The Estelle + Truffles = Love

A refresh of The Estelle is, so far, paying dividends.

It sounds a bit weird given it only opened three years ago, but things appear to move pretty fast in Scott Pickett’s world.

In a little over the last twelve months he’s opened Saint Crispin with Joe Grbac. Then last October, chef and business partner, Ryan Flaherty, left the business to start his own restaurant, Mr Jennings (Bridge Rd, Richmond), which coincidentally opens today… I can’t wait to check it out.

More recently, there has been an impressive renovation of the courtyard (previously home to a fire pit and suckling pig on a spit) which delivers full overhead cover and comfortable heating to increase patronage by around 30 seats and an excellent refurbishment of the amenities.

This is all topped off with the addition of Josh Pelham as Head Chef in the kitchen. Like Scott, Josh is an alumnus of Phil Howard’s two Michelin-starred London restaurant, The Square, where Josh was Head Chef.

See? Whirlwind.

I dined here several weeks ago and noticed that there have also been a few alterations to the menu. What once was a choice of 5, 7 or 9 courses has become 6, 8 or 10. And gone is the ‘adventurous’ beverage pairing, which offered some more left-of-field alternatives to the more basic wine matches; like maybe a sake or a simple cocktail. Alas, making a cocktail (to order) is a far more laborious task within a very busy restaurant and relying on the next beverage match to be ready for its accompanying course is paramount. It makes sense.

As for the food, it was better. The pork jowl, apple and turnip has become my all-time favourite dish, closely followed by the Phil Howard-esque hand rolled macaroni, featuring pine mushrooms, parmesan and (in addition to a $15 supplement) a generous shaving of black truffle.

And to my not-so-subtle segue.

Last night, was the Fringe Food Festival’s fourth annual Truffle Dinner hosted by The Estelle (with the exception of last year, which was held at Saint Crispin), with truffles lovingly supplied by Madame Truffles.

The Menu

Winter staples are a perfect vehicle for the unbridled addition of truffle; rich pasta dishes, creamy sauces, under chicken skin and many other delights where buttery and cheesey goodness go hand in hand with nature’s black gold… I had a crack at a few recipes myself a few years back. And yes, we all know that high amounts of this stuff is not good for you in the long term, but The Estelle does moderation quite well and to be frank, the truffle season is very short indeed.

Truffles (Braidwood, NSW)

Last night’s menu kicked off with salty and warm – fresh from the oven – foccacia with truffled olive oil. This is opposed to the various incarnations of ‘truffle infused’ olive oils which are in most cases inferior. The olive oil was grassy and rich with the perfume from the very visible shaved truffle from Daylesford (VIC). Bagel and Pretzel mogul, Dan Taranto and I took turns seeing who could capture the most bits of shaved truffle onto our focaccia. It was a draw.

A delicious scrumpy-style cider from WA’s Custard & Co accompanied a most delicious Isle of Mull Cheddar and Truffle cheese soldier to whet our appetites. I’m not a big cider fan; my foray into fermented apple drinks was largely killed off thanks to the likes of Strongbow as a teenager. I will be heading to Wine Republic later this week to pick up a flagon (such a great choice of receptacle) or two as I am now a convert.

Cheese Soldier

The warming and satisfying Jerusalem artichoke veloute with pine mushrooms and a 63 degree egg (for 40 minutes) was topped with the nutty crunch of toasted rice and truffle from Pemberton in WA.

Jerusalem Artichoke and 63C egg

For the next course, we stayed in WA for a little longer. Western Australian marron was teamed with the most famous hand-rolled macaroni, basil and pan fried Brussels Sprout leaves. The sauce that embalmed the pasta was heavenly; rich with flavour from what I assume was the shells of the marron.

WA Marron

A quick trip from the west coast to the east coast was taken for our next course. Truffles from Braidwood (NSW) were paired with meltingly tender, slow-cooked beef shin, oyster mushrooms, miso and oyster mushroom puree, jus and a small nugget of deep-fried bone marrow.

