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.

Knead Patisserie, Belconnen Market.

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Cheese and raw milk, the other point of view (Part II)

Two men, two philosophies. Nick Haddow on one side (last week’s post), defends the right to produce raw milk cheese. On the other side stands David Brown (picture) from Milawa Cheese company, in the North East of Victoria, nestled in the middle of the the wine tourism regions. Unlike Nick, he believes raw cheese won’t add any value to the Australian food culture.

He defended that point of view in the media when he was president of the Australian Speciality Cheese Association. Today, he still defends the same point of view. In some ways he is right. Parmesan and Camembert are already imported. It looks very difficult for Australia to compete cheese with centuries of cheesemaking history unless they feel like fighting against the natural elements as Nick Haddow did.

The good natured David Brown thinks also that the quality of cheese relies on the process of fermentation, which develops the flavours, not on the fact that milk is raw. “You know, 95% of cheese made in Europe is from cooked milk. Fermentation is how you create a good cheese. It is a far more complex process in cheese than in wine. With wine, sugar is transformed into alcohol in a few days. With cheese, each week is a vintage, and different kinds of fermentation are used to produce blue cheese or cheddar. Therefore, there are as many cheeses as different factories.”

There is no cheesemaking school in Australia. Not one place known for its taste and traditions. This is the reason why producers grope their way along. “There were a lot of trials. Here in Australia, you must have climate controled premises. For blue cheese, you need to have 4 degrees of temperature and 90% of humidity. This is very difficult to achieve in our country.” David Brown started 23 years ago. Before being a cheesemaker, he was a cook on a mining site and earlier, a teacher. “My family and I wanted to live in the country. I dreamt of growing a winery, but there were too many already, so I started cheese. There were only two or three of us at that time.”

By word of mouth, the Milawa cheese company has grown, now employing 8 people in the cheese production and attracting 150,000 visitors a year buying cheese or being guests of the restaurant.

I won’t decide in favour of either Nick Haddow or David Brown, they are just different. Nick Haddow has developed flavoured hard paste cheeses and a variety similar to Camembert. I loved the “Oen” from the word oenology, the study of wines’ washed in Pinot Noir. David Brown has delicious blue cheeses: in particular, I noticed the Milawa blue, his first, and the Capricornia, a hard paste goat cheese. For those two, and others, he has won awards.


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Raw milk cheesemaking as a battle (Part I)

It is as if Nick Haddow, the cheesemaker was part of a Dostoyevski novel, far away in deep Siberia. Of a sturdy build, he has this determined posture which is very similar to the one of a Cossack posing for the painter. He speaks with this lingering tone of boredom, answering with a sigh, as I asked the seemingly too often heard: “Why do you think there are so many cheese maker in Australia who don’t believe in raw milk cheese?” He answers, cautiously, as walking on a minefield: “ask them!”

I will, indeed (see next week’s post). But I insist. I want his opinion. He gives me a part of the reasons: “It costs a lot. I invested $80 000 in special equipment, trials and lost the cheese which wasn’t good enough and had to be thrown away. It was a long and expensive journey managed with the Tasmanian Dairy Authority“. In the end, he became the only one officially allowed to produce raw milk cheese in Australia. I like this kind of personality.

Try his C2. The hard paste raw milk. The name sounds like a spaceship or a robot. He obviously didn’t try to find a poetic French name… well, I have a guess, Bruny Island Beau-fort, perhaps. On the contrary, there is a sense of humour in this C2 name, which stands for 2C of Cooked Curd.

The cheese maker has established his plant on Bruny Island in Tasmania. Two local producers he knows well supply the milk. His adventure started in 2003, when he opened his business. In 2007, he was allowed to sell raw milk cheese. Currently, he produces 10 wheels of it each week. Then it is matured in cellars for at least 6 months before commercialisation either at his shop in Tasmania or through email order.  “I don’t sell to delis, as I want to control the quality and the way it is sold. I prefer not to take the risk to see cheese being left in shop fridges for ages.”

Before, he was a chef. He made the first attempt at cheesemaking in his kitchen before taking a trip around the world to discover more about traditional fermentation and cheese tradition. “Unlike Europe, here the herd grazes outside the whole year. They don’t need sheds and they are fed with green grass the whole time. This is an advantage. I believe the quality gap between imported cheese and Australian made is closing all the time”

Orders online:

To find out more about the campaign for raw milk cheesemaking:

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Macadamia oil, as good in the salad bowl as on the face

Macadamia oil is at least as good as olive oil, I was told. For me, this was quite difficult to swallow, having heard and read the best about the Mediterranean diet and the virtues of olive oil from physicians and other health specialists. ‘And it is great to cook seafood’, added Shane Hill, head of the NSW company manufacturing it, Mac Nut oil. As good for eating as for staying fit ! At first, this sounded more like a tasting experiment I had to conduct being in the home country of macadamias.

