Cheeky

Several weeks ago, I had a go at making my own bacon. This was my second foray into the world of simple homemade charcuterie, after duck prosciutto, which I recommend as a good entry-level effort to the craft of curing.

Bacon is pretty easy. Buy yourself some good quality, free-range pork loin or belly… or even better, the loin with the belly attached. Cure it in a mixture of salt, sugar, some cure #1, plus whatever other flavourings you want to add and then massage it into the meat. Chuck it all into a big zip-lock bag and put it in the fridge for a week, turning it every day or so. Once it’s cured, you can hot smoke it or in the absence of a smoker, cook it in a low (120C) oven for a couple of hours.

To make it smoky, you can lightly spray the meat with a liquid smoke before it’s popped into the oven. The one I bought from Misty Gully is great and smells like Cheetos’ Cheese & Bacon Balls. There are a few more steps to it than what I’ve outlined, but this post on the Overclockers Forum is a great resource if you want to give it a go yourself. Kudos to kodo78.

bacon

As for my attempt at bacon – it looked like and smelled like bacon. Finely cut and pan fried, it also tasted pretty bacon-y and damn good between two pieces of bread, butter and a good dollop of HP sauce.

Wanting a greater challenge and with some spare time on my hands at the moment; I sought some inspiration from Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie to seek out my next curing venture. As space is a bit of issue at my place, there was a requirement to stick to a smaller cut of meat, so I decided that Guanciale would be the most viable as it could be used in a number of recipes, as well as being delicious on its lonesome.

The direct translation of Guanciale is ‘pillow’, which may relate to the delicate texture, thanks to the higher fat to meat ratio in the cut. Or the simpler inference is that its name is derived from the Italian word for cheek (guancia). Either way, the cured and dried pork jowl is a little stronger in flavour than pancetta and as any staunch Italophile will tell you, is the only meat to use in a Carbonara or Amatriciana sauce.

Now you would think that with all of the various bits of pork we consume regularly, the cheeks and jowls would be a little more omnipresent and therefore easy to find, but they’re not. That is, until they probably feature in a future series of Masterchef and Coles will start to sell them at ridiculously-inflated prices. Alas, it wasn’t as simple as walking to either of the butcher shops on my street. I suspect the local restaurants might get first dibs, given jowl is so meltingly delicious.

After unsuccessfully widening my search to incorporate the surrounding suburbs, the next obvious place was Victoria Street, Richmond. Sadly, after 10 minutes, I was zero from six on Victoria Street and so I decided to cut my losses and head to the most next obvious place – the Queen Vic Markets.

Thirty five minutes, a further nine butchers, eight bucks for parking and a doughnut from the American Doughnut Van later (alright, it was two), I was still jowl-less.

A quick Google search had me back in the car heading towards the next, next most obvious place –  the Footscray market, which in hindsight was probably what I should have done in the first place.

By butcher number five, my luck had changed and the guy was only too happy to hack off a couple of jowls right before my eyes… All for the bargain price of $4.50, later finding out for an extra dollar, I could have purchased the whole pig’s head. Perhaps next time.

Cheeks getting a trim
Cheeks getting a trim

Sourcing the jowls was easy, compared to my next dilemma; to cure or not to cure with curing salt. And if I did use it, which cure do I use? Cure #1 or Cure #2? There were so many conflicting recipes that used different cures, if at all. Now I wasn’t in the mood for seriously harming my family and friends through some serious food poisoning or worse, botulism.

Therefore a bit of research is always a good thing. In Cure #1, the sodium nitrite only keeps the meat safe for a short period of time, as well as imparting that nice ‘cured’ taste. It’s also assumed that anything cured with Cure #1 is cooked after curing. In Cure # 2, the sodium nitrate breaks down over time and transforms to sodium nitrite, which is further broken down to become nitric oxide; the key oxidising agent that keeps the meat safe from that nasty old botulism. This cure is reserved for the likes of salumi, etc; things that aren’t intended to be cooked before consuming.

So knowing which cure was the best for me, the rest of the cure recipe was pretty simple and the one I used was from Nuovo Mondo, by Stefano de Pieri & Jim McDougall.

Guanciale (for 2 cheeks)

2 pork cheeks
300g table salt
300g caster sugar
5 garlic cloves, smashed
30g black pepper, lightly crushed (I only had white pepper on hand)
½ bunch thyme, chopped (stems and all)
2.5g Cure #2

The cheeks needed a bit of a trim up for starters. Mainly to get rid of some of the flappy bits, as well as to remove some of the glands that still may be attached to the jowls. The glands are pretty obvious-looking things; they’re grey in colour so they are usually pretty easy to distinguish from the fat or muscle.

