Aristologist in the Hills

Time passes in a pair of small country towns 20 minutes from Adelaide centre

Once upon a time (more than forty years ago), Jennifer Hillier and I opened the Uraidla Aristologist in the Adelaide Hills. Still a long time ago (2016), I promised a blog post, reporting on its namesake, the then new Summertown Aristologist, just down the road.

We’ve dined there several times since, which might be all I need to say. But here are a few quick, belated reflections, and a few memories.

Summertown Aristologist (with apologies to Vermeer)

While individual expressions, the two restaurants have also been products of their times. Our dining room had a provincial feel, with linen and white plates and simple cutlery, in an old stone building in a garden. The Summertown version is more hip wine bar with long shared central table, benches, a booth and outdoor tables.

In Uraidla, we went for a three-course, fixed-price menu, opening with a glass of sparkling wine and cheese savouries with around four choices in each course, and closing with coffee. Those cheese savouries lasted from the first meal at our Cantina di Toia in Tuscany until our last meal at Uraidla.

We decided that the fixed price was a “licence to generosity”, and we asked $38 for some years – seemingly little these days.

The cooking was our version of Italian and French – always a pasta, often a soufflé – an eclectic mix that might appeal to foodies hankering after simple meals in those countries back then.

The Summertown Aristologist offers a collection of dishes (sample menu below), usually centred on one ingredient, so that one can snack, share plates or submit to the chefs’ collection, and cooked more professionally. While a series of chefs have taken charge, their food has remained surprisingly consistent.

Both places set out similarly focussed on local ingredients in changing circumstances, given how we ran through the 1980s into the mid-1990s (Jennifer held on a couple of years longer).

We chose a hidden paradise of market gardeners for our location, although the small growers were already then getting big or out. I would go around the district each summer morning extracting zucchini flowers, and also picked up vegetables from one or two remaining old-style market gardeners. The cherry varieties were extraordinary (including from Julie Bishop’s parents). We were able to get English gooseberries from Basket range, sour cherries, quinces, foraged blackberries. A young family started farming Basket Range trout. Basil from a film maker. Avocados from a nearby valley. Locally farmed quail.

We grew plenty in our large garden, including globe artichokes in spring (only cut when ordered), an over-abundance of raspberries through December… and eggs throughout.

Jennifer always baked our bread rolls, and made preserves. We did cure prosciutto and salami, relying on local Italian expertise, but relied mostly on Vari’s deli and then Marino’s in the Central Market..

While strawberry growers have kept up, and orchardists with cherries and apples are somewhere to be found, the Summertown operation could name several prized suppliers the other day, although often at a relative distance, while they boasted growing all their own vegetables. Otherwise, it’s simple ingredients sympathetically considered, the old trick.

Since Jennifer and I were doing a restaurant for its own sake, and eschewing prevalent commercial approaches, we turned out often to have been ahead of our time. Perhaps the simplest example was the grumbles (and thanks) we attracted for “inviting” guests to smoke cigarettes away from the dining-room in a special room or outside. The Summertown A. has no fights on that score.

Perhaps little indicates the changes like wine.

The quick profit from brussels sprouts was ruining land back then. Fortunately, grapes were coming in: Petaluma had planted in 1979, and Ashton Hills would break ground in 1982.

I organised the first Adelaide Hills Wine Show. To get it going, I simply went around to Geoff Trenorden’s – the secretary of the excellent Uraidla Show – and he said “sounds good”, and what section did we want? Since “W” was available, we became Section W: Wine.

Winemakers Brian Croser and Stephen George joined in, and decided that judging should be done by the exhibitors themselves, sitting around in a circle at the Aristologist. The show started with possibly half-dozen wines, including from backyard makers, but within a few years Croser and George were joined by other notables, not least Stephen and Prue Henschke and Geoff Weaver. Those were the days.

While they now have vineyards in all directions, the Summertown restaurant owners are natural winemakers, the restaurant doubling as their cellar doors.

The changed cost of wines is remarkable; fancy wine prices have responded to increased global demand. For example, from a 1985 winelist, we sold Krug champagne for $36 (about $116 in present dollars). By way of comparison, Dan Murphy’s retails the equivalent bottle for $363. It gets worse. Our Petaluma Chardonnay 1981 was on the list for $20. At Rockpool Bar and Grill, an equivalent year is $380. We had the Wendouree Shiraz 1978 for $11, and Rockpool asks $750 for something with a similar age. You’d have to be really in the know to get Mt Mary Cabernets (now called Quintet), which I wasn’t alone in considering the finest Australian red, but we asked $25; Rockpool seeks $390. Chateau Coutet 1980 was $25, whereas $325 now.

To explain (not for the first time) the reason for “Aristologist”, a London writer Thomas Walker coined “aristologist” for “student of dining” in 1835, and the early Australian cookery book author Edward Abbott used it as his nom-de-plume in 1864. The eccentric name provided a warning that the old (and presumably new) restaurant cared about dining, yet did its own thing.

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