Burch and Purchese – Heroes of Food Science

I have a confession to make. English food doesn’t inspire much confidence in me. This is cruel irony for me because of my love for five little letters spelled SWEET. Most people are well aware that English desserts can trigger sugar highs. Most people are also aware that the English have a unique sense of humour and can get quite creative when it comes to naming. Just think of banoffee pie, Eton mess, knickerbocker glory, jam roly poly and happy faces to name a few. I have no idea what happy faces are, I always thought it was just used to describe one’s expression. Disturbingly, I also chanced upon a English dessert called “Flies Graveyard” – I’m positive that this one is just an expression too.

When I first heard that Burch and Purchese Sweet Studio (B&P) had opened in South Yarra and that it was helmed by two UK pastry chefs, Mr. Ian Burch and Mr. Darren Purchese, I had mixed feelings. I was two parts excited, one part nervous and one part scared of what they might come up with. I don’t know a lot of famous English chefs. I do know of one – Heston Blumenthal – and he is pretty radical. I have watched and liked many episodes of Heston’s Feast and the one scene that is forever etched in my mind is the one where he placed four and twenty blackbirds in a gigantic pie. Thousands of miles away from the actual event, across huge bodies of water, and safely behind the TV screen, I STILL DUCKED when the birds flew out. There was a muffled scream which could have come from me. It was certainly very theatrical and a little like watching a horror scene where an idiot opens a musty old coffin and vampire bats screech and fly out to attack. I figured B&P will be a lot milder.

When I say milder, I don’t mean boring. The sweet studio is as far from boring as you can possibly get. I don’t know if it was meant to be intentional, but the three characteristic colours that B&P have incorporated into their shop design are the same as that in Neapolitan ice cream. The fun-filled atmosphere in the studio is infectious and I’m not just saying that because they play catchy songs such as “Lollipop” by the Chordettes – which incidentally got stuck in my head for the rest of the day. Serving staff buzzed around in their English maid costume of black and pink, enthusiastically eager to offer customers a small taste of sweetness. Everyone in the shop was offered chocolate chip cookies, a bit of a meringue and some chocolate mousse cake. The nice lady who offered me the chocolate chip cookie was particularly persistent and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Cookie Monster would have loved her.

Unlikely as it sounds, it was the meringue that trumped the chocolate chip cookie in my books. Prior to that day, I thought meringues were hard, plasticy, and probably tasted chalky – three properties I’m certain no one likes in their food (except those who like musk sticks). I had seen lots of them in window displays along Acland Street in St Kilda and never once was I tempted to buy them home. However, B&P’s meringues are in a different class. They aren’t meringues on steroids, they look like a small puffy cloud. Eye-catchingly pretty, they come in friendly pastel shades of yellow, pink and purple which is in sharp contrast to others that looked as though they may be slightly radioactive. But best of all, they taste like a wonderful combination of sticky soft, slightly chewy and fragrant fruitiness (passionfruit, strawberry and blueberry). In a blindfold test, you will be able to tell which fruit you are munching on. I regretted not buying one, and for that I blame the cake display which had snagged my attention.

B&P don’t give fancy names to their cakes. A glance at their cake list and you’ll find that they list down every bit of deliciousness that goes into their masterpieces. I think that this is an awesome idea because it bypasses the need for one to ask, “What’s in the cake?”. Also, B&P won’t have to give the same long answer for the umpteenth time. There is only so many times you can read out all the ingredients enthusiastically before keeling over or planting the person’s face into the cake itself.  What is even better is that B&P sometimes provide a cross-sectional view of their cakes so you can see how all the individual elements stack up. Which science student doesn’t love that? There is a good looking selection of cakes behind the glass that are all begging to be taken home, and I did adopt some of them. I also notice a good deal of chocolate pops and chocolates that have molded to look like flowers with each petal is painted. I think these are meant to cater to little kids or people who are allergic to real flowers but like the idea of eating them.