Simple ingredients
Simple ingredients

Once trimmed, they were ready for the cure, which was as easy as combining all of the ingredients together. As for the amount of cure, I used the cure packet as a guide. The 100g pack was enough to cure 40kg of meat, so using my trusty brain and a calculator, I worked it out to be 2.5 grams of cure per kilo of meat. My jowls weighed in at around 1kg after trimming, so 2.5g of cure was mixed well into the salt and sugar before adding the thyme, garlic and pepper.

As the cure was going to draw out moisture from the jowls, I added an extra base of salt to the bottom of my container before rubbing down the cheeks with the cure mix and placing them into the container. I also made sure that the cheeks were only in contact with the cure mix and not the container or each other.

See you in a week
See you in a week

There was nothing left to do, other than pop them in the fridge and let the cure do the rest, for about a week. Every day or so, I check on them and ensured that they were happy and the cure was still covering each cheek.

After a week, it was time to wash the cure off the cheeks, but not with water. So, unless you were a magician, like Jebus, white wine was the traditional method for washing the cheeks and I thought I’d do the same thing. I can’t remember the last time I’d bought a cask of goon and sadly, I thought Fruity Lexia might be a tad too sweet for washing the cheeks, so I opted for a drier, more highfalutin Semillon Chardonnay.

Goon-ciale
Goon-ciale

Once the cheeks were well washed in the good stuff, I patted them dry with paper towel, ready for the next step. They had firmed up in the cure nicely and now they were ready for a rub down of spices, ready to hang. I used a combination of juniper, green peppercorns, fennel seeds and chilli. I went for green peppercorns as I wanted a milder pepper flavour. Juniper, fennel and chilli are fairly traditional spices as far as Guanciale goes.

Ready for hanging
Ready for hanging

The last step before hanging was to weigh the cheeks. I’d read that the same principle I’d followed when making duck prosciutto was also relevant to making Guanciale; that was when they’d lost 30% of their initial weight, through loss of moisture, they were done.

Actually, a precise figure of 30% is a little subjective. Jowls that contain a lot of fat won’t lost as much weight as the moisture is lost. I guess I just had to wait and see. My cheeks had lost around 100 grams in the fridge cure, so I was aiming to lose around 120 grams. In my little wine fridge, set at 13 degrees Celsius and with a humidity of around 65 percent, this could take anywhere from four to eight weeks.

Patience
Patience…

Fast forward to just shy of six weeks later and my impatience had gotten the better of me. On the scales, they hadn’t met the ’30 percent’ rule (closer to 20%) and since I first checked on them at the one month mark, there had been very little additional weight lost over the past two weeks. However, they were nice and firm; I was pretty sure that they were ready.

Worth the wait
… is a virtue

From the first cut of the knife, I knew my impatience was justified. The flesh was a rich and red in colour and the fat was lovely and firm. It smelled fantastic and tasted even better! Rich, buttery and a little nutty. A little bit of sweetness lingered from the cure and the spicing rounded it out perfectly.

A wee favour called in at Maria’s Deli (a few doors down from me) and soon enough their meat slicer had transformed one of my cured cheeks into paper-thin slices.

Patience truly is a virtue.

O’Connell’s Hotel – Cnr Coventry and Montague Streets, South Melbourne

There have been a few conversations over the weeks that we should commence revisiting all of the places that we’ve visited over the last six year’s worth of our semi-regular lunches. Upon throwing around some names of places we’ve been over the years, we realised it was remiss of us to overlook O’Connell’s (and The Montague, so that’s probably slated for next time).

South Melbourne and its immediate environs are littered with pubs that are seeped in history. Some choose to celebrate the pub’s rich past through preserving some of the old charm through new renovations. Others, like O’Connell’s, simply haven’t changed much therefore the old charm naturally still exists (as do the odd mix of pictures in the front dining room). This is not a criticism either (albeit, the jury’s out on the pictures though); it’s a comfortable pub and if I lived in South Melbourne, I’d probably choose to drink here. It’s a bonus that their kitchen is pretty decent as well.

