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

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.

Read the rest of this entry »


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!





Hot Cross Bun Recipe – from the archives

Today, Epicure published its Hot Cross Bun taste test results.

And I’ve tried a few of them this year – but I will be making a few batches of my own buns again this year as I still prefer them (though the Movida ones are tasty).  My buns are old school and pay no nods to modern baking … they aren’t vegetarian friendly (the glaze uses gelatin to form a lovely sticky, chewy texture), they are risen with yeast (no sourdough here) and they are a soft bun rather than a more rustic chewy one. But they are rich in fruit (I recommend Happy Fruit for Accredited Farmers Markets for Australian grown quality) and spice and include dried peel.

I have though created a vegan version – which is also acceptable to my Greek friends who are eschewing eggs for lent.

Traditional Hot Cross Buns
Vegan Hot Cross Buns 

Let me know how you go if you make some yourself (you should really … set your own tradition)


Strawberry Jam Recipe

Its that time of year when I start to preserve the best of summer to tide me over through all upcoming dull grey winter days.

Strawberries – direct from the farmer, fragrant and sweet, are one of my favourite fruits.  When they haven’t travelled for days to get to you, in refrigerated transport, the smell is incredible. This recipe captures the best of the fruit with a quick cook so that the jam tastes fresh and fruity rather than “jammy” and cloying.  In order to set though, you need to add pectin. Your gran might have added lemon juice and it’s pips to obtain the same effect, but I’m a bit more modern than that. I use citrus pectin in powdered form.

Use the best strawbs you can, either pick your own or order ahead from your favourite farmers market vendor for some frozen seconds and most of the work is done for you. Cleaned and de-stemmed it’s pretty simple to make some jam that will taste so good you’ll never go back to supermarket rubbish.

I got mine this year from Benny’s Berries.

Fairfield Farmers’ Market: Saturday 16 March  Benny’s Berries. Call Maria on 0409 490 127 for 1kg frozen seconds
Gasworks Farmers Market: Saturday 16 March Sunny Ridge
Slowfood Farmers Market at the Convent Saturday 23 March  Summer Sensations- call Neil on 0408 141 092 / 5281 5449

or Pick your own

U-Pick – Sunny Ridge open daily until April – 224 Shands Road, Main Ridge

Simple recipe.

You’ll need strawberries, sugar, vanilla pod, bay leaves, a lemon or a lime, citrus pectin powder (see note)

Take one kilo of strawberries, washed and hulled. (fresh or frozen)

Put them in as large a pan as you have – broad rather than tall.

Add 900 grams of white sugar and two or three bay leaves.

Leave to macerate for a hour at least.

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Meanwhile: sterilise 6 x 300g jars.   I wash them well in hot water, dry them them put them into an over at 170C for 15 mins while boiling the lids rapidly on the stove.

Bring strawberries and sugar gentle to the boil. The sugar should dissolve before the mix comes to the boil.

While heating, split and scrape a vanilla bean into the jam. Cut the vanilla bean in half length wise and cross wise (so you end up with 4 pieces) and place this into the jam too.

When the jam starts to boil, aim to keep it on a rolling boil for 12 mins. Remove lemon / lime and bay leaves if preferred.

Sprinkle over the top 15 grams of pectin powder, stir well for one minute and take jam off the heat.

Fill jars while still hot and close lids tightly. Invert jars for two minutes then return them right way up to cool.


Citrus Pectin is available from Melbourne Food Ingredient Depot: failing that use jam sugar which contains pectin. I don’t recommend Jamsetta, but if you have to … sure.



Essjay bites March 6 2013

Well, hello there everyone.

In the midst of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival there’s a bit of news around to share. And whilst the office move has gone well, the search for interesting and affordable food (lets not mention coffee) in Docklands is continuing … slowly. Please let me know your favourites over here.

I ran into Jo Corrigan of The Commoner Restaurant on the tram home tonight and quizzed her about her new kitchen team. Well respected chef Adam Liston (formerly Hare & Grace, T8 in Shanghai and The Melting Pot in Adelaide) now leads the kitchen and Jo told me how happy she is to hear the banter between him and his team about food, food and more food. She and partner Matt will be sitting down tonight with the rest of the staff to sample Adam’s new menu, then tomorrow it goes live. I love The Commoner and am really looking forward to trying the new dishes. If you check his twitter stream you’ll see some pics. (Love a chef who tweets new dishes!)

