On a Clare day, you could eat for­ever

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - Susan Kuro­sawa

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.

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