Friday, December 24, 2004

Australian food ingredients from Cherikoff Rare Spices

I often concentrate on the penetration of Cherikoff ingredients into restaurants to showcase how they are being used domestically and in our overseas' promotions. However, manufacturers like Moores Bakery, Dick Smith Foods and McCormicks, amongst many others who use my products in their offerings, are making it easy for everyone to try authentic Australian flavours.

I would like to give you a little insight into the science and product development behind one of my trading names; Cherikoff Rare Spices.

The first step in the ladder is the analysis of the herb, spice, fruit or extracts from them. Just to give you one obstacle I encountered some years ago. I had collected this amazing wild pepperleaf from the mountain ranges behind Canberra. It was draped in snow at the time so the name 'snow pepper' wasn't too inspired but I thought very appropriate. And the flavour was this incredible peppery heat with a taste/smell coming through quite late of over-ripe banana and a hint of tropical fruit. Mangosteen maybe. Or black sapote.

So I thought; here's a new commercial variety. It's going to be worth millions! Well it still might be but not in the food industry and I hope I don't encourage too many entrepreneurs with my next comments.

I collected a bag full of leaves and laid them out to dry in the back of my truck to be analysed when I got back to The Human Nutrition Unit at the University of Sydney where I was working at the time. As it turned out, the leaves contained a compound which could have prejudiced the whole fledgling native food industry - safrole.

Safrole is a naturally occurring substance and has been used as a flavoring agent in drugs, beverages and foods. Safrole is an important raw material for the chemical industry because of two derivatives: heliotropin, which is widely used as a fragrance and flavoring agent, and piperonyl butoxide (PBO), a vital ingredient of pyrethroid insecticides. Natural pyrethrum in particular would not be an economical insecticide without the addiction of PBO as a synergist and the future of the natural pyrethrum industry is linked to the continued availability of PBO. Safrole has many fragrance applications in household products such as floor waxes, polishes, soaps, detergents, and cleaning agents. Oil of sassafras, which contains safrole, was formerly used to flavor some soft drinks, such as root beer. However, as of 1960, this use was no longer permitted in the U.S.A It has been shown to be a cancer causing agent in animals even though it has had no testing in humans.

The cruncher is that safrole is also an ingredient used to manufacture Ecstasy, a psychoactive drug that affects the brain's use of the naturally-produced chemical serotonin, which regulates mood and aggression. Safrole can also be chemically converted to morphine and then heroin. Hence the problem.

Diary notes follow: Great product. Huge potential. Evaluate night club market (only kidding).

There is still some safrole in our diets from spices such as mace and nutmeg but our mountain pepper and pepperberries contain extremely tiny amounts. In fact, the extract from the leaves which is a highly concentrated, green-black goo contains only parts per trillion of safrole, making it totally safe to use in food. The spice we use today, comes from wild harvests and pepper plants growing in valleys and up hillsides have been screened for their safrole content and only those plants passing our tests were documented and are now routinely harvested.

The same sort of approach has been applied to lemon myrtle, aniseed myrtle, Australian mint and peppermint, wattleseed and all the other foods now entering international markets as authentic Australian ingredients. Probably more testing than most conventional foods and hence safer than them as well.

So on to step two: I then took the ingredients and considered just how their actual flavours are best delivered. Many chefs find lemon myrtle a challenge and I can totally understand. It smells more than it tastes and being very volatile, the flavour can improve the kitchen but not the dish. The first step is to realise when to add lemon myrtle (as in after the cooking) but the next step was back in the food development lab.

The smell-taste of lemon myrtle is unbalanced. It lacks flavour on the palate (the tongue and the lips). We expect some acid taste from lemon, lime and lemongrass notes but they aren't there in lemon mytle. And so I developed Oz lemon which is a complete lemon myrtle mix and not only more intense in flavour because of the encapsulated lemon myrtle essential oils I add (that's another story but have a look here for more information if you're interested) but because of the aniseed myrtle, lemon aspen and lemon peel I combine with the best quality lemon myrtle available. Taste it for yourself and compare the colour of Oz lemon to any lemon myrtle on the market today. I am proud of only stocking the best.

