Thursday, October 29, 2009

Just popping down to the local

Is it me, my teenage and young adult kids, or is it society in general that is embracing café culture as an alternative to the pub culture from the “olden days”(ie anytime before 1990).

The meeting place of choice in our house is The BeansTalk (capitals intended), a local café in Thirroul. We eschew the two pubs in Thirroul and the one in Bulli, to get together to chew the fat (and the delicious caramel kisses) at The Bean – as it’s affectionately abbreviated amongst those in the know.

It has a laid-back coolness about it, veering between nondescript and arty, with regularly changing exhibitions of mostly local artists hanging on the walls. The interior is cool and reasonably spacious, but it’s outside where the cool kids sit – a prime vantage point on the corner of the main road, so that you can see who is walking or driving past and be seen.

The tables out the front used to enjoy a beautiful large shady fig tree that was recently cut down in on-going council work in the area. Now, there are still two smaller trees remaining, the large umbrellas and personal parasols on offer to provide the rest of the shade. Further external decoration is provided by one (or more) Vespas owned by one of the café owners and giving a certain European feel to the café.

Imagine the sexy Vespa, just out of shot, to the right

Café going in our home has moved on from the occasional coffee with friends, or celebratory breakfast, to a place where, if they might not know your name, they certainly know your face and coffee order. The BeansTalk is now the place of choice for a quick takeaway, or a leisurely Saturday morning, as enjoyed by Dan who will start with coffee with a friend before work, join Rick, Allira and I after we visit the library for second breakfast, have a juice with a group of mates and then join Nick & Lauren for lunch when they make their way down.

And so, to the food. They keep it simple for breakfast, with bacon & egg Turkish rolls or scrambled eggs, ham & cheese or plain croissants. For the sweet tooth, there’s French toast dripping with maple syrup, blueberry bagels with cream cheese, banana and honey or fresh fruit salad with yoghurt.

Lunch favourites are deliciously flaky pastry spinach & cheese quiche (pictured), samosas, vege rolls, French “gottas” – open sandwiches with a variety of toppings, mainly vegetable & feta and toasted sandwiches, all served with or without salad.

There are also the ubiquitous banana, pear & raspberry or fruit & nut bread; as well as friands, cookies and caramel kisses (really just old-school caramel slice, cut in rounds).

Mmmm...tasty treats

Freshly squeezed fruit juices are always good, and at the BeansTalk, they keep the glasses in the freezer so that half the glass isn’t filled up with ice-cubes. My favourite juice is apple, orange and carrot. Nick has apple, pineapple and ginger.

The coffee at the Bean is usually pretty good. The mochas are chocolately without being sickly sweet. The temperature is drinkable without burning your tongue. And the service is equally speedy, whether grabbing a takeaway or having it there.

Back to shooting down to your local. I am being tempted by a newly opened café in Woonona – Jaffa, though it is a little further afield. (I mean, I could walk to BeansTalk, just because I don’t, doesn’t mean I can’t…) Cucina in Thirroul is also good – and has amazing salads, which I will talk about in a later post. One on Park down near the beach in Woonona is also great (and also a subject for a later post) – and being on the bike track is very convenient.

BeansTalk is open seven days a week, from early (in time for a commuter coffee during the week) till around 4’ish. It’s on the corner of Lawrence Hargrave Drive & Railway Parade.

So where’s your local? Is it the local pub or a café? Do they know your name or just your coffee order – which is all they need to know!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Tour of The Sydney Fish Markets

There’s not much that will get me out of bed at 4.30am. A sick child (maybe), the cat meowing outside our bedroom door (to go outside via our bedroom window) and a visit to the Seafood Markets for a behind the scenes tour with Justin North – 2009 Chef of the Year and owner/ chef of Becasse and Etch.

We arrived there way too early, thanks to fortuitous green lights between Wollongong and Pyrmont. The tours of the Fish Market run all year around, but due to the Sydney International Food Festival, the tour guides were joined by top chefs to give their tips on cooking with seafood.

After we all had a coffee and just-baked pastry, we donned our fetching orange safety vests to go out onto the market floor. A tip from Sophie the marketing assistant to roll up our pants so they don’t get soaked in “fish juice” was appreciated, and perhaps explained her towering heels.

Our tour guide, Matthew, gave us a brief run-down of the history of the market, that now runs on a co-op type basis. We were taken to the "observation deck" where we could see the huge hall with large display screens and hundreds of crates of seafood.

