A couple of weeks ago in East Gippsland…

February 27, 2014

This old codger called Richard Cornish organised a trip for a few of us Hospitality types, to visit East Gippsland and see what they are producing in the region. East Gippsland want to differentiate themselves, and their Snowy River produce, from cousin and neighbour South Gippsland- so to prevent confusion, I’ll just tell you that the area we were visiting runs from Omeo down to Bairnsdale, across to Orbost and as far along the coast as Mallacoota, bordered by the ocean to the south, and NSW to the north. And a lovely part of the world it is too!

A quick flight down in what can only be described as a “luxury sardine tin” saw us on the road early and off to see 4 cracking producers from the area. First up was Grass Vale Farm, where owner and farmer Peter Treasure explained to us about his delicious Wuk Wuk beef. The Treasure family have run this farm organically for 113 years, primarily as a dairy farm, but more recently as a Murray Grey beef farm. He raises, butchers and dry ages on site for a minimum of 21 days in their own cool room to ensure tenderness and amazing flavour using Himalayan rock salt, which helps to stop bacteria’s and adds flavour. (And, in case you were wondering the name ‘Wuk Wuk’ is the original name of the parish in which the farm is situated, near the Mitchell River).

Just down the road we next visited Kim Martin at Frais Farm. They have 1,500 hectares of produce growing- lets just say it’s a large farm growing lettuces. Varieties such as corn salad (or Mache in French) and also this crazy new crop “Cosberg” (which if ya can’t guess is a cross between cos and iceberg, but where all the leaves are the same size, which is getting marketed to us as the new leaf for san choi bau) salad leaves, beans, corn and this amazing belvedere broccoli. It is a shooting broccoli, which looks a little like broccolini but is a natural variant, unlike broccolini, which was produced by cross pollinating regular broccoli with Chinese broccoli (Gai Lan).  The flavour of the stalk had a tiny hint of mustard and the flower (head) tasted of an intense mineral broccoli flavour- it was superb! Kim was nice enough to give me some seedlings to grow at home. What a top bloke!

We then headed for lunch to Andrew French’s place, where he explained the processes he is using to harness the salinity on his property, rather than struggling to work against it.

He grows some delicious award-winning native produce, including sea lettuce, beach banana, sea parsley and samphire (aka sea asparagus). These succulents are crispy and juicy, and retain a lovely crunch if you sauté them lightly, or blanch for 30-60 seconds. They have a distinct salty flavour, and are great pickled!

He also runs Hereford cattle along the salt-flats, where they eat much of the naturally high sodium foliage, which in turns flavours the beef and makes for really interesting flavoured meat.

Andrew kindly had us to lunch- just a small affair, only about 20 courses- and some amazing wines from Lightfoot & Sons and Nicholson River Wine. While we were enjoying our abalone cooked many different ways, John Susman from the Sydney Fish Markets was chatting to us about sustainable practices, and some of the ways we can stop over fishing of certain species.

He reasons, and he has me convinced, that part of the answer is to explore different and lesser- known fish species that may seem a little strange to us at first, but are just as tasty as the varieties we are used to eating.

Some times it is just a matter of marketing.

For example, most people would probably buy ‘flake’ at the fish and chip shop, but not be so keen in ‘gummy shark’, when in reality they are exactly the same fish, just sold under different names. This can also make it tricky to buy sustainable seafood, when for example, you might know that you shouldn’t  buy Orange Roughy, as they are listed as a vulnerable species, but what you might not know is that they are also sold under the name sea-perch. Tricky.

Another example is the Boarfish, called Duckfish in Victoria. Now, I know the name doesn’t make it sound all that appetising, and honestly these guys aren’t gonna win a beauty contest any time soon- but for only $9 a kilo, they taste like John Dory, and are as good as King fish for sashimi!

We tried some local prawns from Victorian waters, including some school prawns that are DEFINITELY going on the Pope Joan menu, and another fish species I am so excited to get working is the Yellow-Eyed Mullet. Mullet is amazing when smoked, and I can’t wait to organise a meet-up with John, and my favourite Brummy smokers, David & David from Melbourne Pantry, to experiment and see what we can come up with.

We stayed the night, and after a relax we were out on the water between 9pm and 12am for a bit of prawning. It was definitely fun, but I won’t be giving up my day job to become a prawn fisherman any time soon! Bit too much for me, out on the open ocean.

We returned to Melbourne the following morning, thoroughly impressed and excited by all the people we met, and the innovative produce and methods that they are employing to generate it.