Colombian Sancocho

I recently traveled to Colombia with my beautiful wife for the first time. It was a journey of discovery and adventure, great food, cheap rum, and quite a lot of time spent riding horses. In short, it was amazing.

I’ve been married for almost 2 years now, and with Marcela’s patient teaching, my Spanish is slowly getting better. But it’s safe to say that I was as out of my depth in Colombia as a cruise ship giving a drive by to a Mediterranean island (ie: run aground on a frequent basis).

Nonetheless I did my best to persevere and communicate with my mother in law, sister & brother in laws, and my niece as best I could. Which was entertaining for them if nothing else. But after a while the ¿Cómo amaneciste? and ¿Esta cansada? started to come as easily as “tengo hambre” (I’m hungry) and fragments of words and ideas slowly started to meld themselves into something that could vaguely be called communication.

I was introduced to many of the great things that make Colombians love their country. The food, the music, the dancing, the drinking, the family, the football, the landscapes and the zest for life that people have despite a vast majority of them being very poor.

If there is one dish that perhaps can sum up my experience in Colombia, it would have to be Sancocho. Sancocho is somewhere between a soup and a stew (depending on how you make it). But what is perhaps more important about Sancocho than what goes into it, is where you make it.

Sancocho’s home is the street. When Christmas time and holidays come around, Colombians take to the street with a bottle of aguardiente (the local spirit of choice), a blackened old pot, a bucket of water, and as many ingredients as they can get their hands on. A makeshift fire is lit on the sidewalk, and the pot lowered onto it, propped up by bricks, rocks, or whatever spare car parts can be found lying around. Then someone takes on the all important job of fanning the flames while the water starts to boil and the soup is built.

Into the soup goes pork (cerdo), chicken (pollo), oxtail (cola de res), potato (papas), green plantain (platano), cassava (yuca)
onions, garlic, mazorca (big corn that isn’t sweet), coriander (cilantro), and spices like cumin (comino), and paprika (pimenton).

Then the long slow process of the cooking begins. Each vegetable or meat being added at just the right time so that the end result is a deep rich stock (caldo), falling off the bone soft meat, and veges with just the right level of give. It should all hopefully coincide with the point where everyone is drunk enough from aguardiente and tired enough from dancing, and just before someone starts a fight over who gets to choose the next song blasted out into the street via the speakers that have been dragged outside. This is when the soul and body restoring qualities that only a great sancocho made on the street can provide are needed most.

I got to make sancocho twice in Colombia. Once on the street in San Antonio de Prado, Medellin, with my brother in law Hamilton (that’s him fanning the flames in the video), his friends, and all the family. And once just outside the small town of Andes, Antioquia in the heart of a coffee growing region, next to a river, after walking down a hill for a kilometre to get there. Some local kids managed to goad me into jumping off a bridge 3m above the river, and though I thought I was going to at one point, I didn’t die, and there’s nothing like escaping death to bring about a hunger. Sure as hell made the walk back up that hill more bearable anyway.

You can, of course, order this dish in many restaurants in Colombia (or make it yourself at home), but it will never be quite the same as this one.

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Sri Lankan High Country

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This is high country Sri Lanka, Nurawa Eliya more specifically. It’s the heart of the tea growing regions of Sri Lanka, and the place where the best tea comes from. Lipton, Dilmah, Bushells, they all own plantations here, and nearly every available piece of ground that can grow a tea plant, does grow a tea plant.

We drove from Kandy to Nurawa Eliya along winding roads of dubious quality and sweeping views of the valley floor below. We were shown hidden cave temples and trudged through leech infested waters for the privilege of seeing reclining Buddha’s carved out of a cave wall. We visited a tea factory at Bluefields and were shown the tea drying, roasting, and filtering process and tasted their teas. The smell inside the drying room was intense. A thick heady tea aroma hung in the air like someone with something to hide and happy trigger finger on a bottle of eau de toilette.

We did it again at Mackwoods Estate and were given a piece of chocolate cake.

