Nuts About An Alpine Autumn

Autumn is a wonderful time of year to explore the Victorian Alpine region. The Autumn colours are at their most vivid right now and in the late afternoon sun the poplars take on the look of giant golden torches against the soft dusky grey green of the hills. More common are the liquid amber trees which border the Great Alpine Road from Gapsted to Bright, glowing bright pink, orange and various shades of red. The Victorian alps are not just a feast of colour at this time of year but a feast of wonderful Autumn produce. Walnuts, almonds, chestnuts and hazelnuts are all harvested now and feature in autumnal dishes, like rabbit ragu with chestnut pasta (Ox and Hound), mushroom pizza with rocket and roasted hazelnuts (Bridge Road Brewery) or beetroot tarte tartin with honeyed walnuts (Feathertop Winery).  It is great to drop into a farm gate wherever you see a sign on the road and purchase some fresh nuts of the season for your own cooking enjoyment. Last weekend I did just that, turning off near Gapsted to visit Valley Nut Groves at 180 Schlapp Road. The shop at this walnut farm has 500 g, 1 kg, 5kg and 10 kg nets of whole nuts ranging in size from large to jumbo to mammoth as well as two or three different varieties. Behind the shop is the processing shed which is full of historic equipment from previous generations of the Schlapp family. It may all look ancient but each machine including the 1920’s drying kiln appears to do the job well in what is still a pretty labour intensive production. The owner is happy to explain the ins and outs of producing walnuts starting from the fleshy outer covering of green walnuts which usually split and drop while still on the tree. Removing any of the outer husk remaining is done at the washing stage, where nuts are tumbled and sprayed with water. The nuts are hand sorted to remove duds and then hoisted by a conveyor to the top of the drying kiln, where they are then shifted as they dry by a series of intricate traps from the highest and hottest position to the lowest and coolest position over the course of a few days. The sacks of dried walnuts are then sorted according to size in a trommel screen which spits out small, standard, large, jumbo and mammoth nuts into the appropriate sacks below. Magic. Valley Nut Groves do not use any pesticides or chemicals on their trees and nuts are not bleached as imported ones tend to be. These local walnuts are just as nature intended and the cockatoos certainly think so too. In addition to nuts, Valley Nut Groves produce walnut oil, great for salad dressing, and a range of walnut extract hair shampoo and conditioners. If you want to immerse yourself in this nut grove idyll the owner has some converted tobacco kiln cottage accommodation for rental as well.
Don’t be put off by unshelled walnuts. Buy a good nut cracker and approach the task in a relaxed fashion, nibbling a few healthy nuts instead of wicked temptations when hungry. After a day of touring in the fresh Alpine air there is nothing more satisfying than cracking nuts while sipping a local Beechworth wine or King Valley Italian varietal in front of an open fire.

Green Walnuts

Walnuts are washed, any remaining green outer husks removed

Duds are removed by hand on the sorting conveyor

From sorting to kiln

Historic drying kiln

Trommel screening to size

Petty’s Orchard

Years ago when I had a dog I would take extended walks in various parks around Melbourne, mostly low lying land abutting the Yarra but also some hilly tracts with remnant orchards in Doncaster and beyond. These little traces or our local agricultural history were delightful discoveries and made me wish our market gardens were still an integral part of outer suburbia. There are still pockets here and there, under real estate pressure, waiting for the aging owners to move on and retire somewhere up North. One pocket of land in Templestowe will remain as an orchard for the foreseeable future, as it was sold to Parks Victoria. Petty’s Orchard has wetland habitat for birds but the farm was leased back to the owners and continues to be run as an orchard, growing heritage apple varieties and providing opportunities for garden enthusiasts to learn and volunteer and for the general public to just kick back with a coffee and a slice of apple pie and enjoy the country ambiance. On a sunny Autumn day what could be nicer than letting the kids lose on the playground provided while you absorb the history and the warmth. Energetic people could ride the Main Yarra Trail, passing through Westerfolds Park, using the orchard cafe as a pleasant place to refuel before the end of the trail at Mullum Mullum Creek. There is nothing fancy about this oasis in the suburbs, just a sense of satisfying continuity and the chance to enjoy a  delicious apple pie. I loved their pie so much I worked on recreating it, so it has become my go-to dessert, particularly with the wonderful heritage varieties apples available now, which you can buy at the organic store at Petty’s Orchard. I mostly shop at farmer’s markets, so I love using the Bramley Seedling or Stewart Seedling apples from Yarra Valley grower, John Howell. John attends various farmers markets around Melbourne (Veg Out, St Kilda, Gasworks in Port Melbourne, Flemington, Coburg and Slow Food at the Abbotsford Convent). These cooking varieties are beautifully tart but with a more interesting honeyed flavour than your regular Granny Smiths. Granny Smiths are still a great apple to use but (heritage) variety is the spice of life and an orchard in the burbs is bliss.