When I’m in a chocolatey mood, I go for the Chocolate, Mandarin and Salted Caramel which is a darkly delicious treat composed of ‘Kendari’ 60% chocolate mousse / Murray River salted caramel / burnt mandarin cream / St Clements marmalade / aerated chocolate shortbread / chocolate mirror glaze. This is NOT a chocolate jaffa cake. I don’t even like chocolate jaffa, mind you. This is not just a pretty face kind of cake either. If you can look beyond the chocolate mirror glaze and taste it, you’ll understand why Darren Purchese has been invited on MasterChef more than once. There is a gift for marrying so many strong flavours without one drowning the other out, and B&P has it in spades. If you love salted caramel, boy do they have a treat for you in the form of dark chocolate gold bullion bars. The studio stocks a number of these so there’s no need to recreate scenes from the Victorian Gold Rush of the 1850s-60s.

For those who don’t want to plunge headfirst into a hedonistic chocolate feast, there are always lighter options such as the Raspberry, White Chocolate, Honey, Lychee which is now served in a funky clear acrylic tube. Specifically it has White chocolate & raspberry mousse / raspberry & lychee jelly / muesli & honey nut sponge / raspberry & hibiscus jam / raspberry compote / lychees /exaggerated raspberry cream / white chocolate velvet spray. I ate the cake version of this and remembered feeling pleased as punch because of how healthy the dessert sounded. What? Why are you incredulous? I’m not joking, there’s heaps of fruit, honey and even muesli in there! Even my Mum liked it – I also threw away the descriptor, lied and told her that the cake contained no chocolate because she wouldn’t try anything if there is chocolate involved.

Having trouble deciding what to buy Dad for his birthday? Here’s a hint, don’t get him socks, ties, handkerchiefs or power tools. I don’t think that Dads really like those things as much as the hardware store advertisements make it out to seem. He might prefer something to eat, guys are almost always hungry, right? If your Dad likes coffee, you should check out this one: Coffee, Smoked White Chocolate, Aniseed, Lemon. With so many different layers that it resembles an Opera cake, this baby has smoked white chocolate cream / crunchy almond meringue / coffee buttercream / coffee sponge / aniseed syrup / brownie sponge / lemon curd / dehydrated choc rock built into it. The cake was a hit all around. I even got Mum to eat a slice of it minus the brownie part. Even when she clued in and asked if the white bits were white chocolate, I nonchalantly lied again and said it was the almond. She continued eating – enough said about the quality of the cake.

You don’t need a special occasion to go visit B&P, but B&P does special occasions extremely well. Jump on their website to marvel at the fantastic creations that have been served at birthdays and weddings. You can book a consultation with them for that special day. Visit the Langham and enjoy the high tea that B&P has just created. I promise you that it will be infinitely more exciting than cucumber ribbon sandwiches. Most importantly, visit the pastry maestros in action at their genius lair and try to walk out of their shop without buying a single thing. It is no mean feat to steel yourself against temptations that are leaping out from almost every corner; and hence I have never bothered to try. It doesn’t matter if you or your loved ones are allergic to nuts, gluten, or dairy, B&P has thoughtfully catered products for them as well. If you are unsure, I’m sure one of their friendly staff would be happy to give you a hand.

Mr Ian Burch and Mr Darren Purchese, I am insanely jealous of the equipment in your science lab (especially your chocolate spraying device which my fingers are itching to try) and its breathtaking creations. If I were to have as much fun with liquid nitrogen in my lab, I would be in hot soup with OH&S. Oh, and I am also very glad that you now call Australia home :).

Burch & Purchese Sweet Studio on Urbanspoon

Drinking to my (un)health

When the doctor saw me two days ago, my fever had hit an all time high and she told me I had developed bronchitis. I looked at her puzzled because I didn’t think it was physically possible to develop bronchitis within two days of feeling bad. But who was I to argue with her frown and the stethoscope? The last bit of advice she imparted was from to get plenty of rest, keep up the fluids and drink juice to boost vitamin C. I wasn’t training for the Olympics so I had enough time to rest. I could keep up the fluids by drinking juice which has to taste better than water. Things were already beginning to look up!

