Life Affairs with Food

It was a few weeks ago when I was watching one of my favourite musicians, Ed Kuepper, play at the Northcote Social Club that I realised he’s like oysters…

When writing about food, dishes and combinations of flavours, sometimes I compare them to people. When a dish is served lacking flavour, foresight and skill I may conjure up an image of an overweight man in middle-management who sticks to his routine, doesn’t like to upset his family and let go of any dreams he had years ago.

If another dish hits the mark, has elegance, texture, care and skill – well, I may just compare it to a woman, who’s smart and in control with a wicked sense of humour and killer heels.

It was the other way around that night in Northcote. Ed was weaving his magic, as was his drummer Mark Dawson and there was the thought…oysters.

I didn’t understand oysters when I was a kid. One taste and it was all over for years, the flavour and texture were too intense for my uneducated palate but late teens, early twenties I’d been cooking and reading about food and different food writers for years by then and was curious. I revisited them and helloooooo … it was a an explosion of sea, salt, meaty texture and sheer pleasure… it was a revelation.

I didn’t understant Ed when I was a teenager. I wasn’t cool enough, The Saints and The Laughing Clowns were something my older brother Peter was into and he would tell me I wouldn’t get it anyway. Then in my early twenties, I heard about Today Wonder, Ed’s new album with his drummer Mark Dawson. I bought the cassette for Peter for Christmas (it was 1990 or 91) and ended up nicking it and listening to it over and over.

I got it, I got Ed and went back to it again and again and started listening to more of Ed’s other music – it was intense, clever, beautiful … a revelation.

Olive oil is a vibrant accompaniment, cooking tool and significant ingredient and the oils we’re producing in Victoria are worth seeking out.

   Delis, green grocers, farmers markets, supermarkets all have extra virgin olive oils sitting on their shelves. Olives oil from all over the world – Australia, Italy and Spain particularly – but it’s the Victorian olive oil industry that’s creating some luscious gems of viscous liquid that, like their European cousins, tell the story of their region, their cultivation and their harvest.

Olive oil tastings are (almost) as common wine tastings and when you taste olive oil, take a moment to think about the vibrant golden greens and yellows the oils take on. A taste of the oil and you may find yourself discussing the texture and viscosity, considering the aroma and flavour and then looking for fruitiness or herbaceous, grassy characters on the palate which are all pivotal to the character of a good olive oil (it sounds a little like tasting wine!).  Local olive oil producers are creating a product that’s complex, delicious and of great quality and we’re embracing what we see.

Like wine and different grape varieties, there are different olive varieties each with their own character and attributes to add to the oil. Manzanilla would be one of the most versatile olives in the orchard, renowned as being a good all-rounder as a table olive and an oil olive, much of the Australian olive oil we buy is made from Manzanilla. Richard Seymour, owner of Mount Zero olives in the Grampians with his parents Jane and Neil says, “If you talk to a processor they hate them [manzanilla olives], as they are notoriously hard to press but for the effort the reward is worth it.”

Mount Zero also grow picual, frantoio and coratina olives on their 200 acres that they bought in 1992 taking on an over-grown olive orchard of trees that had been planted in the 1950s. They don’t irrigate their trees, producing a sturdy, intense fruit that is responsive to its season. Richard explains, “Because we don’t irrigate, as the trees get older their roots go deeper and deeper into the soil. This year there was lots of moisture around and we had a great year, some years are harder than others but when there’s lots of rain and if there was irrigation as well, too much moisture can cause the oil to be lacking in flavour.”

 Rose Creek Estate in the outer-suburb of east Keilor sees Tony, Lina and Angleo Siciliano make their olive oil from mostly frantoio but also grow manzanilla and corregiolo olives among other varieties on six acres with 300 trees. The Siciliano’s press their olives over a couple of months underneath their house, “Some of the trees mature earlier, some later,” says Lina. The family have three harvests: pressing green olives first; semi-ripe second and ripe black olives in the third harvest as “you get more oil from the olive,” she explains. It’s the yield of oil to olives that explains why some oils are pricier than others, Tony explains, “ When we press the green olives we get about four to five litres from 100kg olives, semi-ripe olives yield nine to ten litres of oil and the black produces 20-22 litres per 100kg of olives.”

