I spent my summer on the beautiful sleepy coast of northwest Tasmania, and despite the fact that we were on the island that happens to grow some of the best produce in Australia, in the heart of rich farming country, I had a hard time finding good food. In fact, I was surprised I couldn't even find a decent loaf of bread. I searched everywhere for a bakery that might have sourdough, but the only bread I could locate was soft white sliced or buns.
It seems natural to assume that when you go to the country there'll be good local ingredients available. Unfortunately, in Australia often the opposite is true: in some rural areas we seem to be least connected with good food.
So, ironically, in this picturesque agrarian setting, I spent a week contemplating the sad lack of quality local produce and desperately missing good bread. It highlighted just how much I take for granted living in a city like Melbourne, where we can get excellent produce and great bread from artisan bakeries all over the city.
It's not that I travel with the expectation of finding restaurants in every corner of the nation as fancy or varied as you find in the city, of course. But one good baker, a good store where decent olive oil and fresh produce are available, and a butcher that sells local beef, pork and lamb seem like fundamentals.
At its best, country life can be a celebration of what people are growing from and making of the land they inhabit. How can people find joy and nourishment in their food if there is nothing more than takeaway shops and chains selling processed food that's sugary and over-refined or fried and fatty?
But back to my bread. It wasn't just sourdough toast and jam for breakfast I was missing, it was beautiful bread with my lunch that I couldn't go without. A favourite afternoon snack of grilled ciabatta drowned in extra-virgin olive oil. The crisp baguette smeared with French butter to have while I prepare dinner. Good bread is an intrinsic part of our daily life, and it's a wonderful ingredient in the kitchen too. A creamy celeriac soup or a braise of beef with onions and red wine are twice as good with well-made bread to mop them up. Buttery fried croûtons make salads into meals, adding texture as well as flavour. Think of a smoked trout salad with watercress, fennel, croûtons and crème fraîche for example. One of my favourite simple pasta dishes is spaghetti with fried crumbs: breadcrumbs fried in extra-virgin olive oil, garlic and anchovies, with a little chopped parsley - delicious with grated pecorino.
Homemade breadcrumbs are a world apart from anything shop-bought. A humble schnitzel can be elevated to something to savour with the simple addition of sourdough crumbs, parmesan and sage. I sometimes serve as an entrée steamed mussels that have been topped with crumbs flavoured with garlic, parmesan and parsley, then grilled - they're equally good hot or cold.
Around this time of year while tomatoes are still their best I love to make panzanella, the Italian salad of stale bread with the ripest of tomatoes, basil leaves and lots of fruity extra-virgin olive oil. I like to pair it with fresh buffalo mozzarella or baked ricotta and slices of prosciutto; its success relies on ingredients of the highest quality. I also think the best panzanella is made with day-old ciabatta; fresh bread doesn't have the right texture to carry it and the flavour of sourdough tends to be overpowering. After toasting the torn bread lightly in the oven, I sprinkle it with a little water then combine it with the tomatoes, salt, olive oil and vinegar, allow the lot to sit for 10 minutes, then add a little more oil and vinegar after the bread has soaked up the juices.
I never throw away good bread because it has so many uses. Softened in warm milk with a little browned onion, herbs, egg and parmesan cheese, stale bread makes a wonderful stuffing for roast chicken. Mix it with minced beef and you've got polpette, or meatballs, ready to be baked in the oven with tomato sugo. Stale bread is also excellent cut into crostini. Thinly sliced and drizzled with olive oil then baked to a rich golden brown, it can carry anything from a bit of cheese or a slice of terrine to a rich chicken liver ragù.
And if there are any keen young bakers out there looking for an idyllic lifestyle in one of the most beautiful parts of Australia, north-west Tasmania is surely a great opportunity.