Drinking juice is no hardship because I happen to love juice. The more berries in my juice the better. I just won’t drink orange juice because oranges make me cough and I’m not fond of citrus fruits anyway. You won’t believe the number of juices they have in supermarkets these days. I was about to pick an apple and black current juice, then I remembered how she had said something about vitamin C. So, I spent the next 5 minutes looking at the ingredient component at the back of juice bottles and comparing between them. Someone old had been standing behind me all these while impatiently, but I hadn’t notice her because I was determined to pick the best juice. Also, my ears were blocked and if she had said, “excuse me,” I wouldn’t have heard her either. So, I’m sorry if that old lady happened to be you, your mum or grandma. I would have apologised but your scowl was certainly quite disarming.

I settled for a 2.4L breakfast juice which contained all sorts of fancy fruits and the more boring ones. This one even said it had antioxidants which are suppose to be good for everyone. I figured I might as well give all the other vitamin levels in my body a boost instead of just C. Drinking one serve of juice was supposed to give me ~200% RDI vitamin C. Wow! Then I stupidly did the math and figured that drinking five cups would boost my C levels by 1000%. How awesome would that be? I’d feel so much better in less than the time it would take to complete my antibiotics course. So, I happily drank all five cups – got to keep myself hydrated after all!

The first sign that something had gone pear shaped was when my stomach started producing rumbling noises followed by growling noises. There was that much warning before my body revolted against the five cups of healthiness. It clearly wasn’t used to so much fruity goodness within a space of three hours. I spent the whole night sleepless and coughing – excessive sugar and the total amount was probably more than a sweet-toothed individual like me would have consumed at peak condition. So, here are some important lessons that I learnt from this slightly amusing (not at that point in time) experience: (1) Drinking in moderation applies not only to alcohol; and (2) do not try doing mathematical calculations when feverish – things will not work out well (e.g. 1000% RDI vitamin C does not equate to you feeling 100% better). So, now I’m waiting for the antibiotics to kick in and work their magic.

The offending culprit is on the far left

Persimmon – Art on a Plate

As part of the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces, National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) brings to life the exhibition – Napoleon: Revolution to Empire. NGV promises it will be a mesmerising event that showcases the finery of French art, culture and life. It sounds like a lot of fun, so I jumped on the website to find out more about it. The first image that I saw is cropped from the painting, Napoleon Crossing the St. Bernard, by Jacques-Louis David.

Napoleon’s very own pretty pony

It depicts Napoleon fashionably dressed in his military finest sitting astride a horse. It is a dead giveaway that he is Napoleon because of his gold-trimmed bicorne hat which looks rather fancy. The second thing you notice is the startled wide-eye expression of the horse. Maybe, someone was clutching the reins a little too tightly with his gloved left hand. The horse also has a nicely combed mane of which some people will be jealous. Some websites let on that the secret of achieving a nice, glossy mane is to use oil, water and vinegar; one even suggested mayonnaise. Who knew that? Given that Napoleon is French, he would probably have used butter instead.

Speaking of butter, NGV is offering different packages where you can dine with the legend on selected dates. You can breakfast with Napoleon, lunch with Napoleon, high-tea with Napoleon or go for broke and enjoy a six-course degustation menu with Napoleon. Napoleon sounds a lot more sociable (and heavier) than history has lead us to believe. Imagine fitting all those meals in and still winning battles. What a guy!

A friend and I had heard of a restaurant called Persimmon at NGV which serves Modern Australian fare. Since both of us had never tried Modern Australian food, we were pretty keen to find out what it was about. Persimmon is located on the ground floor of NGV international. After you enter the building, walk straight ahead and just before you reach the end, turn right and meander down a dimly lit passage way. Turn left and you’ll find yourself at the entrance of the restaurant. In stark contrast to the passage way, Persimmon is illuminated by natural daylight which shines through panels of glass windows and softer lighting on the ceilings. The windows frame the well-maintained greenery of the Grollo Equiset Gardens; and on occasion, the view is enhanced by a few water fowl swimming in the clear waters of the nearby water fountain. The interior of the restaurant has an avant-garde theme about it with bold splashes of black and orange-red furniture that are texturally firm or soft – just like the persimmon fruit itself. The restaurant is itself spacious which means that you will not be cramped or knocking elbows with fellow diners – a bonus given that some popular CBD eateries are often overcrowded.

