Saturday, December 29, 2007

homeward bound

Well, there was more baking, more chocolate and there was more proper activity. A few more farm walks, I pedalled a few laps of some of the paddocks while the boys played with the motorbikes, and we had a few hits of tennis (I’m so bad at it!) and on the gorgeously sunny boxing day we did make it to the beach AND managed to make this spectacular sand castle.

We packed so much into every day, yet felt completely relaxed the whole time, it was more in retrospect that we realised in one day we’d baked (twice), played tennis, gone to the beach (twice) and spent a fair bit of time just hanging around. Other days were similarly busy and it passed all too quickly before we had to pile our luggage into my mum’s toy car and drive back to Melbourne for our flight home. Not before catching up with a few more friends at a pub, riverside. Melbourne is more gorgeous now than it was when I was a student there, though I am very happy living in London. I was sorry not to have spent more time with my Australian friends, it was all too short, sorrier still I didn’t see some at all, though this always happens, and glad that this time I got to see some I’d missed the last time. It’s amazing how quickly the years pass and how when you return after not seeing people for so long it all feels so easy still.

What will I miss? My dad’s breadmaker bread, made from flour he mills himself, the sunshine, trying more of the restaurants and discovering all the food changes that occur in my absence, being able to go to the farm and relax and eat my mother’s famous chips. I’ll miss walking along the beach. Mostly I’ll miss the people, especially my delightful niece and nephew who made Christmas so special.

Back to Old Blighty. Does anyone know why it’s called that? I could Google it I suppose… Except I’m writing this on the plane and there’s no search engine up here… In fact there’s not much of anything on this plane, no personal TVs, not even a personal air conditioning vent! Good on the way out with back to back night flights we slept, with no distractions to watch films, I’ve managed to fill almost the entire twelve hour flight to Shanghai with a thick and very addictive novel bought for me by my Holly for Christmas. Perhaps I’ll nap on tomorrow’s flight.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Ain't no sunshine while we're here...

We keep getting scolded for bringing the weather with us. But it’s not true! Most of the days we have had here have been sunny and nice! Well, maybe slightly more than have been raining. Today it is cool. Time for scrabble and films. Might as well have stayed in the UK! Though I would rather this than the high thirties they are predicting for the week after we leave. Especially this is suitable weather for a sweet-toothed frenzy. Mind you, all of the desserts I’ve made so far are cold ones: chocolate ripple cake, the biscuits soaked in cherry juice; a chocolate-cherry cake; and a loganberry marscapone trifle. The chocolate-cherry cake was pretty ordinary. I was glad I didn’t use all of the good chocolate in it. If I’d had cocoa (forgot to buy cocoa, silly) I would have swapped it for some of the flour and I should have left out the lemon rind as my gut instinct was telling me. It was a confusion of being a fruit cake and a chocolate cake, and not in a good way. I love the combination of chocolate and cherries though (the chocolate ripple cake was divine) so I might have another go at the recipe. There’s still more baking to do before I leave, to use up more of the ingredients I bought. We might have to get up to something more active than one gorgeous walk along the bush tracks though!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

the best meal ever (so far...)

Wow. What a meal. That is the best meal I have had so far in my life. True, I have a lot more restaurants to try but previously I would have struggled to pick a favourite meal. Not so anymore.

In the six non-consecutive nights we had in Melbourne we managed to fit in meals at Taxi, Vue de Monde, Koko and Jacques Raymond. There are so many incredible restaurants in Melbourne and not enough time to go to all, but these seemed like a good selection. We were gluttons at all of them, accepting the full menu at two of the four. At Vue de Monde this was the ten course Gourmande menu. Gourmande, meaning someone who eats a lot, very appropriate. Of the ten courses, plus amuse bouche, palette cleansers and petits fours, only two were just ok, and the rest were outstanding. There was a lot of food theatre at the table, but a meal is partly about entertaining and the smoking bowls, the dry ice drinks and the bouillabaisse made at the table in a 1970s coffee machine were all delicious as well as entertaining to watch. I hate going out for a meal and receiving a dish I feel I could have made better myself. Only the chocolate dishes here were in that category (and maybe the cheese course). All of the other dishes were far beyond my culinary abilities, the creativity was inspiring and the ingredients both difficult to obtain and luxurious (too expensive for an amateur like me to experiment with!). Flavours were perfectly matched to be interesting, complementary and without overwhelming each other. Challenging the palette without distracting from the quality of the ingredients. Our first dish of salmon, with smoked, fresh, mousse, foam and jerky set the standards for intensity of flavour and variety of texture. The crayfish mousse wrapped in courgette (zuchinni here) and topped with a buerre noisette sat in a shallow Provençal vegetable soup with crayfish pieces was a favourite of all of us. Just divine. The first dessert course matched our first savoury in strength of flavour and texture variety, this time the central ingredient was raspberry: a raspberry mousse on crisp rice flavoured with raspberry and dotted with snap-frozen raspberries. On the side of the bowl was a raspberry cannelloni (striped raspberry sugar shell) filled with raspberry rice pudding and drizzled with a raspberry coulis. Yum, yum, yum and yum. The service was friendly and knowledgeable though I was surprised that after one of the servers knocked my brother’s glass of red wine over me (the poor waitress) they didn’t refill his glass and though the manager came with his card and offered to pay the dry cleaning, they didn’t offer any discount on the meal. Strange.

