Where’s the chocolate?

According to Peter Edmunds that is the second most regularly asked question he gets asked, after “How did you get into chocolate?” These are not surprising questions when you are the chocolatier behind the Lindsay & Edmunds brand of organic chocolate. Peter spoke at the August talk at the Kitchen Cabinet, ‘The Chocolate Maker ‘ .

Chef Janet Jeffs told the assembled crowd that we had to suspend all previous notions of chocolate when we faced the lunch that she was presenting that day. Savoury, not sweet was to be the order of the day.

Peter started as a chef at Froggies restaurant in Sydney and then went through a variety of jobs including sailing instructor and yacht skipper, which led to Peter and his wife living in the south of England and northern France for several years. They were impressed by the specialised produce they found in the various farmers markets across France and were also surprised by the quantity of organic food that was available both in the UK and France.

I was so busy eating my way through my entree that I managed to miss the critical part of the story where Peter and his wife decided to become producers of organic chocolate. I was distracted by this entree, a savoury chocolate tasting plate.

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At the back of the plate is bitter chocolate on crostini; front left is the Aztec cornmeal ploenta, to the right the cocoa buckwheat cakes; and in the front roasted cauliflower with cocoa nibs. I really liked the oily, complex cocoa nibs and could understand why Peter said they could become an addictive snack.

Thankfully the notes on the back of the menu tell me that on returning to Australia, having committed to eating organic food wherever possible, the Edmund’s realised that there was a distinct lack of quality organic chocolate on offer. The next step was to research this area and then launch thier own brand of Lindsay & Edmunds chocolates in 2008.

While initially based in Sydney, Peter and his wife travelled regularly to the Canberra Farmers Market. They subsequently moved to Canberra and now produce their chocolate at Fairbairn. You can actually drop by their facility and get a cup of coffe or choclate while watching the chocolate being made.

While Peter and his team always use organic chocolate, they also decided to switch their entire production over to sourcing certified Fairtrade chocolate after learning about the extensive use of child labour in the growing and harvesting of cocoa. Peter is clearly passionate about these decisions and was able to discuss a range of issues around the cocoa growing and marketing system with the lunch participants.

Cacoa

The two key ingredients for the main course of Mole Poblano Oaxaca were cocoa powder (available at Mountain Creek Wholefoods, Griffith) and dried, smoky dried chillies.Chef Jeffs describes this as a traditonal Mexican chocolate, chilli, spice sauce served with baked organic chicken. There are stacks of recipes and lots of interesting back stories to this dish should you want to chase them up on the interweb, but I was just happy to sit down and savour every luscious mouthful. Thanks to the Kitchen Cabinet staff who directed me to Janet’s recipe here.

Molepoblano

We had all really eaten well by this stage, but there was still dessert to follow. What was described as a tasting plate of Lindsay & Edmunds chocolates could have been more accurately described as a giant slab of chocolates! An extremely large tile (twice as wide as my big bathroom tiles) was placed on the table, loaded with slabs of chocolates studded with fruit, nuts and other tasty ingredients along with white, milk and dark chocolate hearts.

Choccies

While I’m normally a complete dark chocolate fiend, I actually spent a lot of time devouring the white chocolate almond praline, (third back on the left hand side); others at our table were smitten by the dark chocolate caramelised chilli and macadamia slab. Not that you had to pick favourites. The eleven people seated at our table were unable to eat it all so what was left went home with everyone in paper napkins. It really was a most generous serving.

Last Sunday’s lunch displayed both the versatility and value of high quality chocolate. Our fellow attendees also felt that it was perhaps the best value for money Kitchen Cabinet event we have attended, even counting the truffle lunch. Congratulations to Janet Jeffs and her team.

Thanks also to Peter Edmunds for reminding us that the best chocolates should have only 3 to 5 ingredients in them (not counting specific added flavourings such as fruit or nut pieces). Milk chocolate should contain nothing more than cocoa mass, sugar, vanilla, dairy and emulsifier. Dark chocolate should contain cocoa mass, sugar and vanilla. So don’t forget to read the back of the package before you buy.

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Say Cheese

As you may have noticed we’ve been focussed on local harvests recently and there has been no greater promoter of local produce and producers around Canberra than chef Janet Jeffs over at Old Parliament House.

