Burt Wolf's Table: Sydney, Australia - #206

BURT  WOLF:   Sydney, Australia.  Miles of cool ocean give it some of the best seafood on the planet, and inspire some of the best seafood cooks.  We'll see the town as it was in the early days.  We'll find out how Captain Bligh caused a second mutiny, even bigger than the one on the Bounty.  And we'll cook along with some of the city's finest chefs.  So join me in Sydney, Australia at Burt Wolf's Table.

In general, it's good to be king, but some times are better than others.  If you were a European monarch during the second half of the 1700's, it would not have been your favorite time.  The ideas that led to the French Revolution were being spread around, and eventually thousands of French nobles had their heads cut off.  Now that is a truly revolting idea to a king.  And then there were the British colonies in North America, filled with even more revolting people.  Well, the guys who were running England decided that there was a criminal element in their community and they had to get rid of it.  For many years they had transported them off to the New World, and stuck them in the colonies in the United States.  But with the American Revolution of 1776, that area was off limits.  The jails in England began to fill up.  People were getting panicky.  Then somebody had a really interesting idea.  “Let's take all the convicts and transport them to Australia, wherever that is.”

In 1770, the English explorer, Captain Cook, bumped into Australia, hung up a flag, and claimed the east coast for England under the name of New South Wales.  No one in London actually had any idea of what New South Wales was really like, but that was just a detail.  It was definitely far enough away to keep the trouble-makers off the court.  And so a fleet of eleven ships carrying 1,350 men, women and children set sail.  Eight months and one week later they arrived at Botany Bay.  On January 26th, 1788, they flew the British flag over a spot they called Sydney Cove, and the history of the new colony got under way.

During the next 50 years, 70,000 convicts were transported to Australia, but 80,000 people came of their own free will to see if they could make a better life for themselves.  During the 1850's, Sydney publicized the discovery of gold, and thousands of people rushed in.  Well, quite frankly the government had known about the gold for a long time, they just never told anybody about it, because they were concerned that it would attract a bad element to the neighborhood.  But London had stopped shipping out convicts, and the colony needed more people, and so they let the word out about the gold.  And during the next ten years the population of Sydney doubled, and since then it's just kept going.

In 1932, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was opened and the north part of the area began to develop.  The bridge is called the Old Coathanger.  After the Second World War, tens of thousands of immigrants came over from Europe and totally changed the city.  It went from an isolated outpost of England to a vibrant cosmopolitan metropolis.

One way to think of Australia is as the world's largest island.  The vast majority of the population lives on the coasts, and so almost every Australian has an appreciation of the sea.  And that's particularly true in Sydney.  The city was built around a huge natural harbor which gives the town about 150 miles of waterfront.  Sydneysiders, as the residents call themselves, use the water as much as possible.  They get to work and home again on ferries.  They swim, they surf, and they sail.  They also eat some of the world's best seafood.

This is the Sydney fish market.  And every weekday morning local distributors and retailers come here to take part in the seafood auction.  The auction is run on what is called the Dutch system, which is being used more and more, because it's proving to be the fairest system for fishermen and farmers throughout the world.  The day's catch is displayed in the inspection area by batch.  The prospective buyers walk through and note the lots that interest them.  The auctioneers are set up on a podium with a huge scoreboard above.  The buyers sit like spectators in a sports arena.  The number of the individual batch of fish lights up on the board.  The opening price also comes up on the board.  A clocklike device shows the price going down.  The first bid to come in gets the fish.

Quite a sport.  Everybody sitting in those stands is here to buy fish. They have an export company that ships Australian fish around the world, or a local distributor, and they need that fish to fill today's orders.  If they make a bid right up front, they're sure to get the fish, but they may get it at a price that's so high that they have no profit.  If they wait, the price will come down, but somebody else may get that fish.  Tough sport.

The market also has a wonderful retail area.  The spot I like the best is called Peter's.  Hundreds of different types of seafood, and the quality is absolutely topnotch.  You can purchase what you want and take it home to cook, or for a few dollars the chefs at Peter's will do the cooking for you. 

The Australians are in the enviable position of being able to choose their seafood dinner from over 3000 different species, and some of them are now being exported to North America.  Their prawns, which we call shrimp, are fabulous.  You may recall the Paul Hogan of "Crocodile Dundee" fame made a commercial for Australian tourism offering to throw another shrimp on the barbie if we came down.  Well, that was a really nice gesture.  And when you taste Australian prawns you'll find out why.

They're also beginning to export orange roughy.  Nice fish.  Clear, clean, pleasant taste.  And recently they have begun to ship us whole Tasmanian lobsters.

