Too much cutting edge? Flavour versus fashion.

menu (2)A couple of weeks ago I went to a local cafe for breakfast. I’d walked past it a hundred times but had not heard the siren call. When it popped up in a couple of ‘best of’ lists I was worried I’d missed a local gem. The cafe was in a converted old shop right on the bus stop and was always busy with quick coffees and people fresh from the gym or with dogs who sat outside at the little tables on the street. I found a small table inside in a snug corner and ordered mushrooms with poached eggs and a latte.

The food came out really quickly with everything covered in a thick layer of dukkah (Egyptian). I took the poached eggs off the top and started excavating. Sliced mushrooms sat on kale which was doused in balsamic vinegar (Italian) on top of pesto (Italian) on rye bread (middle European). This assemblage of flavours spoke to no man or woman.

A closer analysis is called for. I really don’t find dukkah a flavour enhancement to eggs and I scraped it off the poached eggs and barely tolerated it on the mushrooms. Balsamic vinegar can be a subtle undercurrent to cooking and a couple of drops will pull up the flavour of vegetables or strawberries. It is not a condiment to be poured over a dish. Pesto is a beautiful thing. Made in the height of summer when the basil bush is about to go to seed, blended with pine nuts, pecorino, some garlic and a good olive oil and tossed through a simple pasta, it will pull you right back to the Ligurian coast. I am not sure when it became a spread for toast.

It is not the cross cultural mash up I object to, but the discordant mismatch of flavours which in no way complement each other. There is nothing wrong with genuine creative cooking and experimentation but the cafe’s combination was driven by a collection of food trends and fads which appear in many combinations in the cafes of Brisbane.

Food has become as much a part of people’s identity as fashion and the technology they buy. If your identity is involved you then want to be seen as hip, creative and cutting edge. This drives cafes and restaurants to amp up unexpected flavour combinations and to create heightened eating experiences. The food must also look good on social media. The photograph is the message. This is all a big call for breakfast.

Before its recent incarnation, the old shop on the bus stop was a cafe and bookshop called Bouquiniste. Old style boho, it was owned by Meredith, with her long red hair looped over her shoulder, she turned out perfect coffee from her hissing espresso machine. Postcards from Paris covered the front of the counter and the window seat made comfortable with embroidered cushions. Colouring books lay around for the kids and bentwood chairs snuggled up to rickety tables. Yet the food was simple and true.

The avocado on toast came with a zesty dressing and some carefully picked greens. The croissants were dropped off by a bespoke bakery every morning and placed on a shelf in eyeballing proximity to where you ordered.  Bouquiniste was the sort of place where you could linger and listen to interesting chats about lost loves or lost plays about to be revived. It was restful and I would have to shake myself off the the cushions and return to the world outside.

Contemporary food has become more assemblage than cooking. A lot of flavours and textures and vogue ingredients are assembled on a plate, which too often ends up as a discordant mismatch where no elements talk to each other. Yet there is so much potential in experimenting with spices and flavours from different cultures. Yotam Ottolenghi built a food empire from such experimentation. However, at the moment we often see the prioritisation of cutting edge over other food attributes and this is what leads to the overcrowding of plates with the latest ingredient du jour.

Assemblage is really just one way of putting a meal together and I am missing the alchemical magic of cooking where the whole is greater than the sum of its ingredients. Some ingredients form the base note, the spices a complementary flavour and the protein transformed and on your plate a meal. Balanced and palatable, it doesn’t have to be old fashioned or stodgy. Surprising elements can go together but they play off and transform each other in the cooking process. Not everything is enhanced by being deconstructed and I always feel disappointed when the dessert I ordered comes out in its parts. The smear of lemon to signify the lemonyness of the original dessert. Sometimes a lemon meringue pie should just be a lemon meringue pie.

Yet despite these trends, there are many strengths with contemporary cooking. Neglected techniques, such as smoking and fermenting, have been revived. There is a passion for provenance. But with innovation and experimentation given primacy, you end up cooking for the kitchen, not the diner. If more could put down the camera and pick up the tasting spoon, we could all enjoy food which is fresh, creative, sustainable and satisfying.


Like a fruit bat hunting for a mango tree, my super senses spotted the home made torte sitting on the bar of the restaurant.

‘It’s homemade Pinolate’, the waitress said. Pinolate is a light Siena cake with pine nuts and a ribbon of custard cream through the middle. Not overly sweet, the cake has now shot to the top of my perfect dessert list.