Wagyu and all the trimmings

We closed the night closer to home, with truffle from the Yarra Valley (VIC) featuring in the (truffle infused) sponge cake and the ice cream, as well as honeycomb crumb and charred pear. I was a little apprehensive about the ice cream. I’ve had great truffle-flavoured ice cream in the past, but some former versions have been far too dominant in flavour, overpowering the other elements of the dessert and the wine. This version was quite redeeming.

Dessert

Another memorable night at The Estelle and if you’re quick, you may be able to snag a ticket to next Monday’s Truffle Dinner (details are here), which coincides with Bastille Day.

You wouldn’t think it could get any busier for Scott, but it does. There’s also a book coming out in November. Teaming up with renowned Australian food writer, Rita Erlich, Scott’s next foray delves into stories and recipes that have shaped and pay homage to his so-far 25-year journey in cooking.

I know what will be on the top of my Christmas list.

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Trufflepalooza 2!

I sorted out a few of the world’s problems the other night. Well, one at least. My friend that owns a pub was telling me that he went through something like 120kgs of chicken fillets for parmas last week. That’s a lot of chicken – something like over 400 parmas. Over a quiet beer, we mused over the work involved by his kitchen to turn all of that chicken into schnitzels and he casually mentioned the skin that gets thrown away.

Hello? Haven’t you seen what Josie Bones does to chicken skin? I think I managed to convince Rick that he was not only throwing away pure profit, but also a tasty bar snack to go with the thousands of litres of beer that he sells on a weekly basis. So if you see chicken skin crackling on offer at an established High St, Northcote pub, you’ve got me to thank (with partial credit to Josie Bones).

I’m not sure as to what that had to do with this post, other than the fact that chicken skin crackling is lovely,  but the conversation occurred on Monday night and a Monday night is normally not a night I’d choose to be out, especially this one. I had a cold; I felt a little miserable and quite frankly, a little out of place by not being rugged up at home so early on in the week. But [sigh], there was work to be done in the form of trying some of this year’s truffles at the Fringe Food Festival’s Truffle Extravaganza – in its second year at The Estelle.

I wasn’t going to blog about it. For some strange reason, I was certain that there would be nothing new to discover. By around September last year, I was a little over truffles. Primarily due to my experiments involving my own 50 gram nugget of black gold I’d purchased through Friend & Burrell. However, September through to July is a long time between drinks (or truffles in this case) and I guess that’s the point of enjoying something seasonal; consume it until you get sick of it, wait nearly a year and you can fall in love with it all over again.

So here we all were, back at the Estelle, with a bespoke menu that had been designed for the night. We were first  welcomed with an aperitif of (I might get it wrong here) prosecco, featuring some shaved truffle and a bitter, sticky and sweet candied cumquat, submerged at the bottom of the glass.

With my palate refreshed after one or two aperitifs, we were presented with the first of five tastes; Potage Parmentier, Smoked Trout & Quark.

For the uninitiated… like me at the time, a parmentier is more or less a potato soup. As Scott Pickett (Head Chef and owner of  The Estelle) pointed out, it was essentially a vichyssoise (normally served cold), but served hot; which made it a parmentier. Get it? I did eventually.

A glass featuring a colourful micro garden of smoky flaked trout, the salty pop of salmon roe, a hint of herb contained in small, creamy dots of quark, bitterness and colour from some petite flowers and a generous grating of Manjimup truffle (WA) from the Wine & Truffle Company, was placed in front of each guest before this artful landscape disappeared under a lake of potage parmentier. It was sad to see something so delicate drowned in soup, but it was more than worth it. A great start to the night.

The accompanying Carlo Pellegrino Marsala Vergine Riserva DOCG 1962 (Sicilia, Italy) was on the drier side of sweet (not too sweet); a daring and interesting pairing, as were the majority of the wines for the night.

Next up was a Blue Swimmer Crab, Risoni & Basil. As Scott pointed out when walking through the dish, it would have been too obvious to make a risotto. The use of risoni resulted in a much lighter dish and the flavour of the crab was prominent. The use of basil was subtle, but still quite evident. Again, a generous dose of truffle, this time Terra Preta Truffles from The Marshall Family in Braidwood, NSW, complimented the richness of the dish – the ideal vehicle for truffle.

The 2011 Rockburn Pinot Gris (Central Otago, NZ) displayed a little sweetness, but was crisp and dry enough to cut through some of the richness of the risoni.