Speaking of Jo and Matt (@mushroomsanon) – their highly successful and FUN mushroom foraging expeditions are about to kick off for this year, and for the first time they are expanding into NSW and South Australia. Jo showed me a photo of some delicious looking lovelies she and Matt found in NSW recently. Jump on board if you want to join them – if you came along with us last year (and Fringe Food) you’ll know what a great time will be in store.  Contact the restaurant for details and bookings.

And speaking of The Commoner – many moons ago some of us bloggers had a bit of a dinner there. I ran into Cindy and Michael from Where’s the Beef and Adrian from Food Rehab last Saturday when we were asked to judge the baking competition at the Treadlie Bike Fest and we thought it might be time to have another one. Whattya reckon bloggers? Shall we meet up? We can cook ourselves in the wood fired oven or we can get The Commoner to feed us. Leave me a message and lets get rolling.

Rosa Mitchell (formally  at Journal Canteen)has opened her new venture  “Rosa’s Kitchen” in Punch Lane. I dropped passed on the Australia Day long weekend when one of the partners David Mackintosh was there with chef Lucy overseeing a “rip out and restore” job. The pink paint has gone and in it’s place is a cosy 45 seater showcasing Rosa’s delicious family fare. She’s even taken to facebook and twitter to keep us updated on kitchen shenanigans (yes shenanigans – look at those cucumbers!) Lazlo Evenhuis, most recently at The Crimean has joined the team so expect some delicious and interesting wines to go with that Sicilian food.

I’ve been hanging out at Eureka Coffee and farmers markets as usual, and visited Industry Beans (impressive), Bia Hoi pop-up (tasty), tasted chocolate for The Age (tough life), ate fantastic food from French Chef David Toutaine at Brooks and got a head full of ideas at Melbourne Food and Wine Festival events “Theatre of Ideas” and “Chef Jam”. My Dad visited from Queensland which gave me the perfect excuse to eat at Gerald’s Bar a couple of times (just keeps on getting better), Kaprica (pizza to die for), Beatrix and Pope Joan.Oh and I baked and made pickles and strawberry jam too. But more on that later… promise.

Dad loved his visit to Skinner & Hackett so much we had to get some beef and lamb for him to take home with him.

But the really BIG NEWS is that Gerald’s Bar will be opening on Sunday nights from this Sunday March 17.

Happy days folks!






Docklands Eating

Next week my workplace is moving from 80 Collins street to 750 Collins street. This puts us riiiight down the end … nearly in the water – in the area officially known as Victoria Harbour, but known to me as #swampland.

This is disconcerting for many reasons, but my most pressing need is coffee. And lunch.

Last time I worked in Docklands was about 6 years ago. In the three years that our company was there we saw many new cafes and eateries open, full of optimism and high prices …. and close. And open, and close. In the end we mostly ate at the Channel 7 staff canteen as they at least stayed open for most of the time we were there, and the food was pretty reasonable as were their hours.

It seemed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy of top shelf rents leading to top shelf prices leading to low participation by the new migrants to the area, leading to shorter and shorter opening hours, leading to lower quality until finally places imploded. The “hoards” of tourists just didn’t keep these places afloat.

I started taking my lunch most days from about the third week in. (Heck they’ve even banned food trucks from Docklands now … what hope do we have?)

Having been at 80 Collins st or 121 Exhibition for the last six years I’ve gotten very spoiled. Currently there is no really decent coffee, but there’s plenty of variety of food, at all price points, available nearby. And bars for after work. And parks, and utilities but… oh well.

So – I asked twitter and got a list of places to try. I’ll do the right thing – and try lots of places, and will report back.

So tell me where I should go -the twitterati have given me the ones below – tell me your favourite Docklands haunt.

(actually  it’s Victoria Harbour, so no Harbour Town, Waterfront City, Central Pier or South Wharf )

Here’s where I’ll be going first:-

De Mad Hatter on Urbanspoon

Snowbird Frozen Yoghurt on Urbanspoon

De Gusto Café on Urbanspoon

Non Solo Pasta on Urbanspoon

Pok Pok on Urbanspoon

Summit Cafe & Bar on Urbanspoon