Because Australia's off in its own part of the world, the local fish comes from some of the cleanest waters on the planet, and they've taken advantage of that pollution-free environment to develop a fish farming industry. Quite frankly, Australia's entire seafood industry is continually monitored to make sure the catch comes from the cleanest waters possible. 

Neil Perry is a Sydney chef who's become famous for his seafood cookery.  His menu changes daily depending on what's available in the Sydney fish market.

NEIL PERRY:    Well, these are the ... the mud crab, and when these babies are alive, you don't need a watchdog, let me tell you.


BURT WOLF:   Oh, they’re all taped up.

NEIL  PERRY:   Yeah.  And ...this one's cooked, but when they're alive, they're really voracious, and to me it's the best eating crab in Australia.

As you can see, pretty powerful.

BURT WOLF:   Yeah.

NEIL PERRY:   Best thing you can eat.

BURT WOLF:   Great seafood, bad name... mud crab. 

NEIL PERRY:    It is.


But we all love them, and they get much bigger than that.

BURT WOLF:   What is this?

NEIL PERRY:    Well, this is our moon fish from the south coast, and the great thing about it is it's like three fishes in one.  We've got this top section here, which is like mackerel. 

BURT WOLF:   Right.

NEIL PERRY:   The bottom section we cut out, and it's very similar in texture and color to tuna.  And we've got the cheeks, which is just the best part.  It's like a... fish liver.  It's fantastic.

BURT WOLF:   Three fishes in one.

NEIL PERRY:   Three fish in one.

BURT WOLF:   It actually looks like a cartoon of a fish.

NEIL PERRY:   It does, doesn't it?


BURT WOLF:   Prawns.

NEIL PERRY:   Yeah, Burt, we've got a whole variety here.  Umm....

BURT WOLF:    Now you call them prawns, we call them shrimp.

NEIL  PERRY:   Yeah, you're shrimp, we're prawn.

BURT WOLF:   Okay.

NEIL PERRY:   These ones are tigers, and... we catch them wild here, and also farmed.  A really interesting thing, when I come down to the markets I look for... is if the whiskers and all the legs are intact, it generally means that they haven't been frozen before.  Because they tend to lose these when they are defrosted.

BURT WOLF:   Yeah, whiskers are important.

NEIL PERRY:   Yeah, whiskers, you got to have whiskers.  Yeah. 

BURT WOLF:   (OVER) You're telling me.

NEIL PERRY:    Yeah.  Yeah.  (LAUGHS)  We got banana prawns, which are a slightly different flavor, a little bit sweeter . There's yamba prawns, and Endeavour...   There's all ...we have many different varieties of prawns.

BURT WOLF:   (OVER) All from the waters around Australia.

NEIL PERRY:   (OVER) All... yeah... or from...from cold water right here, very hot, warm water prawns, and you get different textures and flavors because of the environment.  But... generally what happens with fish....

BURT WOLF:   I was surprised, the other day somebody said in the wintertime they always go north for a nice warm vacation.  Being on the flip side of the world that I'm accustomed to....


BURT WOLF:   North is where it's all warm.

NEIL PERRY:   (OVER) That’s right.

BURT WOLF:   Right?


And south is where it gets cold here.

NEIL PERRY:    Ah, right, yeah.  Exact opposite.  And what we do with fish, is most fish that come from the north are warm water, sweeter, and looser-textured, and as they come down and they get deep and colder, they get more intensely flavored, and ...then tighter in the texture of the fish.

BURT WOLF:   Neil, when you're deciding which fishes to put on your menu, what do you think about?

NEIL PERRY:    Well, Burt, I think the first thing that I look at with a fish is its... is its fat content or oil content.  And people don't think about fish, especially the white ones, as being....being fatty, but they do have different oil content.  So... so the fattier and oilier fish, the better it is for grilling and roasting, and the leaner, if you like to call it that, fish, the better it is for things like slow poaching, or steaming in his own broth or sauce.  So that the actual texture doesn't tighten up too much, and get too dry.

BURT WOLF:   How interesting.  So you really want to have a list of the oil content of fish.

NEIL PERRY:    Well, I think that's really important, and that's what puts us apart from other people who do cook fish is we pay attention to those really small details that actually make a huge amount of difference in the end product.

BURT WOLF:   Neil's restaurant is called Rockpool.  For two years in a row it has been voted the best restaurant in the Australian state of New South Wales, which is like being picked as the best restaurant in California - it's a big deal. 

Today Neil's preparing a dish of Australian prawns.  They're quite wonderful, and he's serving them over a bed of chickpea puree.