We stopped and spoke to the tiny Tamil ladies who form the vast majority of the tea picking work force. They’d smile wide with gap filled mouths and simultaneously put out their hands for money. Don’t believe any of the things you see on tea commercials, the people growing and tending the tea plantations and doing the picking get paid next to nothing. An average income for a tea picker is around 400 rupees a day, the equivalent of $4 AUD. So any tourist is seen as an instant bonus and smiles come easy for the chance to double or triple their income in return for a cliched photo.

So we paid some money, we got our photos, and we hopped back into the van and continued on down the road. Lovely tea though.

Sole Meuniere

Sole Meunire

Sole Meunire is a beautiful dish. That is, if your understanding of beauty is watching a whole fish being powdered with flour and sauteed in butter, which of course it should be.

The Meunire part of the name comes from the French word for Miller’s wife. Supposedly she’d come in from a hard days work helping out in the flour mill with her hands covered in flour, and basically anything she touched would end up covered in it. Which I can see getting tiresome after a while, and may have very well driven her husband to douse her in beer at some point, which of course led to beer battered fish and chips.

But I digress… randomly.

The classic version of this dish is made with the flat fish Sole (or Flounder), but Trout is also a very popular choice. The technique itself is simple and lends itself to many different types of fish.

How to do it

So take one fish, scaled and gutted. Dust it lightly in seasoned flour (salt and pepper). Add a few large knobs of butter to a hot pan and wait for them to melt and foam. Add the fish to the pan and sautee on both sides for about 5 – 10 minutes, or until the fish is firm but yielding to the touch.

Spoon the hot butter over the fish while it’s cooked, and towards the end of the cooking, add the juice of half a lemon to the pan.

Finish the dish with a handful of fresh chopped parsley, and some pan roasted flaked almonds (if you so desire).

Then serve onto a plate with a light green salad and a crisp glass of white wine. Enjoying it all the more because you didn’t have
to work in a flour mill all day long to be able to recreate it.

Incidentally this dish was shown to great effect in the movie Julie & Julia (It was apparently Julia Child’s first dish upon her arrival in France), and was given a revival from bloggers the world over not long after it’s release. In typical style, I’m slow to the party :)

For Perthians, this fish was bought at the Canningvale Fish Markets. They’re only open on Saturday mornings from 6am til 10am.
It’s a great place to pick up very cheap seafood in a range and quantity that you rarely see in a lot of fish mongers in the city.

Sole MeunièreSole MeunièreSole MeunièreSole Meunière

Eat Drink Blog – The Food Bloggers Conference

Negronis at The Black Pearl

And so it was that a flutter of a butterflies wings in Sydney, turned into a ripple in a pond in Melbourne, a wave swept across Bass Strait to Tasmania, and abnormal convection currents limped their way over the bite to Perth, til very shakily the word spread across the country and the seeds of the first ever Australian Food Bloggers Conference were sown.

I’ve just returned from Melbourne after what was a resounding success for a conference. It ticked all the right boxes for conference junkets (food, wine, abuse of taxi charges, dubious morality), but also managed to be extremely personal and very relevant to the majority of people who attended. Namely, the hard working and dedicated food bloggers of Australia, who day after day present you with alternative sources for information about where and what to eat and drink.

The event was championed by Ed and Reem, and ably assisted by a team of helpers including Mellie, April, Jess, and Tammi. They organised people together, contacted potential sponsors (Essential Ingredient, Prentice Wines, SBS Food, St Ali, Der Raum, Daylesford and Hepburn Springs Mineral Springs Co, Red Hill Brewery) and generally got the cogs turning that so often come unstuck when bloggers are left to their own devices.

So a time and date was set, a provisional list of topics to talk about drawn up, and the bloggers of Australia enlisted to share their knowledge with us all.

Presenting on the day and providing great insights into topics such as how and why we blog, how to deal with legal issues/defamation, How to handle public relations, search engine optimization, and perhaps how to make some money along the line were Reem, Gill, Zoe, Ellie, Nola, Claire, Ed, Penny, Michael, Brian, Jules and Phil

All the speakers did a great job, and I think we all got a lot out of it. I personally picked up some new techi tips I plan to implement soon on the blog, as well as a good deal of insight into how others approach things like advertising and promotions, which often throws me into an ethical quandary (for the record I rarely accept freebies or promotions, will disclose anything I’ve been given, and won’t pass opinion on anything when I feel I can’t be objective).

