The Aleppo Cookbook

War, loss, suffering and displacement are unfortunately our human lot. During tumultuous times poetry, music and food can be an important solace and gift of remembrance that can’t be so easily erased as bricks and mortar. Most immigrants and refugees have brought with them a food memory of some sort, whether it is a recipe on a few tattered pieces of paper, a well thumbed cookbook or a culinary ritual forever etched in their heart. My mother arrived in Melbourne from war-torn Europe with a recipe for walnut cake that was not only a parting wedding gift but a cherished piece of cultural heritage of her city. I wonder how many recipes have crossed through Europe and beyond in the recent exodus from Syria, in particular, from the historic city of Aleppo. Aleppo is regarded as the culinary capitol of the Middle East and home to the UNESCO world heritage Al-Madina Souq, the largest covered market place in the world. Large parts of it have been destroyed in the war and while it will one day be rebuilt, it will have lost the patina of age, the continuity and cultural diversity that made it the focus of one of the oldest cities of the world. Great cities have always endured, so too the recipes that define it. Fortunately someone has brought them together. The Aleppo Cookbook, by Marlene Matar, is a beautiful compilation of dishes that are the pride of this particularly culinary part of Syria. As I dipped into the book, I decided on cooking a soup first. Soup is always a great tonic and the red lentil and chard soup from the The Aleppo Cookbook is lovely, yet so simple. Red lentils are softer and not as earthy in flavour, so even those of you not so keen on them may like that the lentils are blended to give a lovely creamy consistency. The chard and carrots are added after cooking the lentils and the soup is finished with the tang of fresh lemon juice. You can use kale or spinach as substitutes too. A classic of Aleppo is the vibrant red pepper and walnut dip, which is not only the highlight of the mezze but a tasty side to meat or vegetable dishes. Other interesting dishes are the many and unique variations of the ground lamb dish, kibbeh, including walnut stuffed kibbeh (a popular street food) and kibbeh balls braised with quince and pomegranate. The Aleppo Cookbook has a lot that is different from the other Middle Eastern cookbooks, so it is a worthy addition if you want to expand your repertoire and cooking knowledge of the region.

The Aleppo Cookbook is currently not in stock but can be ordered on-line from Melbourne’s  Readings Bookshop

red lentil and chard soup

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.