the eff word every sentence? How much biffo can I expect for my $68.00? The note at the end of the menu reads “please switch off all mobile phones”. A clue for a would-be troublemaker wanting to rile La Ramsay? We’re greeted by Don Dymocks and reminded about the raffle with prizes of Ramsay’s new Royal Doulton crockery and glassware collection. What the heck, it’s for charity, 3 tickets for $10.

Our plates arrive and the De Bortoli Willowglen range flows freely. The menu is from the new cookbook Sunday Lunch. Lamb Rump with Herb Cous Cous and Spiced Aubergine (picture above). A ruddy hunk of meat atop the aubergine, which comes in the form of a puree, and a smattering of cous cous. Bloke food. Cooked just right, pink and tender. Carved thick. Which brings me to another musing. How would you go in the kitchen of a big hotel function department cooking a meal for Gordon Ramsay and 500 of his new best friends from his own recipe book? I bet there are more than a few frazzled nerves out there at the moment. I bet the dealer is doing a roaring trade today.

Some of my suspicions are borne out when Rammers applauds the lamb but is strangely silent on the subject of the lemon tart dessert (pictured left). It’s ok, but a tempered citron hit, cloudy, slightly grainy in texture, shrinking away from the crumbly pasty which is a little too thick on the outside rim and perhaps a tad underdone. Ouch. Someone’s pastry fingers are about to get burnt.

So it’s on to the entertainment, with a few anecdotes and stories about life, food, tempers, empires and how great it is to be back in Sydney. True to form there are the digs at other colleagues (‘never trust a chef with a pony tail’) the media (‘Tracey Grimshaw – can’t we just leave it at Tracey Grim? No part of her body is more than six months old’) and possible new TV shows (‘I couldn’t tell you who we’ve picked for Kitchen Nightmares in Australia … Luke Mangan’s restaurant!’). Then questions from audience members who were predictably heckled by Ramsay for being cheeky or asking tough questions, or just for standing up – all very good naturedly, for sure.

Applause, thank you’s and on to the book signing as the queue grew and snaked around the room. As I waited to ease my way through the queue and the crush of departing diners, I felt two hands on my shoulders as someone squeezed past me, and a soft British accent said from behind “S’cuse me darling. My! Doesn’t everyone look glamorous today?” Touched by Gordon Ramsay. Wow. That might have to go on my ‘brushes with fame’ list next to Peter Ustinov.

But whereas I got the hands-on-shoulders treatment, Julia (who was also there that day) got the business end, so to speak. I totally understand the mumbling, burbling effect it has on you.

Others have alluded to the Mr Darcy effect, but he puts out more of the Rhett Butlers for me.

Ultimately it was an entertaining gig with very decent food. And not that I’m obsessing, but at only $18 more than a certain ‘hands on’ cooking experience I recently attended, exceptionally good value. But enough about that, time to move on.

Oh, and guess what? I won the raffle. A set of Ramsay glassware by Royal Doulton is on its way to me as I write. There’s nothing like celebrity and luck all rolled into one.

Monday, October 23, 2006

GFM Roundup # 3

This week saw the last of the noodle market adventures with the wrap up of the markets on Friday night. My last visit was Thursday and boy was it packed! I couldn’t manage to get a photo without someone walking in front of me at an inopportune moment, but Swee managed to brave the crowds, as did Kathryn who recorded the event when a few of us foodbloggers caught up for a noodle hit. Julia had the goods on our meet up as well and the ensuing sugar hit at the Sofitel, as did Helen, the ever diligent documenter of all her food escapades.

Swee managed a sugar hit at the Sheraton on the park as well and does't it look soooo pretty!

Georgia sampled the Let’s Do Lunch at Forty One and while on the Let’s do Lunch theme, I ventured into the Restaurant of the Year Bécasse to check out their plate. While not as extensive as their GFM Hat's Off dégustation that Helen attended, it was still pretty impressive.

I also got time for two Hands On offerings at Oh Calcutta and Sonoma Bakery with some interesting experiences for me to write about.

Kathryn wrote about the Hawkesbury Growers Trail experience, just showing that some of these tours can be effectively reconstructed by the enthusiast, even without an official guide. I headed not quote that far west for the Mangia Italiano.

Stop Press: An addition because I've had a few late entries for last week's frenetic activities. I thought I'd squeeze them in now before this week's lot.

Jen gets into the Sugar Hits at Sofitel Wentworth as well as the Westin. And the Night Noodle Markets too. My, we all packed in our visits there!

Kat also ventured into Sugar Hit land to the Sebel Pier One. Haven't seen their offerings yet this month and they look impressive.

