Monthly Archives: October 2012

Hot stuff!!

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6.48am, Tuesday 30th October, North Rampart Street, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

Good morning folks, and once the frost drops out of the air, we’re heading for a mild 78 F or 25 C, and I’ll be starting the day at the New Orleans School of Cooking with one of their classes – today it’s how to make gumbo, jambalaya, bananas foster, and pralines. I thought it best to get right into the local culture as soon as possible!

Yesterday, I had a top run down from Breaux Bridge, through the sugar cane country of mid Louisiana, across the Atchafalaya River, and into New Orleans from the south. I’m staying on the top or northern edge of the famous French Quarter, opposite Louis Armstrong Park, which makes up the Western boundary more or less of the Treme (Tremm – maay) neighborhood – made even more famous now by the TV show of the same name. So, within reasonable walking distance – I can sense some serious opportunity for adventuring!

So first …the cooking school, then I’ll be taking my foot high pile of brochures on everything from plantation to ghost tours, finding one of those cafe au lait places that makes those fluffy mini mountains of fried dough covered in powdered sugar – beignets or ‘ben – yays’. Yes, I think that’s a plan.

By the way, I went the long ‘down, around, up and under’ way to New Orleans yesterday, because I wanted to visit the McIlhenny family, who live and work on Avery Island, in Iberia Parish. You might know them, they’re the folks who have been making Tabasco sauce in the same spot since 1868. As soon as you can see the sauce factory, you can smell it. It hits your nose and your eyes at the same time! I went into the country store to work my way through the tasting bar – even the ice creams – one is jalapeño and the other raspberry chipotle flavors. There wasn’t much I didn’t like – not bad for a girl who didn’t go near chilli when I first started coming to America. This is definitely the hot end of town.

See ya later, when I’ve got a bit of an idea about how to make jambalaya … and what it actually is.

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Breaux Bridge – Crawfish Capital of the World!

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8.17am, Monday 29th October, Rue Pont Est, Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, USA

Morning folks, and it’s a cold clear beautiful morning in Central LA – and that’s not Los Angeles! This is now definitely into Cajun country – lots of French street names, ‘parishes’ are your area boundaries, and the spice level has ramped up noticeably.

I got into Breaux Bridge, St Martins parish – between Lafayette and Baton Rouge – at around 6pm last night, and the owner of the Au Bayou Teche bed and breakfast – Mary Chauffe – whisked me off to join her and the ‘kissing cousins’ for dinner at the Crazy About Crawfish Cajun Cafe just around the corner. I went with ‘half and half’ – crawfish fried and crawfish étouffée (ett – too – Fay, or stew) – as my first experience with the little freshwater crayfish tails … plus all the local hot or green pepper sauces, made in house by the owner Deeanna Welch – who dropped in for a yarn. Now Mary’s cousins were in town for the South Louisiana Black Pot Music Festival and Cook Off – Mark is a fiddle player – and they said that there was an after party going on, about an hour down the road, out the back of the little town of Eunice … and they said I should go with them, because there would be everything from Western swing to zydeco music.

So … we went!

I ended up in a resurrected old dance hall propped amongst massive old trees in the middle of a trailer park out the back of the little town of Eunice – called the Lakeview Park and Beach. The ‘Beach’ bit is the swimming hole one side and the fishing hole on the other. And the dance hall is a high top barn fitted with old steel vane fans angled down onto the bent and bowed old ‘floating’ timber dance floor.

Mark was telling me that the Dancehall had been a local institution forever, but had been let go and closed down until a couple of years ago, when the new owners – a young couple – dressed the old girl back up and reopened her. These days, there’s live shows and dancing every Saturday night, with most people traveling and staying overnight. It’s great to see these old traditions endure, so the Black Pot Festival is now on my “to do” list down the track.

When we arrived, there was a massive cauldron of gumbo bubbling away by the door, a few bonfires to keep everyone warm on a very chilly, nearly full moon clear sky night. On stage was Miss Tess and the Talkbacks – based in Brooklyn NY and keeping Texas swing alive. I heard a very similar accent to mine, and watching the band was Donna Rae – lead singer of the Australian band Donna Rae and The Tamworth Playboys – based in Newcastle, New South Wales.