It was reasonably busy on the day we visited. A good sign. Another good sign was our pre-entrée course of Oysters would also be fulfilled. Half a dozen each of freshly shucked Coffin Bay oysters ($3 each) were duly ordered with a bottle of crisp and refreshing 2011 Shaw & Smith Sauvignon Blanc ($50). The oysters lived up to expectation; they were freshly shucked and served simply with a lemon cheek. Also, rather than dealing with annoying rock salt which invariably goes everywhere, the oyster shells sat atop some very stiff, salty meringue. My only (personal) gripe was that the adductor muscle was still attached to the shell but I understand this to be a French thing to prove it’s from the actual shell the oyster’s presented in. Ah, you learn something every day…

Warmed baguette and unsalted butter were happily replenished several times upon our request.

Five entrées preceded five mains, plus a number of different cuts of steak that are cooked on the wood grill and a handful of specials. There is also a ‘pub favourites’ menu on offer with a further seven dishes, featuring some pub classics; a pie, a burger, schnitzel and so on.

For entrée, one of our party opted for the ceviche of Hervey Bay scallops with preserved watermelon, avocado, corn and curry vinaigrette ($19) and two of us ordered the Spencer Gulf king prawns with ox tongue sausage, capers, garlic, lemon and brioche ($19.50).

Upon arrival of the entrées, there was some conjecture and disappointment of the alleged accuracy in pluralising the word ‘scallops’ versus what was served. The scallops had been served shaved and the serving was scant to say the least. In fact, quite the contrary to the three plump, generously sizes prawns that adorned our plates. This feedback was constructively passed on to the kitchen. As for the scallop dish itself, it featured the most amazing preserved watermelon, which was meaty in texture and intense in flavour.

I’ve since learned the process to get your common garden variety watermelon to this stage from Chef, Paul Cooper. Needless to say, when I have a free weekend, I’ll give it a go. It’s more than worth it for the end result. The avocado, corn and curry flavours worked well with the other elements, although (no surprises) they were a little too dominating in the absence of some more scallop.

The prawns, to me, were ever so marginally overdone. However, the accompanying flavours and textures were extremely well balanced; crunch from the brioche croutons, a strong meaty flavour and texture from the ox tongue combined with some desired acidity from the lemon and capers in the butter-based sauce that brought the whole dish together.

For mains, we each agreed to select a different dish to sample as much as we could on the menu. My dining partners respectively went for the slow cooked pork shoulder with ragout of summer beans, gala apples and cider sauce ($33) and the (Farmer Joe’s) baby goat with pumpkin puree, smoked yoghurt, pumpkin seeds and spiced goat sauce ($34).

I chose the roasted duck breast with confit duck leg sausage, spinach compote, plum puree and roasted onions ($34). From all reports, my dining partner’s dishes were quite sound; the pork was meltingly tender and the crackling shard was good enough not to share with anyone else. The accompanying cider sauce had a good balance of sweet and tart to counteract the richness of the pig. Farmer Joe’s baby goat must have had a good life. The meat was sweet and tender and the smoky flavour and sourness from the yoghurt was perfectly in tune with the spiced jus. There’s no denying that O’Connell’s kitchen knows a thing or two about balancing flavours.  A dainty pithivier, filled with more goat meat, also featured on the plate.

My duck breast could be best described as amply bosomed. The skin was crisp and the meat had been well-rendered to leave just skin and meat. I would have preferred the meat a shade underdone than it was served, but that’s just personal preference. I would have also loved a good dredging of the accompanying just, but that’s just greed. The confit duck leg sausage provided some extra richness. Although we could have gotten away with no side dishes (all $9), we chose the sautéed green beans with bacon, almonds and brown butter. All beans… no, wait… all green vegetables should be served like this. Other sides are the usual suspects; Fries, mash and a salad option.

For dessert, we did exactly the opposite of our main selection. We all ordered the same thing; Melbourne city rooftop honey iced nougat with port poached pear, chocolate mousse and crystallized pumpkin seeds ($15). Although I could have gone for alternatives, like the sticky date pudding with English toffee sauce and treacle nut brittle ice cream ($15) or the bitter sweet chocolate tart with macerated cherries, cherry cream, candied bacon and orange ($15). Mmm… candied bacon; totally underutilised. We asked to try some separately and we were duly rewarded. My preferred version of a petit four.

To quickly digress, for the uninitiated, Melbourne City Rooftop Honey are Beekeepers that are bringing bees back to the city and the suburbs of Melbourne. The organisation ‘re-houses’ swarms of honey bee colonies into specified hived around inner-Melbourne. The output, of course, is honey made practically on your door step (or rooftop, as the case may be), which you can also buy on-line here. Please check out this very worthy project.

