Head cheese. Sounds weird, but that’s the English translation for French “Fromage de Tete” which has nothing to do with cheese, as it is a pork terrine made with a pigs’ head. Before you think I lost my mind, I must say this dish was part of our Halloween menu, so weirdness was allowed, if not encouraged, as far as cooking creations were concerned.
Come to think of it, Fromage de Tete is quite a common dish in France where nose to tail cooking is the norm. In fact, every traiteur in the country has his/her own version of it and I remember it appearing quite often in the school canteen and work cafeteria. It is definitely a rarity in Australia, where country terrines are rather made with chicken liver and ground pork. I suspect people have issues with the head thing, nobody I know would even think of cooking a pig’s head.

I had to order one from the butcher a week ahead, after finding out that he usually discards them. He gave me a funny look when I came to collect it and asked for it to be cut in half as the whole head would not fit in my stock pot. “ What are you making?” he asked. “ Head cheese!” Blank look. “Brawn!” his eyes lit up and then he smiled and said “ yes, that’s the best cut for it. Good luck with it! “ I ordered a few pigs trotters as well for good measure ( and extra collagen ), then headed home with a boot full of hog parts!

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This dish is based on a recipe from a guy called Hank Shaw, whose focus is on fishing, foraging, hunting and food writing ( not necessarily in that order ). There are dozens of recipes for Fromage de Tete, some more complicated than others, I found his online. It looks time consuming but is quite easy to follow, with no technical skills required, only a little patience and the inclination to get your hands “dirty” picking meat of the pig’s head. Squeamish people maybe best stay away from this dish…
It calls for a large stock pot ( enough to hold at least half a head ), a few common ingredients used to make stock and a decent amount of French Quatre Epices ( 4 spice mix easy to make yourself with white pepper, clove, nutmeg and dried ginger )

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I started preparing this 2 days before our Halloween dinner party, allowing it to set and the flavours to develop. There was enough meat to make 2 batches, one shaped in a skull mould for the party, the other transferred in a traditional Le Creuset terrine dish. As a bonus, I ended up with enough pork stock to use for another 12 dishes…

 

The end result was quite tasty, very rich and meaty with a subtle hint of herbs and spices. Hank Shaw refers to it as a meat bomb and indeed the kids mentioned it was like eating meat in jelly, which is exactly what it is. And as good as it is on its own, it benefits from the addition of sharp mustard or some sort of pickles to cut thru the somewhat fatty and gelatinous texture.

Or try a sauce ravigote, another typical French fare, heavily seasoned with green herbs, shallots capers and a hefty dose of red wine vinegar. This is like vinaigrette on steroids, tangy and sharp, poured over a few slices it really brings this terrine to next level. I gave some samples away to family and to some French people I happen to buy deli food from at our local market, all raved about how nice it was. For some it was a new flavour combination, for others like me, it was a taste of home…

French Head Cheese or Fromage de Tete

Adapted from Hank Shaw,  Hunter. Angler. Gardener. Cook

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Makes 2 terrines, enough to feed 20 people as an appetiser

Ingredients
1 half a pig’s head, skin on, including ears and tongue. Get your butcher to cut it for you
1 pig’s trotter, whole or cut in half
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp cracked black peppercorn
5 allspice berries, cracked
8 juniper berries, cracked
1 tbsp dried thyme
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 star anise
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup white wine ( I used an inexpensive chardonnay )
salt
1 tbsp french quatre epices