I’ve been deliberating as to what my favourite dish was on the night. I chose the next dish for a couple of reasons. Although the Macaroni, Carbonara & Girolles was probably the least complex dish of the night, it delivered on the elements as to what is a quintessential truffle dish.

The hand-rolled pasta evoked a story from Scott on how he used to roll 400 of these in the early hours of the morning when he was working as a Junior Sous Chef at the two Michelin starred restaurant, The Square, in London. The al dente macaroni was combined with smoky lardons of bacon and anointed with a light carbonara sauce of the traditional eggs, cheese and black pepper. Girolles, arriving fresh from France that day, gave the dish that extra touch of luxury, athough the dish was already luxurious enough with truffle from Great Western Tiers in Deloraine, Tasmania; the home of Australia’s first black truffle. The simplicity, the luxury, the story and of course the flavours, made it my dish of the night. But only by a fraction against the dish that followed.

I mistakenly said to someone on the night that it was the first time I was to try Croatian wine, forgetting about the $1/litre stuff we drank to excess in Jelsa, on the island of Hvar back in 2000. Backpackers… enough said. I assume a lot has changed since then because the 2010 Matosevic Malvazija ‘Alba’ (Istra, Croatia) was a belter. Some great acidity and a little minerally; a perfect pairing. I was also told that Croatian wine will be the next best thing in Australia over the next 12 months, so keep your eyes peeled folks.

I sincerely regret not taking a photo of the penultimate dish; vanilla, honey & burnt orange. The description of the dish on the menu was a tad understated. The was actually vanilla, honey, burnt orange AND truffle sponge AND truffle ice cream.

Let’s pause for a moment and think about truffle ice cream. It’s kinda greyish looking and not all that asthetically appealing  (the same went for the sponge), but it was probably the tastiest ice cream ever. You’d think that much of the pungent flavour of the truffle (from Tamar Valley Truffles in Launceston, Tasmania) and vanilla would be lost in its frozen form, but this was not the case. Given the alledged $12 per scoop price tag, Scott declared this as pretty much a one-off. It didn’t matter. I got to eat it. The burnt orange gel was used wisely as the sparing smear packed a punch. Floral notes and crunch were provided by honey-crusted macadamias and it lived up to the wonderful standard of Ryan Flaherty desserts at the The Estelle.

Some of the sweetness driving the not overly sweet dessert came from the Chambers, Muscadelle ‘Rosewood’ NV (Rutherglen, VIC), which really picked up on the burnt orange.

We managed to share the Baked Clarines, fig & beetroot between the three of us, which in hindsight was a little ridiculous. It was warm and gloopy. It was creamy and rich. It was studded with truffle.

The accompanying beetroot and fig preserves are standard fare at The Estelle, forming some of the condiments offered on their charcuterie board. Exemplary. The Chateau de Vaux “Les Hautes Bassieres” Pinot Noir (Moselle, France) was very aromatic and close to being too tannic for my palate. Still, I managed to drink a second glass.

Since last year and as expected, the market for truffles continues to grow exponentially. There are (probably) more growers and there is definitely better access to truffles for you and me. South Melbourne’s Madame Truffles has positioned itself to make it more affordable for the consumer. A little truffle goes a long way and Madame Truffles offers a choice of WA, NSW or Tasmanian truffles (and Victorian ones later in the season) at around $3.00-$3.40 per gram, with only a minimum purchase of 15 grams, increasing at 5 gram increments, depending on your truffle needs. I know I’d be much happier and less reluctant to part with a $50 to finesse my dinner party dish or simply keep it all for myself eat the best scrambled eggs known to man.

If you haven’t tried truffles, you should. If you want to try truffles, then get along to the remaining Fringe Food Festival dinners over the next couple of weeks. There’s one at St Ali this Thursday, 5 July (details here) or there is another on 15 July at Eleonore’s at Chateau Yering in the Yarra Valley (details here).

Failing that, go and grab yourself a small chunk of truffle this weekend and at the very least, make some of the most simplest egg or pasta dishes into the most fantastic dishes you have ever tried. You won’t regret it.

