Food bloggers prove that they can pull punters

Huge congratulations to Penny, Ed, Billy, Jess and Matt for pulling this together: five food bloggers stepping into a commercial kitchen to offer the general public a chance to critique their food. They hardly need my plaudits considering the event has sold out, which finally and affirmatively answers the question about whether food bloggers can influence restaurant attendance.

Steve from The View from My Porch is considering putting together some Tasmanian bloggers for a similar performance.

The sultry sounds of Queen Victoria Market

I don’t shop for food outside of my ‘hood all too often these days and so a recent visit back to the Queen Victoria Market made me realise the distinctiveness of the aural landscape of Melbourne’s markets. Markets in Footscray are dominated by vendors spruiking their specials in Vietnamese, generally whichever fruit is cheapest and in season. The Queen Vic Market is all in English, the specials are the “known value items” – foodstuff that most consumers can name the going price – especially, bananas.

Meat sales seem even more reliant on spruikers, especially as the morning wears on, and the afternoon bulk discounts kick in.

Trolling as the food writing

Terry Durack over at the Age manages to both pit Sydney against Melbourne and suburb versus suburb by attempting to pick the worst suburb for eating in each city. There is good food to be found everywhere in Australia – it may be behind closed doors or in people’s backyards rather than in restaurants or takeaway joints, but I have no doubt that it can be found in every postcode.

You just need to care enough about finding it.

This is the sort of food article that you should probably expect to be coming more often from The Age and finding its way onto the front page of the website: the article that trolls for comment in the guise of “engagement”. As it becomes incumbent on journalists to generate both website page views and comment, it is a much more lucrative path to chase the cheap arguments that generate knee-jerk reactions than it is to write challenging or thoughtful content.

Pancakes at Fandango

Pancakes, Fandango

This is my favourite breakfast in Melbourne. Ricotta whipped with honey, maple syrup, strawberries, banana and pancakes with . You wouldn’t want to eat it often but your life is incomplete without it. It hits the perfect savoury/sweet balance; that urge that can only be sated by true American barbecue, slow-roasted vegetables or a caramelised meat from a claypot. This is one of the only places that meat and fruit work well together. Not counting tomatoes, pedants.

It’s from Fandango in North Melbourne. While neighbouring café Auction Rooms soaks up the Melbourne hype, Fandango has been running solidly for four years with a tiny shopfront and narrow courtyard only accessible through the kitchen. The only thing that has really changed since 2006 is the queue to get in on the weekends.

Location: Fandango, 97 Errol St, North Melbourne. Tues-Fri 7.30am-3pm, Sat-Sun 8am-3pm, closed Mondays.

Sensory Lab, Melbourne

Sensory Lab 1, Melbourne

I don’t take coffee too seriously. I’m aware that there are more aromatic compounds in your java than in a glass of wine but I don’t personally seek them out even though I draw a good part of my income from describing tastes to other people. Call it a cognitive dissonance reduction strategy wherein I pretend not to care just in case I’m wrong.

Sensory Lab (1) is another coffee vendor in the “third wave” of Melbourne coffee; the wave where people started riding fixed gear bicycles and eschewing milk and sugar in favour of flavour alone, thus swapping calories for the ability to fit into ever tightening jeans. It’s owned by Melbourne coffee god, Salvatore Malatesta, a man whom I used to see on the days when I could afford a coffee at university at his first(?) cafe, Plush Fish. In the mean time, he’s gone on to own at least 30 cafes. I’ve gone on to start a string of poorly-paying food blogs. Maybe I should have started taking coffee seriously earlier in my life.

Apart from the caffeinated beverages, the most entertaining part of Sensory Lab is watching people approach the counter trying to work out what the hell is going on. Is it art or commerce? What senses do they test? The high school science lab schtick seems to be a psychological barrier to the average punter ordering a coffee.

Sensory Lab 1, siphonSiphon coffee (S2 blend)

As for the brew, I’m starting to develop an appreciation for siphon filter coffee (above). Compared to their other methods of production (espresso, pour over and cold drip), the flavours in the coffee come out clean and bright, and intensify as you get to the bottom of the cup. There’s acidity rather than straight bitterness. And there is nowhere for it to hide.

It doesn’t tempt me to forgo my morning latte habit but it does draw me that one step closer to seriousness and a tighter pair of pants.

Location: At the back of David Jones department store (ground floor), 297 Little Collins Street
Melbourne VIC 3000.

Maybe people aren’t drinking it because it tastes like shit

There’s a short article over at The Age mapping the decline of the big Australian beers as a failure of their marketing. Their reason for the fall from grace of VB and Carlton:

Image is also one of the reasons why there has been strong growth in mainstream craft beers such as James Squire, Little Creatures and Matilda Bay.

”Boutique beers tend to be more expensive because it reflects the cost of production, and that tends to be associated with people with higher disposable income. So it’s a badge of wealth, status,” says Kirkegaard. ”But like a niche wine, it also shows a higher level of discernment.”

For The Age, how a beer tastes doesn’t seem to come into it. The failure of big beers in Australia may have less to do with them presenting a credible image of themselves than them presenting a product which does not taste good. Substituting in a faux import like Carlsberg or Heineken for a local trash pilsener because the former has a more positive image does not seem like a long term marketing strategy.