Small world!

But that’s what they say around here – sooner or later, the world comes to Lakeview! Straight after the swing band, we got a full on dose of zydeco washboard and accordion … my first time with this sort of music … but I suspect definitely not the last! Then it turns out that the band is the quite well known Cedric Watson and Bijou Creole! If this is LA… then I think I really like it!

At some stage of the game this morning, I’ll be off to New Orleans – the long way, off the interstate – and for a few nights, parked in the French Quarter, so I’ll see you when I’m in The Big Easy.

Here’s my Breaux Bridge and Black Pot after party moment:

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Nasty Weather on The Way

8.57am, Sunday 28th October, Pines Road, Shreveport, Louisiana, USA

Morning folks, and it’s going to be a lovely day in Louisiana. It’s crisp though, and this cold snap after a long hot nasty humid run last week across Texas may very well have something to do with this massive ‘perfect storm tropical meets cold front super cell’ Hurricane Sandy sitting 300 miles east of New York city. They’re calling it Frankenstorm because it looks like it’s going to make landfall around Halloween – 31st October. It’s already lashing the Carolinas with rain, and according to the experts, it’s a storm completely unique and they’re not sure how bad it’s all going to get on the East Coast – from New Jersey right up to New England. And there’s supposed to be big rain and snow around the back or west side of the thing, so we look like picking up the cool mild next week or so instead of the hot humid normal Fall or Autumn here, and further south right down to New Orleans. Seeing as that’s the way I’m heading – its all looking good for now.

Now on the agenda for today? Another stop on the Elvis Presley fan pilgrimage – the Municipal Auditorium in Shreveport. Why? Because on this stage back in 1948, a weekly talent ‘showcase’ was started, called The Louisiana Hayride – playing to a full house live audience, and being broadcast out nationally and to Armed Forces Radio. This show eventually became known as ‘the cradle of the stars’ as so many marquee performers started their careers on the Hayride – Hank Williams, Johnny Cash………and in 1954……Elvis Presley. You could see Elvis every Saturday night there for a while, right here in Shreveport, on the Louisiana Hayride……and he got $18 a show! So at 1pm, there’s a tour of the Municipal Auditorium, and I’ll be on it. So Tupelo, Mississippi and Elvis’s shotgun shack childhood home…..done. Memphis, Tennessee and Graceland, Sun Studio, Beale Street and Dysons Hamburgers……Done. Las Vegas, Nevada and the main showroom of those 70s jumpsuit years……done – I couldnt see Elvis, but I saw Gladys Knight and The Pips in 1998 on that stage before they remodeled it all. Now….Shreveport Louisiana to pretty much the start of the Elvis live on stage phenomenon – where he started all that shiver and shake stuff that got parents and the clergy so twangy! It’s going to be a good day!

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Strawn’s Eat Shop – Shreveport, LA – Ice Box Pie Heaven!

12.33pm, Saturday 27th October, Kings Highway, Shreveport, Louisiana, USA

Afternoon folks, and it’s a beautiful day here in Shreveport, on the Red River, in the top right hand corner of Louisiana. This is my first visit to the “Magnolia” state – and my 36th state in the the quest to do all 50 states in the Union!

We finished work in Dallas yesterday, and I slid across the state line last night, because I now have a week’s holiday, before heading back to Houston to do a two-day wine festival for Landry’s at their Kemah Boardwalk. So I’ve landed into what the locals call “Ark-La-Tex” – where Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana cross borders and culture. Yes, there’s beef brisket BBQ Texas style, but introducing a spicy Louisiana twist. There’s now po’ boys on the menu – local torpedo roll sandwiches, usually overflowing with shrimp – prawns to everyone in Australia. But the hospitality is still solidly Southern, and I haven’t even been in town for 24 hours and have already received lashings of it!

I decided to take the locals suggestion and track down Strawn’s Eat Shop – on Kings Highway just past the Shreveport downtown – for lunch. They have a legendary reputation as the “Home of the Icebox Pie – since 1944”, so being a pie eating girl from way back, I was off like a shot to see if it was all true!

