A journey in Jonathan’s conservatory of ancient apples


At first glance, the visitor is transported in another world, as if he had passed the mirror of Alice’s wonderland. Behind the mirror, the Pialligo orchard appears like granny’s loft, fully packed with treasures stored randomly in a joyful mess.

In this former commune property, on the outskirts of Canberra, Jonathan and Robyn Banks grow 60 different types of apples. He is a chemist, she is a mathematician. Among the ancient varieties, they have listed the unexpected and mysterious “pippin”, named after the kind of apple grown spontaneously from seed. Lord Lambourne is Jonathan’s favourite, but too delicate to be transported and sold in supermarkets: “a wonderful texture, juicy, beautifully aromatic with a hint of acidity.” Jonathan named a few other traditional ones: Reinette, Cox’s, Snow, Russets, Mutsu, Lady Williams, MacIntosh. For this last one, I realised that the famous computer’s company featuring an apple was named after an American variety apple tree!

Jonathan has a story for each one of them. This property hosts a total of a thousand trees with no two looking similar and 33 rose plants. Some typical varieties of automn fruit, but also the very difficult to find mirabelle, reine-claude, the rare unusual medlar, quinces, feijoas and a few more thrive in this Eden Park where Cockatoos like to feast. “We let the tree get big, so that Cockatoos can only get the fruit which are on the surface on the top of the tree, but not the ones which are deeper in the branches. The height of the grass creates a welcoming environment for predators like frogs and lizards, which are useful to get rid of fruit pests”, explains Jonathan.

Surprisingly, despite the exceptionally wet season that has spoilt part of some vineyards, the apple crop was unexpectedly generous this 2012 season. “The cockatoos leave us far enough with a crop of about 30 tons of apples” It is late in the season and almost the last days for the later varieties. Jonathan has just put away his stall set in front of the orchard.

However, very soon, he will lead a special grafting workshop to show how to grow your own tree. “Customers ask to purchase their favourite apple tree, but I have to decline as I only grow apples. So, I thought about this workshop. Grafting is easy. There are a few tricks you should know, but not many. (see events)

I asked him: “So do you talk to the trees ?” He answered: “I do, and sometimes quite seriously. If one does not give any fruit, I come at it with an axe. Sure it works. Next season it will give fruit.”

Pialligo Orchard, 10 Beltana Road, Canberra 02 6765 5633

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Back to basics and peel burning hot chestnuts

Good food does not only rely on the art of the chef, but also on the quality of commodities. As part of their commitment, chefs are regularly investigating in order to track down the right providers. This is how Richard Moxham and Alison Saunders happened to meet Janet Jeffs, one of the leading chefs in Australia, who is manager of the Kitchen Cabinet at Old Parliament House in Canberra: “We sent 100 leaflets to restaurants in Canberra and we got one phone call. This was Janet explaining to us that she wanted to work with local producers.”

Richard and Alison grow walnuts and chestnuts, but at first it was not for the nuts and their use in food, but for the beautiful trees. Twenty years ago, when they bought the property, these two rural scientists hoped that in planting more trees on it they could raise public awareness for biodiversity, educating the public in forest ecology. “Now, roasted chestnuts are also a delicacy that we enjoy with a glass of red wine.” Richard laughs, inviting me to such an experience on their property set in the small New South Wales village called Sassafras, 45 km south-west of Nowra and about 130 km from Canberra on the Nowra-Braidwood Road.

Australia’s experience with chestnuts is linked with the gold rush. At that time Europeans and in particular Chinese brought trees from overseas. They need a wet and cool climate to thrive. The ideal region should be located between 650 and 850 metres above sea level. As a matter of fact, those conditions are all found in North East of Victoria, where almost all orchards have been developed. Each year, about 3000 tons of chestnuts are produced in that area.

The chestnut crop, like the grape harvest, has not been not abundant this 2012 season. Richard Moxham explains: “We made 5 tons, half as much as usual. Unfortunately, the rain has affected the pollination.” However, the quality met our expectations, particularly for the late varieties.

“We sell our nuts at the Sydney central market. People from Italy, Greece, Spain, Croatia and Macedonia are fond of those nuts as it reminds them of their European background”, says Richard Moxham. At harvest time, which is in April in Australia, families come equipped with buckets to pick up nuts and enjoy a day out in the country under the canopy.

