The first of the Canberra Collective dinners at Sage was on last Thursday. For those of you who missed it, the event brought four producers to Sage’s Gorman House premises to talk about who they are, what they do and why they do it. While I was initially mildly skeptical of the concept (I guess if I wanted to meet producers, why wouldn’t I just go to EPIC markets), I must admit that not only was it a really fun night, it also reinvigorated my love for Australian produce and inspired me to pay more attention to where I shop for food.
Despite being a food blogger, I’m not one to routinely pay a lot of money for dinners. This dinner promised four courses with matching wines for $150, but we ended up with more than just four courses. It wasn’t just about all the extras, there’s a genuine sense of passion and excitement with an event like this that you don’t always get with food; and with all the added extras, there’s also a sense of generosity. There’s no doubt that the first Canberra Collective dinner was exceedingly good value.
We arrive at the Mint Garden Bar to be greeted with welcome drinks – and no, that wasn’t one of the promised matching wines. Free welcome drink – my night is already off to a good start! And it’s not just your regular pre-mix either – it’s a made to order passionfruit and citrus martini made with Zubrovka Bison Grass vodka. The Mint Garden bar is a really nice venue, a bright, sunny courtyard that’s a favourite with locals – I’m not sure why I don’t come here for drinks more often. Dennis, the restaurant manager, comes out to greet me – he’s genuinely friendly and surprisingly remembers me from the last time I visited which was well over a year ago.
Dennis takes our group to our table inside the restaurant and promises us that he has a few surprises in store. Almost immediately, we are poured a glass of champagne and the waiter jokingly reminds us to try and save some for the first course. Two drinks – you know it’s going to be a good night when you’re two drinks ahead of any food. (I’m only kidding, I’m not an alcoholic).
I notice the original event was promoted as a four course dinner, but there’s actually five courses on the menu, and five matching wines. For just $150, this night just keeps getting better and better.
Our first producer, Ewan McAsh takes to the floor to talk to us about oyster farming. He tells us that one of the many reasons he loves oysters is because they’re so sustainable. He mentioned this to his father one day, and a week later he got a call from his dad – “I bought an oyster farm,” his dad Kevin said. And that was the start of McAsh Clyde River Oysters. The size and harvesting age of an oyster depends on the size of it’s mouth and how fussy an eater it is, he tells us. Sydney Rock oysters are fussy, so they’re small. Oysters can be eighteen months to up to three years old – he’s brought us ones that are absolutely huge, they’re four year old Angasi oysters that he inherited from another farmer.
As he’s talking, the waitstaff start carrying out plates of oysters. There’s six oysters on each plate and I’m expecting a plate to share between each couple. But no, that’s a one person serve – SIX oysters – and they’re some of the biggest I’ve ever seen. The smallest ones are Sydney oysters with black vinegar gel, the medium ones are Pacific oysters with nahm jim and the largest are the four year old Angasi that are natural (I’m not sure what the red dollop is). As someone that’s relatively new to oysters, the Angasi are a bit of a textural challenge to me and stronger in flavour than the others – I’m not too sure about them. The Sydney and Pacific oysters are fantastic though – less full in flavour and perfectly complemented with the vinegary, chilli hit. I turn to Nick to rescue him from his oysters – it’s by his own admission that he doesn’t like them, but he’s already polished them all off. All six of them *grumble*. I can’t help thinking I’m going to wish I hadn’t introduced him to good oysters.
I’m sharing a table with two other food bloggers as well, and as we’re struggling to Instagram, Tweet and actively ignore everything we’ve ever learnt about dinner table manners, the lovely Dennis notices and comes over with the wi-fi password. That guy really knows the way to food bloggers’ hearts. But in all seriousness, it’s the little things like that which turn good service into great service.
Scott Gledhill of Wimbaliri Wines is the second producer to speak to us. Wimbaliri is Ngunnawal and means ‘to drink’; their vines have been established since 1998. Scott tells us a bit about the Close Planted Murrumbateman Pinot that’s being paired with the next course – close planted to increase flavour concentration of fruit, it’s a french inspired, old world style. I’m pretty fussy with my Pinot, and this is a very good Pinot, good fruit with body and earthy depth. It drinks so well that I’ve perhaps sipped more of it than I intended before our second course hits the table.
