roasted figs with honey, cointreau and mint. and contemplation

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I’ve been contemplative today. Unsettled and ruminative; mostly about life itself, the short time that we grace the planet, the responsibility that comes with a time-limited existence. It’s mostly due to reading this blog post from Matt Treadwell yesterday, alongside this article in The West Australian.

Life is short. We are born, we breathe, we leave our tread on temperamental sand. Then, in a moment, we’re extinguished. Our flesh dissolves, leaving nothing but dust and scattered memories.

Those memories should mean something. Not necessarily on a global scale, through acclaim or notoriety; but rather, by leaving our homes in a better condition than when we arrived. By ‘home’, I’m referring to more than our personal structures of wood our brick; I mean our neighbourhoods, the earth and its people.

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First and foremost, I want to invest my life into those I love, the people who swell my heart when I wake in the morning. I want to feed my family, to turn the soil, to provide nourishment, love and generosity. Secondly, I want to give to those less fortunate than myself. That principle is embedded in my faith and in my heart, and I’ve felt an increasing urgency towards demonstration.

Complacency is the enemy of effectiveness. Oblivion breeds ignorance. We should encourage neither.

I should probably apologise as so far, this post has become both bleak and multi-faceted. In an attempt to confine my thoughts, I’m choosing just one issue for the rest of this post: nourishment, growth and tending the earth we walk upon.

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I feel blessed to be part of a community of bloggers who often share similar thoughts to my own, so apologies if I’m preaching to the converted. But I’d like to take a moment to talk about unsprayed, natural, organic food that’s sold from earth-stained hands, not the supermarket duopoly. Perishable, imperfect, seasonal food that both nourishes and protects our bodies. The way nature intended.

If or when we have children, I’d like them to know how to grow their own food, how to nourish the earth and live lightly on this fragile planet. I want them to eat oranges in winter, broad beans in spring and squash in the summer heat. Supermarkets have led to general ignorance about seasonal food, mostly as importation of produce and cold preservation leads to year-round availability.

Convenient? Yes. Natural? Hell no.

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Now, I’m not knocking those of you who shop at supermarkets occasionally, particularly for dry goods or other products that aren’t available at the markets. I do the same myself; I give in to convenience or necessity. However, for both health reasons and ‘green reasons’, I do feel that it’s our responsibility to support those who are trying to make an imprint on the earth through growing natural, unsprayed and organic produce for wider sale. It’s better for the ecosystem, for the next generation and most of all, for our bodies.

Two years ago, I discovered a wonderful blog called Whole Larder Love. It’s written by a ‘grubby bush kid’ named Rohan Anderson who cooks, harvests, fishes and hunts his own fresh produce in country Victoria, Australia. Rohan has since gone on to write a book whilst also starting up a small business, supplying fresh, organic fruit and vegetable boxes to hungry folks in Melbourne and surrounding suburbs.

Last week, Rohan wrote this blog post calling for help to sustain his business. Due to insufficient orders, he’s currently operating below costs. For reasons of disclosure, I don’t know Rohan and I have no personal investment in his business. I’m writing purely in support of one guy who is trying to make a difference, to support his family and the next generation. If you live in Melbourne or surrounding areas, I’d encourage you to read this blog post and take a look at his shop.

For those who live over the west side, I’ve compiled a list of equivalents in our local area who provide good, local, organic, natural food.

Market:

Box deliveries:

Or even better, if you have the space, grow your own.

Now, after that huge rant, here’s a recipe using one of my absolute favourite fruits of the season: fresh figs, which are presently being harvested in fragrant abundance. Over the past week, my beautiful colleague Belinda brought in two bags of these beauties for me, handpicked from her neighbour’s tree. We ate them, warm from the oven with homemade pistachio ice cream, crumbled shortbread and sighs of sweet content.

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Roasted Figs with Honey, Cointreau and Mint

Serves 4-8

  • 8 large fresh figs
  • 2 tbsp good quality honey
  • about 1 tbsp Cointreau (substitute Grand Marnier or another triple sec)
  • ground cinnamon
  • fresh mint, washed and finely shredded, to serve (optional)

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C (400 degrees f). Line a heavy flat baking tray with parchment.

Cut each fig in half, then lay each cut side up onto the baking tray. Drizzle over the honey and Cointreau, then sprinkle each with a little cinnamon.

