In Melbourne, a city full of food and obsessed by coffee, I cook, I eat, I share the good news and the bad. essjay eats

The Tonic Files: Bottlegreen Elderflower Tonic Water

I find it really difficult to walk past a new tonic water. Really hard. And I’m a bit of a fan of elderflower. So I somehow found myself buying a four pack of Bottlegreen’s Elderflower Tonic Water home from the shops. 

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Winter is here – slow cooking all the goodness

Hello Blog – I’ve missed you.

Yes, yes – too much to do, too little time to write. But I’ve missed you.

I was going to tweet about what I made with my booty from the Carlton North Primary School Farmers Market, but it was going to be like three tweets so I thought I’d just write a blog post instead – I know! (look don’t get used to it, twitter is still my main food outlet but … well follow me there :-))

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The gin files – Stone Pine orange blossom gin

Stone Pine Orange Blossom Gin

Stonepine Distillery 

Straight – chilled – to be honest – I can’t smell anything. Tasting – has a very floral early, front notes  which is obviously orange blossom. Without a big whack of juniper though it’s a bit “watery” at the end for me. 

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All about the gin

Gin – how much do I love gin? If you follow me on twitter you’ll probably know the answer to this question.

I like gin very much. Very much indeed. In the last few years I’ve been quietly playing my part in driving it’s renewed popularity. I have 27 different gins at home (at last count) and 11 separate distilled botanicals so I can play around with my own blends. I would dearly love a still and when I retire plan on making my own gin, in my shed. One day I’ll have to buy a place with a shed I guess.

I can barely walk past a new gin in the bottle shop (or online, or crowdfunded); if it’s a London Dry style I can’t walk past, I buy it. My neighbour fed my cats recently while I was away and almost staged an intervention (gintervention?) she was so worried about my gin addiction. (It’s ok – for some reason I don’t actually manage to drink very much of it :-).

In my club going days we drank gin and tonic. Probably Vickers or Gilbeys with postfix tonic water. I’m not proud, but at least it wasn’t beer or bourbon and coke … right? A night of shuffling to the latest post-punk, new romantic, modish, skank or alternative tunes – look this was Brisbane, we were ALL of the subcultures on different nights of the week – in awful humidity, was fuelled by glow-in-the-dark, lovely gin and tonics. 

We thought we were ever-so sophisticated drinking G&T’s on weekends at the coast as the sun went down. And ultra-sophisticated if we remembered to add a slice of lemon. 

After quite a few years away I started drinking martini’s about 12 years ago as a pre-dinner drink. I commenced my judgement of the meal at that point. I started to take note of bartenders, of the gins they used, and which ones made lovely martinis. I still remember a stunning dry martini I had a La Luna about 8 years ago and the discussion I had about it with their gin choices and how they liked to serve them. 

And just like that, I was hooked. Gin in martinis, negronis and G&T’s is now my favourite tipple. I love learning more about distilling techniques, ingredients and especially how our native botanicals have inspired Australian’s to make some great bloody gin!

So – my favourite all-time gin for a martini? A french brand – Blue Ribbon 

My favourite negroni gin? Plymouth Navy Strength.

My favourite G&T gin? Melbourne Gin Co.

My favourite tonic? well it depends on the gin of course!

I think I’ve got about 50 draft blog posts about gin & I think I want to publish some of  them.What have I learned from thinking about writing about gin so far? I like varied botanicals. More than 10*. I like a good juniper kick and alcohol content of around 42% for standard gin. This isn’t about getting drunk, it’s about the flavour. I understand that tax rates favour a 40% abv product, but it’s detrimental to the flavour and I look for those that bottle at a higher percentage.

I’ve learned that tonic waters vary widely both in source of quinine and added botanicals. The subtleties, or lack of, affects your G&T more than you might realise. Some overshadow delicate gins, and some fight against the gin botanicals. 

A perfect gin and tonic match is worth looking for. 

