Eat local

I thought I would share this article on my blog as I wasn’t just running late for deadline, I totally missed it. It was written on 20th December 2019.

I am running a bit late this month with deadline upon me. I spent all day working in the café with food; baking, cleaning up and baking again. My grandmother always said that a good cook cleans up their mess. I am not sure they teach this at chef school but it works for me. I get overwhelmed when I am surrounded by dirty dishes. I am overwhelmed by lots of things these days, and trying to stay a little organised keeps me sane in these crazy times.

My main source of stress comes from thinking about the future of our food sources and the impact of drought on our environment.

Now more than ever we must eat local and support our farmers and producers. I think about this often, in fact even as a young child I was fascinated by my grandmother’s vegetable garden, by our pigs, who ate our scraps, by our chooks and ducks, and by the dairy in Krambach where we took our buckets to fill up with milk. We would get a spoon and eat the cream from the top of the bucket. This was what growing up in the country meant to me. Just today while I was cracking quite a few dozen eggs, as I admired the dark yellow beautifully formed yolks, I thought about where these beautiful eggs came from. I thought about the healthy chickens wandering happily with their friends, going about their business, and kicking dirt with their feet. Our eggs come from Idlewilde farm in Elands. Like much of our produce, they don’t travel far. During the recent bushfires, this farm was almost lost. These guys were already struggling with the drought and then the fires hit. Unfortunately there are many more stories like this. Our dairy source is threatened as dairy farmers are unable to feed their cattle, there is no water, many of the paddocks are burnt. Cows that were once milked will become the beef on our table. This doesn’t seem right to me. I grew up on this land, and we just didn’t eat the dairy cow.

Last week I met Joe, he had been cleaning up on his farm at Cappara after losing everything, including his bee hives. I gave him a beer and he told me that he hoped they would return eventually. He was positive but tired. Farmers have been battling the drought for a long time, and they work hard. Emotionally they are drained. Our food sources are threatened, so what will we eat? It worries me. We are not the food bowl we were a few years ago so how will we survive into the future? I hope that it will rain, but if the rain doesn’t come, we may all be eating imported food. Let’s support our farmers and producers when we can. I understand that our local food is a bit scarce at the moment, but farmers are a resilient bunch, hopefully they will rebuild.

I will continue to support local producers as long as they have food, and as consumers you can shop at farmers markets along with many local butchers and fruit and vegetable shops that source local produce. Dine in establishments that support local.

Eat well, eat local.

Feature photo by Les Mulder of The Edible Forest Wherrol Flat


Melbourne I love you

Sometimes it all gets a bit much; work takes over my life, I am craving a good Mamasita corn cob, and I need a week with my sister.

This is when I take my annual trip to Melbourne. Since my first visit to Melbourne 32 years ago, I was hooked. I lived in and loved Sydney for 18 years, I love the harbour, my friends and many aspects of Sydney, but there is just something special about Melbourne.

Our annual trip came late this year, we were just so busy, my sister has a new job and my work seems to be never ending, especially playing catch up after my trip to the UK in January. We were so excited to be going that my super organised sister had her bags packed 2 weeks before we flew out.

Brunswick Street

We decided to revisit our accommodation at the Mantra on Little Bourke Street, this was our Melbourne home for a few years running until we tried the Citadene last year. We prefer the Mantra because the rooms are big, it is in a great position and it is next to Movida Aqui, one of our favourite restaurants. There is no rave factor about this hotel, it just feels like home. The problem is, the very reason we moved away was still a huge issue for me. It may seem like a first world problem, but each time I stay there, I can hardly walk for a week due to the combination of hard mattress and soft pillow. We even asked for harder pillows, to be told they were not available because they are not at the level of providing a choice of pillows? But we were staying 6 nights.

Hosier Lane

Our first meal out was at Movida Aqui, where we always enjoy fantastic service and choose to be seated at the bar to be amongst it. Being a Friday night, the place was pumping but meals were delivered quickly and we were never without a glass of wine. We were happy travellers that’s for sure. Don’t you just love that first night of a holiday, full of excitement and planning all the experiences you want to take in, quietly realising that there are only 24 hours in one day?
We always order Carrillera De Buey – Slowly Braised Beef Cheek in Pedro Ximenez on Cauliflower Puree. It is just divine with the cauliflower so smooth and tasty and the beef cheeks that melt in your mouth.  I always try to emulate it in the kitchen when I return home. The beef cheek is one of those cuts that has found popularity as it is wonderful when cooked slowly. I am not going to go through everything we ate but it was great start to our trip. We finished the evening with a very traditional Churros Con Chocolate – Spanish doughnuts with rich drinking chocolate, reminding me of Spain. I love how food takes you away, its like a journey through your plate.