I could go on to my discovery and development of wattleseed and many other stories but I'll leave that for another day and to what I have already written in the past. There's a lot covered in the Dining Downunder cookbook too adding to it's value as a reference book on the development of Australian cuisine and a must have for anyone reading this blog. Get your copy here.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Australian cuisine in Thailand

It's been a week since I and Benjamin Christie got back from an Australian cuisine promotion we ran at the Sheraton Grande Laguna Phuket followed up with meetings in Bangkok with numerous chefs from various international hotels. Have a look at Benjamin's blog for a great write up on the promotion we ran. There was the Loi Krathong Festival and local beauty pageant which coincided with the full moon on our arrival and then we took the reins for the start of our Australian food promotion. We had a la carte dishes in the Tea House restaurant, some contributions to The Marketplace buffet and Benjamin and I had centre stage for our demonstration cooking presentations each night from 7pm.

Working with the expat and local chefs was a real treat. Aussie Exec Chef Glen Roberts, showed us around and introduced us to his team then helped co-ordinate our offerings considering the Asian kitchens we had to work in. We experienced the magic cast by Prageet in the pastry kitchen and the support of Executive Sous Chef, Suwin and the supreme efforts of Chef de Partie, Prawit and the rest of the team. Thanks guys.

I should also mention that we wouldn't even have left home if it were not for GM Andrew Jessop who proved to be a real fan of our show, Dining Downunder. Andrew urged Glen to contact us to help out with some food ideas to augment an Aboriginal art exhibit being held in the resort. As time was short, it ended up easier for all concerned and feasible to get us to Phuket to run the promotion hands on. With more support from F&B Torsten Richter and my contacts in Vitafresh we got ourselves and all the products over on what was really only a few weeks notice.

So here's a bit of a photo summary just to put you into the picture.

Incidentally, you might have read about the Free Trade Agreement now being effected between Australia and Thailand. Well I learned a bit about how the Thai system has worked for a long time and probably will continue to work in the future, FTA or not. You see, getting goods to Thailand customs is one thing and political agreements on tariffs another. But if an exporter doesn't pay customs their expected tea money then goods have a habit of sitting on the docks for some time. It might be that you have to come back again later, or tomorrow or the next day. In fact, unless the gratuity is paid, it could be weeks before the 'backlog' is cleared enough for the right people to attend to the customs clearance needed to get your goods to your customer. Funny how it works and I look forward to collaborating with Keith Bell from Vitafresh for my continuing trade into Thailand.

Still, the response to and interest in our offering was terrific. We now have 2 more bookings for Thailand and referrals to 4 other hotels around the world. And you can bet we'll pursue these in our drive to promote Australian cuisine to the international food community.

So what makes our food so interesting?

And how does it differ from the fusion food offered by the PR chefs we hear so much about?

Well each world cuisine has recognisable dishes such as coc au vin (what else but French, even if written as chicken in red wine) and sushimi, paella, fettuccine, beef and Yorkshire pudding, borscht are all identifiable with their respective countries of origin. Most can be glitzed up for 4 or 5 Star service (well, maybe the traditional British offering would need work).

But I object to the often repeated claim that Australian cuisine is the simple use of fresh ingredients because so many other nationalities do simple food better than us Aussies. And what chef chooses to use ingredients which are not fresh anyway? In fact, in Zimbabwe, with little or no refrigeration, meats are often far fresher than in Australia. They just have to be.

This is an often repeated but clearly foolish description of Australian cuisine and one which belies the truth that most Asutralian chefs can't explain any differences in their cooking to that of colleagues in Tokyo, San Francisco and even London.

There is a difference and it's a wild one

What makes Australian cuisine truly different are the native ingredients which can only be found in this country. They are unique in distribution, distinctive in taste and their application yields dishes which are identifiably Australian even if the influence of the combination used is from another country.

grassfed beef with pepperberry and riberry jus

Australian lamb with a bunya nut farce and wild mint and macadamia nut pesto

paperbark smoked chicken on sweet potato slices and bok choy with Ozyaki*

Wildfire spice crusted prawn on rice noodles finished with wattleseed extract

Oz lemon creme brulee with glace quandongs

wattleseed pavlova with a wild rosella coulis and wild limes

Wattleccino** or wild herb teas

* Ozyaki is a trade marked, Asian inspired sauce infused with aniseed myrtle, mountain pepper leaf extract and pepperberries

** Wattleccino is a trade mark for a wattleseed cappuccino made from wattleseed extract and frothed milk.

Clearly these dishes might rely on some familiarity of the native Australian ingredients but it is the same with some of the culturally specific terms listed above. So it is a matter of time, education and promotion which is what Dining Downunder and Cherikoff Australian Cuisine promotions are all about.

We welcome enquiries from Executive Chefs about having us at your hotel and still have a few spots available after June 2005. But you'll have to hurry as they are filling up fast.

For my other readers, if you haven't visited already, please check out my websites at Cherikoff Food Services and Australian herbs and spices.