You can find a bunch of information about the conference, and slides from some of the other presenters on the conference blog .

Ed gets things rollingEm and MaddyJess & EllieNeil - taken during my talkThe lovely LindaJackie shows how boozing is done right.JulesJackie - master of the wry smileYou can take the girl out of Thomastown...SBS Photography ExhibitionSBS RepresentMy Rorschach cocktail testGlowing ReemPolaroid man knows no boundsGin something sorbetBoozeskiPisco Control ReservadoLiquid nitrogen cocktail prepSt Ali dinnerSt Ali dinnerEllie & Anh at St AliSuzanneNeilBrianLisaCindyMagnum SteveSteve CumperNathan of Somage Fine FoodsFood Bloggers Banquet menuZoeGillHenry chimpingSoon to be bride AnnaTammiPenny's favourite poseKat & AprilJess contemplates #momofukurageNolaA rather excitable TammiOxtail won ton soup.Fear my rosey cheeks.Jules et moi.Tresna the waif saysTresnaMellieAngelic glowing waitress at St AliPrentice 'Ramato' Pinot GrisEmmaPatKateEm gets seriousEllie, Tammi, Claire, ZoeJackieCeriRoasted Kingfish headsLamb... somethingPim !Jackie gets all silver service on usMatt Cumper ?Radiant KateEd the gypsy kingMellie mid thank youFruit platterPim mid chokeReem looking deviousJo wondering about her second helpingThis photo looks how Michael probably feltChef Ben chats to EllieLittle did he know...Claire in the secret gardenPhil Lees, lone man on lounge, 3am, Fitzroy.NegroniNegronis at The Black Pearl

So at some point in the organisational process, I was asked if I’d like to speak about photography and bring some of my “wisdom” to the discussion in the guise of practical steps to improve your photos. Always happy to be given a platform to espouse my view on how things should be (and keen to do more Melbourne dining), I gladly accepted the offer.

I didn’t want to prepare too much content because I think basically anything that I could put together you could find on the web. Flickr, Google, camera review websites, and photography forums are where I found most of what I know in the first place. So my talk was mostly an off the cuff discussion about how I take the photos I do and why.

So to make this post useful, and not just another “what I did on my holiday” gloatfest, I’ll hopefully encapsulate for you here what I had to say at the conference. I’m recollecting it as best I can because sadly the few notes I did manage to scrawl down onto paper were lost along with my SBS goodie bag, somewhere in a bar in Melbourne between 11pm and 4am. If you found them, please make sure my Gabriel Gate DVD doesn’t go to waste. I love that man.


What Matt thinks about how to take nice photos: A list

1) Light is your friend. If the lighting conditions inside a restaurant or house simply aren’t good, your shots will always struggle. I’ve taken photos in terrible restaurants that make the food look amazing because there’s a nice lamp overhead, and have horrible shots taken in the near darkness of some of the best. You can try and improve the lighting by rearranging candles or using the light from a mobile phone to provide a focus point, but it’s always going to be an uphill battle.

2) Gear matters (a little bit). Whilst it’d be nice to detach yourself from technology, the creative process I employ is based fairly closely around the camera and lens I use and what they offer me. Surprisingly perhaps, I’m still using a rather old dSLR, the Canon 350D. This has been my stalwart shot maker for a few years now, and as many times as I think about upgrading I always come back to the idea that if I just improved my technique my existing camera would be fine. The lens I use primarily plays a big part in that too. It’s a Sigma 30mm f1.4. This lens on my camera lets me take photos of tables in front of me at a nice range that suits my style, and the f1.4 part of the name means it lets a lot of light in with each shutter flip. Meaning low light situations can still be captured well. This doesn’t mean that these are what you *need* to buy or use. But it’s a combination that works for me, and the more comfortable you get with your equipment, the less you need to think about it when taking your shots. Buying an expensive camera and lenses will not make every shot you take look awesome, but eventually it’ll help.