Van Gogh

We have a favourite rooftop bar in Melbourne, its on Bourke Street and it’s called Madame Brussels. You walk into this dreary looking building, catch a rickety lift and arrive in this magic place, a rather fancy terrace that is all pink and fluffy complete with garden chaises, sun lounges and beautiful smiling staff wearing little vintage tennis outfits. The bar’s catchy name pays tribute to the Madame herself – a 19th century city brothel owner and entrepreneur famed for her sensational attitude and unconventional lifestyle. Disco music plays on the stereo and the sparking wine comes in vintage coupe glasses.  But wait till you see their jugs! When we get hungry we like to partake in a snack of “Mother of pearls gay sausage rolls with dead ‘orse”. It is a feast for the eyes and no trip to Melbourne is complete without a trip to Madame’s!

Brunswick Street

Another thing I love about Melbourne are the exhibitions, last year we were fortunate to be in Melbourne for the fabulous Versace exhibition and this year we went to see Van Gogh and the Seasons. We made the mistake of going on a Sunday, a bit silly when we had all those weekdays in Melbourne. We stood in line for quite some time but it was well worth it. I knew a bit about the artist, I knew he cut his own ear off, and that he was artistically brilliant, sometimes dark and sometimes light, but it was really interesting to listen to all of his letters to his brother and to get to know this brilliant artist and the tumultuous life he led. The seasons had profound meaning for Vincent Van Gogh representing the circle of life. He was a brilliant artist, it was somewhat sad that he had such a short life and died so tragically.

Stagger Lees

We enjoy heading down Brunswick Street for a bit of retro shopping and a meal at Stagger Lees. We love this place with it’s fabulous coffee and interesting menu that rarely disappoints. The head chefs name is actually Chris Hamburger! Surely he has changed his name to this? My very favourite is Smashing pumpkins – roasted butternut pumpkin, poached egg, crispy kale, romesco, smoked almonds and pomegranate, I love to add trout. It is so tasty. Every place in Melbourne seems to tell a story, like the bar across the road called Naked for Satan because apparently the original owner would brew naked, get a bit drunk and run around with no clothes on. Stagger Lees was named after a pimp from St. Louis. He infamously shot a cell mate in the 1900s for stealing his red stetson hat and since then over 400 musicians and artists have retold the story of Stagger Lee; the ultimate bad-ass.

You cant go past Mamasitas on Collins Street for the most amazing Mexican food, a favourite being paprika corn on the cob. They do the best popcorn icecream and it has a fabulous vibe. You may have to line up for an hour to get in, we were so lucky this time and managed to snag a table straight away, but the line is often long.

Hardware Societie

We always go to another one of our favourite little cafes, Hardware Societie and this time we met with my lovely previous staff members Bella and Maitlan. This place does funky food and fabulous coffee, with a pretty little fitout, complete with butterfly wallpaper.  I tried the fabulous Duck rillette eggs benedict which was divine, and according to Bella, the French toast was pretty good too. You line up here too as you do with all the popular Melbourne restaurants, once you get in, the meals arrive quickly.

Hosier Lane

Melbourne is particularly famous for its murals, there is one up just about every lane, but International visitors flock to Hosier Lane to be photographed in front of one of the many murals that are part of a youth project. I find them fascinating and they add so much to an already cultural city.

One day, we took a trip down to Gisborne to see one of my fellow Chalk Paint™ by Annie Sloan stockists at her beautiful shop Gisborne French Provincials.  Joolz and I became great friends during our training trip to Oxford, it was great to catch up with her, and only an hour or so by train from the city. Day tripping is easy in Melbourne and so cheap. 

We decided to leave Chin Chin until our last meal, as it is really special. The Executive Chef, Benjamin Cooper is from Taree. The food is brilliant. we waited 2 hours for a table which is normal for this popular place, but it was well worth it. Chin Chin is modelled on the dining halls of South East Asia. Caramelised sticky pork with sour herb salad & chilli vinegar, Crispy skinned duck with bok choy, lup cheong, shitake stir fry & ginger soy and Corn and coriander fritters with iceberg lettuce & chilli jam are just a few of our favourite dishes. This time we went with the “Feed me” menus, so glorious food just kept coming out to our table. This place is a work of art, seating around 200 customers, with every staff member on the ball. I especially love listening to the banter from the kitchen, with Chef Benjamin on the pass. It is music to my ears.