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Place into the oven and roast until fragrant, bubbling and slightly golden around the edges.

Serve immediately, sprinkled with mint and topped with any syrup from the baking tray, Fabulous with ice cream, marscapone or double cream.

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the mess guide to: melbourne

Today is Tuesday November 27th, 2012. In two days, it will be exactly one month since my last post for Mexican Corn Salad which, as you might remember, promised a follow up recipe for a Roasted Beetroot Salad within a week or two. Well… as you know, that didn’t happen. And to break with blogsphere tradition, I’m not really very sorry. Mostly due to the fact that I’ve spent the last month doing really worthwhile stuff such as managing the floristry for a friend’s wedding, traveling to Melbourne, Victoria for my own wedding anniversary (our first!) and hanging out with my brother in law and his girlfriend who are moving to the United Kingdom at the end of the year.

Oh, and I learnt to crochet. Not an easy thing for someone who has a natural aversion to craft. Thanks to the teaching of my beautiful friend Krystel, I’ve mastered basic crochet to the point that I’ve completed about half of a natural wool scarf. By next Winter, I’m hoping that it will be a speckled forest green and taupe version of Dr Who’s scarf that I can wear proudly like the closet nerd I am. Watch this space.

Anyway, despite recent distractions I have spent portions of the past month researching new ingredients and recipes in both Western Australia and Victoria. Part of this ‘research’ involved sampling lots of amazing food in the city of Melbourne whilst shopping for rich spices, organic Dutch cocoa, fresh broad beans and thyme-infused honey at local markets. Rest assured that this dedicated effort will eventually benefit you (the hypothetical reader) in the form of future recipe posts… I’ve already scribbled some notes.

By this point, you may be wondering what the rest of this post is about, since I’ve spent the past month doing lots of eating and not enough recipe testing. After some contemplation I thought I’d write a bit of a ‘guide’ to the ingredients and hole-in-the-wall cafes that we found over the past month… mostly as an interim post whilst I continue to write my next recipe, but also to inspire your own personal exploring next time you go to Melbourne or elsewhere.

So, here it is, the first Mess Guide. It’s mostly about the culinary delights of Melbourne but you might find a few snippets about other interesting things too (emphasis on ‘might’). Buckle up, salivate and enjoy… next recipe post ETA: one week. And yes, you can slap me if I lie.

Melbourne

For those of you who are yet to experience this city, Melbourne is the bustling capital of Australia’s smallest mainland state, Victoria. Located on the South East coastline of Australia, it’s unofficially referred to as the nation’s ‘cultural capital’, mostly due to the fact that it was the birthplace of Australian film and television, Australian Rules football, Vegemite, the Heidelberg School (Australia’s Impressionist art movement), the Bionic Ear and… well, pretty much everything else of Australian cultural value.

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating. Just a little bit. But Melbourne is pretty awesome, especially if you enjoy live music, small bars, organic food and cobblestone roads that greet you with an icy kick before ushering you into the embrace of a cozy, ten-seater cafe. Not just any cafe, but one that’s decorated with ceiling-suspended chairs that swing above the barista’s head as he brews the best single-origin coffee you’ve consumed in your life. Yep, I’m talking about Brother Baba Budan, a tiny specialty coffee shop at 359 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne CBD. It’s just one of many small establishments we visited over the course of one and a half weeks. Other awesome places to go for coffee include:

  • Dead Man Espresso – 35 Market Street, South Melbourne. This little cafe requires a tram ride from the CBD but it’s worth it for their quality single-origin coffee, local Warialda beef, Istra smallgoods and Melbourne Rooftop Honey. They also do burgers and beer on Friday nights with their very own ketchup, mayo and BBQ sauce. Delicious.
  • St Ali Coffee Roasters – 12-18 Yarra Place, South Melbourne. Just down the road from Dead Man lies a converted warehouse that’s the enemy of uniformity. It’s a tumble of cluttered furniture, colourful murals, upturned pot-plants and mismatched chairs that somehow manages to feel both roomy and intimate. Aaron & I both tried ‘My Mexican Cousin’, their specialty dish that consists of crisp sweetcorn fritters, molten haloumi, steamed ruby chard, baby spinach and their own recipe kasundi, crowned with softly poached free-range eggs ($21.50). It was ridiculously good, especially when paired with blaring, old-school 90’s hip hop and their own blend of rich, creamy, no-sugar-needed coffee. So, so good.
  • The Breakfast Club – 206 St George’s Road, Northcote. This little cafe is a little out of the way for non-locals. In fact, you can easily get lost once you disembark the tram (we did… make sure you check your GPS!). But despite directional confusion, this place is worth the trip for their ‘Stax Toast’ ($10) alone… imagine lemony, herby homemade pesto atop creamy avocado with Danish feta and cherry tomatoes, all piled on toasted organic sourdough. Assemble as you like, crunch and gnaw, chew, then swallow. Ah… sigh with sweet content. The coffee is good too.
  • Seven:am – 155 Bay Street, Port Melbourne. This eclectic little cafe off busy Bay Street has a really ‘homey’ feel to it, right down to their mismatched crockery and recycled timber bench tops. If you’re lucky, you might even see an old Alf plush toy mounted on their wall next to a bicycle. But anyway, decor aside, seven:am is definitely worth a visit if you’re in their part of the world. A sample of the menu includes soft, creamy scrambled eggs with homemade chilli jam on seeded sourdough, a delicious home-made granola and ‘the emporer’ (sic) which is pretty much eggs benedict with bacon and beetroot relish. It’s delicious, despite the annoying spelling gremlin.

Okay, so on to my next trick: alcoholic beverages. Melbourne has some of the most interesting boutique bars you’re likely to find anywhere, usually tucked down a darkened alleyway or accessible via rambling stairs. As long as you don’t mind a little intrigue (think: dangerous skip bins, slippery stairs, graffiti murals, lack of signage and/or cobblestones with piles of vomit) the city is your alcoholic oyster. Chew or swallow? It’s up to you.

  • The Croft Institute – 21 Croft Alley, Melbourne CBD (see photo above, top and photos directly below). An interesting little bar that resembles a high school science lab, tucked down a slightly dodgy-looking alleyway in bustling Chinatown. Alongside the usual suspects, you’ll find a boutique wine list, some interesting cocktails in ‘syringes’ and a penchant for everything Chartreuse. Definitely worth a visit if you’re a fan of test tubes.
  • 1806 – 169 Exhibition Street, Melbourne CBD (photo above, bottom). A visit to 1806 is an experience like no other. From their ridiculously comprehensive cocktail book (spanning 200 years of alcoholic beverages) to their impeccably trained staff and balanced mixes, this place runs like a perfectly oiled, top-notch machine. During our ten days we visited twice; firstly to their basement bar, the Understudy (a whimsical, experimental establishment staffed by the next generation of 1806 bartenders-in-training) before venturing into the main, street-level bar filled with historical cocktails, Chesterfield lounges and suit jackets. In a word? Love. Each cocktail was a perfectly balanced reflection of professional mixology, presented with warmth, confidence and flair. A highlight was Irvin S Cobb’s Julep. a delicious muddle of Maker’s Mark, Appleton’s VX Rum, mint and gomme. If you’re downstairs, make sure you try the Eden Milk Punch, an intriguing mix of organic soy milk, dried lavender and Beefeater gin. Strangely delicious.
  • Naked for Satan – 285 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. Now, before you make any assumptions, let me get something straight. This place encourages neither nudity or satanism, though you will see some homage to the 1950’s pin-up on both their website and at the bar itself. Rather, it’s a quirky split-level bar with an amazing list of house-infused vodkas (see their full list here), cocktails, exclusive beers, wines and ciders that are served with a smile. This place also provides the cheapest bar snacks around (in fact, they were awarded Cheap Eats Bar of the Year in 2010). It’s just $1 per pintxos (pronounced ‘pinchos’… they’re basically little rounds of bread adorned with deliciousness that’s impaled on a toothpick) so you can soak up your alcohol til your heart’s content. You also pay by an honour system… keep those toothpicks to show the cashier upon exiting.
  • Brunswick Street Cider House – 386 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. Just up the street from Naked is a beautiful establishment that celebrates organic and biodynamic produce. Their main focus is upon Australian and international craft ciders and beers, however they also have a limited, certified organic wine list. Their food menus are impressive, and include a range of grazing plates, soups, salads, seasoned fries, sweet cider-infused apple pies and succulent burgers sandwiched in fresh brioche. You can also try a liqueur milkshake or ‘cider spider’ (cider with a scoop of icecream) for a truly boozy experience.