Our friendly waitress ushered us to our seats before handing out the menus and talking us through the specials of the day. She mentioned that the restaurant’s menu is often reflective of what exhibitions they had on. The NGV is currently showcasing Napoleon, hence the menu adopts a French influence. We agreed that we would share the Diver scallops, toasted panko, wakame seaweed, smoked bell pepper aioli, Coq au vin, buttered mash potato, pine mushrooms, onions & bacon, and finish with the Dark chocolate fondant, croissant ice-cream, chocolate pop rocks for dessert. Don’t you love friends with similar tastes in food? It makes ordering so much easier and quicker. After approximately ten minutes, our waitress came back to take our orders. In exchange, she left us a small selection of bread and butter presented on a wooden plate. We liked the warm, yeasty smell of the bread as well as the audible crunch just before biting into softness. You could also sprinkle some salt and ground pepper is you like, but the butter purist opposite me won’t have it any other way. There is no substitute for butter, she would say, and I would have to agree.

The arrival of plump golden hue scallops heralded the start of something beautiful. Crusted with a mixture of panko and fine wakame, the scallops captured both the sand and sea elements. A droplet of pink ginger gel was delicately piped on top of each morsel, creating a visually stunning artwork. Usually not fans of ginger, we found ourselves pleasantly surprised by how its mild tang went well with the sweetness of the translucent scallops. I added a smidgen of smoked bell pepper aioli but apart from creaminess I couldn’t really taste the bell peppers. Were they perfectly cooked and succulent? Hell to the yes!!! From memory, we had halting conversations punctuated with expressions such as “Wow” and “really good” whilst eating the scallops. Yes, that is how eloquent we are ;). As our waitress came to change our plates, we asked if the scallops were going to be on the menu for the next two months. At first, I panicked because she said there might be variations to the menu. Quelle horreur! No more scallops?! She must have seen the slightly stricken look on my face, because she hastily clarified with “small changes”. For example, instead of Diver scallops, they could be serving up Hokkaido scallops. Oh, I think we can live with that :)!

There was a decent wait between the arrival of the scallops and that of the main, but then you can’t rush good things. If the scallops were anything to go by, we had high hopes for the main. The Coq au vin did not disappoint. It was carefully plated with small mounds of golden buttered mash potato and garnished with mushrooms, a small bulb of onion and a cube of bacon. There was a generous portion of well seasoned, juicy chicken, so tender that it fell off the bone easily with a slight nudge of the knife and fork. It is important to stress that the texture of the chicken was not mushy. We are willing to bet that no one likes to eat mushy chicken, which is wrong on so many levels of hygiene and decency.

I think I have used the word “butter” a fair bit in this post, and so here it is again: buttered mash potato. The three words that send my friend’s heart racing in excitement and possibly leaping for joy. In her words, the mash was “velvety smooth and flavoursome without being overpowered by butter”. She also said a lot of other wonderful things about the deceptively light mash, and perhaps in her highest praise yet, “you could almost imagine you were in France”. That is a hypothetical statement since we have never been to France. However, I suppose that the French are pretty adept at making mash potatoes given that “Paris mash” originates from them.

The sliced mushrooms had soaked up the richness of the jus such that it tasted the slightest bit sharp. The jus which by now had formed a small pool at the base of the dish rather made us wish that there was more to go around. As we polished off the chicken, mash and mushrooms, we eyed the bacon. The bacon turns out to be lardon, a cute rectangular marvel with layers of melt-in-your-mouth fat evenly spaced in between succulent pink meat. The fat has rendered the meat tender, and the meat has imparted a hint of smokiness to the fat. A symbiotic relationship at its best. Individually, each component on the plate was faultless; but put together and the sum of them was outstanding.