Two cups of pre-cooked chickpeas go into a container with a little cumin, a splash of lemon juice, and a little olive oil.  That's blended until you have a puree.  Next some vegetable oil goes into a frying pan, followed by a sliced red onion, a sliced clove of garlic, and two cups of pre-cooked whole chickpeas.  While that's cooking a little vegetable oil goes into another frying pan, and as soon as it's hot, four Australian prawns are cooked.  At that point, everything is ready to be plated.  Some of the pureed chickpeas go on, then the onion and chickpea sauce, the shrimp and finally a little more virgin olive oil.  That's it.

Neil's second recipe is an example of the east-meets-west style of cooking that is becoming increasingly popular in Australia.  It's steamed fish in a Chinese sauce served on top of corn cakes.  He starts with a soup bowl in a Chinese steamer basket, and mixes a steaming sauce in the bowl.  It's one part peanut oil, one part sesame oil, two parts dry sherry, two parts light soy sauce, plus a little sugar.  And in goes a skinless, boneless filet of white-fleshed fish.  Orange roughy is ideal.

The steamer goes onto a pot of boiling water.  The cover goes on, and the fish steams for ten minutes.  While the fish is steaming, Neil makes the corn cakes. 

Two cups of corn kernels go into a blender container.  Some coriander, garlic, salt, and two eggs are added.  That's blended together and poured into a mixing bowl.  A cup of whole corn kernels are added, a cup of flour, and the batter's ready.

Corn is an indigenous American thing.

NEIL PERRY:   Yeah, that's right.  We love it over here.  Nothing's indigenous Australian

BURT WOLF:   That's true.

NEIL PERRY:   Except this beautiful fish. 

 BURT WOLF:   A little oil is heating in a frying pan.  A quarter cup portion of the corn mixture goes into the oil and flattens out.  They cook for three minutes on one side and then get flipped over to cook for three minutes on the other.  When Neil does the flipping, he tilts the pan to one side to get the oil away from the place where he's going to do the flipping.  And that way he reduces the chance of the hot oil splattering during the flip.  It's a good tip.

When the corn cakes are ready, they go directly onto the serving plate.  The fish comes out of the steamer, and goes on to the corn cakes.  Some thin slices of green onion and snowpeas or asparagus go into the steaming sauce and get coated.  Then they go on to the fish.  A little bit of the sauce and it's ready to serve.

That's what Sydney Cove looked like in 1788 when Captain Phillip arrived with the First Fleet.  And this is what it looks like today.  The right side of the cove is known as The Rocks, and it's one of the most picturesque parts of the city.  Waterside warehouses have been preserved and turned into restaurants and hotels.  The old buildings have been refurbished and house shops and restaurants.  The Rocks are really a sandstone hill that rises up from the sea until it tops out at the highest natural point in the city, which made it the perfect spot for the placement of the old Sydney Observatory.   That hill also divided this point of land into two districts -  The Rocks on this side, and Miller's Point on the other.  To connect the two, a passage was chopped out by convicts.  On the other side is the Garrison Church, which has been standing there since 1844, and is still the most popular place in Sydney for weddings.

And just down the street is the Lord Nelson, which may very well be the oldest Sydney pub still in operation.  The origin of the Lord Nelson dates back to 1841, and it actually looks much the way it did, thanks to an old photograph from the time, which the modern owners found and used for their restoration.

The pub has a wood-burning fireplace in the front room, and they brew their own beers and ales in the back.  And they're very proud of their brasserie, which is authentic, since the dictionary definition of brasserie is an establishment that serves food and brews beer on the same premises.

It was once said that the English and the Americans were two people separated by a common language, and that seems to have carried over to Australia.  Elise Pascoe has become my translator.  She's one of Australia's best-known food authorities, and she's come over to the Lord Nelson to give me a short lesson in language.

ELISE PASCOE:   Well, Burt, this is your shout.

BURT WOLF:   Ah, I beg your pardon?

ELISE PASCOE:   It's your turn to buy the round of beers.

BURT WOLF:   Ah, so, when people come to a pub in Australia, each person pays for a specific round, and when it comes to your round, it's your shout.

ELISE PASCOE:   That's right.

BURT WOLF:   I got this.  We'll have two beers!!!

See, I'm learning.

ELISE PASCOE:   You are.  You're doing very well.

BURT WOLF:   What else?

ELISE PASCOE:    What about... changing into a bag of fruit?

BURT WOLF:   Uh... (LAUGHS) that'd get quite a response, I'm sure.

Any particular fruit?

ELISE PASCOE:   It's rhyming slang, really cockney slang.  It's called strang.  And you rhyme the article with another two or three words.  So a bag of fruit is a suit.

