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.

Dining with a thump

ONCE, WHEN WE WERE DINING OUT in Sydney’s Leichhardt in the late 1960s, the noise became so unbearable that the Italian waiter whistled shrilly, everyone quietened, and then we gradually talked louder to be heard, until he whistled again.

That’s changed, because many restaurateurs now unapologetically drown out conversation. No longer young and silly, and with hearing aids, I have in recent years shied away from at least two restaurants as soon we felt the racket, and I have also put up with the noise in more than one highly-fashionable place where I’m not keen to return.

Discriminating among voices becomes harder with age (too much rock n roll when young). But now speakers thump imperiously beneath the clamour. Managements seemingly welcome the “Lombard effect” (people speaking louder to be heard). They must mistake deafening exuberance for buzz.

Certainly, several waiters have obligingly reduced the volume. Yet in Summer Hill, a young woman turned the sound down, only for the manager to turn it up. When we explained that we’d asked for it down, he said something inaudible about other customers (there were only one or two other tables). He then devoted himself to shifting around paper packages awaiting meal deliverers. Without soliciting our order, he remained unconcerned as we departed, and discovered a cheaper, much friendlier take-away around the corner, with a few tables and wine glasses.

New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells actually mounted a “ringing defense” of noise. Constantly implored to condemn raucous places, he realised he didn’t find loud restaurants a problem.

The truth is, I love them. Not all of them, not all the time. I enjoy more than a few quiet restaurants, too, where you can concentrate on the food and the conversation without auditory distractions. But so many of the places I enjoy most tend to be at least somewhat noisy.

His illustrator did not seem so keen…

 

In a study of reviews in the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle, researcher John Lang found that restaurant noise could affect the critics’ evaluations. Strikingly, the correlation between comments on noise and overall rating was reversed between east and west coasts:

That is, in the Times, as noise increases, restaurant ratings decrease; while in the Chronicle, as noise increases, so do restaurant ratings

The quality of food had double the impact of service on overall rating, followed by “atmosphere”, while noise remained a lesser, but still “significant predictor of the overall restaurant star rating”.

The Zagat “State of American Dining” report in 2016 had already found that, for 25% of customers, noise was the most irritating component of dining out, and the internet abounds with complaints. Various apps – including iHEARu and soundprint – been launched to share information about the noise levels of particular restaurants.

So why raise the volume? Researchers found that tasters rated beer more highly when listening to music by a familiar band.

A pair of professors of marketing, studying restaurant “servicescapes”, have identified the “environmental cues” such as lighting and music that “strongly” influence eating behavior. For example, loud noise and bright lighting increase the quantity eaten, and decrease the pleasure, without an overall effect on the money spent. They also found that “softening the lighting and music led people to eat less, to rate the food as more enjoyable, and to spend just as much”.

Acoustic engineers around the world, including at Flinders University, have advised of how to mitigate the effects of minimalist, hard surfaces.

Noise could become a problem for us at the Uraidla Aristologist in the Adelaide Hills (and so could curmudgeonly customers, but let that pass). A shouty table of six or eight could ruin it for everyone. After we had added a kilim and tapestry to the walls, a further, smart suggestion was to fix egg cartons underneath the long, central serving table. Confession: our notorious cat clawed them down.

Certainly, near-silence could be embarrassing for, say, just two tables of two. But we never succumbed to the increasing pressure to add “atmosphere” with any recorded music. Instead, we often achieved the beautiful hum and clink of contented conversation and dining – one pleasure I still miss.

Surroundings are enormously important to dining. Big money is spent on chairs, walls,  bars, benches and lights. Restaurants run from closeted haute cuisine to blaring television echoing around hard surfaces on the other side of the Alps. In recent times, some owners have chosen to deafen customers, and some have chosen to stay away.

With the pandemic, crowding gave way to muffling masks, social distancing, and outdoor tables. But then the clamour came crashing back. Restaurant reviewers ought to include a noise indicator.

@GoldingCartoons

Now for something completely different … cheese savouries

Mini croque monsieur bites on eatlivetravelwrite.comSOMETIMES THINGS fall into place so neatly as to be scarcely noticed. But I have never let myself forget the good fortune in discovering a simple savoury that we served to every customer from the first night of our restaurant in Tuscany in 1979 until Jennifer Hillier shut the doors on the Uraidla Aristologist seventeen years later.

The cheese savouries became minor celebrities, and various recipes have popped up in magazines and the internet over the years. Oddly enough, no-one seems to have revealed our source, until now.

To quote a recent correspondent with this blog:

Hi Michael – way back when living in Adelaide, I visited several times your lovely Aristologist restaurant in Uraidla – and so often reflect on the wonderful food that came to our table. I was wondering if your recipe for those lovely ‘cheese aperitifs’ that greeted us at the table as we began our evening was available in any publication? Sitting here in London on a grey morning, with this awful virus being the latest ‘panic’ we are facing, I was thinking how lovely it would be to be guided as to how to rekindle the taste buds with these lovely ‘bites’. If you could send me in the right direction, that would be wonderful.
with warmest wishes
Jill

A quick online search showed up this version, “Grown-up grilled tomato and cheese sandwiches” on the blog of Mardi Michels, now living in Toronto, and who admitted she first ate them “at the legendary Uraidla Aristologist restaurant in the Adelaide Hills, where I was fortunate enough to dine a few times when I was way too young to really appreciate it”.

Mardi has added tomato in Toronto

 

That’s Mardi Michels’s photo, here. She wrote about them again as “Croque Monsieur bites”, which is the photograph at the top. We only ever grilled them draped in grated cheese.

On the night before we opened the Cantina di Toia, we were still desperately seeking something to serve with a glass of the Fattoria de Bacchereto’s vin ruspo, the local, fresh, light, rosato-style wine that makes an excellent aperitivo. The best Sydney restaurant back then – Tony and Gay Bilson’s Berowra Waters Inn – would open with something with a glass of champagne. If such a welcome was good enough for them, it was good enough for us. Like them, we offered a fixed price meal (with several choices), which we thought of as a “licence for generosity” (a description Gay agreed with).

Il Libro della vera Cucina Fiorentina: Paolo Petroni ...

In desperation, where does a person turn? We loved Paolo Petroni’s serious local recipe book, but wanted something less familiar for our customers. Italians scarcely knew even basic French things like quiches, let alone the Antipodean Pavlova (both of which we served). So, I checked out Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Mastering the Art.

It was in this last that I found “Croûtes [Toasted Bread Cases]” on page 222 of the Penguin paperback edition. The selected filling became “Fondue au Gruyère [Cream Filling with Swiss Cheese]”, two pages later. I presume that was the original filling – in my head, it’s just a thick, white, cheese sauce. A béchamel, if you will.

To summarise our method: we purchased white, unsliced “supermarket” bread a day or two early (slightly older is easier to handle). Take off the crusts, then cut into approximately 4cm-thick slices, which are divided both ways, to come up with cubes. Next, the tricky bit. After doing this countless times, I became committed to a perfect, little, sharply pointed knife, with which I hollowed the cubes out exceedingly neatly. Brush with melted butter, and crisp a little in the oven until pale gold.

Meanwhile, you will have made a thick white sauce. That is, heat flour and butter in a saucepan to make a golden paste, add milk, slowly at first to stir out even the possibility of lumps. Add grated cheese. Following Beck, Bertholle and Child, we “enriched” with an egg yolk or two. (Did we grate in nutmeg? – not sure.) Fill the cubes, covered with a pinch more cheese, and brown them in the hot oven.

Think that’s right, Jill! It’s many years since we made them. But you now have the source recipe.

Cheese savouries Mastering