Busbys Restaurant, Highett

Japanese Scallops, braised pork belly, pistachio, carrot puree, caviar - Busbys Restaurant and Bar, Highett

There was a time in the not too distant past, when restaurant dining at motels were the order of the day. As a young girl, I remember driving past all the motel restaurants along a particular stretch of the Hume Highway, trying to get a glimpse of all the activity inside and longing to enter through the canopied entrance into the captivating world beyond.

Some may say that that style of dining is of a bygone era. Big named hotels with celebrated chefs have now become the preferred platform for showcasing culinary creations. Yet beneath the glitter and contrived opulence, the art and enjoyment of fine dining can often play second fiddle to the ambivalent mood of wait staff and time-bound sitting arrangements.

Busbys Restaurant and Bar, Highett
Busbys Restaurant and Bar, Highett

However in the suburb of Highett, Busbys offers a dining experience that could easily rival that of the famous hotel chain bearing the same name, but won’t cost you an arm and a leg.

Go beyond the retro façade and you will find a modern refurbished interior and an inspired interpretation of French bistro dining, but without the high-end price tag.

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Executive Chef Jack Chan, who has had considerable experience working in luxury hotels across Asia, is behind this transformation. With an acute awareness of the local dining scene, Jack saw an opportunity to offer a style of dining and cuisine not readily available in the Moorabbin area.

Relaxing into the club-style chairs in the bar area for a pre-dinner drink, Wilson who is our maître d’ for the evening, takes meticulous care to ensure that the wine selected is fresh and up to a particular standard. The wine list is current and reflects a small but excellent selection from both local and international producers. And believe it or not, Busbys is one of those rare establishments where you could actually order a bottle of wine and still have enough change from a $50 note to still buy one more glass.

Old-fashioned name. Old-fashioned service. Old-fashioned prices.

Seated in the dining room, Wilson presented us with the dinner menu which is presented in a style similar to that of a French bistro. Not only is the menu both eclectic and enticing, with each dish in the just the entrée section alone sounded delectable in its own right. I must admit that it’s incredibly hard to choose just one. Just as well my dining companion was in a sharing mood!

Japanese Scallops, braised pork belly, pistachio, carrot puree, caviar - Busbys Restaurant and Bar, Highett
Japanese Scallops, braised pork belly, pistachio, carrot puree, caviar – Busbys Restaurant and Bar, Highett

It’s not too hard to imagine my expression when the food arrived at our table … Like. OMG. Wow. Each dish resembled a work of art in its own right and certainly worthy of a barrage of photos before even attempting to try and eat each dish.

One of Jack’s signature dishes is undoubtedly the Japanese Scallops, braised pork belly, pistachio, carrot puree and caviar. Jack prides himself on sourcing only the best and freshest produce available and Japanese scallops (which I must admit doesn’t sound particularly French) are noted for their quality and taste. Everything about this dish is a class act. You could also call this meal ‘luxury on a plate’. The texture, the taste and the presentation alone is worth every cent and you would be almost crazy not to order it.

Vodka and Beetroot Cured Kingfish, cucumber, fennel, citrus junos - Busbys Restaurant and Bar, Highett
Vodka and Beetroot Cured Kingfish, cucumber, fennel, citrus junos – Busbys Restaurant and Bar, Highett

Similarly, the Vodka and Beetroot Cured Kingfish with cucumber, fennel, citrus junos is also stunning in its simplicity and design. Beneath the funnel of thickly-cut kingfish slices, is a hidden treasure of thinly shaved fennel remoulade on a bed of fresh cucumber. The light smattering of dill across the top also adds subtle fresh flavour to a classic dish.

Goat cheese souffle, champagne salad, Grana Padano, raspberry vinaigrette - Busbys Restaurant and Bar, Highett
Goat cheese soufflé, champagne salad, Grana Padano, raspberry vinaigrette – Busbys Restaurant and Bar, Highett

The Goat cheese soufflé, champagne salad, Grana Padano, raspberry vinaigrette was served in a elegant ceramic bowl and artfully arranged across the plate. After dissecting through the exotic flavours and layers of the salad, the one thing that stood out for me was the extremely light, fluffy and fresh (and tasty) texture of the soufflé, which is everything it should be.

Good hospitality can be really hard to find but when you encounter great service, the kind that is attentive and client-driven, your whole evening is transformed into a magical and memorable experience.

We had a lot of fun chatting with Wilson throughout our evening about the food and potential wine matches. Somehow during the course of our conversation, our smooth-talking maître d’ talked us into ordering main dishes as well. What could possibly be more classique French than bouillabaisse and duck?

I have a particular fondness for duck at the best of times and the presentation of the Duo of duck, breast and confit of leg, orange glaze, julienne vegetables reaffirmed my love for this type of dish. The vibrancy of colour was stunning to behold, let alone its elegant presentation. The duck is deliciously moist, not overwhelmed by its accompaniments, and the fresh segmented orange wedges are a perfect foil for the rich flavour of the jus.

Bouillabaisse, prawns, calamari, fresh fish pieces, mussel, tomato confit - Busbys Restaurant and Bar, Highett
Bouillabaisse, prawns, calamari, fresh fish pieces, mussel, tomato confit – Busbys Restaurant and Bar, Highett

I’m not usually a victim of food envy yet when the Bouillabaisse, prawns, calamari, fresh fish pieces, mussel, tomato confit dish was placed in front of my friend, it took a lot of restraint for me not to immediately reach across the table and start helping myself to her meal. It was spectacular in every aspect – the seafood is fresh, tender and full of flavour.

Although I was lucky enough to have a taste of the Bouillabaisse, I’ve quietly resolved to go back to Busbys soon and order it on my return visit, which I envisage will happen very soon. The restaurant hosts weekend high-tea events for $39 per head (almost half the price of its contemporary hotel equivalents) and there are also live music and degustation dining events planned within the next few months.

So when you next think of the Hyatt, think Highett instead. Same style of dining experience yet considerably cheaper and infinitely more enjoyable.

Everything old is definitely new again.

http://www.thebusbys.com.au/

Busbys Restaurant & Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Melbourne Food and Wine Festival – Balinese “Market Tour to Plate” Cooking Class

Turmeric galangal spiced king prawns with betel leaves and nasi goreng - Balinese 'Market Tour to Plate', Spice Bazaar

I’m probably one of the few remaining Aussies that has yet to visit Bali. It’s a place that I’m hoping I’ll get to experience in the future but in the meantime, the Balinese “Market Tour to Plate” cooking class which was part of the recent Melbourne Food and Wine Festival programme, gave me the opportunity to indulge in Balinese cuisine without physically leaving the city limits.

The event had been originally designed to meet at the Footscray market, to walk through the myriad of stalls and shops to familiarise ourselves with the key ingredients and produce used in Balinese cooking. However as luck would have it, a deluge of torrential rain was forecast during the time we were to walk from the market towards the Spice Bazaar Cooking School in nearby Seddon. So the day started a little later than previously scheduled, in the warmth of the cooking school, where we were greeted with a glass of Wood Park Prosecco upon arrival.

Our hosts, Pat and Jill, introduced the menu and proceedings for the day whilst we enjoyed sampling some traditional Balinese snacks of rice crackers, accompanied with satay sauce, spicy sambal olek and sambal hijau, and delicious, warm corn fritters served straight from the stove top.

Ingeniously, Pat and Jill recreated the semblance of a market by carefully curating the spices, herbs, vegetables and ingredients typically found in the cuisine and in the selected recipes that we would be attempting to recreate during the class.

The first dish to be prepared was the Lamb Rendang (Rendang Daging) which naturally needed the longest time to cook. Cooking in teams of four to five, we set about the task of preparing all the individual ingredients in order to create one of the first spice pastes of the day.

Lamb Rendang spice paste - Balinese 'Market Tour to Plate', Spice Bazaar
Lamb Rendang spice paste – Balinese ‘Market Tour to Plate’, Spice Bazaar

Once the paste had been processed with the aid of a blender and quickly heated in a pan, it was time to add the coconut milk and meat and leave the dish to slowly cook for the next few hours.

With the lamb slowly simmering on the stove, the next order of business was to create another type of spice paste for the Balinese spiced pork dish (Be Celeng Base Manis). Creating a simple paste of shallots, garlic, ginger and oil, the colourful paste slowly transformed into a thicker and darker colour once the pork, kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) and soy sauce was added to the pot.

This dish also required two to three hours of cooking time on a gentle simmer, allowing us to leave the pork to develop further and turn our hand to another recipe.

Having completed the preparation of the meat dishes in the banquet, it was time to concentrate on cooking the fish and seafood components of our meal. The next recipe also involved creating another spice paste, but as it was intended as a marinade for the prawns, there were four times as many ingredients than the previous dish. With everyone contributing to the blender with the fresh roots and rhizomes typically found in Asian cuisine, we got to work on slicing quantities of turmeric, galangal, ginger, lemongrass, garlic, shallots and chillies before adding the dry spices.