The Pour @ Coda Post roast : Market Lane

3) Do what you need to get the shot. This is mostly about shooting in restaurants where you don’t have the luxury of changing lighting, rearranging things on a plate, or really messing too much with what’s there. I set my camera to aperture priority because I know there is little available light, and I choose the lowest f-stop (1.4). I then bump my ISO up to it’s maximum (1600), which is a cardinal sin to a lot of photographers. The reason I do this is because if I didn’t I wouldn’t get the shot, period. I could try messing with tripods and remote triggers, but really, if you’re trying to capture any kind of dynamic process or action, you just don’t have time to mess around. The only rules you should have are making sure you do what you need to take photos you’re happy with. This combination of low aperture and high ISO (reactivity to light) means that I can obtain faster shutter speeds, in turn leads to the shallow depth of friend blurry goodness that you see above you.

4) Post Process. This doesn’t mean spending 3 hours in Photoshop trying to remove smudges from plates or superimposing the best elements of one photo into another. Of course if you’re good at that kind of thing, go for it. But for me post processing is basically bringing the photo back to how I saw the scene when I pushed the button. Sure if my white balance and exposure levels had all been calibrated at the time, I likely wouldn’t need to do much, but they never are. If you think post processing is cheating somehow then consider this: If you’re shooting in JPG mode on your camera, the moment you take a shot your camera has already applied it’s own processing settings to the shot, and compressed the image down from it’s original, losing quality and resolution. Why let your camera decide how things should be ? Take charge of your photographic destiny by shooting in RAW and using a program like Lightroom (my tool of choice), Aperture, or even Picasa to process your shots the way you want them. I generally adjust exposure levels, fill light, black levels, and colour balance, and apply a healthy dose of noise reduction to get the style I like.

5) Don’t be scared to take photos. Yes it can be intimidating sitting in a fancy restaurant surrounded by people and waiters with a camera in your hand, but if you’re respectful to your dining companions (or have trained them well), and to the rest of the restaurant (turn off the flash!) then you shouldn’t be scared about taking out the camera. I take my same setup with me mostly everywhere, and will leave it up to anyone who’s had the pleasure (?) of dining with me to tell you if it’s annoying or not. If I were a chef / restaurateur, I’d be a lot happier about someone with an SLR taking shots of my food than someone with an iphone…

That’s basically all I have to say for now. Hopefully you’ll take something general out of it, rather than anything prescriptive.
All the shots in the gallery above were composed, shot, and processed using the methods I just described. Photography is a creative art, and as such ultimately a personal thing. I guarantee 8 out 10 people reading this will completely disagree with most of what I have to say :) But choose your tools wisely and apply your skills as best you can.


So to the food bloggers of Australia (esp those lucky enough to be at the conference) it was great to meet you and I hope I didn’t managed to offend too many of you over the course of the day / night. To the organisers, fantastic job, and congratulations. I’m already looking forward to next years event, which I’m sure will be bigger and better.

My Melbourne Birthday

Suckling Pig from Cutler & Co

So last year I passed a small milestone. I turned 30. Not one to generally pay attention to the whole passing of time thing, I figured I was mostly immune from any sort of anxiety or insecurity at having reached a new notch on the belt of life. I leave that kind of thing to women with ticking biological clocks and guys hoping to be millionaires by the time they’re 40 who’ve realised they have bugger all chance of that ever happening. So with neither a hormonal imbalance I’m aware of, nor a particular desire to achieve anything, I thought I was in the clear.

That was of course, until I awoke on the morning of my birthday, looked into the streaky mirror of my windowless room in Melbourne’s crappiest hotel and noticed a crease right between my eyes that I swear was not there the day before.

With the panic of my diminishing youthful beauty starting to kick in, I managed to remind myself that perhaps the lead up I’d had to that morning was not the most skin rejuvenating way to approach such a milestone. But then I figured if it was going to happen, it was going to happen in style. So after finishing the bag of salt and vinegar chips, that had seemed like such a good idea the night before, I dragged myself out of bed and lurched into my future…

As a way of making it possible for me to even contemplate writing this up, and to keep the casual reader entertained whilst reading what can only be described as one man’s quest to develop gout as quickly as possible, I’ll try and concisely recount the events of the week I spent in Melbourne for my birthday.

