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Why chefs love a curious diner

FREE-RANGE, organic, sustainable, lo-fi, biodynamic, slow, responsibly sourced. The buzzwords keep multiplying but as 2020 unfolds, more diners are taking an interest in finding out where their food is from and how it’s been produced.

It’s a trend Cameron Matthews, Spicers Guesthouse and Spicers Vineyards Estate executive chef, has noticed picking up speed over the past two years. And he couldn’t be happier about it. Increasing awareness of provenance – knowing the origin and production methods of ingredients – will benefit everyone, he says.

Some of us are boning up on produce simply because we’re cooking more. We’re researching the ingredients chefs use, to bring their flair to our home dining tables. But others want to have a clear conscience when they dine out, so they’re demanding greater transparency, higher standards and sustainably raised produce.

Whatever the motivation, Cameron says it is crucial that diners tell restaurants we care about the journey from field to fork.

“When diners show an interest, it shows front-of-house just how important it is to know about provenance. For me, provenance is the most important thing for a waiter to know,” he says.

Eremo executive chef Cam MatthewsExecutive Chef Cam Matthews

“It’s our job as chefs to make the produce shine, but if you don’t have great produce in the first place, you can’t do that.”

Cameron is a sustainability advocate and a Churchill Fellowship recipient who used his fellowship to study ways of improving sustainability in high-end restaurants. For him, provenance is a way of honouring the work farmers put in to raising produce.

But you won’t find masses of jargon and name checks on the menu at Eremo, the modern Italian eatery Cameron helms at Spicers Guesthouse in the Hunter. Less detail on the menu actually encourages diners to engage with waitstaff more, to satisfy their curiosity about ingredients, he says.

It also allows the kitchen to be flexible. The team deals with many small businesses. If specific produce isn’t to be had from a particular supplier temporarily, they need to be transparent about sourcing.

“I prefer information to go through the waitstaff, because if you can’t get a particular product it shouldn’t appear on the menu,” Cameron says. “False provenance is an issue – for example, squid generally comes from Nelson’s Bay but if we can’t get it, I don’t want it to say Nelson’s Bay squid on there.”

Family-owned Burraduc Mozzarella runs an organic buffalo farm at Bungwahl in New South Wales. They’re a painstaking local producer that Matthews is proud to feature on Eremo’s menu.

Eremo pizzaEremo pizza covered in mozarella

“They bring their cheeses in each week and when they arrive, they’re carrying them like a baby,” says Matthews. “We run their buffalo mozzarella on our margherita pizza and they also do a Dolce Nina, a single-origin buffalo curd, which all comes from a buffalo called Nina!”

For this popular chef, creating relationships is key – and it pays dividends on the diners’ plate.

“If you can take a chef out and show them how something is produced, rather than it arriving in a bag at the kitchen door, it creates awareness of the amount of work that’s gone into creating that chicken or even that egg.”

At Spicers Peak Lodge at Maryvale in Queensland’s Scenic Rim region, head chef Dean Alsford takes the same meticulous approach to sourcing ingredients. But his brief is to bring diners the best of Australia on a plate.

Peak head chef Dean AlsfordThe Peak Head Chef Dean Alsford

Wagyu is brought in from South Australia’s award-winning Mayura Station. Saltbush lamb hails from Tasmania’s Flinders Island. Marron comes from Western Australia.

Sommerlad chickens, a heritage breed slow-grown by New South Wales producer Great Northern Poultry, are also on the menu. “When I tried the Sommerlad I was blown away by the depth of flavour the rooster has,” Dean says. “Sometimes we need to look back to the past and see how they did things then.”

Having such specialist produce sparks culinary inspiration.

Beef dish at The Peak restaurantBeef dish from The Peak restaurant

“I like to play around and make the most of these products,” he says. “For example, we make a rooster fat butter with the Sommerlad by rendering the fat out of the chicken skin and adding it to our butter. It’s delicious.

“Many guests haven’t had rooster before, and it really opens their eyes to the possibilities – then we serve the breast in a ballotine with black garlic mash and a truffle jus.”

Another popular choice at the luxury lodge is wild-shot venison from Fair Game near the New South Wales border. “It’s so tender,” Dean says. “We serve it cooked over coals and use beetroot molasses for sweetness, plating it with a terrine of beetroot, beetroot molasses and Daintree Dark Chocolate, the only chocolate that’s grown and made in Australia.”

Daintree chocolate used at The Peak restaurantDaintree Chocolate used at The Peak restaurant

All Spicers Retreat restaurants are members of the GoodFish project, celebrating sustainable seafood. Dean says it’s much trickier than blindly serving overfished favourites, but worth the effort in the long run.

“I’ve got one son and another on the way. I want them to be able to have the same produce that we enjoy, but if we keep on with the same practices they won’t be there. So, we have to change.

“It’s all about giving guests the information and the story behind the produce. So when they go home they will hopefully have cultivated an interest in where their produce is from.”

Venison at The Peak restaurantVenison at The Peak restaurant

DEAN ALSFORD’S WILD SHOT, FAIR GAME VENISON WITH BEETROOT GRATIN AND FERMENTED BLUEBERRIES

Fermented blueberries
Submerge blueberries in a 3% brine (30g salt dissolved into 1 litre water) and leave for a week at room temperature. Once the berries taste sour and salty enough, transfer to fridge.

Beetroot molasses
2 litres fresh beetroot juice
100g sugar
150ml Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar or cider vinegar, if not available
Place in a large pot, bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer and reduce down to 500ml, or until it has a honey-like consistency.

Beetroot and Daintree Dark Chocolate jus
250ml beetroot molasses
200ml beef jus
80g Daintree Dark Chocolate, chilled and cut into pieces
Place jus and molasses in a pot, bring up to a simmer and add the chocolate, one piece at a time, stirring it in. Cool and set aside.

Beetroot terrine
4 large purple beetroots, sliced on a mandolin to a thickness of 1.5mm
300ml beetroot molasses
300ml clarified butter
15g sea salt
Thyme, to taste
Line a terrine mould (30cm x 20cm x 5cm) with baking paper and arrange slices of beetroot neatly into a single layer. Brush with butter, then add another layer of beetroot, this time brushing with molasses. Season with salt.
Continue this way until mould is filled, alternating between butter and molasses between layers. When you’ve layered all the beetroot, place baking paper on top and press down with a weighted tray.
Bake at 150C, for two hours. Remove from oven and chill in fridge, with weight in place. When cold, turn out of tray and portion.

Beetroot purée
1kg large purple beetroot
Salt
Oil
Preheat oven to 180C. Toss beetroots in oil and salt and place in a tray. Cover with foil and bake until soft. While still warm, peel and chop into medium chunks and transfer to a blender. Blitz on high until smooth. Season to taste.

Venison
120g backstrap

To assemble:
Place a portion of beetroot terrine in a preheated 200C oven for 8 minutes. Season venison well and seal under a hot grill (or pan-fry until sealed on both sides).

Baste with some beetroot molasses and put in oven for 4 more minutes. Allow to rest in a warm place for 5 minutes

Slice fermented blueberries and layer over the terrine, similar to fish scales. Warm the beetroot purée and place a spoonful on plate. Slice venison into medallions and season, arrange next to puree.

Transfer warm terrine with blueberries and place it next to venison. Sauce with beetroot chocolate jus.

Words by Fiona Donnelly. 

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