Category Archives: Fed

Roots and Permaculture

Varzea da Gonçala

Where I Have Been Lately

Hello! I am back from a little sojourn in the Portuguese countryside, where I have been on a fantastic Permaculture Design Course.  I intended to get a load of posts done to be posted over the time that I was away, but as usual, I was behind, and doing them on the journey. I got to the venue to discover that there was no frivolous internet access (due to the tariff system in rural Portugal) and no mobile reception, so things didn’t work out as I had planned (and not planned, in many ways). I am not sorry, it was glorious to be away from it all, and was incredibly good for the soul.

Fig tree at the Varzea, Late March 2012

The View From the Classroom

I will post those other posts over the coming days, along with a few Easter posts, which should probably come first,  but I really want to tell you all about the course and what I got up to first. Partly by way of explanation for the absence, but also because I really want to recommend a permaculture course. This was a birthday present from the Big Guy, so I knew little about it before then. Lucky me!

Me & Permanent Varzea Residents

Me & Permanent Varzea Residents

The course itself was run at Varzea da Gonçala, a lovely small holding just outside Aljezur in the Algarve, and set in a valley (hence the lack of phone reception), not too far from the Atlantic. The Varzea operates on permaculture principles, producing its own fruit, vegetables, and eggs, and they have chickens and pigs to help work and feed the land. It is important to the people who  live and work there to demonstrate that permaculture is effective for everyone, and that it really works. It is why they have called their website ‘I Can Feed Myself’, to underline the point. Chris and Kris, who run it, along with the people who work with them, are excellent hosts and teachers. We also had  amazing food for our stay.

Feast Fit for a King at the Varzea

Feast Fit for a King (Our Last Night)

We ate like kings, with everything from jacket potatoes, to lasagne, to beautiful fresh salads of rocket, mustards, chard, lettuces, fresh herbs, nasturtium leaves and flowers, borage, peppers, you name it. I may not have sown these seeds, but I definitely got my hands dirty to tend to them, so these will form part of the 52 week salad challenge for me, and I don’t feel like it is cheating. The food was fantastic, prepared with love, and was so fresh.

Peter Cow Giving a Lecture

Teacher!

Our main tutor was Peter Cow, who runs Living in Circles, and there were sessions from other permaculturalists, including the people who live on the Varzea.

The Big Guy really couldn’t have chosen a better course. We learned about the principles of permaculture, and the design method, as well as putting it to practical use. I got to play with the compost and do some gardening, and I have learned some valuable skills. Peter is also keen on applying permaculture to the wider world, as well as the personal one. I will admit that I was not really looking forward to this, but I actually found it immensely useful. I have been able to get a different perspective on a couple of things, which have been holding me back in many ways.

The group of people I was on the course with were also brilliant. I have never worked with a group that was so on track, and with no little fighting and falling out, despite being such vastly different people.  Each of them brought a lot of different knowledge to the course, and it was so great to share this with everyone. One guy also lives in the same town as me, so I hope that we can continue to meet and maybe do some digging together!

Making a Wooden Spoon

Spooning!

We even practiced some new skills – both on the course, and in the breaks. As well as learning about swale construction, and building a stackwall. I got an insight into perspective in drawing, which has inspired me to give sketching a go – something I never felt equipped to do before. I helped to teach others how to make pasta. I even know how to make a wooden spoon. I’m just putting the finishing touches to one, albeit that it was produced with a little help from my friends. I really feel like I came away a craftswoman.

Constructing a Stackwall from Cordwood

Constructing a Stackwall from Cordwood

In fact, I have been so inspired by the course, I am trying to expand my use of permaculture and permaculture design. I have some plans for friends’ balconies – and before any of those said friends start to panic, don’t worry, permaculture has a lot to do with water catchment and no-dig, so you won’t become slaves to your pot plants. I am planning to implement my own polyveg system in my own garden, and I will be blogging about it here. I had intended to start a new blog for the gardening stuff (and had a great name lined up…) but the idea of permaculture is that you should take advantage of and increase beneficial relationships, and to me there is no better relationship than that between food and food production. So I am going to capture it here, and try to expand the communities of interest that could talk to each other. I am even going to try and design myself into a new career and direction, but I need a bit more work on that.