By this stage, we felt pretty impressed with our experience at Persimmon. Our plates were changed after every course and our glasses never empty. I think it is fair to say that Persimmon provides excellent service in a way that is unobtrusive of your personal space, something that is rare to find these days. The only dish left was dessert. I love desserts and will often return to the furthest places just to eat them again. We had ordered chocolate fondant, croissant ice-cream, chocolate pop rocks. I was sold on the fondant and my friend on the croissant ice-cream. Dark chocolatey goodness spilled and puddled into a gooey mess as I halved the soft fondant which we immediately tried to scoop up to taste. Thankfully for us, the fondant did not burn our tongues. The chocolate fondant contained just the right amount of sweetness without being saccharine. The portion size was just right and the dessert did not overwhelm with its richness. And after a mouthful of the croissant ice-cream, the both of us agreed that this was not a dessert to be shared :). You could definitely taste the croissant from the silkiness of the ice cream which my friend adored. For a playful twist to their dessert, Persimmon scatters some pop rocks along the plate. Eating these and hearing them crackle as they explode brought back fond memories of me sneakily eating pop rocks in grade school.

In summary, Persimmon restaurant is a hidden treasure that turns classic dishes into incredibly delicious artworks – befitting of an establishment located at the heart of culture. Go there to unwind from the hustle and bustle of the city, and enjoy quality service from impeccably polite staff. If this is what Modern Australian is about, then I think Napoleon himself would have been jealous of what Persimmon has to offer.

Persimmon on Urbanspoon

Snag Stand – it is frankly a wiener!

Who doesn’t like sausages? I love them! If someone causally told me that they didn’t like sausages, I would very seriously reconsider our friendship compatibility. That is how much I like sausages – it is on my friendship check-list. “Must love sausages” is pretty high up there with normality. You know the saying, “man cannot live by bread alone”? The genius was clearly a sausage lover who probably didn’t mind some ketchup or mustard to go along with it.

Imagine my delight then, when I found out about Snag Stand – the home of heavenly “haute dogs”. Times that by three when I discovered that it was at Melbourne Central and opposite the State Library. Score one for easy access! This meant that I could jump on the tram, grab the deliciousness and head back within 20 minutes give or take. Perfect. Know what is even more perfect? Their marketing skills –  which is cleverly littered with puns. I love puns (can you tell from the title?) and I love sausages – clearly this was a match made in hot dog heaven.

The first thing that I noticed about Snag Stand was how prime the location was. Traffic was heavy and almost everyone had noticed the stand. And even if you somehow MISSED seeing the stand, you could not possibly miss/resist smelling the aroma of sausages sizzling on the grill (unless you are down with the cold/flu and have a block nose). The striking yellow colour of Snag Stand makes a play for the New York atmosphere. They are 2 (I think) high tables and chairs which you could sit on and munch the hot dog while people watching – if that is your thing. The term people watching is kind of creepy, I know. Another way of saying it is “watch the world go by” – which sounds comparatively less stalkerish… Anyway, you walk up to the counter to place your order and in return, you get a buzzer which sounds and vibrates when your hot dog is ready for collection. Easy peasy. The times that I was there, I saw students, construction workers, and people attired in suits lining up to place their order. The humble sausage brings together people from all walks of life.

Snag Stand menu caters for a range of tastebuds – even if you are vegetarian (potato, smoked apple and sage). I suppose it is the equivalent of tofu burgers although I never got use to their appeal. Each item on the menu is displayed on a square black  cardboard with fancy writing and their description. They include, wagyu beef, pork and fennel (italian), weisswurst (veal, parsley and onion), chicken and rocket, beef and horseradish, spicy spanish chorizo, greek (lamb, rosemary and oregano), chillidog, backyarder, toulouse, australian fare, american classic, german bratwurst, and my all-time favourite: spicy cheese kransky. On top of that, they pair their artisan sausages with fancy accompaniments such as sauteed onions, house-made sauerkraut, creamy coleslaw, coopers ale BBQ sauce, cheddar cheese, and different kinds of mustards (ranging between meh and so hot it’ll make you cry). Did I also mention that most hot dogs come served with a toasted brioche roll? Brioche always gets me. If you are a fussypot who don’t fancy the above options, you can design your own hot dog  – how awesome is that?