The honey was the star in our parfait-like nougat, closely followed by the support act in the form of a small quenelle of decadent chocolate mousse… any more mousse and it would have dominated. Another example of perfect balance in both flavours and texture; soft pear / crunchy sugared pumpkin seeds / icy nougat / silky mousse.

We rounded out proceedings with our usual road test of the cheese board, which was pretty solid in terms of generosity. Three cheeses at 50 grams per cheese ($28) were served with lavosh, quince paste, fresh pear and some of the most interesting dried grapes that almost tasted like dried apricot. The cheeses on offer were a French double brie, Manchego and a Gorgonzola.

With our mains and desserts, we drank the 2008 Craiglee Shiraz ($96). O’Connell’s wine list is extensive and covers both ends of the price spectrum very well.

Overall, O’Connell’s is providing some honest, (in parts) inventive and of course, tasty food at a price point that is smack bang where it should be for the experience and surrounds. The staff know their stuff and are attentive… even to accommodate requests like sampling some candied bacon. In the kitchen, Paul Cooper and his team, including Kiwi Stacy Thompson, are doing the right thing by the people of South Melbourne.

O’Connell’s Centenary Hotel
Cnr Coventry and Montague Streets, South Melbourne
(03) 9699 9600
www.oconnells.com.au

Good For: A great example of a true ‘Gastropub’ experience in Melbourne… even though I hate that term

Not Good For: Being a little too miserly with their scallops. But all is forgiven (hey, I didn’t order it)

O'Connell's on Urbanspoon

Malt – 28 Market St, Brisbane

Wow. It’s been a while. It’s not like I haven’t been out / trying to save for a house / been to some places that aren’t worth blogging about / been to some places that I’ve already blogged about / too busy with my paying job to find time to blog / forgotten what I ate anyway.

All of the above is true.

Fortunately, I have recently eaten somewhere notable / remembered what I had / found some spare time to share my experience. The only problem is that it’s in Brisbane, not Melbourne.

Brisbane’s food scene is fair, but it’s expensive – this is not Sydney. Alarmingly, it’s the starters that attract prices that push through the $30 barrier, even in many Bistros… Ouch!

Speaking of Bistros, there is a lack of decent mid-priced places that serve reasonable food at moderate prices – this is also an opinion that is shared by friends that live in Brisbane. If cafés, SSS BBQ Barns and Pubs or Steakhouses aren’t your scene and iconic well-knowns like E’cco or the siblings of the more expensive southern state establishements, like Aria or Stokehouse are out of your league, then you really need to roll up your sleeves and do some research to find something that gives you some value.

Fortunately, Malt fits the bill nicely.

Malt is housed within an iconic inner-city building called Wenley House, which was built in 1865 as Queensland’s first public market. Inside, the integrity of respectfully maintaining the building’s past has been achieved by retaining the exposed brick, original timber flooring and double-hung windows. This is combined with modern fittings and fixtures throughout; in either the 20-seat private dining room located in the cellar, the ground floor bar for a causal pre-dinner or post-work beverage or in the attic, where the main restaurant is located. It’s comfortable.

Firstly, to the bar. A good number of sparkling, whites and reds by the glass are offered, as well as an array of cocktails and spirits. The range of bottled beers and ciders are plentiful and there are also a couple of beers on tap (Peroni, Blue Tongue Lager) and a cider. If you can’t find something here to whet your whistle, then you’re just too damn picky.

One floor up, the attic dining room is extremely spacious, with a generous amount of space between tables, in addition to a full-sized grand piano (sans-Pianist on the night we were there. which to me was a bonus). Your more entrepreneurial restaurateur could argue that is a profitable space being wasted. But the space already accommodates up to 90 diners (without at all detracting from the intimate atmosphere) and it’s quite welcoming to not have to play a game of elbows with your table neighbour.

Freshly baked sourdough, with some balsamic and olive oil arrived promptly. Even better, it was complimentary.

Going back to my initial gripe on inflated entrée costs, the entrées at Malt are at a far more respectable $18-$22 price point and the menu itself is an excellent example of a seasonal summer fare and flavours, with dishes such as a Salad of Mooloolaba Spanner Crab with ruby grapefruit, witlof, cucumber and salmon pearls ($22) or crispy ricotta-filled zucchini flowers with rustic bread, heirloom tomatoes and local olives ($20). My choice; the ham hock terrine with shaved foie gras ($18) was light, not overly rich and packed with flavour. The toasted sourdough and condiments of sauce gribiche, poached quail’s egg and a micro herb and fennel salad were spot on as far as accompaniments go.