Finished Stackwall

Look What We Made!

Peter runs and collaborates on a number of permaculture courses, all of the details of which are available on his website. He is also really in tune with group dynamics and very skilled at getting very different people to work together and gel. You might like to go along to a course, or ask him to teach at one of yours.

Drying Homemade Pasta (No Pasta Machine)

Look What Else We Made!

The Varzea also offer a range of courses, as well as holiday accommodation and camping, for groups, individuals or families. You can get hands-on experience and teaching in permaculture practice. As well as having access to delicious, organic food from the land that they work. An ideal get away from the petrochemical farming and urban landscapes we have come to know, I really cannot recommend this place enough, not to mention the hospitality and the welcome you will enjoy here.

I hope that you will also come to share my enthusiasm for permaculture, and share the fruits of my labour (and the recipes that they inspire). Thanks for coming this far.

Contacts for Varzea da Gonçala

Contacts for Peter Cow

NB: I do not represent, nor am I being paid to blog about the permaculture course,or the Varzea.  I am just so enthused by the experience, and the people I met that I wanted to blog about it.

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You’ve Neva Had it So Good

Cafe Restaurant Neva reminds me of a Hanna Barbera hero, such as Hong Kong Phooey. By day, it is a mild-mannered cafe that serves the Hermitage museum in Amsterdam,  but by night it is transformed into a modern European fine dining restaurant, fighting hunger and exciting the palates of the well-heeled.

Well, actually, having never eaten there before, I may be understating the lunch fare. It is done by the same company, so the sandwiches could be every bit as magical as the evening dinner.

This was our penultimate venue for restaurant week, and it was a real treat. And after this restaurant week, I have revised my view of Dutch service. Without exception, every place we went to was friendly, helpful and pleasant. No sharp words or blunt answers.Thank you for making me confront my prejudices, waiters of restaurant week, I apologise and I salute you all.

I also have to admit to being a bit too intimidated to use a flash to take the photos, which is the reason for the substandard photos for this post, but the food was so good I didn’t want to avoid writing this up for the sake of the photography. It is hardly as though I am David Bailey everywhere else on this site in any case. If any of you have any tips on overcoming shyness in using flash in the low lighting of a restaurant, please let me know.

Anyway, back to Neva. The food here was both clever and delicious. It had the right amount of a nod to modern cuisine, with some surprising touches, without being too fussy. Although they did like a good foam. I think every dish had some of one variety or another.

Baby Leeks With Trout Eggs and a Buttermilk Dressing

Baby Leeks With Trout Eggs and a Buttermilk Dressing

The Big Guy, being Swedish, loves fish eggs, from Beluga caviar right through to Kalle’s Kaviar. As soon as I saw this on the menu, I knew that there was no way that he would have anything else. He loved it, and wolfed it down really quickly. I may have mentioned that he is not a man of superlatives, but he certainly seemed very happy with it. It was matched with an excellent Czech  Riesling. If you have never tried Czech wines, this is an excellent place to start, it is a light and fresh Riesling, but with all the required fruit.

Mackerel Ceviche with Cucumber Textures

Mackerel Ceviche with Cucumber Textures

This plate was as pretty as a picture, but it wasn’t a small dish. The cucumber textures were foam, sorbet, pickled, a mayonnaise with horseradish, meringue, and tiny cucumber microgreens. The foam worked really well in this context, delivering an intensity of flavour that plain cucumber doesn’t. The microgreens were lovely. I have been getting into microgreens a lot of late, as they are an easy way to do the 52 week salad challenge, especially in the winter months when it is hard to stop legginess. To my knowledge, none of the saladchatters has had a go at growing this one yet, but I have recommended it.

The meringue was savoury, and was salty, which was surprising. I hadn’t thought of making savoury meringues before, but I will play around with this, because I often have leftover egg whites, due to my custard addiction.