  1. Put the half pig’s head in a large stockpot and cover with cold water. Add the pig’s trotter. Turn the heat to medium-high, cover and bring to a simmer. Skim any grey scum that floats to the surface then add all the herbs, spices, and vinegar. Simmer very gently for 3 hours or until the meat falls apart.
  2. Let it cool down and once cool enough to handle, take the head out of the pot and tear the meat off. If you’re not a tactile and hands-on kind of cook, this will seem gross and messy as there is plenty of meat, fat and cartilagineous matter to sink your fingers in. Discard stringy tendons, eyeball, bones and teeth ( obviously ) and anything else that looks too weird ( bearing in mind the whole thing IS weird! )
  3. Any pieces of meat like the cheeks and tongue, I chop roughly. Fat and cartilage gets cut in smaller pieces, as you don’t want to have too big chunks showing thru. Tempted as I was to use the food processor, I didn’t trust it to not turn the whole mixture into mush so I hand cut everything to keep the texture.
  4. Transfer the meat mix in a large bowl and add the quatre epices. Mix well and set aside while you deal with the broth.
  5. Ladle out about 1 litre of the broth, strain thru a cheesecloth into a pot with the white wine. Boil away until the liquid is reduced by about half.
  6. Pour the meat mixture into the pot, add salt to taste ( up to a tablespoon ). Taste regularly for the right balance of saltiness and acidity, adding more red wine vinegar if necessary, a tablespoon at a time. Simmer gently for 15 minutes to allow infusing into the collagen-rich broth.
  7. When ready, remove all the solids with a slotted spoon and pack them into 2 terrine pans ( or as in my case, 1 terrine pan and 1 silicone skull mould! ). Pour enough of the reduced broth to fill any crevices in the terrine and enough to cover the top of the meat. Cover the terrine with plastic wrap or a lid and chill in the fridge for at least 24 hours to set. It will keep in the cold for up to 10 days.
  8. Serve cold, sliced thinly with hot mustard, pickles or sauce ravigote ( recipe below ) as part of a charcuterie board or for a light lunch along with a green salad and crusty bread.

Sauce ravigote

This French sauce is quite versatile and can be served with fish, grilled meat or of course, Fromage de Tete! Mine is the cold version, based on a vinaigrette and heavily loaded with fresh herbs. Other cooks include eggs, garlic or mayonnaise and there is also a hot version incorporating meat stock.

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Makes 2 cups

Ingredients
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tbsp dijon mustard
salt and black pepper, to taste
1 cup sunflower, grapeseed or light olive oil ( extra virgin olive oil is too strong )
1/2 cup chopped chives
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup chopped dill
1/2 cup chopped tarragon
1/4 cup capers, rinsed and chopped
2 small french shallots, peeled and chopped

  1. In a blender, put the red wine vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. With the motor running, slowly drizzle the oil in until emulsified.
  2. Transfer to a bowl along with the herbs, capers and shallots. Stir everything to combine.
  3. Keep covered in the fridge until ready to use. It will keep cold for a few days ( weeks?)

Our Halloween feast!​

For someone who never used to do Halloween, we seem to be hooked and hosted our second Halloween themed lunch last Sunday. As usual, the venue was our house and the guests were the kids and grandkids with the addition this year of Terry’s niece Leanne and husband Kasten, as well as a few friends.

We gave our Halloween a German twist this year, somehow inspired by the leather apron I always wear when entertaining and often associated with lederhosen. Up for the challenge, I spent a while browsing Pinterest and various German sites for ideas, finally deciding to turn the house into a Haunted Castle of sorts with appropriate gory German food ( no offense to our German friends, we love German food, just made it gory for the occasion !)

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Many trips were made to The Party People shop with Anne ( I need a teenager to help me channel the spookiness in me ), adding to our existing collection of Halloween props and I subjected Mr T and the kids to a couple of “rehearsal dinners” experimenting with German-style recipes ( none of which made the cut on the night, judged too fancy and not suitable for party food! )

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As always, dressing up was optional but highly encouraged and it was great to see everyone get into the spirit this year.

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My outfit was supposed to be a Bavarian waitress dress but after trying it on and looking totally ridiculous I went back to my usual witch costume, this year centered around an ostrich feathered top I bought recently. Not that anyone could see any of it, as I wore the leather apron over it most of the time! Heavy eye makeup and blue contacts that no one noticed completed the look.

Anne came as a teenager dressed in black ( emo or goth, I am sure I am getting it wrong! ) which was not much different to her everyday look, though the makeup definitely was. Marc was a scientist of some kind, finding an old lab coat from homeschooling days and borrowing old glass frames from his father.

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Mr T found that his grim ripper costume was so comfortable last year, he decided to wear it again.

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Poor Sam, put up with a lion mane for a while, then shook it off. He could not do anything about the Happy Potter makeup the kids drew on his face though!

Then the guests arrived.

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Malcolm, Danielle and their kids Harry and Hannah came as a motley crue of fishermen, a cast member of American Horror Story, and a kids version of a zombie queen of hearts. I nearly gasped when I saw Hannah’s head “stabbed” by the hacksaw.
Craig was a hilarious Cat in the Hat, accompanied by Kathy the witch and young Jesse looking terrifying as a junior grim ripper.
Then Leanne and Kasten walked in, one a witch and the other very Bavarian looking with a plaided shirt, high socks, hiking boots and hat to suit. If anyone won a prize for sticking to the brief it was Kasten.