Before I go any further, let me just put you in the picture. Ice box pies are an excellent American invention, found all across the South – generally they’re a biscuity base with various (mostly) fresh fruit fillings, and topped with seriously stiff whipped cream, then chilled in the fridge for enough time for the fruit and cream to kind of combine under that solid “big top” and settle into a sweet fruit cream sugary syrup combo thing that’s just outstanding on the spoon! So there you have it defined, now let me take you to Strawn’s.

The original site on Kings Highway was opened in 1944 by the Mr Strawn and was a successful diner on a main road littered with them at the time, but most of them have disappeared, or become laundromats – whilst Strawns has thrived and pretty much doubled in size. In 1958, Gus Alexander bought the place, and this is apparently the time that it became a real standout diner in Shreveport, with “pie lady” Ella Hamilton, “fried chicken maker” Lula McCoy, and “the great waitress” Gladys Duncan. Local culinary celebrities way before the Food Channel even started – it was all happening in Shreveport!

Then in 1989, Buddy and Nancy Gauthier bought Strawn’s Eat Shop – that’s the caricature of Buddy on the top right hand corner of the menus – on every table, and at all nine stools at the counter, just an arm’s length back off the grill! And yes … that’s where I sat, to get a great bird’s eye view of the action across those hot plates. Now Strawn’s is still in the Gauthier family, and the daughters have opened diners at two more locations – both diners set up along exactly the same down home heart and stomach winning lines – at Strawn’s Too and Strawn’s Also. I was lucky enough to fall into the hands of the Gauthier son – George – this morning, as he heard me chatting to two delightful local blokes sitting next to me at the counter – the defense attorney and the oil man! He caught my accent, heard that I’d been recommended to Strawns for the pies, so promptly gave me a piece of the Strawberry Ice Box – their main and most popular flavor – for free.

“The first piece is always on us, because nobody ever stops at one!”

Now you can see what I mean about how Southern hospitality works around here! But it didn’t stop there, when I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as soon as that first chilly creamy strawberry mouthful landed, and when I asked “you can’t possibly mean that the mountain of white icy stuff on top of the pie is all cream!” George asked me if I wanted to see how they’re made.

Ah … yes … I definitely would!

So straight out to the kitchen, and I was introduced to the Strawn’s Pie Making Wizard – Barbara Duncan, who has been with the Gauthiers for 20 years. There’s a hand rolled pie base, then down goes a layer of filling – sorry, secret pie maker’s recipe – and then the fresh diced strawberries, then some powdered sugar, then on goes the cream – a mighty mountain of thick lock whipping cream – and with several flicks of a well-practiced wrist using one of those old school spatulas – Barbara Duncan finishes another legendary Ice Box Pie … topped with one whole strawberry! I got to see the artist at work, and plough through a whole piece myself, plus I have a pie promise certificate for a whole pie next visit … to give to our blokes in Houston who made the recommendation in the first place. Or maybe I’ll keep it, and when we’re back in Dallas this time next year to do wine events, we might just dive across the border for dinner at Strawn’s Eat Shop … and get us one of the seasonal fresh peach ice box pies! Yep, that’s the way to go!

So thanks very much to George and Barbara for keeping the Ice Box Pie dream alive, and to the lawyer, the oil man and Shreveport … what a great way to start my love affair with Louisiana!

Here’s what to look for on Kings Highway, and the before and after Strawberry Ice Box experience. See ya …

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One day in ‘The big D’

7.57am, Friday 26th October, Houston Intercontinental (yep! ) Airport, Houston, Texas, USA

Morning folks, and we’ve had a glorius cool change through last night – relief with a capital R! We’re off to the Big D – that’s Dallas to the locals – for the day, the last stop on our ‘introduce ourselves to our new distributor in Texas’ tour. So wish us luck, and I’ll pick up the story tomorrow when it’s the weekend.

Here’s how our distributors started in Texas – they go back a long way!