The only criticism I have about the dish is that mackerel was really more sashimi than ceviche, it was definitely not marinated in citrus juice. That said, it was very skilfully filleted and presented, so that you only got the most delicate flesh and no blood line. If it were any fresher, I may have had to slap it.

Oxtail Ragout with Celeriac

Oxtail Ragout with Celeriac

This is what the Big Guy had for his main. The celariac was in the gnocchi, the foam and as a pickle. It was a little light on the ragout of oxtail, which served as a background flavour, rather than the star of the dish. Despite this, it was fresh and lovely, with a juiciness being added by the pickle. The Big Guy says he could definitely eat it again.

Grey Mullet with Fennel in Bouillabaise Jus

Grey Mullet with Fennel in Bouillabaisse Jus

More foam on this one, this time it was fennel. I was much more interested in the fennel cream, which was really good; intensely aniseed, but with the lovely fresh greenness of herb fennel. It also cut through the bouillabaisse sauce really well. I loved this dish, it was really well cooked and well-balanced. I love fennel though, and this would definitely be a problem if you didn’t like it.

We both had the caramelised white chocolate cheesecake with chocolate rocks and blood orange sorbet for dessert, but we were far too eager to tuck in to take pictures, which is almost a shame because the presentation was a feast for the eyes. That paled into insignificance when we tasted it. Goodness me was this good. I would not normally choose white chocolate on a menu, but this was more like toffee, or the fudge you get when you boil a tin of condensed milk. The chocolate rocks were dark and crumbly, as I like them. The sorbet sounded odd in the mix, but was a revelation. It wasn’t sharp, but neither was it too sweet, and cut through the rich cheesecake.  For me, this was the highlight of the meal. Utterly delicious.

We rounded off the meal with a coffee and a herbal tea. With this, we also received a complimentary tin of petit fours and biscuits, all of which were very well made. It is touches like this that, for me, demonstrate the care that goes into making a meal out a real experience. And that is what an evening meal at Neva really is, from the extra touches, the friendly staff to the excellent food. Not to mention the beautiful surrounding of the Hermitage museum.

Outside of Restaurant week, they offer a three course theatre menu for €29, and a 4-6 course tasting menu for €42-59.

I think that the theatre menu is a bargain, and would definitely recommend a visit if you are going to the Carré or the Music Theatre. And I think that the tasting menu would be great for a special occasion too.

Cafe Restaurant Neva

Amstel 51

1018 DR Amsterdam

T: +31 (0)20 5307483

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This Tum’s For Hire: Last Night We Were Dining in the Dark

Ctaste dining room

View From the Best Table in the House

Apologies for the terrible punnage in the title of today’s post, but since my friend booked us a table for four at Ctaste for restaurant week, I have been unable to get Bruce Springsteen’s earworm out of my head.

Ctaste is one of several restaurants globally in which patrons dine in the dark. In some of these restaurants, the waiters are equipped with night goggles, but the one in Amsterdam employs visually impaired waiting staff. I found the concept really interesting, and was excited to go along, because I thought it would be a good test of my palate.

You start off in a lit conservatory, where you have the concept explained to you, and you get to choose from a meat, fish, meat and fish or vegetarian menu, and whether you would like wine or beer matching. Three of us chose the vegetarian option, and the Big Guy had the meat. Most of the party also had the wine matching, but one of us chose the beer option. The staff were also careful to check for any allergies that diners may have.

From here, we were ushered through several curtains into the very dark main dining room. You hold onto the shoulders of your waiter and fellow diners in a crocodile formation. It is surprisingly disorientating.

Once seated, the waiters check which of the party are having which options for food and wine, so that they can get a handle on the seating. When you think about it , it is pretty obvious that it should be the person who requires the meat or the beer option who says this to the waiter, but actually we all instinctively chimed in and started pointing. I am sure this isn’t helpful, but the waiters are very patient, and allow you to work this out for yourself.

Once that had been sorted, an appetiser quickly appeared. It was obviously a smoked mousse of some kind, but none of us could pinpoint exactly what it was. Our best guesses were either Jerusalem artichoke or aubergine. We would not be allowed to learn exactly what it was until the end of the meal, when we would be back in the lit area. This is so that other diners do not hear what they are about to have, and ruin the concept for them.