Coffin Bay oysters, served two ways were also on the menu, served natural ($18/$34) or Malt’s version of Kilpatrick ($22/$40), where the oyster is deep-fried in a beignet batter and served with Malt’s house-made Kilpatrick sauce, a.k.a Malt Sauce. Initially, I saw this as an absolute indictment to fresh oysters, let alone those from the South Australian waters of Coffin Bay. However, one of my dining partners ‘just happened’ to order them and I ‘just happened’ to try one and I am very happy to declare that Malt are onto a winner. The thin, crispy exterior gave way to another thin, but softer dough texture underneath, followed by an oyster that has lost almost none of its freshness. The Malt Sauce was lip-smackingly delicious; shards of crisp bacon sat within a well balanced tangy and slightly smoky sauce, which was thoughtfully served on the side too, so it doesn’t make the beignet batter soggy. Apparently, they also use this sauce on their steak sandwiches, which form part of Malt’s bar menu. I know where I’m heading for lunch next time I’m in town.

The mains were a true case of diner’s envy (for me, anyway). The sous-vide Grimaud duck breast was served with a fresh, glazed black fig, brown onion and a white bean and confit duck salad ($38). This was exhibit ‘A’ in food envy evidence.

Exhibit ‘B’ was the Bangalow pork tenderloin and jowl with carrot puree, coffee dust, pine nuts and onion rings ($36). It also came with some contrasting pickled baby vegetables to counteract the richness of the jowl and jus. It was cruel and unfair that I was tempted into trying this dish. The coffee was an interesting addition, providing some bitterness up front, which worked well with the sweetness of the sauce and the pork tenderloin. The jowl was fatty, unctuous and just… fuck it was good.

My dish, the Bouillabaisse of Morton Bay Bugs, local prawns, scallops and squid ($39) was aromatic, with the slight aniseed flavour from the Pernod and the presence of saffron was detectable, but not overpowering. The seafood was fresher than fresh. However, some of the stars of the dish were quite underdone. The scallops looked as though they were relying on the residual heat from the broth to cook through, which didn’t happen and one was practically raw. Nor did the bug meat come as cleanly out of the shell as it should have. The remaining seafood was cooked well.

The sides on offer ($8/$9) were a good mix of five or six dishes, containing some of the usual suspects (creamed potato, fries with aioli) and some more adventurous numbers (snow peas, beans and garlic shoots with butter and preserved lemon). To be perfectly honest (and also earlier confirmed by one of the wait staff), the portion sizes of the dishes are quite generous, including the garnishes and accompaniments, so they’re probably not needed. Another example of where Malt sets itself apart from its peers in terms of value.

Desserts (all $15) were again at the same high level of quality in flavour and execution as the preceding courses. The fine apple tart with brandy snap and cinnamon ice cream lived up to it’s name and it’s owner, who didn’t look as through she could get close to finishing it (it was a generous portion), daintily ploughed through the whole thing.

The chocolate brownie with salted caramel, peanut brittle and Malt (a little unsure as to whether it was malt in flavour or Malt in brand, like the sauce) ice cream was my kind of dessert and it was reported as delicious and duly polished off. I don’t know where these girls put it to be quite honest. Alas, I just shared some cheese with a couple of others.

As for the cheeses (my make or break dish of any restaurant) , there were four to choose from; three Australian, one imported. We selected the Brie and the Washed Rind, as well as a French Roquefort, which were served with house made lavosh, oat cookies, toasted fruit loaf, quince paste and fresh pear. At $30 for 45 grams per cheese and from a cheese to biscuit ratio (the last morsel of cheese was scraped up with the very last biscuit), the three of us that shared this all seemed very satisfied.

To drink, we selected the 2010 Ocean Eight Pinot Gris from the Mornington Peninsula ($64) and the 2008 Tscharke ‘The Curse’ Zinfandel from the Barossa ($74). Both excellent value, with fairly moderate mark-ups.

Service was extremely attentive and the two young ladies that looked after us for the night were very knowledgeable on both the menu and the components of the dishes, as well as the wine list.

Brisbane needs more places like this. A comfortable environment, a menu that will cater to most, well executed dishes, dedicated staff and of course, good value for money. It’s good to be back.

