Burt Wolf's Table: Down Under, Australia - #219

BURT WOLF:  Australia ... it's called the land “down under” because it sits in the southern half of the globe.  But when it comes to eating and drinking, it's totally on top.  Local chefs are producing some great food, the country has some of the world's leading wineries, and it looks like everybody is rediscovering their 30,000-year-old past and what it can teach us about good food.  So join me down under in Australia, at Burt Wolf's Table.

As you head north from the bottom of the world, one of the first continents that you come to is Australia, which is why it's often referred to as "down under."  Well, it may be down under geographically, but when it comes to food, it's right on top.  Because Australia is so far away from every place else on the planet, it had to become self-sufficient in terms of food production.  And because Australia is so far away from every place else on the planet, the food that it produces comes from a relatively unpolluted environment.

They have fish farms in Tasmania, which is a devil of a place to get to.  It's actually an island between the continent of Australia and Antarctica.  The deep, cold waters around it produce some of the finest fish in the world.  But Australians also come up with great prawns, which North Americans call shrimp.  There is wonderful salmon, lobster, orange roughy, and just about every other type of seafood you could possibly want -- over 3,000 different varieties.  They produce excellent lamb, which is delivered fresh to North America within four days of processing.  They developed the Granny Smith apple.  They even have an olive-oil industry.  And during the 1980s, their wine producers won many of the world's most important competitions, and began to develop a major overseas market for their vintages.

Because Australia has a land mass about as large as the United States, with as varied a climate, you'll find production areas that range from subtropical banana plantations to wheat and rye producers in regions that are similar to Canada.

But food in Australia wasn't always what it is today.  The first 150 years were pretty tough going for the settlers.  They often gave the recipe for galah soup as typical of the Australian kitchen.  Galah is a local bird, and the recipe goes like this:  take a galah and a stone and put them in a large pot; cover them with water; bring the water to a boil, and continue boiling until the stone is tender; then throw out the galah and eat the stone.

Because the English colonization of Australia began only a little over 200 years ago, and the history of photography is 150 years old, much of the story of Australia has been documented in photographs.  The best place to see the photographic chronicle is the picture collection at the State Library of New South Wales, right in the heart of Sydney.  Alan Davies is the curator of photographs, and he's put together a selection that does a great job of showing us what life was like in the early days of colonial eating and drinking.

ALAN DAVIES:  And this is my favorite photograph of a late 1890s family having dinner together.  You can see the head of the family here, typical Victorian male, carving the roast.  The handmade bread.

WOLF:  Judging from the shape of the base of the bread, it looks like it was cooked in a frying pan.

DAVIES:  Could have been.  It's an extraordinary photograph, full of wonderful detail.  I find it rather amusing, of course, because after this photograph was taken, with a great magnesium flash, the whole family would have been covered with white magnesium powder, so they would have been choking and coughing after this photograph was made.  But it's an extraordinary image.

This photograph shows us what it was like in the kitchen.  Here we have Mrs. Donohue, a family cook, and here you can see her kitchen has a bare floor.

WOLF:  The walls are actually made out of some kind of cloth, so the air can go in and out.

DAVIES:  That's right, it's Haitian, a very loose-weave cloth.  See how she's gone to great trouble to sort of cut out a newspaper valence for the shelves here.  There's just so many English things in this photograph.

Here we have a great photograph of the Dick brothers in Kempsey.  They had found a glut of lobsters, wonderful-size lobsters, in Port McQuarrie.  They took them up to inland, 50 kilometers into Kempsey, to sell these and make a profit.  Of course, no one knew what they were.  (WOLF LAUGHS)  So they had to sort of trudge home empty-handed; they had to bury the lobsters on the way back, cause they'd gone off in the summer sun.  Extraordinary, isn't it?  Wouldn't we just love to have those lobsters today?

WOLF:  It was only a wooden shed and a single biplane that carried farmers and grazers around the Australian outback.  They called it the Queensland And Northern Territory Aerial Services.  And if you take the first letter of each of those words, you will end up with the name Qantas.  Today it's the national airline of Australia, and the oldest airline in the English-speaking world.

Now, when most international airlines got started, the distance between nations was not a significant factor in their operations; the plane crossed a border, and suddenly you were an international flight.  France to Germany, Italy to Switzerland, USA to Canada ... no big deal.  But that is not the case for Australia.  From the very beginning of their airline industry, Australians needed to be able to fly for hundreds of miles over the Pacific Ocean before they constituted an international flight.  As a result, Qantas pilots are the ultimate long-distance pilots in the business.

