About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Sunday, March 27, 2011
Flathead Birregurra Style

Exactly what constitutes Australian cuisine is a conundrum that has exercised the minds of many of this country's finest food writers, bringing about seminal works from Cherry Ripe (Goodbye Culinary Cringe) and Michael Symons (One Continuous Picnic). Even English chef, television star and cookbook author, Rick Stein has had a go at defining our food and is now encouraging us to think about the topic via a competition linked to his Australian tour.

The fundamental issue for the lack of distinctive dishes seems to stem from the relatively late discovery and colonisation of Australia, meaning that we haven't had much time to develop anything uniquely our own, much hampered by the relative dearth of native ingredients, especially edible plants, though there are some cracking ingredients to be had, saltbush lamb, morel mushrooms and an entire coastline worth of seafood.

As Symons argues, due to the increasing industrialisation of the food supply since the early 20th century, all we've pretty much got to call our own is the meat pie, which, like some of the early arrivals to this country, has some fairly dubious origins. But a meat pie isn't about cuisine, it's more about context. What could be more Australian than going to the footy and clutching a pie, hurling earthy witticisms at your opponents, whilst madly urging your team on?

Perhaps part of the problem in our inability to develop really distinctive dishes lies in hesitating to adapt non-indigenous produce in the mistaken belief that it won't result in food with an Australian identity. But try telling a Spaniard, for example, that tortilla de patatas simply isn't Spanish because the main ingredient, potato, originally comes from some far off country and he'd smack you over the head with a giant jamón.

However, could you ever imagine a tortilla made without the use of olive oil? The olive's contribution, that slight grassy herbaceousness which elevates the ordinary to sublime, would be lost. What really makes tortilla a Spanish icon is not the use of potato, but the way in which it's combined with a few simple quality ingredients, then carefully cooked to perfection.

In this country, one thing we do so well is combine, it's the beating heart of our multicultural society. While there may not be that many unique dishes, there's most definitely a subtle style all our own, bringing together influences from the four corners of the globe and putting them together in new, interesting and surprising ways.

photo Elliot Rubenstein

What would our jamón wielding Spaniard think of this dish for instance? A simple layered salad of tomatoes, Manchego cheese and roasted peppers topped with roasted almonds and anchovy stuffed olives, anointed with olive oil and sherry vinegar. You can practically see the Spanish flag fluttering in the breeze, but the truth is, this dish was thought up and brought to life right here in Melbourne, though looking like it burst straight from the bustling centre of Madrid.

George Biron of Sunnybrae restaurant in Birregurra knows a thing or two about food and different cultures and his cooking is the perfect illustration of an evolving cuisine.

In a recent lunch, there was salad of avocado, tomatillo and tomato dressed with lime juice, another dish of sugar cured ocean trout with pickled turnips, aptenia and marsh samphire plus a watermelon and garlic salad with pomegranates, all outstanding and all with something to say about a light fresh Australian style, but with the sole exception of the marsh samphire, all the other ingredients' spiritual homes lay in lands far distant, but have had their permanent resident visas granted by the hand of Biron.

Birregurra, in the Western district of Victoria, is a bit of a foodie hotspot and a wonderfully relaxed place to get away from it all. We have delighted overseas visitors with its country charm, located as it is close to the edge of the magnificent Otways and short drive to the spectacular coastline of the Great Ocean Road fame. It was here that I turned on its head the much loved Aussie turf 'n' surf concept, whereby a choice piece of meat is garnished with some prime seafood.

Why not have some top notch seafood with a meat garnish instead?

That fish can handle strong flavours is unrefuted. Think of aromatic Asian fish curries or sassy Italian sauces of tomato and garlic, rich with seafood pieces shining through. Despite its apparent delicateness, most seafood relishes the challenge of bedding down with dominant flavours and does so with aplomb. Even the more fragrant herbs like rosemary and thyme make great partners. But bunging a piece of eye fillet atop a beautiful fish just isn't on, it calls for a more restrained hand.

Flathead are a quintessential Australian fish. Very easy to catch and a fallback option when other species aren't biting. It's a rite-of-passage to get stung by the razor sharp modified gill covers as the fish wriggles violently as you try to handle it. But aside from that, flathead are one of the best eating fish we have, sweetly moist and flaky. There are some pesky, fine rib bones, however, clever fishmongers have developed a special way of removing them and the remaining fillets are known as flathead tails.

