Friday, June 1, 2018

Talking Tamworth: Claudia Byrnes from Sonny's Bakery

I love a good loaf of sourdough and a cracker almond croissant. And just last month I was lucky enough to catch up with Claudia Byrnes just before the opening of Sonny's Bakery . Claudia is a partner in Sonny's, and Tamworth Area Manager at Harvest Hospitality Group, who first entered the Tamworth dining scene with The Pig and Tinder Box.

You can read all about Sonny's Bakery Cafe in the upcoming Downtown Magazine, but I was so moved by Claudia's passion for what she is doing that I followed up with a Q&A.
Photo: Supplied

Claudia Monique
Harvest Hospitality – Tamworth Area Manager
Sonny’s Bakery – Owner

Where did you grow up?
I’m born and bred in Tamworth

Looking back, did you love it? If so why?
I remember my friends and I always longing for adventure and the city life, so I don’t feel I appreciated the town as much as I should have through my schooling years. But this is where my family is, where the love is, and so it’s home.

Where else have you lived before moving to/coming back to Tamworth?
I resided in The Gold Coast for about four years. After completing my higher school education in Tamworth at Oxley High School, I headed north and studied a Bachelor of Communications at Griffith University.

What do you love about Tamworth?
The first time I was asked this question it caught me off guard and I struggled to answer, since then I’ve made a conscience effort to recognise a few of my favourite things about Tamworth.  My mum often reminds me how beautiful the main street of Tamworth is – Peel St, we chat of the Peel river that runs through the town and also the hills of Tamworth creating a stunning backdrop in the East. Venturing into a career here a few years ago, and still residing here currently, what I truly love is watching this town grow with some incredibly talented and creative people in many different fields making Tamworth more and more culturally appetising.

How long have you worked in hospitality?
I got a job working in the hospitality industry 2012 with the intention, like so many, of working to save and move overseas. I got my first job with family friends who own The Pub Group here in Tamworth. I started at the bottom picking up glasses, and continued learning a solid foundation of front of house in the hospitality industry for about two years. I did head overseas for a stint, and worked in a few different places when I ventured back to Tamworth. I picked up little things here and there, but at the time was really struggling to gain job satisfaction. I was enjoying the industry, but craved something more that really wasn’t on offer in Tamworth at the time; this was about three years ago. I had near given up and was about to move to Sydney when two gents rolled into town and were setting up a new restaurant bar, revamping the historic bank building at 429 Peel Street in the heart of the town, to be called ‘The Pig & Tinder Box’. I met with them casually on the dusty worksite, a couple of questions and few laughs exchanged. I left thinking wow, these guys are something else, they were young, vibrant, passionate and so motivated in what they do. I got the call back later that day to join a small management team in training for what we locals now affectionately call ‘The Pig’. And now I’m their Area Manager for their Tamworth venues including The Courthouse Hotel and The Albert Hotel.

What do you love about the industry?
The office life is not for me, so I love that we are continually on foot. Aside from a love of food, ‘hospitality’ is really just that, it’s about hosting and creating a space and atmosphere where people can come together and have a great time. Bringing people together is something I really love doing!

Tell me a little bit about Sonny’s Bakery?
Sonny’s is a bakery café. We’ve wanted to create a space and offering that’s a combination of nostalgic goodies with a city chic edge. You can grab a glass bottle of coke from the fridge, and pair it with a Sonny’s Sausage Roll or Beef & Burgundy Pie, both using local beef from our mates at Ford’s Butchery. We’ve got a bakery onsite, our bakers are busy working throughout the evening to produce fresh bread and pastries for us daily. We’re stoked to be using topnotch quality flour from Wholegrain Milling Co in Gunnedah. Our kitchen is cooking breakie 7 days a week from 6am. And coffee… we’ve got some mates who started a coffee company called Will&Co in Sydney, so we’ve brought that to Tamworth and it’s being really well received!

You’re a partner in the business, who else owns it?
Yes, myself, Rod McDonald, Christopher Cornforth and Fraser Haughton

When and how did the idea start?
We would often say how there was a gap in the market for a good bakery café in Tamworth. I know myself as soon as I head to a city; a bakery café is one of the first places I seek out, chasing a ham and cheese croissant and good coffee. Mid last year, the shop front became vacant right next door to The Pig & Tinder Box. Many moons ago being a butcher shop it already had a cool room down the back so it seemed a no brainer that we should jump on the space. From there it was a long process getting our ducks in a row, none of us had had anything to do with baking bread before haha but here we are!