(AIRPLANE RADIO VOICES)  [Editor’s note:  I can’t make a lot of this out, but it isn’t important -- if you’re dubbing, you can make something up.]

PILOT:  Qantas 2, we’re established on final runway one-six.

CONTROLLER:  Right, Qantas, descend to one thousand.

PILOT:  Okay, getting ready for the approach.

CONTROLLER:  That's Qantas four-niner, lift seven thousand.

PILOT:  Engage landing flaps.

CONTROLLER:  Tango F-zilla, turn left heading three-six-zero vectoring route...

WOLF:  If you saw the film Rain Man, you may remember that Dustin Hoffman's character refused to fly on any airline but Qantas.  Well, that was because of Qantas's extraordinary safety record.  And Tom Cruise was totally unable to convince him otherwise, which really surprised me, because the women I know tell me that Tom can be quite persuasive.

The original settlers to Australia arrived on what came to be known as the First Fleet.  Most folks coming to Australia today still arrive on the Fleet, but these days it's the Qantas fleet.

All of that actually took place in the Qantas flight simulator.  And in the same way that computers can be used to simulate flight, different herbs and spices can be use to simulate the taste of salt. 

Cheong Tse is the executive chef at Qantas.  His extensive knowledge of herbs and spices has given him the ability to produce intensive flavors without using salt.  A perfect example is this dish of vegetable soup, accompanied by sauteed Australian prawns.

A little vegetable oil goes into a saucepan.  As soon as it's hot, in go some sliced carrots, peas, tomato, and zucchini.  That cooks for about five minutes; then in goes some chicken broth.  The ratio is two cups of chicken broth for every cup of vegetables that are in the pot.  That simmers for five minutes.  While it's cooking, a frying pan is heated.  A touch of vegetable oil goes in; a little sliced garlic, shelled prawns, a little chopped basil, and some lemon juice.

Cheong does an interesting thing:  he takes a wide toothpick and sends it down the center of the prawn, and in that way the prawn will not curl up when it hits the heat of the pan.  It also gives you something to hold onto if you're using it as finger food.

Then, two minutes of cooking and stirring; a few thin strips of asparagus and some slices of red pepper are added.  A few grinds of fresh black pepper; a few flips; a tablespoon of chicken stock; and everything is ready to serve.  The soup goes onto a plate, followed by the Australian prawns and the vegetables.  A low-sodium light meal, all on one plate.

The interaction of the basil, coriander, garlic, lemon juice, and pepper, stimulate many of the same taste buds that are normally stimulated by salt, so you end up with a dish where you don't miss the salt.

Chef Tse has been interested in art since he was a child, and he uses his drawing skills to plan the look of his finished dishes.  Today, the design is for a dish of sauteed chicken breast with a tomato and onion sauce.  He starts by putting a little vegetable oil into a hot saucepan, followed by sliced red onion.  A little stirring and flipping.  A teaspoon of chopped garlic.  Some chopped sun-dried tomatoes.  A few cherry tomatoes.  A twist of pepper.  A little chicken stock, and fifteen minutes of simmering.

While that's cooking, the chicken gets underway.  Chef Tse takes a skinless piece that is the breast and wing, with the bones removed except for one of the wing bones.  That bone is there for looks only, and you can do this dish with a boneless, skinless chicken breast and it'll work fine.  The chicken is cut almost in half and opened up butterfly-style.  A little oil goes onto some plastic wrap and the chicken gets wrapped in it.  Then it's pounded until it's flat, and about the same size as the inside rim of the serving plate.  The plastic wrap comes off, and some seasonings go on:  white pepper, basil, coriander, and black pepper, first on one side, then on the other.

A little vegetable oil is heated in a frying pan.  The chicken goes in and cooks for a minute or so.  Chef Tse checks to make sure that it has developed a good color from the cooking.  Then over it goes, and the second side cooks for about two minutes more, until the chicken is fully cooked.  Then onto a serving plate.

