Proper & Son, South Melbourne

It was one of those Saturday’s where I had a multitude of things to do and was intent on grabbing a quick breakfast somewhere either close to home, en route or at my intended destination, which was the South Melbourne Market. My friend Claire had mentioned just the day before that another friend of hers, Eugene, a chef had recently opened a new café called Proper & Son at the market and perhaps I should go and have breakfast there.

I had no idea as to the location of the café in the market and proceeded to where the area where I thought it might be … and of course, it wasn’t there. I wandered through the food hall and back onto Coventry Street for the next ten minutes before walking past the car park, and lo and behold, I could finally see the sign and knew that I had reached my destination.

I was amazed at the expanse of the interior of the café as I walked down the steps and into the main dining area which had a modern industrial-meets-country feel. The wallpaper on the feature wall depicts beautifully printed images of chickens, pigs and beef which also appear as a signature print on the weekly menu.

By sheer luck, I managed to procure the last empty table as the café was quite busy and thankfully, no sooner had I sat down, I was given a menu and my coffee was on its way. The table water is flavoured with fresh cucumber and has a quite prominent but refreshing taste. Unfortunately my coffee wasn’t quite as hot as I prefer it but it was strong and worth walking several laps around the market for.

The breakfast menu isn’t extensive although it does change weekly, dependent upon what is in season and available within the market but I was rather taken with the sound of the “Gordon Bennett” smoked trout, mustard, Gruyere omelette.

"Gordon Bennett" smoked trout, mustard, Gruyere omelette - Proper & Son, South Melbourne
“Gordon Bennett” smoked trout, mustard, Gruyere omelette – Proper & Son, South Melbourne

I rarely order omelette for breakfast as they inevitably turn out to be a frittata in disguise, however as soon as my breakfast arrived I knew I had made the right decision. Served in a hot cast iron skillet with a brioche bun and side salad, this was a cut above what I had been anticipating.

The omelette was soft and creamy with seeded mustard, melted cheese and large, succulent flaked portions of smoked trout dispersed throughout. The mixed leaf salad was delicious, particularly the fresh dill and radish to complement the rich flavours of the smoked fish.

The service at Proper & Son is fantastic with water glasses being constantly filled, empty plates promptly cleared away and additional cups of coffee always offered.

I enjoyed my breakfast experience so much, that over the course of the following month with an apartment full of visitors looking for new dining experiences, I made a beeline straight for Proper & Son.

Only two weeks after the previous visit, the menu had indeed changed and there were now Buttermilk hotcakes, maple, pecans & lemon curd available to order.

Buttermilk hotcakes, maple, pecans & lemon curd - Proper & Son, South Melbourne
Buttermilk hotcakes, maple, pecans & lemon curd – Proper & Son, South Melbourne

Another beautifully presented dish, adorned with fresh flowers, blueberries, strawberries, pecans and a large quenelle of thick lemon curd, these hotcakes were fluffy, moist and extremely delicious. A great addition to the menu!

As the warm weather became somewhat cooler and with more visitors to impress, I made my third visit to Proper & Son in as many weeks. The menu had changed again with the omelette no longer present on the menu and the decadent-sounding Brioche French toast, pear & honey crumble now coming into view.

Brioche French toast, pear & honey crumble - Proper & Son, South Melbourne
Brioche French toast, pear & honey crumble – Proper & Son, South Melbourne

Dressed with vanilla mascarpone and drizzled with maple syrup, this was another excellent dish with the spiced-poached pear cutting through the sweetness of the soft brioche and textured honey crumble.

With an ever-changing menu offering fresh and enticing food, Proper and Son is a wonderful addition to the South Melbourne Market dining scene and well worth a visit during the weekly shop.

Proper & Son on Urbanspoon

Vietnam Culinary Discovery – Hanoi Cooking Centre, Day 2 Morning

Sunday 30th November, 2014

My roommate and co-pilot on the Vietnam Culinary Discovery tour arrived late last night from Sydney, but we are both looking forward to our first cooking class together at the Hanoi Cooking Centre.

We arrive early at the kitchen and meet four other fellow travellers who will be joining us for the morning over a welcome drink.