We’re in our last week, so I can’t wait to see how the events of these final days turns out for everyone. I know a few were aiming for the Spring Picnic and the Danks Street Festival and I’d love to know how it went. Remember to add your technorati tag as well.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Sonoma Bakery Sourdough: Hands On

This is beautiful bread. No, really, exceptional bread. The texture and taste is chewy and sour, crusty, it has a delicious aroma. Hot and warming, straight out of the oven. Satisfying and well crafted, hand made artisan produce for sure. You find this bread at Aria, Tetsuyas, Café Sydney, Bondi Icebergs – and many other great eateries.

This bread, pictured left, cost $100. Yep. These two loaves: a c-note. This bread, taken home by us two participants cost as much as lunch for two at Bécasse not three days prior, even including an extra drink each. Am I mad? Maybe. Let me tell you the story.

Left: unbaked rustic loaves in the retarding fridge.
offered a sourdough bread making class as part of GFM at their new-ish Alexandria bakery space, and they are soon to open a retail outlet there as well. Sonoma is a renowned NSW and Sydney bakery that furnishes many top restaurants with their loaves and rolls and Andrew Connole, who is one of the owners and took our class, is obviously a passionate and talented bread maker and very committed to his task. Their blurb in the GFM program read “Go behind the scenes at one of Sydney’s best sourdough bakeries and learn to make naturally leavened loaves.” At $50 a head I did expect a hands on experience and a bit of tutoring in the sometimes elusive art of starters, mixing, shaping and so on. I have to say up front I was disappointed.

Left: Sourdough starter at the bakery.
Maybe I’m too harsh. Maybe my definition of learning is too stringent. Maybe my definition of ‘hands on’ is too literal. But I didn’t learn a lot and didn’t get to do too much. But I did get a loaf of bread and some dough. The thing is, did the dough parted with equate to the dough received.

Left: Andrew Connole explaining the scoring of loaves and rolls.
Maybe I also need to manage my own expectations, or the bakery does. I originally tried to book in to the Bourke St Bakery class, but within less than 24 hours of the GFM Program coming out, it was booked solid. This led me to believe they would be pretty small classes. I quickly rang Sonoma and got two places. Yay.

Turning up on the day amid not only the Sunday Hillsong Church happy clappy crowd, but also the impending Danks St Festival that morning, I was glad to get a parking spot. As it transpired there were 36 people there for the class. Hmmm. Forget the personal attention enjoyed at Oh Calcutta for $45, where there were about 10 involved with three chefs. We went through a preamble about the founding of the bakery – much hardship, long hours, night time baking, driving hundreds of kilometres, hawking wares to restaurants – yadda yadda. Yes, these people are driven and impassioned.

Then donning our hair nets we ventured into the warehouse space with the equipment and two bakers preparing the lunch order for the day to be delivered to waiting restaurants.

Left and below: unbaked dinner rolls; and the same rolls ready to be packed off to Aria for lunch service.

For an hour of our 90 minute ‘class’ it was very much eyes on rather than hands on. We viewed the starter in a plastic tub, which was a little less riveting that an evening of watching paint dry, watched the two bakers shaping dinner rolls and baguettes at lightning speed, and were paraded past some rustic loaves sitting in a retarding fridge which were later to be baked and taken home by us. With 36 people in a room full of whirring equipment, ovens, and other baking paraphernalia it was also hard to hear what Andrew was saying. It was impossible to hear any questions asked and therefore the answers he gave were meaningless. Along the lines of “shhhhsssmmmmrrrrmmmrrrrr?”. Andrew: “Yes very important, no more than an hour”. Great. Glad we’re clear on that one.

After more watching experienced bakers dispose of loaves and rolls in seconds ready for baking, it was on to the actual baking of bread in a gazillion dollar hearth-based gas powered oven. It looked like a space shuttle. I’m sure we didn’t need to watch 40 loaves being dumped out of baskets and scored, but hey, why not. Our bread was baking. As an aside, can anyone tell me why men who are over six foot tall insist on elbowing their way to the front of any demonstration, leaving shorter women to struggle to see past them? At least half the people there tried vainly to dodge past these gawping twits who seemed to think they were the only people entitled to see what was going on. Sometimes I just give up on the human race and their ineptitudes and inability to spare a thought for people around them. But that's just a personal gripe and not the fault of the bakery.

Next we had 10 minutes of hands on. Right. Now I can get to grips with the whole sourdough thing. Our dough was divided ready for us to play with, and there was enough for all of us to have a go astride two long tables. A quick extra demo by Andrew and onto the work. Roll, push, slide back, turn into itself, tuck under, repeat til you have a smooth, tight skin on the dough. Cool. I played and rolled and flipped and folded and within seconds had a reasonable round loaf. So reasonable that he said as he eyed my dough “you’ve done this before” I said no, not really, but he insisted I had. Well maybe with yeast, but not sourdough. He winked. The six-foot-plus brigade's loaves looked the consistency of macaroni cheese, so all that elbowing and effrontery got them nowhere.

