Vive la France: COVID in glory

May 25th, 2020Vive la France: COVID in glory

TAKEAWAY meals have become what some politicians love to call "the new normal".

TAKEAWAY meals have become what some politicians love to call “the new normal”. Ready-to-cook meals for a week are being delivered around the Central Highlands by a fleet of vans, some brand-new, also carrying computer equipment, puzzles, shoes and wine.

The revolution wrought by COVID-19 is locked in. But here’s a fresh twist: takeaway music. When Matthew Carnell started lining up takeaways at his two-year-old Daylesford attraction, Bistro Terroir, he was discussing how the restaurant’s atmosphere might be created.

Then it came: music. With instructions on heating meals he explained how to beam in bouncy French numbers, while possibly dining by candlelight.

“I’m not here to make money,” he says of these pandemic months. “We just want to get everyone through and make some sense of normality.”

Getting through means dishes such as steak frites, minus the frites because chips aren’t much when reheated. Little wonder, however, that this dish was so popular.

Award-winning Sher Wagyu beef from Ballan, most of which usually goes to Japan, came with mashed spuds instead and a sauce.

The beef was cooked by the sous vide (under vacuum) method where it is sealed in a bag and cooked in a water bath at a precise temperature (55 degrees in this case).  All it needed was searing and rewarming. Served with Paris butter, this was $30 per person, but was often enough for two.

One night we had Matthew’s simplified bouillabaisse, which, pleasingly, began as a simple Mediterranean fisherman’s soup made either from the day’s catch or unsaleable left-overs, flavoured with olive oil, garlic, leeks or onions, tomatoes and herbs. Six fish are the ideal, including lobster and crabs.

Here it was a tasty white fish and scallops in an excellent soup. Less decadent, extravagant – and expensive, as Matthew says.

One course I enjoyed was French onion soup, the onions having been cooked just short of burning to give them intense flavour.

The French combination of beans baked with meat to produce a cassoulet is ideal for this time of the year. We had a pork version, with locally made sausages and it was rich and generous enough for another meal the next day, when it’s even better.

Matthew has been promoting local wines and with this dish came a bottle of excellent red from the Latta stable via Dos Deli at the other end of town.

A lot of rebuilding is going on in the bistro. It has taken over the former apothecary next door, which will more than double the seating to 65, and double as a venue. But COVID-19 safety will mean just 10 spaced diners in each room, with two sittings at weekends.

The rear outdoor area, where portraits of a great of French cooking, Paul Bocuse, shares space with the man who brought rock to his country, Johnny Hallyday, and others, Matthew has plans for mid-winter.

If COVID-19 subsides, there will be a “Christmas market” in July, with cassoulet, charcuterie and mulled wine.

And after Winter, breakfast will be on the menu. He’ll serve croque monsieur, a hot sandwich of ham and cheese, and its more elaborate sibling, croque madame, of gruyere cheese, salty ham, a rich bechamel sauce and Dijon mustard on crunchy rustic bread. With coffee.

Matthew’s passion for what he says are the flavour and passion of French food is clear. For someone who once washed dishes for four years, worked 17-hour-days in a Michelin-starred Paris establishment and “only” 12-hour days in the French Alps, he appears to have reproduced that flavour and passion here.

Now, all we await is the café’s exterior sanitising station, the provision of name, address and phone number at the door for diners without the COVID-19 app and, voila, the new normal.                                                            

Words: Kevin Childs

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