Malt
28 Market St, Brisbane
(07) 3236 4855
http://www.maltdining.com.au

Good For: Meeting a much needed gap in the Brisbane market

Not Good For: Other restaurants in Brisbane, that declare they are a Bistro, but charge at least 25%-30-% more than Malt

Malt on Urbanspoon

Merricote – 81 High St, Northcote 3070

I love my birthday. Not as much as I used to when back in the day, I’d exploit it to the hilt, spreading it across nine days (two weekends and five weekdays). Nowadays I’m lucky to milk it for no more than the day itself and the closest weekend to it.

This means that invariably, quality reigns over quantity and so my choice of restaurant for my Friday night celebration was to be a good one. But I also wanted to go somewhere that I’d been yearning to try, rather than heading back to familiar digs. Merricote was high up on the list of ‘my next place to go’, so the choice was easy.

The recent winner of the 2012 The Age Good Food Guide’s Best Short Wine List, Merricote has come on to the scene in a big way over the last seven or so months, yet when you walk in your first thoughts are… well, it’s quite unassuming. A simply decorated dining room features some large prints on the walls of the ‘staple’ animals we like to devour: pig, cow, chicken… and some quirky figurine farm animals feature here and there. To add to the simplicity, there is no bar or counter, allowing for more space between tables of this 30-seater, making the room feel totally devoid of that claustrophobic feeling you can experience at some places. It works very well in this relaxing, laid-back, lounge-room setting. Ideal for dinner with good friends. 

Bronwyn, co-owner (with other half, Rob, slaving away in the kitchen), sommelier and front-of-house made us feel very welcome from the moment we stepped in the front door, ushering us to our table promptly and offering us a choice of Northcote’s finest tap water (as featured in the drinks menu) or Antipodes sparkling mineral water.

Over a couple of glasses of pleasant French bubbles ($19) we perused the menu which featured four dishes each under the categories of charcuterie, small bites, starters, mains, sides, desserts and a highly anticipated cheese trolley. A degustation menu was also available at $65 for six courses.

Some exceptional house made bread rolls were offered; a choice of a seeded brown, dark beer-based roll or a floury white roll with fennel. Being ever so health conscious, I stuck to the brown roll which was outstandingly fluffy and even better with a generous spread of softened butter, which if I was a betting man looked and tasted like Naomi’s butter from Myrtleford.

Settling on the a’la carte menu, our first choice was a clearly obvious; a selection of charcuterie ($22). We were promptly presented with a board laden with thinly sliced handmade salami, capicola and some other tasty cured meat, served with some house made piccalilli and cornichons. I found the piccalilli a little too salty, K disagreed. Each to their own, I guess. We popped the top of a jar of the most delicious duck rillettes – the best rillettes I’ve eaten to date! A well judged ratio of duck fat to the slowly cooked and well-seasoned duck meat, which was chunkier than what you’d expect. It was more like pieces of confit duck than the finer shred of meat you’d expect from rillettes. Not that I was complaining.

A slice of pigs’ head terrine was paired with an excellent, chunky sauce grebiche. I also decided that I wasn’t a big fan of pigs’ head, which is absolutely of no disrespect to the kitchen. I’ve tried a number of times now; as brawn / head cheese, plus a number of variations. I don’t know… maybe it’s a texture thing. Anyway, that was my problem. Some (again) house made lavosh was on hand to scoop, spread and devour what was a great start to our night. In hindsight, the charcuterie selection was probably a little ambitious for just the two of us and probably better suited for 3 or 4 like-minded carnivores.

We also ordered the beetroot, walnut and goats cheese salad ($14) to share, providing an extra foil to the rich proteins. We were both unanimous in declaring this as a most perfectly balanced salad. Pickled baby turnips and baby beetroots featured with some very fresh pieces of walnut, twice shelled broad beans and various micro herbs – all atop goats cheese foam, which had all of the full flavour of the cheese combined with the lighter-than-air texture of a whipped mascarpone. Delicious.

Our choices for main dishes ($29-$32), as well as they were executed, seemed a little out of place as they would be much more suited to a Winter menu, as opposed to it being half way though Spring.

K chose the ‘nose to tail’ lamb; a couple of perfectly cooked and seasoned cutlets, some braised meat combined with mushroom and shaped into a cylinder, then pan fried, a crumbed and fried nugget of brain (which immediately found its way to yours truly) and, served separately en papillote, was a rich and robust braise with white beans. 

I opted for the rump of  beef, cooked to medium rare and served on a ragu (of sorts) of chickpeas, mushrooms and braised ox tail. The cooking of the rump was to order, although one piece was a little on the chewy side. By and large, the execution was bang on, but it just seemed a little too hearty for October.

