The Sydney restaurant that lets diners choose the price

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Lentil as Anything in Sydney’s Newtown

It’s extremely hard to make money in the restaurant business. Often the most creative and technically brilliant chefs are not adept businesspeople. Being the hottest new chef with a swag of awards doesn’t help either. A full restaurant does not equal a profitable restaurant.

My point is that pricing in restaurants is crucial – it has to strike a balance between covering costs and not scaring customers away with a $25 starter of bread and olives.

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Lentil as Anything has a pared back, student vibe

If pricing can make or break a restaurant then what happens when a restaurant comes along with no prices? Enter Lentil as Anything, a pay-what-you-can-afford, not for profit vegan restaurant that leaves the maths up to the customer. The restaurant is built on the idea that “everyone deserves a place at the table” and wants to offer everyone a positive dining experience, regardless of their financial state.

It’s a concept that made waves when it opened in Melbourne originally and then Sydney’s Newtown and begs the question – what do people do when paying is off the hook?

What would I do?

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The succinct menu for the evening

On the Wednesday night I visit with friends Ving and Bel, the place is packed. And everyone appears to be south of 25 in student-style attire. We ­could be in a uni canteen.

There are four mains on the menu, plus chai tea and one dessert.

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The restaurant’s philosophy and their tasty chai tea

We start with a small glass of chai which has much more depth and flavour than the sort of chai you usually get in cafes these days. It appears not to be made from powder which is an automatic win in my book.

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Spicy roast cauliflower, pepita and spinach salad

The mains on offer for the evening are: Moroccan tagine with black eyed bean couscous; creamy cashew and mushroom spaghetti with garlic bread; spicy roast cauliflower, pepita and spinach salad and ratatouille with rice and garlic bread.

Once a dish sells out, that’s it, so getting in early is advisable. Read More

Foraging for black truffles

A prized black Perigord truffle

A prized black Perigord truffle

I’ve always been intrigued by truffles. And I’m saddened by their current identity crisis.

How is it that this rare, expensive, hyped-up fungi can appear everywhere? Making a cameo in your eggs during Sunday brunch, moonlighting in your local Italian joint’s pasta, flavouring salt grinders in the condiment aisle. How can this be?

Chemically produced, synthetic truffle oil, that’s how. ‘One of the most pungent, ridiculous ingredients ever known’ according to Gordon Ramsay.

A perfect black truffle

A small but perfectly formed truffle

So it’s been a while since truffle flavoured anything has stepped foot in my kitchen. But my interest in the real deal has not subsided and I’ve been keenly watching the growth of the Australian black Perigord truffle industry.

Around 30 of Australia’s 150 growers are based in the Canberra region; the cool climate is perfect for cultivating truffles, much like its celebrated wines.

It was a bit late in the season when I visited Tarago Truffles so I knew the days of finding bucket loads of truffles were over, but was assured by owners Denzil and Anne that there should still be a gem or two out in the field.

A prized black truffle

Denzil holds up his first prize of the day

Denzil and I bonded instantly over our mutual hate for truffle oil. The only time he’ll go near it is when he takes visitor’s dogs out for a bit of truffle training – he soaks cotton wool in ‘truffle’ oil and uses this to teach dogs how to follow the scent. To train his own dogs he uses real truffle that’s been frozen from the last season.

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A particularly moist truffle is pulled from the ground

Growing truffles is not straight forward, there is no truffle ‘seed’ you buy at Flower Power. Instead an acorn and truffle fungi are joined in a lab to form a symbiotic relationship, 18 months later you plant the truffle fungi in the wild and hope for the best.

Denzil started his truffle journey in 2002 and now has 4,300 oak trees across 9 hectares. During the Australian season (May-August) he takes groups through the land to have their own truffle hunting experience.

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Every foot that steps on truffle territory must first be dipped in chlorine

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And that goes for Utah too

First step is to bathe your feet in chlorine to keep germs out of the paddock and prevent cross-contamination. Even the dogs have to quickly dip their paws in.

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Denzil and Utah set off to find truffles

Then it’s time to break into groups and follow one of the leaders who each have a specially-trained dog – the key to finding truffle gold. We quickly learn that Denzil’s son Matt and his dog Dusty have the canniest noses, leading to the biggest spoils.