UPDATE: Fringe Food Festival Event – Beer & Cheese 17 April 2012

Blogging friend and Fringe Food Festival co-founder, SJ, fresh(?) from last night’s Four x Four (by 4) Nebbiolo & Beef Dinner has kindly released further information on Beer & Cheese, which is less than three weeks away.

Here’s the high-level stuff…

What: Tutored Beer and Cheese tasting, Dinner with drinks.
When: Tuesday 17th April 2012; 6pm start for Beer and Cheese Tutorial, 8pm start for dinner.
Where: Union Dining Terrace. 270-272 Swan Street, Richmond (enter via Brighton Street, head straight up the stairs)
How much:   $107  a person plus $0.30 booking fee
Booking:  ONLY VIA TRYBOOKING
Note: Please do not contact the venue about this event.  All enquiries are to be emailed to fringefoodfestival@gmail.com.

Some extremely passionate experts in their respective fields of cheese, beer and cheese with beer have generously given their time on the night, which will guarantee you an evening of fun, learning and absolute deliciousness.

Here’s the roll call…

Anthony Femia is the cheese guy. Anthony was recently inducted into the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers as a Garde et Juré and is an internationally recognised Cheesemonger who is passionately dedicated to the promotion and education of the wonderful array of farmhouse & artisan cheeses available from Australia and the world.

Dave from Mountain Goat Beer is the beer guy. ‘nuf said.

Scott Thomas is from the The Courthouse in North Melbourne, which is famous for its eclectic selection of craft beers and pioneer of the ‘gastro’ pub’ in Melbourne. It therefore stands to reason that Scott knows lots and lots about good beer and good food, so he will educate us with what works and what doesn’t and more importantly why.

The night will be hosted on the al fresco Terrace at Union Dining in Richmond, tasting and enjoying your way through nine specially selected cheeses that have been aptly matched with some craft brews. There may be things you’ve seen or tried before… Most likely things you haven’t seen or tried before and most definitely not at the same time (unless you’re Anthony. Probably.)

Once you’re all cheesed and beered out, the remaining room in your partially full tummies will be filled with a share-plate provincial European meal, served upstairs at Union Dining.

Yummo! Can you wait? I can’t. So, buy your tickets NOW… otherwise I might not be allowed to help with future events and that would make me sad. You don’t want me sad.

Fringe Food Festival Event – Beer & Cheese 17 April 2012

Next to loaves and fishes, beer and cheese are two of the great staples of life and the similarities between beer and cheese go way, way back. We can actually go as far back as the discovery of preserving food… in this case by transforming surplus grain into beer and very fragile milk into the longer-lasting form of cheese.

A second and pretty important similarity is the key process to their respective creation, which of course is through fermentation.

For the uninitiated, to brew beer, simple sugars from grain are converted by yeast into alcohol and carbon dioxide. In cheese, it’s the conversion of milk by a bacterial culture that makes it acidic, turning the milk sugar lactose into lactic acid, blah, blah, blah and so on.

However, the similarities do not end there. The most important similarity is the not the process, but arguably the art of their creation; how grains or milk are chosen and handled, plus the selection and addition of other flavours and of course, their conditioning to create something that from it’s initial and humble origins can become the most wondrous culinary experience.

So it begs the question; with so many similarities, why do we not pair cheese with beer more often?

As someone that probably drinks far too much beer and has a tendency to over indulge when a cheeseboard is placed on the table, I’d like to know a little more beyond unwrapping a Kraft Single to compliment my Carlton Draught.

With the great support and effort of the Fringe Food Festival, we’ve gathered some of Melbourne’s (and possibly, Australia’s) top aficionados and experts on beer, cheese and food matching, who will guide you through the whys and wherefores of matching, as well as take some time to appreciate the care, effort and passion that has gone into the products that we will be sampling on the night.

As a blogger, I am passionate about Melbourne and Victoria’s food culture, particularly at a grass roots level and I am a great supporter of the events that the Fringe Food Festival organise.

I am honoured to be involved in helping to organise this event that will again showcase some of our best local produce and its providores. And I can guarantee that there will be no Kraft Singles involved.

Advance tickets for April 17 are available here and stay tuned either via farfromfamished or via the most excellent Fringe Food Festival website for more details in the lead up to the event.