Starters came with a nice, really fruity white wine. Unfortunately, I didn’t check what they were at the end of the meal, but my best guess on it was that it was a Riesling of some kind. I didn’t try the beer, but it seemed to be a blonde beer, according to my friend.

The starters themselves were pickled cucumber rolls, stuffed with goats cheese, apple & celery; and the meat one was a beef and beetroot carpaccio. Both were served with a rocket and pak choy salad, with honey and a herb vinaigrette. We thought it was rosemary.

The main was accompanied by an ordinary red, possibly a Cabernet Sauvignon. Beer was seemingly a witbier of some kind.

The Big Guy identified his main as beef. Us veggies found a portabello mushroom stuffed with blue cheese. Again, both courses had a mushroom risotto, haricots verts and roasted parsnips, carrots, onions and pumpkin. As we were finding that it was necessary to use at least one hand, so that you can feel the whereabouts of the food on the plate, it was a good thing that the food was warm, but not too hot. Interestingly, the meat and the vegetable courses came on different shaped plates each time, but I guess that is an adaptation for the waiters rather than the diners.

Then followed a pre dessert. It was an extraordinarily rich chocolate mousse, with flecks of real chocolate on the top. At the bottom there was a chiffonade. At first, the flavour doesn’t come through, but you can feel the texture. I was wondering whether this was desiccated coconut when suddenly a herbal flavour flooded my mouth. I decided that this was mint.

Dessert caused the biggest split in opinion. We all found pineapple and a lemon cheesecake. One of us found butterscotch, I definitely got banana (which I cannot stand), and there was a general disagreement over the ice cream. I thought rum & raisin, and there were also mutterings of strawberry.The wine was a muscat, and the beer was said to be a honeyed variety.

The fact that you are in the dark, and have to rely on your taste more than your sight is really a conversation piece. It is also interesting how the room seems to get larger when there are more people in the room, but somehow seems to shrink when guests leave. It’s a pretty bizarre phenomenon.

The waiting staff here were also great, very friendly, and keen to stay and have a chat. We had a little bit of a cultural exchange, as our waitress wanted to hear us say nine hundred and ninety nine in Dutch (it has a lot of g sounds in it, so is often hard to pronounce correctly for foreigners). In return, she did a pretty good rendition of seven hundred and seventy seven in Swedish, with several similarly hard to pronounce ‘whuo’ sounds. That is two for two on the friendly and helpful staff stakes. Either I have been dining at the wrong establishments all this time, or I am about to come down with a crash in the remaining restaurant week bookings. We shall see.

We rounded the meal off with a liqueur coffee and the remainder of our four glasses of wine, which we were allowed to choose from the previous three; before being escorted gingerly back out to the lit area to learn what we had actually eaten that night.

We got most of it correct. The appetiser was actually smoked carrot. The dressing was balsamic vinaigrette with the starter. The Big Guy failed to identify that his main also came with smoked duck breast and a port sauce. The cheese with the mushroom was actually a camembert, and not a blue cheese as we had suspected. The mushroom in the risotto was chanterelle, and was given as a chanterelle and parmesan risotto. I think this is slightly pedantic, since parmesan is a key ingredient in any risotto anyway, but nevertheless, it was an ingredient which we did not specifically name. The herb in the pre dessert was actually basil. I think I tasted mint because it is the herb that one normally associates with chocolate, so it shows how much tradition and familiarity can influence what you think about food. I find this really fascinating.

The dessert was actually lemon cheesecake, with pineapple pieces, a banana fudge, and a blueberry pie ice cream, which was the most surprising. They had used dried blueberries, which I had thought were raisins, but their flavour was masked by the sweet crumble of the pie crust. I don’t think I would have got that it was blueberry pie if I had nothing else to identify for the whole meal, so there you go.

As it was restaurant week, the 3 course dinner was €27.50, but is normally €39.50. The wine matching was €12.50, which is pretty good value for 4 glasses of wine, although two of the three kinds were pretty standard wines. The beer matching was €8.50.