Our first activity is to visit a nearby local market where we start learning about the key ingredients used in Vietnamese cooking and to purchase what is required for our culinary session. We began by looking at the different types of rice at a small stall that looks as though it is also the neighbourhood general store, selling all manner of oils, sauces, condiments and eggs. I’ve been in lots of markets both at home and abroad but as we moved into the meat section, I was struck by the way the ladies were sitting bare-footed and cross-legged on top of the bench, patiently waiting for customers with their sharp cleavers casually lying right beside them.

Moving slowly through the market, our guide explains differing techniques for curing and processing pork meat and encourages us to try samples from a range of vendors. As we head towards the fresh seafood section, we rounded a corner and saw numerous frogs being skinned alive and gutted for sale. Frogs, also called “Paddyfield Chicken” by our local Travel Indochina guide, are plentiful in Vietnam and are considered to be a staple supplement in the Vietnamese diet but that was one protein that I was extremely eager to avoid.

Being a local market, there were people riding through the narrow pathways between stalls still seated on their motorcycles, almost like a drive-through arrangement! As we progressed through the market, we needed to be mindful of where we were walking, where we were going and who was coming up behind us.

Our education in herbs, fruits and vegetables continued as we toured through the rest of the market and bought all the ingredients we needed for the day’s lesson. So did we try any local specialities? Our host came across a stall selling silk worms for eating and explained how it was prepared, then asked if we wanted to try it back at the kitchen. To my surprise the group consensus was affirmative!

Back in the kitchen, we said goodbye to our first host and hello to our chef who would be guiding us through an exotic menu of Caramel Fish with Galangal, Lacy Spring Rolls with Crab, Prawn and Taro, Squid and Pomelo Salad and Rice Dumpling Steamed in Banana Leaf.

The first order of business was to watch our chef demonstrate the preparation of the marinade for the fish dish and then head back to our allotted stations and replicate the same procedure.

Caramel Fish with Galangal, Hanoi Cooking Centre, Hanoi, Vietnam
Caramel Fish with Galangal, Hanoi Cooking Centre, Hanoi, Vietnam

Our hosts obviously knew how Australians like to cook because as soon as we started preparing our food, orders for local Vietnamese wine and beer were being taken. I initially ordered a red wine after being told that it was quite good but unfortunately it was just the opposite. Thankfully for us, the beer and wine were free-flowing so I switched to white wine and was pleasantly surprised how good it was. Vang Dalat wine is produced in the south of Vietnam and has hints of lime and banana on the nose, and a dry, mineral, tropical fruit taste on the palate. A great tasting and refreshing wine, although I was also surprised to learn that it was actually made from common Red Flame seedless table grapes that we typically purchase from our supermarkets.

Once the fish was marinating in a mixture of fish sauce, finely sliced shallots and galangal, it was time to head back to the front bench and watch how to prepare the filling and rolling technique for the spring rolls.

With the spring rolls finished and set aside, our chef took a detour from the menu and began to fry the silk worms that had been purchased at the market. I don’t know whether it was the wine or safety in numbers, but I grabbed a set of chopsticks and tried one and … it didn’t taste like chicken but something akin to a mixture of crunchy peanut butter and seafood. I even went back and tried another one or three.

Tastes like peanut butter and seafood ... Fried Silk Worm, Hanoi Cooking Centre, Hanoi, Vietnam
Tastes like peanut butter and seafood … Fried Silk Worm, Hanoi Cooking Centre, Hanoi, Vietnam

We finished off the preparation of the main course by browning the fish in a frying pan and adding the caramel sauce and chilli, before transferring everything into small claypots and baking in the oven for an additional ten minutes. While the fish was cooking, we started preparing the ingredients for next dish. Kylie, my tour companion and I made a fabulous team chopping, peeling and shredding all the components required to assemble our Squid and Pomelo salad.

With a glass of wine in hand, we were summoned back to the front bench where our chef explained how the preparation of traditional dishes such as Bun Rieu Cua or Vietnamese Crab and Tomato Noodle Soup were often used as a test by future mother-in-laws for their son’s prospective brides. After learning the secrets to making the best broth, we were each given a bowl to try and needless to say, it was absolutely delicious.

While consuming our soup, our chef gave us a bit of a break by demonstrating and preparing the Rice Dumpling dessert on behalf of the group, so that all that remained was to thank our hosts for a fabulous morning and head upstairs to the dining room and enjoy all the dishes that we had prepared for lunch… and a little bit more wine.

