A Mexican harpist walks into a bar…

Victor Valdes – harpist extraordinaire

It’s been ages, ain’t it, mes blog-amis. With so very, very little occurring since last we rendezvous-ed (for me anyway – I’m sure you’ve been leading fabulously full and stimulating lives, particularly Gosstronomy’s Michael Shafran, who seems to have finally cracked the bagel – which is not a sexual euphemism, although would that it were…). Congratulations, Michael – I look forward to a proper chew soon.

Two weeks of man-flu to start the month (I’m the one who gets it in our household, naturally), coughing up my lungs watching the DVD set of series one of Homeland. Just the ticket – in much the same way as the dressage was last year during the London Olympics (although Homeland was less stressful and has way better music), when I was last hammered courtesy of the transmission of bodily fluids by someone I’ve never met, somewhere I’ve never been. Use a hanky, goddammit, someone.

I have a lot of empathy for Carrie Mathieson (Driven CIA Operative Chick), but that had nothing to do with my flu. I would like to spy on people too.

Not so much Brody’s wife, Jessica, whose eyebrows traumatised me from day one.

I am a little bit in love with Bearded Kind-Eyes CIA Guy. But I am also sure that he is EVIL and will have to be destroyed, but I’m now only up to episode two of series two, so what would I know…

I should be watching Prisoners of War, on SBS, I know, but I’m building up to that.

Been to a few restaurants – one great, one disappointing, one not disappointing.

And a new one – Méjico – right next door to Jamie’s Italian in Pitt Street. It’s long and high and young and brash and bright, designed by Tom Williams and Elizabeth Wong of Juicy Design. It’s sure to be a roaring success, not least for the black-and-shocking-pink-stripe features, which were almost my favourite part.

My actual favourite part was Victor Valdes, one of only two Mexican harpists in Australia, who played at a meejah launch there this week. Májic.

Although hoisting him up on a trestle table in the middle of the long and high and young and brash and bright young things seemed a little harsh.

I liked Méjico – in the same way I like Jamie’s Italian and Jamie, and Nigella. Although, for me, Jamie has it all over Nigella for one fundamental reason – his mum and dad own a brilliant pub in Essex. Nigella’s dad was Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer.

There were a few long and high and brash and bright old things at Méjico too. Me mostly, although I wasn’t high – certainly not as high as the open kitchen, from which teeny tacos regularly descended. I had to keep myself nice. I was driving.

It’s been an overhaul kind of month (that’s what you get for only just surviving January). My maiden voyage to a dermatologist this week for that inevitable middle-age skin cancer check-up, for starters. I now have blisters the size and shape of Uluru on my leg and arm. Skin Cancer Man came at me with his liquid nitrogen gun with the fervour of Kevin Khatchadourian at the school gym. He says I’m one of the lucky ones – having spent my formative years in England choosing to avoid the sun on our two-week summer holidays and instead flirt with young Italian waiters in the cool darkness of the hotel. Only in England in the sixties could you get berated for not going home with third-degree sunburn as a summer-holiday badge of honour. “Your father didn’t spend all this money for you to go back without a tan.”

Now I have to take Vitamin D tablets so my bones don’t crumble. That’ll teach me to flirt with Italian boys.

And finally, today, the triumph of vanity over sense – a visit to Specsavers to procure (sensibly) two pairs of new spectacles – one of which is a pair of prescription sunglasses (all the better to squint enigmatically at you in nightclubs, my dear). Plus my first middle-age-crisis sortie into the squidgy mysteries of the disposable contact lens. Yes, dear in-focus readers, I will now be able to dine prettily and network shamelessly without having to resort to fumbling for my glasses to read someone’s name tag because I can’t remember who they are. At last, I will be able to pretend I remember them and, better, introduce them to the someone I’m already talking to. That they won’t know who the hell I am is neither here nor there.

I will be able to achieve all this with only a slight headache and swimming of the head, as Reading Eye (left) and Distance Eye (right) battle it out. But I hope to look slightly more the glamorous for it. Small steps, people, small steps, in this networking world of mine…

Must be time to crack a bagel.