Now the value added. The dough we’ve been playing with was our own to have. This was important, as one participant pointed out, because we can use it for a starter. Ah hah! All the sourdough I can conjure for the rest of eternity. I felt like Dr Faustus. The saying goes, give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime. Problem is, I have my sourdough starter and I can shape the loaves, but I’m still a little unclear about the middle bit, despite the hand out and ‘formulas’ or recipes. I can follow them, sure, but it would have been really nice to be in a smaller group and have a go at some of the steps in between. In essence I feel like I’ve been on an expensive factory tour and given that Deb recently enjoyed a similar thing at another prominent bakery for free, I’m wondering why it cost $50. The only difference seems to be playing with and taking away some raw dough. I still don’t really have the learning that was promised.

So some tips for Andrew for next time.

  1. Smaller groups. No more than a dozen. No one can hear with all that machinery if they’re standing and further away than right next to you.
  2. Give people a go at mixing the dough. Kneading isn’t important in sourdough, so we’re told, but to know how the dough feels with starter, water and flour, and the consistency it should be, would be invaluable.
  3. Educate people better about how to store and care for a starter and how to propagate it from dough effectively.
  4. Provide a selection of breads to take away – even smaller rolls of different varieties would be good.

For this you could charge $50. If you want to leave it as is and give a few more samples, then charge no more than $20, because it’s little more than a factory tour as it stands.

But no matter what, the bread is still sublime.

Mangia Italiano

Billed as a self guided eating tour around one of Sydney’s premier Italian food providore areas, Mangia Italiano takes you at your own pace through pasticceria, delicatessens, fruit and meat retailers. And of course there’s the coffee. Five Dock has long been a Mecca for Italians and Italophiles yearning for the offerings of the old country.

Left and next two pictures below: the gorgeous display at Pastocceria Tamborrino

The assigned meeting place is hard to find. Café Migliore is the publicised starting point, but despite the fact that I’ve been to Five Dock before, a drive up and down the strip yields nothing. Our start point is decided by the proximity of parking rather than the official guide. And shopkeepers are more than happy to help out, with many of them having the little postcard guide available at their counters for you to collect. You can also download the guide from here and print it for yourself. Ultimately you could really start anywhere you like. This little guide also has the addresses and opening times of the participating retailers, so if you can't get there in October I'm sure you could construct your own 'Mangia' when you have time.

There are six official stops on the list, although there are many more shops to wander into and browse. A good chat with one of the people at P.N. Raineri Delicatessen (number 4 on the list) sets us up for the morning and guides us in the right direction with tips and recommendations. While we chat we nibble away on samples of Pannetone, cheese and olives, sip on a complementary short black (their own blend of coffee) and generally take in the bustle of this busy deli packed with treasures.

We buy some lovely hand rolled Calabrian pasta ($3.90 for 500g, $8.50 for bronzato style extra long spaghetti), a brick of coffee ($4.90 for 250g of Café Kimbo Neapolitan Espresso, my favourite Italian coffee), slices of super fresh mortadella with green olives, and in a purchase that will make funghi fanatic Neil green with envy, some fresh (frozen) porcini mushrooms imported from Italy ($65 per kilo, pictured below). I can see dinner on the plate already.

The guide says that spending over $30 in any of the listed retailers gets you a free cooler bag. Unfortunately they've run out and our helpful assistant rolls his eyes and berates the Council for not giving them any more. They ring and try to complain as we finish the last of our espresso, and I undertake to call the Council myself and ask them to deliver more bags to Raineri. So you might not get a bag if you decide to wander along to check out the Mangia Italiano.

Left: Jellies from Pasticceria Tamborrino

Onwards for some sweet stuff at Pasticceria Tamborrino (number 3 on the list). Run by a Roman family who’ve been there about a year, this small shop is like walking through the gates of heaven. Or what I imagine would be the pasticceria in heaven. Rows of delectable pastries, cakes, ice cream cakes, decorations – you name it. We have another espresso and a ricotta filled mini cannoli that is blissfully crisp and whisper smooth inside. We away with more treats for later.

As we stroll down the main drag we also see some lovely bread to buy to go with the mortadella and stop in at a fruit shop (not the official one) because the artichokes (pictured left) look so inviting. We grab 10 for $5.00 and resign ourselves to an afternoon of artichoke peeling and poaching. Maybe they’ll come in handy for a risotto.

