Monteith’s Doppelbock Winter Ale

It’s probably no great surprise that I’m a sucker for seasonal beers: they’re a key diversion for the neophiliac drinker. They give brewers the chance to bring their wilder experiments to market without the threat of destroying the good name of a brewery. If they’re a disastrous mistake, at least it is fleeting. If the beer is a success, you’ll have an excruciating wait until next year.

Monteith's "Doppelbock" Winter Ale

Monteith’s Doppelbock Winter Ale is back in season; it is a rich, malty and alcoholic ale that is out of style, if you’re a beer purist. It is not a doppelbock by any stretch of the imagination (a “A very strong and rich lager” according to the BJCP style guidelines), so I’m not sure why the doppelbock deception made its way onto the diminutive 330ml bottle. Frankly, I can’t say the word “doppelbock” often enough, armed with the knowledge that it translates as double-goat from German, so I can understand their conceit.

Monteith’s say: “A profound enveloping winter beer. Monteith’s Doppelbock Winter Ale is a smoothly rich beer with a dense head, a powerful aroma, and chocolatey malt notes ñ the perfect way to cheer yourself up this winter. ”

I say: Is it legal to say that beer cures seasonal affective disorder? In the glass, this faux-doppelbock bears a striking resemblance to Coca-Cola, brownish-black and thin. Dull aroma and a fading head, like an elderly uncle. The flavour is heavy on the malt with a touch of allspice. In previous seasons, Monteith’s was producing a more intriguing and richer brew than this from their New Zealand brewery. They can do better in the coming seasons.

ABV: 6%

Phở Chu The, Footscray

Pho Chu The, Footscray

I had grand plans to work my way through the phở of the Melbourne suburb of , bucket-sized bowls of beef soup every weekend, but never quite got there. There are no less than 20 phở establishments within easy walking distance but every time that I kick things off, I get the nagging feeling that it is just not worth the effort. Phở in Melbourne is above average. Terrible phở is the exception (but not impossible to find). Brilliant phở only exists in people’s homes.

I’d love to be proven wrong.

You’ll never find a rich, herbal phở on the streets of Melbourne. The herbage that accompanies usually will only stretch to basil with the occasional appearance of mint. Sawtooth coriander, ngo om (rice paddy herb), or any other miscellaneous herb that could differentiate an outstanding bowl of phở, while widely available across Melbourne, never make it into a phở restaurant. The broths are beefy but the spice is toned down. The meat in each bowl is great – a big step above the Saigon street corner – but it can’t carry the dish.

Chu The has two outlets: one in Richmond, the other in the dead centre of Footscray, opposite the market. The Footscray joint is packed, all the time. Their phở bo dac biet (beef special), above, is sweet and umami. A few glassy fingers of tendon are glassy and cooked to rubbery perfection but it is otherwise much of the same.

The damage: small bowl of phở bo dac biet: A$7.50

Location: 92 Hopkins St, Footscray

Gordon Ramsay’s Melbourne Restaurant

Unless you’ve been bound up in real news in Australia (e.g. remember Iraq? there’s still a war there), you’ve probably heard the words Gordon Ramsay Lesbian Tracy Grimshaw combined in some unholy fashion with great density. Chef Gordon Ramsay has been in town, stirring up the sort of misogyny that could only be surpassed by a visiting rugby team.

The media is loving it and milking it for a full week of coverage. The Prime Minister has weighed in saying Ramsay’s comments’ “as reflecting a new form of low life” which left me wondering what were the older forms of low life that are of concern to an Australian Prime Minister? Libertines? Footpads? Mountebanks?

Generally when you meet chefs or see them interviewed, their obsession with the minutiae of ingredients and the process of transforming those ingredients into food is evident and inescapable. Any attempt to interview them about nigh on any other topic eventually gets steered back to eating. What is most dismaying about Ramsay’s flight through town is his lack of focus on food and the media’s lack of care.

He’s planning to open an outlet of his Maze restaurant in Melbourne in the Crown Casino complex, and it hardly rated a mention by himself or anyone else. Odds on bets are that it will be doing haute tapas as it does in Cape Town and New York which will lead to an inevitable showdown with Movida. Anchovies at high noon. It is opening in the middle of an economic downturn. These are compelling food stories and they’re not being told. Ramsay seems to be too busy telling dick jokes to talk about food.

