Once I was French.
Actually I still am, but having spent more than half my life either in Australia or floating on the seven seas, I feel that I have absorbed so many traits from other cultures that my Frenchness is rather a technicality these days. Yes, I speak fluent French, I have a french passport, I can vote, travel freely to and from France, cook french dinners with my eyes closed, and I never miss the opportunity to attend the Sydney French Film festival every year.
But, transport me back to Paris, with Australian husband and kids in tow, and suddenly what I remember fondly as a young Parisian I now see thru tourists eyes, and foreigner’s at that!
It is 6 years since we were last in Paris, for a short visit over Christmas when we were still cruising. This time, we plan to stay for 3 weeks and attend my father’s 80th birthday, with a large family gathering planned. Because we’re here just in time for spring and Easter, I expect the weather to be mild enough so that we can wander around town, enjoy some sightseeing and even explore some of Europe. I may have organised rail travels and accomodation for a week’s excursion in Holland and Germany, but we’re pretty much winging it while in Paris, allowing for late breakfasts, long lunches spent sitting at the family table or impromptu rendez-vous with friends.
As the year comes to an end I find myself slightly panicky realising all the things I set out to do a few months ago, thinking there was plenty of time and now facing half-started jobs with little chance of completion until sometime in January or even later.
That goes from the repainting of our guest bathroom to the cleaning of my photo files, or the sorting of the thousands of notes taken during our travels waiting to be turned into stories and posts. Many of them are still in dot format due to me being busy with other ( more pressing ? ) projects. I have been procrastinating for a while, writing posts in my head and believing it would only be a matter of remembering and putting pen to paper at a more convenient time.
Except that by the time I manage to sit down long enough to write, weeks or months have elapsed, papers are piling up and I can’t decide which story to tell.
Take restaurant reviews for examples. Not that I see myself as a reviewer as such, but if I find a memorable eating place, I like to share the experience. And this year has been full of them, we have been fortunate enough to drive and fly around the East Coast of Australia, finding some gems along the way. Though I haven’t gotten around to post about them this year, there are at least a dozen deserving of a mention, ranging from Special occasions treats, to Casual finds and Local haunts. So in a last ditch effort to write my final post for 2018, I decided to give you my 3 stand outs in the Special Occasions/Bucket List category. Some are pricey others not so much, some are in a stunning location others not quite, but all offer fantastic food, showcasing the best of Australian produce ( and that is coming from a French girl !! )
Today we are off exploring the wild west of Tasmania.
Buoyed by the wonderful time we had hiking around Dove Lake, I have planned a morning hike to Montezuma Falls, then a drive to Strahan hoping to catch a boat for a cruise on the Gordon river after lunch, followed by another scenic drive thru the southern part of the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park to spend the night at the Derwent Bridge Wilderness Hotel. Google Map shows it should take over 3 hours to drive the 210km and I am allowing a couple of hours each for the hike and the river cruise. I think it’s a workable itinerary, Mr T has his doubts but goes along anyway muttering something about winding roads and rainy weather.
We skip breakfast, not by choice, but as a result of the kitchen opening at 7.30am, too late for us keen to hit the road early and beat the tour buses. It takes 1 hour to reach the small car park at the entrance to the Montezuma Falls hiking trail, then it is an easy walk on a track that was originally used for trams, back in the late 1800s when the area was cleared for gold and silver mining.
The path is pretty flat and well maintained, and because the falls are a little out of the way and not as famous as Dove Lake, there are hardly any selfie stick-wielding tourists. The few who make it here tend to make it a day excursion from Strahan and arrive late morning, so I guess it pays to come in early so you can have the place to yourself. The hike thru the rainforest is lovely and tranquil, ending up at the base of the highest waterfall in Tasmania ( 104 meters ).
You can either climb over a few boulders for a closer look at the bottom of the falls or cross a suspension bridge for a better view of the scenery. Either way, it is spectacular and we spend a while there, until a couple of tourists arrived, our cue to return the same way we came.
Overall, it took 2/1/2 hours to hike the 10.7 kilometres, I thought the day was off to a great start but Anne was unimpressed: she was hungry, there were too many bugs for her liking, the walk was too long… I had to promise a nice lunch at our next stop in Strahan.