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“Swift’s Attic” – Austin, Texas

8.57am, Thursday 25th October, Downtown Houston, Texas, USA

Morning folks, and it’s another steamy old start to the day here in southern Texas. The locals will even tell you they don’t have four seasons here – just ‘some days are not as hot or humid than others’! So whilst up north in Maryland, DC, New York and New Jersey where ive been for the last few weeks, and it’s all about the Fall colours and splitting and stacking firewood as it chills down towards the snow and holiday season – down here in Texas it’s all about pouring huge amounts of liquid through your body to stay hydrated, and eating gloriously refried in lard Tex Mex beans or the best beef brisket in the world rubbed with spice, marinated and slow cooked for 18 hours to fall apart texture, smothered in secret recipe sauces – all outside of a sultry evening!!

Which brings me to one of the most memorable places I’ve been lucky enough to see this whole last year out and about on the road. It’s in Austin, Texas – and is the brand new only open since June this year “Swift’s Attic”. It’s an upstairs eatery at the corner of Third and Congress streets in Austin’s ‘Warehouse District’, and is so named because it was a storage loft of sorts for the Swift Premium Food Company circa 1905. You’ll know you’re at the right place, as the narrow single door to the staircase has the Swifts Attic signage that looks a bit like an ornate swallow or bluebird tattoo.

We were at Swifts Attic to do a trade lunch with our young blokes about town in Austin – Nick Picciandra and Josh Pruett from our new distributor in Texas Domaines Estates – the fine wine section of Glazers. The minds behind Swifts are CK Chin and Stuart Thomajan, and they’ve been able to put three distinct dining areas into the one uncluttered space. They’ve captured that old Americana ‘manufactured by hand here’ feel to the whole place by using industrial electrical fixtures, turn of the century lights, reclaimed door handles threaded on wire as a screen, even punched holes in galvanized buckets to use as lampshades above the high top tables in the front windows. Above the same tables is an old painted wall advertisement for the “Sunset Central” Texas Railroad, which was uncovered whilst renovating the restaurant – obviously the loft was added as a first floor, and the advertisement on the outer wall of an old downtown warehouse became the painted over inner wall for Swifts Foods.Its interesting, because at the time – circa 1905 – there had been an explosion of spider webs of railroad tracks criss crossing Texas, and the Sunset Central line was a bit of a combination of three railroad company networks – Houston & Texas Central, Galveston Harrisburg & San Antonio, and Texas and New Orleans. Great historical stuff, right there up on the wall.

**Historical perspective – in 1861, Riesling vines were being planted at Pewsey Vale Vineyard – one of the first vineyards planted in Australia – 6 miles from Yalumba in the Eden Valley wine growing region, and there were 9 railroad companies in Texas with 470 miles of track – everything exploded after that in both arenas.

Back to present day Austin – to Swifts. Opposite this front dining ‘salon’, at the end of a bar dining counter with old steel swivel seats, is a length of the wall Chesterfield style banquette that is definitely a ‘trap for young players’! It would not be hard to kill a reasonable amount of time parked in that lounge, legs stretched out, working through a couple of the ‘Modern American Small Plates’ on Swifts lunch, dinner and supper menu! Speaking of the menu, you have three top local track record chefs on board – Mat Clauser – in charge, native Texan and describes himself as a ‘bit of a corsair water dog’ -so for my money is definitely worth further investigation!, Zack Northcutt (sous) local legendary Meat Man, and Callie Speer (pastry) who also has the specialist dessert company Cakemix with her husband, another pastry chef Phillip.

And what did we choose to go with our wines on the day? A whole dose of the small plates to start with – perfect for the middle weight set that we opened with – Yalumba Y series Riesling, Y Viognier, Y series Shiraz Viognier, Bushvine Grenache, and The Strapper Grenache Shiraz Mataro. From the top, the matching plates were – Squid ‘fries’ with roasted garlic aoli charred lemon and herb salad, Blistered Shishito Peppers with a lime mayo dipping sauce (for non Americans – Shishito peppers are magic ‘green’ savory things with a medium slow burn heat – and the Y Viognier just seems to lap them up! ), and the Crispy twice cooked duck wings (confit first!) with a black bean glaze and celery kimchi. I kid you not – it was love at first sight between those and the Bushvine Grenache and The Strapper! So far so good on the day. I think we have easily illustrated the point that our wines at Yalumba are made to match with food, have balance and aromatics coming out of their ears, and are tailor made to be the pleasant surprise from the ‘Australian Wine Category’ that no one over here was really expecting. But there was more to come! Sorry I don’t have pictures of the ‘main’ plates – I was talking descriptions of the wines in pairs and answering rapid fire questions on sustainability, provenance, organic, biodynamic, stelvin closures v cork………your usual wine centric stuff at lunch!