Some customers buy the flour, especially to prepare Italian specialities, but mainly it is just a winter indulgence, eaten simply roasted. “Well, it also unleashes a fantastic sweetness in soups and casseroles. Like potatoes it is full of carbohydrates”, Richard tells us. A soft taste to savour as a reward for enduring the scratches caused by the spiky shell when picking them up.

Last Sunday, at Janet’s Jeff’s kitchen Cabinet in the patio of Old Parliament, Richard and Alison introduced hot chestnut peeling to a captivated audience. During that presentation, Janet was roasting goat’s legs on the barbecue with greek music. “We hope that more and more people will learn how to enjoy chestnuts.”

For more informations: sassafrasnuts@bigpond.com

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The unexpected French tablecloth in the Queensland hinterland

In a patisserie in Queensland, I was stunned to find the best lemon tart I have ever tasted. I discovered the place recently, in the quite isolated village of Cooroy, in the Noosa hinterland. It is called La maison de Provence. Something to visit when on holidays at the Sunshine Coast.

The French couple, Eric and Françoise Pernoud, who opened it in 2010, have been in Australia for more than 20 years, achieving Eric’s dream to move to Skippy’s country (the kangaroo movie he watched in his childhood). When he arrived, Eric Pernoud started as Chef patissier at the Ritz Carlton in Sydney, managing also the Korean, Hong-Kong and Singapore Palace’s patisseries.

Now, after all those years, it is not Eric’s first experience in opening a patisserie where you wouldn’t expect to find one. When he and his wife decided to start their own business, they had a bakery in Bowral close to Sydney and then in Pomona, an even more secluded village in Queensland. “You blink Blink and you’ll miss it.” And, each time, he encountered success.

Eric Pernoud comes from Annecy, a quaint medieval town close to the French ski resorts of Chambéry, where his wife comes from. They have five children, Erika, 20, the oldest, works in the kitchen, Axell, 17, and the youngest ones, triplets aged 3, who keep their mother very busy. Eric Pernoud starts his day at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and finishes at 9 pm. This hard work is at the origin of every day’s fresh baked food, which has built the good reputation of the place.

In the patisserie, Françoise displays and sells French-style homewares. The Eiffel Tower drawn on the wall, bunches of lavender and starched white embroidered tablecloths give you the perfect picture. The full French atmosphere. Here, no sausage rolls or bacon and eggs, but cassoulet and coq-au-vin. The other day, one of the French cooks working there made some classic quenelles for lunch. “Customers discovered this very typical French dish still unknown in Australia and they loved it.”

This haven is not even set on the main road. Still, it attracts people from the whole region who queue to get one of the house specialities. For instance, the not so traditional but delicate mushroom flavoured quiche. “Someone one day send the plate back complaining that I shouldn’t put mushroom in the quiche. But I explain that it softens the texture. See, Paul Bocuse adds some potatoes to his recipe!”

In the shop’s window display, there are also macarons, mille-feuille, éclairs and my favourite, the melting lemon tart. The acidity of the fruit is just tempered with an under layer of vanilla flan. “The recipe is 100 years old! It comes from my grandfather!” (See recipe)

Does he miss the French Alps? “Yes, I do. But here the lifestyle is much more relaxed than in Europe. It is a nice country for raising children.”

facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Maison-de-Provence-Noosa-Hinterland/122400291192590

Adress: 9/13 Garnet Str. Cooroy 4563. Phone: 07 54720077

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Some crocodile into Italian salami

Gino d’Ambrosio’s mum is the typical Italian cook. She bakes pizza, prepares pasta, rabbit ragout, salami and tiramisu for dessert for the 27 people of her family at gatherings. This shows what kind of a character she is and the taste of good things she transmits to the children and grandchildren. When you enter her son’s butcher shop, you understand straight away that he belongs to the tradition. He sells not only meat but also the essential ingredients to his family’s homemade specialities: Parmiggiano and coffee, white truffle olive oil, balsamic vinegar and spices.

However, it is not that simple. Consider that Gino d’Ambrosio is born in Australia. Add to his Italian background a bit of Australian quirkiness, and you get the taste of the new generation’s culture. Therefore, one of his salamis is made from crocodile meat. “By the way, he says, I will have to fly to Darwin to pick up my 60 kg of chopped and frozen crocodile at the farm to bring it back to the capital.”