Disclaimer: All entries regarding the Vietnam Culinary Discovery tour within this blog reflect my own personal insights and experiences throughout my holiday and I was solely responsible for meeting all travel expenses incurred.

Fes Cooking and Cultural Tours, Fes Morocco

It’s hard to explain, but I woke up on New Year’s Day not with a hangover like some of us, but with the firm resolution that I was going to travel and cook in Morocco this year. I had researched week-long, residential gourmet cooking adventures to Morocco previously and cringed when I saw the cost. Most of what was on offer had three hands-on or demonstration classes at best, variable accommodation in a riad, a visit to a mosque and a few meals included. When you throw in the cost of the airfare from Australia to Morocco, my dream of learning how to prepare fabulous Moroccan cuisine and immerse myself in another culture and warm sunshine seemed almost unattainable.

So I decided to get creative and try a different tack. With the help of a friend who I met on an Exotic Persian & Middle Eastern cooking class last year, I managed to get a great deal on a ten-day tour of Morocco and airfares. Then I attacked the internet looking up every single offering of cooking classes in Morocco available on Google. Most of the classes were in Marrakech, but there was one in Fes with a chef that caught my attention. When I looked over the tour itinerary, it turned out that there was a leisure day in Fes with nothing planned, so I thought I would try my luck and see if I could book a class with Lahcen Beqqi.

Fast forward four months later, I’m calmly sitting in the hotel reception in Fes, jumping out my skin with anticipation that I’ve absconded from my tour group and I’m about to spend a day cooking. Lahcen came and picked me up from the hotel and we drove to the medina to select the fresh produce from the souk that we would need for our cooking day. Wandering through the different food stalls, we choose everything from lemons, beetroot, peppers, melon, tomatoes, eggplant, fresh parsley and coriander, then onto the spice shop. It was exhilarating seeing all of the beautiful colours of the fruit and vegetables, the spices and the sights and smells of the market. I had to keep remembering to watch where I was walking and to get out of the way of the donkeys who were moving past the stalls. While we were selecting our spices, my eyes lit up when I saw several containers of quality saffron in front of me, which would be the modern-day equivalent of gold in Australia. Thankfully Lahcen negotiated my purchase of saffron and I curtailed myself to only four containers.

Next we bought warqa pastry and it was fascinating seeing how it was prepared after I had seen Ottolenghi try to cook it himself on his cooking series earlier this year. I tried different samples of dates and nuts, bought olives and preserved lemon, tasted fresh goats curd and then it was time to select the star of the chicken tagine I was going to prepare that day.

With a heavy ladened basket, Lahcen and I walked through the medina to the riad where we would be cooking our lunch. The riad was beautiful and after I took lots of photos of the interior, we sat down and I had my first introduction to Moroccan mint tea and pastries.

Time to start cooking! While the chicken was marinating in a mixture of salt, lemon juice and water, I started to prepare the eggplant and tomato for our zaalouk salad. I had read recipes where you needed to grate tomatoes but I had no conceivable idea how to do that in practice until Lahcen demonstrated it for me. Easy when you try! For the next couple of hours, I happily chopped garlic, onions, parsley and coriander and peppers while there was a flurry of activity in the kitchen. I cooked the zaalouk on the stove and learnt how to make goat’s cheese and olive briouates with warqa pastry. Then it was time to start to prepare Lahcen’s speciality, chicken tagine with olives and preserved lemon or djaj mqalli. While the chicken was cooking, I got to work on grinding nuts and slicing dates to make date balls with orange blossom water, walnuts and almonds. It was fun creating several different dishes and having my dodgy knife technique corrected by a chef!

Finally, it was time to eat! The chicken tagine was so tender and delicious – I could happily eat that dish every day for the rest of my life. Zaalouk is now my favourite salad and the date balls and the mint and melon salad that Lahcen had whipped up were a perfect way to end the meal. Happy with my achievements, it was time to go back to the hotel and read over the recipes that Lahcen had given me. Several of my friends from the tour also enjoyed sampling the date balls with me over coffee the next day and I got to prolong the fun I had in Fes for a little bit longer.