A few weeks before my recent trip to Australia, my Mum sent me an email saying that a friend had invited her to join a small group going to the very first Kangaroo Island Seafood Feast-ival, part of Tasting Australia 2012. “What a shame,” she said, that it was just after I was due to leave, but “oh well, something to keep in mind for next year.”
My response: “I’ll change my flights, let’s go!”
I don’t think this was quite the response she was anticipating but being the ever obliging mum that she is, she set to work making plans for us to attend the event. I have to confess to knowing very little about Kangaroo Island before we got there and I therefore had no particular expectations, other than lots fresh seafood, of course. Most of the planning was kindly taken care of by our friend and so apart from a cooking class I had signed up for, I arrived almost completely unaware of the culinary journey that was about to unfold before me.
And what a journey it was. Seafood was just the tip of the iceberg! Though not geographically small for an island, Kangaroo Island (or KI as the locals refer to it) is home to less than 5,000 people. With this in mind, I was pleasantly surprised to learn of the vast array of locally produced gourmet foods, many of which I was lucky enough to sample while we were there. Towards the end of the weekend I tried to make a list of all the wonderful local produce we had enjoyed…Worthy of particular mention is KI’s honey, produced by Ligurian bees that were imported all the way from Italy in the 1880s. In 1885 an Act of Parliament prohibited the keeping of bees other than the Ligurian on Kangaroo Island thereby creating what is now the world’s oldest bee sanctuary. You can read more about these bees here where you’ll learn that aside from producing delicious honey, they are also playing an important role in battling disease, and notably in cancer research.
We were not long off the ferry (which departs from Cape Jervis) before we were nibbling away at platters of locally produced antipasto, warm bread and dukkah and sampling the wines of the Sunset Winery. Sitting on the balcony taking in the spectacular view with ruby red vines hanging above, this was a delightful introduction to Kangaroo Island.
As we worked our way through the selection of wines we were already planning our next indulgence (a common theme throughout the trip!), which was the “My BBQ Rules Launch Dinner” with celebrity chef Pete Evans. This dinner set the tone for the whole trip – exceptional food delivered in a relaxed but professional manner, with an absolute focus on fresh, local and, most importantly, top quality produce.
Hosted in a marqee down by the wharf, each table was assigned their own chef and BBQ with the main meal of KI King George Whiting with a Warm Dressing of Tomato, Oregano and Pine Nuts being cooked right in front of our eyes. The starter, simple but sensational, was a Fig Salad with Ricotta, Honey and Chorizo (all locally sourced) – lamb chorizo I might add which is much less common than the pork variety and absolutely delicious! Accompanying the whiting was a Greek Salad with KI Sheep’s Feta, Potato Salad with KI Sheep’s Yoghurt & Home Smoked Fish and Moroccan KI Cauliflower & Red Lentil Salad, all complimented by a selection of Kangaroo Island wines. After dinner I was lucky enough to meet Pete and have him sign a copy of one of his cookbooks for me – My Table. A great way to round off a great evening.
The next day we were up early to head to our cooking class at The Kangaroo Island Source which meant we missed out on attending the main event (live entertainment, stalls selling fresh seafood, wines and other KI fare down at the wharf) – but trust me, we did not miss out.
Oh me, oh my. This was a cooking class like no other. For starters the setting – wow – the property is surrounded by green fields with uninterrupted ocean views and, as luck would have it, we were also blessed with warm sunshine and bright blue skies. Add to that an abundance of great food, great wine and great company and you’ve got an experience of a lifetime.
Our hosts for the day were the lovely Kate Sumner (owner of KI Source) and equally lovely Rosa Matto (owner of Rosa Matto Cookery School in Adelaide) and we could not have been in better hands. Both are incredibly passionate and talented chefs and just wonderfully friendly and welcoming people. Rosa kicked things off at around 10am giving us a bit of an introduction to Italian food, and more specifically Sicilian food, which is somewhat different from the rest of Italy with strong Greek and Arabic influences. Did you know you can actually see North Africa from Sicily? Me neither.