Overall, it was a fascinating experience, and the food was good. The waiters were excellent – attentive, friendly and helpful, which is to be lauded in any case, but they certainly felt more welcoming than many waiting staff in this city. I can definitely recommend giving this a go to challenge yourself, test your perceptions and to have a good meal.

ctaste
Amsteldijk 55
1074 HX Amsterdam
Tel: +31-(0)6 22335366

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Fed at Restaurant As

Searching for Utopia, Apollolaan, Amsterdam

Seek, or Stumble Upon, and Ye Shall Find!

This week is restaurant week in the Netherlands. This twice yearly event is a great opportunity to find and try out new restaurants, as well as revisit some classics, without denting your wallet too much.

On Tuesday, I ventured south for some new discoveries. Firstly, I happened across this huge golden turtle being ridden by a man in an Elvis suit (the Vegas years). I only discovered it because I’ve managed to wrench my arm, and I was on the tram. Had I been using my usual form of transport (bike) I would actually have come a different way. A bit of a google later, and I have discovered that this is “Searching for Utopia”, by Jan Fabre, and apparently the man in the Elvis suit is the artist himself. It was a part of the last biennial artzuid sculpture trail. Apparently, the locals love it so much, that they are having a bit of a whip round so that the can purchase it. I really quite like this idea, and I hope they get to keep the sculpture. Sadly, this is quite far off the beaten track for many tourists, but the locals clearly enjoy it.

The second discovery was As, on the border of the Beatrix Park. Set in a circular room, and set up like a wheel, this is a restaurant that trades on its sustainable principles. I went along with a group of friends to take advantage of the restaurant week deal. It also meant that I could eat meat in this restaurant.

I may have mentioned before that I am not a vegetarian, but I do not really eat a lot of meat. There are many reasons for this, which include climate change, waste and welfare concerns, not to mention cost. When I do eat meat (in which I include fish – nothing irritates me more than asking for a veggie option and being offered a tuna sandwich, it brings out the worst in me, and I become really scathing) it has to be sustainable. I often describe myself as a fussitarian, because I hold the principles of local, seasonal, and sustainable food dear. This is not to say that I am difficult to feed, far from it. If I am a guest, I will eat whatever is put in front of me, but when I have a choice, I like to choose wild game, freshwater fish (not farmed), or organic meat. This is because welfare and environmental concerns are important to me. If I can not get this, I will simply eat vegetarian. I mostly eat veggie food at home too.

The set menu at As had a meat or a veggie option, and they were very happy to accommodate one of us who couldn’t eat cheese. There were four courses to choose from, or you could have all four.The waiting staff were also very friendly and patient. I arrived late due to a snarl up with the trams, but this did not really phase the waiter, neither did the fact that we stayed chatting and left long after the other lunch time patrons. Service in Holland can often be abrupt, and pretty blunt, so it was a really pleasant change to be helped through our choices, and not to be snapped at.

We chose to have three courses, and forewent the starter of a red cabbage, beet and red onion salad. Instead we had the fish course, main and dessert. I think this was a great choice, since I am not at all keen on beetroot, and I object to the habit of putting raw onion into lunch time meals. Who wants to go breathing onion fumes on friends and colleagues for the rest of the day?

Crab Ravioli with Lemon Oil

Crab Ravioli with Lemon Oil

(c) A. Dawe 2012

Of course, I managed to forget my camera, but luckily there were no shortage of smart phones, so my friends were happy to help out with shots.

We started with ravioli of crab. This was a good dish, they used the white meat only, and made a stuffing with this and some very finely chopped carrots and fennel. The pasta was thin, and the sliced raw fennel on the top was a great accompaniment. It sat in a very well done bisque, that was not too overpowering  and oily, as some of them can be. It was very well-balanced, the only thing that I could not detect was the lemon oil, but it didn’t matter.

Duck Leg, Braised in Chimay & Mustard

Duck Leg, Braised in Chimay & Mustard

(c) A. Dawe 2012

The main course was just beautiful. It was an excellently braised organic duck leg, which was neither too dry or too fatty. The braise was Chimay beer and mustard, which was subtle, and really brought out an almost smoky quality in the duck. Served on white beans, leeks and delicately cooked cabbage, I could have eaten two of these. A truly excellent dish. And my friend took a great photo of it too, which is no easy task for brown food!