I’ve decided that I am going to compare all the gins I taste to Melbourne Gin Co, and all tonics to Schweppes. I’m going to taste them neat, and as a G&T made 1:2 gin to tonic. It may take me some time, and some friends, to get through the 27 I have to hand, but I’m up for the challenge!

Come along for the ride – tell me your favourite nominations. Lets interact like twitter doesn’t exist! (aka in the comments people!)

*but none of them being lemon myrtle


I really should know better…

Look I’ve been unwell OK? And I rarely go into a supermarket these days (thank goodness!), but, but … OK so my defences were down.

When I saw the innocent looking plastic jar on the shelf I thought – well I read the other day that I should eat more cashews for pre-biotic goodness and I’d had a stomach bug. So I picked it up. I didn’t read the label, and I popped it into my basket.

I didn’t expect it to be as delicious or tasty as I’ve come to expect from the brands of nut spread I usually buy, but how hard is it to take some nuts, roast them and blend them up? The price wasn’t cheap so I expected it to be ok at least. 

And so I am now the proud owner of a jar of Kraft’s Cashew “Spread” smooth.

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Calypso™ Mangoes

I wasn’t born a Queenslander, but I spent most of my childhood there and remember fondly the mango trees in my Nan’s backyard in Coorparoo. The house has gone now, as of course are the trees, but as kids my brother and I spent many happy summer days in the branches, gorging ourselves on small, insanely fragrant, stringy mangoes. Mangoes that were “free-range”, had large pips and I have no idea what breed or “brand” they were. And gosh they were delicious.

Of course this has left me quite picky about my mangoes, and being asked to pay $5 each for them makes me even more picky. I’m a Bowen mango girl mostly these days; but I won’t touch the Northern Territory grown mangoes at the beginning of the season deeming them to be grown too quickly to have the real mango flavour I’m looking for.

I’m talking about that slightly keronsene-y, cloyingly sweet flavour that repeats on you for hours. That’s what a mango is all about, and juice dripping down your chin. The Bowen, or the Kensington Pride was what we bought in Queensland when we wanted something a bit “special” for a posher occasion when we weren’t sitting in a tree or a bath tub scraping stringy mangoes through our teeth. They are more refined, have larger ‘cheeks’ but still with that fabulous flavour.

So I start looking in January for a few mangoes but the good old tree-ripened Bowen mango is getting harder and harder to get.  Oh yes – the breeders have been at it … not content with a sporadic, but delicious Bowen they have taken to crossing them with other fruit.

Today I tried a Calypso™ mango for the first time.  This is apparently the B74 variety, a cross between a Kensington Pride and a Sensation. It’s billed as having “more fruit, less seed”, firmer and fibre-free flesh and more consistent quality. Well I sure am glad they aren’t billing it as having better flavour, becuase it doesn’t. In fact is has barely any flavour at all. Or juice. And ‘firmer flesh’ I suspect is code for ‘easier to transport without bruising’, although they claim it makes it better for BBQ-ing.

So OK – if you want to BBQ a mango (though I have no idea why you’d want to do that) go ahead and try these. But if you want a real kick of mango flavour, I suggest you try something else.  

You can read more about different mango varieties here.


Spring in Melbourne

I was extremely fortunate to be able to spend some time with renown food writer / editor Ruth Reichl last weekend; attending a masterclass and a dinner with her for Melbourne Writers Festival. Like a similar workshop I under took with Richard Cornish a few months ago at the Wheeler Centre, I left the day inspired and committed to finding “bum-time” as Richard calls it.  Sitting down and writing.  Yeh all good in theory, but there are always so many other things to do. Cooking, cleaning, coffee…

Meeting Ruth was such a delight, but what I’ve taken to most readily from all her tales and advice is from her blog.  In between longer pieces on eating in Melbourne  (esp Attica); and Auckland; a small post popped up about a purple daikon she bought from the Farmers’ Market before she left to come to Australia. 