What does it mean to you to be working with Harvest Group and to have a slice of your very own business?
The best thing about my time working with Harvest Hospitality has been the mentorship I’ve received from both Chris and Fraser. No matter what field you’re in, I believe finding someone to mentor you is so vital, also really tricky to come by. Now mentoring those under me, I realize how much time and energy it takes to believe in someone and pass on your wisdom. For their time, I will be forever grateful and for their trust and encouragement leading to the ultimate - going into business with together. It’s pretty incredible! I’m still pinching myself.

Sonny’s is offering Artisan Sourdough bread, sweet and savoury pastries, salads and sandwiches, a breakfast menu and amazing coffee from Will&Co. What have I missed there?
I think you’ve covered it all! Haha We’ve got a range of breads aside from Sourdough, there’s a simple white loaf, a wholemeal loaf, a rye loaf and a seeded loaf PLUS baguettes and bread rolls. Oh and we do a low Gluten loaf as well

Tell me about the sweet treats that your head baker David Mansart whips up?
Here we go… chocolate croissants, almond croissants and we serve plain croissants with a local jam from Little Kickerbell. We’ve got delicious muffins – blueberry dark choc and oats, and raspberry white choc and coconut. It’s been a bit of a crazy start, so when the bakers have time, you’ll start to see an endless range of tarts! Strawberry tarts, Chocolate tarts, Lemon meringue tarts, Pear tarts, Apricot Tarts, and the list goes on…

What is your favorite Sonny’s product?
Too many! I’m loving the Pork & Fennel sausage roll, and Strawberry tarts!

Like all in the hospitality industry you’ve worked pretty hard to get Sonny’s up, and it’s not slowing down. What do you love to do in your down time?

Haha yes I tend to work a lot, but when I take a breather I enjoy zoning out at a quiet café having a coffee with friends or a sneaky glass of vino. I love spending time with my fiancé Jack Massey, if we can escape we enjoy hiking, but when at home we spend time with our chocolate Labrador – Hugo. Should probably get cracking on planning our wedding also!

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Lemon poached pears with cinnamon crema di latte

Image: Kyle Manning. Styling: Jane Graystone

It's all about the apples right now. But why should they get all the fun? Don't forget about the pears, please! Poached pears is one of the first "fancy" desserts that became a regular fixture in my repertoire and it was really thanks to the original version of this recipe. 

It first appeared in the first delicious magazine I ever owned (this really is becoming a post about firsts) and I have since adapted it for the slow cooker. Such a great dinner party idea if you're someone who leaves dessert to the last minute and ends up scratching together a bowl of ice-cream and a fruit salad from the limp offerings in the bottom of the crisper. Set in the morning and forget until serving time. Perfect!

(Ok, so maybe the crema di latte gets in the way of the set and forget concept a little, but you can, and should, prepare it in advance OR skip it. The pears will be delicious alone with ice-cream).

I published this recipe in the winter issue of Downtown Magazine and the shoot was about this time two years ago. I remember it very well because I was pregnant with my youngest child and trying so hard to keep it under wraps. No mean feat when all you want to do is scoff the food and avoid the wine. It was my first ever (and, to this date, only) food shoot - nothing is ever as glamorous as you want it to be, is it.

Lemon poached pears with cinnamon crema di latte
2 lemons
3 egg yolks
325g caster sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
40g flour
300ml milk
300ml cream
6 beurre bosc pears, peeled
2/3 cup limoncello
Serves 6
Using a vegetable peeler, remove the zest from half a lemon.
In a saucepan, lightly whisk 75g of the sugar into the egg yolks until combined. Whisk in flour then gradually add milk and cream. Add the cinnamon and lemon zest and cook over low heat, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes or until slightly thickened. Cool then refrigerate until ready to serve. The crema di latte can be made a day in advance.
Finely zest the remaining lemons using a microplane or grater and juice.
Place the remaining sugar into the slow cooker with 500ml boiling water. Stir to dissolve then add the lemon zest and juice and the limoncello. Arrange the pears in the liquid and cover the mixture with greaseproof paper to prevent the pears from browning. Cook on low for 4 hours.
Just before serving, transfer some of the cooking liquid to a saucepan and reduce over a high heat until syrupy. Serve the pears drizzled with syrup and crema di latte.