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Shelley only wore her devil ears and not much else, but arrived claiming all her dressing up effort went into the malevolent cake she baked, even naming it Maleficent! I’ll take that!
Jai was an army officer for the day and went by the fitting name of Captain Jai.
Tania came straight from the airport, returning from a work trip and only had time to get changed in black clothes.

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Black clad witch was very popular again with Sharon arriving late, all dolled up with hat, see-thru dress and gold trimmings. Her daughter Lauren looked gorgeous as a good/bad zombie, as did her brothers as a zebra and hospital patient ( even asking me for a bandaid for a real life injury!)
Last but not least, our young french friend, Manon, arrived dressed in Halloween colours of orange and black, intrigued by the menu and the amount of washing up involved. Still she was a great assistant in the kitchen, eager to help and learn about this new custom.

Ok, the scene set with all the players, on to the food!

As is the case in Aussie culture, guests ask what they can bring to the party. Coming from France, where the host usually supplies everything from food to drinks and decorations, it took me a while to get used to the fact that people want to contribute, if not show of their cooking skills. Nowadays, I tend to become a bit of a dictator, once the theme has been settled on, hinting at desirable dishes if not instructing people to check out Pinterest for ideas. For fun, Anne and I rebranded some of the dishes’ names to keep with the ghoulish theme.

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Thus came Danielle with Mummy Hotdogs.
Sharon provided a plate of cold meats from the local German butcher.

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Craig provided us with freshly baked pretzels, matched with Ozbada, a bavarian beer cheese dip nicknamed Cheese from the Heart for the occasion.

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I put together a smoked salmon snack on pumpernickel bread

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and this unusual entree of skewered black pudding, apple sauce and scallops inspired by our last trip to Mudgee.

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One of the most anticipated and fun dishes however was homemade brawn shaped in a skull mold. I called it “Pressed Head “ but could not tell anyone it was made out of a pig’s head, lest they were put off by the idea. I had to wait until the last minute, once the “terrine” was unveiled and dressed to reveal the unusual truth. The dish itself, while spooky looking, was quite tasty though it needed a tangy accompaniment like pickles or vinegary sauce to cut through the cold fatty taste of the terrine. All I had on the day was hot mustard, which was good but I made a mental note to try something sharper next. Still, I was pleased to see how well received it was!

I took care of all main dishes and served them hot, on a large table outside.

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We had Ghoulish Goulash,

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Cheesy Maggots ( spatzle ) , Sauerkraut, Braised Red Cabbage,

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Potato Salad ( the only cold option, brought over by Shelley )

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and my favorite of the night: a mix of sausages, bacon and roasted pig’s head. I called it the Slaughter Plate. Mr T had warned me that it would be a test of our guests’ sense of humour and adventurous tastebuds, and to be prepared for people to never return for dinner. I am pleased to report that most saw the funny side of it and partook in the sharing of the pig’s head, particularly the snapping of the crackling and fighting over the melt in your mouth cheeks.

Then it was time for dessert, with no less than 3 sweet offerings ( and countless lollies but these don’t count really ).

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Being Craig’s birthday a couple of days prior, Kathy brought in a slab of chocolate cake decorated with Halloween colours and a birthday message.

I had asked Shelley to make some cupcakes and assumed she was working on two dozens zombie cupcakes as per her last text.

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Then she walked in with this beautiful cherry ripe mud cake, ornately decorated with red roses, strawberries, chocolate shards and horns, nonchalantly saying it was just as easy to make one single cake. She called it Maleficent.

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The final dessert was Kasten’s signature cinnamon rolls. I first tasted them a couple of years ago when him and Leanne visited us on the boat, and he baked us a batch one morning. I still remember waking up to the smell of heaven, and the kids running out of their cabins at the speed of light! Kasten insists that these rolls are best fresh out of the oven, so they were baked at the last minute and handed out sticky and piping hot, the cream cheese frosting oozing out of the yeasty folds. Most people had already eaten one or two slices of chocolate cake, so how they managed to fit a cinnamon roll as well is a testament to how good they were. My phone was buzzing the next day with comments and requests for the recipe, which I will try to pry out of Kasten one day.

