We kicked off our trip to Oz with a whisper. Leaving aside the attractions of Sydney -- culinary and otherwise -- for a few days, Dave and I picked up a car on arrival and, after fueling up with a couple of bracing lattes (when I tasted that wonderful coffee -- from an airport concession stand, no less! -- I knew it was gonna be a tasty trip) and cluelessly circling the airport once or twice, headed on down south a couple hours, to Jervis Bay.
I boarded the plane in KL with a Hit List. Keeping in mind that spring had sprung in Australia, markers of the season figured prominently: fresh peas and fava beans, artichokes, stone fruit. Local cheeses, the likes of which I've been drooling over monthly upon flipping to Australian Gourmet Traveller magazine's dedicated section, were right up there. Great artisinal bread, the kind we used to buy in the San Fran Bay Area and which I think simply does not exist in Asia (anyone in KL -- please prove me wrong!) sat right alongside cheese.
Seafood sat at the tippy top of the list. The plan was to gorge on anything and everything from the deep, to not leave a table without downing it in one form or five; to eat so much of it, in fact, that we would make ourselves nearly sick on the stuff (but not till the very last day) and thus avoid seafood nostalgia upon our return to KL.
I calculated that we had 21 meals on Australian soil ahead of us (lunches and dinners -- we're not morning people) and it seemed reasonable to hope that we'd be able to grab all the golden hoops.
Less than an hour down the road -- bingo! Just outside of Wollongong we chanced upon a guy parked on a pullout, selling fruit out of the back of his truck. We braved the flies (the area is suffering this year from an unusually large housefly population, we heard on Sydney talk radio. The unpleasant phenomenon is attributed to abundant rain, which resulted in unusually lush pasture, which results in, well -- a lot of farm animal excrement) and loaded bags with fragrant nectarines, peaches, and deliciously winey sweet seedless grapes.
A further 45 minutes and we reached Berry, a charming old town with a kind of kitschy
outback bygone-days touristy thing going. We downed some pretty decent sandwiches at the Emporium, and grabbed some cheese -- a goat's blue and fresh goat curds -- there as well. Across the street, the Berry Bottle Shop proved the source of some lovely local vino at jaw-droppingly low prices (we came from Malaysia, remember), and its proprietor turned us onto the Berry Woodfired Bakery just around the corner, source of amazing bread (including sourdough, my favorite) and sweets. The bakery also sells a bit of produce from local small-scale farmers and wouldn't you know it -- this day one of the baskets was chock full of favas. I bought every last one.
Out of Berry and just past Nowra, on the way to our rental in Jervis Bay, we detoured -- on, again, Mr. Berry Bottle Shop's recommendation -- at Greenwell Point to pick up a little something for dinner.
Thirty more minutes on the road and we were ensconsed in our home for the next 4 nights, a sweet little cottage with all the essentials: a reasonably well-equipped kitchen, a fireplace, a verandah with a view, and a user-friendly gas barby.
The cottage lies, with 4 very privately sited others, on a small farm about 5 minutes from the coast. The farm adjoins a national park, and so its horses share pasture with these things.
You Aussies are probably rolling your eyes about now -- what, another roo shot??!! But it just can't be denied that these animals are fascinating. All the more so when there's 15 or so of them not 40 feet from your verandah, scratching their bellies, munching on green stuff, or grooming their tots.
That night we toasted, with a sprightly sauvignon blanc (no details on that -- you read the meme, right? I don't do wine notes) our first dinner in Oz: blackfish fillets and big, roe-attached scallops, rubbed with olive oil and BBQ'd with a sprig of rosemary on the griddle; fava beans gently braised in white wine; fresh tomatoes crowned with goat's curd; and fresh nectarine tart (frozen puff pastry, I'm not that much of a wizard in the kitchen) with thick cream. No photos, sorry. We were in vacation mode.
