Mr Wilkin­son’s sim­ple style

Field and Game - - BUSH TO BANQUET -

Matt Wilkin­son’s pop­u­lar Pope Joan eatery and bar in Brunswick East is named af­ter a me­dieval le­gend and out the back he’s gone pre­his­toric, set­ting a fire in a pit to sear wild har­vested veni­son.

The un­pre­dictable and un­con­trol­lable col­umn of smoke wafts past the only pa­trons lin­ger­ing in the court­yard. “Shout them a drink,” Matt says to the bar­man be­fore he turns back to the task at hand, mak­ing the fire re­ally, re­ally hot.

The fact the kitchen has a fire pit (next to the herb gar­den) gives a hint of Matt’s ap­proach to cook­ing. You don’t need fancy equip­ment to make good food, you need good pro­duce, good sea­son­ing and a sim­ple ap­proach.

Fire is a favourite tool and the best thing is it’s portable. To il­lus­trate the point he re­gales us with his tale of cook­ing a ban­quet, in­clud­ing dessert, in the bucket of a back­hoe.

The wild veni­son Matt is about to place on the hot­plate over the fire has al­ready been part-cured us­ing a well-sea­soned but easy mix­ture. Matt has al­ready been hand­ing out slices to taste. “You can eat it as it is, it’s beau­ti­ful.” The sear­ing isn’t re­ally for cook­ing; it’s more for ap­pear­ance and a lit­tle ex­tra flavour. “The sear­ing of it adds that smoky, charred flavour,” he said.

A few quick turns and the meat is ready for carv­ing. The thin slices have bril­liant colour and tex­ture through the cen­tre and a ring of charred good­ness around the out­side.

It is served on a slice of baguette with mus­tard may­on­naise, mus­tard leaf and a gar­nish of flower, a “posh steak sand­wich” is how Matt de­scribes it.

The del­i­cate flavours and ap­peal­ing pre­sen­ta­tion of the dish are the op­po­site of Matt’s roots in a tough town in York­shire, Eng­land. “I come from the in­dus­trial coun­try jun­gle of a small town in South York­shire called Barns­ley, fa­mous for hav­ing the best crick­eter in the world, Ge­of­frey Boy­cott,” he ex­plains.

Matt left school early and hav­ing grown up in pubs he wanted to give it a go. “I quickly learned at 16 that not only couldn’t I drink, I couldn’t be a land­lord ei­ther so I had to go to col­lege, I took a hos­pi­tal­ity and cater­ing course.”

The first op­por­tu­nity to work in a kitchen came when his tu­tor, whose son ran an old coun­try manor, sug­gested he work there dur­ing hol­i­days. “I had to do the first week in the kitchen and I hated it at col­lege but the first day I got the bug and the next day I was of­fered a job,” Matt said. “From there I spent two-and-a-half years in Lon­don and two years in Scot­land.”

As a chef, Matt did a lot of fish­ing and par­tic­u­larly in Scot­land, a bit of hunt­ing but even­tu­ally he was burnt out and needed a break from the 15-hour days. A fel­low chef sug­gested Aus­tralia. “I came out for a quick hol­i­day and 16 years later I’m still here.”

As a boy in Eng­land Matt would hunt par­tridge and quail, but mostly he’d go rat­ting. “You got a pound a tail for water rats,” he re­called.

In Aus­tralia he dis­cov­ered a wealth of op­por­tu­nity in the wild, from in­tro­duced species like camel, goat and deer to na­tive species found nowhere else on earth. “Here the na­tive meat is sen­sa­tional; I think hands down wal­laby is one of the nicest meats. Ev­ery wild wal­laby I’ve eaten has come from Tas­ma­nia or King Is­land or Flin­ders Is­land, so there’s a flavour el­e­ment there, I think young veni­son is stun­ning and hare is one of the best meats there is.”

Matt even springs to the de­fence of the much ma­ligned, and in his view poorly han­dled, Wood duck. “One of the things that fas­ci­nates me is so many hunters say Wood duck is ter­ri­ble, re­ally? They are ac­tu­ally de­li­cious,” he said. “Mal­lard is the king of ducks but if you >>

cook Wood duck like a quail, quickly with a bit of mar­i­na­tion and then rest it, it can be re­ally spec­tac­u­lar.”

Matt is firmly of the view that Aus­tralia is spoiled for choice with its abun­dant and di­verse fish­eries, wild game and for­ag­ing foods like mush­rooms. What it lacks is the sup­ply chain, mar­ket ac­cep­tance and con­sumer ed­u­ca­tion re­quired to el­e­vate that wild food to su­per­mar­ket sta­ples.

“I re­ally do be­lieve that Aus­tralia is about to burst and I hope it is in my era as a chef,” he said. “The amount of wild for­ag­ing mush­rooms, the amount of species of fish avail­able, fresh and salt water, and the amount of na­tive an­i­mals that are not re­ally be­ing ex­plored as such, I think it is time.”

While Matt, like many chefs, is well ac­quainted with wild food it is ac­ces­si­bil­ity that is the prob­lem. When wild meat is more broadly avail­able, the knowl­edge about how to treat it and cook it well will be­come in­grained. “It needs to be su­per­mar­kets, sup­ply chains and ed­u­ca­tion, every­body knows how to cook a lamb roast, they know the cuts, and they know the process, that’s where we need to get to.”

Matt said his recipe for Field & Game mag­a­zine is de­lib­er­ately sim­ple.

“This for me is about that lit­tle bit of preser­va­tion, us­ing veni­son in this way is not tak­ing a prime cut, you do this with the Den­ver leg el­e­ment, the top­side fil­let or the bowler blade.”

Re­mov­ing the sinew is im­por­tant but es­sen­tially it is a take-any­where meal. “This is some­thing I would do out shoot­ing, you have your salt mix pre­pared with your mus­tard may­on­naise in your lit­tle back­pack. I could be a tosser and say you can for­age wild greens but you can just take a nice salad, mus­tard leaf is the one I would do. “You pack a French baguette, you pop some­thing and take the fil­let off straight away and cure it for that night. “Wash the salt/sugar off, sear it and put the meal to­gether, it’s like a posh steak sand­wich, that’s all it is. While you’re cook­ing it you can cut some off and eat it tartare.”

If you hap­pen to be hunt­ing on a farm and there is a back­hoe handy a whole new set of recipes be­come op­tions, but that’s an­other story.

Pope Joan at 75–79 Brunswick St, East Brunswick is open daily for break­fast and lunch and houses his own pro­duce store, Hams & Ba­con. Matt also pub­lished the Mr Wilkin­son’s cook­books.

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