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The afternoon flew by. The kids found the lolly jars, slipped out of their costumes into the swimming pool until the cold brought them back in. People talked, ate and drank well into the evening, and it wasn’t until someone mentioned school the next day that the party slowly came to an end. As I write, the ghosts and other ghouls are still standing guard at the front door, ready to greet anyone knocking tonight. Happy Halloween!

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On our second day in Mudgee we wake up to rain and thunderstorm! I mean, serious downpour that lasts for hours and has us mesmerised, watching the surrounding vineyards being drenched and very glad the plane is under shelter.

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We ditch the original plan to have breakfast in town, preferring a lazy morning in bed, munching on leftover bread and cheese and sipping copious cups of tea. We have been provided with a local tourist brochure showing 4 tourist drives centred around Mudgee. I realise that yesterday’s drive south to Rylstone was one of them, so when the rain finally eases we decide to go north on Tourist Drive A for a bit of exploring north of Mudgee.

We pass at least half a dozen wineries within a 10 minute drive from the airport and I make a mental note to visit later in the day as neither of us feel like late morning wine tasting. The road takes us to Gulgong, described in its roaring days as “the hub of the world”.

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This was during the gold rush era of the late 1800’s, after gold was discovered in Red Hill in 1870 and the official estimate of the district population was 20,000 people. These booming days are long gone but the town has retained most of its original streetscape and buildings, and was featured on the original $10 note.

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Around 130 of Gulgong’s buildings are heritage listed nowadays, including the Prince of Wales Opera House built in 1871 and the oldest still-operating Opera House in the Southern hemisphere. Unfortunately it was close on the day of our visit, as were the couple of vintage homeware shops I had my sights on ( another reminder to schedule our next road trip for the later part of the week ! ) Still, the wander along the quaint main streets of Mayne and Herbert has its rewards. One of them is walking in a vintage shop full of colonial artefacts and a large collection of old violins, and being treated to an impromptu performance by its owner Allan Walsh.

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We have a little chat, discussing the provenance of these violins, the welcomed rain and his love of country life. It is not until much later that I found out that Mr Walsh is ( or used to be ) a singer, guitarist and fiddle player who was one of the first musicians to play on the steps of the Sydney Opera House back in 1973. He also happens to be a farmer and, like most NSW farmers, has suffered from the drought that’s been gripping central Australia for a few years now. Not that he told us at the time, but knowing how spending time in the shop is his solace in these hard times, I wish I had bought something from him.

Next stop was supposed to be a short visit to the Gulgong Pioneers museum. As soon as we entered we were handed a map of the 5000sqm venue, and were transported into the distant past thanks to dozens of exhibits describing the early Australian way of life.

Over 60,000 donated items are on display, ranging from firearms to gramophones, folks bedrooms or farm machinery. Mr T was particularly taken by the military exhibit, while I could have spent hours studying old kitchen items. We ended up whiling away a couple of hours, Mr T saying that it made him feel old as he remembers using a lot of the items growing up ( like this esky or some of these phones… )

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and myself arguing the case for being a hoarder! I can only imagine all the stories behind these objects…

Having worked an appetite, I let mr T pick lunch, knowing it had to be light as we had big dinner plans. Off all the trendy cafes around, he chose the one called the Gobble and Go cafe, I suspect because of the name and he knew I would have fun with it. We ordered a simple steak and kidney pie ( for him ) and a cheese and ham toasted sandwich ( for me, I know it is unusually simple, but I was saving myself for later ), accompanied by cappucinos. Service was friendly and fast, the pie was quite strong in flavour, coffees nice and warm, just what was needed on this rainy day.

We could not drive back home without at least one wine tasting, so on recommendation by Alexey, our host, we stopped at Bunnamagoo Estate Wines. The original Bunnamagoo homestead was built in 1827 in Rockley, south of Bathurst and was one of the first pastoral settlements west of the Dividing ranges. It was also one of the earlier vineyards in the colony as well as their other vineyard in Euranderee near Mudgee. The property has passed thru many owners over the years, the latest being the Paspaley family, otherwise known for its pioneering role in the Australian South Seas pearling industry. The cellar door is located next to the winery, in Eurunderee, and overlooks the expansive Bunnamagoo estate.