Now, after all that alcohol you’re going to need some proper nourishment. Yep, food. Cue my personal tour (in text form) of some of the best little eateries around. We spent approximately ten days ‘researching’ all of the amazing food options in Melbourne, so have a little read, check a map, then wander and consume at your leisure. Then do it all again tomorrow.

  • Trunktown – 275 Exhibition Street, Melbourne CBD (photo below). Occupying the garden corner of Exhibition and Lonsdale Streets, Trunktown opened its doors in 2007 and has since become a firm favourite amongst local foodies and visitors alike.  It’s name was inspired by a 150 year old, heritage-listed Coral tree on the property which I’ve never actually seen, but I trust it’s there. The full service restaurant and bar offers an Italian-and-Spanish-fusion inspired menu (tip: try their beetroot and goat’s cheese salad, and the huge portion of chocolate mousse with homemade rum and raisin icecream and peanut brittle) whilst the half-day diner next door serves satisfying quesadillas, waffles, Wagyu beef burgers and sweet American-style pies. There’s also an exceptional wine list focusing on local wine producers as well as Spanish blends. So, so good.
  • Santa Ana – 138 Acland Street, St Kilda. This little tapas restaurant is an authentic, Latin American gem in the heart of St Kilda. Focusing on Argentinian, Chilean and Spanish food, you’re guaranteed to walk out the door with a satisfied smile on your face… unless, of course, you’re vegan. The Latinos aren’t very inclusive of those who dislike carne. During our visit, we ate authentic Asado BBQ meat drenched in chimichurri with a range of delicious sides. Absolutely delicious, especially when washed down with Spanish coffee, Mexican sodas and Latino hospitality.
  • Terra Rossa – 87 Flinders Lane, Melbourne CBD. This warm, inviting restaurant is located in the heart of the historic Swiss House building on Flinders Lane. They produce stylish, fresh and inspired food that focuses on local ingredients and… well, cheese. About 70% of the dishes on their menu (possibly non-intentionally) contains some kind of cheese which is delicious, but slightly off-putting if you’re not into tasty yellow beef. Despite this, I’d definitely recommend a visit. Try their gorgeous polenta chips, slow cooked pork belly and grilled asparagus with prosciutto. Delicious.
  • The Oriental Tea House – 378 Little Collins Street, Melbourne CBD. I don’t like chain restaurants. In part by principle but mostly because I feel that expansion via franchise prohibits the maintenance of consistency within a restaurant chain. Think McDonalds. I’m pretty sure most of us have had one or more satisfying experiences followed by subsequent visit that produces limp, cold fries and a dry cheeseburger with a watered-down Coke. Franchising = danger to the brand, in my opinion. Anyway, why am I standing on my soap box right now? Well, The Oriental Tea House is… wait for it… a franchise chain. So far there are four restaurants and it’s open for expansion. But despite this fact, I admit that it’s darn good. We’ve only been to the Little Collins Street venue so far but each experience has offered consistent, deliciously succulent and fresh dumplings with perfect greens and house-blended tea that’s served in insulated cups. If you want to discover where it all began, you can also visit the Tea House’s founder at his own independent restaurant, David’s Country Shanghai at 4 Cecil Place in Prahran.
  • Yamato – 28 Corrs Lane, Melbourne CBD. Deep in the heart of Chinatown is a family-run Japanese restaurant that serves fresh sashimi, deep-fried eggplant and some of the best tempura I’ve had in Australia, period. We wandered into Yamato very late on a weeknight with acidic bellies and the staff were warm, welcoming and homely. Definitely try their eggplant and the seaweed salad with cups of steaming, toasty green tea. This was one of the cheaper meals we’ve had in Melbourne, but it was satisfying in every way.
  • Cumulus, Inc. – 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne CBD. Cumulus is a Melbourne institution. It’s been listed in The Age ‘Good Food Guide’ for three years in a row (2010-2012) and it’s consistently packed with hungry Melbournites munching on charcuterie, ortiz anchovies, grass-fed beef and rum baba. We visited Cumulus for breakfast rather than dinner, but it’s open til 11pm daily for dinner or share plates. It’s definitely a place for a positive food experience, especially if you’re accompanied by beautiful friends like we were. Thanks Rach and Jordan.