Matt walks Dusty through an avenue of oak trees until Dusty stops and starts to sniff a particular spot – chances are this means there are truffles in the ground. Read More

Avgolemono: the best soup you’ll ever taste

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A bowl of yiayia’s avgolemono

Avgolemono

Anyone not Greek right now is struggling. It’s okay you can admit it.

Maybe not as much as the time you encountered galaktoboureko, but similar territory.

It’s not only a long word with far too many vowels but there is a silent letter that just throws the entire thing out of whack.

Av – wo – le – mo – no

See it wasn’t that hard. My recommendation is that you become familiar with this magical soup because it’s an absolute winner and if I had to consume nothing else all winter long I’d be a very happy girl.

So what is it? If you break it down it’s quite simple

Avgo = egg

Lemono = lemon

Egg and lemon soup. When I get to this point of the explanation I usually get strange looks.

Egg in a soup? How does that work?

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Meat and vegetables from the stock are served alongside the soup

It’s quite an unusual concept but once you try it you’ll be sold. The base of the soup is chicken stock (or lamb or fish) and this has to be made from scratch with fresh meat or bones, carrots, celery (personally I prefer leeks) and bay leaves. The meat and vegetables later become a side to the soup. Then you add rice. So far so good.

 In a separate bowl you beat eggs and combine them with fresh lemon juice. Read More

My foodie adventures in Cuba

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The bustle of downtown Havana

Exactly this time two years ago I was cycling around Cuba (sans padded bike pants – something I definitely don’t recommend) and taking in the lush countryside, communist signs (of which there are many) and salsa beats coming off every street. It was one of the most memorable travel adventures I’ve ever had.

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Doing my best to fit in with the locals

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Cycling through the lush mountains of Pinar del Rio

I felt compelled to go before it was too late. Before the Cadillacs disappeared and the Castro’ had their last days in office. That sentiment is even more relevant now that the Cubans and Americans have politically kissed and made up and the borders are opening. The country is fast catching up with the rest of the world, whether that’s for better or worse.

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You can’t miss the socialist propaganda…

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… or Che

The legacy of that trip is still with me now, mainly in the form of salsa dancing which I’ve taken to like $2 mojitos (only in Cuba). I can’t say I brought back a truckload of recipes and culinary inspiration as I have from trips to Europe, Asia and Mexico (unless you count variations on the mojito), but I certainly embraced the food offering in Cuba, if only because it is so unique.

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My upteenth ham and cheese sandwich

So what was the national dish of Cuba? Well after two weeks I surmised that it was the toasted ham and cheese sandwich. Because they were EVERYWHERE. Every hotel, every street corner, and the only item of food one could buy at the airport.

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Delicious stewed beans and yuca

Of course when staying with locals in a casa particulare, you are treated like royalty, to the best standard that your host can afford. Having a casa license is like gold in Cuba and hosts are careful not to step a foot wrong. So a meal at a casa is a showcase of the best food the host has access to. The meals are humble but tasty. Read More

How to host a DIY pizza party

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The beginnings of a bespoke pizza

Okay I may as well admit straight up that I haven’t actually hosted a DIY pizza party.

I may know my way around a Eurovision party with a sequined blindfold but a proper pizza party requires the proper pizza kit and I am not sure a wood-fired oven would fit on my balcony, even if I moved my flamingo.

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One good looking, hard working pizza oven

It’s lucky that my second cousins have a bona fide wood-fired pizza oven and live just one suburb away. My cousins are part Italian and part Greek so everything that comes out of their kitchen is a perfect love child of Mediterranean flavours and technique. Naturally I jumped at the opportunity to be part of a family DIY pizza party hosted by these near-professionals.

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I arrived to find the kitchen table topped with perfect pillows of dough positioned in neat lines. The home team had been busy proofing dough for days and worked up three different bases, including a sourdough base which went on to be the favourite of the day.

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Freshly made tomato sauce

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Each pizza base was slathered in a mixture of pureed tinned tomatoes, fresh basil and a touch of olive oil.

The DIY element meant that everyone brought their own selection of toppings and they covered almost every inch of the table.