We are greeted by the resident pooch at the door, who kindly moves aside to let us in. Service is warm and friendly, the lady being generous with her advice and pouring…it is indeed a very civilised, unhurried tasting, during which one staff member walks in looking for a bottle of rose to try as he is asked by a customer to pair a wine with antipasto platter. I press for more details and he tells me that Bunnamagoo Estate is sponsoring a big dinner in Sydney for a private client and part of the brief is wine pairing. I sigh and tell him I want his job! If only I knew more about wine apart from the fact that a good wine is the one you like to drink! Finding plenty that I like here, we order a few cases of Sparkling, Rose, Riesling, Semillon and Shiraz. Some are ready to drink, others will be kept hidden for later. Mr T shakes his head in doubt, grateful that we have our own plane to carry it all and rushes me past the Paspaley pearls display before I get a chance to see something else I like ( yes, the pearls are for sale !)

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By then, it is mid afternoon and we decide to stop by the Mudgee Brewing company so that Mr T can do a beer tasting of his own.

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Lunch service is well and truly over and we pretty much have the place to ourselves. All beers are brewed onsite, and you have the option of tasting 4 signature beers for $7 or 8 beers on tap for $12. Mr T chooses the former, the servings are half the size of a normal beer, enough for him to work out that his favourite is the Anzac Pale Ale. Another round of these follow, though I can only handle a peppermint tea, as I am trying to balance the effect of the earlier wine tasting. Still, I grab the menu to check out the food offerings, to the alarm of the young waitress who runs up to me saying it is too late for food. I reply I am only looking in case we’d like to come over for breakfast tomorrow, however I think we’d need to be hungry for pancakes, big plates of bacon and eggs or corn fritters…

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After a rest back at the Hangar House, it is finally time for dinner. Tonight we are eating at Blue Wren, literally a stone throw from our accomodation. We could walk there thru the vineyard, but play it safe and drive as it is still drizzling.

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The property includes a small vineyard, animal farm, luxury accomodation in a renovated farmhouse, a wedding venue in the large Wisteria Hall, and of course a restaurant, The Chef’s Kitchen. Located in what was once the wine storage cellar, it is a novel dining concept where guests are invited to dine either at an intimate table or positioned at a place at the Chef’s table, not dissimilar to my kitchen bench at home, if I may say so.

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We are greeted by Paul, the manager, who ushers us to a table by the window, where I have a great view of the kitchen. The space is warm and cosy, designed to accomodate 26 guests, with a long communal table running thru the centre and individual tables around. We are in for a treat tonight, as there are only 8 of us dining and it is the restaurant’s new chef Nathan and his wife Aki’s third day ( indeed the anticipation has been building up all day, as everyone we met earlier exclaimed “ oh, they have a new chef !” once we mentionned going to Blue Wren for dinner ). The menu consists of 5 course degustation ( $90) showcasing local produce. For an additional $49, you can have pairing wines and I like the fact that they partner up with their friends aka other local vineyards, no doubt out of necessity ( theirs is a boutique vineyard with a limited range ) but also allowing guests to taste other Mudgee wines ( very handy for these who can only do a couple of cellar doors in a day…)

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So the feast begins with a welcome amuse bouche of creamed corn veloute in a salty popcorn rimmed shot glass with a few drops of basil oil. I am interested to see Mr T enjoy it as he normally would order a beer upon sitting down.

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The first drinks come, a Craigmoore Sparkling wine shortly followed by the first course of 2 freshly shucked pacific oysters dressed 2 ways: one with soy miring gel and the other one in mignonette. One could say that there is nothing new on the plate, but we happen to love these familiar flavours and you can’t beat the freshness of Coffin Bay oysters.

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The second course consists of scallops teamed with boudin noir, cauliflower puree and pears. The mix of flavours seems odd on paper but one bite and who would have thought scallops and black pudding go so well together? It is a visually striking dish, showing much restraint with the scallops barely steamed, just the right amount of black pudding, and the addition of pickled pear bits to tie it all together. Mr T initially thinks he needs more on his plate, but then agrees that sometime less is more. The matching Blacklea 2017 Shiraz Rose makes it even more enjoyable.