This is the outcome of food and television. Food plays a backdrop to human drama rather than a central focus because food alone makes for bad television. To be sure, television can mirror the soft-focus porniness of food magazines or blogs – the panning shots of a steaming meal, wide vistas of a cornucopia of ingredients – but to draw and keep an audience it needs narrative drive.

The narrative of food alone is either recipes or the path from living animal or vegetable to the plate. You could tell these stories almost without human intervention. By themselves, neither of these narratives are engaging because for the former, we’ve had almost 70 years of the “stand and cook” model of recipe TV to be oversaturated and for the latter, most of the public still don’t want to know from whence their food came. If you eat food with a head on it, you’re amongst the minority.

This is how we end up in a situation where we have food television without food. Human drama is the driving force behind food television. It seems that (in Australia, at least), we want chefs who say “fuck” to camera (Ramsay) or game shows (Masterchef). Nobody wants to see the prep chef peeling potatoes in the basement. The prep chef is only intriguing when she knifes someone.

Most telling of this whole foofaraw is a comment by Jason Atherton, one of Ramsay’s chefs, who is also in Melbourne at the moment presumably to begin staffing Maze. In Hospitality Magazine, he mentions:

“Atherton said Gordon Ramsay will spend as much time at the Melbourne restaurant “as the concept needs him”.”

It’s similar to McDonald’s: the concept needs the clown Ronald to make the occasional appearance. (At least, it used to). Gordon Ramsay’s primary qualification is no longer chef, it’s television presenter; the provider of drama against a food backdrop. He still needs the pretence that he cares about food lest the whole edifice and concept behind his restaurants crumble. The concept needs celebrity to survive and give it sustenance. It needs celebrity to somehow differentiate itself and draw in the punters who would never otherwise throw down a hundred dollars for a meal.

It no longer needs food.

On the lack of food blog coherence

grapes
Grapes, apropos of nothing

Sorry I’ve been a bit light on providing content over the past few weeks, I’ve been busy elsewhere, in a frenzy that sounds lke it comes straight from the kitchen of a Wes Anderson film. At SBS, I’ve been writing on those interlinked topics of mince and chicken tikka lasagne from Iceland. I am still flying a mouldering Cambodian flag back at my other Cambodian food blog, a habit that I can’t escape. As a snapshot of my domestic life, I took an annotated photograph of my refrigerator for the world’s greatest food blog, Gut Feelings. It is a sad indictment of my current lack of regular eating habits and a reminder that I should buy a refrigerator less than two decades old.

In the real world, last weekend, I rode a bicycle around the Mornington Peninsula in service of the Wall Street Journal (article forthcoming), just to prove that pinot and physical exercise are not diametrically opposed pastimes.

I’m not sure where or how any of these disparate strands tie together but they certainly don’t make for coherent food blogging.

Queen Victoria Market Borek

Borek stall at Queen Victoria Market

Having Austin around did act as a handy reminder of the unparalleled diversity of food in Melbourne. For example, I live in a suburb dominated by two of the most disparate of the world’s cuisines: Ethiopian and Vietnamese. As I wander about a market named after an English monarch, I snack on Turkish (or maybe, Balkan(?)) street food because I can’t help myself.

Borek, QV Market

This borek is a spicy lamb-filled pastry, baked in flat rows on a tray, on site at the Queen Victoria Market. Served hot, the oil oozing from the pastry burns through the paper bag. They also do spinach and cheese, which compared to the lamb, is almost superfluous.

A decent length of borek still retails for $2.50; one of the great Melbourne bargain street foods.

Four tips for food blog PR

There has been debate on the Australian food bloggers group about opting in or out of the public relations onslaught, mostly because when it comes to food blogging, some PR people act like dicks.

It is no great secret that Australian business is a long way behind the US when it comes to online PR. It is something that an Australian PR agency might tack on to their services but few (if any) specialise in online in Australia or do it consistently well because there is not a great deal of cash in it for them yet. As it is dawning on the industry that print media as we know it is doomed, jumping on the social media bandwagon is the action de jour.