Once the paste had been processed, it required a longer cooking time than its predecessors in order to thicken and soften before being added to the prawns. While the paste was developing, we had an impromptu lesson in removing the entrails and outer shell of the prawns before threading them onto skewers and immersing them in delicious paste so as to let them marinate before our scheduled lunch.

And so we progressed onto the last but not least main dish of the day, Kaffir Lime Ginger Snapper cooked in banana leaf (Pepes Ikan). In order to prepare the dish, Pat demonstrated how to transform a rigid banana leaf into a flexible sealing agent, simply by placing it over a naked flame to release its fibres. By preparing another paste to act as marinade, each team got to work in preparing their banana leaves and fish fillings, ready to create a series of parcels for cooking. The beauty of these versatile fish parcels is that they could be either steamed, baked or barbecued as desired.

As the saying goes, “many hands make light work” and rather than individually preparing all the accompanying dishes and sauces for our banquet, the tasks of preparing the mango salsa and mango coulis, the fried Tempeh with sweet soy sauce (Tempe Kering Teri) and the green papaya salad were allocated amongst the three teams to prepare in readiness for lunch.

With the heavy rain beating against the windows and the tempting aromas of succulent lamb, pork and prawns filling our nostrils, there was one last dish to prepare before sitting down to a delicious five-course banquet – which was none other than the ubiquitous Indonesian dish of Nasi Goreng. Aside from finely chopping shallots and garlic to mix with the cooked rice, the complicated aspect of this dish was creating a thin omelette in a wok over high heat, and then dice and fold through the rice mixture.

As the time approached 3pm, everyone was well and truly ready to start plating up their dishes, commencing with the Turmeric galangal spiced king prawns served on top of fresh betel leaves and accompanied by the just-prepared Nasi Goreng. Naturally there were a lot of murmurs of appreciation as the beautifully presented prawns and nasi goreng made its way to each guest.

The beauty of this special event was being able to enjoy our prepared dishes with matched wines produced by Wood Park Wines, from the north-east Victorian wine region. The selected wine match for this particular dish was the ‘Monument Lane’ Roussanne (2015) from the King Valley. Roussanne is a French white varietal from the Northern Rhone area that few winemakers in both the Rutherglen and Alpine wine districts have been growing for the past decade. With aromas of green melon and fresh citrus on the nose, the creamy, soft texture of this wine was a welcome reward for our cooking endeavours and an excellent match for the oven baked prawns and crispy elements of the rice.

No sooner had the first glass of wine been depleted, Pat arrived at the table ready to pour the selected wine for the next dish which as ‘The Kilnhouses’ Semillon (2014) from the township of Porepunkah in the Alpine Valley. With a crisp, fruit driven character, the honeyed sweetness and creamy texture complemented the fruity sweetness and thicker texture of the mango coulis and soft fish. This dish was also visually spectacular in its colourful array and the added novelty of eating straight off a banana leaf gave it a sense of Balinese authenticity.

My heart leapt with joy as the selected wine changed from white to red when Pat started to pour the ‘Myrrhee’ Merlot (2013). Carefully matured in French Oak barriques over a twelve month period, this beautifully intense coloured purple-red wine, had rich dark fruit characteristics and a fine, medium-bodied tannic structure. The silky, smooth wine cut nicely through the soft-textured spiced pork and crispy, crunchy tempeh accompaniment. This dish was delightful with its rich, spiced gravy; melt-in-your-mouth pork; and soft bok choy and turmeric rice.

Balinese spiced pork, wilted bok choy and crispy tempeh - Balinese 'Market Tour to Plate', Spice Bazaar
Balinese spiced pork, wilted bok choy and crispy tempeh – Balinese ‘Market Tour to Plate’, Spice Bazaar

Believe it or not, there is still another dish to be served as Pat pours a unique offering of ‘Reserve’ Zinfandel (2013) from the King Valley wine region. Zinfandel (or ‘Zin’ as it is more affectionately known) is a red grape varietal that is commonly grown in North America although it is starting to gain some traction in Australia. In warmer climates, this grape exhibits blackberry, star anise and peppery characters although in cooler climates (much like North-East Victoria) the wine displays rich red fruit flavours of cherry and raspberry with hints of spice. What was interesting about this wine was its rich, syrup-like consistency, similar to that of a  fortified wine. The multi-faceted and complex wine was a perfect foil for the spiced and meaty flavours of the slow cooked Lamb Rendang. Accompanied with steamed rice and a flavourful green papaya salad, this dish was my highlight for the afternoon. The flavours and textures in the salad were a total revelation, from the inclusion of roasted peanuts and crispy shallots, to the finely shredded, fresh fruit which instantly became a match made in heaven with the rich lamb and full bodied wine.

After consuming four beautiful dishes over the course of an hour, a few people were starting to flag, unaware that the final dessert dish of Black sticky rice with palm sugar and salted cream (Burbur Injun) was also just about to be served. It makes sense that a fortified dessert wine of “Rutherglen” Muscat should be selected as a match with such an elegant dessert. With luscious aromas of raisins, dried figs and candied peel (think rich Christmas pudding), the syrupy, sweet texture of the wine matched the creaminess of the rice pudding and the thick coconut cream. I’m very much looking forward to attempting to cook this dessert for my next dinner party.

Black sticky rice with palm sugar and salted cream - Balinese 'Market Tour to Plate', Spice Bazaar
Black sticky rice with palm sugar and salted cream – Balinese ‘Market Tour to Plate’, Spice Bazaar

And just like that the party was over, with everyone fully sated from the numerous but delicious Balinese dishes consumed over the course of an afternoon. This class was an excellent way to gain an unique insight into a lesser-known cuisine and to also enjoy a select offering of some excellent wines from a regional boutique wine producer. Truth be told, this event has more than piqued my interest in exploring Bali as a potential culinary destination and I’m looking forward to perhaps discovering more of what this place to offer on one of Pat and Jill’s specialty food tours to the area.

My Big Fat Greek Waistline – A culinary odyssey around Greece from A to Z

I love Greek food. One of my fondest childhood memories is smashing plates on the floor at Albury’s only Greek restaurant with my family. And while that restaurant’s existence was unfortunately unable to rival that of the Parthenon, my love for Greek cuisine continues to endure.

The Parthenon, Acropolis in Athens
The Parthenon, Acropolis in Athens

I recall on my previous visit to Greece sixteen years ago that there was a lot of pastitsio on the daily menu, primarily because it was cheap and ready made. On this trip however I was intent on reacquainting myself with some of Greece’s other well known dishes, and looking forward to trying new ones. The following is not a definitive list of Greek cuisine but just a small foray into the food I enjoyed on my holiday, using the Greek alphabet as my guide:

A is for Anise which is the predominant flavour found in the traditional Greek aperitif of ouzo. Whilst my palate is still yet to appreciate the distinctive taste of anise, in many of the restaurants that I visited during my holiday, legendary Greek hospitality ensured that a shot of ouzo was placed in front of me before I started my meal. It feels somewhat appropriate to begin with an aperitif before I eat my way around Greece. Opa!

B is for Bougatsa. (You probably thought that I would say baklava and yes, I definitely ate plenty of that as well, but I’ve been reliably informed that baklava is not traditionally Greek but rather a legacy from the Ottoman Empire).

Bougatsa is a pastry that can be either sweet or savoury, consisting of warm semolina custard or soft creamy cheese between layers of filo pastry. If I was down to my last Euro, I would probably buy a tray full of this … or a glass of wine. It’s a tough call. Let’s just say that my heart would skip a beat whenever I saw this at the breakfast buffet.

C is for Cheese. Whilst there are many varieties and differing textures of cheese found in Greek cuisine (Feta, Haloumi, Graviera, etc.) my favourite cheese dish would undoubtedly be saganaki. Traditionally served as an appetiser, this dish derives its name from the small frying pan in which Kefalograviera cheese is quickly cooked over a high heat and served with fresh lemon. Have your knives at the ready so you can successfully fight off your friends for a portion while it’s still hot.

D is for Dolmades. Served hot or cold, dolmades are grape leaves stuffed with rice and fresh herbs (usually dill, which is my favourite herb) although they can also be filled with minced meat and rice. Deceptively small, dolmades are almost a meal in themselves and are always a hit when they appear on a mezze platter.

Dolmades
Dolmades – stuffed grape leaves

E is for Eggplant which is the main ingredient in one of my favourite Greek dishes, moussaka. Moussaka is a layered pie made with sliced fried potatoes and eggplant, tomato-based sauce, spiced minced meat topped with béchamel and cheese. The more memorable versions of moussaka that I enjoyed had identifiable hints of cinnamon and nutmeg in the meat filling. But not even the best Greek chefs can compete with my sister Nicole’s version because hers is always made with love.