Why? because it reminded me that not every post has to be an essay, researched for many months; or about a restaurant I’ve eaten at three or four times. It’s my blog and I can just write. About whatever inspires me, in little grabs or long reads.

So here I am reflecting on the week gone by, and the wonderful day I had on Saturday. As a month with five Saturdays there are far fewer farmers’  markets on, and I was due a sleep in. So I had one. The I popped in to Eureka Coffee for a couple of fab coffees and a Five n Dime bagel while trying to cram lyrics into my head before heading in to the Butterfly Club to sing. I emerged after two hours to a stunning Melbourne day.

I was thinking of finally visiting Rue & Co and jumped on a Collins Street tram, only to be painfully reminded that they aren’t open on weekends. (I have to keep asking why not? Plenty of people around on Saturdays at least).

Anyway, last Thursday I went to see Commander Chris Hadfield talk in the Melbourne Town Hall, again for Melbourne Writers’ Week, I had had a hankering for a lemon and sugar crepe from La Petite Creperie on Swanston street, but they had a queue beforehand and were closed afterwards. Since then I’ve had a growing craving, so I headed back down the hill and procured a fresh and delicious crepe instead. (Cmdr Hadfield was amazing by the way.)

I sauntered down to Bourke Street and got caught up in the bomb scare evacuation, so walked up to Spring Street and treated myself to some cheese from Spring Street Cheese, and a wonderful cup of gelato from Gelateria Primavera – fior de latte, violet and raspberry & a truly sublime mandarin sorbet. This is the best gelato in this town. Far more delicious and subtle than the overly-sweet Messina. 

The cheese even made it home this time – last time I bought L’Etivaz I dropped it getting off the tram and was unable to retrieve it. I did manage to convince some lovely folk inside the tram to collect it and eat it. They later found me on twitter and thanked me. Melbourne is just kinda like that sometimes.

I just had a quick break to catch up on this piece from the Guardian UK where Jay Rayner explains that there is no legal definition of “nutritionist”, at least in the UK, and has a lot to say about sous vide cooking method (mostly not good).

Next Saturday I’m all for the combining of pursuits again when Glee Plus sing at Southbank Farmer’s Market.

Have a happy Monday folks.


Bundarra Pork Tasting Menu At Bar Nacional

 Here’s a story, about a lovely lady who was raising some very tasty pigs.  All of them were rare-breed Berkshires, like their mothers, and all had free-range digs.

Lauren Mathers

Photo: Em Hart @thaladybaker

Here’s a story about a chef named Alex, who loved pork, more than any other meat. After brining, braising, roasting and compressing – his belly was a treat!

Photo: Bar Nacional

The one day when this lady met this fellow, and they knew that it was a much more than a hunch; that they should join forces, and work together – to cook an amazing … dinner?

Well, close enough.

Bar Nacional is offering a special Bundarra Berkshire pork tasting menu between Easter and ANZAC Day. 

22, 23 and 24 April only

5 courses for $55 food, $85 with matched wines.
Book by calling Bar Nacional on 9252 7999

Bar Nacional uses Bundarra Berkshire pork for it’s signature pork belly dish.  

If you haven’t tasted this dish yet, served at the moment with with apple, lemon verbena, seeds and grains, this has to be your best opportunity. For these three nights, all courses will feature Lauren’s beautiful pork. Oysters with Jamon vinaigrette, Spanish style morcilla, porky bits and pieces like Jamon crumbs and of course Shaun Quade’s Tocino del Cielo (Heaven’s Bacon) dessert to round out the evening.

We may even be able to convince Lauren to visit and chat about her pork. There is no better excuse to come and visit.

Bar Nacional

727 Collins Street
Collins Square / Batman’s Hill 

Stop D15 Batman’s Hill Routes 48, 11 and 31.







Review: Bar Nacional

I’ll let you in on a secret. I’ve been seriously considering not writing this post at all.