Where’s the Beef?

Which is better? Grain-fed or grass-fed beef?

Initially, I guess I didn’t really care; as long as it was a quality piece of beef, cooked in accordance to the cut and to my liking. I could easily give an opinion (informed or otherwise) on what I believe to be the best cut for a steak, whether dry aged is better than wet aged, marbling and how much, when to season your meat, pan or BBQ, etc, etc.

But as for grain versus grass, I have had no opinion; nor frankly do did I care.

Google will, as always, bring up a number of opinions (informed or otherwise) and generally there are three main points of contention. First off, there’s the topic of ethics. In terms of benevolence, when people think about grass-fed moo cows, they think of happy bovines that roam majestically across rich, green pastures without a care in the world. This is opposed to grain-fed cattle, which are fattened on grains and often in feedlots, resulting in a higher than normal growth rate where yield tends to compromise flavour.

But this is not always the case with grain-fed beef. There are ethical, grain fed productions, who focus on a slower growth rate over a longer period of time, resulting in a flavoursome and tender, high quality product.

Verdict: Grass. The greater perception that grass-fed beef is more humane is hard to argue against, regardless of ethically minded grain fed beef. Better still, you should take some time to source your beef from a reputable supplier and understand its origin, feed, rearing, etc and you won’t go wrong.

Secondly, there’s the health debate. Most research is skewed towards grass-fed beef being a much healthier option. Our ideal diet requires a 4:1 balance of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids and these good fats are meant to reduce the risk at heart disease, reduce inflammation and it makes us smarter by promoting a better balance of fatty acid concentration in the brain, which is believed to be particularly supportive in cognitive and behavioural function.

A US study found that beef from grass-fed cattle contained sixty percent more Omega 3 fatty acids and a more favourable Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio, as well as almost double the quantities of beta-carotene and almost three times the amount of Vitamin E. Are sixty percent more Omega 3 fatty acids and a more favourable Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio going to prolong my life beyond 75? Probably not. My liver’s bound to fail me first.

Verdict: Grass. But we’re all going to die anyway.

If none of the above matters, then thirdly, the most important (and interesting) points are flavour and texture. Tender beef is nice, but most people are so concerned about a sourcing a steak with the ultimate tenderness that they simply forget that good beef should actually taste beefy.

God it’s hard… Do I trade flavour for tenderness? Am I satisfied with a marbling score of 6? Did the cow on my plate live a happy life?  WHY IS EVERYTHING SO DAMNED DIFFICULT?

I just want a nice piece of steak [sob].

Fortunately for me, last night the bulk of my pent-up beef frustration dissipated, as I attended one of two experiences that should be compulsory for all Australians (the first is Defensive Driving). As one of a number of excellent events organised through the Fringe Food Festival, last night saw a beef tasting and education night, led by chef Ron O’Bryan at The Vine Hotel in Collingwood.

Ron’s recently taken over The Vine and in keeping with the feel of “a pub that your dad would have gone to”, aesthetically he hasn’t done too much to the place, which is fine by me as it suits the back streets of Collingwood like… well, a good fitting tracksuit. More importantly, the kitchen is the heart and soul of this place and in my opinion there should be more chefs owning pubs – how many times have you been let down by a saggy parma, bad chips or a steak that resembles a pair of Havaianas? You’re not going to get that here. These are pub staples (including a few old school favourites, like crumbed brains and bacon) that are done well.

Anyway, back to the meat. We kicked off proceedings with some mingling over a variety of oysters from Tasmania & South Australia, Red Hill Brewery’s Imperial Stout and an interesting, textural, cloudy white made by Neil Prentice. Neil calls it Reverse Cowgirl, in that it’s crafted using a different technique to your standard (missionary) wine making.

After we were seated, we were presented with a taste of Neil’s other passion: Moondarra Grass-Fed Wagyu, in the form of tartare. A shared charcuterie platter was also placed in the middle of the table, which featured even more of Neil’s passionate handiwork (I was beginning to love this man): wagyu bresola and salami.

Artisan Charcuterie Plate

Several other meats from other producers also featured on the charcuterie board, including a pastrami, chorizo, a pork-based salami and some lovely hand-made pickles. Meat heaven. 