Matt Kirkegaard (quoted above) also blogs over at BeerMatt and even the most cursory read of his work will point out that he knows that there is more to beer than image alone.

“It’s a minefield even for Asians”

I had dinner on Saturday at Poon’s Chinese Restaurant in Barkly Street, Footscray. It was the worst Cantonese meal that I’ve eaten in Melbourne. The service was gracious and friendly considering that they were packed and it was dirt cheap. The meal was a mistake but not an expensive one and it filled me with regret but not salmonella. The food was uniformly tasteless like some non-toxic, starchy glue.

Poon’s however, is popular enough to be ranked a local institution much of which seems to revolve around the ritual of regular dining in the same place over a period of decades. The result of a family decision where Friday night is fish and chips, Saturday night is Poon’s. Single sex groupings dining together, having the Boy’s Night Out with a table filled with Crownies; women on other tables sharing a bottle of Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay and splitting Poon’s gigantic (and suspiciously Chiko Roll-like) spring rolls. There were no chopsticks on offer, anywhere.

At a guess, it has been doing the same food in the same place for half a century and the punters love it. Here’s a review from Menulog:

i have been a ‘patron’ of ‘Poons’ for at least 40 years, and would not go anywhere else. The food is fresh, nutritional and very easy to eat. The variations on the Menu are wonderful.

The staff and Management have ALWAYS been good to me and i feel part of their family after all these years, at being treated as part of their family.

i only wish they could deliver to Carlton to where i live, but at least i get a chance to mix with some of the ‘cream of the crop people in our Society when i visit them regularly.

Thank you for allowing me to tell you this wonderful news about ‘Poons’. ( i tell everyone i go there and love it and the staff too )

Who in Australia cares about “Asian food” in a world where Poon’s is rating as well as Flower Drum or Lau’s on user-generated review sites?

When it comes to food from Asia, most Australians are happy with average food. “Chinese food” means a regionless choice of meat stir fried in your choice of bland starchy sauce. Most Australians are content with the local Thai joint doing the traffic light curries (red, green, yellow) straight from the bucket of Mae Ploy. Vietnamese means pho alone. Japanese is aseasonal and what rich people eat (except for sushi, which is no longer associated with Japan). The rest of Asia is a vague unknown, summarised in the thinner chapters of cookbooks with the word Oriental in the title. Above all, the food must be “very easy to eat”. No bones, no heads, no need to even chew.

So Necia Wilden’s article in The Australian newspaper regarding her inability to find or discern premium Asian ingredients was no great surprise to me. Boneless and free from the shackles of mastication. I’m only bringing it up because of the interesting discussion it has spawned over at Progressive Dinner Party. Like Zoe, I read it in the physical newspaper. I paid good money for it in the hope that food journalism in The Australian (and coverage of food from Asia) would be better in 2009 under Lethlean and Wilden’s gaze. I haven’t bought an edition of The Australian since. If it’s been a bumper year for food writing in The Australian, apologies for not supporting it.

I’m not going to tackle the racism behind grouping food from Asia together into an undifferentiated and monolithic bloc, skipping between cuisines as if there was no need for specialist knowledge in any of them. Provincial food for The Australian, it seems, only comes from refined palates in Europe.

It’s the Chicken Tonight approach to food that also concerns me: if only I had the right stir-through sauce recommended to me as authentic, the curry would taste the same as at my hotel in Phuket. So how to come by this knowledge? Getting a recommendation from the person that owns the store is just not good enough, as Wilden puts it:

“How do I know this soy sauce is organic?” I ask the young woman in the Japanese grocery store near my home. “Because it says so on the label,” she says, pointing to the Japanese characters on the bottle’s posh paper wrapping. Ah, right.

The key, according to the article, is to get a chef to tell you what is good, preferably one with an Asian last name or a cookbook the size of a family sedan. Actually going out, buying a few things and then tasting them is not mentioned. You only learn to cook through your own experiences and your sense of taste is subtly different to everyone else and above all, should be trusted. If David Thompson recommends Megachef brand fish sauce but you enjoy $3 a bottle Tiparos, go with your own tastes. At most, experimenting with different brands will be less than $5 a hit.

Buying ingredients is no minefield as Tony Tan mentions in the article, at least in comparison to the minefields that I’ve seen built for Cambodians and by Cambodians. Ask the shopkeeper. Try different things. You won’t step on anything that will turn you, your children or your livestock into a fine pink mist. So who is this article meant to service? What is to gain from making cooking certain cuisines at home look more difficult and less satisfying?

Just to put on a particularly Bolshie hat, newspapers have so little to gain from pimping out fresh food – it is the Simon Johnson’s of the world that buy ads in the food sections of newspapers and not your local Vietnamese grocer. There is a need for newspapers to prop up a system that recommends branded goods over raw ingredients. If word got out that fresh ingredients make much more of a difference in cooking than processed ones, all hell would break loose. People would be smashing in the Lean Cuisine fridges in your local duopolist supermarket in a fit of rage.

Just to bring things back to the world of Poon’s rather than some parallel universe where people care about what they eat, The Australian’s food section is aimed squarely at the Poon’s market and not at me. It’s aimed at people who buy the best fish sauce as a display to others that they buy the best fish sauce rather than as a pungent condiment whose value is in its consumption. This is the food journalism for the people who have been eating the same Chinese food for decades and are unwilling or unable to try somewhere new without someone else validating and translating the experience for them.