 

 

Stuff I like – February

Vegies and photography by Martin Boetz

Cooks Co-op
A host of chefs and restaurateurs around the country are turning to their own backyards (and coastline or countryside) to source ingredients through growing and foraging. Think Clint Nolan at Harvest in Fremantle, WA; in NSW, the boys at Three Blue Ducks in Bronte, and Alex Puskas and James Parry at Sixpenny in Stanmore; Luke Burgess at Garagistes in Hobart, and Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne. Martin Boetz, co-owner and executive chef of Longrain, Sydney and Melbourne, is now taking it a step further. He’s long been a committed exponent of sustainable and ethical produce, and, about a year ago, bought an 11-hectare property overlooking the Hawkesbury River, an hour or so north of Sydney. He’s spent the past year planting the acreage with an assortment of herbs and vegetables to supplement his restaurant kitchen and is now living there full-time – commuting daily to inner-city Surry Hills. “The plan is to link up with other like-minded chefs and cooks to grow our own produce as a co-op, and to include interested local small farmers, who’ll be guaranteed a more reliable and regular outlet by supplying their produce direct to the chefs, too.” The Cooks Co-op HQ is a converted barn on the property, set up as a commercial kitchen, where chefs can bring their teams to a “kind of chefs’ retreat – a creative space where they can work up recipe and menu ideas, or learn about growing efficiently and sustainably, away from the distractions of their restaurant kitchens,” says Marty. Local producers will also be able to use it to value-add to their surplus produce – to make preserves, pickles, jams and so on. Marty is also putting on regular events, dinners and lunches for the public – where he or guest chefs will cook with ingredients grown in the region: “Things like a lunch celebrating the first tomato harvest.” And it doesn’t stop there – Marty hopes to see this develop into an Australia-wide initiative, with chef-farmer collectives in each state. “Ultimately, it could mean that we have a national network where we can swap ingredients and share our knowledge and experiences.” Follow the Cooks Co-op at www.facebook.com/cookscoop.

Room with a view

You could also snuggle up in a cottage on Marty’s property, which has the most amazing views of the Hawkesbury river. It costs $180 per night (minimum two nights), which not only means you get to wake up to that view, but includes eggs from the local chooks, a few fresh fixings from the garden and a bottle of something nice and grapey. Check it out at www.james-rose.com.au.

 

 

Luke Mangan

 

Lucy Allon

Appetite for Excellence
While that tiresome twosome big it up on MasterChef: The Professionals, there’s another competition humming along nicely without the tears, tokenism and fake posh English accent. Launched by Luke Mangan and Lucy Allon in 2005, the Electrolux Appetite for Excellence awards have been helping to raise the, um, bar, of the hospitality industry by supporting and promoting the work of young chefs, waiters and, since 2009, restaurateurs. Among the fantastic prizes and opportunities available on offer, the winning chef and waiter go on to compete at the San’Pellegrino Cooking Cup in Venice, where the poor souls are confined to quarters on a luxury racing yacht, cooking and waiting against an international selection of their industry peers. This year’s judging panel includes Peter Gilmore, Peter Doyle and Christine Manfield and Mark Best, and the 2012 young restaurateur of the year, Katrina Birchmeier, of Hobart’s wonderful Garagistes. Among the cook-offs, masterclasses and regional tours contestants take part in, there are two events open to the public, called Whet Your Appetite. The first of these, featuring former winners from Adelaide and further afield, is in Adelaide in late April, at brand-spanking-new Public in the CBD, where last year’s young chef of the year, Stewart Wesson, is now manning the stoves. The second will be at a so-far-unconfirmed hotspot in Brisbane later this year. Entrants must nominate themselves, so if you know any talented young ‘uns in the industry who you think deserve recognition, badger them to go online and enter. Applications open 4 February and close 14 April. Check it all out at www.appetiteforexcellence.com.

And finally… a subject very close to my heart…

Tomato, bean and basil salad

Meat Free Week
Factory farming is anathema. And yes, I know we’re guilty of standing on our well-fed, rarefied, First World pedestals as we rail against the mass-production of cheap food. But there’s a cost – not just to the millions of animals that suffer untold (and told, thanks to the likes of Lyn White of Animals Australia and Voiceless) horrors in the name of affordable protein, but to us, both in terms of our own short-term health and the long-term health of this planet. Whether you’re rethinking your meat consumption for health, budgetary or ethical reasons, Australia’s first Meat Free Week campaign, 18 – 24 March, is an engaging, inclusive, non-confrontational way of considering the options. The website is a mine of information on the subject, and the women behind it: Melissa Dixon, Helen Lear, Lainie Bracher and Shonagh Walker, are enthusiastic, unbombastic (yeah, I know – no such word) exponents of the cause. Their initiative has been embraced by chefs such as Simon Bryant and Maggie Beer, Stephanie Alexander and Bill Granger, who are sharing vegie recipes to ease the meat-free pain. And the pic? That’s one of my own modest meat-free efforts – and, if I may say so myself, absolutely delicious. If you want the recipe, email me at sally@monetisethis.com.au. Otherwise, go to www.meatfreeweek.com and indulge your First World conscience.