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We’re talking freshly shaved prosciutto, ham, ricotta cheese, mozzarella cheese, parmesan cheese, salami, olives, marinated peppers, marinated artichokes, roasted pumpkin, caramelised red onions, mushrooms, char-grilled eggplant, fresh basil, rocket, anchovies and roasted beetroot. Read More

A mile of wine (literally)

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The Saale-Unstrut wein region

This time last year I was preparing for a challenging aerobic goal.

Not it wasn’t a half marathon or the City2Surf. I was training to walk a mile.

But not just any mile. A wine mile. Or Weinmeile to be precise (and Germans are always precise).

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The pretty town of Naumburg

Tucked away in Saxony is the town of Naumburg (not to be confused with Nuremberg), which sits in Germany’s northernmost wine region of Saale-Unstrut. Naumburg is a picturesque medieval town, filled with castles and architectural ruins from its heyday as an important fair and trade centre.

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A typical house with a terraced vineyard for a backyard

Many people live along the Saale river which runs through the town and most houses have a little vineyard tucked away on the steep slope of their backyard. Once a year in June, every household along the river bands together to celebrate the local wine industry by hosting the Saale Weinmeile – a day of walking, drinking and feasting in the sunshine.

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The Saale river

I was staying with friends Marc and Kathleen in nearby Leipzig when they casually mentioned they’d be taking me to a fun wine event about an hour away. I didn’t realise just how much fun we would end up having (or how much wine we’d end up drinking!).

Willkommen to the Weinmeile!

We joined the throngs of people at the starting point, draped with a welcoming banner. Every house along the river participated in some way – usually with a stand selling glasses and bottles of their homemade wine and food.

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One of the many stands spruiking local wine

As a group of six we decided early on that bottles would be our currency and we picked one up every few stands. Someone had the clever idea to also kick off with a bratwurst or two to provide some ballast for what lay ahead.

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Grüner Silvaner was another of my favourites wine varieties

It was a scorching hot summer’s day in June so the locally grown crisp white wines that we encountered at every step were an ideal refreshment. The mild climate that comes from the river valley is perfect for cultivating dry white wines with a fruity flavour.

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A snapshot of one wine menu

Initially I didn’t recognise a single grape variety but I learnt quickly that Kerner and Müller-Thurgau, followed closely by Grüner Silvaner, were my favourite grape varieties, reminiscent of my perennial favourites Riesling and Gewurztraminer.

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Hand-knitted wine holders – genius!

My friends Bjorn and Antonia were such professionals, they brought their own woollen wine glass holders. I was so jealous. Read More

Getting souped up for winter

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Lifting the lid on Transylvanian ciorbă soup

Today is the first day of winter in Australia.

And it’s cold!!! Cold for Aussies means fifteen degrees. Brrrghhh.

It’s sprung up on us because we generally skip autumn and go from the rays of summer straight into a determined chill. It always takes me by surprise and yes, I’m subsequently writing this in a robe and slippers.

So it seems like the perfect time to talk soup and I have many fond memories to ladle out.

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Ciorbă soup housed in a dome of bread

Like this ciorbă de fasole cu costiţă afumată soup I had in Sighișoara, Romania last year. I’d heard about an infamous Transylvanian soup, in this case made with beans and smoked ham served in bread, and wanted to track it down. The soup was just as dramatic as the medieval fortress of Sighișoara itself and so delicious. I took particular joy in scraping the inside to extract broth-soaked bread, layer by layer.

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Filled with a heady bean, pork and spice laden soup

I only made it about halfway through before my stomach gave up. It filled me up for a day and was only 15 lei – around €4.

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Freshly served elk soup

My good old friend, Estonian elk soup, is the ultimate comfort food in a bowl, served alongside elk pies and pickles and accessorised with a complimentary Estonian wench to serve and rouse on guests.

I wonder if there’s a symbiotic relationship between how cold you feel and how much you enjoy your soup – I’d say definitely yes.

I remember feeling like an icy pole when I went to Iceland. And I was there in summer.

I constantly took refuge in the shops to momentarily melt and peruse expensive wool jumpers.