Her latest Kitchen Cabinet lunch was focussed on local cheese producers. All three types of cheese, cow, goat and sheep, were represented at the lunch by three local producers – Small Cow Farm (cow, from Robertson in the Southern Highlands), Hobbit Farm (goat, from Jindabyne) and Thistledown Creamery (sheep, from Goulburn). It was clear from the outset that no matter how they came to cheese making that all the producers were passionate about what they were doing. As is the usual format at Kitchen Cabinet events there was a presentation by the producers as part of the proceedings, before we got down to the business of eating.

One thing that all the makers stressed was that like other foods milk is a seasonal product. Sure, large scale dairy farms rely on methods of staggering their production to get year round milk, but artisan cheese producers are relying on female animals having a a calf, kid or lamb at foot to produce the milk for their products. So don’t be surprised if your favourite artisanal cheese is in limited supply sometime during the year.

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Lunch started off with a tasting plate of cheeses from all the producers and a piece of truly delicious paste made by Janet (the dark rectangle on the plate). I particularly liked being able to compare the salted and un-salted fresh goats cheese (one of which is on the RHS of the plate) with the mature goats cheese. We also spent a bit of time debating the content of the accompanying fruit paste, plum possibly or maybe a wine paste. Having asked, it turned out to be a combination of crab apple and apple which Janet and her staff had cooked up in the kitchen over several days.

Between entree and main, we had the chance to ask questions of the producers. There was quite a bit of debate about raw milk cheese production, a debate which clearly isn’t likely to be resolved in the near future. I think the most useful point that came from the discussion was that we shouldn’t be equating pasteurisation with ‘boiling the guts out’ of the milk. For artisanal cheese producers the process tends to be one of heating the milk to the lowest acceptable temperature over an extended period of time to achieve the result (sorry you’ll need to look up some cheese making recipes for the specific details) as opposed to the larger manufacturers which achieve pasteurisation by exposing the milk to a much higher temperature for a very quick time. The reason the small producers use the ‘low and slow’ approach is that it helps maintain the taste of the product.

We fell on our main course of twice-baked souffle, goat cheese roasted tomato and thyme and fetta, beetroot, walnut and blue cheese salad, tatziki and spiced labneh, so quickly that I forgot to take a photo (sorry). It was absolutely wonderful.

I did manage to get a shot of dessert which was Quark cheese cake with berrie compote.

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For the uninitiated, like me, Quark is a type of German fresh curd cheese. It didn’t last long either!

While I certainly enjoyed the the cheese we ate on the day I came away from the event with a lot of questions about artisanal cheese production in Australia. Firstly it’s hard to get a handle on the scale of the Australian small/artisanal cheesemaking industry. Clearly there are quite a number of small scale producers setting up all across the country (as we found travelling in Tasmania), but confusion reigns, statistically that is, because many of the larger commercial maufacturers also consider themselves to be ‘small’ producers (which they probably are compared to cheese producers overseas). Putting to one side the raw milk debate, the high level of regulation of the dairy industry adds a significant level of challenge to anyone thinking of producing cheese commercially. Even to get your dairy up and running is a major challenge, let alone being able to produce high-quality products.

Clearly increasing the public’s demand for quality artisanal cheese is a complex process that is not without its hazards for the producers themselves. Greater demand puts higher stresses on the makers. Small Cow Farm, for example, has moved from producing cheese from its own herd to buying in milk from nearby herds, as the time demands of milking and producing cheese became too great for their operation. Meeting safety regulations, including rigourous testing regimes, requires a significant amount of any cheesemakers time.

One of the more interesting articles I’ve turned up since attending the lunch is a report produced by Nick Haddow of the Bruny Island Cheese Company (arguably one of our highest profile artisan cheesemakers), on assessing the viability of Australian artisan cheeses being exported overseas. Now don’t get too fussed about the export angle because Haddow’s assessment touches on a range of issues for small-scale producers, including education and training for cheesemakers, issues of quality and presentation of cheese at the retail level. I found the following comment of particular interest:

“Having seen the quality of both locally made cheeses and the imported European cheeses in the USA market, it is difficult to see how the current product range from Australia could make inroads in the immediate future. More needs to be done to encourage our cheesemakers to be making the highest quality cheeses possible – artisan, but high quality.”

If you’d like to read Nick’s report in full you can find it here.

All I can say having just quickly looked at some of the complexities of producing good artisanal cheese it hat’s off to them all, they must be mad!

PS Thanks to R for providing the photo of the entree.

