Food: Recipes from heaven

Simon Hopkinson rediscovers the bliss of Australian cooking in a Palm Beach paradise
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
This last January was my sixth visit to Sydney, Australia. I first set foot here on 2 January 1983, when I was in private service to a mildly eccentric millionaire, financial wizard, gourmet, collector of fine wines and someone generously willing to transport his chauffeur, housekeeper and young chef along with him to the sunny and sandy peninsula called Palm Beach, some 25 miles north of the city - and for seven whole weeks!

I remember being completely overwhelmed, as I arose very early in the morning from my garden bedroom at 40 Florida Road, padded barefoot through the leafy, semi-tropical shrubs and down the grassy path to a deserted, golden sandy beach. "This is close to heaven," I sniggered to myself, as I launched into the gentle, early-morning surf. I felt like a king on my own private beach.

Rose, the housekeeper, always made breakfast, so there was no particular hurry to get back. So I would drive into nearby sleepy Avalon and collect groceries and other bits and pieces for lunch and dinner. There weren't huge numbers of people to feed, nor was anything terribly formal: lunch was usually in the garden and shorts were worn all day long. And besides, cooking was, and is, my pleasure, so I was a blissful bunny to be sure.

Fifteen years on and I am back at Palm Beach, sharing our own rented house with my old Aussie chef chum, Paul Merrony, his wife, Caroline, and their five-year-old daughter, Imogen. My friend Fee (who adds up and administrates all sorts of important things in the Bibendum office) accompanied me - it was her first visit to Oz. She likes doing all the things I do, too: eating, drinking, smoking, staying up too late, and grinning at lifeguards on the beach...

Although Paul and I have never cooked together professionally, we have always talked the same language when it comes to food. When Paul is asked where he cooked when he was working in Paris, he invariably quips "Oh, at The Tower of Loose Change". Or the classic French dish cotelettes d'agneau vert pre, will forever remain "lamb chops green fields style". Moreover, neither of us is really that keen on a Pacific Rim, Pan Asian or East- meets-West style of kitchen work.

We also don't much like chives that are displayed as four-inch lengths, and stuck into plates of food as long blades of grass; we just happen to know that chives are meant to be finely chopped. We similarly agree that anyone with a modicum of good taste knows that a simple, good vinaigrette is made from wine vinegar, seasoning, a little mustard and choice oils - balsamico, leaf coriander, wasabi and hazelnut oil are reserved for the terminally bewildered gastronome.

One of the first of Paul's dishes that I fondly remember eating was a cooked tomato salad with spring onions. This was when he was a partner and chef at the Paddington Inn on Oxford Street (Oxford Street, Sydney, that is, not some hinterland behind Harley Street and Marylebone). He had done all his European stuff (London and four years in Paris) by then, and was now home, and cooking up a storm.

He prepared this same tomato salad once more for us at the house in Palm Beach and it was every bit as good as it had been some 10 years earlier. I grilled some chops on the barbie and we finished our lunch by the water with a scrumptious lemon tart. This had been transported down from his restaurant in the city the night before, where he is now completely his own man at his eponymous restaurant Merrony's, by Circular Quay, from where the ferries chug to Manly and the trains chuff past his windows.

Paul Merrony's cooked tomato salad with spring onions, serves 4

I can't help thinking that the oil from cooking the tomatoes here should be used to make the dressing. In the original, Paul makes a separate vinaigrette using fresh oil - I hope he will forgive me this little modification.

10 smallish ripe tomatoes, core removed, blanched and peeled

150ml good olive oil

salt and pepper

1 small bunch of thyme

2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced

a little sugar

10 bulbous spring onions

20g butter

1 tbsp finely shredded flat leaf parsley

For the dressing:

1 tsp Dijon mustard

salt and pepper

50ml red wine vinegar

the oil from cooking the tomatoes

Pre-heat the oven to 275F/140C/ gas mark 1.

Cut the tomatoes in half, gently squeeze out most of the seeds and place in a shallow dish, cut half uppermost. Season with salt, pepper and a little sugar and spoon over the olive oil. Sprinkle with the garlic and distribute the thyme sprigs over the surface. Put in the oven and cook for about 30 minutes, or until the tomatoes have most definitely softened somewhat to the prod of a finger. Note: the tomatoes should gently stew, not sizzle.

Remove the tomatoes from the oven and allow to cool a little, before removing with a slotted spoon to a serving dish, now arranging them cut side down. Discard the garlic and thyme. Strain the cooking oil through a fine sieve into a jug and allow to cool and settle.

