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Upon entering the Li Sun Exotic Mushroom farm in an old railway tunnel between Bowral and Mittagong, there is a sense of entering a strange underground world. It is a similar feeling to that of open water diving where the brightly coloured corals appear somehow taking on a surreal almost alien feeling. In this case the coral are mushrooms and happily for me, given the cool Southern Highland climate, I don’t need to get more than the soles of my shoes wet to enjoy the sights.

Pink Oyster Mushrooms

As we start the tour, run by the Highlands Foodies Group , I am torn between photographing these fascinating funghi and listening to Dr Noel Arrold’s fascinating mushroom growing techniques and stories.

Dr Noel Arrold – Li Sun Exotic Mushrooms

Whilst mushroom growing techniques are quite interesting, I can’t help my ears tune in to the story of Russian wives collecting poisonous mushrooms to dispose of abusive husbands. Unsuspecting husbands devouring a delicious mushroom dish, would mysteriously two days later, die a painful death as their liver collapsed with their wives nowhere to be seen…….

Swiss Brown Mushrooms – Li Sun Exotic Mushroom Farm

The tunnel, originally built in 1886 to house a single track railway line, was replaced in 1919 with a double track tunnel to its right, that still remains in use today. During the 1940′s the 650 metre long was used as a store house for ammunition for the Royal Australian Air Force, a purpose that was dismissed after a somewhat ammunition damaging flood. After the RAAF abandoned the tunnel in 1953, the tunnel was used to grow standard mushrooms for the Edgell cannery. Dr Arrold now leases the property from State Rail and as access is limited, the tours can only run a few time a year.

Shitake Mushrooms – Li Sun Exotic Mushroom Farm Tunnel

Dr Arrold is somewhat of a mushroom expert. Over lunch later in the day my mushroom eating companion and I debated on an appropriate term for a “mushroom expert” and settled on a Funghifi, however the correct term seems to be a Mycologist. Dr Arrold is a microbiologist by training and having studied fungal genetics in Germany is quite the funghi expert!

Li Sun Exotic Mushroom Tunnel

After supplying mushroom culture to farmers for some years, he inherited the mushroom tunnel business from a friend who had been growing standard mushrooms in there for the tinned mushroom market. Soon after Dr Arrold, looking to expand his business, began experimenting with the Swiss brown mushroom in the cool stable 16 degree climate of the mushroom tunnel. Dr Arrold has now been growing mushrooms in this old railway tunnel for over 20 years.

Oyster Mushrooms – Li Sun Exotic Mushrooms Farm

Dr Arrold and his team of 12 move through the tunnel each day to pick the daily harvest of about 1500 kilos of mushrooms. Varieties include Wood Ear, Chestnut, Nameko, Swiss Brown, Shitake, King Brown, Shimejii, Chestnut, Wood Ear and Enoki.

Enoki and Chestnut Mushrooms – Li Sun Exotic Mushroom Farm

Interestingly, railway tunnels all over Australia have been used for mushroom production with the first one being at Circular Quay under the Eastern Suburbs line. Currently though, there are only two in Australia used for mushroom production.

Yellow Oyster Mushrooms – Li Sun Exotic Mushrooms

Eventually in the 70′s the price fell out of the tinned mushroom market and the growing conditions did not suit the growing conditions of the modern white mushroom. Dr Arrold has evolved his exotic mushrooms to grow not only in the particular growing conditions of the tunnel but also in Australian eucalyptus sawdust rather than the tradition oak or birch used for growing overseas.

Li Sun Exotic Mushroom Farm

Originally developed for a small Japanese tourist market, Dr Arrold’s mushrooms now head to the big supermarket chains in Australia and are in demand in Sydney restaurants such as Quay, Bennalong, Tetsuyas and Aria.

Nameko Mushrooms – Li Sun Exotic Mushroom Tunnel

As the tour draws to a close, Dr Arrold leaves us with a word of warning on wild mushroom foraging. In Australia this year 4 people have died as a result of eating incorrectly identified mushrooms. He tells us a chilling story of a Chinese chef who whilst out here foraged some death cap mushrooms which look remarkably similar to a common chinese eating mushroom and fed it to his friends in a meal. Unfortunately, his friends didn’t make it.

Shimejii Mushrooms – Li Sun Exotic Mushrooms

For me, I’m happy to stick with my take home punnet bursting with an assortment of Pink Oyster mushrooms, King Brown and Enoki mushrooms. Just perfect for a non death defying risotto!