F is for Fava. Fava originates from the island of Santorini and is a warm purée of cooked yellow split peas topped with finely chopped red onion. It can be served as an appetiser, mezze or accompaniment to the main meal and is really quite tasty. Although be aware that it is made with a healthy dose of garlic, so in conjunction with the fresh onion topping, you are guaranteed to repel any vampires and gypsies in your immediate vicinity for at least 48 hours.

Fava - a puree made from yellow split peas
Fava – a puree made from yellow split peas

G is for Gyros. Pronounced with a “Y”, the word “Gyro” means “turn” in Greek referring to the meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie (generally pork or chicken) which is then carved from the spit and served wrapped in pita together with cucumber, tomato, onion, tzatziki and chips inside. Gyros are the ultimate Greek version of fast food and I found a couple of great places selling these in Athens for only 2-3 Euros a piece.

H is for Horiatki or what you and I commonly know as a traditional Greek salad. This is essentially a meal in itself, consisting of tomatoes, cucumber, Kalamata olives, sliced onion and capsicum, topped with feta cheese, dried oregano and olive oil. Sometimes variations of this salad will also include capers. I recently learnt that Greek salad served in restaurants should have a large slice of feta cheese on top in order to show the patrons that the cheese used in the salad is freshly cut from the block and not recycled from another dish!

I is for Ithaka, which is a poem written by the Greek poet, Constantine P. Cavafy. While you can’t physically eat the Ithaka, if you read this poem and digest the words you will find your soul nourished and your perspective renewed, particularly if you are still travelling. I had the privilege to hear the Ithaka at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, beautifully narrated in English by Sean Connery and accompanied to music by Greek composer Vangelis. It was especially poignant being in the final days of my holiday and feeling somewhat fatigued, listening to the Ithaka revived me again.

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National Archaeological Museum in Athens

J is for … The letter “J” in the Greek language doesn’t actually exist as it originates from the Latin or English alphabets. It has a few different sound variations when incorporated into the Greek alphabet but many Europeans pronounce “J” as “Y”. Therefore my “J” equivalent is “Yamas!” which is an abbreviation for the Greek phrase “To your health!” or “Cheers!” which I ended up saying quite often on this trip. Yamas!

K is for Kebabs which is a general term describing skewered food such as souvlaki, a popular Greek fast food consisting of grilled small pieces of meat such as chicken or pork (or vegetables). It can also be served on a full plate with chips or fried potatoes and pita. One of exciting things about ordering souvlaki is that no two dishes are ever the same!

L is for Lamb. One of my favourite movie quotes comes from My Big Fat Greek Wedding – “What do you mean he don’t eat meat? That’s okay. I make lamb”. While there are many variations on how lamb is cooked in Greek cuisine, I found it very hard to pass by the oven-baked lamb (kleftiko) with potatoes whenever I saw it on the menu.

M is for Mezze or a Mixed Grill platter. Why settle for just one dish when you can try new things and enjoy smaller samples of all your favourites? Better still, food always tastes better when shared and enjoyed with friends.

N is for Nutella … or is it? The Greeks have their own version of chocolate hazelnut spread called Merenda and many of the hotels in Greece have large bowls of this available on the breakfast buffet. My friend Julie was accustomed to mixing spoonfuls of hazelnut spread into her yoghurt each morning while I just ate a spoonful of it every now and again because it’s awesome.

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Greek hazelnut and cocoa spread

O is for Octopus. The Hellenic Republic, which is another name for Greece, is surrounded by four different bodies of water (the Aegean, Ionian, Cretan and Mediterranean seas) so it’s little wonder that fish and seafood play a prominent role in Greek cuisine. Octopus is usually served grilled or marinated and features as part of a mezze or main meal. Squid (or calamari) is also a favourite often arriving on your plate battered and fried, but there is also plenty of fresh fish, mussels and shrimp readily available at most restaurants. It’s not unusual to see a multitude of sardines and anchovies as well as whole bream, snapper and mullet trying to avoid eye contact as you pass by the display case.

P is for Pita. There is something unique and special about Greek pita – a little smaller and softer in texture than its foreign counterparts – it tastes more like bread and is usually my downfall when brought out to the table, especially accompanied by eggplant dip or an olive tapenade. Some Greek restaurants in Australia also lightly fry the pita in a pan with olive oil before serving … extremely dangerous for the waistline.

Q is for … actually there is no such letter in the Greek alphabet! There are 24 letters in the Greek alphabet as opposed to the 26 letters in the English alphabet. A big thank-you to my friend Kiri for being my online Wiki expert for all things Greek!

R is for Rizogalo or rice pudding. When I first saw small bowls of this at the breakfast buffet, I thought “Seriously?” and avoided it like the plague. Then one particular morning I decided to try some and didn’t look back. Commonly sprinkled with cinnamon, the version I bought at a local bakery in Athens tasted like a cross between a warm baked custard and cream brûlée. Yummy!

S is for Spanakopita. My Mum makes spanakopita regularly at home in Australia, which essentially is a savoury pastry or pie, very similar to a borek, with spinach and feta cheese filling. The handmade filo pastry often used in Greece is a little thicker than the commercial version bought from my local supermarket back home in Melbourne, but no matter where you eat spanakopita, it’s delicious especially when eaten with a salad.

T is for Tzatziki which is a mixture of yoghurt, shredded cucumber and garlic that often accompanies grilled meat dishes or is served by itself as a dip. It’s cool, creamy with a bit of a tangy, sharp finish from the added vinegar or lemon juice but like most things, a little bit goes a long way.

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Tzatziki with zucchini ball

U is for Ubiquitous and what could be more prevalent in Greek cuisine than olives and olive oil. Travelling around Greece, you will see olives on the breakfast buffet; olives and olive oil in your salad; olive groves as far as the eye can see; your food swimming in a sea of olive oil; souvenirs made from every conceivable part of an olive tree; olive motifs on every menu, napkin and tablecloth in addition to the cans of olive oil and vacuum-sealed bags of olives in gift shops just begging to be taken home. Greece is the third largest producer of quality olive oil after Spain and Italy but is the largest consumer of olive oil in the world. So embrace your inner Greek and immerse yourself in the olive universe!

V is for Vegetables. Don’t be fooled by the plethora of meat and seafood dishes in Greek cuisine as there are a number of excellent vegetable dishes on every menu. Tomatoes and capsicum (peppers) stuffed with rice is known as Yemista and is not only delicious but also filling. Another one of my favourites is stuffed cabbage rolls which is called Lahanodolmades, although it does contain minced meat so not strictly vegetarian. Typically there is also okra, zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes and potatoes served as a side to every meal.

W is for Wine (not Windex!). Greece is known for producing some excellent wines and the house wines served in most tavernas and restaurants is not only drinkable but also extremely cheap. Wandering around Athens over the weekend, I happened to discover some very chic and beautifully designed wine bars hidden in the backstreets near my hotel, serving amazing wines by the glass. Make sure you try assyrtiko which is a white grape varietal indigenous to the island of Santorini. The 2011 Karipidis Syrah from the Thessaly region was also a standout favourite of mine. Yamas!

X is for Xynotyri. Erin, our tour director, ordered this for us to try in a lovely little taverna on the island of Rhodes. Xynotyri, which literally means “sour cheese” is an unpasteurised whey cheese made from sheep or goat’s milk. The fresh goat’s milk cheese which we enjoyed had a creamy, thick yoghurt consistency and was used as a spread although as this cheese matures, it becomes hard and flaky but supposedly has great health benefits.

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Xynotyri from Oionos Greek Taverna, Rhodes

Y is for Yoghurt. All thoughts of going on a diet are dismissed when you see very large bowls of Greek yoghurt containing at least 10 per cent fat content every morning for breakfast. Usually the yoghurt is so thick and creamy that you need some serious muscle power to shake just a dollop into your own bowl. Greek yoghurt is apparently good for the digestion particularly after consuming rich meat or fried foods. Often served as a dessert with preserved fruit or whipped together with cream, good Greek yoghurt is one of those universal substances that seems to appear at every meal.

Z is for Zucchini. Whether it be deep-fried zucchini balls (kolokythokeftedes), pan-fried slices of zucchini or stuffed zucchini, the Greeks know how it make this vegetable taste just that little bit better.

And so now I have come to the end of my own culinary odyssey and time in Greece. Although I’m looking forward to going home and practising some of the recipes I learnt at a cooking class in Athens, a recent visit to the historic site of Olympia and hearing about the ancient gymnasium and athletic rituals has inspired me to start training for the 2020 games!