The locally produced oil respected the criteria for sustainable environment: this was the main argument. Then, I imagined it would replace walnut oil, my favourite nut… The nutty tang fulfilled the promise, with perhaps a softer and more discreet presence. Unlike walnut or even olive oil, its mildness means it is good to make a mayonnaise. It can be simply added to a salad dressing and used safely to fry as its burning point is higher than olive oil. But essentially, it tastes exotic.

The macadamia harvest has just started in March and will last nine months. The picking schedule follows the rhythm of maturity of different varieties. In other words, it is quite a busy time for Shane Hill, when the plant is working 24 hours a day with a team of 20 people, 10 devoted to the production of the annual 250, 000 litres of macadamia oil.

Shane Hill was almost born at the plant. In fact, as he was still a student, he was hired during his free time by his science teacher to help in the macadamia oil process. A farmer, their neighbour, had first asked Shane’s teacher and a retired scientist for advice about macadamia nutritional quality, before they all saw the potential and decided to jump in the adventure. Shane Hill remembers : ‘They found out that it was a stable oil containing a high level of palmitoleic acid, which is similar to whale oil. A high level of this good monounsaturated fat and low polyunsaturated fats. On top of that, it has no cholesterol. Those qualities sounded very promising, even when used in the cosmetic industry’. I can hardly imagine how it is possible to spread macadamia oil on my face. I would rather eat it. But I was assured there is no greasy feeling. Furthermore, it contains interesting antioxidants such as squalene, which protect from sun-induced cell oxydation.

This first observation was made 25 years ago, in South Ballina in the New South Wales. Shane Hill student job which consisted in throwing nuts in the expeller press, turned into his full time occupation as he climbed the company ladder to reach the position of general manager. At the same time, the public interest increased, as better health products were sought after. As investments had to be made, the friends sold the company in 2000. It is owned today by Creata Ventures, an investment firm. Hopefully, Shane Hills will keep the pioneer spirit of his teacher’s alive.

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Cherry wood and local pigs make good Australian ham

Leg ham, salami and sausages are the height of butcher’s art. I became aware of that fact one afternoon in a little Venetian shop, being caught in a passionate argument about salami processing. As he interrupted his colourful description of quality and art to serve clients, the butcher invited me to wait for a second, before resuming his speech after the patron left. Adding gesture to word, he made me taste his specialities to prove he was right. Then, a new client came, and time flew away in the warmth of the day.

From that moment, I deeply respected a butcher’s good work as something that is not that easy to perform. So when I found Balzanelli Smallgoods, I felt like the miner finding a vein of gold. Ham in their workshop is made from good quality Australian pork, and this makes the difference. It is a philosophy: ‘I am committed to support local producers. I don’t want to see them disappear and see us, as Australian consumers, rely on imports!’

Quality means also a minimum layer of fat, and a perfect ph level, which depends on the way pigs are killed. No gluten is used to make pieces of meat stick together and a reasonable amount of water and salt is injected, unlike those who use large amounts in industrial processing to make the meat weight heavier without any benefit in the taste.

Marco Balzanelli and his daughter Sandra guided me through their production site in Canberra to show me the smoking room where 150 hams were suspended. Marco designed the oven himself and feeds its fire with cherry wood. ‘It gives a sweet flavour, we found it to be the best timber as we don’t want an aroma that’s too overpowering’, explains Marco.

The company was created 30 years ago by Carla and Giovanni, Marco’s parents. They were not in the meat business when they arrived in Australia. Giovanni was a surveyor, working on a dam. But they had the dream of buying a farm, which they did some time after settling in. They had a few pigs. And as it is a family tradition in the region of Reggio Emilia, where Giovanni comes from, they started to make hams and salami for their own consumption. One thing led to another, they grew their activity, moved to the capital to bigger premises and sold the farm.

Now, the smallgoods company employs 12 people. Marco is at the head of the company working on the production in the back of the shop: ‘This is the place I like to be. It is more enjoyable to produce smallgoods for people than just cut meat in the front’. His wife works in the office. Coming from Sevilla in Spain, she added to the Balzanelli recipe book her own family recipe for chorizo, the very popular spicy Spanish sausage. ‘People love it. Australians are starting to search for quality, they are starting to cook and experiment. It is the European influence, but it is also linked with the success of cooking shows on TV. I think we have the leading products in Australia.’ Well, they’ve won silver and gold awards.

Balzanelli smallgoods can be found in fruit markets in Sydney, at delis such as Thomas Dux (NSW and Victoria) and Harris Farm (Sydney), from (Canberra region), at EPIC market in Canberra, and at their shop, 7 Isa Street in Fyshwick, Canberra.