BURT WOLF:   A lovely bag of fruit you're wearing.

ELISE PASCOE:   Oh, thank you very much.  Now with your Australian meat pie, you should have some dead horse.

BURT WOLF:   Umm...  doesn't sound like one of the more appealing things I've eaten.

ELISE PASCOE:   Believe me, it's very good.  A dead horse is tomato sauce.

BURT WOLF:   Tomato sauce, dead horse.  Okay, more rhyming slang.


BURT WOLF:   Okay.

ELISE PASCOE:    And snags on the barbie, of course, are sausages.

BURT WOLF:   Snags.


BURT WOLF:   We are both speaking English.  I just want to establish that at this point in time.

ELISE PASCOE:   We are both speaking....

BURT WOLF:   Okay.

ELISE PASCOE:  ...the same language.

BURT WOLF:   (OVER) Just checking, just checking.

ELISE PASCOE:   No, don't come the raw prawn with me.

BURT WOLF:   Don't come the raw prawn with me.

ELISE PASCOE:   It's....

BURT WOLF:   And that means, don't jive me.

ELISE PASCOE:   Exactly.

BURT WOLF:   Don't tease me.


BURT WOLF:   Misinform me.

ELISE PASCOE:  Yeah.  And you look like a stunned mullet.

BURT WOLF:   A stunned mullet.  That means I was surprised.

ELISE PASCOE:   Absolutely, your face falls.

BURT WOLF:   Okay.  Stunned mullet.  All right.  You have a very unusual set of names for coffees.

ELISE PASCOE:   Well, I don't think they're unusual.

BURT WOLF:   Well, unusual for North Americans. 

ELISE PASCOE:   In the morning, I like to have a flat white.

BURT WOLF:   Flat white.  When I first heard that I thought that that was the shark in Jaws.

ELISE PASCOE:   (LAUGHS)  No.  No.  (LAUGHS)  It really means mostly milk coffee, but without the capuccino, without the fluff in it.

BURT WOLF:   A flat white is two parts milk to one part coffee, like capuccino, but no foam.

ELISE PASCOE:   That's....

BURT WOLF:   And that's why it's called a flat white.


BURT WOLF:   And now I'm ready to order coffee?

ELISE PASCOE:   You are?  I thought it was my shout next.

BURT WOLF:   Coming out of the Lord Nelson puts you smack in the middle of the neighborhood known as Miller's Point.  It was first called Miller's Point during the early 1800's, because of the windmills that stood on this rocky knoll of sandstone.  Eventually the mills disappeared, and whaling and merchant ships arrived.  During the early years of this century, the city government took over Miller's Point and began to preserve the historic richness of the area.  Much of the architecture of the 1800's is still standing, and the neighborhood has the feeling of a small village.  In the middle of the district is the Observatory Hotel.  The hotel's design was based on one of Sydney's historic buildings called the Elizabeth Bay House.  It feels like a grand Australian home, luxuriously furnished with Australian antiques, original oil paintings, and fine tapestries.  With only 100 guest rooms there's a feeling of great privacy and personal attention.  The walls of its Globe Bar are covered with art works that depict the natural history of this continent, and there is a bookcase filled with rare old travel books. 

The health club has a 20-meter pool that's kept clean with an oxygenation system that eliminates the need to use chlorine or other chemicals.  It's a great method.

The ceiling above the pool has a fiber optic recreation of the constellations of the southern hemisphere.

The hotel has two restaurants, both of which get  great reviews from the local food reporters.  Galileo is the Italian restaurant that is reminiscent of the famous Venetian restaurant called Harry's Bar.  The other is the Orient Cafe, aptly named to describe the menu's Asian influence.  It serves a luncheon buffet that's become a favorite for local businessmen and women.  You pop in and pick out what you want from a splendid selection.  This is what fast food should be.

The executive chef of the Observatory Hotel is Kit Chan.  She was born and raised in Hong Kong and studied her craft with some of the superstars of the European kitchen.  She's the first woman to become the executive chef of a major deluxe hotel in Australia.  Today she's preparing a honey-glazed roast pork salad.

Kit makes a marinade by mixing together a few slices of ginger, a crushed clove of garlic, some juniper berries, honey, a little soy sauce, and some orange juice.  Two pork loins go in, and two crushed green onions.  All that goes into the refrigerator for six hours or overnight.  When it's time to finish the dish, a little vegetable oil gets heated in the frying pan.  The excess marinade is pressed off the surface of the pork.  The pork goes into the pan.  The solid ingredients in the marinade go in, and the pork is browned on all sides.  That takes about five minutes.  Then it's off to a 400 degree oven until the internal temperature of the meat reaches 170 degrees, at which point it comes out of the oven and rests on the cutting board for about 15 minutes.  While the pork is resting, Kit makes a salad of greens with a vinaigrette dressing.  Then the pork is sliced and added to the salad.  Everything is mixed together, set onto a serving plate, and garnished with slices of red beets and green apples.