The seafood market is a wholesalers market, selling mainly on behalf of the boats. From what I understand of the way it works is (and I did wander off to take some photos):
There’s a “clock” that whilst displaying the time (running backwards) also runs down a dollar amount. It also displays the seller, the type & grade of seafood and whether the buy is active or not. There’s bidders that bid per crate in this reverse auction. That’s as much detail as you’ll get from me, maybe I tuned out when Matthew said you only need $200 to register as a buyer, but a $10,000 bond is also required and payment is usually required on the day. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to stand and watch it. If I’d thought of it, we would have gone back after the tour to soak up some more atmosphere and understand the system better.

We then walked down through the buyers tiered seats to the floor of the markets, to check out the different seafood in the crates. Only Matthew and Justin could touch the fish, which was fine – and they did offer to let us smell it. Justin was very generous in his tips and tricks and I wish I’d brought notepad and paper.

Lots of advice on making stocks – herbs, spices, pernod & wine. And then add cream or extra liquid to use as a soup base. Cook crab shells in the oven before boiling down in stock to get maximum flavor. Advice on skinning eels for “tasty” jellied eel. A delicious sounding way of cooking kingfish steaks by sealing the skin side in a pan, take out of the pan and then put back up skin side up, adding extra butter to brown with garlic and spoon over the slashed skin to add the extra flavours of the butter & garlic.

Matthew (tour guide), Rick, Dan & Justin North (chef)

I was interested to see crates of carp, and asked our tour guide who buys it. It is mostly used in Asian and Eastern European cooking, and Justin looked bit dubious when asked if he had ever used it.

We went to the sashimi section, where the individual fish are auctioned in a regular type of auction. Each fish had a small section near the tail cut out so the fish could be graded. Here Justin mentioned that he buys fish straight from the boat, and will get a lower grade of tuna if he is going to cook it, as it won’t have to be of the same grade as sashimi.

We checked out the crates of fresh and cooked lobsters – I was tempted to pop one in my hand bag. The live lobsters were beautiful colours of blue and green. They looked very quiet in their crates, but when they are tipped out (to check if they are alive or not – dead ones don’t have to be paid for), one lobster grabbed the guy around the wrist and didn’t let go in a hurry.

We finished the tour with a look at some live tanks – containing lobsters and crabs and checked out the oyster shuckers. It was interesting to see each shucker’s personal preference with the best way to open the oysters. They looked beautiful and plump and I was almost disappointed that I don’t like them.

The Seafood Markets has a dozen or more retail sellers, so as it was Rick’s night to cook he decided to do flathead fillets in beer batter – a family camping favourite. We enjoyed a coffee at the Blackwattle Deli with some lovely pastry from the bakery next door. There was also a fruit & vegetable shop, a bottle shop and a kitchen goods shop. All of which (except the bottle shop) were open at 8.30am. There was also a spot outside where you could sit and eat overlooking the bay, but as the elderly Asian guy on our tour said “don’t come here on the weekend – too busy, too busy”.

It was a fantastic, fascinating morning. Matthew the tour guide and Justin the chef combined to create an interesting fun time. I think it would be worth going on the tour of the markets anytime (they run Mondays and Thursdays throughout the year), but I think spending time with a helpful, articulate and easy-going chef made it even more enjoyable.

For dinner that night, Rick made the beer batter – you add the flour (a combination of plain & cornflour) to the beer in a bowl (not the other way around) and whisk it in until it’s of a slighter thicker than cream consistency. We enjoyed our fillets with a salad and a baguette of delicious olive sourdough form the bakery at the Fish Markets. No photos of the cooked result – we were too hungry!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

RIP Ruby's at Bulli

This weekend marks the end of an era with the closing of Ruby’s at Bulli Beach. Many residents expressed their support for the current owners, who were not successful in winning the tender for further trade.

Ruby’s will be missed for it’s amazing burgers – including such delicacies as the Teriyaki Mushroom burger (which I don’t even think is on the menu anymore, but consisted of a meat patty, loads of fried mushrooms with onion & garlic, butter lettuce and tomato on a bun, with the most delicious soy/teriyaki sauce); the Fish Burger ( a battered, deep fried fish fillet with tomato, lettuce, fried onion and lashings of thousand-island dressing) and an incredible bacon & egg roll that must have had at least a quarter of a kilo of fried bacon. Oh, I nearly forgot the hunger-busting English muffins with bacon, tomato and melted cheese on top!

Many years ago Ruby’s introduced my then young boys to the delight of chicken salt, they would hand it out in sachets, which the boys would take home – not sure what for as we didn’t cook chips at home. We enjoyed sunny days, rainy afternoons and would go there for an afternoon tea treat on birthdays. It was a great stop-over or destination when bike riding or walking along the bike-track. And none of us will forget the great victory lunch after we (I use the term loosely) won the Under-10’s Grand Final.