If you follow me on twitter you’ll be well aware of my struggle to find decent food and coffee in Docklands when my work moved here 12 months ago. I asked, I scanned Epicure and Urbanspoon and watched for new openings like a hawk.  I was first or second in to every new operation, hoping against hope that I could find decent coffee at least within a stones throw of work. 

I tried places all over Victoria Harbour, Central Pier, Southern Cross Station,the Stadium Precinct and *everything* in Batman’s Hill.  Nada. If it was reasonable food, it was terribly overpriced, or miles away. If the espresso was ok – the milk they used was awful.  I’m ok with bringing my lunch to work, but it’s nice to occasionally treat yourself. There was also nowhere decent to drink after work; you know, relaxed atmosphere, good quality wine, ace bar snacks, good gin – not too many wankers.

But that has all changed. No really!

When Bar Nacional opened on Batman’s Hill (in Collins Square) late last year I dutifully tried the coffee. It was pretty good, their barista chatted to me, by day two he knew what I wanted to drink, and I knew that they were using Schulz Organic Milk. It could have ended there and I’d have been pretty darn happy. But then I went in for lunch one day in October with a colleague from the other end of town. We knew we wanted desserts because by this time we’d heard that Shaun Quade was working there (more on that later). The rest of the menu looked like a standard tapas menu. So we ordered a traditional kind of tapas snacked lunch. tortilla, albóndigas, grilled asparagus. Fresh, tasty and what I expected. But the desserts – they were something out of the box.

A liquid centered chocolate cake and a crema Catalana (a Spanish style crème brûlée) seemed fairly straight forward, but of course, coming from one of Australia’s dessert-mad genius’ they were anything but. I wasn’t allowed more than just a taste of the cake, but I had it again on recent visit and can attest to the addictive power of the lemon marmalade ice-cream and the flowing olive oil aniseed centre. Like it’s partner, the burnt orange crema Catalana with bay leaf oil and roasted flour shortbread, the flavours work better than they have a right to.  Meta-moreish is about all I can think of to describe them.

Burnt Orange Crema Catalan

There’s quite a few places in Melbourne that claim to be inspired by Spanish tapas bars, and San Sebastian bar lifestyle, but Bar Nacional’s version rings very true for someone who fell in love with it, and ate and drank all over the old town in an attempt to soak all that atmosphere in. Robust, uber-technically cooked meats are layered with spikes of seasonal vinegary vegetables, smooth spiced purees, and crisp juicy raw herbs and fruits. The produce is respected (if not venerated) and it shows.

The pork belly dish takes days, with brining, poaching and then crisping it’s salt & pepper crackling, before it’s served in tight cubes with compressed pear, yuzu and mint. It’s a dish I’ve come back for. It’s a dish to make you wish you worked or lived across the road.  

Pork Belly


I set up a couple of lunch dates to taste more of the menu, the jamon was calling me, and the terrine (well mocking me really, hanging as they do above the bar where I get my morning coffee). The charcuterie plate offered a taste of both the Jamón Serrano and the 4 year old Jamón Joselito. If you’ve ever been curious about the difference that ageing and diet imparts on meat – trying these two one after the other will certainly show you. There’s nothing wrong with the serrano, nothing at all. But the Joselito acorn fed pork from north-western Spain is absolutely divine. The rich, nutty fat melts on the tongue and coats the salty porky tissue thin slices in the most delicious way. Even a tiny bit leaves you satisfied with a long-lasting  savoury after taste.  

It was almost a shame to wash the remnants away with the decent rosado (rosé) we were drinking by the glass. The wine list is the work of Jeff Salt and there’s a great selection for easy drinking after work, or to sit beside a more serious meal-like evening.  Estrella on tap makes a nice start, and I totally recommend the Txakoli from the Galicia with a meal. 