Another one of Kit's specialties is an herbed tenderloin of Australian lamb.  Australia produces some of the best lamb in the world, and it's a constant part of Kit's menu. 

She starts by seasoning the loin of lamb with a little salt and pepper.  Some vegetable oil goes into a frying pan.  As soon as it's hot, in goes the lamb and a few springs of rosemary.  And into a 375 degree oven for seven to ten minutes.  When it comes out, Kit sprinkles on a mixture of chopped parsley, garlic, and lemon zest.  A zucchini pancake goes onto a serving plate, the lamb goes on top, and there's a garnish of sun-dried tomato slices, candied orange zest, and the pan drippings from the lamb that have been thickened with a little butter.  That's it.

When the first English fleet arrived in Australia in 1788 ,they brought over one bull, seven cows, and 44 sheep and goats.  The untouched pasture land made perfect grazing areas for the flocks and herds that developed from these original animals.  The land was especially well suited to the sheep.  They were able to roam freely in the meadows of clover and rye.  The result is a range lamb that's leaner, tastier, and appears to be produced without chemicals or additives.  They've also been able to get rid of the gamey taste that so many North Americans came to associate with this meat.

These cuts have as clean and clear a taste as you could want.  The recent history of lamb production in Australia is a good example of how the public can use its purchasing power to influence producers.

The old style of lamb didn't meet the taste or nutritional preferences of the market, and sales kept flopping.  In self-defense, the industry began to ask people what they really wanted.  The result is the fresh Australian range lamb program.  It produces meat the way North Americans want it to taste.  It has lower cholesterol, and it's trimmed so that it has about the same fat content as skinless chicken.  They've also figured out a way of getting it to North America within four days of processing, and they only use refrigeration, no freezing.

In 1793, an American trading ship named the Hope arrived in Sydney Harbour.  On board were supplies that were badly needed by the new settlers. Military officers of the colony saw this as a unique commercial opportunity, and they formed a group to purchase the ship's entire cargo for resale to the colonists.

The cargo included 7,500 gallons of rum, and it was so profitable for the men that they decided henceforth they would have a monopoly on rum.  They got so involved in the business of rum that the whole group eventually became known as the Rum Corps. And so profitable that they began to print their own currency, a currency that people valued more than the currency that came from Great Britain.  But the best currency of all was rum itself.

If you read the book "Mutiny on the Bounty", or saw any one of the three films based on it you will remember the character of Captain Bligh.  “Mutiny on the Bounty” was a true story, but that was only the first mutiny against Captain Bligh.  After he survived the revolt of Mel Gibson or Marlon Brando, depending on which movie you saw, he was sent back into service by the King of England, and became the governor of their colony in Australia.  When he tried to interfere with the activities of the Rum Corps, there was a second mutiny.  Only this time, instead of putting him into the longboat and setting him adrift, they just locked him up in the prison.  Poor Captain Bligh.  You know, the man was just not in touch with what was going on.


One of the most popular desserts at the Observatory Hotel is the fudgy rum chocolate cake.  Here's how it's made by sous-chef Anthony Mazzura.  Eight ounces of unsweetened chocolate are melted and cooled.  Into that go two teaspoons of instant coffee, and two teaspoons of white rum.  Plus two tablespoons of boiling water.  All that gets mixed together and put aside.  Four eggs are broken into a bowl, and a half teaspoon of vanilla extract is whisked in.  In go two cups of confectioners sugar that has been mixed together with two tablespoons of arrowroot.  Anthony uses an electric mixer for about five minutes to get the batter to double its original volume, at which point it's put aside for a minute, while a cup of heavy cream is whisked until it's thick.  Then the chocolate mixture is combined with the whipped eggs, and the whipped cream is gently folded in.  An eight-inch loose bottom cake pan with a light coating of butter gets a dusting of flour.  The batter gets poured in, and it's off to a 350 degree oven for an hour.  When it's done it comes back to the work surface to cool.  Then it comes out of the ring and gets a light dusting of confectioners’ sugar.  A slice goes on to a serving plate, a little vanilla ice cream on the side, some berry sauce, and a few fresh berries.  Now there's a dish that will give you a good rum for your money.

Well, that's it from Sydney, 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.