Petty’s Orchard, 1 Homestead Road, Templestowe is open 9 am – 5 pm,  Thursday to Sunday.

The Vexed Question Of Lunch

Lunch can be a troubling meal, starting with that vexed question of what to have. It’s often vexed because choices can be few and far between as there is a certain commercial sameness to a lot of lunch offerings in town. A good place might be too far from work, too expensive or the choice restrictive. When I ran cafe sixteen83 we did a great roast chicken baguette. The chef roasted whole chickens and then pulled the tender meat off the bones while warm and combined it with the house made mayo, chopped celery, apple and walnuts. It was darn good. Who doesn’t love a fresh homemade sandwich made with roast chicken and stuffing but even if you didn’t do a roast the night before you can poach a single chicken thigh in next to no time for the makings of a sandwich. That’s all very well if you brown bag it but if you are the type of person that does not like making an important decision like lunch too far in advance then you do run the risk of dealing with that vexed question come 12:30.

Here are a few places in Melbourne’s CBD that do sandwiches and filled baguettes with quality ingredients, including a few that do a version of the classic chicken roll or sandwich.

Earl Canteen, six locations in town, including level 3 of Emporium Melbourne (free-range chicken roll and sandwich)

Butchers Diner, 10 Bourke St., temple to meat, open 24 hours (poached organic chicken, mayo, celery, spring onion, parsley and lettuce roll)

Pickett’s Deli and Rotisserie, 507 Elizabeth St, corner Queen Victoria Market (roast chicken, gravy, crispy chicken skin, tarragon aioli rolls – served hot, pictured😋)

Spring Street Grocer, top end of town, 157 Spring St., cross the road and eat in the gardens (roast chicken on light rye)

Salumisti, 388 Flinders Lane and 892 Bourke St., Docklands (Porchetta, slow roasted pork rolls)

Nashi, 5 locations in town but all preparations done in their main Collingwood kitchen (chicken, avocado, bacon lettuce and Japanese mayo)


Clean Meat On The Menu

The future of meat for food may well be clean meat. Clean meat is a term used to describe lab cultured meat and it’s clean because, although the few cells used to grow the meat are taken from live cattle, the process of growing those cells into a meat product is essentially sterile, devoid of the gut and faeces bacteria usually associated with live animal slaughter and meat processing. Will clean meat take processed, industrialised food too far, compromising our health yet again? One could argue that what we eat as beef today is hardly natural anyway; cattle have to adopt an unnatural grain diet while crammed in feedlots in order to gain weight and for muscle to be marbled with fat for meat to be tender and succulent. Apart from the animal welfare issues there is the huge environmental cost of animal production and cattle have the largest carbon footprint. One type of meat that has serious animal welfare issues is foie gras, the fatty liver of ducks and geese which have been force-fed corn. Culturing liver may be a way of circumventing that welfare issue. Creating liver tissue and simple burger meat is where lab based meat is at present. Anything with a complex structure, like a beef shank or rib-eye steak for example, is still in the too hard basket. Growth media containing animal serum is another bottleneck in lab based production but that is likely to be overcome with plant based supplements which will not only bring down the cost but avoid animal use. With 7.6 billion people on the planet and increasing numbers of affluent people, all eating more meat, future menus will inevitably look to plant based foods and cultured meat. Like transport and financial transactions, our menus will continue to evolve; one day we could get a cultured burger delivered in a driverless car or a drone and paid for by the bat of an eye. The question is not what and how but when?