This is going to be a work in progress post, so I’ll go back and update details for each place I’ve mentioned when I get a chance, and when prompted by the hordes of Melbournites looking for details on each one :) For now i’ve just included the names of each restaurant / cafe I went to and the photos I took at the time.

So it goes a little something like this…

Fly in Monday 14th of September at some ridiculous hour. Head to Hotel Enterprize (yes, it’s spelled with a Z) on Spencer St, henceforth known as The Crappiest Hotel in Melbourne (TCHIM). Drop my bags into a windowless box of a room next to an air vent, and head out looking for coffee. Along with me were Ben and Jen, long time sufferers of my gourmet wankery and fellow birthday road trippers (BRT’s), as Jen’s birthday is around the same time.

So I had a relatively forgettable flat white at The Dancing Goat (looked nice, but pulled too long and had a funk to it), then met up with the Frenchies for extremely good value pizza at +39. I loved the menu and even the excessive number of business people didn’t dampen the bustling vibe. Everything looked and tasted great, particularly liked the calabrese and pumpkin varieties. Let just say $12 pizzas look a lot different where I come from.

+39

+39 calabrese+39 pumpkin pizza+39 pizza+39 pizzas+39 menu wall

Brother Baba Budan

Then it was over to Brother Baba Budan for coffee. If you haven’t heard of this place then I’m not sure where you’ve been. BBB was the second cafe opened by the godfather of the Melbourne speciality coffee scene, Mark Dundon. It’s tiny, ridiculously cramped, and consistently has a line out the door. I tried a Kenyan Wamugump through the Clover and recall it tasting delicate and fruity.

Kenyan Wamugump @ BBBUbiquitous chair shot @ Brother Baba BudanPastries @ BBBClover pour @ BBBClover spout @ BBBSteaming clover puck @ BBB

Caboose

A little more wandering around and with a lingering thirst, I stopped by Caboose on Swanston St for a glass of wine, although apparently I was in entirely the wrong place and should totally have gone to La Vita Buona (according to That Jess Ho), which is way better. Regardless the petit chablis and rose du provence went down nicely and imbued my adventuring spirit. The fit out is done like an old timey train carriage, which more or less works. Though sitting outside and swatting a billion little flies away from my wine glass meant most of it was lost on me.

wine at Caboose

The Grace Darling

And so to my first meetup with some of the Melbourne Food blogging Mafia (Ed, Jess, Claire). I’d done some pre-arranging and Jess decided that The Grace Darling in Collingwood might be a decent spot to catch up with a few people for a casual drink and something to eat. With the Frenchies and BRT’s in tow we navigated the trams and made it there early. The Grace Darling apparently used to be quite a dive until it was done up recently, and I quite liked it for the most part. My pork chop with apple and fennel salad was tasty and stealing Ed’s chips from his deconstructed parmiagana was entertaining. Like poking a bear with a stick. After a bottle or two of the Wolseley Pinot Noir and a whole bunch of lame food talk, we did what any self respecting food bloggers should, and went for more drinks.

Romain savoursEd, Matt, JessDeconstructed parmigianapork chop, apple / fennel / potato saladMarie-AgnesCandles holderFrite loverA man for all timesJeff HopeWolsely Pinot NoirClaire & IRepentant but unforgivenInside the Grace Darling

The Black Pearl

This would become a faithful friend during the short week I was in Melbourne, and the end point to a number of big nights. The bar tender Chris Hysted has a huge reputation in Melbourne, and the greater Fitzroy area as a cocktail master, as his recent awards would attest, though apparently noone elses agrees with me that he looks like Johnny Depp. Ed seems to favour a drink called the “fog cutter”, which to me tasted like pure alcohol poured into a tiki mug. Fortunately there were plenty of other things to my liking, and requests for virtually any drink were met with keen interest and a historical breakdown of all methodologies for making it.
The other great thing about the Black Pearl is that it’s open late virtually every night of the week. Meaning you get a bunch of hospitality crew hanging out there after work, and would explain why we ran into Teague Ezard (Not the last name I’ll drop) and some of his staff from Gingerboy there. Awesome place.