 

 

 

 

As spring is in the air and the flowers in my garden are blooming, suddenly my mood has lifted and I am starting to feel alive again. According to Wikepedia, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also know as winter depression, winter blues or seasonal depression is a mood disorder in which people with normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in the winter or summer, spring or autumn, year after year.

Blueberry bush in flower in my garden

Interestingly, statistics show credit card debt, chocolate and alcohol consumption, suicide, relationship counselling and even child abuse all reach a peak during the winter months. It is estimated that 1 in 300 Australians suffer from this mood disorder.

Cymbidium buds waiting in the wings

Now, I am not one to do a bit of random self diagnosis, but I can say with absolute certainty that I could live on the equator in a heartbeat, I despise the wind, at the slight hint of a cold day I have enough clothes on to make me look like the michelin man and my heating bill in winter is not carbon friendly!!!! I think perhaps this may be more of a Vata trait than a disorder however.

Orchid from my garden

In the first four days of spring here, I have noticed some miraculous things, my orchids have started flowering in the garden, my blueberry bush has flowers and the weather has been glorious this week. What a magnificent entry into spring we are making this year.

SADs or not, four days of warm, non windy weather makes you feel damn good!

Before I rush to consume all the fragile whims that spring brings, I thought I would take a moment to nod to the sturdier fruits and vegetables that see us through the colder months.

And so I present to you………..Pumpkin Pie……..an appropriate dessert whatever the weather……

the crust

2 cups almond meal

1/4 cup crushed walnuts this give a lovely texture to contrast the silken filling)

1/4 cup LSA

120 grams butter at room temperature

the filling

3 eggs

1.2 cup sugar

1 1/2 cups pureed pumpkin

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh grated ginger

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg and cloves

3/4 cup cream

2 tablespoons arrowroot/tapioca flour

Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Combine the base ingrediens and rub through with your fingers. (I asked Poppy to do this since she likes mass and she told me that she like mess on the floor, not on her fingers!) Pat into the pie dish until evenly covered.

Cook for 8-10 minutes till slightly browned. Allow to cool.

Cream the eggs and the sugar and then mix in the remaining ingredients. I did this with the whisk attachment on my kitchen aid. It should be about a medium pouring consistency, a bit like thickened cream.

Pour the filling into the crust and bake for about 50 minutes. (Try and keep little hands and spoons away from the mixture……….)

Once the pie is cook, it will be set firm in the middle. Allow to cool. Serve with cream and celebrate the end of winter!!!!!

And that is why all good life discussions should take place with ocean views and espresso martinis.

Oh the Espresso Martini……..

Unless of course you are Dorothy Parker who put it so eloquently when she said ” I like to have a martini, two at the very most. After three, I’m under the table, after four, I’m under my host”

Diggies, for breakfast or anytime :)

The scene for such goings on was Diggies, my favourite cafe in Wollongong. The cafe and adjoining North kiosk are a regular haunt for Poppy and I. Often its milkshakes, fish and chips and an occasional naughty slice of Rocky Road making its way into our tummies as we recline on a perfect patch of grass looking out to the sea. However today’s affair was refreshingly child free.

There is something rather wonderful about returning to a cafe or restaurant again and again and not once having a bad meal. Breakfast is delish, the fresh juices yum and the wine list, well, don’t worry……. you’ll find something there.

Now don’t expect highbrow, thats not what its about. You’re a few feet from wriggling your toes in the sand and getting your feet wet, so don’t go getting all Bathers Pavillion on me. But do expect smiles and enough quinoa,  gruyere and daikon to satisfy even the fussiest foodie.  And what about the essentials? You’ll be sipping a coffee that will keep any city slicker happy.

Treadlie

If you pop in on a Saturday or Sunday morning, you will find scores of bike riders who have thoughtfully been supplied their very own corner complete with Treadlie reading material. In summer, Diggies opens for dinner and there is nowhere you’d rather be on a balmy night. Today however we had our chill on so inside behind the big glass windows we were.

 

After coffee and a lazy cocktail, we were so dreadfully slow to order. Had I been the waitstaff, I would have been ready to poke a fork in my eye, however, with warm smiles, characteristic laid back diggies style, a gentle nod in the right direction and a comforting hand on the shoulder we eventually made up our mind.

First up was warm flatbread, with minted yoghurt, chimichurri and sea salt, $8.

Flatbread

Perfectly warm, just enough salt and not too heavy.

A short while later, a wait that we didn’t mind at all.  Given a few child free hours, we were discussing the big issues, you know. And then our mains arrived.