Nowadays, mothers groups and respite care groups enjoy Ruby’s pretty much every day of the week, still using it as a local meeting place. As we did for our team meeting this week, where we were discussing the projects and plans we were all working on.

I have often bemoaned the fact that out of ALL the time I have spent at Ruby’s (which over the years has added up considerably) I have NEVER seen whales. Dan would come home after surfing at Bulli or Sandon Point telling me of the whales (and dolphins) he had seen. Rick would comment on how the car pool had seen yet another whale while coming down Bulli Pass. I had never seen whales at our local beaches – and it wasn’t for lack of trying.

So on Tuesday, our team meeting was adjourned while we watched TWO groups of whales off Ruby’s at Bulli Beach. They slapped their tails, threw their bodies out of the water, waved their flippers, poked their heads up and generally cavorted, while we stood there (and then sat there) oohíng and aahing as if we were at the circus. We could see that both groups seemed to be one or two adults with at least one baby.

After a (long) while, we finally tore ourselves away and dragged ourselves back to work– BEST TEAM MEETING EVER!

Ruby’s is open for a farewell dinner on Friday night and then has its last day of trading on Sunday. I am looking forward to seeing what the new café will be, word on the street is that it will open for business mid-late November.

Thanks for the memories Ruby’s.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Not the Noodle Markets

For the second time in one week we all piled into the Pajero for the trip up to the big smoke, this time we were off to the Night Noodle Markets part of the Sydney International Food Festival held every year in October. (I read an article yesterday where organisers looked at Sydney's calendar and decided that October had nothing going so decided to create an extra festival - what the?) Anyway I have every year wanted to check out the noodle markets which are held at Hyde Park in Sydney – tonight was it!

Due to a combination of our sacrifice to the parking gods, remembering to bring Nick’s parking sticker and a radical u-turn on Elizabeth St; we managed to get rock star parking on James St at the bottom of the park. Walking up to the beautifully-lit area (See Night-time Floriade, that's how it's done)that has been fenced off for the markets, we realised that this was a big attraction indeed.

The after-work Sydney crowd was already there so we joined the mass of people walking around, looking for a free table and saw with dismay the long queues for food. However, fortune smiled upon us again, as we managed to grab a table, which only had three chairs - not a problem as at this stage we split up – some to mind the table (and snaffle 3 more chairs), some to go and hunt and gather the food.

We had a bit of a quick look at the stalls, where a note of disillusion crept in. Now, I love gozleme, I think it’s a wonderful combination of freshly cooked dough, spinach and cheese, however noodles it is not! Yet here was the ubiquitous gozleme tent at the Night Noodle Markets! Once I got off my high horse, and realised that Night Noodle Markets is a euphemism for any sort of delicious outdoor stall food that the City of Sydney council can find, I started to enjoy myself.

Dan and I were entertained as we waited in the queue (which we only has to stand in for around 20 minutes) by some dancing dragon lions and an amazingly loud drum, before we were able to grab our goodies: a plate of steamed dumplings ($5 for 4), some spring rolls ($4 for 3) and steamed pork or duck buns ($2.50 each). Having no hands left to visit the alcohol tent, I was disappointed I hadn’t ignored the no BYO rule and brought one of the delicious bottles of champagne that a kind friend had given ME for some work RICK did in his garden.

We arrived back at out table, Lauren (the other hunter/gatherer) arriving swiftly behind us with another plate of mixed dumplings and steamed pork bun, also a delicious piece of san choy bow a box of salt & pepper squid and, at last, a box of noodles! They were cooked with a bit of soy sauce, some BBQ pork pieces and beans – delicious!

We ate heartily, finishing off with a delicious, very flaky, not too eggy custard tart. Allira was fascinated by the bats flying around – by fascinated, I mean scared that one would fly straight at her. It was lovely in the park surrounded by huge trees, with the city skyline all around, lots of noise and energy around us.

We walked back to the car looking at the giant photos on display for Art and About (you know, 'cause Sydney has no festivals on in October) which were very interesting. (There was a great one of a woman in her front yard in a little old place in Darlinghurst, and she was standing holding court alongside the larger-than-life photo of herself.)

So, feeling a little lacking in the noodle department, last night being my night for dinner making I decided to make Singapore noodles with chicken, beans and carrots. Very tasty.