Up through the weights we went, introducing the 2006 ‘Cigar’ Coonawarra Cabernet, the ‘Scribbler’ Barossa Cabernet Shiraz, and the 2004 Signature ‘best of vintage each year since 1960’ Cabernet Shiraz blend. And from the kitchen, the ‘star turn’ or best dishes, were – in my incredibly impressed opinion – with the Viognier was the Idaho Rainbow Trout in a leek and radish broth with sundries tomato tapenade AND the Raw Maine Diver Scallops Tiradito : cucumber, Aji Amarillo, and red salt. With the Cigar, Strapper and Signature – definitely the Duck Wings all over again, as well as the Lockhart Quail with golden raisin rum butter and Anna Marys hot water cornbread. Let alone the local Ground Beef burgers that you can add anything to – from foie gras to ‘chicken bacon’! What’s chicken bacon? That would be marinated crispy deep fried chicken skin folks! Yep, it’s all very much the real heart stopping thing here. Next time we visit, the must do snack fir us is Swifts version of ‘poutine’ – that potato cheese and gravy French Canadian thing. In this establishment, they call it “HouseTater Tot (deep fried mash potato mini croquettes in Australia) Swiftine – smoked ham hock, Dos Lunas queso fresco (melted cheese sauce for the Australian and English readers) and Big Daddy gravy”! Definitely one for the late night supper sessions!

Then folks, just when you don’t think it can get any better…..it does! Enter the stage spotlight…..the dessert “Popcorn and a Movie” with our Yalumba FSW 8B Botrytis Viognier, and our slightly chilled Yalumba Antique Tawny fortified or ‘sticky’. Let me just say that this was my favorite dessert so far this year – worth making the trip to Swifts on it’s own. On the plate, in no particular order is – the house made candy bar using saltine crackers, peanut butter and chocolate, a gel texture glaze of reduced root beer soda (sarsaparilla to those at home), popcorn flavored house made gelati, and a garnish of crackerjacks (toffee glazed popcorn Australia) ……there you have “Popcorn and a Movie” – thanks very much. Did it go well with the honey, apricot and nougat of the Botrytis Viognier? Oh yes. And what about with the raisin, maple syrup, toffee, walnut brandy spirit and dried fig of the Antique Tawny? Ooooooh yesssss!

What a great way to introduce ourselves to our new distributors and part of the Austin trade. Great choice of venue Nick, our compliments to the designer, the chefs, and the absolutely flawless floor staff. We will be back!

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What is a kolache?

9.52pm, Tuesday 23rd October, Texas Avenue, Houston, Texas, USA

Evening folks, we did the Yalumba launch to our new distributors Domaines Estates in Austin this morning, staying on for a trade lunch at the fabulous “Swifts Attic” in the Warehouse District before driving across to Houston. So with two BIG days in the capital of the Lone Star state behind us, we’ll be doing much the same with the Houston branch of Domaines tomorrow. But my eyes are closing on their own, so tomorrow morning I’m going to give you a rundown on two “Aladdins Caves” of food and wine done very very well. I promise!

But for now, from our short road trip today, the question is: “What is a kolache?” We stopped for fuel on the way at the town of La Grange. Yep, that would be the same town that is the name of the ZZ Top rock anthem. Next to the fuel station is Weikel’s Bakery, and they make these huge baking trays of tear apart open ‘pillows’ of fluffy dough with a ‘pond’ of flavor in the middle. They’re a big part of the Czech heritage in Central Texas, and Weikel’s have 16 flavored kolaches to choose from … far too hard, as they taste every bit as light and fluffy as they look! Here’s the two that literally dissolved in our mouths – local peach preserves on the left, and apricot on the right. As they say in this part of the world “mighty fine”!

See you when it’s Wednesday.

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