Serves 6

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Zucchini flowers

Zucchini flowers are hardly seasonal, but I started this post sometime ago and I can’t get it out of my head. Like a writer’s version of an ear worm.

It’s about vegetable gluts. You know, when friends or family have home grown produce coming out their ears and some of it makes its way to you? This can be great (like, summer tomatoes), or not-so-great (chokos anyone?).

Well a month or so ago, a good friend of mine went next-level. Her in-laws had excess cucumbers and zucchinis from their organic farm, odd bendy ones that don’t fit our sense of perfection. ‘Cause bent ones taste different, don’t you know?

Catch ups, coffee dates & gym visits all came with obligatory bags of produce, but for a select few (ok, I think just me), there was a little reward for assisting with the glut - a bag of zucchini flowers!

I can’t remember when I first ate zucchini flowers, but I certainly fell in love. The sweet baby zucchini, herby cheesy stuffed flower and light tempura batter. I think they really are next level.

I’ve only cooked them twice. The first time was a year or two ago, courtesy of the same friends (who is also my truffle-gifting friend, which you can read about here). This time round I cooked the below recipe, but to be honest I think I prefer a more delicate, sweeter flavour than the salty/basil whack in this one. I'd replace the basil with equl quantities of mint and use a mild goats cheese (or a ricotta if you're not a goat fan) - try this recipe for another mint version.

We fried ours in a wok on the bbq in vegetable oil.

And P.S. Does anyone else struggle to spell Zucchini? Zuchinni? Every.Single.Time?

Stuffed Tempura Zucchini Flowers

1 cup plain flour

1/2 tsp salt
1 cup water
1 tsp olive oil
1 egg, separated

8 zucchini flowers

90 g feta
8 basil leaves, finely chopped.

Oil for frying (any light odour oil is fine, we used vegetable )

Sift flour and salt into a bowl then whisk in water, oil and egg yolk. Allow the batter to rest for at least 40 minutes.

Gently open the zucchini flowers, trying not to tear the petal structure, and wash inside and out. This is easiest if you remove the stamen from the flower.

Season feta with pepper and then mash together with the basil together using a fork, or stir strongly with a spoon, until a lumpy paste is formed. Gently portion the paste into each zucchini flower.

Beat the egg white until soft peaks form and gently fold into the batter just before using. Heat a saucepan or wok containing 6 cm of oil over a medium-to-high heat. Dip the zucchini flowers, one-by-one, and place in the hot oil - cook in batches to avoid overcrowding in the pan.

Drain on kitchen paper, season with salt and serve immediately.

Serves 4 as an entree.

I wasn't sure about sharing the end-product but then I thought dammit. I'm not a photographer. I'm a part-time-wanna-be-chef-home-cook and a writer. And these babies are best eaten as fresh and hot as you can bear. That, my friends, is not necessarily "insta-compatible"!

Monday, February 26, 2018

Positive and enriching experiences at St Andrew's College

Yesterday an apparently damning report concerning culture at Sydney University’s residential colleges was provided to the ABC. As a member of St Andrew’s College Alumni I feel compelled to write and defend the institution, based solely on my positive experiences as a resident and student for three years.

Entitled The Red Zone, the full report is to be released later this week. According to the ABC, who ran the story across multiple platforms on day one of Sydney University’s O-Week, it contains details of disturbing rituals, hazing and victimisation, particularly concerning first year students. The stories ran by the ABC featured a handful of individuals who spoke out detailing their negative experiences.

I admire the bravery of these individuals and I certainly don’t doubt the veracity and seriousness of their claims. I hope they are in the minority, although I this may be a rose-coloured glasses view. I dearly hope we hear from current and recent students who are thriving, or have thrived, in the environment without engaging in, or being on the receiving end of, such unacceptable behaviours.

My own personal experiences are now somewhat dated, having attended the college from 2002 until 2004, but I hope they are still relevant and reflective of conduct today.