Dave got busy with the camera the next day at lunch. It was back to Greenwater Point and Backgate Seafoods for fresh oysters and fish 'n chips. Backgate offers eat-in (on a covered patio out back) or take-out. I couldn't really imagine allowing crisp-fried fish to wilt in the bag the few minutes it would take to get to the beach, so we grabbed a picnic table set to salivating in anticipation of our feed.
The small, sweet, and firm oysters were local -- very fresh, even though they'd been opened a couple hours prior. Nearly everything I look for in a bivalve (are they bivalves?) -- I like a little more oyster liquor in my shell, and that's the downside of advance opening -- these sweeties slid down easy.
Now, I'm no fish and chips expert. In fact I generally avoid deep-fried foods; I'm American, I've seen what they can do. And I know that some of my readers have grown up with this dish, so I hesitate to offer an opinion. But geez, get a load of the crust on this fillet!
Never mind the chips -- which were, by the way, nicely crisped, low on the grease, and well salted. This mammoth fillet of -- I want to say perch? but I'm not certain -- was cooked beyond perfection. Little grease. Very, very crispy exterior, nicely browned but not burned in any way, shape or form. The crust enclosed the fillet, rather than fusing with it; the fissures in the shot above give a hint at how it just fell away from the fish with the poke of a fork, revealing a fillet moist and tender and steaming and oh so flavorful. No sogginess here, no heavy, thick batter. Fish and chips experts -- is this what you look for in your f 'n c? 'Cause this fish and chips sent me right to heaven.
Paying for lunch (not cheap but not expensive, given the quality and quantity of the pile of superfresh seafood we'd just consumed), we spotted dinner in the display case.
Moreton Bay bugs is the name they go by, I think; these ugly little critters, boiled and ready to eat, were the smallest I've ever seen, just about 5 inches long. And in this case, small is better -- with a bit of cracking and shelling, they offered up the sweetest meat I have ever tasted in any shellfish, anywhere (as a point of comparison we sampled much larger bugs in Sydney a few days later: good, but nowhere as sweet as these little ones).
On the way out of town we stopped to watch the local pelican (???) population lunch on fish guts discarded by folks cleaning their daily catch on the dock.
And a eureka moment on the way back to our temporary nest -- a tiny sign nailed to a tree advertising "fresh artichokes", which led us to a farm just off Princes Highway where an extended family with an Italy connection grows olive trees -- brining some of the fruit and turning the rest into bright green, grassy olive oil with a peppery finish (it's ridiculously priced at AUD 12 a half liter) -- as well as the teeniest baby artichokes and big bushy bunches of chard.
And so dinner was born: pasta with favas, artichokes, and bug meat, doused with a generous glug of fresh olive oil.
More of the same for the next couple of days, in spite of 24 straight hours of rain that makes the tropical downpours we get here in Malaysia seem like a piddle. In the middle of this rain we drove back up to Berry, to the Woodfired Bakery, for an unforgettable lunch (what else is there to do in a downpour but eat?) of Tasmanian mussels, shells as big as my fist, in a tangy sauce of tomatoes and white wine, leftovers sopped up with the bakery's luscious fresh bread. Bread pudding, baked in the wood-fired oven, of course, followed. This meal -- those mussels -- held their place as one of our best in Oz. Anyone planning a jaunt in the direction of Berry would be absolutely insane to miss breakfast or lunch at the bakery (even I'd be a morning person for a couple of poached eggs with some of that bread). Take note: it's closed Monday and Tuesday.
Emu oil? Sorry, the title was a bit of a faker. We did, in fact pass several times, during our time in Jervis Bay, an emu farm ahawking emu pies and emu oil. The pies just didn't appeal. And I don't even want to begin to imagine how the oil is extracted.
Backgate Seafoods, 107 Greenwell Point Rd., Greenwell Point NSW. Tel. (02) 4447-1231.
For lovely extra virgin olive oil, olives black and green, olive oil products, honey, veggies, and fresh eggs: Bruno and Maria Morabito, 1106 Princes Highway (about 1-2 km south of the turnoff for Jervis Bay), Falls Creek, NSW. Tel. (02) 4447-8791.