We were talking and enjoying the food so much that we didn’t get a photo of the dessert. Most of us had an Eccles cake served with a wedge of Lancashire cheese. It sounded odd, but actually worked well. The cheese was a very good Lancashire, which was sourced from the UK. A little surprising, considering the Dutch love of their own cheese, but actually the crumbly texture and the sourness was a good foil for the Eccles cake. I have not yet come across a similar Dutch cheese, so this was a good choice.

One friend had a slice of pecan pie, which looked a lot more like a treacle tart to me, as there were more rich, treacley breadcrumbs than pecan nuts. However, I am not American, and not all that familiar with this dessert, so it could be that this is a more normal incarnation of the dish than the one that I tried. In any case, she enjoyed it, and it was good that they were accommodating for her.

With a good atmosphere, even for a lunch time, and lovely waiting staff, we really enjoyed our meal at As, and the food sang for itself. I like the restaurant a lot, and will definitely be back.

As with all restaurants participating in restaurant week, the lunch was €22.50 for three courses, but I will be interested to see what sort of prices they have for à la carte.

At first, I thought s was an odd name for a restaurant, but it turns out that unlike most places you are not left thinking “as if” about any part of the experience!

Restaurant As
Prinses Irenestraat 19
1077 WT Amsterdam

T: 020 6440100

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Perusing the Prahran Market, Melbourne

Prahran Market Stalls

Plenty

I do love a good food market. On our recent trip to Australia, we found ourselves in the Prahran market in Melbourne. It is the oldest market in Australia, although, of course, other markets are available.

The stalls heave with fruits and vegetables. There are butchers and fishmongers, organic stalls and delis, cafés and street food. There are specialist stalls for wine, coffee, tea, chocolate, ice cream, pasta, asian products, you name it.

If it weren’t for the Big Guy’s relatively low capacity for putting up with my geekery (well, we did manage to stay here a good couple of hours, so perhaps that is a little harsh…), I could stay in a place like this all day, wandering around, sampling the produce, chatting to people, and planning meals from all the things I found.

Instead, we purchased some items for a good lunch, and some more of the lovely summer fruits that were in season. These included some small pears, the name of which I forgot to note down, but they were delicious. Really sweet, and not at all grainy, like larger pears can sometimes be.

Pacific Oysters from Prahran Markets

A Well-Earned Breakfast

We also picked up a dozen Native Oysters. I first tried oysters about ten years ago, when I shared a dozen with a boy I was trying to impress (this was about a year before I met the Big Guy). My love of oysters has lasted far longer than that particular infatuation!

I enjoy oysters from all over the globe, especially when I happen to find some on a beach forage. But Native Oysters are really the best, as they are creamier and meatier than their North Sea counterpart. I prefer them raw as opposed to grilled with a topping, like in Oysters Rockerfeller, or Kilpatrick. I just feel that this is gilding the lily, and something this good does not really need embellishment further than a squeeze of lemon, or a splash of champagne, if you want to push the boat out!

I have already mentioned the importance of checking out your seafood before you buy it. Our oceans are a precious resource, and currently, they are being exploited horribly, with no real eye to the future of fish stocks, or the fishing industry itself. Damaging catch methods are putting species at risk, as well as destroying the habitat where they live and breed, and catching fish and sea mammals that were not the intended catch, meaning that they are thrown back, often dead or dying. It is so important to make sure that you are not adding to the problem and supporting these practices by eating unsustainably harvested fish.

