I have just spent an amazing weekend with some of Australia’s top food bloggers eating and drinking and eating some more at Eat Drink Blog in Canberra. Yesterday I was back at work reminiscing about all the good food to be had and feeling somewhat like a beached whale. But what a weekend! What fun! What greedy food stories I had to tease my work colleagues with! My Facebook and Instagram photos caused not a small amount of food envy.
So what was a frugalista doing at a major eat and blog fest, lingering at fine dining establishments and some of the coolest food places in Canberra? When not eating way too much, I participated in several informative sessions about the art of writing and the science of blogging. But mostly I was there to absorb and learn about the latest food trends and how I could translate this knowledge into good frugal food.
So what were Ms Frugal Ears’ main frugal food takeaways? There were several:
- Diners want to feel connected to their food. Customers are demanding fresh, local produce and wanting to know the story about where the food comes from and where it is grown. Keynote speaker Matthew Evans described this best as he talked about his background as a chef and food critic, and the way he began to become interested in how food ends up on a plate in a restaurant. He said he felt as a food critic that Australia claimed it had the best food producers, but this was not always reflected in the food that was served at top restaurants. He concluded that the best food is home-grown and lovingly carried to the kitchen, where it is prepared for family and friends. Therefore often the best meals are cooked in home kitchens away from the prying eyes of food critics or journalists. And I would add, some of the best food is very cheap to grow, cook and prepare yourself. But if you don’t have an amazing backyard vegie garden, you can shop at a farmers market (as we did on Saturday when we visited the Canberra Region Farmers Market) and connect directly with local growers and food producers.
- Food vans are cool. I had read about how the food van movement has become big in the US and elsewhere. I knew that it was happening in Canberra but was yet to experience it – at least not until now. We went to The Hamlet in Lonsdale St on Friday night, where it became increasingly difficult to say no to the cornucopia of lovingly prepared snacks and dishes that kept materializing. “Please try this, this is my grandmother’s recipe,” begged one stallholder. “You can always take it for later,” pleaded another. “Please!” insisted yet another. It got so bad I had to say no to chocolate doughnuts, cupcakes and lemon meringue milkshake: there were some seriously good choices and I was already full from duck breast pizza, Indian street food, Greek honey puffs, apple pie milkshake, lamb kebabs and more that I probably ate and forgot. Then on Saturday we went to Westside Acton Park where I had a filling bowl of Vietnamese chicken bun (salad) at Miss Vans. I loved how the food vans provided an inexpensive way that you could sample a variety of high quality yet unpretentious food. I was also impressed with how the open layout was kid friendly, easy on your wallet and a fun place to bring visitors from interstate. It was also pretty cool. I will be back.
- Just because a restaurant describes itself as ‘fine dining’ doesn’t mean that the experience is worth the price tag. There are an increasing array of excellent restaurants worth the splurge out for a special occasion (yes, including in Canberra! – and I don’t judge people for spending money on things they enjoy and love), but still there are some that are not good value for money. A menu might be written in French, or might describe a dish as offering perfectly cut pieces of fruit, but it might not necessarily be any better (or fresher) than what you could buy at the supermarket. Nor does it guarantee that service will be as good as what you would expect from the price tag. Further, you can’t really see what goes on in the back kitchen; you don’t know whether they are treating the produce with respect (or even adopting safe food preparation practices). The best way to dine is to choose restaurants that have a commitment to sourcing local and sustainable products, and who change their menu regularly with the seasons. We dined at A. Baker, and in the introduction management told us how they consciously incorporate locally grown products. When the asparagus growing season ends in spring, then asparagus is no longer on the menu. Their service was excellent, too, and our waiter Jessie patiently answered my incessant questions about the black garlic, quinoa crisps, charcoal infused gnocchi and skordalia sauce.
- Leftovers can be used creatively. One of the dishes at A. Baker was braised octopus, plated on skordalia sauce. Skordalia is an extremely frugal dish, based predominately from bread. Our waiter informed us the bread was baked fresh daily for skordalia; I was somewhat disappointed that they did not reduce waste by using leftover bread (which is what I would have done). Still he assured me that the restaurant used its leftover bread in other ways including for croutons on salads.
- It’s all in the presentation. How a meal looks is often as important as how it tastes. The good news is that this doesn’t have to be expensive, and in fact even beautiful food styling can be frugal. We were wowed (well, I know I was) when photographer Tess Godkin did a session on food styling. I never knew that a simple pumpkin, fetta and spinach leave salad tossed onto Vinnes purchased crockery and a backdrop of a recycled blackboard could look so good. Mindful presentation of simple yet delicious food makes all the difference.
- Shared plates are in. When I was seated at A. Baker, I kept expecting our waiter Jessie to take our order. I was too busy chatting and hadn’t decided what I wanted, but it turned out I didn’t have to make any decisions at all as dishes suddenly started to appear. Turns out we were sampling their Feed Me menu, which consists of shared plates. Jessie explained that the meal could be served as a central plate or plated individually depending on preferences. I liked the shared plate; it gave us a chance to talk to each other about the meal, to sample a variety of different flavours, and reduced waste because someone who particularly liked one dish could eat more of it (someone at our table just devoured the last of the charred lamb neck, while I was quite partial to the buffalo mozzarella with quinoa crisps). The shared dish trend is good news for the frugal diner as it can often work out cheaper per head. It is also great for a frugal, busy cook wanting to host dinner parties as saves time and fuss.
- There is a limit to how much anyone can eat. I love food. Ang Lee’s movie “Eat Drink, Man Woman’, inspired me to think deeply about food and the meaning of life, propelling me on what has become my food discovery journey. Eating is one of life’s great pleasures – we all have to do it, so I figure you may as well do it well. But oh, the food, the glorious amazing food over the Eat Drink Blog weekend. Even our group of hardcore blogging foodies were turning away food towards the end (at least many were). My breaking point was breakfast on Sunday – after downing a red juice from The Fix I could not say no to the most amazing pork sausage and egg roll from The Brathaus. I felt like a big giant roll after that. I do not regret it one bit because it was a rare treat and a fabulous weekend with a lineup of extremely generous sponsors. But more seriously, over consumption is an issue in many Western societies and there is a limit to how much most people can consume. Many studies are now linking eating a low calorie diet to longevity; certainly maintaining a healthy weight makes good medical sense. For the frugal cook, the lesson is that extreme sized portions and over abundance is not necessarily better. Concentrate instead on doing a few things well for a dinner party or impromptu gathering.
Ms Frugal Ears was one of the 80 or so delegates on Eat Drink Blog 15. I would like to thank the organising committee and all of the sponsors for an amazing event.