Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The ethical quandary of chocolate and how to better appreciate it

Upon telling my friends excitedly that I was going to a chocolate appreciation course at Monsieur Truffle, the standard response was ‘and you don’t already know how to appreciate chocolate???’

There really is a difference between enjoying the consumption of something, and really paying attention to the thing you are eating, where it came from, and how it was made.

We have an after dinner tradition at my house of eating a square of dark chocolate (usually Lindt 70%). As a child I liked all chocolate; milk, white and dark but these days I cannot really eat Cadburys or similar products. They are too sweet and not really about chocolate to me (and looking at the ingredients list the amount of cocoa mass is very very low). To me, chocolate is chocolate by itself, without too much embellishment (with the exception of truffles, or very well made French style chocolate).

So I thought I knew all about chocolate. I was pretty wrong! The chocolate appreciation course at Monsieur Truffle’s new shop (90 Smith St) really opened my eyes to a product I think we take a little for granted. For a start, it can only be grown close to the equator, which means that it is sensitive to climate change and also the product itself changes year by year depending on rainfall etc. Secondly, most of the large companies are buying second grade beans from all over the world and mixing them together (with a whole bunch of other crap like emulsifiers, flavourings, heaps of sugar and preservatives) in order to develop a homogenised product that doesn’t change in flavour year in year out.

The course started by looking at the growing of cocoa and the way it is picked, dried and roasted (and we ate some cocoa beans and some straight cocoa mass, which tastes amazing). Unbelievably, this is done in small villages in poor countries, usually by hand, and typically the locals are not paid very much for their labour (and use/ depletion of their land). I recently came upon an article from the Age which focuses on the way chocolate is grown and issues such as child labour. West African and Asian countries typically have worse conditions for the workers than other countries.

The next stage is shipping the cocoa (butter and mass) typically to Europe where it is processed and then sent all over the world to be consumed. Considering how many food miles one chocolate bar has travelled to be sold at Coles for $2, you start to realise that the people making the money out of it will be the big multinationals but not the locals.

Luckily, at the higher end of chocolate products, the latest trend has been not only single origin bean products, it has also been to start taking care of the communities from where the beans are coming from. Valrhona (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valrhona) recently lost a plantation they had for years to a rich Italian philanthropist who offered the community a chance to grow and has introduced schools and hospitals to the area. This is quite promising for the local communities, who for years have been missing out on this precious ‘commodity’. Remember this is only being done for the premium beans and plantations.

And can chocolate ever be SOLE in Australia? Cocoa Farm is an Australian company with a plantation in North Queensland (but they also get beans from surrounding Pacific islands). You may have seen their products in Wine shops, often with shiraz and other grapes. It is not a bad tasting chocolate and is as local as we can get in Australia. Green and Blacks Organic chocolate is available in supermarkets, but remember that it is now owned by Cadbury and is an English company.

The course also offered a tasting component of premium chocolates (of single origin beans) including Valrhona, Michel Cluizel and Felchlin. We even tasted a chocolate product made with ‘wild’ cocoa beans. Part way through the evening we needed to put it into perspective so someone went down to the local corner store and came back with some Old Gold dark chocolate. It was quite interesting to note the difference between a high end product to a supermarket brand. For a start, the overwhelming flavour of the Old Gold was in fact of vanilla. It also had a real ‘dirty’ flavour to it that I had never noticed before, a real bitterness. The premium products on the other hand were all different to each other and varied from smooth, to smoky, to hints of chilli, honey, and other subtle flavours, that were actually due to the bean and not additives.

The course was supposed to go from 6:30pm to 8:45pm but we ended up being there till 9:30pm! He also had take home booklets for us full of useful information. Monsieur Truffle used to be at the Prahran markets but has moved to a shop in Collingwood/ Fitzroy so that he can make the chocolate on site. If you are at all interested in chocolate, I would recommend this course as a really good way to taste some premium chocolate and learn a bit more about it. What I really want to do next is watch him tempering chocolate and making Ganache but I don’t think that is on the cards!
And yes we have been eating much different chocolate for our 'after dinner snacks since this course ;)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Bistro Vue

Bistro Vue
430 Little Collins Street

This post is a couple of months late, but unfortunately life gets in the way of these things sometimes. In the cold winter months I had the pleasure of both a cocktail night at Cafe Vue with the girls (Where’s the Beef did the vego version of the same month I was there) as well as a dinner at Bistro Vue with a group of friends. I guess the next logical step is Vue De Monde itself (are you reading this dear husband?)!