Yield, time and mother nature all bless or hinder any agricultural pursuit and olive oil production is no different. Heading out to the Bellarine Peninsula, Rosalind Ellinger set up Mason’s Creek olive oil back in 1998 on 10 acres, has about 1200 trees and went into commercial production in 2004. Like Mount Zero she doesn’t use irrigation which can be frustrating regarding yield but guarantees a better quality product. “We get about 1200 litres of oil from 10 tonnes of fruit,” says Rosalind, “which may be less than others but it’s a quality product.”

Mason’s Creek grows Kalamata olives (which are only good for the table not for oil), manzanilla (for table and oil), frantoio and corregiola (for oil only). Ellinger finds it best to let her customers know when the olives were picked by placing the harvest year on the bottle, “That way people know how long the oil has been in the bottle,” she says.

Freshness is one of the most important characters of olive oil. It is simply the juice of an fruit and has a quality that deteriorates over time. Olives are traditionally picked in late autumn, early winter – so that’s November, December in Europe and May, June in Australia. The Australian new season’s olive oil was released in June and July and this is the freshest olive oil you can buy at the moment. When buying olive oil, look at the best before or use by date or what is becoming more common is the ‘pressed date’ or ‘harvest’ date you will find on some local products.

Mount Zero olives in the Grampians have started putting a ‘pressed’ date, similar to Mason’s Creek harvest date and it’s important to note that olive oil isn’t good after 24 months. So if you pick up a bottle of oil and from the dates on the bottle it’s been on the shelf a bit too long, keep searching. This wonderful liquid that highlights produce, dresses salads and cooks delicately is deserving of our understanding to get the best out of it.


My partner and I were working in New York in 2001. We were doing a private catering gig where we cooked parties for a wealthy couple for the summer months on their private estate in the Hamptons. It was an experience filled with fresh produce, no budgets and lots of cooking – bliss and hard work wrapped up in a New York summer. The couple were generous enough to allow us to stay in the Manhattan apartment when there were no parties planned and it was there, on the corner of East 70th and 5th, we woke on Tuesday September 11th to the sound of sirens.

Initially, we thought little of it, this is New York, you hear sirens all the time but as the day unfolded and fears were realised and stretched to unfathomable arcs we had a job to do – we had to cook.

The woman we worked for called us (at one of the rare moments of the day the phones were working) and told us her niece would be coming to the apartment with her son and partner, their apartment on Battery Park had been badly damaged and there could be other friends who needed refuge – “get dinner organised” she asked and we ventured out, to a very different city we’d gone to sleep to.

No cars on roads, office paper flying everywhere, the sound of footsteps, thousands of footsteps of the people marching uptown away from the nightmare and all under a brilliant blue sky – a sky, like the blue brilliance of the Melbourne sky in late spring, you squint from the harsh light but feel safe in its warmth.

It was around 1030am and we found a supermarket on Lexington Avenue, already crowded with anxious consumers. Shelves were emptying, trolleys were overloaded and no one spoke – the news on the radio in the background overtook all desire for conversation. There were three chickens left in the refrigerated section – free-range, plump and pink – we took them, bought lots of the vegetables that were remaining as well as cheeses, water, bread and stood in the queue waiting our turn. Unbelievably some people were asking for their purchases to be home-delivered, rumours muttered through the lines about cash-only (it wasn’t true) and a little boy held his mother’s hand saying repeatedly, “some buildings fell down”. It was eery, uncomfortable but necessary.

The rest of the day we spent in the kitchen of the apartment, chopping garlic, preparing the chickens with seasoning and herbaceous olive oil, washing leafy green vegetables and slicing fat zucchinis, fleshy tomatoes and dousing them with vinegars and oils. The chickens roasted beautifully, blistered skin, golden and sizzling. The comfort of its perfume filled the enormous apartment and as we poured wine for the family as they arrived, they insisted we have a glass too.