Between the two of us and three visits, we sampled the (1) chicken and rocket, (2) spicy spanish chorizo, (3) chillidog, (4) american classic, and (5) spicy cheese kransky and (6) toulouse. To top off our greediness, we couldn’t resist ordering their chips with house-gravy dipping sauce. Across the board, all sausages were top quality, packed with flavour and the right amount of juiciness. They are well seasoned and tasty without being overly salty for the health conscious – but then you do not eat hot dogs if you are worried about health. The only sausage that I found to be a bit “meh” was the american classic. If you prefer milder flavours, go with the chicken and rocket or the toulouse. On the other hand, you should totally order the chillidog or spicy spanish chorizo if you like your lunch to pack a punch. The chilli on the chillidog seriously high-fived my tastebuds. For me, I would be forever faithful to the spicy cheese kransky (even if it wasn’t spicy) because I absolutely love the combination of cheese and sausage. The only advice I would give is to eat the hot dog carefully because Snag Stand is generous with their toppings (not that I am complaining). You do not want the juices to dribble down your chin, sriracha/chipotle mayo or truffle/wasabi aioli to smudge your expensive suit – especially if there is going to be a board meeting afterward.

In summary, Snag Stand sets a pretty high bar for quality sausages in Melbourne. Yes, it is pricey but then again, it is not your average sausage sizzle. I foresee a long relationship with Snag Stand as long as it continues to stock my spicy cheese kransky!

Snag Stand on Urbanspoon

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Why flu shots do not impart invincibility

Every Winter there are people who faithfully line up to get their flu shots. These visits are announced well ahead of schedule to encourage mass vaccination. However, because I don’t deal well with sharp pointy objects – especially when they are aimed at me – and also don’t believe in the success of this program, I avoid it. It is not to say that these vaccination measures are redundant. They are pretty useful if there is only one specific type of bug. In reality, that one bug loves to throw a good party and invites all its mates over for a bash. Not only that, those bugs are also pretty friendly with just about anyone really, and they tend to overstay their welcome.

Anyway, whenever my colleagues tried to persuade me to get the flu shot, I let them know how much I believe in “herd immunity”. Yes, that is an actual immunology term and not something that I made up. Yes, I know I had those two words in inverted commas. I would try changing them, but it is rather hard to do on the iPad…my fingers can’t tap in front of them. “They give out sweets like Freddo at the end”, cajoled one friend in a bid to appeal to my penchant for sweet things. Sorry, but not even Koko black chocolate is going to cut the mustard. So the rest of the lab trooped to get their shots and I made off to buy a snack – a delicious one that was pain-free.

They came back convinced that they now were immune to the cold/flu. I say cold/flu because there are some sticklers out there who insist it is a cold or a flu. It was ironic then that they were the first to succumb to the bug(s). How could it be? They were bewildered. It did not seem fair that I was still healthy and eating cookies to my heart’s content. They couldn’t even ask for a refund because the shot was free. It was a grave injustice as far as they were concern. Did I laugh in their faces? No, I didn’t, because laughing at someone’s misfortune is ungracious and not something that I do. Blogging about them on the other hand is perfectly acceptable. Deep down, I felt a twinge of panic. This year’s herd seemed to have dwindled, I swear I didn’t spread my belief of herd immunity that far!

My worry only increased when I travelled on the metro trains. It literally is a vehicle for bugs as commuters coughed, sneezed and spread the love. They couldn’t help it of course, but that did not lessen my desire for teleportation to be achievable within the next few seconds. After a few weeks, the inevitable happened. I got bounced by the cold/flu. In between feeling downright sick and exhibiting all symptoms that screamed for healthy people to take cover, I experienced incoherent unkind thoughts. These included: (1) who was the one who passed it to me, (2) how I was going to carve out their spleen using only a spoon, and importantly (3) how could I get better faster and then repeat (2) with the modification of another body part. As well as that, I raged at the fact that I had to watch everyone else eat ice cream whilst consigned to a plain diet. I am well aware that these thoughts border on being neurotic and murderous, but in my defense I was kind of taking every medication over the counter to quench the symptoms. You name it, I most likely have digested it. From this experience, it can hardly be lost on anyone that I make a terrible patient look positively angelic. Usually, I like to think of myself as a pretty amiable and happy person.

So thank you to those of you who very kindly put up with me and tried to make me feel better with warm tea and turning up the heaters until it felt tropical instead of Winter. I have not changed my mind about flu shots, and next year you will still see me heading out for a pain-free hot chocolate shot!