Renowned Australian food writer and stylist Michele Cranston was recently in South Africa to promote her new book Seasonal Kitchen and to appear at the Good Food & Wine Show. F&H took her food shopping and discovered what she thinks about food trends in 2002.
Michele Cranston didn’t grow up in a particularly food-loving home. Born and raised in Newcastle, Australia, she lived on “meat and three veg family dinners”. But her grandfather instilled in her a lifelong love of food. He had his own vegetable garden and was a wonderful cook and baker. Michele still claims his potato salad – potatoes tossed in a simple mix of fresh mint, parsley and chives with good olive oil – is the world’s best.
Michele enrolled at the University of Sydney when she was 17 to study a degree in archaeology, history and the visual arts. To support herself through her university years, she worked in various kitchens, her love of food continuously developing as she pursued her studies and travels. When approached by a then unknown young chef called Bill Granger, who was opening a new café-style restaurant in Sydney, Michele jumped at the opportunity and today is credited as a member of the team that set up Bill’s, one of Sydney’s most famous restaurants.
After living and working as a chef and stylist in London, Michele returned to Sydney where she was employed as the food editor on an international magazine for seven years. Now an acclaimed food writer and freelance stylist, Michele’s cookbooks have become best-sellers around the world, loved for their delicious simplicity and modern appeal. We took a jet-lagged but gregarious Michele on a food shopping excursion in Johannesburg and chatted over cappuccinos and while we browsed the fresh food aisles.
ON FOOD SHOPPING IN SYDNEY
I go to the organic market on Saturday mornings and visit loads of fruit and vegetable stores. As I live in the Italian quarter of the city, I often shop in various Italian delis. When I’m styling I use restaurant suppliers for the best quality produce.
ON ENTERTAINING AT HOME
We eat very simply at home but we always try to eat together. We have two sons, Ben (11) and Sam (4) so I often find myself in the land of mince and potatoes! But a typical midweek dinner might be a lovely piece of lamb fillet with an interesting salad. When it comes to entertaining, I always keep things easy so that I can spend time with our guests. I enjoy making relishes, homemade tapenades and marinated olives ahead of time to snack on. Then we might throw some homemade hamburgers onto the barbecue and serve them with lovely breads and salads. For dessert I usually make fruit ice creams – raspberry is my best. People might expect a fine-dining experience when they come to us, but that’s not my style. We are all about simplicity and fresh flavours.
ON THE SUMMER HOLIDAYS
We actually enjoy staying in Sydney for the holidays as it’s a bit quieter and we have time to go to concerts, the theatre and the Sydney Festival in January. We go to Newcastle (where I grew up) to visit my mum too. It’s very laid-back there – we go for long walks on the beach, read and completely chill out. Isn’t it funny that the only time a mother gets to relax is when she’s with her mother!
ON SOUTH AFRICAN CUISINE
From what I can tell, South Africa and Australia are very similar in that they both offer a rainbow of cuisine. When one visits Italy, for example, you only eat Italian food, as in France and Spain. In Australia, you can go on a fabulous foodie trip to Melbourne, where it’s very European, and taste modern Spanish food. In Sydney, on the other hand, you’ll get some of the world’s best Asian cuisine.
ON FAVOURITE RESTAURANTS IN AUSTRALIA
Sydney’s food scene is epitomised by the designer restaurant scene. The venues are staggering and the cuisine is superb. In Melbourne, you can find great little Italian and Spanish restaurants in back alleys, where it looks as though the owners have just emptied their homes. So the two cities are poles apart and that makes for really interesting foodie experiences. My favourite restaurant in Sydney is the Glebe Point Diner in the inner-city suburb of Glebe. It’s famous for its mostly organic comfort food, and the blackboard menu will always say where the food comes from. I love their roast chicken from Camden with creamy mashed potatoes, and their baked custard flavoured with bay leaves and spiced kumquats.
ON INSPIRATIONS AND INSPIRING FOODIES
I adore Nigel Slater’s books and the madness of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. I also think that Fergus Henderson has done great things for British food. In Australia Maggie Beer and Stephanie Alexander are huge inspirations, as is Kylie Kwong. She’s one of the few people addressing food issues like sustainability. I recently went to her sustainable seafood dinner where she cooked wonderful fish dishes and chatted to the fishermen about the fish, highlighting which species are endangered. Jamie Oliver also gets my nod for everything he has done for the food world. Celebrity chefs have a responsibility and when Jamie gets a bee in his bonnet, he always follows through, whether it’s fighting child obesity or encouraging us to grow our own herbs and vegetables.
ON SEASONAL KITCHEN
My new book is all about seasonality and is filled with loads of recipes, and quick and easy ideas. It takes me about six months to put my books together. I work on a pagination and think visually before I create the recipes. Then I start with the conceptualisation of each chapter, creating and testing each dish at home. The recipes are then re-tested before the book goes to print. My favourite part of the process is the conceptualisation and styling – it’s the testing that’s the tedious part!
ON FUTURE PLANS
I plan to continue writing cookbooks but with a new edge and look. I’m looking at tapping into a younger market with simple ideas for healthy living and eating. I’m also going to start working with schools to create kitchen gardens and aim to educate kids about food. I would like to teach them on various levels, from how to grow citrus trees, to cheese and cake making. These days, cakes and biscuits are no longer being made in many homes and I think it’s important to return to those good, traditional values, because that’s ultimately what will inspire kids to become the chefs and food writers of the future.
FOOD TRENDS IN 2008
I think there are two trends that have emerged in the last few years that will continue to grow. The first is organics. While this has not taken off in Sydney quite like it has in the UK, we have wonderful organic farmers’ markets where you can meet the farmers and producers, and where you can buy handchurned organic butter and wonderful organic lamb, for example. Comfort food is another trend to keep watching and many restaurants in Australia are reverting back to old-fashioned home-style food. Chefs are also using cheap cuts of meat in glamorous new ways, which is exciting to see. Sustainability (especially seafood) and knowing where your food comes from will remain the big food buzz in years to come.
HOLIDAY SHOPPING LIST
I always keep things as fresh and simple as possible when we’re on holiday. These are my essential buys. • Couscous – on the side or added to salads when feeding a crowd • Best-quality olive oil – perfect for dipping wonderful breads and drizzling over salads and pastas • Balsamic or fruity reductions – to drizzle over salads or a bowl of strawberries • Rissoni and orzo – to add to salads • Frozen mixed berries – puréed and tossed through fresh strawberries, sprinkled with crumbled meringues and served with ice cream or fresh cream • Bags of fresh herbs – I adore rocket • Mangoes and watermelons – kids love them • Iceberg lettuce – I often serve big wedges of iceberg lettuce with flavoured dipping oils • Parma ham – delicious with melons or in a salad with papaya and basil, dressed with a mix of orange juice, red wine vinegar and olive oil • Fresh fish from the harbour or markets – there’s nothing to beat beautiful prawns or the freshest piece of linefish on the barbecue. The same goes for wonderful pieces of lamb or beef fillet • Fruity ice creams and granitas – perfect summer desserts and you can decorate them with gorgeous fresh fruit and a few sprigs of mint