The lighting and my camera skills leave much to be desired so I don’t have any really good photos. Hubbie and I shared an entrée and a dessert (and had a main each) and the table finished with a huge cheese plate. I find I can not really fit in all three (or 4) courses at most restaurants, but I want to try so many things, it can get quite frustrating!

The service was great (much better than the service at Café Vue I should add which was almost nonexistent the night I was there) as was the wine we had (which I sadly didn’t take note of).

Styled after a ‘bistro’ it is almost a bit clichéd, with the velvet furnishings and French style furniture. However it still did make me a bit nostalgic for France. I guess I am just a sucker! Apparently some nights there is even an accordion player but luckily not the night we were there.

For the entrée, we had the 2 hour poached eggs with mushroom foam. I had read about this dish before and was curious. It was very very good. The presentation was impressive, with three eggs split in half with one containing the white and the mushroom foam and the other containing the yolk, and the 6 halves presented in a Vue de Monde egg carton! I love runny eggs and have been craving egg yolk ever since having this dish. The yolk is cooked (just set), but very runny and warm, not hot, so the flavours really stand out. The dish was served with bread sticks that you use like toast soldiers to dip into the egg.

For mains we had the wagyu steak with chips (friend in goose fat of course) and the confit of duck. As a side we ordered the brussel sprouts fried with pancetta and chilli. Both wonderful dishes. The steak was tender (and relatively cheap at about 50 dollars from memory) and the duck was probably one of the best confit ducks I have had recently. The brussel sprouts have prompted me to make my own copycat version at home, and covert my brussel sprouts hating hubbie!

For dessert we had the chocolate soufflé. The waitress put it onto the table, used a knife to put a hole in it and then poured chocolate sauce into the hole, causing the soufflé to expand. A nice bit of table theatre, but it also tasted great, worth the twenty minute wait upon ordering it. I wish I had written all the cheeses down but by this point I was a little tipsy. There was a fabulous French blue, a manchego and a French camembert style cheese, as well as another hard cheese which I don’t remember.

All in all a good night and a place I would definitely go back to. I forgot to mention the bread and butter that we were served at the beginning of the night (but sadly not replaced during the meal), which we all loved and made me rue yet again that there are no good bakeries near my house.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Simple Meals – Sticky chicken wings

I love a simple meal. This is a super easy recipe I got from Bill Granger’s Holiday. I imagine it would be a great family pleaser -at least I know I would have liked it as a kid. I probably won’t be making it too often due to my new diet (weddings, holidays and winters are not good for my waist line). I did change quantities etc so will give a very general outline of the recipe I used – it is quite robust. If you can, marinade it the night before so you can just pop it into the oven, but I didn’t marinade it and it still worked out well.

Chicken wings (4 per person)
Soy sauce
Mirin (Japanese wine)
Ginger - grated
Sesame seeds

Combine soy sauce, sugar, ginger and mirin until sugar dissolves. Marinade the wings for as long as you like. When ready to cook, lift the wings out of the marinade and place in a deep roasting dish and roast for 40 minutes at 200C, turning once.

Meanwhile, reduce the marinade by about half on the stove.

After 40 minutes, pour the reduced marinade over the wings. Bake for another 20 minutes. Sprinkle sesame seeds and bake for another 5 minutes. The wings will get quite dark and sticky.

Serve with soba noodles (dressed with soy and mirin) and some steamed green veg.
On another topic, I had stewed broad beans for the first time this year last week. Spring really IS here! At last! I am already wheeling out the barbie and the salads...

Monday, September 1, 2008

Aglio Olio

Not the Beastie Boys EP. Aglio = garlic Olio = oil

We had been meaning to make this pasta dish since we got back from Italy. For some reason, we kept putting it off until one night we had an empty fridge apart from a sad looking bunch of parsley. And OMG, we are such fools for not doing this earlier.

It doesn’t get ANY simpler than this. And it tastes great. I thought it would be really fatty as the ‘sauce’ is basically olive oil, but I don’t think we actually used copious amounts of this. I made a salad to go with it to make it feel like a more complete meal, and bread is a must to wipe up the bowl.

Aglio Olio (serves 2)

Olive oil
Half a pack of good quality dried spaghetti
6 or more cloves of garlic, sliced thinly ( i thik we used more)
Chilli flakes
Salt, pepper
Finely chopped parsley
Good quality parmesan to serve

Fry the garlic in oil on a low to medium heat, covered and stirring occasionally. It takes about 15 minutes to get golden, caramel-ly garlic (be careful not to overcook).

Meanwhile bring a pot of water to the boil, salt well and cook spaghetti until al dente.
Drain the spaghetti and add to the pan and toss with oil and garlic. Add the chilli, salt and pepper and parsley. Serve with parmasen. Eat. Enjoy.

Action shot!