A second frying pan is used to pan-fry some chopped garlic, some pre-cooked green beans, and a few strips of spring onion.  A third pan browns some pre-cooked potatoes.  A few whole cherry tomatoes go into the onion sauce that started this recipe.  The reason for the late arrival is that Chef Tse wants the tomatoes to cook for only a few moments, so they will hold their shape.  The tomato and onion sauce goes onto the chicken; the green beans and spring onions go on next to the onion and tomato sauce; and finally, the potatoes.  Art you can eat -- good thing.


When the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Cove in 1788, the settlers brought with them the first vines to be planted in Australia.  They'd actually weathered the voyage without difficulty, and were planted soon after the fleet came in.  The vines grew rather well in the fertile areas near the coast.

The long hours of warm Australian sun produce excellent grapes, which in turn produce excellent wine.  As a matter of fact, a while back the Australians entered their wines in a European wine-judging competition.  The judges wouldn't judge it.  They tasted the wine and felt it was so good that the Australians must have taken French wine and put it into Australian bottles.  If those judges were still around, they'd probably feel the same way.  Australian wine is top-notch, and one of the reasons for that high quality is the extraordinary dedication of the early Australian wine-makers.

One of the first was Dr. Henry John Lindeman.  Dr. Lindeman had been a medical officer with the British Navy, and emigrated to Australia in the mid-1800s.  He had decided that wine was a great source of happiness to all mankind, and began to produce his own.  My kind of doctor!  These days, Lindeman wines are some of the finest, and they are produced right here in the Hunter Valley just north of Sydney.

The wine-maker at Lindeman's is Patrick Auld.  He's actually the fifth generation of his family to make great wine right here in Australia.

PATRICK AULD:  We make outstanding wine.

WOLF:  And you're very focused on the idea of good fruit.  You don't make yourself crazy about a particular piece of land, the way the French do; you get the best grapes that you can from wherever you can get them.

AULD:  Well, very much so.  What we try and attempt to do is to first get the right country to grow grapes in, and that's done by careful selection; and secondly, the best fruit we can produce makes the best wine we would like to produce, obviously.

WOLF:  You also mark the label with the alcohol content, which affects the flavor of the wine.

AULD:  Yes.  In certain styles of wine, the higher the alcohol content, the better the wine we make.  Now, I don't mean to say you just keep on hoping to add more and more alcohol to get better wine; but alcohol and flavor go together.  And if I can just explain, it all comes from the amount of sugar level that are in the grapes on the vine when we pick them, and what happens is that that flavor of the grape is slowly fermented, along with the sugar, into the wine itself.  And we believe that the more flavor, and the more alcohol, the better.

WOLF:  In 1844, Dr. Christopher Rawson Penfold came out to Australia from London in order to develop a medical practice.  He brought along a few vine cuttings and planted them around his new home.  His medical practice flourished, and so did the vines.  Within a few years, the wines that were produced from those vines became so popular that Dr. Penfold became more interested in healthy grapes than healthy patients.  Today, Penfold's is probably the most famous winery in Australia, and many of its vintages have won the most important international awards.

And unlike many wine-makers, they produce product at a wide range of price points.  Penfold's has bottles that sell for $9 and $90, and that's very much part of the Australian love of democracy:  everyone should get a fair shot at the good stuff.  But one of the most appealing things about Australian wine-makers is that they are not particularly interested in making wine that ends up being stored in cellars and talked about for 20 years before it gets into a glass.  They're much more interested in drinking their wine.  But having said that, and not wishing to offend the late Dr. Penfold, I should point out that his company does produce some great wines that improve with age.

A good wine deserves a good glass.  But if you'd like to buy an all-purpose wine glass that'll do a pretty good job for just about any wine, here's what to look for.  First of all, you want a glass that comes in at the top, a tulip shape; that will concentrate the aroma inside the glass at the tip of your nose -- and what we call flavor is actually 75% smell.  Second, you should only fill a glass halfway, because you need the air inside to build up the aroma.  Since most of our portions are four ounces, you need a glass that will hold eight ounces or more.  Third, you should get a glass that's clear; you want to be able to look inside and appreciate the color of the wine.  And lastly, just before you use the glass, you should rinse it with clean water and dry it out; you don't want any musty smell inside, and you certainly don't want the taste of soap.  And then you are ready to taste something quite extraordinary.