I also wonder in this metropolis of coffee and sublime Italian pastries how on earth the Gloria Jean’s and Michel’s Patisserie can possibly make any money. I cannot understand who’d want to be in Five Dock and have a cinnamon hazelnut cappa-frappa-cino-late-grande-soy-skim-double-decaf. Iced. And some boring commercially made Danish to go with it. “Wake up and look around!!” I feel like shouting at the chain-store losers. It’s ok as a last resort in a sugar or caffeine deprivation emergency, but there’s 50 superb cafes and 12 sublime pastry shops within your direct line of vision! Oh well, some people never learn.

Left: Sugar animals from Pasticceria Tamborrino

We keep wandering and come across the last two on the list, which given the thrills of the deli and pasticceria are a little disappointing. We nearly have a veal argument in Caminitti’s butchery (MN is very, very fussy about veal and will not have yearling topside foisted on her, and becomes quite indignant when butchers try to tell her it’s veal when it looks like beef steak). We make a graceful retreat after he agrees “that” sort of veal – pale pink and pearly – is almost impossible to get. Whatever. If you look hard enough you can find it in the right season.

In all it took just over an hour to have a reasonable look around, but I’m sure you could spend longer. My problem is that I am now itching to get home and do something with the porcini and the artichokes, and the weather's getting very warm anyway. But I think I’ve switched allegiances from Haberfield (my regular Italian shopping haunt) to Five Dock. And after all the treats from Tamborrino (see picture left) are gone (and it didn’t take long I can assure you – we’re talking minutes not hours) I want to go back straight away.

That evening, after browsing through my Italian cookbook collection, I decide upon a simple recipe from The River Café’s Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray. Porcini sautéed in butter, herbs, lemon zest and a little white wine, finished with a little cream, served tossed through the delicious hand rolled pasta (below). Ah, Bella Italia. Mangia Buonissimo!

Bécasse: Let's do Lunch!

Left and below: the set GFM lunch of ballottine of Glenloth chicken with potato puree, sauté of mushroom and wilted spinach

It was with a mixture of delight and trepidation that I approached lunch at Bécasse.

Delight because it has been well publicised not only for the fantastic food adored by most critics, but also its recent restaurant of the year award. Delight in that I was fortunate enough to taste a sample of their style at the Growers markets recently in a cooking demo by Justin North. Delight because the menu looks divine.

Trepidation came in the form of a less than flattering (and in my opinion sourly mean spirited) review from Elizabeth Meryment in the Weekend Australian last week.

I don’t think someone who writes about food for a living should be so churlish as to criticise a French restaurant for writing some things on the menu in French, and then claim not to understand what they mean. And subsequently slap the place for not spontaneously explaining every term on the menu, when a request for elaboration had not been made. She commented that the waitress was abrupt to boot, and she didn’t like her table.

Trepidation also snuck up as a bit of attitude I received from the staff prior to my visit. A call many days prior to increase my lunch booking from three to four people was met with a terse “that’s not possible” and the receiver going down. Oh god, maybe Meryment was right? Gobsmaked, I calmed down and waited a few hours, rang back, spoke to a different staff member, and the same request was met with “certainly, no problem whatsoever”. Phew. Someone was having a bad day, but at this end of the market I don’t think you can afford to put people off.

However all was well on the day. I sat in the same part of the room as Meryment, and for my money they were the best seats in the house. A ringside view of the open kitchen and nine chefs executing the ballet of a busy production crew feeding the crowd in a two-hat restaurant that was fully booked. It’s a joy to see the precision and concentration of a team like that effortlessly producing the dishes on a substantial and complex menu. This ain’t grilled steak and potatoes.

Left: tropical fruit salad with Champagne jelly and yoghurt sorbet

Our $35 set lunch for Good Food Month consisted of ballottine of Glenloth chicken with potato puree, sauté of mushroom and wilted spinach. The confit leg is stuffed into the thigh, and then roasted and served with a reduction sauce. It is meltingly tender and intensely flavoured, the potato like a pillow of air mingling with the juices. The accompanying wine is a Brown Brothers red and the price includes coffee as well.

M can’t resist a dessert and orders the rum and muscatel omelette soufflé with Grand Marnier ice cream ($22 pictured left). Luckily we all get to taste a spoonful and it’s light and subtle flavour complements the dark squishy rum- soaked muscatels and tart orange of the ice cream. It’s preceded by a complementary tropical fruit salad with Champagne jelly and yoghurt sorbet to cleanse the palate, and our coffee comes with a delectable plate of dainty petit fours.

The staff are utterly charming, so I’m not sure who Meryment struck the night she went there or if she was being overly critical. The menus are available at the restaurant’s website, so have a read and see what’s on offer for the à la carte and dégustation menus. This sample, which given the restaurant’s high standards, is not only excellent value but is definitely a teaser for a return match. I’ll be back.

Clockwise from below: the petit four plate; chocolate macaroons; vanilla sablé with lemon curd; and shortcake with raspberry crème.