The loveliest part of my trip is being able to spend this valuable time with my beautiful sister Andre. We really enjoy our trip, we love the dining experiences, the cultural experience and a spot of shopping. I look forward to next years trip, time to start saving!


Bent on Food is 12

This week Bent on Food turns 12. When I look back I find it difficult to believe that the years have flown by so fast. On 18th December 2004 we opened the doors as a regional food store, selling coffee and cake. I had a water skiing accident the day before opening and spent the first 6 weeks of trading in a brace, often wondering why I left my desk job. But hospitality was in my blood as I had spent most of my working life around food and wine, so I knew deep down that this was what I wanted to do.

We started in a small premises on Bent Street, hence the name, and we were popular from the beginning,  helped along by a very early article in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide (my bible) written by John Saxby, who rated our smoked ham baguette very highly.

I was aware that there were already a number of cafes in the town, including Convivia which was a favourite amongst the locals, so I set about bringing a new market to town. Previous marketing and public relations experience gave me the skills I needed to attract tourists to the region, which I believed would grow the business community and lift the profile of our area.   I sent media releases and pretty soon we were featured alongside the cookery school in Country Style Magazine. I entered Tourism awards and won the Regional and State awards in 2006, after just over one year of trading. In 2007 we moved down to the main street and in 2011 we purchased the cookery school. I totally enjoy the children’s cookery classes and have loved working with visiting chefs including Stefano Manfredi, Kurma Dasa and cheesemaking wizard Carole Willman. In 2009 we were fortunate to win the Qantas Australian Tourism Award for the category of Restaurant and Catering Excellence. With the help of Eric and Monica Robinson at The Other Chef we created our produce line that grew into at least 12 products.  My dear Graphic Designer friend Peter Metro developed all of our logos and to this day he has never asked for a cent.

I worked with my staff on building a business that the locals would be proud of and that could contribute back to the community, not just through employment, but through donations and sponsorship of events. Bent on Food has supported local and visiting musicians and many customers have enjoyed a great music night at the cafe. Early on I  joined my local chamber and soon became president. I have always believed that you must give back to the community where you derive your income from. This is the way I do business, and although it does not necessarily deliver direct results, it makes me sleep at night.

To date, Bent on Food has won 31 Gold awards, 7 silver and 5 bronze in regional, State and National awards programmes. This has lead to a huge amount of publicity for us and for the region. Even though we are very proud of our awards, it is  not about a trophy sitting in a cabinet gathering dust; these accolades give staff a real sense of pride and they force me to plan ahead and set true objectives. We are proud to be the most awarded restaurant in the history of the region and we know that our customers are also proud. We have been featured on Clayton Donovan’s Wild Kitchen, Sydney Weekender, Kai Time on the Road, Kochies Business Builders, Basic Banana’s and for a few years I was on a radio program with Robbie Buck on ABC702 which lead to a live broadcast of the radio show from Wingham during the floods. Bent on Food has been featured in the Good Food Guide and Lonely Planet, all of this contributing to the profile of the region.

Many of our favourite customers have moved away, sadly some have passed away. Many have married and we have been fortunate to cater for some beautiful weddings, and later meet their babies.  Some have moved on to other cafes, unfortunately never to visit again. I still have fond memories of the chats over the counter as I made their coffees for many years, or chatted with their children, and I often hope that they will pop by some time to say hi.

We have supported local producers from the beginning, with a true dedication to locally grown, seasonal food. The Restaurant and Catering awards are judged by restaurant professionals and we are proud that this year we won the major award of Best Regional Cafe NSW at these awards. This means that the food and the service was rated very highly, so I thank my producers and my staff for the wonderful job they do at preparing and serving quality produce.

Over the years I have been lucky to employ lots of lovely staff, many who have moved on to wonderful careers, and for this I am very proud. My staff and I sincerely thank our loyal customers for standing by us, for letting us know how we can improve, for sharing your memories with us and for allowing us to become an integral part of your day for the past 12 years.

Cheers and a Merry Christmas to all my wonderful customers and suppliers, musicians and staff, family and friends.
Donna x