Just to the west of Sydney is the Blue Mountain National Park, and it actually looks quite blue.  The reason for the color are the eucalyptus trees.  Eucalyptus give off a fine haze of oil that lingers in the air; when the sun hits the haze, the reflected light looks blue.  The district got its start about 300 million years ago, when the weight of accumulated sediment began to sink the Sydney area.  The rocks of the Blue Mountains are what remain.  As the lowlands continued to sink, successive layers of rock were exposed.  Some of the rock was softer and weathered more easily.  Wind, rain, and the action of the mountain streams, created the grandeur of the great ridges.

And it was this ridge face that saved the area from development and kept it in its pristine state; there isn't much you can do in a place like this except enjoy the awesome beauty of nature.  There are over a thousand different species of plant life, from heathland shrub to subtropical rainforest, and almost everything in between.  And to have this enormous area for recreation, right on the doorstep of Australia's largest city, is truly a gift from Mother Nature.

The Blue Mountains were an obstacle that prevented access to the west, until the construction of the railroad in the 1860s.  Suddenly they wealthy people of Sydney arrived and began to build country homes.  Perhaps the most beautiful was Lillianfels.  It was constructed as the summer residence of Sydney Chief Justice Sir Frederick Darley, and named after his daughter Lillian.  Today it's a graceful and elegant guest house.


The original residence area has been restored as the setting for Darley's Restaurant.  Chef Ralph Potter presides over the kitchen, and today he's preparing a plum pudding.

Into a mixing bowl go two cups of currants, two cups of raisins, one cup of dried apricots that have been chopped, and one cup of blanched almonds.  All that gets mixed together and chopped up.  Ralph adds rum to soften the dried fruit and add flavor; if you don't like the flavor of rum, you can soften the fruit with fruit juice.  Next, into a mixer:  sixteen ounces of butter, one cup of brown sugar, a half-cup of dark karo syrup, mix all that together, and add in eight eggs.  The batter goes into a mixing bowl; in goes the rum and fruit mixture.  Then a tablespoon each of cinnamon and allspice, zest of two lemons, and a cup or so of dried grapes.

RALPH POTTER:  There you go.

WOLF:  Finally, a little salt, and three cups of self-rising flour.  All that gets mixed together.  The insides of individual cup molds are given a light coating of butter.  If you don't have molds like this, you can use any heatproof form, from coffee cups to clean tuna cans.  The batter goes into the molds.  Make sure to hit the bottom of the mold against your work surface; that settles the batter to the bottom and gets out the air holes.  A piece of parchment paper that has been buttered on its bottom side goes onto each mold, and the molds go into a steamer for an hour.  This recipe will make about 16 puddings of about three-quarters of a cup each.  When they're fully steamed, they're unmolded, garnished, and served.

A sister property to Lillianfels is the Observatory Hotel in Sydney, where the sous chef is Anthony Musarra.  Anthony's father came to Australia in 1939, which was one of the early years of a major migration of Europeans to Australia -- a migration that changed the way the Australians eat.  Quite frankly, they went from a really boring, bland, English food, to the best of the European tradition.  And it was the Italians that were at the forefront of this move.  Today, Anthony is carrying on that tradition, but not just with European foods; he's interested in the foods of all nations, and he tends to take the common ingredients of Australia and use them in recipes that come from other places.

Today, he's preparing a lamb tortilla.  Lamb is a traditional meat in Australia; tortillas are clearly Latin American.  He starts by making a marinade:  a little soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, freshly ground chopped chili peppers, mustard, and vinegar.  That gets mixed together and poured into a pan.  Then in goes a loin of lamb.  It marinates there for a minimum of one hour, though overnight will give it a richer flavor.  When the lamb's ready, a little oil gets heated in a frying pan, and in goes in the lamb.  It's seared for one minute on one side, then flipped over and seared for another minute on the other.  The final cooking time is 15 minutes in a 375-degree oven.

While the lamb is cooking, Anthony makes a very easy fresh tomato salsa:  chopped tomato, salt, pepper, chopped mint, and a little vinaigrette dressing.  He also makes a small Greek salad from feta cheese, black olives, cucumber slices, chives, and a little of the same vinaigrette.

The lamb comes out of the oven, and is sliced thinly against the grain.  A tortilla is placed on the work surface.  A little plum chutney goes on; a thin layer of iceberg lettuce; the sliced lamb; and some of the tomato salsa.  The tortilla is rolled up tightly, sliced into two-inch pieces, and put onto the serving plate next to the Greek salad.  Waste not, want not.  An interesting blend of Latin American, Australian, English, and Greek.