Read about cultured meat in Paul Shapiro’s book, Clean Meat.

One Bowl Wonder

The Japanese donburi or rice bowl truly is a one bowl wonder. The Japanese make cooking for one a simple affair. It is partly the mindset of simplicity and partly a frugal approach to eating that is not only healthy and economical but practical when your fridge contents don’t look that promising. Probably one of my favorite one bowl wonders is oyakodon, don referring to the rice bowl and oyako, meaning parent and child, which in this dish refers to the chicken and egg. It is a very comforting dish and can be made with one chicken thigh fillet or even left over cooked chicken. All you need is a bowl of a rice, an egg, onion or a couple of spring onions, your chicken and the usual suspects of the Japanese pantry; dashi stock powder, soy sauce and mirin. Cook your Japanese rice and while it is resting gently fry the onion and the chicken pieces (if using cooked chicken you just need to heat it), add 100 ml dashi stock  and a tablespoon each of soy and mirin. Bring that to the simmer and then turn off the heat. Put your hot rice into a rice bowl then gently beat the egg in a small bowl with your chopsticks. Pour it onto the still hot chicken, mix it through quickly and then scrape it immediately onto the rice. You want the egg to retain a creamy texture. Done.

For a vegetarian donburi I use silken tofu, a couple of spring onions, one shiitaki mushroom and maybe something green like a handful of shaved Savoy cabbage, some spinach leaves or a few small florets of broccoli. For the sauce I like the one used for the dish, mapo tofu.  For one serve you just need a dessert spoon each of sweet chili sauce, oyster sauce, soy, mirin and water. You can also add a teaspoon of miso. Simmer a small block of silken tofu in water for 5 minutes, drain it in a sieve and let it cool to firm it up a bit before cutting into cubes. Fry the sliced onion and shiitaki, mix in the sauce and the vegetable, letting it cook for 2-5 minutes, depending on what vegetable you are using and then finally add the tofu and heat it gently. Add to the top of your rice bowl. Done.

The most important part of these frugal meals is the rice. Japanese short grain rice is really beautiful and once you try it you will find it hard to go back to other types.  I recommend getting a big bag from an Asian grocery that stocks Japanese goods. For one-person cooking using a small cast-iron enameled casserole dish, like Le Creuset,  is the best way to prepare the rice or alternately you can buy a small ceramic Japanese rice pot at a specialty store. A rice cooker is useful when cooking for more people. For one person you only need 90 grams of rice.

To prepare your rice. Weigh out 90 grams of rice and then wash it in a sieve under running water, moving your fingers through the grains to saturate them with water. Put the rice into the cast-iron pot along with 110 mls of water and leave that to soak for about 30 minutes. Heat the rice and when it starts to boil, cover with the lid and place the dish on the lowest heat setting possible for 13 minutes. Once the time is up turn the heat off and rest the rice for a further 13 minutes. During that 13 minutes of rest time you can cook the topping for your one bowl wonder. Use a plastic or wooden paddle to transfer big scoops of the rice to your rice bowl. It should be a little bit sticky and hold together nicely, so it is easy to eat with chopsticks. Cooking the rice until it is just right might take a few goes but once you get the hang of it you can virtually do it blindfolded. If you are concerned about eating too much white rice, try brown rice for a change or add some mixed grains or cooked adzuki beans to the rice. Grain mixes for rice can also be purchased at Japanese grocers.

Tokyo Hometown Supermarket, Elizabeth Street, Melbourne

Suzuran, Camberwell

Hinoki, Fitzroy

Fuji Mart, South Yarra