It’s honey glazed Dutton Park smoked duck with potato and mint ravioli, pecorino and grape. I’m immediately taken by the ravioli. How do they get it to look like that? It tastes as good as it looks – the earthiness of the potatoes is a good foil for the smokiness of the duck and just sets off the sweetness of the grapes. It’s really good.
There’s a short pause and Dennis takes to the floor to announce a ‘surprise’. There’s a guest chef in the kitchen and he’s going to be taking over the top job at Sage. It’s no other than Damien Brabender, former head chef of 5-star Emirates Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa, and executive chef of QT Hotels. He’s presenting another surprise; a course featuring fish caught by Sage’s owners. Snapper in Country Valley milk, cucumber, espuma of hollandaise and crispy fish skin.
It’s simple, but oh-so-good. I guess most great food is simple. Perfectly flaked fish, slight acidity of hollandaise, the crunch of pickled cucumber. Our table unanimously declares it favourite course so far. Maybe it’s the fate of the smallest plates, you’re always left wanting more.
Demetri Stamatis of Regional Fruit Market takes to the floor. Unlike the others, he’s not a producer he tells us, he’s a businessman. His enthusiasm for local produce is infectious – he talks about the big two supermarkets and their pricing practices. Most people want to do the right thing, but we’ve all been guilty of shopping at supermarkets because we’re time poor. But at the end of the day, it costs a minimum of $6 to produce one box of lettuce – how much do you think farmers make from that?
I expected to hear from producers who are passionate about what they grow, but I never thought that I’d find a fruit and veg supplier so inspiring. Demetri tells us to support local and buy from the local greengrocers and farmers. That means shopping at the farmer’s markets, Fyshwick and Belconnen markets. I’m determined to make sure that my money goes to more small producers like Ewan, Mitch and Scott – it may not be much, but it’s something I can change. That means less Saturday sleep ins and more trips to EPIC markets, but hey, you have the be the change, right?
The fourth course is Gilgandra chicken ballotine, leek, almond cream, tapioca crisp and pickled corn. It’s paired with a Wimbaliri Chardonnay 2012 which in made in the Chablis-style. It’s much more subtle in flavours than the previous courses, but it goes well with the white.
Mitch Pearce of Canberra Urban Honey then talks to us about bees. He’s a fourth generation beekeeper – there’s not that many family careers that span generations these days – he says people started coming to his family at the farmer’s markets asking them why they don’t see bees anymore. This inspired him to start the urban honey project – you get bees to help pollinate your garden and they get the honey. Anyone, even people with just balconies can have an urban hive, he says. Honey is very region specific too, the honey in Belconnen tastes different to honey you might get in Braddon, he tells us.
The cheese course is excellent. Full flavoured, crumbly Tasmanian Pyengana cheddar with chewy honey-drenched honeycomb and lavosh. It really proves that good produce treated simply is worth more than average produce with all the bells and whistles. Oh, and if you were wondering, you can buy Pyengana at Deli Planet at Fyshwick Markets and at the Belconnen Markets (the supplier wasn’t sure of the store name). Mitch’s family sell honey at the EPIC markets.
Last but not least, there’s dessert. Mango cheesecake, mango sorbet and whisk and pin granola with an excellent Botrytis Semillion Sauvignon Blanc. It’s an enticing summer dessert, not too sweet and full of summer fruit flavours and textural contrast.
The first Canberra Collective dinner has been very good. Good food, good wine, good value, but most of all it’s reinvigorated my love for Australian produce. I’m amazed by the devotion these producers and suppliers have and I’m inspired to try and support the people that work so hard to grow the food that they do. Stay tuned for the next Canberra Collective dinner.
*Tash dined at Canberra Collective as a guest of HerCanberra.
Sage Dining Rooms
Gorman House Arts Centre, Braddon
Canberra Collective is a produce inspired dinner organised by Sage.