My glamorous dining companion ordered the market fish with herb & almond pilaf, watercress & lemon butter $25. This looked sublime and by the licked clean state of her plate at the end of the meal, I suggest it tasted the same.

I was feeling a little more homely and needing a little moment of comfort amongst the wild winter weather.

 

So for me it was the parmesan herb crumbed veal with potato and white bean mash & eshalot jus, $23. The jus was just perfectly sticky and quite lip lickable really.

With the worlds problems nearly solved and end of school fast approaching, there was no time and no room for dessert, however we did manage to squeeze in another quick coffee. These rather spectacular coffee cups are a fairly recent addition and I might suggest a welcome one at that.

 

Diggies today maintained its near perfect score again today with me. I have eaten here clad in bathers (not on their own!) and thongs (the ones for your feet in case you were wondering), met with clients here, been a little bit tipsy and now its been the setting for the discussion of monumentous life changes. I have to say Diggies handles them all quite nicely.

Driving to the Gong? Make sure you drop in.

diggies licenced beach cafe

open 7 days from 7am

1 cliff road. north beach. wollongong. new. australia. 2500

 

I remember seeing a story on Colleen McCulloch quite some time ago, in her gorgeous house on Norfolk Island. She can’t stand the way the “modern typewriter” beeps at her. She thinks that women today dress like “haws” and does not bat an eyelid at saying the most politically incorrect thing possible. But she is completely likeable, and totally hilarious. Somehow the more politically incorrect she gets, the more you can’t help but like her. When asked what the best thing that has happened to her during her life was, she said without a seconds hesitation, “Meeting Ric” (her husband) and she chuckles when talking about her nervousness at living with him after living as a loner for so long and says with affection  “Well it’s probably a help that Ric doesn’t talk much” Colleen’s body is failing, she is going blind but yet she still emits an aura of happiness and contentment.

Colleen McCullough

You can watch an interview with her here.

Maggie Beer, arguably one of Australia’s happiest personalities sat on a panel at this years Happiness and its Causes conference discussing the link between happiness and food and spoke with her customary warmth and energy about “the feeling of warmth that comes not from heating but from the people around you. Thats the really important thing.” I have long admired Maggie’s cooking and religiously watched every episode of the Cook and the Chef,  but in recent years have come to admire her for so much more.

Meeting Maggie at Masterchef 2010

I met Maggie a few years ago at the Masterchef Live event and even watching her from a distance, she exudes an energy and an exuberance that is a rare quality. As I sat with her in a question and answer session I witnessed her warmth and ability to engage with people in such a personable way and I developed a new admiration for her.

More recent research, suggests that there is a direct correlation between mindfulness and happiness. Mindfulness can be defined as “Bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis.”  (Marlatt & Kristeller) In recent times this has become a hot topic in western psychology and one has to wonder what the Dalai Lama thinks of this revelation of modern research. Possibly his customary laughter would fill the room. And if you haven’t heard his infectious chuckle you must watch this hilarious piece of footage.

And so you ask, what does this have to do with cheesecake? Today I was grumpy. For no particular reason and so I was wondering, is it really possible to change your “happiness level” just by deciding to?

I was recently watching a documentary called “happy”, and one of the things this documentary argues is that once basic necessities like food and shelter are provided for, economic factors have relatively little to do with overall satisfaction in life.

By studying identical twins, happiness scientists such as Sonja Lyubormirsky from University of California Riverside have found that 50 percent of our happiness level is genetic. They call this our set point.

Our circumstances, our job, income, social status, age and health accounts for another 10 percent of our happiness. But the really good news is that there is a great deal you can do to make yourself happier, as 40 percent of our overall happiness is determined by intentional behavior. These are things people can do on a regular basis to become happier.

Recently I was at a conference in San Jose and the concept of happiness came up. It was discussed that novelty, that is, creating and experiencing novel experiences regularly makes you happy.

This weekend I was happy. Pretty much all weekend. I was away, away somewhere that makes me happy. I was with someone who keeps me warm, even without heating, and in small appreciated moments there was novelty, joy and pure unadulterated happiness.

And one such moment was cheesecake.

After taking a bite of an exceptional pistachio cheesecake that I had made it occurred to me that it could be more. I cut up a lime and squeezed the tart juice over my slice of cheesecake.

And there it was. In a few seconds, an idea, a tiny bit of novelty and a happy moment. The perfect mix. I realise now it doesn’t take much. Just try something new. Sometimes it will work and sometimes it won’t but when it does you’ll feel it. Lime on your cheesecake.  Happy.