Except that I remember reading about the Henty sand dunes on the way there, so I ask Mr T to make a side stop. The picnic area is deserted but for another couple of tourists who have come equipped with large cardboards to slide down the dunes. We are so ill prepared compared to them, one look up the hill and both Anne and Mr T ask what is the plan once at the top. I shrug my shoulders, point to my camera and march on up in a who’s-with-me kind of way. The hill is not very high, though high enough for a good workout ( mountain climbers anyone? ) and considering how unfit we all are, I am pleased we all make it to the top ( though in hindsight, it might not have been such a smart move for Mr T who is still recovering from a pulmonary embolism! ). The view at the top is unexpected: it is a vast expanse of sand for a couple of miles, with the ocean far away in the distance.
I cannot convince the crew to venture further out, by then the weather has turned quite windy and rain starts to threaten, so we retreat back to the car and look forward to a nice warm lunch on the river cruise.
Well, that was the plan, until we realise that the boats leave either early morning or mid-afternoon, neither options suitable to us today. Plan B is to try anyone of Strahan’s cafes near the waterfront, but that idea is shelved after several attempts to find somewhere to park the car that doesn’t involve walking in the rain.
Besides, time is running fast and Mr T begins to worry about reaching Derwent Bridge in the dark, so we do the Steen thing and pick up some provisions at the local service station for a picnic lunch and drive off. We did find a decent carpark on the way out of town, but too late, we have bread rolls, cold sausages, and apples, set for a car snack!
The drive to Derwent Bridge along the Lyell Highway takes hours. Google maps stated it would take just 2 hours to complete the 126 km journey, but of course, it was counting without the couple of stops we make along the way.
One is just outside the old mining town of Queenstown. We didn’t venture in the town itself, which was established in the late 19th century after gold was discovered in the surrounding mountains. It became, and still is the centre of Mount Lyell mining district, had numerous smelting works, brick-works, and sawmills. Owing to a combination of tree removal for use in the smelters and the smelter fumes (for about 40 years), and the heavy annual rainfall, the erosion of the shallow topsoil back to the harder rock profile has contributed to the stark state of the mountains for many decades and many describe the landscape as moonlike.
Indeed the area looks devastated and bare of vegetation, showing odd pastel shades emanating from the rocks. We briefly stopped at the Iron Blow lookout where iron ore was found and mined for many many years in the now bare hills behind Queenstown. There is a cantilevered walkway that affords a view down into the former open cut mine as well as spectacular views across the almost ghost towns of Gormanston and Linda and on to the mountains of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area that surround Lake Burbury. As I stood at the edge of the walkway, windswept and cold, I reflected on the contrast between the ruined vegetation washed down by acid rain over the years and the millennial forest preserved within the realm of the National Parks.
Continuing on, the Lyell Highway is a narrow and winding drive via Tasmania’s newest hydro dam and trout fishery, Lake Burbury, then across 60 km of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area through the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park on the way to Lake St Clair. We pass many lookouts, starting points to hiking trails into the wilderness but we don’t stop due to time constraints and also because the rain is now relentless making getting out of the car for photos an exercise in frustration.
It is late afternoon by the time we arrive at our final destination, the Derwent Bridge Wilderness Hotel. Located on the roadside, this lodge style hotel is a popular stopover for those travelling to and from the West Coast as it sits half way between Hobart and Strahan. It offers a mix of backpackers accomodation ( with dormitory rooms ) and hotel rooms, all sharing bathroom facilities except for one Family Ensuite which I am glad we booked in advance. While the room is spacious enough for a queen size bed, 2 bunk beds and a table setting, it comes with no fridge, the ensuite is on the small size and there is a definite lack of natural light with the front door doubling up as the only window.