The Wagyu tartare was a pared back version, served only with a cured egg yolk to compliment the richness of the Wagyu, and Pont Neuf (which is a fancy term for a big, fat chip). The usual suspects of shallot, cornichons and so on were not missed, letting the real flavour of the meat speak for itself.

Adam Foster was also on board again, matching his Foster e Rocco Nuovo Sangiovese with the first course. This young red is a versatile drop; its lightness and smooth tannins complimented the meats, with neither dominating the palate.

Next up was our first lesson in attempting to find a difference between grain versus grass. We were each served a generous slice of rump cap from a grain fed bovine and a grass-fed moo cow. Both were prepared and cooked (rare) and rested in the same manner. The grass-fed rump was a far superior, in both taste and texture, whereas the grain fed rump was very tough. Many people around the table left the grain fed rump unfinished, declaring a resounding thumbs up for grass-fed.

Then came the coup de grâce. A selection of grain and grass-fed beef – four different cuts; porterhouse, rump, scotch and another one which escapes me. Our challenge: to enjoy and accurately identify which was which.

The Test

Personally, I struggled to remember which was which, making it very hard when it came to the judging. What made it even more difficult were the ‘pub-appropriate’ sides of battered onion rings, chips, green beans and red wine jus. Deliciously distracting.

For what I thought were the grain fed cuts (porterhouse – bottom of the place, rump – on the left), they were far more tender than the initial grain fed offerings. A little more buttery in flavour too.

However, the grass-fed morsels were again more superior in flavour and texture.

The accompanying Foster e Rocco 2009 Syrahmi (rhymes with salami) Shiraz held its own in an expected steak / red pairing.

We rounded out the night with some locally made Artisan cheeses; a thimble-sized fresh goat’s curd, a washed rind cow’s cheese and a cheddar – all exemplary and washed down with a Foster e Rocco 2010 Syrahmi Mouvedre.

So what did I learn?  I learned that the consensus on the night also leaned towards grass-fed, which although unsurprising, poses an even greater dilemma. The bad news is that the bulk of domestic retail beef sold in Australia is grain fed and unfortunately profit dictates over flavour and quality in a number of ways. 

 To keep up with demand, most beef sold is processed (killed) as yearling beef, which is up to 18 months old. Veal is generally processed at around 10 months. Yearling beef hasn’t lived long enough to develop any flavour. Young Prime Beef is processed at around 36 months. Far superior in flavour, but the math is obvious.

Once your beef has been processed, the next step to give you more flavour on your plate. But there’s wet ageing your meat and then there’s dry aging or hanging your meat, which is vastly different. Your typical supermarket ages its meat for around 14 days via a wet ageing process. Simply, the meat is vacuum packed and refrigerated. Although this process allows for the cells and muscle tissue of the meat to break down, thus naturally tenderising the meat, the ageing process rate of vacuum-packed meat decreases with time, with about 70% of the improvement in tenderness occurring in the first 10 days. It only does so much.

Dry ageing is a process where the entire carcass is hung in an environment with a controlled temperature (2-3 degrees celsius) and humidity (up to 90%) for up to 2 -4 weeks. This process intensifies flavour, however this is also as a result of losing up to 30% of the initial carcass weight due to the loss of moisture. This of course greatly reduces the profits of your average meat seller, who still want to pass on an inferior product at $9.99 / kg.

Basically, we’re stuck with the stuff we get at the local supermarket. They won’t change, but you can. Which is why you need to find a good butcher that knows where his or her meat has come from, how old it was, what it was fed, how long it was aged, how it was aged and so on. Better yet, get along to your local farmers market and buy it (and other goods) straight from the loving source (thanks Alli).

I’m never going to source a 36-month old, grass fed, dry-aged for 30 days piece of beef from Coles. Although such a cut could command a price upward of $50 / kg, quality doesn’t come cheap. And you know what? We’re only meant to eat a moderate amount of red meat, so if you’re willing to buy a little less, spend more on quality and really enjoy your beef, then you won’t need that whopping 450g beast that hangs off your plate. But if you do, then I suggest a colonoscopy every now and again.

Verdict: Buy the best you can afford and enjoy it.