Lime and Pistachio Cheesecake. I promise it will make you happy. 

The base

(The base of this is taken from Sarah Wilsons I quit sugar cookbook. The filling is from my “lets just wing it” cookbook in my head)

1 cup coconut

1 cup pistachios,

1 cup (150g) almond meal

1⁄2 cup butter, softened to room temperature

The filling

2 1/2 boxes of full fat Philidelphia cream cheese

2 eggs

1/2 cup sugar

A good handful of crushed pistachios to sprinkle on top and lime wedges to serve

Preheat oven to 160 C. Crush pistachios. Now I would recommend this in a food processor or with a mortar and pestle but we had a very under equipped kitchen where we were staying, so my lovely boyfriend did this with a saucepan and an empty wine bottle. THis meant the chunks were varied and there were some really chunky bits but this gave it a delicious extra nutty quality.  Add in coconut, almond meal and butter and rub with your fingers.

Press into a baking paper-lined spring form pan . Cover the base and a little up the side, about 1 inch. I don’t like the whole side to be base. I like the browning of the baked cheesecake to be visible.

Bake for 8 minutes, until it starts to turn golden. Remove and allow to cool fully.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix all remaining ingredients. Spoon the mixture into the base and return to the oven for 20-30 mins or until the mixture pulls away from the base a little and the centre is almost firm.

Cool in the fridge. Once cooled, sprinkle a handful of the crushed pistachios over the top and serve lovely big slices with lime wedges for squeezing.

Happiness.

In the past few months, circumstance has forced me to re evaluate. Overwhelmed and overcommitted, a quiet rebellion was taking place inside my head. There was so much busy…….. hectic………stress……….and it was just going around and around and I couldn’t seem to get away.  And for what? I simply did not have time to live. I started to remember what life was like…….before……….before the clutter.

I spent this weekend in Kangaroo Valley. This place is sublime. It heals. There is a special energy there and when I am there this energy fills me. Renews me and feeds my soul.

The Shed

Before I went I had a plan, a list. I always have a plan and a list. I was going to cook gourmet meals, improve my photography, style my food shots, I had some lectures I needed to listen to and I had taken down 2 books to get through. What? 2 books in 3 days?

And then I arrived, and I stopped. I could breathe. My lungs filled with clean air and my head cleared. I poured a glass of wine, I lit the fire and I ate some cheese. And nothing mattered. I forgot the plan, the list. My partner arrived later that evening and we drank more wine and ate more cheese and we stopped.

Our laptops stayed closed. Because we stopped. There is something about being away from the noise of life that forces you to stop. To take it in. To appreciate. Nothing needs to be done, there is nowhere to be and I was reminded of these words.

The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time - Bertrand Russell

There is beauty in simplicity.

 

In a society of abundance and wealth somehow it seems that we have less than we ever did. We are detached from our communities, the elderly live alone, isolated. We commute, we work late. Bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger televisions and somehow, smaller lives. Is the question then what we can take out of our life, rather than what we can add into it?

Simple, Perfect Pumpkin Soup

And so today I share with you, simple. Nothing more is needed. Sit quietly in the sun and be deeply satisfied.

Simple Perfect Pumpkin Soup

About 2kg Jap Pumpkin

125 g butter

50 ml olive oil

1 teaspoon good salt such as Himalayan Pink Salt

1 litre unhomogenised organic milk

freshly ground black pepper

crusty toasted bread to serve

Cut the pumpkin into small cubes, no more than 1″ or grate with a food processor. Cutting the pumpkin into small pieces will allow it to cook quickly extracting the natural sugars and giving you a beautiful sweet soup.

Heat the butter and oil in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat, sprinkle with the salt. Cook the pumpkin, covered, stirring occasionally until it is soft. About 8-10 minutes.

Stir in the milk and bring to the boil.

Blend the pumpkin in a food processor or if you like it chunky you can use a potato masher. Season with salt and pepper.

Serve with beautiful bread.

Enjoy. Appreciate.

 

I love markets……but my last market affair had been weeks ago in San Francisco when I tasted plums and sour cherries until the juice was dribbling down my chin.

San Francisco Market

This last Friday finally after weeks of commitments and illnesses, I could get back down to my local market, the Wollongong Friday market in Crown Street mall. I love wandering around searching out new treasures. I make it a goal every time I go to a market to try something I have never tried before.