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Next comes a salad of beetroot and witlof, with goat cheese sorbet. The sorbet is actually more like snow and the beetroot is sliced super thinly carpaccio-style while the witlof is partly shredded and top of the leaves left whole. There is a nice crunch from walnuts pieces scattered, all sprinkled with chervil and a balsamic dressing. It is delicious salad, once again bringing us back into familiar flavours territory ( though I am yet to convert the goat fetta I normally use into snow !) and the accompanying glass of Peterson’s Chardonnay a nice match.

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The fourth course is meant to be the main. It is rolled chicken breast, wrapped in prosciutto, topped with fried strips of ginger, placed on a bed of enoki mushrooms and served in dashi broth. Mr T has mixed feelings about this, he finds the breast too dry and would enjoy it more if it was the thigh meat. I tend to agree with him, but the dashi broth makes up for any shortcomings in my book. Man, that broth! I love it so much I could drink it from the plate. I even offer Mr T to swap my glass of Lowe 2016 Pinot Noir, for his broth. But I am too late for it, as he’s finished it already. Funny that!

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The light asian influence continues with dessert.I adore pandan flavour, and have been known to add it to pancakes, puddings, even steamed rice. Most times, I would need to head to an asian restaurant for a pandan fix so I am like giddy with excitement when a plate of pandan pannacotta arrives served with sticky rice wafer and a dollop of coconut cream. We finally taste Blue Wren Vescato, which is an unusual way of using their Verdehlo grapes in a Moscato style wine. The result is a not overly sweet dessert wine with a slight fizz, which goes ever so well with the pannacotta.
At that point I have to say that dinner features a distinct lack of carbs, which is fine by me and I barely noticed it until Mr T commented he’d love some bread with his broth. The resulting feeling is that of satisfaction rather than stuffiness.
I declare myself in foodie heaven and say so to Paul who spends a bit of time chatting with us ( as he does with the other guests ) at the end of the meal. It turns out that he hails from the Shire, like Mr T, so they both share common memories of people and places. We compliment him and the team for a very enjoyable evening with a difference. I thought that watching the husband and wife team at work would be a noisy distraction, but I was proven wrong: they are both so organised and calm, chef Nathan somehow managing to carry out a quiet conversation with guests at his counter ( sorry, table ) while plating up. Aki, in the background, tends to the “business” side with the look of a woman on a mission, I can’t see any items out of place in that kitchen. If only I could say the same of mine.

One last thing to mention is the individual cards handed for each course, with a brief description of the dish being served. I thought it was a nice touch, with a drawing of the animal farms by Chef Nathan’s mum, not only is it convenient to write notes on but also makes for a lovely personable memento.

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Everytime we go away, I make sure there is enough food in the house for the kids to eat. Mostly I cook meals in advance for them to reheat, but I also leave them ingredients to prepare for themselves, should they have the urge. Items like eggs, milk, rice and fruits are staples in our house and generally disappear very quickly.

Such was the case when we came back from our last trip away, apart from some Bosc pears that sat there looking pretty on the kitchen bench. Apparently, I was told, the whole setting looked like a still life and nobody wanted to disturb the scene, in case I planned to take a photograph. Of course, it prompted me to grab the camera and capture the perfectly shaped fruits before deciding to eat them.

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I didn’t wanted to have them plain however, so ended up roasting them in honey and saffron and served with autumn spiced yoghurt after coming across a recipe found in a recent issue of Gourmet Traveller magazine. It was originally meant as a simple dessert to be eaten warm, but in our house it was a perfect breakfast served cold. Don’t worry about the amount of honey used in this recipe, any leftover pan juice makes a great syrup to drizzle on pancakes or plain yoghurt ( or both!)

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Honey and Saffron roasted pears with spiced yoghurt
Courtesy of Gourmet Traveller

Serves 4 as breakfast or dessert

Ingredients

200g honey
Thinly peeled rind and juice of 1 lemon
3 cinnamon quills
A pinch of saffron threads, soaked in 1 tbsp of warm water
3 beurre Bosc Pears, quartered and cored
Roughly chopped roasted walnuts
300g greek style yoghurt
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
A pinch of ground cardamon
A pinch of ground cloves

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 220C. In a large bowl, mix the honey, lemon rind and juice, cinnamon quills, and saffron water. Add the pears and toss to coat with the honey mixture. Transfer the lot to a roasting pan large enough to fit the pears. Roast, basting occasionally until the fruits are tender and a golden colour ( approx 20 minutes )
  2. In the meantime, make the spiced yoghurt by combining the yoghurt, ground cinnamon, cardamon and cloves in a small bowl.
  3. Serve the pears either warm or cold with the spiced yoghurt, sprinkled with walnuts and a drizzle of honey pan juices.