Mr T is feeling early signs of claustrophobia so I quickly usher him and Anne out of the room and into the bar and dining area. There, comfy lounges and a roaring fire greet us, though sitting is at a premium as most spots are already taken. You see, Lake St Clair is the starting point (or destination) for those who want to walk the Overland Track between Lake St Clair and Cradle Mountain. The Overland track has a world-famous reputation and many trekkers from around the world stay at the hotel before starting or completing the track. So the place is filling up fast with hikers as well as people in motorhomes or caravans staying on the vast parking lot outside ( where camping is free ) and coming in to enjoy a drink and a hearty meal.
For the hotel has earned a reputation for its kitchen, led by Sri Lankan chef Ima de Silva, who not only offers standard pub fare like porterhouse steak, lamb shank, and roast chicken but also local delicacies such as river trout and Ima’s own Sri Lankan curry which seems to attract curry lovers from everywhere. Of course, it is Mr T’s choice, jumping at the opportunity to enjoy something warm and spicy on this cold night, while I order the river trout. For some reason, Anne eschews the mains selection and goes for the chicken and vegetable soup. It turns out to be quite a large serve, made even more filling with the addition of garlic bread!
The lamb curry comes in its own bowl and accompanied with rice byriani, a fried soft egg, and crunchy pappadum along with daintily plated condiments. Mr T is wowed first by the presentation then by the taste, declaring it the best curry he’s had in a long time. He “generously” shares a spoonful after I ask for a taste, and I agree it’s pretty darned tasty. I leave him to lick his bowls clean and tuck into my river trout which seems a little bland in comparison to the richly spiced curry. Not that I don’t like it, I do, the fish is flaky to perfection, smothered with garlic herb butter and sitting on a tangy rhubarb sauce. Served with plain vegetables and a square of potato gratin, it is simple but deeply satisfying. I imagine the other guests feel the same though a quick look around the dining room reveals the curry eclipsing most requests.
We reluctantly leave the warmth of the main lodge and retire to our room, where thankfully sleep comes easy.
The alarm rings at 5am the next morning, a result of me convincing Mr T to get up early for sunrise shots over Lake St Clair, 5 km away.
Situated at the southern end of Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park, the lake fills a valley that was carved out by ice during several glaciations over the last two million years. It is the deepest freshwater lake in Australia (160 m ) and the source of the Derwent River. According to our guide book, spectacular mountain peaks covered in snow for much of the year surround the lake. Sadly for us, a combination of bad weather and dim early morning light means that the lake and its foreshore blends with the surrounding hills and the misty clouds in various shades of grey. We’ve driven to the visitor centre so early that it is not opened yet so we are missing out on the displays and activities inside. On the positive side, we are ahead of the tourist crowds which allows us to walk around in total peace and quiet. The hike of the day is a short stroll to the dock, where a ferry service operates daily to cross the lake, something I would love to do but Mr T points out that we should have allowed 2 full days to enjoy any kind of hikes in the area. As it is, he has his eyes on the clock and reminds me that we have a 250 km drive to Port Arthur ahead of us. In theory, it should take no more than 3 1/2 hours but we have a couple of places to visit along the way so we expect a full day on the road.
I wait a few more minutes hoping for the sun to break thru the clouds, exploring the shore trying to get a close-up view of Pumphouse Point, the definite upmarket accommodation option but entrance to the estate is via a heavy gate, which is closed overnight. Eventually admitting defeat we drive back to the hotel just in time for breakfast and a cute encounter with the local wildlife in the form of a wallaby or two.
** We visited Tasmania in January 2018 and a few changes have happened since I started to write this post. The most notable one is that chef Ima no longer works at the Derwent Bridge Wilderness Hotel and has relocated to the Cape Wickham Golf Course King Island. The Hotel still serves curries, prepared by staff reportedly trained by chef Ima!
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!
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 )
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
Makes 2 terrines, enough to feed 20 people as an appetiser
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 )
1 tbsp french quatre epices
- 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.
- 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! )
- 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.
- Transfer the meat mix in a large bowl and add the quatre epices. Mix well and set aside while you deal with the broth.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Makes 2 cups
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
- In a blender, put the red wine vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. With the motor running, slowly drizzle the oil in until emulsified.
- Transfer to a bowl along with the herbs, capers and shallots. Stir everything to combine.
- Keep covered in the fridge until ready to use. It will keep cold for a few days ( weeks?)