Free Range Pig

Last Sunday we went to – The Pig Day Out – where we heard Lee McCosker, former owner of Melanda Park (she has sold the business but the current owners continue to rear free range pork), to speak about farming free range pork on a commercial basis.

McCosker, who is a strong supporter of the Humane Choice accreditation system, made a very clear distinction between farming rather than mass-producing pork. McCosker spoke about the many concerning parallels between the way pigs are currently commercially produced and the way chickens are mass produced. I was rather startled to hear that, unlike commercially raised chickens, pigs can be given both hormone and non-hormonal growth promotants, as well as anti-biotics. Equally concerning is that there is no legal definition of ‘free range’ in the pork industry. It is therefore very difficult for consumers to really know what they are getting unless they sourced their pork from farms certified by humane production organisations (who also certify the abatoirs for humane slaughter) or could visit the relevant farm and see for themselves. Her best guide – if you are looking on the internet is to see whether photographs showed pigs at all stages of development out in the fields or just sows and piglets. If there are only sows and piglets you might be looking at what is called ‘born free range’ where the sows give birth outside and piglets stay with them for the first month, until the piglets are moved indoors for intensive rearing. Not that we were having any of that type of pork on the day.

As a person trying to produce a commercially viable animal McCosker crossed the commercial white pigs used in intensive farming with rare breed pigs to produce an animal with sufficient hybrid vigour to grow well and which also retained its ‘nouse’ as a foraging animal. She must have got it right because her farm supplied a number of top end restaurants in NSW including Neil Perry’s. McCosker went on to discuss the intricacies of raising animals with the specific characteristics required by different restaurants. I would have enjoyed hearing more of this side of the story but it was time to taste the difference.

We were fortunate enough to be tucking into some free range Wessex Saddleback pigs, some of which had been raised by Chef Janet Jeffs herself. The main dish was pork marinated in Reidsdale cider and served with Ingelara potatoes and steamed winter greens. I really liked the peas which were included as part of the ‘greens’. They were only partly developed and served pod and all – both flavoursome and tender.

Pork

This tasty dish was followed by Claudia Roden’s flourless orange and almond cake served with orange blossom citrus and marscapone.

Crdessert

Just some advanced notice of another interesting Kitchen Cabinet event on 30 October. People who get in early will travel to Braidwood to experience A Taste of Convict Life, A special event in association with the Crave Sydney International Food Festival 2011.

Growing up

The Growing Good Gardeners lunch held at the Kitchen Cabinet on the 20th of March highlighted the gardening and cooking skills of the Majura and Berrima Primary Schools both of which are participating in the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Scheme. Originally started in Victorian schools in 2001 the program is now being expanded by the Australian Government to enable up to 190 eligible Australian schools to participate by 2012.

The fundamental philosophy that underpins the program is that by setting good examples and engaging children’s innate curiosity, as well as their energy and their taste buds, a positive and memorable food experience can be provided and this will form the basis of positive lifelong eating habits.  At present there are 180 schools participating, it seems a lot of schools but the reality is that there are just some 7,800 primary schools in Australia so the scheme is only reaching a very small fraction of Australian kids. Majura Primary is currently the only ACT school in the program. However there was no doubt about the level of excitement of the children who are already participating in the scheme and who gave presentations on the day.

In addition to great displays of produce and work undertaken by the kids from the two schools their gardens, along with Allsun and Ingelara Farms, provided all the garden produce that was used for the lunch.

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The patron of the Kitchen Garden Foundation, Stephanie Alexander, was the key speaker. Stephanie summarised her aims for the program as producing “care in the garden and deliciousness on the plate”. The teachers and students from both schools spoke, as did Joyce Wilkie and Michael Plane from Allsun Farms. The kids were enthusiatic about the food they grew and what they cooked. One young wit noted that the home made hamburgers they cooked were so good that they just had to have seconds.

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The food for the event was also very different in presentation from previous Kitchen Cabinet events we’ve been to. A tasting platter for entree included Baba ghanoush, Italian party cocktail sticks, beetroot carpaccio, antipasto vegetables, sweet corn fritters, sweet and sour pumpkin with mint and onion tart.

Entree

After that we weren’t sure if we could get the 11 different elements of the mains in.

Main

Not to mention 3 dessert options …

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We certainly all needed a good stint in the garden afterwards to work all that food off.