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Mr T and I were looking for a flying destination for a few days, not too far from home, preferably in the countryside as we’ve travelled along the coast a fair bit already. We drew a circle around Sydney encompassing towns no further than 300km radius and threw a dart ( actually it was a push pin but you get the idea ) and Mudgee was the closest choice.
Now, when you mention Mudgee to people, you can expect two reactions. “ What’s there? “ by the people who have not been. “ That’s a great place you’ll have a wonderful time “ by the ones who have been. A little research revealed that the region hosts an annual Wine and Food festival in September, and with long standing family wineries, fertile farmland growing local produce available at cafes and restaurants, I couldn’t resist the lure of “swirling and sipping” our way across cellar doors, long lunches and pottering around heritage towns.

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Located 268km northwest of Sydney, Mudgee is a 3.5 hours drive or a 45 minutes flight from Bankstown. The plan was to land before noon as I wanted to make most of the day having lunch and driving around the country side. So we dropped Anne off to school, picked up the plane, flew over the Blue Mountains and just like clockwork, arrived at Mudgee regional airport where our rental car awaited.

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Our accomodation chosen by Mr T is called the Hangar House and is conveniently located at the end of the airport tarmac, so it is just a matter of taxiing to the hangar and park the plane. Except that this is no ordinary hangar. While from the outside it looks like our plane would not fit, the opened roller doors reveal this pristine and massive space with special cutouts designed to accomodate the high tail and wingspan. There is nothing utilitarian about this hangar, which forms part of the house and when not occupied by planes or cars, is used to host various gatherings and parties, furnished with soft lounges, table tennis, bar stools, book laden shelves and equiped with a film projector, designer chandeliers and ( wait for this! ) its own disco ball !!! And this is only the hangar, the rest of the house will have to wait as we have a lunch reservation at 1pm in Rylstone, a village 60 km away.

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A yum cha and tea house is not what you would usually expect to find in a heritage town, but 29 Nine 99 is exactly that, housed in the heritage listed Bridge View Inn. Owned by artist Na Lan who grew up in China, this quaint eatery has become a local institution famous for serving homemade yum cha dumplings in the most unusual country setting. As we walk thru the front door we are greeted by a colourful display of stylish knick knacks which Na Lan brings back from China each year. These are available for sale but I barely have time to stop and look because Mr T is gently nudging me forward past the tiny kitchen, the outdoor patio and to our outside table next to the community garden. It is a lovely spot, overlooking the sandstone building under the shade of red Chinese umbrellas, and conveniently located far away from the shop area…

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Service is swift and friendly, the menu features a comprehensive list of dumplings and soups, but we are told that on weekdays they offer a 8, 10 or 12 dumplings menu options which include a surprise selection of the steamed and mixed dumplings of the day and a limitless pot of chinese tea. We opt for the 10 dumplings ( each ) menu, our waitress enquires about any food allergies and tea preference, then returns a few minutes later with a pot of Jasmine Downy Pearls tea for me and a beer for Mr T. While we wait for our food, I watch a few people come and go and a couple of families join us outside. The place isn’t overly busy, but we are told that’s the way they like it because weekends are crazy busy with customers coming from far and wide.
I overhear one lady commenting how lovely the drive from Sydney was but worrying about the drive home after lunch, whereas the other table sounds full of locals who are raving about how good the dumplings are here and really you should order 12 ( maybe we will ask for extra? ).

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It is not long before our first plate of 8 comes ( 4 dumplings each ): there are pork and prawn, chicken, beef and water chestnut and prawn and spinach. 4 sauces are offered for accompaniment: a sweet pickled vegetable, sweet chili, a soy and ginger, and a hot chili with crushed peanuts sauce. The latter has a nice kick to it, and I actually like to mix it with the soy sauce for extra flavour.

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The second plate comes with more steamed goodies including mushroom and crab, scallops, garlic chives and prawns, as well as beef meatballs. It is all delicious and we ask the waitress to hold off the last 2 choices as we are getting a bit full ( or maybe we ate too quick, since our last meal was breakfast at 7am !)

