Superb Fairy-Wrens, Fan-Tailed Cuckoos and First Paying Customers Also: Four pop-up dinner dates are set

There’s been a lot happening here at Ratho, though I’m not sure how much of it rises to blogworthy: I’ve been going through all the cupboards, the three refrigerators and three freezers to take stock of what we’ve got, what we need and boggling a bit at some ingredients I’m not familiar with.

We DID set the dates for the four pop-ups  we’re hosting to locally re-interpret American Southern Food:

February 18 we are throwing a Memphis BBQ, and I’ll spend the next couple of weeks playing with the historic Ratho smoker and sourcing ingredients. On the menu, since it’s Memphis BBQ, will be slow-smoked pork shoulder served with slaw and a spicy vinegar-based sauce. I’m picking the meat up on a farm visit to Scottsdale Pork, which paddock-raises their pigs in the picturesque Cuckoo Valley. Near Hobart is artisan cheesemaker Coal River Farm, and they’re partnering with Ratho to provision what’s definitely going to be a decadent mac and cheese. The rest of the menu is TBA but probably: Silverbeet greens, hot water cornbread and peach cobbler. If the locals love slow-smoked barbecue as much as I think they will, we’ll add a Kansas City BBQ event just before I head back to Chicago so I can make free-range organic brisket and sauce in the style of my own hometown.

March 4, the Saturday after the actual Fat Tuesday is our Mardi Gras event, featuring both Cajun food and its citified cousin, Creole, with dishes TBA.

March 18 is our Whiskey Dinner, with pairings using both Kentucky and Tasmanian whiskies — and probably since Greg is a partner in a distillery in New Zealand, we’ll have to let the kiwis into the mix.

Finally, rather than pick a Sunday, we’ve decided to offer Southern Brunch every week as a special alongside a round of golf, with a changing menu to include, from week to week, Nashville hot chicken and sweet potato waffles, Tasmanian shrimp and grits, biscuits and kangaroo sausage gravy and a local take on the praline bacon they serve at Elizabeth’s Restaurant in New Orleans, using the uniquely flavored leatherwood honey.

I’ve now got two nights of cooking for guests under my belt — nothing burned or rejected so far! The first night was blessedly small, with four for dinner, and I handmade sweet potato gnocchi and served it with a lamb and mixed vegetable ragu, resulting in clean plates all around. Last night there were 15 and I threw in a couple southern dishes: Silverbeet greens “smothered down” with smoked pork bones, onions and garlic and individual sweet potato pies with whipped cream made from the local delicacy leatherwood honey. Also on the table, served “family style” were a potato, fennel and onion gratin with ribbons of Tuscan kale for color and vitamins, marinated and grilled Aussie lamb and an enviable farmer’s market-fueled green salad that notably included grated fresh beets and lavender radishes, which I’d never seen before. It was enviable because the large group liked the salad so much they requested another, usurping the one we’d made for ourselves for later.

Outside of the kitchen, my golf game is tuning up. The proprietor here, Greg Ramsay and I played our first three holes of golf together, scrambling to beat the light after dinner service on Saturday night. I had won the first hole and tied the second when it got pretty dark and then I started struggling to make contact with the ball. Greg seemed to play better in the dark, weirdly. Result: 1 lost ball and we split the match.

The birdwatching here is epic because it’s not just extremely rural (Bothwell has just over 320 residents) it has a mix of three habitats in close proximity: highland, woodland and riparian. I get to watch the “superb fairy wren” flit about maniacally with my coffee every morning before I head out with my binoculars, as I’m just about to do now. I saw some fan-tailed cuckoos yesterday in a mating display. I hope they’re still dating because that was fun to watch. Every single species is new to me, of course, but the endemics here seem, on the whole, crazy colorful. On my wander yesterday, I had my first live wallaby sighting, tucked back on the river bank and watching me warily. (Unfortunately I’ve seen a lot of dead ones; there are a number of marsupials who come out at dusk and wander onto the roads at a time they’re hard for drivers to spot.)

Today’s challenge: Greg asked me to make a birthday cake for his daughter Poppy’s fifth birthday party, which I’m attending later today in Hobart. I warned him I’m no pastry chef, but he was undeterred, most likely because he has no other plan. Wish me luck.

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