We selected a refreshing shaved cabbage, mint and barrel-aged fetta salad, which was lightly dressed with tangy vinaigrette. An excellent counterpoint to our mains. We drank a 2008 Whistling Eagle Sangiovese. As a choice between the aforementioned and a Tuscan Sangiovese, we asked the advice of Bronwyn, whose recommendation did not let us down.

As much as we were already close to satiation, we had to see the famed cheese trolley. An awesome selection of 15 cheeses were wheeled over to us: soft, semi-soft, hard, goat, cow, sheep, washed rind, ashed, blue mould, wrapped in stuff… take your pick! There were too many to mention (or remember for that matter). If only we knew, we wouldn’t have made pigs of ourselves earlier. Still, we settled on the Holy Goat Veloute. Bronwyn took our selection from the trolley and deftly proceeded to slice the top off like a skilled surgeon. We selected a few dried figs and some more of the house made lavosh. The figs were a perfect accompaniment to dip into the ripe, creamy, sweet and slightly nutty gooey goodness.

Maybe the cheese gave me a second wind. Maybe it was birthday magic. Maybe it was just plain greed and the hope K was paying. I was determined to push on through to dessert. And I’m glad I did.

The aptly titled Dutch messhomage to all things orange lived up to its name. It was probably also the most carnival-esque and fun desserts I’ve had. A well thought out combination of bitter blood orange segments and jelly surrounded a disc of creamy vanilla ice cream. Delicate orange and yellow flower petals were visually stunning but added nothing to the flavour (perhaps some peppery nasturtiums instead?) and were a little feathery at the back of my throat. On top of  the largely bitter ingredients, a contrasting layer of light and airy orange blossom-flavoured Persian fairly floss and a precise scoop of orange sorbet featured. No one ingredient dominated another and alas, my life was a little less bright once it had disappeared.

A well made espresso rounded out the night and my birthday feast.

Questionable seasonality of the main dishes aside, Merricote is an absolute gem of a place and we’re quite spoilt to have it at the bottom of Ruckers Hill and The Estelle at the top. High Street, Northcote continues to the up the ante and the best thing is that us locals get to reap the rewards with good, honest and unpretentious food that’s combined with an extensive, well sourced wine list – all of which is excellent value and all of which Merricote delivers with aplomb.

Thanks for making my birthday special.

Merricote
81 High St, Northcote 3070
(03) 9939 4762
http://www.merricote.com.au/ (website coming soon)

Good For: Sticking it up the people on the other side of the river; we’ve got it better than them
Not Good For: Seasonal confusion

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Quacktastic!

I was rather inspired by our last visit to The Estelle. In particular, I fell for the duck prosciutto…which is a bit of a misnomer, given prosciutto is the Italian word for ham and as much as I love duck, it’s just not pig. Hmm, now there’s a t-shirt waiting to be printed.

Wikipedia says that the word prosciutto derives from the Latin perexsiccatus (perexsicco), which gave way to the modern Italian word prosciugare, meaning “to thoroughly dry”. For the sake of even attempting to pronounce “duck prosciugare”, regardless of whether I’ve been drinking or not, we’ll call it duck prosciutto until someone comes up with something more appropriate.

So, I decided to have a crack at making my own duck prosciutto. After a little research it was apparent that duck prosciutto is by far the easiest of the charcuterie disciplines to attempt at home. More so, I would have probably tried to make this at home much earlier than now.

It makes me think, are we (or me, in this instance) endeavouring to do more with food, than simply buying the ingredients and following a recipe?

It’s got to be said that for what I create in the kitchen, I take a lot of pleasure getting compliments from friends and family when I’ve made stuff from what I call ‘beyond’ scratch. Take hamburgers for example; fresh homemade buns, grinding your own meat for patties, homemade tomato sauce or chutney, throwing in whatever you’ve grown in your own garden, etc. 

Although I haven’t yet gone as far as Heston Blumenthal to make my own ‘processed’ cheese like he did in his In Search of Perfection series, nor attempt to make every single element of the burger from scratch like some guy did.

So why are we doing this? To show off? To be more sustainable? Or is it to get a better understanding of how things are done, which in turn gives you a greater appreciation for not only the food you’re eating, but also what goes into it… or more importantly what doesn’t go into it. My money’s on the latter… although keep the compliments coming.