There were certainly some initiations for first year students, all of which I participated in, many of which included a large element of fun and none of which resemble the experiences of those who spoke out on the ABC last night. The only commonality I could identify was excessive alcohol consumption. At all times I felt like I could put my hand up and opt-out, something I did do once, and I never felt individually victimised.

I was part of the first intake of females into the college after a proud history of Andrewsmen being known as “Andrews Animals”. The majority of us felt warmly accepted into the college by the majority of the male students. I do acknowledge that across the community of colleges there was certainly a culture of misogyny and sexism. Whilst I don’t defend or condone these attitudes and behaviours, I feel that they were reflective of the position of broader society. As a society we have come a long way in the last 10-15 years and I hope this is reflected in the current students’ attitudes.

Would I allow my own son and daughters, currently toddlers, to a Sydney University College? Like all decisions I will be privileged to participate in for them, I will decide at the time, based on so many factors – is it right for them? Is the current culture appropriate in society’s eyes and for their personality? Can we afford it? Is it what they want? And so on.

Was it right for me? Certainly. I don’t deny it’s a secluded existence for a privileged few, and I would like to see more opportunity and accessibility for country students, but I feel enriched for the experience. I drank a lot and partied hard, but I also worked hard in an environment that was acutely focused on academic, sporting and social achievement.

To hear St Andrews’ take on these recent reports, and the specific references to the college, I encourage you to read their statement, here:

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Blue mussels in tomato sauce

Image supplied by Downtown Magazine
Photographer: Kyle Manning. Styling: Jane Graystone

Too much soul searching lately and not enough food methinks. Not that we’ve been cooking anything remarkable because, you know, buuusy.

Unlike my recent post about it, I think this time we have been legitimately busy. Work has been hectic, Sam’s been a bit sick, the Christmas gatherings have started and we’ve had a 3rd birthday party for 50 people to plan. How did we even get to 50 people? One of the small challenges and great joys of living in a country town is the friendship network which extends from one connection to another, to another.

So we made a cake, fired up the barbecue, filled the kids with too much sugar and food colouring and then everyone went home in a storm of over-tiredness. Fun times. We didn’t have a party for the twins last year so it was a nice way to say thanks to everyone who’s invited us to celebrate with their kids over the last two years.

Anyway, this post is meant to be about food. So here’s a similar recipe to one I published in Downtown magazine’s 2016 winter issue. In the magazine I used a slow cooker, but here is the stovetop method - or you could even do it on a side burner on the bbq. Much more appropriate for the current season. Another seasonal adjustment is the removal of fennel. You could add a bulb of sliced fennel if you love the flavour, but sometimes it's a little tricky to find in summer - fennel's in season through Autumn and Winter.

Two years ago I did a cooking class st Sydney Seafood School. We covered the basics, which for most of us are far from basic. Filleting a fish, segmenting a crab, preparing octopus and cooking mussels.

Mussels have always been a mystery to me. These tight glossy black shells that miraculously open just at the right time. And what about the ones that don’t open and how sick will they make my guests?

Like most things I write about here, turns out it’s not hard. For Tamworth readers, you can buy fresh mussels from Woolworth. They come live in a sealed packet which is actually how you’d buy them from the fish markets, too. When you buy the mussels they must be closed. Sometimes they might be partically open, this is because of the lights in store and is ok, but if they're quite open even in a dark environment then no, not ok. 

When they're cooked, mussels will be about 1/3 open. The flesh inside should look set and have moved away a little from the shell. Like a cake moving away from the tin, perhaps? Hmm, maybe not. And don't fret over the ones that haven't opened them. Gently encourage them open and if they're not ok your nose will tell you pretty quickly. So here goes...

Blue mussels in tomato sauce

1 kg small blue mussels - remove from the fridge 10-20 minutes before preparing
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 large brown onion, halved and sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup dry white wine
400 g canned tomatoes, chopped
1/4 cup torn basil leaves

Scrub mussel shells together under cold running water to remove any barnacles. You'll find most mussels are pretty well de-bearded if you buy in the packet as described above, but if not, remove beards by tugging towards the round end. Never use the liquid that comes out of the packet as it is far too salty.

Discard any shells that are open and don't close then tapped or gently squeezed

Heat the olive oil in a large deep frying pan, or wok, over a medium heat.
Add the onion, garlic, pepper and a little salt (mussels are really salty, so don't go overboard), cover and cook over a low heat for about 10 minutes, until onion is soft.