The choice of meat is really quite easy, some lovely ham gets the job done nicely; spiced and rolled hams like Ukranian ham or small pancetta are excellent choices, but any quality ham from a specialist smallgoods maker would do the trick.

Flathead Birregurra Style
(serves 4)

extra virgin olive oil
200g spiced & rolled ham or plain ham, cut into thin strips
2 stalks rosemary, leaves stripped and chopped
1 tablespoon capers in brine, drained, chopped if large (optional)
glass of dry white or rose wine
1kg flathead tails, or other chunky white boneless fish fillets
salt and fresh ground pepper
few stalks fresh thyme, leaves stripped from 1 stalk
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
lemon wedges

In a frypan, gently heat some olive oil and gently sweat the pancetta and rosemary. Add the capers (if using) and the glass of wine. Scrape any sediment into the liquid and reduce slightly. Season the flathead tails and place them in a baking dish. Evenly pour over the pancetta/rosemary mixture, sprinkle over the thyme leaves and tuck the thyme stalks amongst the fish. Loosely cover with foil or baking paper and cook in a preheated oven (180c) for about 15 minutes. Insert a knife into the fish to check they're done, sprinkle over the parsley and drizzle with some extra virgin olive oil and serve with a wedge of lemon. Make sure everyone gets some of the delicious juices.

Rick Stein Food Odyssey Live On Stage
  posted at 4:15 pm

At 6:16 pm, Anonymous kitchen hand said...

Chiko Roll? Fish Finger? Vegemite sandwich?

At 7:57 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi kitchen hand, Haven't had a chiko roll in like forever, but the other two are on regular rotation in our house. You've summed up Australian cuisine brilliantly, let's go get a beer.

At 2:08 pm, Anonymous kitchen hand said...

You've reminded me - the pub-style $10 parma might be the quintessential Australian dish, far removed from its Italian roots.

At 8:47 am, Blogger neil said...

Well since we have completely renamed the parmigiana, there's absolutely no reason not to claim it as our own. Wonder if we could get a D.O.C. before the Italians.

At 10:04 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Neil, really enjoyed you post and I think you nailed the 'Aussie-ness' of our contribution to world food. Interesting that you mention the Spanish influence. many people I know say places like MoVida, bar lourinha and other similar places do the best Tapas they have eaten, even in Spain.
I think we cherry-pick and interpret very well, distilling the most important aspect of a dish or at least the bit that interests us, to let it shine. The only thing that we can never copy is the sense of place and time, the terroir that seperates the orginal from the copy.

At 8:43 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi steve, what makes us Australian, not just to mention the food is the old chestnut.

Beating the Poms at cricket is certainly defining, but I wonder if we haven't inherited the English attitude towards food, from a time when it didn't seem to be all that important. Perhaps rebelling against our Anglo-Saxoness is what has been leading us these past 40 or so years as we embraced more of the Continental foods as well as those of our nearest Asian neighbours.

At 9:35 pm, Blogger Elliot and Sandra said...

Hi Neil,
Superb post.
You might like to read a pertinent chapter "Towards an Australian Cuisine" in Barbara Santich's readily available book Looking for Flavour.
She makes the interesting point that, in the Old World new ingredients were modified by their cooking techniques whilst in Australia "'new' ingredients are indigenous and it is culinary traditions that are imported".

At 8:42 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi elliot, I've heard about Barbara Santich but will now look out for her book. I can definitely see what she's on about, the lack of a locak cuisine seems to lie somewhere between indigenous ingredients and imported culinary traditions. Maybe, just maybe, we are on the cusp of a new Australian cuisine.

At 9:10 pm, Blogger Elliot and Sandra said...

Hi Neil
Communication is so efficient now that food technology and cooking innovation has almost instantaneously become the province of all. As such it seems to me to be very unlikely that we will develop something especially Australian. I am constantly surprised about how wrong my predictions are though, so you may be right. I wish.

At 11:01 am, Anonymous Johanna said...

Do you know what? I think that pizza has almost become our own. What better blanck canvas is a pizza bread smeared and topped by what ever 'aussieness'we feel like at the time? Delicious!

At 10:09 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi elliot, I just have the feeling there is something uniquely ours, but because we do quite a lot of interpretations of overseas dishes, it's hard to see just what is dinkum. Time will out.

Hi johanna, pinching pizza as our own reminds us of our convict past...


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