For as long as I can remember, my childhood consisted of rummaging around in the garden. Mum always had her flowers and Dad had his vegetables, and when I cast my mind back to the mid seventies I remember a suburban backyard alive with produce. My parents, migrants from the then Yugoslavia and not speaking a word of English set up home in Dapto after moving to this country in 1968.
While Dad worked as a butcher and then a carpenter, Mum stayed at home looking after us kids, and as a young family we made do with whatever small wage was brought home. Thanks to Dad’s extensive crop out the back we had a steady seasonal supply of vegetables and trees bearing fruit and picking fresh green beans, capsicum, chillies, grapes, figs and garlic was so normal to me.
This small suburban block kept us going all year ’round and it didn’t end there. We also had chickens, pheasants, quails, a few rabbits, a pig and the occasional goat. Everything was eaten at some point in time and every part of the animal was used, down to the the intestines being washed and used to make sausages for smoking. Yes, we even had a smoke house.
I was invited to spend an afternoon lunching with the Manfredi’s where I couldn’t help but be reminded of my childhood. Along with a bunch of Sydneys food writers and bloggers, we wandered the gardens on the 16 acre property that make up Bells at Killcare, a glorious boutique hotel and spa almost two hours north of Sydney.
His name is Stefano Manfredi, yet some call him The Godfather of Italian cooking in this country. You may be intimidated by someone of this calibre, a person with award-winners such as Restaurant Manfredi and Bel Mondo under their belt, but the man that proudly led us through his garden couldn’t have been more humble.
Steve walked us around the vege garden at the rear of The Manor House and yanked massive turnips and red onion from the soil, encouraging us to pick our own. It’s been a few years since I did this! Artichokes and horseradish sit by shrubs of rosemary and sorrel and it’s good to see that I’m not the only one with a garden that attracts snails and slugs.
This sort of sustainability has only recently started here. Italian cooking is traditionally sustainable and kept very local, and what they’re trying to do at the restaurant is get more of the menu from the garden. It’s a challenging task, but they’re trying.
Further down from the first vege patch we’re led to a sizeable chicken coop where we pick a bunch of eggs and shown a new area sprouting fresh greens. Three full-time gardeners as well as the chefs plant the crops, and you can imagine the pleasure on guests faces when they see a chef walk from the kitchen with a basket and pick from the garden.
From garden to plate. Or as my Dad still says, “garden fresh!”
Our group took lunch in the private dining room where, much like the main dining floor, it is bright and airy with splashes of blues and whites on the inside with outlooks over the grassy terrace, trees and hedges. I truly felt like I was on a micro-holiday and quietly vowed to myself another trip up here was in order.
Olives, crusty bread rolls and olive oil scatter the table along with glasses of freshly poured Falanghina, one of the oldest grape varieties in Italy and a grape I’d not tasted until now. It’s a food wine, an al fresco wine and a wine very easy to drink.
The first tasty morsel to hit our buds is a meatball that sits harpooned on a mound of salsa verde. The polpettine di melanzana is not your average meatball as there’s actually no meat in sight. The crispy shell of crumbs gives way to blanched and cubed eggplant with a molten core of pecorino cheese.
At this point I’m wondering if I distracted Julie Manfredi (sitting next to me) long enough, whether she’d notice her own plate absent of an eggplant meatball. The flavours are deliciously simple and the salsa verde is divine. I just wished I’d kept some bread to mop up every tasty molecule.
Steve tells us that he’s already working on a variation of this dish where the eggplant is charred over flames to introduce smoky characteristics for a more meaty flavour. Bring it on.
The next dish to arrive looks like the Mediterannean summer on a plate. Pomodorino primavera, carciofi & crema de cannellini. I’m thinking the small tomato that takes centre stage has been snap-blanched, chilled and peeled before nestled on creamed cannellini beans and artichoke that was probably picked that same day. Again, simple flavours that work impeccably well with that generous slurp of Falanghina.
Being this close to the water had me craving some seafood and gladly that came in the form of calamaretti insaccati. The small squid is filled with tasty pieces of prawn and the cushion of polenta and broth rounded things off nicely. Beautiful flavours of the ocean.
The lamb sacchetti steals my heart for the mere fact that they’re dumplings. If you know who I am you know that I love my dumplings in any way, shape or form. The little sacco (sacks) of beautifully seasoned lamb and rosemary take very little chewing and just melt in the mouth. At this point we’re sipping on Santadi Shardana, a Sardinian red made up of two grape varieties. Another good drop.
Petto d’anitra arrosto is our final savoury dish of the day and lays silky and pink on pan-tossed radish tops in garlic. The meat is beyond tender and juicy but the addition of pickled turnips caught me off guard. Going from soft and seasoned duck breast to sharp, sour and crunchy turnips was a slap to the senses, yet somehow it worked.
As the Dolce Toscolo is poured after our duck dish we get the torta di ciliegie, an eggy baked custard tart studded with cherries. The quickly melting scoop of pinenut and rosemary gelato is a winning flavour combo. I’m already thinking of where I can use this flavour combo in my own creation. Thanks for the idea, Steve.
Finally, yes we’re coming to the end, we relocate to the bar for coffees and chocolate, coffee and pistachio biscottini. Coffee, of course, is none other than Espresso di Manfredi. Steve’s personal blend.
As we prepare to leave and head back to the city, Steve gives me the giant red onion he picked from the garden to take home and enjoy. With a tip on how I could cook it. As a few of us pile into the Bells at Killcare van Steve comes out with a box of Peroni beer on ice.
Thanks for a great afternoon, guys.
hnf dined courtesy of Manfredi at Bells