A taste of Orange Part 1

Chef Seeto travels four hours inland of Sydney to discover how a small village at the foothills of an extinct volcano has become a beacon for gourmet food producers, and who’s vineyards and acclaimed restaurants have turned the district into the food basket of New South Wales. In part one of his visit to Orange, he shares three delicious recipes from a charity ball dinner.

HUMANS have long chosen to live very close to extinct and sometimes, active volcanos for one simple reason: the soil. Prehistoric, mineral-rich volcanic ash and molten lava eventually settles into rich fertile land that is perfect for growing food. It creates nutritious pasturing land for animals. Fijians need look no further than Tavueni Island, an ancient shield volcano with Mount Uluiqalau as its peak.

Taveuni is renown for its diverse and nutrient-rich soil, giving it its name of the garden islands. It’s not hard to imagine why our ancestors chose to settle near volcanic land, if not for the mining riches of gold, diamond and other precious minerals, but for the fertile land of a more important wealth: food.

On a recent trip to inland New South Wales, I discovered that Orange was once a village that also settled at the base of an extinct volcano, but today has become a gourmet pilgrimage of the region’s finest food and wine experiences. Its young local chefs have also created some of the freshest modern Australian cuisine that is attracting a lot of worldwide attention and awards.

Orange is a four drive west of Sydney, through the majestic Blue Mountain ranges and deep in the land of strawberry fields, wineries and luscious green pastures.

They don’t grow oranges in Orange but there’s plenty of other fruits.

The cool climate and fertile volcanic soils produce everything from stone fruits to olives, mushrooms and grapes. You can pick your own apples, cherries and berries from the orchards, taste farm-fresh beef and lamb in the award-winning restaurants or sample wine made from local grapes, while sampling local cheeses.

The relationship between the farmer, chef and customers has been integral to Orange’s success as a culinary hotspot, but it is the young local chefs who are leading the gustatory journey and showcasing the regional produce on their menus.

I was invited to be guest chef at the Ronald McDonald House Charities ball in Orange, helping to raise funds for their free “home away from home” accommodation for families with children in hospital. It’s a great charity that I support as it helps families stay closer together, saving them money on accommodation costs, when their child is recovering from surgery or attending hospital services.

Four Australian chefs including Matt Kemp, Aston Fivaz, Ben Allcock and I gave our time to design a menu that matched the 1920s theme of the Great Gatsby, a period novel written by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

During this era of glitz and glamour, the gourmet foods were Chinese and Italian, especially chop suey!

Readers might laugh that it’s still a favourite in Fiji today, but imagining rich, society types eating chop suey inspired an idea to create a delicious warmed Shanghai Noodle Salad, with fresh pulled chicken and an Asian dressing. Matt Kemp’s Corn and Clam Chowder set the scene for the 350 guests, with fresh local corn cobs forming the base of the delicious hearty soup that was also popular in the 1920s.

After scraping the corn kernals, the cobs are used to create a corn broth, which are blended with the corn and served with clams and caramalised bacon.

This was followed by Ben’s Twice Cooked Organic Pork Belly and Aston’s clam shell dessert that was inspired by a Castaway Island creation that looked like a pearl shell.

Despite its fattiness, slow cooked, pork belly is a popular choice in restaurants as it is the very fat that makes it taste so good!

Cooking for so many people for a plated dinner needs lots of co-ordination and logistics, but luckily the charity had the services of the local college and the Australian army to helps us peel, chop and cook.

On this trip I also decided to take one of my Castaway Island chefs to Australia on a culinary holiday, and the Orange charity ball was a perfect way for Rajnesh Chand to experience how Australian chefs work in the kitchen.

He quickly learned that Fiji time is like working in slow motion compared to overseas chefs where time, pressure and working lightening fast are normal.

Accompanying me and my Australian sous chef, Craig Barron, Raj’s biggest challenge wasn’t so much the food preparation, but the freezing cold weather!

With average temperatures of below four degrees Celsius, Orange was like living in a fridge for a Fijian-born boy, especially when it started to snow and hail! I’d forgotten that most Fijians have never seen ice falling from the sky but with the added protection of thermal underwear, several T-shirts, a hooded jacket and woollen gloves, young Raj did well to acclimatise to the chilly conditions.

Next time he said, bring me when it’s warmer. “I’ll need a few days to defrost when I get home.”

NEXT WEEK: Chef and his young chef Rajnesh continue their travels in Orange to taste more of the local cuisine and learned that just like Fijians, the country folk love their big mountainous serves of food.

* Lance Seeto is the award winning chef and food writer based on Castaway Island Fiji. Follow his culinary adventures at www.lanceseeto.com