Real Food Adventure – Macedonia and Montenegro

Homemade baklava and hot tea at Duf waterfall - Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro

I confess – I love food and I’m often guilty of having more than my fair share. I can conquer a buffet like no one’s business but I have to tell you that as I write this post, the prospect of going downstairs to meet my tour group for breakfast is making me ill. I don’t think I can eat anything, anymore. I’ve just done a few squats to make sure the pants still fit and I’m thinking about ringing my personal trainer (at 3am his morning, of course – not that I’m vengeful or anything) and begging for forgiveness and some mercy for when I return home.

The first sentence of the trip notes for this 10-day amazing culinary odyssey around Macedonia and Montenegro says that no one leaves this real food adventure hungry. I don’t think I fully understood the ramifications of that statement until I had the chance to experience this unforgettable foodie adventure around the Balkans for myself. Like my previous post the trip notes fall somewhat short of what actually took place but that’s because we did SO MUCH MORE than what can be put into words, but that hasn’t deterred me from trying to describe what happened on the tour …

Day 1 Skopje

Real  – I’ll be the first to admit that I know next to nothing about Macedonia, or its capital Skopje for that matter, but that’s the primary reason why I signed up for this trip, so that I could learn more about this incredible country. Skopje was actually the birthplace of Mother Teresa and there are plaques and a museum celebrating her life and legacy.

Adventure – This first day of the tour is a chance to become more acquainted with the city and discover the famous landmarks on my own, before meeting the tour leader and the rest of the group in the evening. Skopje could be described as a strange amalgamation of socialist Russia and moorish Turkey – hammans and mosques are easy to identify from a distance but there are several stately new government buildings and a multitude of bronze statues also competing for immediate recognition within the city square.

Food – At our welcome meeting, Jane (pronounced Yann-eh), gave an overview of our ten-day trip and then took us for a short walk to a restaurant area only a couple hundred metres from our hotel. As soon as we sat down, there was wine on the table and food started to appear in front of us. A delicious mezze consisting of a variety of several different types of cheese, accompanied with dips, grilled vegetables and bread. Thinking that this was dinner, I was full after sampling a little bit of everything on the plate, only to learn that there were another two courses still to come. Okay – it’s a food adventure and things just got real!

Day 2 Leunovo

Real – This morning we met our driver Igor, who appears to hold an honorary doctorate in Tetris, as he somehow manages to load a dozen oversized suitcases into the back of a small minivan. Today’s journey begins at the Stone Bridge, one of Skopje’s most recognisable landmarks, where Jane gives us a brief overview of the city as we make our way towards the entrance of the Old Bazaar.

Food – Our breakfast today comes courtesy of a tasting trail around the Old Bazaar, starting with borek and yoghurt at a small cafe. After trying a few types with different fillings, Jane also bought a few pastry cakes filled with chocolate or jam to try. Naturally, the next stop is to sit in the sun at a Turkish tea house and enjoy a few different drinks before moving onto the Bit-Pazar to shop for a few items for lunch.

Food – The Bit-Pazar is one of the biggest green markets in Skopje, located at the north entrance of the Old Bazaar. This is where Macedonian cuisine comes to life with fresh peppers and tomatoes as far as the eye can see, marinated olives of every variety, mountains of black tea and spices bought and weighed on scales, large mounds of white cheese of every consistency and much, much more. We had the opportunity to sample a few different types of the all-important cheese before buying our favourites for lunch.

Food – Located in the heart of the market are two brothers who have recently returned from Germany and have opened a small kiosk, making delicious wraps which we ate in total silence because it was just that good. Making our way back to the bus, we stopped at a local kebap shop to use the facilities. While we were waiting for the amenities, the owner kindly brought a plate of hot kebaps out to us to eat, straight off the grill.

Adventure – The Matka Canyon is rated as the top attraction to see or visit in Skopje. The Matka Lake is one of the oldest artificial lakes in Macedonia and is popular for fishing, swimming, cave diving and kayaking. Today’s adventure is a leisurely boat cruise on the lake with its stunning blue-green water, including a visit to the the Suva section of the Vrelo Cave, noted for its unusual stalactite and stalagmite formations.

Food – The best thing about being on a food adventure is that meals are not always served in a formal setting. Jane and Igor had arranged a magnificent barbeque picnic lunch for us at a secluded spot on the lake and all we had to do was kick back and enjoy a glass of wine or two while lunch was being prepared. These guys definitely know how to cater for a crowd – there were fresh salads made, grilled chicken and sausages, and they even brought along the hand wipes and seat cushions for added comfort. Lunch was a lot of fun in a lovely setting and it was so enjoyable that we didn’t realise that the boats had forgotten to pick us up again until much later in the afternoon, naturally when all the wine and beer had run out.

Real – En route to our next next destination, we stopped in the town of Tetovo to see the painted mosque Sarena Dzamija. Originally built in 1438 by two sisters, this mosque was later reconstructed in 1833 and has beautiful bright, floral decorative glaze and paintings which were created using more than 30,000 eggs. I can honestly say that this mosque is truly spectacular and definitely worth a look inside.

Food – Arriving in the small village of Leunovo in the early evening, our food and most of our home-stay accommodation is provided to us courtesy of residents, Danny and Tina. It’s hard to believe that we need to eat again, but our hosts have kindly prepared a magnificent meal for us to enjoy outside, underneath the stars.

Dinner in Leunovo - Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro
Dinner in Leunovo – Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro

Day 3 Ohrid

Food – This morning we’re back outside at Danny and Tina’s enjoying mekici or Macedonian fried doughnuts, with jam, cheese and coffee for breakfast. The doughnuts are heavenly but there is so much food on this trip that it is almost a struggle just to eat one!

Adventure – Not long after leaving Leunovo, we see the stunning view of St Nikolas church, which now lies abandoned near the shores of Mavrovo Lake. The pressure is on to get that perfect shot for our screen savers, blogs, Instagram shots, Facebook posts and Twitter feeds!

Abandoned church of St Nikolas in Mavrovo Lake - Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro
Abandoned church of St Nikolas in Mavrovo Lake – Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro

Real – The monastery of Saint Jovan Bigorski (St. John the Baptist) is an Orthodox monastery originally established in 1020, although a fire destroyed some of the complex in 2009. The monastery has a collection of a number of holy relics which a many pilgrims come to see, however the wooden hand-carved iconostasis at the front of the chapel is also a stunning and magnificent work of art.

Adventure/Food – After our monastery visit, we get to stretch our legs again and walk a few kilometres uphill to visit Duf waterfall (yes, it’s pronounced “doof”). Following the marked trail, it was great just to walk in the cooler mountain air and take pictures of the verdant greenery and listen to the sound of running water. Jane had mentioned that there was a “coffee shop” at the end of the trail which kept us all moving. The waterfall is located within a national park and not otherwise accessible except on foot. Somehow our clever-thinking tour leader had organised a friend to meet us at the waterfall where there was a thermos of tea made from thyme and camphor, hot coffee and delicious homemade baklava (made with cow’s fat, no less) waiting for us. So having finally burnt off the breakfast calories, I ended up consuming nearly a thousand more!

Food – With a bit of exercise under our belt, it’s time for some lunch. Nearby in the village of Jance is Hotel Tutto which is owned and operated by Tefik “Tutto” Tefikovski, a pioneer of the slow food movement in Macedonia. After living and working in Europe, Tutto returned to his home town to build his own hotel and restaurant, keen to promote the culinary traditions and produce of the Radika Valley region. The valley is home to approximately 40,000 sheep and renown for the variety of mushrooms that grow there in season. One of the first dishes that Tutto introduces to us is ajvar (pronounced “ivar”), a delicious paste made from roasted red peppers, often served as a side dish or spread and is very popular in Macedonia. It usually takes five kilograms of red peppers to make just one jar of ajvar. The process is quite lengthy and time-consuming, taking several hours of roasting just to produce a small quantity. In jest we asked Tutto whether there was a Thermomix version available and duly received a blank look in reply.

Food – I’m not a fan of mushrooms and while Tutto was displaying them to us and preparing the next course, I was wondering how I could politely refuse as I was sitting right up the front. The mushroom stalks had such a meaty texture that curiosity got the better of me and I tried one … and it was incredibly delicious. I just got that one taste because the pan returned back empty! Our “lunch” was a veritable feast as Tutto kept cooking a number of dishes to try, including a number of different salads, grilled beef chops and dessert. Halfway through our lunch a German camera crew appeared to film Tutto cooking for us … who knows I might be appearing on an Al Jazeera television segment soon!

