Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Meat Pies and Pinot Noir

A Foodie Fantasy in the Australian Blue Mountains

Whoever says that the English have no “cuisine” has obviously not learned to appreciate a meat pie. Maybe its nostalgia, maybe its in my genes given that my Mom is a Londoner … all I can say is that I’m mad for them.

My first immersion into Australian meat pies was back in 2000, when I spent a month in Byron Bay - a funky, alternative seaside community. I was on a skydiving holiday with a friend from Spain in celebration of the Millennium. We lived in a tent for a month out at the drop zone, and hitchhiked into town for food and beer, or to the beach for a swim and a soak in the natural tea-tree oil pond. When we didn’t make it into town, we sustained ourselves on the $1 beef or lamb-filled pastries out of the deep freeze at the droppie. Trust me – when you’re famished and there’s nothing around for several miles – nothing is more wonderful than chomping a microwaved, frozen meat pie.

(Photo on left was taken on my 30th birthday, during that trip, and a meat pie kicked off
the best decade of my life, thus far...)

Fast forward eight years, and I’m sitting on the charming terrace of Café Bon Ton in Leura. Wild white cockatoos flutter in the canopy of branches overhead, letting loose the occasional wet bomb splattering onto the red brick patio as diners and protectively cover their dishes with their hands. I’m charmed, nonetheless, and attempt to photograph the exotic air dwellers nuzzling in pairs, and marvel at tiny, native green and red parakeets twittering in song, a few boughs away.

Jeffrey Wilkinson, CEO of Cumulus Wine, and Rob Geddes, Master of Wine and author of “A Good Nose and Great Legs,” fetched me in Sydney, where my plane from Los Angeles touched down a few hours earlier. My dining companions were a far cry from the tie-dyed hippies, wanderers and adrenalin junkies with whom I kept company in Byron, but share a common thread… our tummies are grumbling for meat pies! Only this was served on an actual plate, had never been near a freezer or microwave, and was utterly unlike any meat pie I’d ever encountered…

The chunks of meat were tender, and flaked at the touch of an eating utensil. The brown gravy sauce could top a filet mignon. The buttery house-made crust was at once doughy and flaky, and the whole thing rested on a cloud of green pea puree, which still had a few whole peas tucked within. Garnished with fresh parsley and a side of house-made tomato “ketchup,” this momentary pause on the three-hour drive to Orange was a little bite of Heaven after a 14-hour flight across the Pacific.

In choosing adjectives to describe this meat pie, rather than use the word “gourmet,” which sounds both pretentious and cliché, I’d like to simply cite it as an example of real, good ol
d-fashioned comfort food made from wholesome, locally raised ingredients – chock full of natural color, flavor and bursting with vitality. In other words, it was the perfect prelude to what would come over the coming days during the Orange F.O.O.D. (Food of the Orange District) Week.

Ralph Potter, the Executive Chef and Bon Ton owner, is one of many who made the exodus from bustling Sydney to a tranquil town closer to the food source of Orange. He came to Leura about a decade ago to open another hotel restaurant, and later launched out with his own place featuring ‘Modern Australian’ cuisine (which pulls from British, Asian and European influences) focusing on local, seasonal components.

Ralph drove home the point that the people of this region are very supportive of the local producers and expresses an interesting perspective on labeling cuisine, “The word ‘regional’ loses its meaning if its experienced elsewhere." As an example of maintaining a regional focus at his café, he recalls, “I would plan my menu around what was available. [A local purveyor] known as ‘The Market Cat’- could show up with a truck full of chestnuts and river trout, and I’d take it from there.” The restaurant also proudly serves locally roasted coffee, carrying its philosophy through to the end of the meal.

Visit the website to get a sense of the full menu – and in the meantime, here’s are some excerpts from their homepage of what is seasonal now (remember, its currently Autumn, down under):

“…earthy Roast Vegetable Salad… Haricot Bean Soup…Braised Pork Cheeks with Star Anise…Veal Shanks with Quince …a wonderfully tender braised Wagyu Beef Brisket with Horseradish Aoili.”

Upscale-yet-simple food, made from local products – comforting and luxurious at once… exactly that which makes my Musey heart dance.

Just when things seemed perfect, Jeffrey upped-the-ante by whipping out some Philip Shaw Number 8 Pinot Noir to accompany our highly anticipated meat pies. Until January of this year, Philip Shaw was Head Winemaker at Cumulus but has since shifted his focus to his namesake vintages, which will continue to be distributed by Jeffrey Wilkinson.

The respected Shaw is considered eccentric by some and exercises that freedom by naming his wines after random numbers which hold personal meaning for him. For example, ‘8’ is his lucky number and, as the wine was released from the bottle to the decanter, I couldn’t help but feel - for that moment - it might be mine as well.

The swirling fruit coming off the glass made for a heady aroma of cherries with zingy little whispers of raspberry, and I had to pause a moment to appreciate that I was about to take a sip of a wine made by a renowned winemaker – a short ride from where the grapes were grown on his Koomooloo vineyard – while dining with two of the most recognized personalities in the Australian wine industry.

The pies arrived, and we tucked in, savoring the expression of the local terroir in both the food and the wine. Once there was neither a morsel nor a sip remaining, I set off to see the dining rooms inside century old building housing Café Bon Ton.

In addition to the patio, there is one dining room on the ground floor, lined with bottles of wine along the walls and a homey fireplace. A more intimate private upstairs dining room seats 30, and retains its vintage personality via antique wallpaper and glass chandeliers.

Finally, it was time to get back on the road so we could make it to Orange in time to check into our hotel rooms and head over to the opening night of F.O.O.D. Week – the night market! (more on that in a future post)

We bid adieu to Ralph, Leura and Café Bon Ton and, already looking forward to the next meal, I got the feeling that this was going to be one hellova trip.

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