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Icelandic fish soup served on a delightful fish plate

In between I’d dart out for a hot dog and then some Icelandic fish soup which is rich, warming and full local seafood. My all-time favourite bowl was in Húsavík (the self-appointed whale watching capital of the world) with my friends Elfa and Siggi.

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That’s borscht at the front, vegetable soup at the back

My favourite soup for colour is always borscht and the versions I tried in Poland, especially at quirky milk bars, were sensational. The milk bars often serve a hot and cold version, both equally cerise and equally good, especially alongside a pierogi or five.

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A line up of traditional Hungarian soups

Now let’s talk about goulash.

But that’s not a soup; I can hear your muttering.

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Well in Hungary it is. Somehow the rest of the world misread the brief and turned it into more of a stew-like dish but on its home turf, gulyás is decidedly a soup. And boy do the Hungarians do an excellent job in merchandising this signature dish.

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Every festival or event you go to will have at least one stand with a cauldron-esque contraption full of the steaming stuff. They ladle out the beef and vegetable broth enthusiastically and serve it with chunks of bread.

Tureens of rich Irish seafood chowder

Tureens of rich Irish seafood chowder

I can’t talk soup without talking Irish seafood chowder. My most memorable bowl was in Doolin, a windswept cliff-hugging town in County Clare. Local seafood, tender potatoes and cream combine like some kind of x-rated threesome. It’s the only thing one should eat at the local pub with the bellow of traditional Irish music in the background.

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Perfectly chilled gazpacho

As a final wild card I’m going to throw in gazpacho – that’s for those of you on the other side of the world. I love love love gazpacho and don’t think I’ve ever had a bad version anywhere in Spain. This one came from Mallorca and the refreshing chill of the tomato, garlic and chilli was the perfect accompaniment to the hot sun of the island.

It almost makes me want to take off my slippers…

Behind the scenes at a Eurovision party

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My Eurovision survival kit

I have a thing for Eurovision parties.

Is it because of my European background? The fact that I embrace sequins and big hair? Was I over exposed to a wind machine at an early age?

I’ve never quite worked it out. But at some point it became a thing for me and I’ve subsequently felt compelled to throw a party in honour of this landmark event ever since.

And while everyone else is focused on the singing (or lack thereof), I’ve always been firmly focused on the food.

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My handmade flags are ready to go

This year I approached things a little differently. Each of my guests was allocated a country and instructed to bring food or drink from that country. I put a lot of thought into the allocation – giving friends a country where we’d travelled together if possible. That’s how I ended up with a dining table practically groaning under the weight of the collective culinary output of the EU.

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Gluhwein is my go-to Eurovision beverage

As host I decided I would represent Austria (the host of this year’s Eurovision) and Australia.

First up was a heady pot of glühwein, perfect to counter the early winter chill in the air. I cooked the wine for hours with cinnamon sticks, star anise, cloves and slices of fresh orange. Intoxicating.

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Mum’s carefully arranged Wiener schnitzel

I couldn’t ignore the national dish of Austria so Wiener schnitzel was always going to be on the menu.

That’s where mum stepped in with one of her pearls of wisdom (I must add it to the list).

Thou shall not fry meat right before thou has guests arriving!

No one likes to enter a room filled with the lingering scent of fried meat but nor does anyone enjoy a stale schnitzel. There was only one thing for it mum declared, she would have to cook it herself and then drop it over right before my party. Bless you mum.

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Classic Aussie party pies

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Prawn and avocado shots

Representing the Aussie contingent were mini meat pies (a party just ain’t a party without party pies) and mini prawn cocktails. I filled shot glasses with shredded lettuce, avocado, dill, added a dollop of mayo and wedged a fresh prawn on top.

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My four-tiered tower of Aussie sweets

Representing the other end of the spectrum was my four-tiered homage to our sweet history, made with lamingtons, Iced VoVo’s, Tim Tams, Anzac biscuits and Caramelo Koalas. By the way, has anyone else noticed how flat the topping on Iced VoVo’s has become?

I also snuck in some of this new fandangled Vegemite chocolate – a salty-sweet concoction that polarised my guests. I don’t like Vegemite but I liked this chocolate – strange, no? Read More