While the tomatoes are cooling, peel and trim the spring onions to leave about l cm of green stalk above the bulb. Place in a saucepan with the butter, a little seasoning and water just to cover. Simmer for several minutes until tender when pierced with a sharp knife. Lift out with a slotted spoon and cool on a plate. Carefully cut in half lengthways and gild the cut sides in a lightly oiled frying pan. Put back on to the plate and deftly arrange each halved onion (browned side uppermost) on top of each halved tomato.

To make the dressing, whisk together the vinegar, seasoning and mustard. Gradually incorporate the saved oil until the consistency and flavour suits you; you may also like to add some of the tomato's cooking juices too. Spoon as much or as little of the dressing as you wish over the tomatoes and onions, scatter over the parsley, and finish with a little freshly ground pepper. Eat with good bread.

There are two eminently agreeable little restaurants in Palm Beach: Beach Road and Ancora Cafe. They are both BYO (bring your own - drink, that is), which is a common thing over here and very good news; particularly when the local bottle shops - of which there are many - stock a considerable selection of excellent Aussie wines. Finally, of the two, I think we really liked Ancora Cafe most, although both of them were most agreeable and suitably chic in a beachy sort of way. Beach Road do a fabulous goat's cheese tortellini - and I'm not even that fond of goat's cheese.

We ate at the cafe on three separate occasions: for two lunches and our final dinner up at the Beach. Among the many dishes we tried, favourites were a particularly delicious gazpacho, a spiced soup of coconut milk and mussels, and a piled-up plate of deliciously crisp fish and chips. But it was a steamed banana pudding with banana ice-cream that really won the place over for me - I ate it three times and would have happily ordered takeaways to the house, it was so, so good. It is surely based upon the original Sharrow Bay sticky toffee pudding (what a well-travelled recipe that is!). The very hard-working and kindly owners, Greg and Linda Irvin, generously furnished me with the recipe, so here it is.

Ancora Cafe's steamed banana pudding with banana ice cream and butterscotch sauce, serves 6-8

For the banana ice cream:

350g chopped banana flesh

juice of 1 small lemon, or two limes

l00g icing sugar

2-3 tbsp dark rum, to taste

300ml double cream

For the butterscotch sauce:

200g demerara sugar

l00g unsalted butter

150ml double cream

For the pudding:

100ml boiling water

90g chopped dates

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

250g softened butter

150g caster sugar

l00g muscovado sugar

250g self-raising flour

4 small eggs

2 small bananas peeled and mashed with a fork

3 tbsp warmed golden syrup

3-4 extra bananas, peeled and thinly sliced on the diagonal

To make the ice-cream, puree the bananas together with the lemon (or lime) juice, sugar and rum, using a liquidiser or food processor. Loosely whip the cream and fold in. Pour into a metal tray and freeze. Note: the alcohol content of the rum helps to keep the ice-cream soft and smooth.

To make the butterscotch sauce, simply simmer the ingredients together for a few minutes, then whisk until syrupy and very smooth. Keep warm.

Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/ gas mark 4.

To make the pudding, first pour the boiling water over the dates, and add the bicarb and vanilla. Leave to stand.

Cream together the butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Sift the flour into a bowl and add it to the creamed butter and sugar alternately with the eggs, added one at a time. Now add the soaked date mixture and the mashed bananas, and beat in thoroughly.

Line the base of a baking tin (30cm x 25cm x 5cm deep) with a sheet of silicone paper, cut exactly to fit. Cover with the warmed syrup and leave to set. Then arrange the sliced bananas on it, slightly overlapping, to conceal the syrup underneath. Now carefully spoon over the pudding mixture so as not to dislodge the bananas, and bake in the oven for about one hour, or until the surface is springy to the touch. Leave to cool for a few minutes. Run a knife very gently around the edge of the sponge and turn out on to a flat tray. Gingerly remove the silicone paper. Cut into squares and serve in heated bowls, with the hot and bubbling butterscotch sauce poured over, and scoops of ice-cream alongside.

Fee and I went up to stay in the city for a couple of nights during our two weeks at the Beach, and we would also spend a final four there, at the Regent Hotel right on Circular Quay before to flying home to pommyland. The bedrooms at the Regent command the most breathtaking views of Sydney's sparkling harbour, taking in Harbour Bridge and Opera House in the swish of a curtain (the corner suites are thoughtfully provided with telescopes for those wishing for more detailed sightings of seabird, sail and shark- fin). Now entering its 15th year, the Regent continues to attract the great and the good and has a vast three-story lobby buzzing with commerce, entertaining and simply hanging out.