So in the last 10-15 years… maybe more, we’ve gone from bog-standard salami (and if you lived in South Austalia, you were probably brought up on German mettwurst), Maggie Beer’s Pheasant Farm pate (which is still great) and your cheap, crappy prosciutto was done to death, by being wrapped around everything from asparagus spears to Britney Spears… phwoooar! chicken fillets, stuffed with goat’s cheese, pesto and sun-dried tomatoes… ugh!

Now, with more knowledge, people with generally more developed palates and greater access to things that were once too foreign or simply unavailable, we can far easily obtain the bestest prosciutto in the world; di parma and san daniel, or Spain’s Jamón ibérico… you know the black pigs they eat nothing but acorns, procotechino, cacciatore, confit duck, guanciale, bresola, chorizo, paté, mousse, terrine, roulade, rillettes and so on.

So, where was I? Oh yeah, my own duck prosciutto… Most of the blogs I researched via Google were American-based. It seems that the rest of the Western world, or Australia for that matter, isn’t all that interested in making their own charcuterie. Maybe they are and they’re too busy making it to document it on a blog? Maybe I just have too much time on my hands?

Australia’s weather could be a disadvantage. Melbourne’s either too hot or too cold and weatherboard houses aren’t all that well-known for their temperate climates. But, duck prosciutto was more than doable. Loosely based on Michael Ruhlman’s recipe in Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, all I needed was a couple of duck breasts, some salt, cheesecloth, my choice of spices, a wine fridge and some time.

Giving the chicks from ‘4 Ingredients’ a run for their money

The key to ensuring success was not stuffing up the salting and ensuring the meat didn’t get a nasty black mould (white is OK). Most of the American blogs called for Kosher Salt. USA Foods stocked Kosher Salt, but surely I could use something else More commonly found in Coles? After a bit more research on salt, I came to the conclusion that I could use relatively inexpensive, uniodised sea salt, a.k.a: rock salt. It even said on the bag it was suitable for curing, so that put me at ease.

We are blessed to have good access to all duck-related products and produce, thanks to Luv-A-Duck. Fortunately for me, it would appear that duck wasn’t too popular at Coles in Northcote… Two breast fillets for $7.50! According to the package, they were due to expire that day, but as I was curing the meat, I didn’t think it would matter so much. This exercise was working out well. $2.39 for a 500g bag of rock salt and $7.50 for duck. If this thing turns pear-shaped in any way, I was only out-of-pocket less than a tenner and to date I’ve made many more mistakes in the kitchen that have cost  more (in particular that fucking pizza).

Now you see them...

The method itself was pretty easy: Place a good layer of salt in the base of a container large enough to hold both duck breasts, so they weren’t touching the sides or each other. Place the breasts into the container and cover with the remaining salt. Cover the container with some cling wrap and chuck it in the fridge for around 24 hours. Voila! Stage one was complete.

… Now you don’t!

After curing,  I took the breasts out of the salt. They’d firmed up a little, so far so good. I washed the salt off and thoroughly dried the breasts with paper towel. 

Some recipes I’d read opted not to spice the breasts at all, wrapping them straight up in the cheesecloth after they’d been washed and dried. Other recipes called for nothing but a little white pepper on the skin side only.

I decided to select a few spices that compliment duck. I toasted of some bits of star anise, coriander seeds, a few juniper berries and some chilli flakes and ground them up in my mortar and pestle. I scored the skin, crossways and rubbed the spice mixture well into the skin.

Give your breasts a good rub

After wrapping them in cheesecloth (which was actually muslin because I didn’t have any cheesecloth) and tying them with kitchen twine, I weighed each breast and took note of their respective weights (140 grams and 148 grams). The aim is to reduce their weight by 30%, which can take a week or longer, depending on your conditions.

Ready for hanging

Apparently, wine fridges are perfect for dry curing as the constant temperature (12-14 degrees celsius) and humidity (55-65%) is ideal for an even cure, where the moisture isn’t lost too slowly at a colder temperature, resulting in a loss of flavour and the temperature isn’t too high, which will ruin the thing completely.

My breasts took 3 weeks to the day to reach the desired weight. A little longer than anticipated, but a longer hang resulted in some intese flavour. There was absolutely no mould eveident, so the conditions were perfect.

The end result… Quacktastic!

With some deft precision and a sharp knife, I shaved off my first paper-thin slices to have my first taste of my own handcrafted charcuterie… my own. Sure, I’ve made things in the past that have required more skill, but this is definitely a more fulfilling result. More importantly, 12 hours later there were no ill-effects of botulism… success all round!

Duck prosciutto – done and dusted. What’s next? Pancetta? Breasola? Watch this space.