My four tips:

1. At the very least, read some of the food blog before you fire off a press release.

It’s not that hard to work out the topics in food that are of genuine interest to a particular food blogger. Read their blog. You’ll soon discover that food blogging is a broad church and it is not likely that your clients’ product will align with the interests of all food bloggers. If you’re doing your job, you should be able to find a good fit somewhere.

Unlike print media, unpaid food bloggers are under no compunction to put out regular editions or posts. There is no pressure to fill column inches and so this negates the need for bloggers to trawl through press releases at the end of the day just to churn out a few hundred words. For most food bloggers, press releases have zero value.

2. Even better, don’t send a press release at all.

Cut the “positioning” bullshit. You’ll get much better results if you engage in intelligent conversation because for most food bloggers, intelligent conversation is their modus operandi. If there is nothing intelligent that can be said about your client’s product (or your client’s product does not relate to food for humans) then just maybe you should question your future career in public relations.

Approach this as if you’re forming a relationship that will last forever. Most food bloggers don’t think in terms of discrete campaigns or product launches: the biggest mistake that PR folk make when approaching any social media is that they expect that it will last for the life of the campaign and not any longer. If you burn bloggers early, it is likely that you’ll have to work extremely hard to get them back on side for any future campaigns or other unrelated clients.

3. Link to me and send me traffic.

If you want me to sit up and pay attention to your (or your clients’) website, link to mine and send good traffic; the traffic that reads more than a single page and adds comments. I segment my traffic and notice that behaviour. Write your own food blog or get somebody to write one who cares rather than spamming out press releases. I still wonder why clients would ever trust an agency to do “blogger PR” when the agency (or its staff) do not run a blog.

4. If all else fails, food bloggers are very easily bought.

Most food bloggers love free shit; especially meals and the feeling like they’re receiving something exclusive. You’ve only got to look at this food blogger meetup organised by Club Med just to see that even if your food is not necessarily the greatest in the world, you can still buy fawning coverage by some of the world’s biggest bloggers. POM juices got coverage aplenty simply by mailing out juice and holding a competition. The trick is permission and not expecting anything directly in return. Ask people’s permission to send them free things. Ask for their advice rather than “write about this in your next blog post!”.

Northern Thai in Western Melbourne: Bonus Content

Austin Bush has been hanging out with me in Melbourne over the last week and we’ve been doing the sort of thing that food bloggers do when they run into each other: drink every single pale ale made in Australia and New Zealand; eat several times a day with no regard for socially accepted “meal times”; and cook food that takes regional authenticity to ludicrous lengths which he has amply documented on his Thai food blog.

Both Austin and I are huge fans of Northern Thai food, the cuisine that skirts the Burmese border in Thailand’s northern provinces. He’s been spending plenty of time up there and myself, not nearly enough. Austin came up with a menu.

Here’s my take on it.

Sai Ua

Sai Ua at home

I’d been keen to make David Thompson’s recipe for sai ua in his book Thai Food for quite some time. It’s a greasy pork sausage from Chiang Mai that is packed full of chilli, lemongrass, coriander, shredded lime leaves and hog fat. You spot it throughout Northern Thailand as a , chopped into bite-size chunks and served in a plastic bag. The chilli-reddened grease from it coats the inside of the bag and as a consequence, your hand.

When I came across the handful of sausage recipes in Thai Food, it did make me wonder, how many of these recipes have ever been cooked by the owners of Thompson’s tome? Chiang Mai sausage making requires an interlocking interest in regional Thai cuisine and charcuterie. In my experience, these fascinations tend to be mutually exclusive.