We all sat together that evening and ate. The man of the house made a toast to sitting at the table, to being at the table and to those who wouldn’t be at their tables that night. The chicken was the perfect comfort…it was the arm around your shoulder from a friend, a blanket on a cool night. In a surrounding of complete confusion, devastation and fear, none of us knew what the next day would bring but there was a meal and it was good.

There was lots of wine, lots of conversation and lots of silences…it was a day that changed everything but couldn’t change the comfort brought about by a good roast chicken.

With all the commerciality of this time of year with Valentine’s Day & fluffy toys & silver balloons (what are those things!). For me, this image above is something that represents love – an enduring love that has been through hellish moments and powerful joy but a love that is still going strong 51 years on.

These are my parent’s tea cups. Every morning after breakfast dad has his tea (always a good leaf tea in a lovely big pot)  in his black-and-white cup with ‘an eyedrop of milk’ and mum’s takes her floral teacup and has her’s black. Another cup is had in the evening after dinner, usually in front of the tv.

To me, this is something worth acknowleding about love: laughter, pleasure, conversation, hardship, respect, trust, frustration, conflict, anger, happiness, affection make up the totality of a long-term relationship and that’s the love that should be celebrated just as much as the young, excitable passionate love that is just as joyous but not nearly as formidable.

Happy Valentine’s Day

In October last year, I was thinking of what to contribute food-wise for my mum’s birthday party, I was arriving in Brisbane that morning, time was an issue and I was asked to ‘make a plate of something to nibble on with drinks’.

I love prawns from Queensland, they have a meatiness to their texture and a sweetness in flavour that I really enjoy and as dull as it may sound to some, I love standing over the kitchen sink, peeling each one, separating the shells from the flesh and putting the shells aside to make a quick stock. To keep it really simple I made sandwiches – yep – prawn sandwiches.

*Finely sliced pieces of fresh sourdough baguette held chopped prawn flesh that was tossed with home-made mayo, some chopped fresh parsley, two torn basil leaves (you don’t want the basil to overpower but just lift the flavours), generous squeezes of lime juice, one short, sharp squeeze of lemon juice and salt and pepper in small sandwiches that lasted two bites.

I was asked to make them again on Christmas day to have while we sipped sparkling wine and opened presents. The request surprised me.

I asked my sister who was hosting lunch, “Why do you think people enjoy these so much?”

“Look what you’re doing,” she said,”you’re taking time and peeling those creatures and doing a fiddly job for us. Who doesn’t want prawns peeled for them, it’s kind of you to do it and you make them taste good. It’s a luxury.”

What’s a luxury for some is an act of love and generosity for another and so it is that I will probably be making prawn sandwiches at family events for the foreseeable future.

Who would have thought that a prawn sandwich could represent luxury, love, giving and family.

Happy 2011.

*This paragraph is the recipe for these simple treats. Quantities obviously equate to the number of people and to your taste. I like to make my own mayo but there are some decent ones out there to buy if you’d rather not go down that track.

When I wrote Guide to Fish, the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) very kindly gave me permission to use their research on the fish species I chose to put in the book.

The AMCS have just released an new version of their sustainable seafood guide. A smart, litte book to take to the market that lists fish alpabetically and talks about the fish to avoid, the ones to eat occasionally and the better choices.

They’ve also, thoughtfully, put the guide up on line.

Click here to view the guide online

Click here to have a look around the AMCS online shop

The International Seafood and Health Conference will be held in Melbourne from 6th – 9th November 2010 and my husband Maurice Esposito and I will be there with a large group of chefs, writers, scientists and intellectuals to talk about seafood and its benefits to long-term health, in particular, as part of a holistic approach to managing mental illness and other prevalent 21st Century ailments.

Maurice and I will be talking about cooking fish for children, sustainably, easily and deliciously. This is a significant conference that will assist all of us, as consumers,  in understanding the long-term benefits of choosing and cooking sustainable seafood. See below for just a touch of what’s on offer. More to come soon!

Click here to find out about the Wonders & Opportunities of the Ocean

Click here to find out about a wonderful presentation by International Experts on Seafood & Health

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