Adventure – Having sat and watched Tutto prepare numerous courses for our consumption, one of the women from the kitchen came to teach us how to roll the dough to make our own pastry pie. After indulging in several glasses of wine it was no mean feat to replicate the perfect circle that our instructor had demonstrated but I think I managed it in the end! So after arriving at Hotel Tutto at 12.30PM, we departed from the restaurant for the town of Ohrid at 5.00PM. I think I might like this concept of “slow food” …

Day 4 Ohrid

Adventure – Today we have the opportunity to take an optional excursion to visit the St Naum monastery and then enjoy lunch in the small fishing village of Trpejca, following a short boat cruise across Lake Ohrid.

Real – The monastery of St Naum was founded in 905 A.D. and gets its name from the medieval saint who founded it. It’s a popular tourist destination for visitors to Macedonia, noted for its architecture, artisan and historical significance. The hand-painted frescoes and dome inside the church are well preserved and quite captivating.

Adventure – Thankfully the weather held out for our boat cruise as we followed the lake shore. There were dark, stormy rain clouds above the mountain ranges surrounding the lake that looked ominous but otherwise it was relatively smooth sailing. After 45 minutes we arrived at Trpejca, which has its own secluded beach area, and is becoming an increasingly popular destination for visitors because of its private locale.

Food – Lunch had been arranged for us at a family-owned restaurant in Trpejca which specialises in serving fresh trout caught from the lake. The owner’s 86 year-old mother was still in the restaurant keeping a quiet eye on things! It was the perfect Sunday lunch sitting outside, enjoying a glass of wine with a view of the water. Lunch consisted of shopska salad, makalo (garlic spread), cheese, grilled trout and chips followed by pancakes with chocolate sauce.

Adventure – Arriving back in Ohrid in the mid-afternoon, Kym, Jann, Greg and I were keen to explore the old town a bit further, and Jane kindly obliged by guiding us up to King Samuel’s fortress where we could see panoramic views of the city and lake below and hear about its military history. We then followed Jane down the opposite side of the hill to capture the stunning view of the Byzantine Church of St. John, situated on the cliff over Kaneo Beach. I kept thinking that I would never have discovered this part of Ohrid if Jane hadn’t decided to accompany us on a private tour of the old town.

Food – Walking along the lake shore, we stopped by a restaurant along the waterfront for a glass of Macedonian bijelo vino (white wine) and local bar snacks to relax and watch the setting sun.

Food – No less than 30 minutes after arriving back at the hotel, it was time to get back on the bus and travel to the village of Kuratica to enjoy dinner in the mountains. Our host for the evening was Goran and his family, who welcomed us into a purpose-built private dining area with a glass of his famous home-brewed rakija which is made from nettles. With 50 percent alcohol content, it was perfect for a chilly evening in the hills but I wisely limited myself to just the one glass. The regional delicacies served for evening included edible snails foraged from the forest, cheese pie and slow-cooked pork with mushrooms, followed by chocolate cake. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to try the snails but was more than happy to sample dessert.

Day 5 Bitola

Food – Breakfast this morning was an assortment of borek and pastries from a bakery located in the local market of Ohrid. Being a sunny Monday morning, the market was thriving with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and all manner of produce to purchase, including jars of the much-coveted ajvar.

Real – After the market visit, we left Ohrid and drove to the village of Brajcino, passing through the town of Resen, located equidistant between Ohrid and Bitola. Situated near Lake Prespa, Resen is well known for the quality and unique taste of the apples grown in the numerous orchards planted throughout the area.

Apple orchards in the Resen region - Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro
Apple orchards in the Resen region – Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro

Food – Later in the morning we arrived in the quaint village of Brajcino, where we are introduced to Milka who lives on a small acreage of land near Lake Prespa, located relatively close to the border of Greece. Carp caught from the lake is considered to be the regional speciality and Milka demonstrated a recipe that she typically prepares for our fish lunch. With the carp in the oven, we kicked back with bijelo vino, helped prepare a salad with a few items bought at the market in Ohrid and had another opportunity to practice rolling the perfect dough to make a pie.

Day 6 Dihovo

Adventure/Food – This morning we met Jane early in the hotel lobby in search of the local breakfast specialty of tripe soup. Not that I was particularly keen to partake but I did want to see what it looked like. Despite wandering through the city square and enquiring at a few cafés, the supposed local specialty didn’t appear to be on the regular breakfast menu. Jane did however find a restaurant that had fantastic homemade soups for breakfast but unfortunately the waiter on duty was more than a little slow on the service aspect which meant that timing for the morning activity had to be changed to accomodate our meals.

Real – After breakfast we met the rest of our group for an orientation tour of Bitola, a city of 75,000 people, it is the second largest in Macedonia, located only 14 kilometres away from the border crossing with Greece and surrounded by a number of prominent mountain ranges. Previously known as “Manastir”, Bitola was part of the Ottoman Empire from 1382 to 1912 where Turks were the majority in the city. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was once stationed in Bitola for a period of time. Bitola has a long history of being a strong trading centre and many cultural organisations and consulates are still located there today. A world-class film festival celebrating the work of cinematographers is held in the city centre every year, bringing celebrities from all around the globe.

Food – Our walking tour of Bitola brings us into the Old Bazaar where the buying and selling of goods continues to be in the lifeblood of the city. It was fascinating to see an old Turkish hamman at one of the entrances to the market now surreptitiously transformed into a supermarket. Everything is for sale in the Old Bazaar – even plastic soft drink bottles filled with pigs fat!

Real – Near the outskirts of Bitola are the remains of the ancient Greek city of Heraklea Lyncestis, later occupied by the Roman Empire. I’ve personally seen the handiwork of a few Macedonian concreters throughout my lifetime and the restoration efforts applied at Heraklea appear to have utilised the same modern day techniques. While there are a few tonnes of concrete poured throughout the ruins, particularly the amphitheater, the tiled mosaics are quite spectacular.

Food – Located on the opposite side of Bitola, in the foothills of Mount Pelister, we drive to the small village of Dihovo for our included lunch and visit to a local beekeeper for a masterclass. Our host at Villa Dihovo was away supervising the current wine vintage when we arrived so we enjoyed a short walk through the village to see the apiary. The first order of business was to put on protective sleeve suit complete with hat and enclosed veil. After that challenge was successfully completed we gathered around one of the hives to learn about how honey is made and extracted, the life and times of the average honey bee followed by an elusive search to locate the Queen bee (the one wearing a spot of blue on her wings). Following our tutorial we got to taste some of the produce and different flavour combinations. My favourite was the creamy, crystallised honey very similar to the one that my late Grandfather used make from his own hives.

Food – Arriving back at Villa Dihovo we met our host Pece Cvetkvski, who kindly took a chosen few down to his cellar to learn more about his wine production and local produce. An amazing banquet of homemade sausages, salads, cooked meat and stuffed vine leaves had been laid out when we made it back upstairs, accompanied by Pece’s homemade pinot noir.

Food – It’s our last evening in Bitola and while we were definitely not hungry after our late lunch, I did want to visit a unique wine bar located in the main square that specialises in Macedonian wines, just so I’m prepared for tomorrow …

Day 7 Skopje

Real/Adventure – When I first heard at the tour briefing that we would be visiting a couple of wineries hosted by an expert in Macedonian wines, I thought all my Christmases had come at once. Now looking back in hindsight, if I had to describe what this day was like, it can be likened to visiting two sets of relatives on Christmas Day and having back-to-back feasts served with free-flowing matching wines. Our group left Bitola mid-morning gradually making our way to the Tikves wine region, arriving at the Popova Kula winery just before midday. Here we met Alexandra, our hostess during our visit at Popova Kula and were also formally introduced to Ivana Simjanovska, who is a wine judge, co-author and publisher of the Macedonian Wine Guide. Popova Kula literally means “Pope’s Tower” which once stood as a distinguishing landmark in the Demir Kapija valley where the winery is situated. A 17-metre replica tower now features prominently at the front of the vineyard as well as in their logo design. Following a short tour around the winery and cellar door area, we are ready to start sampling our selected wines.

Real – Macedonia is very much a part of the “new world” when it comes to wine, yet the paradox is that wine has been produced in this region for a number of centuries dating back to a period B.C. Ivana gave a fascinating overview of the history of Macedonian wine including a discussion on the nationalisation of all wine production after the Second World War and how Macedonian wines are now in a period of renaissance, with a renewed focus on producing high quality wines rather than large yields. As a result these wines are starting to achieve international recognition and accolades.

FoodStanushina is a unique Macedonian grape variety that Popova Kula specialises in utilising in their own signature wines. Ivana chose a Stanushina Rose 2015 with a striking salmon pink-orange colour and soft aromas of fresh strawberries as the first wine to drink. With a dry, medium finish, the flavour of wild strawberries complemented the Macedonian salad that was matched with the wine. The next wine paired with the salad was a Zilavka 2015 which had a pale green straw colour, herbaceous aromas of cloves, sage and thyme, together with subtle citrus notes on the nose. A clean, dry, medium finish and fresh lemon flavour on the palate.