Kable's, the posh restaurant at the Regent on the second-floor mezzanine, is where some of the finest dining takes place in the city. It was here that I met Serge Dansereau, a French-Canadian chef, who has presided over the labyrinthine kitchens of the hotel since its opening. He possesses that wonderful confidence of a truly professional chef who looks after a huge brigade, yet seemed so relaxed over lunch, happier talking about wine than food, which suited me just fine.

It was also a pleasure to note just how much he really liked one of his most personal and endearing dishes. And to confirm this, he ordered his Baked Tasmanian Gruyere Cheese Timbale for himself for lunch. I only wished I had, too, that is not to say that my prawn and scallop broth with lime and chilli was inferior, because it was very good indeed. It was just that the timbale was one of the very finest things I have tasted for some time. He was very happy to give me the recipe to bring home, so do try it.

Serge Dansereau's Gruyere Cheese Timbales, serves 8

Serge served a spinach salad, baked tomatoes and asparagus with the timbale when we had lunch. This would make it a more substantial dish, for a light lunch perhaps. However, as an elegant first course, serve it with the simply made cream and chive sauce that follows this recipe.

You will need eight straight-sided dariole moulds (non-stick), each with a capacity of 150ml, and chilled.

25g melted butter

150g grated Gruyere cheese

3 large egg yolks

4 large whole eggs

300ml double cream

75ml milk

salt and white pepper

2 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan

For the cream and chive sauce:

300ml whipping cream

l00g butter

1 heaped tbsp finely cropped chives

Pre-heat the oven to 325F/170C/gas mark 3. Brush the inside of the chilled moulds with the melted butter and put back into the fridge.

Over a very gentle heat, melt the Gruyere with the milk and cream, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until smooth. Add seasoning to taste and then strain through a very fine sieve into a bowl. Chill well in the fridge. Once cold, beat in the egg yolks and whole eggs and pass once more through a fine sieve. Fill the buttered moulds with this mixture and place in a deep baking tray. Fill with lukewarm water to two-thirds of the way up the outside of the moulds. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 45-50 minutes, or until firm to the touch.

Meanwhile, make the chive sauce. Gently simmer the cream and butter together for 3-4 minutes until they start to thicken. Then whisk vigorously together until homogenised (you may like to use one of those hand-held liquidiser gizmos, for the best effect). Keep warm. Remove the timbales from the oven and leave to rest for five minutes. Pre-heat a radiant grill.

Now carefully run a small knife around the edge of the moulds and then gently invert into a lightly buttered oven-proof serving dish, making sure that it will generously accommodate all of them. Carefully sprinkle the surfaces of the timbales with the Parmesan, allowing a little to trail down the sides. Flash under the grill for a couple of minutes to gild them.

To serve, stir the chives into the sauce and pour around the timbales, Note: you will need a palette knife and spoon to transfer these delicate things from serving dish to warmed plates.

Apart from Paul's tasty tomatoes, Ancora's beautiful banana pud and Serge's trembling timbale, here is a list of further favourite places to eat. A sort of "cut out and keep" for when you are next there - and in no particular order of merit.

I always make for Bayswater Brasserie on the edge of sleazy Kings Cross for excellent oysters and good continental cooking without fuss, the garden room is a joy in good weather. Bistro Moncur, up in the more genteel and refined leafy manor of Woollahra, was the first of Damien Pignolet's now growing group of restaurants, and is the place to go for a delicious bowl of tripes Lyonnaises and some smashing sausages and mash. Yanni Kyritsis, co-proprietor and chef, looks after the cooking at MG Garage in Surry Hills, which is part car showroom and part chic restaurant - I kid you not. He puts together a racy salad of snails, pig's trotter and pig's ear with bravura and balls (not included in the salad). And last, but not least, is Sean's Panaroma, a surf board's scrape across the road from Bondi Beach. It is a little gem. Just go and see for yourself. G'day for now

Merrony's, 2 Albert Street, Circular Quay, Sydney (9247 9323); Beach Road, 1 Beach Road, Palm Beach (9974 1159); Ancora Cafe, 1112 Barrenjoey Road, Palm Beach (9974 5969); Regent Hotel, 199 George Street, Sydney (9238 0000); Kable's, Regent Hotel, 199 George Street, Sydney (9255 0226); Bayswater Brasserie, 32 Bayswater Road, Kings Cross, Sydney (9357 2177); Bistro Moncur, Woollahra Hotel, 116 Queen Street, Woollahra, Sydney (9363 2782); MG Garage, 490 Crown Street, Surry Hills, Sydney (9383 9383); Sean's Panaroma, 270 Campbell Parade, Bondi Beach, Sydney (9365 4924). All telephone numbers listed are local; to dial from the UK use the prefix 00612.