Heirloom Dutch Carrots

Not quite sure what I was going to do with 3 bunches of carrots but unable to resist one in every colour, these had to come home.

The Berry Guy

The guy who runs this berry stand has been here forever and is the quintessential market guy. He’s loud, friendly and don’t think you’ll get past his stall without him catching your eye…..”Two punnets for $8, best quality!” Every week its strawberries, raspberries, whatever berries are out and about. I tried my first logan berries from this stand.

Wonderful winter citrus

And this is just Poppy’s favourite time of year, oranges for breakfast, mandarins for little lunch, just not those blood oranges she tells me!

Honey with honeycomb

 

This honey is non heat treated so all the goodness and health benefits of honey stay intact. Make sure you always buy raw, non heat treated honey or you might as well just eat sugar on your toast!

Lovely sourdough

And beautiful freshly baked sourdough………..be early because they always sell out!

Batlow Apples

And if you have ever been to a market in the Illawarra, you will recognise this guy, the Batlow apple guy. He does all the markets down here. He has one of those old fashioned apple peelers and corers and Poppy always makes sure she gets a yummy peeled and cored apple from him!

The treasure for the day?

And so what was the find of the day? Blood Limes! There is one stall holder there who always seems to have something a bit different. Last time I saw him it was mushrooms, pine mushrooms and saffron milkcaps. Blood limes are an Australian hybrid, citrus fruit developed by the CSIRO on a project to investigate salt resistant crops. Apparently a little sweeter than a regular lime and it is actually a cross between a Red Finger Lime and an Ellendale Mandarin. The grower I was talking to suggested using these in a sauce or dressing.  However……….. I have a hankering for a dessert …………I’ll keep you posted.

 

 

Oh, its that time of year. Winter has dragged and the flu is doing the rounds. There is a smidge of jasmine in the garden and spring is nearly here but that has not stopped us from hibernating this week under a blanket of what is hopefully the last of the winter illnesses. In my house that means only one thing. Soup!

I posted a delicious chicken soup a few weeks ago and that is still my healing preference but for a change, I thought I would go for something different. This is also a super spare change special. I would say you could rustle this up for about $10, homemade stock included! Less if you have leftover cheese, bread and a bag of onions about to sprout in the bottom drawer!

French Onion Soup with toasted croutons and cheddar

It always pleases me when I can make something from seemingly nothing! I had made some yummy beef and bone stock the weekend before. I do try and make all my own stocks as they provide so many significant nutrients and taste so much better that the packet stuff.  This stock is rich in calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and other trace minerals and it helps the immune system. You can read more about bone broths here on Sarah Wilson’s blog. My recipe is a little different to the one she uses but will work perfectly for this recipe. I will do a post on broths and stocks soon.

Onions $1.29 a kilo

 

Anyway, combined with my homemade stock and onions at a very attractive $1.29 a kilo, French Onion Soup was on the menu. This particular recipe is a seriously rich soup. Perfect for a cold winters night with a big glass of a very buxom red wine. This is also lovely as an entree at a winter dinner party but only a small bowl per guest as it is very rich.

French Onion Soup

3 tbsp unsalted butter

1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

About 5 large onions thinly sliced ( I used my food processor which made this super quick and easy to put together)

1 tsp sugar

1 tsp salt

1 tbsp plain flour

8 cups homemade beef stock (you can use pre prepared but you won’t get the same depth of flavour or nutrients)

2 cups dry red wine

salt and pepper

sourdough bread, cuts into cubes and toasted

2 good handfuls of grated cheddar

crushed thyme to serve

In a large pot, heat butter and oil over a medium heat. Add onions, cover and cook, stirring occasionally until onions are soft and translucent, about 20 minutes. Increase heat and add sugar and salt, sauté, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom of the pot, until onions are softened and a deep, rich brown. About 15 minutes.

Reduce heat to medium, sprinkle with flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 2-3 minutes, Gradually whisk in the stock, then add the rest of the stock and the wine. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer for about 30 minutes. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed.

Preheat the grill and lay the sourdough cubes out on a tray. Sprinkle the cheese over them and pop back under the griller until cheese has melted and the cubes are warm. Place a handful on each bowl of soup and serve sprinkled with some crushed thyme.

Bum Humming Soup

Now in case you were wondering about the title of this post…..take heed….the fructose in raw onions can cause a little bum humming but before you take this off your dinner party menu, the sugars/fructose will be partially broken down and reduce this effect. Some people are more sensitive to this than others :)