After work drinks turn into a cruise through the vegetarian options, limited but delicious. Pan con Tomate uses Jo Barrett’s (ex Movida Bakery) excellent bread to soak up juicy tomatoes, potato bravas are handled traditionally and the cheese board brings again, interesting accompaniments like honeycomb with an excellent spanish blue.

The cauliflower pickle which accompanies the terrine almost steals the show. When something like this is done well, the balance and interest it adds to a meal can’t be understated. I hope to see a Bar Nacional line of pickles and chutneys to take away one day.

Even the Mount Zero Olives have been given the “amp up the flavour” treatment by head chef Alex Drobysz, and I’m now thoroughly addicted to them. I got a bit caught up with the jamon vinaigrette serviced with the just-shucked oysters that I actually bit the fourth oyster I’ve ever eaten to better experience the flavour of the jamon fat, wine vinegar  and shallot.

I finally made it to dinner the other night, which was my chance to try the house special of fish roasted on fruit wood in the Josper oven, a kind of indoor BBQ on steroids. The edges of the wood catch fire and the oils from the fruit wood and a little bit of smoke infuse the fish. We had flathead from the Chatham Islands with smokey eggplant puree. I have no idea fish could be this succulent.. We started off carefully filleting the meat from the bones with cutlery, but in the end we were using our fingers to grab the juicy morsels from the plate. Good thing I was there with good friends! I did wish for an old school fish knife though to help with the filleting and sharing (look that’s my excuse for reverting to savagery, ok?).

Flathead tails on orange wood

It’s so very rare to find a place that gives as much as Bar Nacional does, from breakfast coffee and bocadillo, takeaway lunch rolls, a decent bar with great snacks, rolling it to a long dinner. The staff are passionate about what they are creating, and service is right within that Melbourne casual / professional vibe. Yep, now I’ll be sad if we move back to the Paris end of Collins street.

Just over the hill from The Age building and with practically it’s own tram stop outside the front door it’s well worth a small detour down the blustery end. And it deserves all the kudos its been getting and the $25 lunch deal is a good way to try it out.

Guess I’ll just have to share it with the rest of you now.

Bar Nacional
727 Collins Street
Collins Square

Batman’s Hill Tram Stop D15 Routes 11,48 and 31

9252 7999   

Bar Nacional on Urbanspoon


Preview: Long Shot Bakery Cafe

Oh Docklands – you promised so much, but delivered me so little. Since work moved from the Paris end of Collins St to Batman’s Hill in Docklands earlier this year I’ve tried, I really have. I’ve gotten used to your mostly useless addresses. (I’m looking at at you Cafenatics: Suite 10, 737 Bourke St is really Rebecca Lane & Village st  – I spent 2 weeks searching for you only to find out you used Pura milk …. Cause you’re in the Lion Building … Sigh) I’ve despaired at how far away everything is. I’d totally given up on coffee and mostly given up on lunch. 

And then Bar Nacional came along, with their good coffee made with Schulz Organic milk, their gin selection (night times only of course),  Shaun Quade’s perfectly balanced and thoroughly modern desserts (Burnt orange crema Catalana, bay leaf, polvorón and crunchy fennel seed one of Gourmet Traveller’s Top 10 dishes for 2013), little treats for morning tea. *phew*

But if it’s possible I’m even more excited by, yet to fully open, Long Shot.   Same group and situated nearby in Collins Square , 727 Collins Street; Long Shot is Shaun Quade’s bakery cafe. I popped in today, though they weren’t yet running the full menu, for a quick look.

Croissant & Pain au Chocolate … Nice start. Yogurt, apple pie jam & puffed grains? My new breakfast. Handmade cereal with activated nuts & seeds and ice cold Elgar Farm milk? Can you guess who one of the business partners is?

Lemon thyme soda, Vietnamese coffee flavoured milk, caramel corn & brown butter flavoured milk? Be still my tantalised taste buds.

 The site is all soft green, soft grey and white and I can barely wait until Monday!