Food – Looking very much like Christmas dinner, the next course served was a delicious dish of pork stuffed with plums matched with a “Perfect Choice” Vranec 2013. Ivana specifically selected the 2013 vintage as there was heavy rainfall recorded during the 2014 vintage. Deep, rich ruby red in colour, Vranec displays blackberry fruit on the nose with hints of vanilla from the American oak barriques used during the maturation process, complemented with aromas of white pepper and tobacco. This wine had a lovely, smooth, soft tannic mouthfeel and plenty of fruit-driven flavour.

Real/Adventure – The next winery was located in a different part of the Tikves region, about 20-30 minutes drive away from our first stop. The Stobi winery is a top producer of Macedonian wine despite only being in operation since 2009, making it the youngest winery in the country. Our visit included a tour of the fermentation facility and education about the production process before concluding at the cellar area where the barriques are stored.

Food – Jane had casually mentioned during a previous conversation that the food at the Stobi winery was exceptional and that we should really wait to eat at this restaurant. The problem with this plan was that it was now 5PM when we sat down in the restaurant to eat the “second lunch” and this is where the Macedonian hospitality came out in full force, with no less than five dishes put on the dining table before us to eat.

Real – Ivana had rejoined us at the head of table and talked a little bit more about the wines she had selected for our meal:

Rkaciteli 2015: Rkaciteli is a grape variety that originated in Georgia and was brought to Macedonia 40 years ago. It produces high yields and the resulting wines were principally exported to Russia. This wine is light-bodied but with a balanced structure. There are aromas of lemon citrus, green grass and jasmine subtly complemented with flavours of honey, apricot nectar and citrus on the palate. This wine pairs well with salads, smoked meats and cheeses.

Chardonnay 2014: Pale yellow straw in colour but also displays a slight green hue. Ripe tropical fruit aromas predominantly of kiwi fruit married with lemon/lime citrus on the nose and palate.

Syrah 2011: My favourite grape variety … now we are talking! This wine had been maturing in French and American oak for a period of 15 months. Lots of spice and pepper savoury notes with hints of vanilla typically associated with the integration of the wine with oak barriques. A combination of black fruit and savoury notes on the palate with a medium, dry finish. Lovely flavour and texture.

Aminta 2013: This wine is an amalgamation of equal quantities of Vranec, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, separately maturing in French oak barriques for 18 months before bottling. Beautiful ruby red in colour, the Vranec brings a powerful black fruit structure to the wine, Merlot adds elegance and softness and the Cabernet contributes pepper and savoury characteristics. A nice full bodied wine with 14% alcohol content. A very elegant wine from an excellent vintage.

Real – The poor restaurant manager was a little distraught when there was so much food left untouched on the table and wanted to know what was wrong. The meals were absolutely delicious and of the highest quality but the quantities served were more than my ever-expanding stomach could accommodate and I am certainly capable of eating vast amounts of food. So just like Christmas, we rolled back on the bus to Skopje with full bellies, happy vibes and ready for bed.

Day 8 Kotor

Real – When you sign up for a multi-country tour, long periods of road travel are sometimes inevitable and today’s journey is expected to be an eight-hour marathon bus trip. We say goodbye to Macedonia and make our way to Montenegro, passing through Kosovo and Albania en route. Kosovo has a deep admiration for Tony Blair and Bill Clinton of epic proportions, so much so that numerous children born after the war were named after these two statesmen. In a small regional town, we drove past the newly opened “Bill Clinton Sports Stadium” so it’s absolutely true!

Adventure – Our first stop for lunch was in picturesque Prizren (affectionately mispronounced as “Prison”), the second largest city in Kosovo well known for its Ottoman architecture, particularly the Sinan Pasha mosque and Old Stone Bridge.

Food – Prizren has a distinct cafe culture with lots of young people enjoying coffee and conversation in the city square. From one of its famed qebaptore (barbecue restaurants) in the Old Bazaar, I ordered the mixed qebap plate for lunch which cost only 3EUR and it was absolutely delicious!

Qebap plate - Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro
Qebap plate – Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro

Adventure – The best laid plans can go horribly pear-shaped on holidays, even on organised tours. Shortly after crossing over into Albania the tour bus experienced engine failure so we had an unscheduled coffee stop in the town of Kukes to rectify the issue. After getting back on the road again, the problem reoccurred so we found ourselves at a rest stop that looked like Albania’s homage to Las Vegas, complete with a dedicated wedding chapel and replica Universal Studios signage, while waiting for a replacement bus to come from Skopje. There are worse places to be stranded so with a fully stocked bar on hand and obliging waiter, we kicked back with several G&T’s and a marathon game of cards.

Real – Three hours later our new vehicle arrived looking more like a mobile disco than a transit bus and we were finally on our way again after spending considerably more time in Albania than originally planned. Just after 10PM and only 60 kilometres from our intended destination, we had another unexpected delay when we encountered a roadside accident and waited another 30 minutes for the police and ambulance to clear the road. After more than 12 hours since leaving the hotel, we finally reached the beautiful Old Town of Kotor in Monentegro close to midnight. I’ve never been so happy to arrive at a hotel in my entire life.

Day 9 Kotor

Real – I love James Bond movies, especially “Casino Royale” which was supposedly set in Montenegro (and which might have given me more impetus to take this tour!). Montenegro, which means “Black Mountain”, is a small sovereign state with only 700,000 inhabitants and has been touted as one of the top world destinations to visit. The beautiful Old Town of Kotor has historic cathedrals and churches, a myriad of winding alleys and numerous cafes, restaurants and tourists yet no matter how far I walked, I never did manage to get a glimpse of Daniel Craig.

Food –  The village of Njegusi, located high in the mountain ranges above the town of Kotor (about 900 metres above sea level), is renown for its smoked dried meats and artisan cheeses. Its location made for an interesting trip, given that we had to slowly climb up the dizzy heights of Mount Lovcen, in a small bus on a narrow, winding road. Eager to get some fresh air and stretch the legs, we made a beeline to see the hams drying in the rafters of the smokehouse. In the building next door a small batch of Vranec grapes was currently going through the process of being transformed into wine so we had a look around to see how the vintage was coming together. Platters of smoked ham and beef, cheese, olives and bread were served for our enjoyment together with the customary alcoholic drinks and all the while I was thinking that it’s not even 11AM and here I am drinking shots of rakija and glasses of wine. This tour is starting to wear me out!

Adventure – Given our very late arrival into Kotor the night before, I decided to skip the olive oil visit and spend some time meandering around the Old Town in the afternoon and do some sightseeing before the next cruise ship arrived into port. It was a lot of fun exploring the labyrinth of alleys and wandering into the cathedral without large crowds obstructing the entrance.

Food – There’s lots of places to grab a decent cup of coffee in Kotor but as a popular tourist destination, the price of food and wine (which is now charged in EUR) is astronomical compared to Macedonia and definitely not of the same quality. Our last dinner together was at a restaurant that supposedly specialises in seafood yet the mussels I ordered looked like something John West had rejected a decade ago. Although the fillet of bream was nicely cooked it also came with a hefty price tag. I guess that is to be expected if you hang around the playground of the rich and famous.

Day 10 Kotor

This trip has had so much to offer in terms of amazing food, generous Macedonian hospitality, great wine, fabulous weather, an excellent and dedicated tour leader and driver, beautiful scenery and fun friends to share it all with. Thanks Jann, Greg, Steve, Chris and Kym for being my Intrepid family for the past three weeks and being part of my Real Food Adventure odyssey through the Balkans.

Real Food Adventure - Macedonia and Montenegro
Real Food Adventure – Macedonia and Montenegro

This is where the diet finally starts. You might heard of the song “I lost my heart in San Francisco”? Well my version goes something like “I lost my waistline in Montenegro”. Our tour leader, Jane, keeps telling me that I should be hungry for this tour and that I needed to starve for one month before coming on this trip. I think the opposite is true for me and I’ll need to starve for TWO months afterwards BEFORE I am brave enough to see my personal trainer again. Oh wait … I’m now off to Germany, the land of roasted pork knuckle, wurst, potatoes, sauerkraut, pretzels and Riesling … Okay, I guess the diet will have to wait a few weeks more … Bon appetit!

ALDI Degustation Dinner

Most people, like myself, either have a love or hate relationship with the ALDI discount supermarket chain. There was a time when I loathed the place and decreed that my parents were forbidden to buy any Christmas or birthday presents from there, which they took great delight in doing. Yet fast forward five or so years and I’m the one calling them up suggesting that they buy me the $99 sound bar in the weekly special buys catalogue for my birthday gift and eagerly scouring the bins for that matte black imitation Le Creuset cast iron pot I’ve been coveting for my kitchen.