“The taste of crocodile is between fish and chicken. The possum is like wild rabbit, sweeter and tough. Emu and kangaroo have a stronger flavour and it is a very lean meat.” Gino d’Ambrosio also nurtures a down to earth philosophy.  He knows the growers. “To get the better meat, you have to know them. I go to the farms regularly. I don’t buy from wholesalers. Wallabies and possums are wild animals. But, I have collaborated with the same hunter since the opening of my shop, ten years ago.”

To further guarantee the flavour, in his shop he sells only organic meat: “You cannot do bits and pieces. Otherwise, how can the customer know what he is buying? And then, no steroids nor antibiotics. This contributes to the flavour.”

 Who likes this exotic meat, I asked. I admit, myself, unless somebody cooks something for me, I wouldn’t be inclined to buy some. Unusual meat represents roughly 25% of his sales. “The consumers are between 25 and 45 years old. First, they want to give it a try. Usually, it is to arrange a surprise for overseas relatives, to let them have a taste of Australia. Once they have had it, they come back to it. But then older people stay away from new food experiences,” Gino laughs.

In the shop, I noticed some meditation books lying on a display cabinet just above a shelf of sharp knives. I expressed my surprise. “Oh these are written by one of my clients. I offered to sell them for him. My own meditation is quite different. It happens when I am on my motorbike, an Italian Ducati.” Out in the country, he rides on his 50 acre property. No animals on it. Just the feeling of freedom and distance. An Italian-Australian mixed interpretation of happiness.

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Wet harvest in a modest vineyard

2012 has been a hard year for winegrowers: lots of rain, mould attacks on grapes. Consequently, the harvest has not been generous. The crop is way down with 50% less quantity. Still, the hope to get a good year is strong in the Canberran wine region, and the winemaker’s art will make the difference.

“While hand-picking is common across the district in any season, selective hand-picking was the only choice for many growers. This increases the costs of maintaining fruit quality, as there is no market for B-grade fruit,” said Chris Carpenter, president of the Canberra District Vigneron’s Association, quoted in a media release.

The battle for recognition is not won yet. The reputation of Canberra’s wine region is still being built. The families who develop the wines in the region are linked by their efforts and their solidarity. “In Murrumbateman we are about 15 wineries who help each other as we know that the number of wineries is what attracts people,” comments Sarah Collingwood from the Fourwinds winery.

Less alcohol, more acidity; the Australian consumer’s taste has also changed over the years. In a tight market, this evolution has made some room for wines developed in a cooler climate on the heights of the Canberran region.

The Riesling is particularly adapted to that specific climate. The Fourwinds winery, a family owned property, has been distinguished with a gold medal at the regional fair. I personally liked their Merlot, which should be kept at least three more years before tasting, like a Bordeaux, to express its full personality.

The story of this winery is that of a dream. I am surprised how often engineers, surgeons, lawyers cultivate this childhood fantasy to establish a farm and live the simple country life, an ideal they sometimes fulfil late in their career. This is the profile of Graeme Lunney, a lawyer from Canberra. He and his wife Susan bought a 50 hectare property, called “Fourwinds” in the close vineyard region, on which he planted 33 hectares of Shiraz, Riesling, Cabernet, Merlot and San Giovese in 1998.

Then, his two girls and their husbands got involved. One of the sisters, Jamie, studied winemaking. During an internship in Nappa Valley region, she met a Californian winemaker who became her husband. The other sister Sarah, a marketing manager, is in charge of the promotional side. “We sell 5800 cases of bottles a year to restaurants and retail shops in the region and the rest of the grapes we produce is sold to another winemaker. The goal is to keep the whole production on the property.”

Sarah’s husband John is also working part-time as the winegrower of the property. The rest of his time, he is a physiotherapist at the hospital. Now Sarah and her sister Jamie are both going to give birth to the first generation of children who will grow up on the property, starting to write the story of a newborn tradition.

392 Murrumbateman Road, NSW 2582 Phone: 0432 060 903



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Samson the dog hunts the truffle

Australian truffle growers harvested three tons of the precious black mushroom last year, in 2011. The production comes mainly from Western Australia. But, from that amount, Australians consume one ton only. The rest is exported to Asia, the United States and even Europe, (Germany and a little to France and Italy). Very impressive.

I did the addition: at the cost of $2.50 per gram, it is an industry which generates a turnover of $7.5 million. This result, however, does not reflect the high financial risk linked with the activity: climate may have a serious impact. But also, unexpectedly, the grower might suffer from a bad harvest which cannot be explained by any cause. “We know very little about truffles, as they don’t grow naturally like in Europe. Here, the conditions are different. The European experience is not relevant. Therefore, unsuccessful years sometimes keep their mystery”.