Luckily, like a lot of shellfish (but not all), the oysters are sustainably managed and harvested.  As are the Blue Mussels that we also picked up, along with the rest of the ingredients for this tasty little lunch:

Mussels with Pasta

Market Dinner

Recipe: Mussels Pasta

Ingredients

1 kg mussels

Glass of white wine

1 garlic clove, minced with a little salt

1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

A little oil for frying

Juice and zest of one lemon

Bunch chervil, finely chopped

Bunch tarragon, leaves removed from stalks and finely chopped

Bunch parsley, finely chopped

2 serves linguine, fresh from the Pasta Shop, if you are in Melbourne

Method

Prepare the mussels. Remove the “beard”, which is the green fibrous stuff at the pointy end, it will come away if you tug it. Of course, with any shellfish, you need to be sure that you are getting them alive. If any of the shells are cracked, then discard them. I hate waste, but not even I will mess with this one, because dead mussels decay quickly, and you risk a nasty case of food poisoning. If any of the shells are open, give them a sharp tap on the counter. If they do not close,  then discard them. Give them all a good rinse, to eliminate any grit, but don’t leave them soaking in fresh water, because they may die.

Prepare the herbs, lemon, chilli and garlic. If you have dried pasta, you will need to get this going now, and cook according to packet instructions. Get it to the point where it has five minutes left to cook before you move onto the mussels.

We got fresh pasta from the Pasta Shop in the market, if you are using fresh pasta, just get the pot of salted water on a rolling boil. It is fine to cheat, and boil the water in a kettle beforehand.

Heat a little oil in a large pan, and fry the garlic and chilli in it for a couple of minutes, until the scent fills the air. Add the mussels, wine lemon juice, herbs and zest to the pan. Cover and allow to cook.

If you are using fresh pasta, then add it to the boiling water now.

When the pasta (either variety) is finished, drain, but keep some of the cooking water. Add the pasta to the mussels, which should mostly all be open by now. Give it a good stir around for a minute or two on the hob. If the mixture is dry, add some of the pasta water, although I would try to avoid this if possible. The liquor in the pan is aniseedy and soupy from the herbs, and you risk diluting its delicate flavour.

Have a quick check for any mussels that have not opened. There is  some debate as to whether these are safe to eat, but I really think that the risk is not worth it. I recommend that you discard any unopened mussels.

Serve in deep bowls, making sure that you get a good ladleful of the herby juice in each bowl.

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The Farm Café, Melbourne

The Farm Café, Melbourne

Lovely Outdoor Eating

The Farm Café is located at the Collingwood Children’s Farm, on the banks of the Yarra river. It is a beautiful spot, whether or not you have children. The cafe is situated to one end of the farm, and it does not overlook the main area where the larger animals are, so you don’t have to come into direct contact with them if that is not your thing.

It is actually very close to the city, although we reached it via the Yarra Trail on bikes. The trail feels like you are out in the countryside, as does the cafe and the farm itself. You get a lovely view of the Yarra river, and the surrounding trees as you eat impeccably sourced, mostly very local, organic, homemade food. The staff are very friendly, and the atmosphere relaxed. It goes without saying that the café is family friendly, but there are also enough smaller tables for two to catch those who may not have children.

They try to make everything at the café, even the chai tea, from what I can make out. I had two pots, which were beautifully spiced with cinnamon, but also citrus peel, and fennel seeds. I am going to be playing about with a mixture of my own, to try to recreate this lovely blend. If I can get it right, I will share it here.

Anyway, onto the food. It was a tough choice, as there were very many items on the menu that I would have quite happily eaten, especially after the two hour cycle that had preceded it.

Farmer's Breakfast at the Farm Café

Farmer's Breakfast

The Big Guy ordered the Farmer’s Breakfast, which is a take on the Full English (Or Full Aussie, I guess), with homemade beef sausages, a  tomato chutney, and a herby potato cake as the point of difference. The eggs were well poached – still soft, but not too runny. The sausages were really good – meaty and balanced, just very small. The potato cake was tasty, but was bound with egg, which did make the texture a little pappy. The real star was the chutney, well spiced, yet subtle, and the tomato really sang in it. A great version of the all day breakfast classic.

