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NOBODY has a problem picking festive ingredients and flavours at this time of year, but reinterpreting a traditional menu into something light, flavoursome and summery – and suited to the southern hemisphere, as well as to the Christmas season – is the key to success.

A platter full of prawns and seafood cocktail sauce will these days give way to combining them with seasonal stone fruit such as peach, crunch in shaved fennel and umami magic in a miso cream, which can transform a simple succulent shellfish into an elegant entree. 

At Darling & Co in Brisbane’s on-trend Paddington, head Chef Giuliano Melluso (ex Esca Bar, Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, and The Ebury, Le Petit Maison and Kitchen W8 in London) looks globally for a festive feast, offering entrees of Christmas turkey terrine with cranberry, pickled vegetables, sourdough toast and the Spanish influence of Serrano ham and manchego cheese croquettes with bechamel and bright red pepper aioli. 

“When I worked in London in Kitchen W8, the Christmas menu was always very traditional,” he says. “I just tried to take those heavier things and incorporate them in a way that would work here, like the terrine. A nice, cold, lighter starter rather than your heavy roast with lots of stuffing and roast veggies.”

“Something like a croquette works really well in Brisbane,” he says, “and we have a manchego and potato croquette on our main menu, so I just thought take ham and put it in a croquette and it sounds a bit Christmassy.”

Darling & Co covers all bases for its Christmas functions, offering everything from cocktails and canapes, to a sit-down three- or four-course festive lunch which includes non-Christmassy menu items such as roast Cape Grim rib eye and white chocolate panna cotta. The events can be spread across any one of five spaces in the venue, from a cozy bar or garden room to the restaurant space.

“It depends on the client as to how Christmassy they want it,” Melluso says. “We have a Christmas lunch for 250 people coming up where we have customised the menu to make it a bit more festive.”

When you are writing a menu, you want it to appear seamless, but sharing some essential elements, be it seasonal or indigenous ingredients, can also help in keeping a general theme. 

Although despite our southern hemisphere summers, Melluso says there is usually a must-have main roast. On the set festive menu, it’s Borrowdale pork belly with sage and onion stuffing, kipflers, and greens.

“Roast meats, especially pork belly, sell really well,” he says. “It’s big group for the festive menu and there will be 20-30 staff so a lot of people are really going to need to like it.”

And prawns are also a menu must-have, especially in Queensland, using the Aussie-Italian inspiration of Mooloolaba prawn linguini with tomato, chilli, basil and lemon. The pasta offers good value for money for the kitchen, he says, while also providing a Christmas favourite. 

“Everyone in Queensland wants to eat prawns for Christmas,” he says. “But you can put on a lower amount of prawns because the pasta is filling the customer up. For that price-point, $48 for three courses, you are not going to be serving a lot of fresh prawns.”

In the seaside town of New Plymouth, halfway between Auckland and Wellington, Chef Shaun Martin has been serving up Christmas feasts at Table @ Nice Hotel for 10 years. 

This year the entree is a very sub-tropical prawn and crab cocktail with honeydew melon, tamarind, mango, shredded baby cos and thousand island mayo, while a second course offers walnut and herb crusted roast turkey with Yorkshire pudding, steamed asparagus, brown butter, almonds and a cranberry compote. It’s not a New Zealand feast if lamb isn’t included, so Martin’s main is a trio which includes grilled lamb cutlet, lamb shoulder croquette, pulled lamb shank, kumara fondant, peas with mint jelly and rosemary jus. 

The cross-ditch pavlova argument is put aside in favour of an Eaton Mess dessert featuring fresh strawberries, vanilla Chantilly cream, crushed meringue, strawberry jelly and dark chocolate ganache.

Back in Queensland, Darling & Co Chef Melluso combats all that humidity with a cooling dessert of frozen Christmas pudding with candied fruit, white chocolate and gingerbread.

The dessert consists of chopped up leftover pudding, semifreddo parfait, chopped glace fruit, some Christmas spices and festive gingerbread shapes, stars and snowmen, then crystallised white chocolate crumb over the top.

“That’s Christmas!”

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