Wayne Haslam’s production is modest in comparison with the national production. However, the involvement of the grower in the spread of information about truffles is huge. Wayne’s story started late. After his retirement, this civil engineer didn’t want to stay idle. He fearlessly jumped into the planting of oaks in 2003, with no guarantee of getting a return on his investment. He settled on a country property in New South Wales, close to Canberra, and called it the Blue Frog Farm. The name has a meaning. He smiled: “It comes from the song ‘I am in love with a big blue frog’ sung by Peter, Paul and Mary. This is a story between my wife and me, at the time we were flirting. Then, when we bought the house and land, during our first nights here, the frogs living in the pond were so noisy. Instantly we thought about the song!”

He planted his property with 6.5 hectares of oak and hazelnut trees whose roots are inoculated with the mushroom and added 50 tonnes of limestone to the soil so that it reaches the ph necessary to truffles. “Between the tree and the mushroom, there is a symbiotic relationship. The mushroom breaks down minerals useful to the tree to feed on. In return, the tree feeds the truffle with the sugar contained in its sap.”

From the beginning, Wayne Haslam has fought to improve public consciousness about the mushroom. “We have yet to develop a truffle culture,” he admits. To achieve this, he organises the Truffle Festival each year, at the winter solstice, which marks the harvest time. Tastings, truffle hunting and stories are on the program. “I also go to see some chefs, carrying my basket to make them smell the product and convince them to add truffles to their menus.” I longed for my favourite recipe… truffle shaved on a risotto…

When the season comes in June-July, Samson will be on duty. Although some signs of bareness can be detected at the foot of the tree, which show the presence of truffles, humans need help so they don’t dig randomly with little result. And this is when Samson, the Labrador dog, intervenes. “He is trained. It’s a funny time. He puts his paw where there is a truffle and jumps to another tree. You have to run after him, dig deeper and then pick up the mushroom carefully so as not to damage it.”

At Farmer’s Markets during the season, and at the Truffle Festival on the property (from 21th June 2012 to 31st July). Truffles are also sent by mail. Visit the websites.



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The baker’s happiness is in the meadow

Tom Moore is not only a baker in whose shop, Knead Patisserie, you can get real crunchy butter croissants, but also somebody who wants to change things. This is what he proves when he says: “Enjoying good food is all about education. The taste of things comes when you are young”. When I called him to arrange an appointment, on the advice of one of his customers, he showed enthusiasm straight away. He is eager to share his philosophy of building a better knowledge about good food.

It is 10 o’clock as we sit at one of the garden tables in his quaint shop at Belconnen Fresh Food Markets in Canberra. This is almost the end of his day. Almost, I say, because he is also active during the daytime with other commitments linked with his concern about food education. As we chat, people come in and out continuously. My attention is drawn to the counter: ham and provolone roll, smoked turkey bagel, rustic rye loaf, and those golden and plump croissants, of course.

After his night hours, Tom Moore visits schools and gives pupils cooking classes, showing how to use local products, because he has also been a chef for 20 years… He was at the head of the much awarded “Sage” restaurant in Canberra and then “Grazing”, a farm-restaurant, where he, with his team, grew the vegetables and herbs used in the kitchen. For that also, he won awards, including one for his contribution to a more sustainable planet. Look at his Facebook page and you get the picture of the character: he sits in the meadow cuddling happy pigs.

Tom trained as a chef in the kitchen of the Hyatt, in the bakery section, with demanding French and Swiss chefs. Now, as a baker, his background gives him a particular sense of flavours. He waits for the fruit to be slightly overripe, as you do when making home-made jam, to add more sweetness and taste to his patisseries.

While the croissant is made from a basic recipe anyone can have access to, I wondered why it is so difficult to find proper crispy ones. “The secret is in the use of good products, like the butter, and the technique of course. For croissants, you alternate layers of dough and layers of butter that are folded together. It takes time. I have heard that some just throw already processed mixture into the kneading machine, and then add small bits of margarine, not butter. It is amazing what you can buy pre-mixed! Some of the bakers I hired had never used butter!”

Making things with proper care, this is what he shows both children and adults on the first Saturday of each month at the Farmer’s Market at EPIC in Canberra. With three other chefs he created a school to train cooking and baking apprentices. He has students from the age of 16 to 45 and their best students have also won awards. http://www.fourchefs.com.au

Knead Patisserie, Belconnen Market.

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