At the edge of the Sydney business district are the Botanical Gardens.  Its winding paths take you on a tour of the unique flora of Australia.  Most people who stop for lunch in this splendid setting must bring their own food, but that was not the case for me.  I walked through the Gardens with Vic Cherikoff, who is a specialist in the wild foods of this continent.  He runs a company called Bush Tucker Supply, which is beginning to supply indigenous Australian foods to markets all over the world.

VIC CHERIKOFF:  It looks a little bit like bubble gum, but crush it and just smell it.  It's got what we call subcutaneous oils; the oils are deep down ...

WOLF:  Mmmmm.

CHERIKOFF:  ... deep down within the leaf.  It's called lemon myrtle or sweet verbena tree.  I'm very keen to get Ben and Jerry's homemade ice cream to use this as a food flavoring, because in ice cream it is just stunning.

WOLF:  It's a wonderful lemony smell.

CHERIKOFF:  Yeah.  How about a smell ... how about using it perhaps in an aftershave or some such?

WOLF:  Aftershave?

CHERIKOFF:  Yeah ...

WOLF:  You and I are going to talk about aftershave?

CHERIKOFF:  (LAUGHS)  Oh, there's a thought.  So here we've got a bush supermarket.  It's a fairly uninspiring little tree, but the amazing thing is, this ... first off, the papery bark:  as the bark comes off in big shoots, you can use it for food wrap; it's the aboriginal tissue paper, toilet paper, oven bag, Glad Wrap.

WOLF:  It's quite amazing.  It really is a supermarket in a tree.

CHERIKOFF:  Exactly.  This tree is also like a pharmaceutical ... a pharmacy, a chemist's shop.  The new leaves are picked, very small leaves, the ones that you want, and these are crushed, either just ... rubbed in the hands, and ... well, you can smell the menthol in it; it'll clear the head.  Have a ... just rub it in your hands and give it a good whiff.

WOLF:  Mmm!  Why, that's quite wonderful.  My stuffed nose is all gone!

CHERIKOFF:  Well, these things are ... the nuts from a large tree, they grow in a big banana-shaped pod like that.  They're actually a food, but they're not something you can eat straightaway.  The aborigines baked them in a ground oven, removed that brown covering, grated them ... they actually cut them, often with the shoulderblade of a kangaroo, so that's your chopping knife ... cut them up finely, and then you put them in a dilly bag, which is a string bag, put them in your local creek, and leave them there for ten days.  Then drag them out, pound it to a flour, and make bread out of it.

WOLF:  They're like a chestnut.

CHERIKOFF:  They're like a chestnut.  They taste ... well, in fact, I've heard folks who say they're tasteless.  But they are interesting these days, not so much as a food, but because some of the chemicals that the aborigines were washing out are in fact effective against certain types of cancer.  And we've ... well, Australia has exported tons of these to companies in America to actually evaluate the alkaloids that are responsible for the anti-cancer effect.

WOLF:  Amazing.

CHERIKOFF:  A lot of work still to be done, but that's really the secrets that many of our rainforest trees still hold.

WOLF:  What's over there?

CHERIKOFF:  This tree here is probably one of the most well-known of Australian species, the macadamia.  And everybody thinks the macadamia comes from Hawaii — the "Hawaiian nut" is actually a marketing tool — but it comes from Australia.  It was found ... once, it was only found in Australia.

WOLF:  Never knew that.

CHERIKOFF:  Never, yeah.  And now these nuts are all ... I mean, they're regarded as the best eating quality nuts in the world.  There's another plant just over here as well; there's one of the fruits.  It's called a Davidson plum, it's after a fellow by the name of Davidson who named the first plum.

WOLF:  Can I just eat it?

CHERIKOFF:  Well, yeah.  Another name, I warn you, is the sour plum.

WOLF:  (EATING)  Now you tell me.

CHERIKOFF:  (LAUGHS)  It's very, very sour.

WOLF:  Augh!

CHERIKOFF:  It's amazing to be out with aboriginal kids and they just pick these up by the bucketful and just scoff them whole.

WOLF:  I'll never forget the name of this.


WOLF:  It's so amazing to have this kind of a garden right in the center of the city.

CHERIKOFF:  And very convenient.

WOLF:  Well, that's all from down under, Australia.  Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for good things to eat and drink at Burt Wolf's Table.