Grass Is Greener at Farm Café

The Grass Is Greener

I chose a dish that really was called The Grass is Greener, and as you can see, there was no grass, but the plate was several shades of green. Seasonal asparagus is one of my favourites. The Black Russian tomatoes were not too sweet, and a good heirloom variety. Unfortunately, being in a place where they can grow avocados and pick them ripe has ruined the European versions for me forever. There was a delicate herb salad of dill, parsley and chervil, dressed with good quality sunflower oil that was just perfect. The mayonnaise was pistachio, homemade and really, really good. The dish is not complicated, but it uses quality ingredients, doesn’t muck about with them, and just lets their natural flavour really sing.

We couldn’t resist desserts either.

Chocolate Brownie at Farm Café

Obvious Choice for the Big Guy

The Big Guy will always go for the chocolate choice on any dessert menu, so of course, he had the brownie. Chocolate and Hazelnut. He said it was nice, but he is not really a man of many superlatives, so we can assume that is a good thing. He would definitely have been quick to judge faults.

Salted Caramel Peanut Slice at Farm Café

An interesting choice for me

I had the salted caramel peanut slice.  The shortbread on it was lovely. I could probably have done with slightly fewer peanuts and slightly more caramel, but it was very good, and well-balanced between salt and sweet, which I like a lot. It was also a great accompaniment to that second pot of chai.

Reasonably priced, very well sourced,  well made food and in a lovely location. The Farm Café is well worth seeking out if you are in Melbourne, the locals shouldn’t be able to keep this to themselves!

The Farm Café

18 St Heliers Street

Abbotsford VIC 3067

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Fed at Chinese Noodle Restaurant

Dinner at the Chinese Noodle Restaurant, Sidney

Noodles for you

This is apparently a bit of a Sydney institution. Nestled among other similar asian eateries under a load of escalators up to a shopping centre is the Chinese Noodle Restaurant. Famous for its brusque service, especially during busy periods, the staff will not think twice about asking you to move, mid-meal to shuffle things around a bit to enable them to accommodate a group that has just arrived.

They have a lady at the door who waves you to a seat. You may have to queue a little while, but no-one steps out of line, thanks to her abrupt style. I am told that there was an older lady who would shout at you, and took no nonsense from the students and after hours crowd that this restaurant is popular with, but she seems to have retired, so we didn’t get to meet her. However, we were treated to the gentleman at the door giving us a little violin concerto, which started with happy birthday (as far as I could make out, it was no-one’s birthday in the restaurant), and jingle bells, before moving onto what sounded more traditional eastern music.

Violin playing host at the Noodle restaurant, Sydney

Our violin-playing host

The tiny interior is decorated with interesting tapestries, and the ceiling is adorned in the traditional style… with a plastic grape vine! You can watch them make their noodles by hand through a small window into the kitchen. You get a pot of tea as you are seated, but you can also bring your own if you want alcohol. The place buzzes with the chatter of the patrons and the shouts of the usher at the door. I found it fascinating, then, that orders are placed by the waiting team in a much quieter voice, delivered just outside the kitchen door, but with a cupped hand around their mouth. Given how frantic the kitchen looks through that tiny window, there must be an interesting acoustic quirk of the restaurant for everyone to be able to the right orders, which they do.

The style is Northern Chinese, and you can choose from the hand-made noodles (with or without soup) steamed, boiled or fried dumplings, and some interesting looking pancakes. There were three of us that went, and we chose egg and chive fried dumplings, vegetarian noodles, seafood noodles, and an amazing dish that they describe as braised aubergine. As far as I could tell, it had been braised in soy and garlic, but it was so good. I am sure it is one of those dishes that I will never be able to reproduce at home.You get to make your own strength dipping sauce from fiery dried chilli, black vinegar and soy sauce, I guess that way there is no complaints if it is too hot.

The bill for this was just $4o, and the food was far too much for us to eat in one sitting. Luckily, the team are happy to have the table clear quickly, so there are never any objections if you want to take the rest of your meal home to finish off later, and it returns to you boxed and ready in mere seconds.

Great value, a great atmosphere – people really do enjoy the abruptness, and they are right to – and great food. Locals tell me that you should beware of close-by imitators, and go for the real thing at the Chinese Noodle Restaurant every time.

Chinese Noodle Restaurant
Shop TG7, Prince Centre, 8 Quay Street Haymarket
Tel: 02 9281 9051

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