An Altered Marketplace

Everything changes and 2020 has been a year of immense change. While we lost some food businesses, some new ones sprung into view and some old ones adapted to a new format during lockdown. Some eateries that pivoted to producing ready meals have decided the new direction actually suits them better. Small specialized food businesses like bakers and coffee shops have generally done well, retaining their loyal customer base and growing new ones. The Queen Victoria market was on a trajectory towards a more slimmed down and sanitized food precinct long before COVID-19 hit, its heyday long gone, when it served as a major Melbourne fresh food hub. Then you could find stalls such as the one that just sold watermelons, stacked so high and deep the young lad working there would climb to the top of the mound and toss down melons to his machete wielding dad who deftly cut them in half with one blow. Other stalls specialized in selling just oranges or in the meat section there was a stall selling all kinds of offal, all the soft bits from nose to tail. That colourful chaos of the market has largely gone along with peoples fondness for brains and lambs fry. During the COVID-19 lockdown Melbourne farmers markets limped along, some doing quite well, others merging and relocating with reduced numbers of stalls. We missed some well known traders, like Bridge Farm and their fabulous asparagus. It is uncertain whether they will return. More and more of us have turned to online food shopping and it will be interesting to see if that trend as well as the enthusiasm for home cooking will endure. It has been a bit of a strange growing season too with some vegetables not making an appearance while some have been reduced in size, quality or with a shortened season. Extensive bushfires, lack of farm workers, fluctuations in export markets and the weather have all had a substantial impact. Despite this we may not see a lot of difference at the supermarket as Australia is a large country with vast food producing areas in several geographic locations ensuring we nearly always have year round supplies. However, I have noticed some high prices in green grocers and if you are used to buying seasonal, local produce you may need to be more flexible. The loss of restaurant trade has meant that some specialty foods, like quail and game birds, will not be available until production ramps up again. On the bright side our Southern Rock Lobster is cheaper this year because of a halt in exports to China. After what we have all been through perhaps it’s best that we concentrate on friends and family around us this Christmas and not fret about the menu. Well, maybe not as much.

Have a wonderful Christmas.

Dining Out In Melbourne

Where do we go from pandemic lockdowns to a new normal with dining out in Melbourne? I think dining out will become dining outside, especially with the warm weather on its way. I remember when I lived in Germany for a time I was amazed that once summer came along Germans really came out of their winter hibernation and their seemingly reserved mien to enthusiastically dine and drink outside. The desire to dine outside was so strong that the inside of restaurants became completely empty and if there were no seats available outside then people would go on to the next place rather than sit inside. Visiting Paris one January when it was so cold that there were snow drifts in the parks and frozen fountains I was amazed to see all the outside seating at bistros still full of Parisians in overcoats enjoying a drink. Melbourne councils should be a bit forgiving and let restaurants use footpaths and maybe even allow the closing of some streets after 7 pm. It would be wonderful to let bicycles and foot traffic claim the streets instead of cars for a change. This take over by the people of local streets has sort of happened by default during lockdown in some neighborhoods. I know some restaurants on busy thoroughfares would miss out on this opportunity but perhaps those places would be eligible for some compensation provided their indoor dining arrangements met with COVID-19 restrictions. Pubs that base their business model on large crowds of punters with sport on screens for “atmosphere” may have to change. I’ve always lamented the lack of proper beer gardens in Australia: apart from the wonderful Belgium Beer Cafe that used to operate in Prahran, there are few if any that actually have a garden or even a single tree to sit under. Most are just dreary concrete spaces. St Kilda Road has really good set backs, something long gone with building developments, and some of these spaces would make lovely, treed beer gardens or outdoor dining spaces. Greening the city with more street plantings is a great heat mitigation strategy by councils but there is scope for commercial property owners to be encouraged with reduced rates to include gardens with trees as part of their redesign. Many coffee shops have been ahead for some time with their take away coffee windows and concertina doors and windows that open out to the street seating. Modern housing and redesign of terraces have long been merging the indoor with the outdoor eating spaces, so perhaps we need that extended to more restaurants and cafes. Size is also an issue with restaurants, we have tended to go big for economies of scale as profit margins are impossibly tight. Perhaps a rethink is needed on the excessively high rents and restrictive council regulations. There should be a possibility for small local eateries that seat only a dozen patrons to actually work. After all tiny neighborhood izikaya, kaiseki and ramen shops are commonplace in Japan. The pandemic will cause many permanent closures but with every massive change in history people do adapt and pivot to create something new and enduring. I am hopeful.