Every Wednesday morning feels like Christmas to me when I click on the website and see what the new “7 Day Deals” are. I can’t exactly pinpoint the moment when I had a complete change of heart, but what I do know about myself is that I hate being ripped off and there is a substantial price differential when I purchase branded groceries from the other supermarkets than when I shop at ALDI. I have friends that are confounded by the store layout, wondering why on earth there are lawnmowers next to the frozen food section and why I can be bothered shopping there, and there are other friends who are also enthusiastic shoppers or cooks and like me, love a good bargain.

Given my love of good food, great wine and ALDI, I decided just for a bit of fun to combine all three passions and invite some friends over to my place to participate in a degustation dinner challenge. The rules were to create a dish where 90% of the ingredients are sourced from ALDI which is then served with a matching wine selection, also purchased from ALDI. Perhaps something similar to the mystery box challenge on Masterchef if you will, but where you have a whole supermarket to inspire your culinary creativity.

I nominated myself for a fish course and a pasta course, Mez and Adrian to prepare the meat courses (one being chicken and the other being a red meat of their choosing) and Alisha responsible for the dessert and cheese course to finish, all served with an appropriate wine match. With each guest having exceptional knowledge, qualifications and experience in wine, I was really looking forward to seeing what we came up with.

My ideas for the fish course changed over the duration of the three or four weeks prior to the actual dinner event. Originally I had been thinking of serving portions of grilled white fish over a bed of black rice with a red curry sauce, or perhaps serving a salmon dish but after flicking through a Dish magazine, I was inspired to incorporate mango into my dish, given that it was in season. After doing a reconnoitre of the ALDI fridges to confirm that I could obtain prawns for my dish, I went with Prawns with Lime and Mango Dipping Sauce as the first course. I had read about the highly-rated Corte Carista Prosecco DOC ($9.99), from Veneto, Italy in a wine trade magazine and knew that it would be a match made in heaven. And the result? Pretty good considering that I had never made the recipe before or tried the wine until that evening. The sparkling wine with fragrant floral notes was lovely to drink and well matched with the seafood. Cutting mango properly is still a skillset that I need to develop but I got there in the end, and the tropical fruit went well with the spiced marinade and wine. The only thing I didn’t source from ALDI was the mint required for the dipping sauce. Unfortunately ALDI didn’t have any on hand and my local market sold a bunch for a $2.00 so I figured I still won out.

Ricotta and spinach cappellaccio, spiced pumpkin purée, crispy sage, burnt butter sauce and walnut crumb - ALDI Degustation Dinner
Ricotta and spinach cappellaccio, spiced pumpkin purée, crispy sage, burnt butter sauce and walnut crumb – ALDI Degustation Dinner

The next course was my own creation, inspired from a Coles food magazine recipe which had roasted pumpkin, sage, wilted spinach, walnuts and a packet of Latina Fresh pasta. Thinking about the ingredients and what I could get from ALDI, I went with Ricotta and spinach cappellaccio, spiced pumpkin purée, crispy sage, burnt butter sauce and walnut crumb. You can source a pack of the ricotta and spinach cappellaccio for $3.99 from the cold storage and the rest of the ingredients are readily available. Similar to the situation with the mint, the sage on hand at ALDI looked a little limp, so again I got something more robust and cheaper from my greengrocer. Thinking I needed a white wine match for this course, I dropped by my local ALDI last week and spied a bottle of the Peter Mertes Gold Edition 2014 Riesling ($9.99) from Mosel Germany on the shelves. This wine is very dry on the palate with nice soft, fruity aromas that pairs well with a variety of food so it again was a great accompaniment.

Pork Fillet with a mustard cider sauce, cauliflower purée and broccolini - ALDI Degustation Dinner
Pork Fillet with a mustard cider sauce, cauliflower purée and broccolini – ALDI Degustation Dinner

The next course was prepared by Meredith who was originally thinking of preparing a braised meat dish so that she didn’t need to prepare too much in my kitchen but when reviewing what was available in the meat department, she was inspired to cook a Jamie Oliver recipe that she had tried before, Pork Fillet with a mustard cider sauce, cauliflower purée and broccolini. Mez came armed with a meat thermometer to ensure that her pork fillet was cooked and served at the optimum temperature, and the mustard cider sauce and purée pre-prepared making the serving process a lot easier. The chosen wine match was a Tudor Pinot Noir 2014 ($12.99) from the Yarra Valley region in Australia. The pinot which had the typical aromas of red fruit, particularly raspberries, was soft on the palate, medium-bodied and a nice, long finish. Even though I’m a Shiraz girl, I was thinking that this wine wasn’t bad at all and while the serving suggestion on the bottle recommends gamey meats, the soft texture of the wine paired well with the soft texture of the pork fillet. I really loved this dish, particularly the slightly-sweet mustard cider sauce and smooth purée.

Chicken à la Adrian with a ‘Stop & Go’ accompaniment - ALDI Degustation Dinner
Chicken à la Adrian with a ‘Stop & Go’ accompaniment – ALDI Degustation Dinner

Three courses down and three more to go. When I asked everyone to send their dish descriptions and wine matches so that I could write up our dinner menu, Adrian sent me something along the lines of Chicken à la Adrian with a ‘Stop and Go’ accompaniment which sent my imagination into overdrive. I confused ‘Up and Go’ with the term ‘Stop and Go’, thinking that I was going to be served chicken breasts poached in a breakfast beverage and naturally I should have known better. Adrian had sourced all his favourite ingredients at ALDI to create chicken thighs fillets parcels stuffed with baby spinach and haloumi, and wrapped in thin slices of prosciutto. The ‘Stop and Go’, or red and green items, were oven-roasted, vine-ripened baby roma tomatoes and asparagus, dressed with a balsamic finish. Adrian chose Baron Amarillo Rioja Reserva 2010 ($9.99) from Rioja, Spain which was a wine I hadn’t tried before, but will probably buy a lot more of in the future. Rich and elegant in taste, with a soft lush texture coming from the length of time the wine was aged in oak, this wine had a boldness to it that cut through the salty flavours of the cured meat but complemented the roasted vegetables and chicken. Very, very nicely done.

Alisha was brave enough to come along to our dinner adventure and immerse herself in the weird, wonderful world of ALDI. Her dessert choice for the evening was a Dark chocolate mousse with fresh strawberries inspired by Jamie Oliver’s 30-minute meal challenges and she was also tasked with preparing a cheese platter to finish the meal, selecting the ‘Emporium Selection Aged Warrnambool Cheddar 20-month’ and ‘Danish Smooth Blue’ cheese with assorted crackers with a Keeper’s Glove Special Reserve Tawny. The dark chocolate mouse was delicious but I probably did Alisha a disservice by putting in the fridge beforehand so it lost its mousse consistency when it was served but chocolate never goes out of style. The cheese selection was delicious as was the tawny port which matched well with both the dessert and the cheese dishes.

Approaching midnight and having successfully indulged in six delicious courses and some beautifully selected wines, I was quite pleased that my quirky idea turned out to be a great success. Who knows what exotic dishes we will conjure up in our next ALDI-inspired culinary adventure?

https://www.aldi.com.au/en/

The Grand, Richmond

Last June, a dear friend of mine introduced me to a very special culinary experience at The Grand dining room and afterwards I didn’t hesitate to join their special VIP program. When you sign up as a Grand VIP member, you are entitled to a free six course degustation dinner (with the value of $85) to celebrate the occasion of your birthday. The only stipulation in the deal is to bring one paying guest, so when I received an email from The Grand reminding me that it was that time of year again, I didn’t hesitate to make a reservation.

My friend Vikki was about to depart for a month-long sojourn to Italy so it seemed like a fantastic opportunity to catch up over an Italian-centric menu. The dining room at The Grand is an oasis away from the busy road outside and the constant stream of semi-trailer trucks driving past en route to the Burnley Street freeway access. With white linen tablecloths, walnut Thonet dining chairs, and colourful glass bubble chandeliers you could be forgiven for thinking that you had been transported to Europe.

In order to commence my birthday season, it was quite right that Vikki and I should indulge in the $55 wine match to accompany the evening’s Chef’s menu. Upon being seated, we were encouraged to get the evening rolling with a delicious glass of Adami Garbèl Brut Prosecco NV  from Veneto to enjoy with the marinated olives, assorted bread and the olive oil also produced in Italy.