To find, visit Osteria sella Chiacchera, Siena


Dinner at Belforte

Sandra enjoying her dinner at the Belforte
Sandra enjoying her dinner at the Belforte
Mains at Belforte
Mains at Belforte
Sample from the seafood platter
Sample from the seafood platter
Restaurant at Belforte
Restaurant at Belforte

The old fort is perched on the edge of the Harbour at Vernazza. Hanging off the side is a small veranda with six tables, perfectly situated to watch the Mediterrenean sunset. The best time is from 7.30pm to catch the sun dropping over the Hills behind Monterossa.
The menu, as expected, is based around fresh, local seafood. We started with a shared platter of Hot Vernazza Seafood. The generous serve included scampi, incredibly tender octopus, small, sweet mussels and prawns. the local Cinque Terra whites are light and dry and perfect with the seafood.
For the main, I had the Seabream with baked vegetables. Andrea (yes, we are on first name terms by now) brings the whole fish to the table and expertly fillets it and plates it up. The Seabream is perfectly cooked, with the white flesh falling apart. Sandra ordered the platter of grilled local seafood with scampi, gamberoni and fillets of local fish. We finished off with an empty bottle of Cinque Terra Sassarini and an emply bowl of Tiramisù.
By the end of the meal everyone on the little veranda was swapping stories on where to go and what to do and Andrea was singing a la Dean Martin.
We carefully walked down the 50 stairs from the fort down to the square and climbed one more time the 70 steps back to the apartment.

Eating Locally – Stradbroke Island


Frenchman’s Beach

Stradbroke Island, across Moreton Bay from Brisbane, sits in the middle of a fish highway.  From June to September the whales pass by, and all year dolphins’ surf off Frenchman’s beach and sharks stalk schools of fish off the Point. What the sharks don’t get, the trawlers do, with the Island supporting a fishing and oyster industry.  It is this access to fresh seafood which forms the basis of eating on Stradbroke.

A holiday on Stradbroke Island is laid back and simple with food shopping on the Island pretty basic. There is a butcher at Dunwich and at Point Lookout a supermarket, bakery and a small general store, the Green Room.  The fare is more white bread and neenish tarts than organic sourdough and sheep’s cheese, however the Fruit Barn on  the East Coast Road at Dunwich have a good deli range for those who can’t  live without truffle infused olive oil for a week.

What’s fresh – Mal Starkey’s

For me, food on Stradbroke is about simplicity and freshness with the meals based around what the trawlers bring in that day. The best place for fresh seafood is Mal Starkey’s onTramican Street. At the moment, they have winter whiting, squid and prawns. The squid is large and fresh and the cold weather tends to something warming – a Greek Squid Stew.

Greek Squid Stew

1kg squid

olive oil

1 large onion

2 cloves of garlic

1 cup white wine

½ tin tomatoes

3 tablespoons of tomato paste

½ lemon

chopped parsley

To prepare the squid, chop off the tentacles below the head (try to avoid the ink sac) and put them aside. Pull out the head and the rest of the stomach. Feel at the back and pull out the backbone, which feels like a length of plastic. Wash the rest of the stomach contents from the tube and cut the squid into1 cmrounds.

Put some olive oil in a medium sized pan and gently fry the onion and the garlic.  Turn up the heat slightly and add the chopped squid (including the tentacles) and cook quickly until it turns pink. Add the white wine and turn down the heat until the wine is slightly reduced. Add in half a tin of chopped tomatoes and the tomato paste. Simmer uncovered for another 30 minutes until the squid is tender.

Squeeze in the lemon juice and add the parsley. I serve this with rice and a salad. Serves four.

Most of my friends are good cooks and for lunch in summer we all produce versions of Gordon’s Salad. Gordon is an artist, cook and gardener and can be relied on to come back from the beach and hop into the kitchen to easily put this salad together.  Here is his recipe.

Gordon’s Prawn Salad

1kg large prawns

1 mango (sliced)

2 cups of baby spinach

Kaffir lime leaves (finely chopped)



11/2 limes juiced

Diced chilli

1 tbsp of fish sauce

1 tsp brown sugar or 1 cube of palm sugar

Peel and place the prawns on a large platter. Slice the mango and add to the prawns with the spinach. Add in the finely sliced kaffir lime leaf and lots of coriander. Mix the ingredients for the dressing together and then mix through the salad. Place on the table, pour a beer and dig in. Serves four.