The Black Pearl - boozeageddonThe Fog CutterLighting @ The Black PearlThe barThe Black Pearlan exercise in inkinside the black pearlI love lamp...

HuTong Dumpling Bar

It’s the next day now. We’ve woken a tad later than expected and it’s close to midday, and I have dumplings on my mind. There are two schools of thought on the internet as to where to go for dumplings. One is cheap and cheerful Camy, the other is better quality HuTong Dumpling Bar. So HuTong gets the vote and off we go, this time with a couple of extra people in tow who’s taste in “ethnic” food could be described as rudimentary (but should actually be called nonexistent). Arriving outside we find the place is full, and it’ll be a little wait to get in. I peer eagerly inside to the small windowed kitchen with chefs rolling thin dumpling skins and deftly twisting the tops to well formed peaks.

The meal however, does not impress. I’m not sure if it’s that fact that our dining companions ordered sweet and sour pork right off the bat (seriously, why is that even on the menu??) or that they just didn’t like my face (it’s happened before), but the service was rude beyond recognition. Food got dumped unceremoniously on the table, with long gaps in between each, and no explanation of when the next was coming.

The dumplings themselves were good, the soup inside rich and warming, but the skin on the xiao long bao (Shanghai soup dumplings) tore nearly every time i picked one up, regardless of how delicate I was. I’d probably go back again If i were there and reassess because I love dumplings. But a place that looks as fancy as HuTong, with suited waiters and fancy cutlery, should not be giving back yard dodgy dim sum house service.

Market LaReflectBig red doorJenHu Tong Dumpling BarHu Tong cutleryPan fried dumplings @ Hu TongXiao Long Bao @ Hu TiongBraised beef and dumpling claypot @ Hu TongClaypot / chilli / squid

Seven Seeds

Attica

Bride to beAttica : chutney / olives / almonds / butter / saltAttica : savoury madeleine amuse bouchAttlca : Craggy range chardonnayAttica : NegroniAttica : prawns, pork floss, dill pickle, coconut milk, flowersAttica: first course responseAttica: asparagus, morels, house made goats curd, rosemary flowerswarpedLaguiole : worlds sexiest knives ?Attica: Slow roasted hapuka, spinach, crispy potatoswirlAttica: Veal, young leek with hazlenut & garlic, sour flowerradiatec'est moi part deuxAttica: cognac ice cream, candied mandarin, fresh mandarin, fresh mango, sesame pralineAttica: chefs table menuAttica: finbride warsBecause two is better than onec'est moi

Charcoal Lane

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Gertrude St Enoteca & Bahn Mi on Smith St

....Bahn Mi

Cutler & Co

.............Suckling Pig, Cutler&Co.....Hendricks Gin & Tonic from Cutler&Co...

Cumulus Inc

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St Ali Outpost

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Rockpool Bar & Grill

................Rockpool...........

St Ali

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Von Haus

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Gingerboy

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Seamstress & Siglo

Rob sparks upScenes from Siglo.........Birthday Negroni @ Seamstress

Mr Tulk & Dali Exhibition

NGVNGV ceilingRomainMA & DaliMr Tulk eggs and baconThe plan makerMr Tulk breakfast

High Vibes @ Northcote & Supper Inn

Supper InnExitNot without my stylusJenDisdainly tiredNorthcote remnantsThe kidsNorthcote Social ClubFrenchies like rockgig photographers bewareMarie Agnes

Movida

.lamb cutlets, chorizo, pestochickpeaspork loin wrapped in pork belly demi secwagyu bresola poached egg, truffle, potato foamwagyu bresola poached egg, truffle, potato foamsome kinda musselsspanish cidersmoked mackeral, some kinda sorbetscallops, potato foamcroquettesjamon iberico, bread sticksortiz anchovy, tomato basil sorbetbread

Bar Lourinha

Pedro Ximenez so thick it felt like motor oilCreme catalan with blood orange caramelRabbit and blood sausageBar LourinhaMy only dining companionVeal tongueKingfish PancettaHalf a very nice bottle of wine