Unburdened By Soup

Soups, particularly of the vegetable kind, are perfect for lunch or dinner when you want a lighter meal or want to lose a bit of weight. A soup is easy to prepare as it is not exact like baking, there is no need to measure ingredients, so you can just proceed intuitively. Once you accept that, all you need to do is see what’s in the crisper of the fridge and go for it. Most soups don’t need a stock, the flavour of the vegetable(s) is enough. One of my favourite soups is minestrone which is a great way to use up remnant vegetables at the end of the week. I start by chopping an onion and adding it to the pot to sauté in olive oil. While that is gently sizzling I pull out other vegetables and chop, say a stick of celery or a carrot, by which time the pot is ready to accept another lot to mix through the softened onion. Chopped parsley, particularly the stalks, are a great aromatic addition. I might have a small piece of cauliflower, a handful of beans and one lonely zucchini to chop and add. Finely chopped garlic adds a bit of punch. Any soft vegetables, like sliced Brussels sprouts or peas, I add last with just a quick stir. Finally a tin of chopped tomatoes and a couple of tin fulls of water to rinse out the tin are added, enough liquid to cover the vegetables. The most important ingredient that will give it a bit of Italian authenticity is the crust end of a piece of grana padana or Parmesan cheese. I always save the ends of my cheese for minestrone, it gives the soup a wonderful umami flavour and it’s comforting to know that a great cheese can keep on giving, even at its end. Simmer the soup for an hour, it tastes even better reheated the next day. To bulk it out add a tin of beans or a small handful of soup pasta (very small shapes) or spaghetti broken up into small pieces. Season with salt and pepper. Soups need not be a jumble of vegetables like this. The simplest soups consist of one or two ingredients, think pumpkin cooked in milk, seasoned and blitzed to creamy smoothness with a stick blender or parsnip sautéd in olive oil with sliced leeks, covered with water, simmered until tender and similarly blitzed. Fennel bulbs roasted with a whole head of garlic and caramelised to bring out the flavour and sweetness can then be put in pot, just covered with water, simmered until tender and blitzed. Roasting root vegetables before cooking them in water will add flavour. Then you have a huge variety of pulses to play with. Red lentils cook down to a soft creamy soup to which you can add vegetables such as kale or chard. Canned chickpeas and tomatoes can be really spiced up with harissa or other chilli mixes. Cannellini or borlotti beans cooked with onion, garlic and tomato can be made into a rich, creamy soup full of beans by just blitzing one third of the mix (pictured). There is no need for added cream to make these soups taste creamy, the starch of the beans will give it body and the flavour imparted by a cheese crust will top it off nicely. If you are uncertain what spices or herbs to add to a vegetable consult Stephanie Alexander’s book, The Cooks Companion, it lists flavour combinations at the start of each chapter and is a great guide but I would free yourself from the constraints of recipes and just cook. Soups are very forgiving.

Persimmons And The Art Of Patience

Some things take time and learning to be patient is an important life lesson. Whether it is waiting for plants to grow where they are happiest without the temptation for an instant garden, cooking something slowly rather than resorting to ready meals or reading long form writing instead of newsfeeds, there is a lot to be gained from taking some time over things. Being stuck at home these past months has been a test of self reliance and patience. Maybe some have been able to explore the pleasure in simple things, like watching the changing colours of Autumn or getting to know your neighbourhood for the first time during daily walks. I have done a bit of Autumn watching. An old friend dropped off a large bag full of persimmons he had cut from his tree sometime during the start of the social isolation in March. These were astringent persimmons; hard, inedible fruits with huge amounts of tannin that ripen very slowly. If left on the tree to ripen they would have quickly been eaten by the local wildlife. I placed them on a large tray near the window and watched and waited from March to mid May when they started to change from yellow to orange and then a couple took on the telltale translucence of ripeness and sweetness. At this point a ripe astringent persimmon can be scooped out and eaten with a teaspoon and it is wonderful. A persimmon tree is a beautiful tree that really shows its glory during Autumn, dropping its leaves to reveal golden and ruby orbs in the soft light of the cooling months. A lasting memory I have of Japan is of persimmon trees glowing with red fruit as the train I was on glided past the backyards of suburban houses. It resonated with the many Japanese paintings I’d seen of sparse black branches with red fruits; art elevating the simplicity of urban life. Persimmons require patience, an almost meditative patience, which this year I have had the time to enjoy, and the reward of this patience is absolutely delicious.




Beneficial Beans

Beans have been flying off the shelves of grocery stores to stock pandemic pantries around Melbourne. Who would have thought that canned or dried beans would be valued so much. Over the years any mention of a meal of pulses had the immediate effect of eye rolling and talk about how disagreeable to ones digestion they are. I confess I have always liked them, whether as a thick Tuscan bean soup, a robust stew of beans with veal or lamb shanks or as a salad of white beans with chopped tomatoes and herbs. I’m also a huge fan of a spicy chilli con carne made with dark red kidney beans and have very fond memories of Babka’s Georgian baked beans with feta on sourdough toast, which I often ordered some twenty years ago and it is still on the breakfast menu of this long-standing Brunswick Street bakery cafe. Beans are nutritious and tasty; they have an inherent nutty flavour but also absorb the flavours they are stewed with. A little pancetta or a ham bone can spin out the meal nicely, making them an economical way of feeding a family. No doubt, they are an excellent food in times of adversity and to keep everyone at the table happy through the night here is a good tip for eliminating or largely reducing those digestive gases. To remove the sugars that cause the flatulence you need to leach them out with a bit of pre-boiling. For fresh or soaked, dried beans boil them in water for about 10 minutes and then discard the cooking water and rinse before you use them. For canned, pre-cooked beans I would drain them in a sieve and rinse the beans well under the tap before use. Another tip is not to add chopped tomato until the beans are some way into the cooking process and starting to become tender as the acid of the tomatoes has a tendency to toughen them. So when you next gaze at your pantry bean stockpile wondering what to do with them all, I can recommend a hearty, garlicky and mildly spicy bean stew; my version of the Spanish dish, fabada. Casa Iberica in Collingwood or Alphington can supply you with a spicy chorizo and/or some morcilla to add a bit of Spanish gusto. Serve the fabada with bread drizzled with olive oil, toasted on the BBQ and then rubbed generously with a garlic clove to help with the social distancing.