Of the five courses at Jacques Raymond only two were really good. The others seemed, to me, to be an attempt to be too clever, pairing strange ingredients that didn’t quite gel. Steamed spinach and dehydrated strawberries is an interesting idea but not particularly compelling and especially not next to vegetables I can't remember decorated with rubbery slivers of black truffle, a special “extra” we were persuaded to have. A piece of pumpkin laquered with palm sugar and miso, served on a vanilla puree with coriander, fennel and a soy and sake glaze was suberb, however. It was obvious when the ingredients weren’t as high quality, and too many of them weren’t. It isn’t like me to be too critical and I guess I just had too high expectations after hearing it was given best restaurant for 2008. Perhaps they were foreseeing better things for the coming year than they were able to produce for mid-December 2007? Though it’s considerably less expensive than Vue de Monde I’d still rather pay more and eat there.

Taxi was fabulous. Great quality food, beautifully plated. Slow service but pleasant enough. I was taunted by a cherry mousse with a Valhrona centre that had one tiny square of Manjari in the middle of cherry-hinted warm air. It had me (and my brother) digging into the chocolate stashes at home. With the views of the Yarra and the relaxed and comfortable atmosphere, and obviously the great food overall, I would definitely go there again.

Koko reminded me of an episode of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares where the chef was scolded for cooking everything on the grill and Gordon told him it was making all the food taste the same. We had teppanyaki. Our first course of sushi and sashimi was fantastic and the quality of the seafood and meat cooked to follow could not be argued with, but I kind of missed the impressive plating and accompanying sauces that normally happens in these restaurants. Even though we were given three bowls of sauces each to dip into as we pleased, somehow sloshing a bit of soy over the sizzling steak and a dab of butter and squeeze of lemon on the toothfish made it just seem less magical. But I guess everything just pales now in comparison to Vue du Monde... But I'm happy to face up to the challenge of trying to beat the best meal title in 2008!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

All-Australian Experience

I hadn’t expected this to be as much of a holiday as it is so far turning out to be. We’ve spent the most of the last few days in planes and cars, baptising the man to true Aussie experiences. On the first day we made it to the beach (albeit only the sand, the water wasn't too inviting), on the second a barbie with my friends, on the third we flew to Sydney and climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge. An All-Australian experience for our first few days. At this point it finally rained, leaving him questioning the insults he receives about the weather in the UK, but it made the walk up the steel pylons all the more adventurous!

We’ve been treated to gorgeous seafood spreads and this morning a tropical fruit spread with fresh croissants before heading to the airport to fly back to Melbourne. We also saw Australian animals (and more) at the Taronga Zoo and swam in the beach at Noosa. We were completely spoiled in Brisbane with seafood followed by sparkling wine in the hot tub and a swim in the outdoor pool in the morning.

A giraffe with Sydney in the background (!). We went for lunch in the viewing tower you might be able to make out in the distance. Don't bother unless you are just going for the seafood. It's ok but I'm not a huge fan of buffets at the best of times, I like the choice but hate that the lack of focus that usually means most things aren't great, or that they have been sitting in the warmer for hours. The view is lovely though. I did get to introduce the man to some Aussie desserts though: Lamingtons, Cherry Ripe Slice, Caramel Slice. Unfortunately not the greatest examples of these, I might have to make some with the kids over Christmas.

The only blip in our fabulous Northern side trip was this:

He was actually ON the toilet roll when I started to pull it. Needless to say, I screamed. I don't mind spiders, unless they surprise me in a small room at such close quarters. I was just grateful I had only just closed the door and could escape quickly!! (And that there was another toilet in the house.)

Back in Melbourne, we've got a few fancy meals planned while we're here. Taking advantage of the fact that nice restaurants are slightly cheaper here than restaurants of a similar quality in London. Tomorrow night we're off to Vue de Monde, given the Best Restaurant in Melbourne for 2007 title. As we can't try them all we might as well try the best!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Lazy last weekend in London (with Chocolate Wine)

I love lazy weekends. I have needed one. These last six weeks have been hectic and living the last four months in just one room of what was a one-bed flat has made weekends at home pretty unappealing. We finally got the carpet laid last week and moved all the furniture last weekend (ok, he mostly moved the furniture, I ate chocolate, but it was my birthday, so that's ok right?).

Last Friday evening was magical. We went to Somerset House to go iceskating, and I managed to stop thinking that I might fall and have my fingers sliced off by blades, and just relaxed into skating and gazing at the gorgeous building that surrounded this sparkly circle reflecting the coloured lights all around. Mulled wine, music and a brisk pre-Christmas evening.

So despite it being a "lazy" weekend I have done quite a lot of my backlog of filing and emails and feeling reasonable proud of myself. I also managed to find time to make a scrumptious chocolate and berry pudding and to have Sunday lunch at a friend's house. Where we drank this wine:

How cool is this? It concerned me that they'd named it so because it was quite high in tannins and therefore slightly bitter but it was delicious with dinner.