If we have anything to celebrate this Christmas, it’s that Australian Chefs have finally broken with culinary tradition and found a way to do Christmas our way.
It took more than a century to emerge from the shadow cast by our Colonial history. A festive Christmas menu designed to nourish and warm in the middle of winter failed to translate well to this hot, dry land. For more than a century, in an effort to maintain northern hemisphere traditions, chefs sweltered in the kitchen roasting Christmas turkey and steaming plum pudding, while outside the sun shone and the temperature soared.
Today, you’ll find a celebration that includes a cool take on wintery festive favourites – they haven’t been banished entirely – and a focus on fresh seafood as well as the wonderful summer foods and fruits that our farmers grow, catch and rear so well.
Seafood, from prawns to lobster and salmon, is favoured over turkey, ham and the pork loin roast, and is served cold. Summer stone fruit puree brightens ice-cold Champagne cocktails, cherries and nougat shine in ice cream creations and fresh summer fruit – strawberries, apricots, passionfruit and mango – is piled, jewel like, on top of sweet, sugary pavlova.
This is Christmas, Australian style.
Cathy Armstrong chef at the Brown Dog Café in Murrurundi in the NSW Hunter Valley loves cooking for Christmas and her menu reflects it. “There are some things I only make at this time of year,” she says. “When I’m making those things – beetroot cured salmon, which I serve on rye, and whisky cake – then you know it’s that festive time”.
Cathy pushes herself to be imaginative with her menu. “As a Café owner you have to be careful with your Christmas menu because it can end up being all about turkey and ham if you’re not careful.” She takes her inspiration from the season – stonefruit is always a highlight, finding its way into sweet and savory dishes. And if turkey does make the cut, she likes to brine and smoke it before roasting in the oven.
“Christmas in Australia is all about the weather,” she says. “It’s summer time and it makes sense to eat light.”
Whether you put turkey or seafood on the menu there is no single way to prepare it. Just as we are a multi-cultural nation, our cultural kitchen is a melting pot. Whole fish for Christmas could just as well be cold-poached salmon served with tarragon mayonnaise as deep-fried fish with a sticky sweet tamarind dressing.
At Bertoni Café in Balmain, the Christmas menu is Italian through and through. “We sell the traditional Italian Christmas panettone,” says owner Anthony Iacono. “Not everyone likes it, but it signifies Christmas. At this time of year we do a lot of home catering and our menu is all about great home cooked Italian food. We cook everything here, our sauces and stocks, because we are after quality. We can’t keep up with orders for canapés, antipasto and pasta platters.”
Summer produce also defines the festive menu at Sydney CBD café Pablo & Rusty’s. “We don’t put Christmas dishes as such on the menu,” says co-owner Chris Tate. “It’s all about the season and everything that’s good in summer. What we do, is a festive Christmas coffee blend, a roast that has a flavour profile people would recognise as plum pudding. We also do a Christmas affogato with a ginger, rum and raisin ice cream.”
It’s been a long time in the making, the idea of an Australian Christmas. “Because we don’t have snow in December, we were told we didn’t do it right,” says Cathy Armstrong. But by looking at our climate, we’ve come to realise the idiocy of cooking and eating winter food on what can be one of the hottest days in summer, and in doing so have created a day of such fun and celebration that the rest of the world can only look on with envy. This is Christmas our way and it’s here to stay, seafood, fresh fruits and all things summer!