  • 2 packets fresh Singapore noodles, soaked in boiling water for a few minutes then drained
  • 3 carrots, sliced into thin 3cm pieces
  • beans, cut into 3cm pieces
  • onion, diced
  • garlic, chopped
  • fresh ginger, grated
  • 1/2 chicken breast (all that was in the freezer)
  • soy sauce
  • sweet chilli sauce
  • hoi sin sauce
  1. Fry the chicken, carrots, onion & garlic together until cooked.
  2. Add the beans and cook a bit more.
  3. Add the drained noodles and the sauce (and a bit of water of you want) and combine until there is an even distribution of vegetables and chicken through the noodles (though this won't actually happen until hell freezes over so don't spend too much effort on it).
As we had a guest (hi Zanko!) I though I would impress with dessert as well. And to be honest, the above amount fed 7 people - there were no seconds.

A newly re-discovered old family favourite of ours is caramelised pineapple. This is the simple version (minus the flaming rum and toasted coconut - for when you're really trying to impress!)

  • 1 fresh pineapple, peeled and cut into chunks
  • brown sugar
  • butter
  • ice-cream
  1. Coat the pineapple chunks in brown sugar. (This can be done before dinner)
  2. Heat the butter in a large fry-pan.
  3. Drain (save the juice!) and add the pineapple to the pan.
  4. Cook for awhile until warmed through and starting to caramelise.
  5. Add the drained juice.
  6. Have a lengthy discussion over whether the ice-cream will be better under or over the pineapple.
  7. Serve as requested, or however you think it will be best.


The Night Noodle Markets are on every night this week, up to and including Friday night from 5.00-9.30pm.

Monday, October 19, 2009

What's in a name?

Welcome to my first ever blog posting. My blog aims to cover food and cooking in a non-pretentious and friendly way, acknowledging that while food can make or break an event, it is also not the be-all and end-all of existence (well it is, but shouldn’t be anything to obsess over).

In our house, we like to eat well and (relatively) healthily (though Dan is showing a chef’s disregard for low-fat anything preferring to stick to butter and cream, over Lite & Creamy evaporated milk and spray oil).

After a few years of realising that there are actually six people in the house that are very capable of cooking dinner for the rest of the members of the house, we (that is, I) have instigated a new dining regime whereby everyone is responsible for cooking dinner one night a week. (Un)fortunately we never got around to having that fifth child, so Saturday night is open kitchen night (ie whoever feels like it can cook) and in the absence of Jono who has succumbed to the travel bug, I have taken over his evening as well.

I will discuss the benefits of this wondrous institution in a later posting, suffice it to say that we are a family not only interested in eating food, but in the purchasing and preparation of it.

This blog will also cover other places at which we dine, mainly the cafes and restaurants of Wollongong, though we are not adverse to venturing beyond to Canberra, the Southern Highlands, South Coast, oh and the big smoke – Sydney. Reviews in the local press tend to be sycophantic to the point of sickening, so I would like to remedy that with a more realistic viewpoint.

I would also like to share with you the following, in no particular order:
• Cook-books I have read, borrowed or bought
• Dishes or meals I have prepared or eaten (guest cooks will be welcome here)
• Wonderful places to buy food or food related items
• Music to dine to
• Links to interesting food related news
• Last but not least, poems from Ogden Nash’s book of Food. Oh alright, I was going to save this one for later, but I’ll give you a preview:
“I like mustard,
especially with custard.”

And so, to the name. After some discussion with the car-load that went to the Night Noodle Markets at Hyde Park in Sydney on Friday night, the key point seemed to be that alliteration was essential. Thinking it through later was not easy, and as I was thinking I realised it was the sort of discussion that went well over a few glasses of champagne with a few people.

Which got me thinking about Champagne Hour. My introduction to Champagne Hour began several years ago whilst on a camping trip with my extended family. It became a time to get together, prior to dinner, maybe around 4 o’clock-ish, to crack open the champagne (the younger children scrambling to catch the cork) and everyone taking turns to provide a little smackeral of something to go with the bubbles. Coming home after every camping trip was a little bit depressing. Not the mountains of washing, the equipment to be packed away, the bills to face – but the loss of Champagne Hour, where everyone caught up with each other, not just stories, but laughs, tears, giggles, sighs, recipes and child-raising tips were shared.

Of course, Champagne Hour can (and is) enjoyed outside the camping trips and so I name this blog in homage to Champagne Hour (sorry about the lack of alliteration Lauren), and would like to think this is a place where I can share my stories and recipes with you, and hope you will do the same with me and the other readers.

I am new to blogging, though not completely technically illiterate, so the blog may change a little as I fine-tune it. I hope to post at least one post per week, maybe more, maybe less. Enjoy!