On a Clare day, you could eat forever
COULD there be a more convivial way for a keen cook to spend a Saturday morning? David Hay of Thorn Park Country House in South Australia’s Clare Valley is giving guests an abbreviated class based on dishes he and partner Michael Speers recently discovered while on holiday in Sicily and the Aeolian Islands.
In Thorn Park’s big country kitchen, Hay performs behind a scrubbed wooden counter as six of us, trussed up in aprons and clutching our recipe sheets, make notes and laugh along with his lively patter. But this is no hands-off affair; soon we are knuckledeep in a gluey mix of finely chopped pancetta, short-grain Vialone Nano rice, mozzarella and seasonings.
We have formed a mini assembly line: two of us mould the cooled mixture into balls, which the next person rolls in flour. Another guest is in charge of dipping the balls into beaten eggs and the last finishes the procedure with a coating of dry breadcrumbs.
It reminds me of cooking with my pre-teens sons, in the days when they were keen cub scouts and intent on acquiring their cooking merit badges. Schnitzel was their interactive choice and, from memory, so much flour flew that the kitchen ended up looking as if it had been snowed on. As for breadcrumbs, I think even the cat ended up freshly coated.
There’s no such messiness afoot at Thorn Park. The recipe we are following, dubbed cheese and pancetta olives’’ by Hay (and the balls are indeed ovoid, despite our amateurish handling), is easy and there is method and orderliness in the approach.
As with the best cooking classes, it is the collateral information that is as useful as the particular details of recipes. Hay imparts multiple tips on knife skills, care of utensils, the need for best available produce.
We can take on board his suggestions of best brands — he’s a fan of dried pasta from Enoteca Sileno, Callebaut cooking chocolate and Calogiuri vincotto flavoured with chilli or figs — but, sadly, we don’t have ingredients at home as fresh as those grown in Thorn Park’s orchard and kitchen garden.
Bear with me for 30 seconds while I make a run outside,’’ Hay announces. He returns with freshly torn fennel flowers and a basket of navel oranges. The fruit is bound for a salad of sugar-roasted roma tomatoes (Hay has had them slowly cooking in the Aga oven for several hours), fennel and radicchio. It’s a bright and sunny assembly, showered with pepper and chopped continental parsley, and dressed with balsamic vinegar, concentrated apple juice and equal measures of extra virgin olive oil and vegetable oil.
I amdelighted to see that Hay uses a salad spinner to dry the radicchio leaves (an approved Kurosawa shortcut) and that there is a messy informality in the way he composes the dish.
The salad is served for our lunch at the long kitchen table with a spaghetti we have helped make. It’s an Aeolian specialty, says Hay—
more sauce, less pasta’’ — and features fennel, pine nuts, semi-dried tomatoes, sweet little currants and those fennel flowers torn from the Thorn Park patch.
The pasta is partnered with a dish of toasted breadcrumbs and it has a homely, rustic feel; we serve ourselves, sleeves rolled up, across the bare table.
And this being the Clare Valley, of course there must be wine: crisp riesling from Sevenhill, Thorn Park’s parish winery and the oldest in the valley.
Hay and Speers have been running Thorn Park for more than 20 years; they turned an 1850s homestead into an award-winning hostelry for a maximum of 12 guests and have picked up a swag of awards in the process.
They have just put it on the market, with the hope of a sale next year, although Hay tells me the ideal situation would be to lease it back for, say, six or 12 months and continue the business.
This is one of the few country house hotels in Australia where, in the European tradition, food is an integral part of the mix (the late, lamented Cleopatra in the NSW Blue Mountains was another such establishment). Hay’s daily changing dinner menus are always inventive — sage pasta with rabbit ragu, and warm chocolate and chilli vincotto pudding are stand-out successes during my stay — and the breakfasts are of the hearty sort that set you up to plough the top paddock.
No such exertion required here, though; Thorn Park is the most relaxing of country boltholes, with or without apron and whisk.
For details of Thorn Park Country House midweek and weekend residential cooking schools (next: Spring Flavours, October 2-4): (08) 8843 4304; www.thornpark.com.au.