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The winemaker from Bordeaux whose heart and cellar are in Yarra Valley

The first sip of Fontaine rosé triggered my surprise: this Australian wine took me back to Cannes in France. I was with my girlfriend on the famous ‘Promenade des Anglais’ lazily seated on a couch drinking this rosé with a relative of hers, an Aussie sailor working on a billionaire’s boat. This is the first rosé here that gives me that feeling of being close to the rosé you get in Provence, on the South Coast of France. Dominique Portet doesn’t have to talk much about his art, but he agrees to do so.

It is time for grape harvesting. The season starts at the end of February with the picking of grapes for sparkling wine specialities and finishes in April. It is a risky period: a single sunny day during these few weeks might mean the grapes suddenly contain too much sugar. After the daily sugar measurement, winemakers complete their analysis with the tasting of grapes to fix the right day.

Talking with Dominique Portet, it is obvious that the French guy from Victoria knows his business both as a producer and as a businessman. He has just come back from the Emirates and Hong Kong where he met clients, though half of his production is still sold on the property. But, compared to his famous next-door neighbour Chandon, he remains an artisan, with a modest 4 hectares of vineyard in the Yarra Valley.

Dominique Portet spent the first 23 years of his life in different French wine-growing area. He is very proud to represent the ninth generation of winemakers established in the region of Bordeaux. As the son of André, régisseur (vineyard & winery manager) of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild in Pauillac, he came to Australia 30 years ago to chase the Australian dream as a pioneer. At first, he worked for an American billionaire investing in vineyards before he settled on his own winery, in the Victorian wine region. It was after a serious illness that he slowed his pace and bought his own property, ten years ago.

‘I spent a lot of time looking for the right place with perfect exposure to the East. On the Maroondah Highway close to Chandon in order to attract some of their visitors’. He built a cellar and a quaint mansion with reference to the classic Orangery style. This was enough to create the myth and the beginning of a family story Down Under.

He developed wines with the European taste, adding an Australian touch, he says. As such, his wines don’t contain as much alcohol as common heavier Australian wines, but are also fresher and chirpier, crisper. He loves his Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. No compromise. Picking is made by hand not by machine. Far more important, to keep the quality of each grape, the vine stock are not allowed to bear too much fruits in order to keep the quality of each grape. I checked this first, knowing it would define him as a professional who is exacting in his work. The following process of fermentation is also essential, but it is almost impossible to catch up with quality when the fruit is not perfect.

What Dominique insists on are the oak barrels, imported from one single French forest. A specific timber is used, because it doesn’t give too heavy a wood taste to the nectar.

The rosé, a summer treat, can be bought at a well-known Australia-wide alcohol outlet or online.

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Fabio’s coffee secret is in the roasting pot

Coffee is Italian. Ask my stepsister Deborah who comes from Lecce, in the heel of the Italian boot.

In Melbourne, Lisa and Fabio Costa opened a coffee shop at the entrance to the Queen Victoria Market, on Elizabeth Street. It is called Coffea. Though Fabio and Lisa were born in Australia and speak with the typical local Aussie accent, their words sounds like they have ‘un petit je-ne-sais-quoi’ as they move their hands and laugh. Doubtless, this musical speech is inherited from their parents from Calabria, and Veneto. Besides, like every Italian child, they grew up with caffe latte at breakfast, which gives a sense of how important the beverage is for them.

They were among the first ones to sell fresh roasted coffee in the city centre. And, this happened by chance, ten years ago. After performing her errands at the market Lisa would push the pram past this empty retail shop and think: « What a pity mothers like me can’t have a proper coffee after buying groceries ». She spoke to Fabio who was already working in the coffee industry. They rented the place and bought the roasting pot, which now has pride of place in the middle of the coffee shop. Their decision was the right one. In the first year, they doubled their turnover.

To make the difference, home roasting is essential, they insist: ‘Italian coffee is excellent, but by the time it comes from Europe it has lost its freshness. I buy my beans directly at a coffee broker’s place, roast them and create my blends’ Like a wine maker? Yes, he agrees. It is a science.

In this cosy coffee shop, we sit next to the roaster. Behind it, countless coffee bags stand on wooden shelves. The shop looks like an Italian bottega. It is a trip to Venice. Fabio is the one who roasts, on Wednesdays. But he won’t unveil the recipe of his espresso. There are 5 different varieties of beans, from Brazil and Indonesia. Each one is roasted separately to respect its type. The Indonesian, much darker, requires a shorter time in the heat. ‘I have developed this espresso for the softer water we have here in Australia compare to European water.’

Fabio dives behind the counter and grabs a card to show me. ‘This is one is the blend made by one of our customer’s to suit his own taste. After many attempts, he created it himself from New Guinea Peaberry, light and sweet, Moundheling, full body and strong, to which is added a flavoured Kenyan coffee.’ Fabio describes it: ‘It is a strong flavoured coffee with a sweeter finish at the end’.

When visiting Melbourne, have a coffee there, and try the chestnut, pine nut and rosemary cake. It is also baked from a secret family recipe that Lisa won’t share.

To order on line:

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