Ants, ferns, forest mushrooms, “roadside” greens.
They’re not common restaurant menu items, but when two chefs go out foraging and prepare a degustation dinner from what they find, it starts to make sense.
Matt and EJ met at pop-up restaurant Noma Australia, where EJ was working, and got along “like a house on fire”. So they planned a week-long foraging expedition around the Yarra Valley and Ranges and beyond, including the Black Spur and Rubicon River. Everything on the menu was based on wild produce they found.
Matt said foraging was a reflection of the location and seasonality of food. From a sustainability point of view, it’s important to eat food in abundance and at its best so it will have a lot more flavour and nutrition.
I was invited as a guest at the first Forager dinner, and arrived at the winery on a freezing but clear winter night to a glass of rose that was blended that day.
People huddled around an open barbecue/fire as the hors d’ouevres were served – including mini roo pies with “fodder” and muntries (native berries), and brown trout danish with lilly pilly and ants. Yes, ants. I can’t say that I could really taste them. Maybe that was just me?!
Throughout the evening, Matt and EJ described the dishes and ingredients, and gave us an insight into how they found or sourced the food.
Entrees started with a a steamed egg custard with chicken broth and wild herbs, followed by caviar (harvested from fish they caught in the Rubicon River) with nasturtium, and then BBQ bread with garlic, wattle and curd.
The mains featured confit fish (trout and salmon) and charred slippery jack mushrooms cooked in beef fat. The mushrooms were likened to a vegetarian wagyu (!!) and sparked a conversation about the risks in foraging fungi.
Accompanying were sides, “roadside greens” including dandelions, pears from a nearby orchard fermented in kombucha, a wild rocket salad with a lemon myrtle dressing, fiddlehead ferns with honey and sheeps sorrel, fermented forest mushrooms, and wild garlic.
Probably my favourite part of the night was the cheese (because cheese). Jack Holman from Yarra Valley Dairy talked about the nightwalker cow’s milk washed rind cheese, which was served with pickled fennel flowers. Matt called it the best soft cheese in Australia, and it was amazing.
Among the team of chefs that brought the dinner together was Jo Barrett, Matt’s girlfriend and sous chef at Oakridge. She was behind the palate cleanser of blood lime, lemon balm and lemon myrtle, and the dessert of macadamia, juniper and cumquat.
I definitely don’t consider myself a foodie, but this was unlike any meal I’d had before. Foraging is a really interesting concept and definitely works well in the Yarra Valley, where there is no shortage of interesting ingredients.
I loved the idea of someone going out and finding the food and using whatever was available. While I had no idea what some of the dishes would be like, I truly enjoyed all of them and felt privileged to have been part of the experience.
Oakridge has plenty going on through winter, including the next Forager dinner on Friday, August 5. Find more information on the winery’s website.
All photos taken by Rick Liston.
* I was a complimentary guest of Oakridge Wines and all views are provided honestly and for informative purposes.