Flicking through the menu I wondered how we were going to achieve all of this in time for lunch. To start, a Quartet of American River Oysters – some in the form of limoncello and vodka shots (with the limoncello injected right into the oysters), some baked with herbs and breadcrumbs, some in oyster and sausage pots and the rest in sea water jelly. Accompanying these was Marron (freshwater crayfish) Bisque and Ravioli stuffed with Marron, Tarragon and Spring Onions. Next up was Barramundi Rolls served with a Fennel and Orange Salad as well as a huge Paella, a Warm Potato Salad with Pesto Trapanese and Wilted Greens with Raisins, Pine Nuts and Fried Bread.
In the absence of a small army to assist us in preparing these dishes, we formed groups based around the dishes we wanted to take charge of. I challenged myself to attempt the Marron Bisque, having never seen a marron before let alone cooked or cleaned one. Before we set to work, however, we were treated to a quick oyster shucking demonstration by Paul from Kangaroo Island Shellfish (located at American River). If you haven’t shucked your own oysters and would like to give it a go, this video will show you how.
During the demo we learnt that it takes Pacific oysters (which are non native and were introduced in the 1940s) approximately 2 and a half years to grow from a spat (3mm) to Bistro size (50-60mm) although strong currents at the American River farm help them grow a bit faster than this. The peak oyster season on Kangaroo Island is mid March to November and in terms of grading, we learnt that an A grade oyster has no grit and the white portion of the flesh (the fat) is present all the way around – in other words, the whiter the oyster the better.
Paul also enlightened us as to why oysters can taste a bit powdery or creamy at certain times of the year. This is because they spawn during the summer months which affects their flavour and texture. Some producers, such as Kangaroo Island Shellfish, address this by also growing non spawning varieties, known as triploids, to enable them to meet demand during the ‘off’ season, especially over the Christmas period. If you’re interested in learning more, this video of the team at work gives a great insight into the oyster growing and harvesting process.
As much as I don’t want to, I’ve decided to split this post into two as there is just too much to digest in one sitting (ha, intended). Rosa very kindly gave me permission to share some of the recipes from the class with you so I’ll leave you with two of the oyster recipes below and don’t forget to check in for part two over the next few days!
[Disclaimer: I attended the cooking class and all other events at the festival at my own expense and was not asked to write a review. I was gifted a bottle of The Investigator by The Islander Estate Vineyards at the end of the class but no request was made for me to write about it. All views expressed are my own.]
Oysters Baked with Herbs & Breadcrumbs (makes 12)
INGREDIENTS12 fresh oysters 4 tbsp very, very finely chopped tarragon 4 tbsp very, very, finely chopped red onion 6 tbsp breadcrumbs, fried lightly in 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil Salt and pepper 200g coarse salt (for serving)
Preheat oven to 200ºC. Combine all ingredients, except the coarse salt, and coat each oyster in the shell. Drizzle over a little extra olive oil if necessary. Bake for 8 minutes or until golden. Arrange some coarse sea salt on a platter and sit the oysters on it (or serve on individual plates if you prefer).
Oyster and Sausage Pots (makes 12)
INGREDIENTS12 fresh oysters 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil 2 small Italian sausages (casalinga or similar or even chorizo), chopped into the finest dice 1/2 onion, very finely chopped 1 clove garlic, minced with salt 4 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (reserve all the liquid) 2 tbsp flat leaf parsley, finely chopped 1 chilli or to taste, finely chopped Salt and pepper Fresh crusty bread (for serving)
Heat the oil in a frypan. Saute the sausage until crisp and golden, remove and set aside. To the same frypan, add the onion and cook until sweet and transparent without colouring – this may take up to 15 minutes with splashes or water if necessary. Now add the garlic, tomato and its liquid, parsley and chilli. Allow to cook until thick and then season. Add the sausages, oysters and all the juices. Distribute evenly between the warmed pots and serve immediately with fresh crusty bread.