I’m not going to repeat the recipe here. Do David Thompson a favour and buy his book. Recipe is on page 518. My liner notes for the recipe:

  • There is no need to smoke the sausage over dessicated coconut. Just grill it over an open fire. I get the feeling that Thompson added this step because it works in a commercial kitchen. If you’re cooking commercially, you can smoke the sausage in advance then finish the sausage on a flat grill because it is much quicker than the leisurely route of slow-cooking it over coals.
  • More chilli. The recipe suggests 6-10 dried chillies and we used about 20. If you feel unsure about this, grind up the sausage mix with only half the chilli then fry up a test patty. We still didn’t get the color quite right – it needed to be redder. The next batch that I try will use a mix of powdered chilli and dried chillies. Otherwise the mix of herbs is spot on.
  • If you’re using a commercial sausage maker, use the coarsest grind available and aim for a fat content of around 35-40%. They’re fattier than your average sausage and don’t need to bind as firmly as a western sausage. The herb mix can run straight through the meat grinder instead being pounded into a paste as Thompson suggests. The result is much closer to Austin and my recollection of Northern sausages, which have very coarse chunks of lemongrass and fine shards of lime leaf still intact.

Kaeng Hang Ley

Austin brought with him a collection of spices from Mae Hong Song, including the freshest turmeric powder I have ever smelled and the local Mae Hong Son “masala” powder, so we hit up Footscray for fresh ingredients. If you’re keen on making this particular curry, Austin has the hang ley recipe. For Thai ingredients in Melbourne, visit Nathan Thai Grocers at 9 Paisley St in Footscray. They’re amazingly well stocked with Thai goods and have a pre-prepared Hang Ley paste. At Nathan, we could find a Thai-brand sweet sticky soy and shrimp pastes just to take the dish to an extreme of regional correctness. As a coincidence, I already had Thai tamarind pulp (which is really no different from any other tamarind).

Pork belly is official local meat of Footscray. It can be found at every single butcher in the suburb, apart from the two lonely Halal meateries. I buy mine in Footscray Market because there are enough suppliers there that you can always pick out the right piece.

Saa

This recipe calls for young pea shoots and leaves, we had to settle for some slighty older and more bitter ones from Little Saigon Supermarket in Footscray. Multiple vendors had deep fried pork skin used to top this salad, but the Northern Thai-style of pork crackling which is cut into thin strips was nowhere to be seen.

Key Sources

Nathan Thai Video and Grocery, 9 Paisley St, Footscray. They’re friendly guys and even have a blog, documenting incoming Thai videos.

Little Saigon Market, 63 Nicholson Street, Footscray. Best for vegetables from across Asia. Also a good spot to pick up hard to find dried fish.

Footscray Market, 81 Hopkins St, Footscray. I only visit here for meats, mostly fish and pork.

Four Seasons Claypot Rice

fs20090412_2541
Tasty lens flare

When there is a queue of twenty people out the front, take the hint. It is either very good or super cheap.

Most of the time, I have a plan to eat my way around but after knocking back a handful of dumpling meals, I was satisfied by Hong Kong. This opened up the chance to eat at random. This joint , just near Temple Street, was doing a roaring trade in something that involved a giant stack of claypots which was reason enough to eat there.

Across the road is a hole in the wall place selling boiled offal in curry sauce. Once a family had joined the queue for the claypot joint, an emissary was sent over to the offal house to pick up a styrene clamshell of chopped tripe to see them through the queuing. Standing in line is reason enough to eat and the claypot restaurateurs were happy to let patrons bring in their own offal entree. This is probably a great measure of a food obsessed nation: that the only appropriate behaviour when waiting to eat is to eat something else. And there is always something else to eat at hand.

Once crammed into a communal table, I ordered what the people next to me ate.

fs20090412_2545

Oyster omelette, deep fried until crispy with a sweet chilli sauce. This dish pops up all over Southeast Asia, but I’d never had it before in this crisp form.

fs20090412_2548

Burnt claypot chicken rice; advertised as “Four Seasons Claypot Rice” on the menu. Rice is cooked in the claypot over a relatively high heat, which steams the chicken and burns a rich toasty layer of rice onto the bottom of the pot.

The local tactic for eating this dish is to pour a slug of soy sauce into the dish and then sit and wait for five excruciating minutes. The only two valid reasons that I can muster for the wait is firstly, the pot is damn hot; and secondly, maybe the extra liquid and steam from the soy lifts and softens the rice that is burnt onto the bottom of the pot. Maybe soy sauce represents the missing fourth season. If any claypot junkies can enlighten me, I’d love to know.