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In the meantime we hear the family at the next table ask for extra dumplings to have with their next bottle of wine, somehow I don’t think they will drive very far after this lunch! Our last plate comes with steamed vegetables dumplings and bbq duck in rice flour dumpling, probably my favourite.

But wait, there is more! We had forgotten that besides dumplings the menu comes with a choice of bun for dessert, Mr T asked for the custard bun and I chose the black sticky rice with coconut. While he found his a little dry and doughy, I loved the crunchy texture of mine especially after so many steamed dumplings. Not that I will ever complain about too many dumplings, I don’t believe there is such a thing.

I am the designated driver for the rest of the afternoon, which is shaping up to be very quiet. Touring Rylstone’s main street doesn’t take very long and as we show up at the local winery and the local aerodrome, we start to wonder where the 650 residents are. Neither places are open this Tuesday, indeed one’s sign shows the cellar door closes Tuesday and Wednesday, the other opens by appointment only.

So we slowly make our way back to Mudgee, the road is winding thru surprisingly green hills and pastures, where hundreds of lamb and cows seem to thrive.

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We take our chances along the way at Moothi Estate, who happens to be one of the few cellar doors open everyday.

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Locally owned and run, this family winery is famous for its location high up on the hills and its gorgeous view over the entire Mudgee valley. With only 30 minutes to spare before closing time we are too late to enjoy the famed platters they offer on their sun drenched deck but we still manage to taste some of their estate grown wines and chat with Jason, the cellar door and sales manager, who is inviting us to come back on the forthcoming long weekend, for a night of “sunset sippings” on this very deck with wine, canapes and live entertainement. I wish we could! We stock up on a few bottles of Riesling and Shiraz, a tub of safran spiced nuts ( which it turns out comes from Rylstone ) and reluctantly leave, but not before being told by Jason where to find the local cheese maker and hurry up before he closes.

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As luck will have it ( or not ), we are too late for the cheese maker ( 4pm seems to be the go home time today) and when I ask Mr T to choose between an early dinner at one of the local pubs ( the only options available this Tuesday night ) or sunset drinks and nibbles at the Hangar House, the response comes fast. Hangar House. So we stop by the local supermarket for provisions. My search for local produce proves unsuccessful, however we find plenty of good cheeses, pates and bread to make up a platter. I have better luck at the adjoining bottle shop, which stocks a good selection of local wines and pick up a bottle of Bunnamagoo Sparkling wine, as recommended to us by our host, Alexey.

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Back to the house, Alexey shows us around the property which was originally built for himself and his partner as their own. Both aviation lovers and with a flying background, they intended to turn it into a flying school, with onsite accomodation. Life however had other plans for them, the flying school never happened, the building instead turned into a luxury guest house with 6 bedrooms and suites, each self contained and overlooking the tarmac and the surrounding vineyards.

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Common areas on the ground floor include the large designer kitchen, a dining table sitting up to 12 people and 3 separate lounge areas where you can enjoy either a cosy conversation by the fireplace, an informal gathering watching the big screen TV or a quiet time in a sunlit corner.

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The whole house is exquisitely furnished with bespoke pieces no doubt collected thru many years of travels as well as aviation related memorabilia. In fact, each room is named after a type of aircraft, and the walls are adorned with plane photographs mostly taken by Alexey himself. The attention to detail is impressive and it feels like you are a guest in someone’s very luxurious house which indeed you are as our hosts, Alexey and Heath, reside on the premises.

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Though we have the house to ourselves we don’t really use the shared space, preferring to enjoy the quiet and comfort of our suite. It is named Constellation, otherwise nicknamed the Honeymoon Suite by Alexey, as it includes a king size bed, a large double spa and a small kitchenette.

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We do step downstairs to check that the plane is safely kept in a space just as grand as ours, enjoy sunset drinks over the tarmac and the hills, then finally retreat for our indoor picnic.

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As we finally tuck into bed and turn the lights off, a gorgeous moonrise casts a soft blue light thru our window. I can’t go to sleep, staring at the passing clouds shrouding the moon in a spooky yet beautiful veil. It is quite a romantic moment I think and when I mention it to a dozing Mr T, he suggests that is the effect of the Mudgee wine. That’s romance for you!!

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