In the Kitchen Cabinet

On Sunday TB and I went to one of the Kitchen Cabinet???s?? monthly show and tell sessions followed by a lunch featuring the subject of the talk, the chestnut. If you haven???t been to the Kitchen Cabinet before (this was our first time) it is at the rear of Old Parliament House and is incorporated into the Caf?? in the House complex. The Kitchen Cabinet itself is a small retail area that sells fresh local produce and locally produced foods of all sorts.

Growers Richard Moxon and Alison Saunders gave a very relaxed and informative talk on their chestnut growing (they have a chestnut and walnut growing property at Sassafras about 130 kms away from Canberra towards the coast). The joy of the talk was that we were seated outside in one of the courtyards at Old Parliament House. The poplars were shedding their golden leaves and the crisp sunny Canberra winter day didn???t let the organisers down. While we listened to the talk the smell of roasting chestnuts wafted over the listeners as Richard tended the large roasting pan set up for the occasion.

Even better still were the freshly roasted chestnuts passed around for everyone to try. I???ve been a regular eater of chestnuts for several years now and peeling them, particularly getting the inner skin off can be hard work. Not with these babies ??? the Sassafras Reds were peeled so easily and were a bright, almost sulphurous yellow colour, not to mention beautifully sweet.

Richard and Alison shared some very useful tips on selecting, storing and cooking chestnuts. Firstly only select hard, glossy nuts and only buy nuts that have been kept in the refrigerated or cool shelving section of the shop as this is necessary for maintaining the quality of the product. When you get them home store the chestnuts in a paper bag in the bottom crisper section of your fridge. Alison and Richard pointed out that these are seasonal fruits so realistically you should be buying them in late autumn / early winter (the crops start being picked in March/April).

For cooking the main tip whether you are roasting or boiling them is to start them off hot for the first five minutes and then reduce the temperature a bit for the remaining 15 minutes of cooking. For boiled chestnuts this means putting them in the saucepan only once the water is boiling. Boiling is the best technique if you are preparing chestnuts for sweet dishes as you avoid the possibility of burning them. Roasted chestnuts, prepared in your oven or a covered BBQ like a Webber, are great for soups where the toasted flavour will add to the dish. Please remember to always cut your chestnut???s hull before either type of cooking as they will explode if you don???t! Richard suggested a long cut down the longest side of the chestnut, no more than 1mm, enough to cut the outer hull only. In our experience a Stanley knife / box cutter which can be set so just the right amount of blade is protruding is the tool you need. It will also limit the possibility of cutting your finger off if you get overenthusiastic.

There was one more treat in store for the people attending the talk ??? Chef Janet Jeffs sent out cups of the most delicious chestnut soup while Richard and Alison were talking. Talk about hitting the spot. In Susan Parson???s column in the Canberra Times Food and Wine Guide last Wednesday, she gave a recipe for Chesnut Soup. This is very nice (we tried it today) but wasn’t a patch on Janet Jeffs’ version. Janet said her version was from Claudia Roden and included chick peas as well as chestnuts and was made with beef stock.

After the talk we repaired upstairs to what was the original Members Dining Room for lunch. The architect John Smith Murdoch, who designed Parliament House, also designed the building???s fittings, including the wonderful geometric lights decorative panelling in the dining room. With its re-made Art Deco carpets this is a great space to eat.

We were served a two course lunch, (there was also a vegetarian option), of Roasted Creewah duckling galantine filled with chestnuts, apples, pork and walnuts with a pomegranate jus ??? in other words boned out duck stuffed with all the above. The vegetarian at our table received crepes stuffed with vegetables and chestnuts, but her conclusion was that it was on the dry side and it definitely could have done with a sauce. The dessert which I ate before I remembered to take a photo was a chestnut and walnut tart with a vanilla syrup topped with frankette walnuts (also supplied from Richard and Alison???s farm). I thought that the vanilla syrup went particularly well with both the chestnuts and walnuts. Local wines were available by the glass or by the bottle, as were soft drinks ??? cost not included in the meal. TB had a wonderful Lake George Winery pinot gris, I had a nebbiolo but sadly I???ve forgotten from which vineyard.

We left, after 3 hours having had a very enjoyable time. We stopped at the shop on the way out and bought some fresh medlars, frankette walnuts, and chocolate coated cherries.

At $50 per head ($20 for the talk and $30 for the lunch, you can choose to attend either or both) I thought it was really good value. My pick of the day was definitely the soup. More information on chestnuts can be found on the website of the Chestnuts Australia Inc.??

There is a show and tell on every month so if you are interested you can check them out at the link at the top of the page. We???ll probably see you there.

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