This post has become significantly longer than I first intended, but I’ve finally reached my favourite bit: stockists of fresh produce. If you’re a keen cook, a keen eater (married to, friends with or dating a keen cook) or you’re just like dabbling in different flavours, this section is definitely for you. I was like a kid sipping on red cordial in a candy store at Christmas.

  • Queen Victoria Market – 513 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne CBD. A visit to the QVM is a ‘must’ for anyone who loves variety, freshness and value for money. It’s divided into ten vast sections: the Deli Hall, Elizabeth Street Shops, F shed laneway, Vic Market Place Food Court, Fruit and Vegetables, The Meat Hall, Organics, General Merchandise, Victoria Street Shops and the Wine Market. Pretty much anything you need to create a recipe can be found here… and at a competitive price too. The market is also implementing a lot of ‘green friendly’ and ‘sustainable’ practices such as a recycling system and a ban on plastic bags. Gotta love a market with a conscience.
  • Prahran Market – 163 Commercial Road, South Yarra. This indoor establishment on the outskirts of the CBD is Melbourne’s oldest food-only public market. It specialises in heirloom vegetables, local Victorian produce, sustainable seafood, fair trade coffee and artisan foodstuffs… feelgood produce. There are also a few cafes around the central market square that serve fresh and delicious snacks such as gozleme, sushi rolls, vegan salads and felafel.
  • The Essential Ingredient – several locations including Prahran Market, South Yarra. In a word, this shop is… overwhelming. In a completely positive sense. I am quite sure that I spent at least half an hour just wandering around in a happy daze, inspecting copper pots, beautiful crockery, recipe books and rare ingredients to the bewildered amusement of my husband. I can honestly say that 99% of the ingredients I’ve never been able to find elsewhere were present in this shop. It’s an ingredient ‘mecca’, and I’d encourage you to make a pilgrimage if you’ve ever experienced one of those frustrated “I can’t find it anywhere” meltdowns. I’ll be back to visit as soon as the budget allows!
  • Gewürzhaus – several locations including Collins Street, Melbourne CBD (‘Cocos’ organic coconut sugar and harissa from this store are pictured below). ‘Gewürzhaus’ means ‘spice house’ in German… and that’s exactly what this little shop in The Block Arcade is. Upon entry, you’ll be enticed by beautifully packaged jars and containers in a kaleidoscope of colours ranging from smoky red harissa to deep, dark Mayan chocolate spice. You’ll be pleased to know that they mill all of their own single origin herbs and spices before mixing them into spice selections for ease of use. You can also buy whole ingredients such as nutmeg, Morel mushrooms, organic cacao beans and dried Ancho chillies onsite or via their website’s shopping function. I also bought some cute wooden teaspoons, an earthenware bowl and a glazed serving dish at this shop… the last item via a return “I have to have it” trip. It’s beautifully dangerous, I tell you. Set a budget before visiting.
  • Loving Earth – now, this brand doesn’t have a ‘store’ as such, but rather it’s a Melbourne based company that only sells certified organic, fair trade, sustainably sourced and responsible produce of a nutritious nature. By ‘nutritious’, I mean that they use produce in a raw, minimally-processed state as much as possible whilst still creating delicious, superfood-packed products suitable for everyday consumption. Click on the link and take a look at their website… they sell a lot of products online (such as their amazing raw, organic cacao and agave chocolate with crunchy mint pieces) whilst also stocking them in many a health food store around the country. Do your body good, give them a go and support sustainable farming in the process.

So that’s it… the ten day Mess Guide to the beautiful Victorian city of Melbourne. If you’re visiting, I hope you enjoy it just as much as we did.

I’ll leave you with a picture and some information about one last Melbourne icon that’s worth visiting if you’re ever in the Chapel Street precinct. It’s called the Chapel Street Bazaar and… well, it’s slightly bizarre (pun intended, picture below). Located at 217 Chapel Street, Prahran, this eclectic establishment is a reclaimed old arcade that has now been filled with 70-vendors-worth of vintage, retro and unique items ranging from televisions to original gas masks from World War II. We ended up buying an original old milk bottle whilst also testing out rusted flour mills, misaligned bicycles and old shoes. It’s slightly expensive (not at all like St Vincent De Paul or a thrift store) but worth a trip if you want to spend a quality hour frolicking down memory lane.

Thanks, as always, for reading. You are great. It is now Wednesday, 28th November 2012. I need to go to bed.

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