I was very lucky to be invited to the Produce Discovery tour on Friday as part of Ballarat in Bloom. Ballarat put on some amazing weather for the day that included Jackson’s & Co, Inglenook Dairy, Spring Creek Organics, Catfish, Mitchell Harris Wine Bar and The George Hotel.
We commenced our day at The Roof Top Bar at Jackson’s and Co for drinks and nibbles and a meet and greet with the other guests. I began with a short black and a crunchy mini blueberry muffin (lovely texture, I wish I had more of them but I had to save room for what was to follow!) We were given a brief history of the pubs and buildings in the area by local Historian Barry Ryan and did you know this little fact: in 1890 over 60 pubs had to be voted out by the public and compensated as there were simply too many for this old town! Not Jackson’s however. The new Roof Top bar offers substantial views over Ballarat with an open air section that screams “happy times” in the warmer months.
We were divided into 3 groups – food, family and vintage, and ushered down stairs where our transport for the day was waiting. We (the food group) consisted of John Lethlean, Christopher Hayes, Peter Ford, and Suzi Fitzpatrick. At various points we were also joined by Deputy Mayor Samantha McIntosh. Ballarat Regional Tourism’s Rachael Houtsma graciously organised and hosted the tour. Our transport; 4 vintage/classic cars. A 1930’s Studebaker, 1930s Chrysler, a new Mini and a 1950s Chevy. I test passengered all except the Mini.
Inglenook Dairy kicked off the proceedings. Fresh, perfect milk and cream from the cow to your fridge with as little processing as possible in between. The cows are milked just a few km away and the milk is divided up between group-wholesale and Inglenook’s own brand (approx. 10% or 5000-7000 litres). Thanks to some distribution luck and word of mouth about the superior protein concentrations in Inglenook milk, production has revved up. It is now the go-to milk for cafes everywhere, being perfect for frothing all year round. A tour by owner Troy Petersen showed us around the processing side of things and the brand was given an impromptu endorsement from a customer who had travelled all the way from Geelong to purchase the product for herself and her husband. She spoke keenly of making butter from the pasteurized full cream milk (not homogenised).
Back into the cars, bound for Spring Creek Organics farm where we spoke with owner David Tasman about his recent shift from wholesale to exclusively Farmers market retail. A labour intensive option, with up to six Markets each weekend (with new markets springing up all the time), but ultimately a more financially rewarding and satisfying approach that allows for greater flexibility and options for the farmer and consumer. When asked what he grows, David, with a laugh, replied, “it’s easier to tell you what I don’t grow”. It seems Spring Creek Organics is constantly trying out new crops from wasabi plants to gourds, testing the market to see what is viable and keeping things interesting. At this point I am aware of the theme of “relationships” popping up. With consumers, restaurants, the public, and all involved with distribution and sales. The interrelationship appears paramount and is obviously fostered at a local level.
We now dash back into town (which is saying something in the beautiful Gastby-esque Chrysler) so as not to miss the much anticipated lunch at the amazing Catfish.
Lunch at Catfish Thai was a true culinary experience par excellence!
The first dish to touch down was an unassuming plate of rose apples, water melon and green mango with a salt, chilli and sugar dipping bowl. Delightfully tart and refreshing throughout the meal. The tables (made from found timber in the building) were then filled with plates of Thai vegetable herb salad with sweet and sour tamarind dressing, a curry of beef and fried banana peppers, duck, pork , steamed baby snapper with chilli and lime dressing and steamed jasmine rice. A cleansing broth was served also. Sparkling mineral water and local wines (Riesling, Rose and Pinot) were on offer to compliment the meal.
Damien Jones, a chef who has been all around the world, came home to Ballarat, first at the Lydiard Wine Bar and now, what me modestly refers to as, “the best we can do”, Catfish Thai. He cooked and spoke to us with great passion and everyone agreed this is a cut above. Chef Damien discussed motoring down to Melbourne at 3am to source the best ingredients from the market, including local where possible, and pressing an astonishing 30 coconuts a week to make fresh milk for his dishes, which he says, “you can never go back once you have cooked with the real thing”. Attention to detail and skilfully balanced layers of flavour is a signature of this fine fare. There is nothing more to say than get down to Catfish and experience it for yourself. It’s a must!
All aboard a 1960 school bus to Mitchell Harris Wines as our host John Harris, offers us an entertaining recount of the many roles and experiences that lead to the creation of Mitchell Harris Wines. With eight years perfecting his craft at Domaine Chandon, he now turns to the Goldfields, Macedon and the Pyrenees regions for inspiration.
In the 120 year old building, which previously housed a car workshop and a canvas tent makers store, remnants can be seen with ceiling hooks, trap doors and a homage of jumper cable clips and a canvas curtain over the arch door at the back of the bar. The tables were also made from timber found in the building.
A decadent cheese platter with a local blue, (75% fat) French brie and a Kasseri goats cheese with fig jam and fig and walnut bread was presented to us, complimenting a fine glass of Sabre – the proud signature bubbles of the house. I love this space. When the front window is opened up to the street and the afternoon sun shines in, it offers a relaxed yet sophisticated atmosphere to come together with friends, sample a glass or two matched with perfectly portioned tapas and settle in for the night.
One more stop and this brilliant day would have to come to an end. Just a short walk down the alley way and up the stairs to The George Hotel’s Herring Function Room and balcony, to be met with Ballarat Regional Tourism debrief, discussing all the wonderful evens, big and small, coming up in Ballarat such as Ballarat By The Glass, The Ballarat Beer Festival, The Ballarat Beat Rockabilly Festival. The Festival of Motoring, Ballarat Gardens in Spring, and Cycling Australia’s Road National Championships. With a Pimms cocktail in hand we were treated to Chef Liam Downes Balcony showcase of a wonderful array of local cheese, Eureka flag themed chocolate cake and gorgeous individual layered delights filled with local Tuki trout to taste.
Discussions today were about relationships between farmers, businesses and consumers at the local produce level and how Ballarat is embracing these relationships and bringing the amazing spoils to the table. The difference between going out to fill your stomach with a value-for-money meal and having a passionate chef showcase their talent and range for you on a plate, for a dining and palate tantalizing experience. About walking the fine line between being restricted by what the customer wants and alternatively trusting the customer to be adventurous and giving them the opportunity to discover new flavours, textures and food experiences. The latter was surely true of today. Taste is capable of such subtly and yet we habitually ram food into our face, full of obtuse flavours like processed salt, sugar and fat, to fill an endless void. Every now and then, we discover food that has the amazing quality of slowing us down. We savour every bite; we don’t want it to end. There is attention to layers of flavour, texture, aroma. It’s visually pleasing and able to conjure up images, sounds and experiences. It attaches itself to our memory so that when we are reminded, we can recreate those sensations and live it again in our mind. This is the dining experience. What a joy to be reminded of and experience those pleasures at the Ballarat in Bloom Produce Discovery.