Whilst still enjoying the Prosecco, the first wine for the evening, the 2013 Monte Tondo Soave Classico was poured in readiness for the first course of Barbabietole con quinoa e mozzarella di bufala (Candied roasted beets with quinoa and buffalo mozzarella). The wine is intensely perfumed with both hints of florals and fruitiness on the nose (we thought maybe orange blossom and white stone fruit) but surprisingly quite soft, smooth and subtle on the palate. Both Vikki and I aren’t huge fans of quinoa and unfortunately we were still not persuaded after tasting our entrée but the lovely wine matched well with the creamy texture of the cheese and sweetness of the roasted beetroot.

The next course was Carpaccio di trota salmonata (Ocean trout cured in berries and citrus with shaved celery) matched with one of my favourite wines, a 2014 Foster e Rocco Rose from Heathcote in Victoria. The fish was cured beautifully and topped with thin strands of celery to balance the texture and provide fresh bursts of flavor. The wine is subtle pink in colour, highly fragrant with hints of red cherries and red apples on the nose yet rich in texture, with a dry and refreshing mouth feel.

The next wine to be served was phenomenal and had me hooked on the first sip. The 2013 Mountadam High Eden Estate Chardonnay was served beautifully chilled, had such a depth of flavor and texture that I think I stopped Vikki in mid-sentence and insisted that she try it. The accompanying dish, Capesante con topinambur ed insalata di finocchio (Seared scallops, Jerusalem artichoke puree, fennel salad) was just as elegant yet more picturesque. The scallops were cooked perfectly with segmented citrus, shaved radish and fennel to complement the puree. The textures and flavours of the dish combined with the wine were outstanding and definitely my favourite course for the evening.

The next course to be served was Caramelle di manzo (Beef caramelle pasta with grana padano and gremolata) matched with the 2013 Roaring Meg (Mt Difficulty) Pinot Noir from Central Otago, New Zealand. The pasta wasn’t as warm as I would have liked it, but I suspect that might have been my fault in taking too many foodie pictures when I should have been eating. Our lovely waitress was extremely generous and trusting by leaving the bottle on the table after pouring our glasses. The pinot had a lovely perfumed blackberry and dark cherry fruit character with subtle hints of spice. The wine had a nice long finish and textured tannins which married well with the soft pasta.

We had almost reached the summit when the full-bodied 2011 Zenato Valpolicella Classico Superiore was served with the main course, Filetto di manzo con verdure (Pan seared Eye Fillet with shallots, celeriac puree, capsicum and eggplant). The eggplant and asparagus had a charred, smoky flavor which was balanced by the earthy tannins in the wine. The Eye Fillet was well cooked and nicely complemented by the nutty flavour of the celeriac puree.

The dessert course was a momentous conclusion to the evening with a generous pouring of the 2013 Punt Road Botrytis Semillon to accompany the Bombolini (Crema pasticcera filled Italian doughnuts with caramel ice cream & honeycomb). The syrupy consistency of the wine with rich flavours of orange and apricot marmalade cut through the crispy, sugarary fried texture of the doughnut and the soft caramel ice cream.

The degustation experience at The Grand was beyond compare and even at full price, $85 for seven courses (if you include the bread and olives) is terrific value for money. Let’s just say that I’m really looking forward to celebrating many more birthdays (mine and others!) in style at The Grand.

Grand Hotel Dining Room on Urbanspoon

Duck and Pinot Masterclass – Luv-a-Duck, Port Melbourne

I am fairly skeptical when it comes to those websites that peddle daily deals that are usually too good to be true, so when a friend of mine mentioned that she had recently taken a cooking class through Living Social, I subscribed more out of curiosity rather than intent. A couple of weeks later, hands-on duck cooking classes were offered at an unbelievable price and when I realised that it was provided by Luv-a-Duck, I didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the discounted offer to participate in the Duck and Pinot Masterclass.

The long awaited day finally arrived and I excitedly arrived early at the Luv-a-Duck retail showroom in Port Melbourne, and meandered around the refrigerated stands selling the extensive range of duck produce, and associated gourmet sauces and condiments. Class participants receive a 10 per cent discount for items purchased on the evening, so I mentally started to prepare a shopping list of things to buy after the class. The chef’s table had been laid out in anticipation and the kitchen stations were ready for action.

The night began in the small classroom area with Wendy, our instructor for the evening, giving a brief overview of the history of the Luv-a-Duck company and the format of the masterclass. We were also introduced to Steve from PinotNow who was supplying the matched pinot wines for the evening. As there were five courses to be prepared and served throughout the night, the class needed to divide into teams of two and proceed into the kitchen, where packages of whole duck and sharp knives were waiting for us.

Wendy demonstrated the process for preparing and cooking a perfect roast duck before moving on to show us how to dissect the duck into smaller portions and extract the duck breasts and marylands for some of the evening’s recipes. Then it was our turn to pick up the knives and get to work on breaking down the duck, which wasn’t always as easy and effortless as Wendy made it appear but fun nonetheless. I tried to imagine myself doing this at home and could only conjure an image of me sailing into my local Foodworks to pick up a couple of pre-packaged duck breasts!

The next task was to volunteer for a course to prepare so I partnered up with a couple of guys to make the Duck and Portobello Mushroom Pie. While Fazil started on preparing the marinade for the duck breasts, Jesper and I set about preparing the shortcrust pastry made with duck fat for the pies. The pastry was extremely easy to make and duck fat seemed to make the pastry soft and malleable. After rolling out the pastry we lined a dozen small ceramic dishes and strangely enough, while it was somewhat labour-intensive, I could readily imagine doing this at home or for a dinner party.

Once finishing the first preparation stage to our recipes, the first entrée course of Smoked Duck with Lentil and Pear Salad was ready to be served. Steve had matched this first course with a 2008 Grey Sands Pinot Noir from Glengarry, Tasmania. With a 92 point rating from James Halliday in the 2011 Australian Wine Companion, this wine was now showing signs of age in the colour and has probably reached its peak. It had a very elegant nose with subtle black cherry aromas and a short finish on the palate. The soft acidity and fine tannins were a good match with the smoked flavour in the dish. This course was exceptional and I started to secretly wish that I had prepared this course so that I could replicate it at home. The lentils were softly cooked in duck stock and the caramelised pears were a wonderful addition to the dish and balanced out the ripe fruit flavours in the wine.

Wendy got the teams back into the kitchen to keep preparing our courses. As the pastry cases were chilling out in the fridge, our little band of three started to prepare the filling for pies. It was fun working together and pretending to be sous chefs so that one person could cook the mixture on the stove while we scrambled about chopping the remaining ingredients and throwing everything into the pot. Somehow we just got our pies filled and into the oven before we were called back to the dining table for the next course.

It was another case of food envy as a plate of Sticky Marmalade Duck Breast with Duck Fat Roast Potatoes was set before me. This dish had been matched with 2011 Stoller Dundee Hills Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley, Oregon USA. In the WSET 2 course I had studied about premium wines from Oregon but I hadn’t actually tasted one, until now that is. This wine had distinctive floral characteristics and I could smell and taste violets, lilac and cherries but also on the palate the spicy elements of this wine started to evolve. With a white pepper finish, the wine had traces of cinnamon, cloves or Chinese five spice which helped to bring out the Asian flavours in the duck. Beautifully cooked and prepared, the duck breast had been roasted and basted in citrus, ginger, soy and sesame seeds so the wine Steve had selected was quite a good match. This dish is definitely on my must-do list!

With the pies nicely warming in the oven, the last task for the course I was helping to prepare was cooking the Braised Baby Cos and Speck accompaniment. So easy to prepare and yet incredibly delicious, I had never thought to wilt baby cos quarters in a mixture of speck, rosemary, currants, verjuice and vino cotto in a frypan. This dish was matched with a 2010 Domaine Jean-Marc Millot “Aux Faulques” Pinot Noir from Cote de Nuits, France. The wine was elegant in style and its taste resembled a fine, classic burgundy. Although I’m generally not a fan of mushrooms, the mini duck pies were superb and a good choice for a cold Autumn evening.

With my course of the way, I could relax as the next team served the Duck Leg Tagine with Chermoula and Jewelled Cous Cous. This dish had been paired with the 2011 Pisa Range Estate “Run 245” Pinot Noir and as soon as I caught the beautiful bouquet on this wine, I reached for the order form. This wine was award 4 stars or 93 points by Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine (September 2013) and is finely crafted with distinctive red berry characters and suitable for cellaring. The duck tagine was an array of rich colours and flavours and the spices in the Chermoula paste complemented the wine.

While we were all full and just about ready to head home after a long day, the first team had whipped up a delicious Hot Raspberry Souffle with Rose Petal Cream for dessert. Extremely light and sweet to taste, this was a perfect end to an incredibly fun evening. The only job left to do was to exit through the gift shop with my duck and Pinot purchases ready to take home. Apart from recreating my duck dishes at home, my new hobby is monitoring the daily internet deals for the next Luv-a-Duck special as it was $50 extremely well spent.