Add the wine, stir well, increase heat and bring to the boil

Stir in the tomatoes, return to the boil, add mussels, cover and cook over very high heat for a couple of minutes, shaking the pan occasionally until shells start to open.

As each shell opens use tongs to move it to a serving bowl. Any that don't open when cooked can be pryed open with a blunt knife over the sink. See my note above about eating mussels that don't open.

Reduce heat to medium and cook sauce for a few minutes until it reduces and thickens slightly. Stir basil through sauce and pour over the mussels. Serve with crusty, fresh sourdough.

Serves 6 as an entree, or 4 as a main meal with a green salad. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

One foot in front of the other, in front of the other...

I really want this blog to be a positive space but there’s so much crappy stuff going on right now.

Last week we went to another funeral. Another friend’s Dad. Another soul taken far to soon - and so quickly - by cancer. We are all in our mid-to-late 30s, and our parents in their mid-to-late 60s. We didn’t expect so many of us to have lost a parent at this age.

And Mum has had a little (big) blip on the health landscape too. One which requires a large, scary operation and a long recovery. She is a little scared but putting on a brave face and just keen to get it done. I don’t think either of us have fully grasped the recovery implications. It’s just one step at a time.

And in amongst all of this, perhaps because of this, the parenting journey is such a grind. I’m back at work, which is a huge adjustment and a commitment I’m not used to. The terrible twos are morphing into even worse threes on the tantrum stakes, as is the norm. The sickness wagon has been hanging around for about three weeks now (c’mon, winter is long behind us). And the sleep Gods, who are generally pretty good to us, are dealing out a rough string of average nights. Everything’s just a little harder to deal with when you’re sleep deprived.

When people ask how I cope I ask how can you not? Just one foot in front of the other. And I spend a lot of time reminding myself how lucky we are to have a lovely home, good jobs, healthy kids etc. But these last few weeks I’ve taken a break from gratitude. Everything’s just a bit shit and I’d trade the material stuff and the jobs in an instant. And I’m tempted to trade the kids when they’re being brats and throwing a wobbly! But then they do something gorgeous, of course.

So I’ve had my little self indulgence, and now it’s time to play the gratitude game again, hug my kids and my husband tight and put one foot in front of the other.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Where is your busy?

Oh, we're all soooo busy, aren't we? It's not a new conversation, nor is that fact that most of us choose the level of commitment we have. That discussion has been done to death and will continue as we get busier and busier.

But what I want to ask is, do you know where your time goes? Do you ever chat to someone you haven't seen for a while and say "gee, I don't know what we've been doing, we've just been bus-eee"? 

(We'll get to that in a minute, but can we pause to laugh at the ridiculousness of stock image captions? This one is called "Casual Business Woman Typing On Laptop Whilst In Bed", but the real hoot comes if you check out this one: "Dedicated adorable mother starting an active day". It's useful lesson in how working mothers CAN have it all...)

Just sitting down and trying to catalogue the last seven days is tricky. We had an extra child last weekend as her parents had gone away for two nights, so that led to a hectic weekend. There was a lot of tending to baby Audrey while the twins and their sleepover friend followed Dad, Nan and Pa around the garden. A new sandpit was built but I can't claim any credit for that. I did make a cake and prune some lavender but I'm not sure what else sucked up Saturday.

Sunday we went to brunch at the fabulous Goonoo Goonoo Station. Tamworth is so lucky to have such a great venue in town and we went with Mum and two international visitors who were staying with her. Don't ask me what happened after brunch. We arrived home and the sandpit was finished so I think the kids passed a lot of time in there. Maybe it was actually Sunday that I did the pruning. So what the hell did I do on Saturday?

Is it a challenge of the memory or do we genuinely have large gaps in our day, voids that are caused by pottering and social media.

Today I played with the kids for a bit until their Nanny arrived. Then I came down to do a bit of work at my little bookkeeping-slash-real-estate-mogul job, helped mum with a few jobs around town, returned to do a bit more work, ate my lunch, picked up my car (which I'd left at mum's), [fill large gap here], inspected a leaking toilet, called a plumber, stuffed around looking at emails and sat down to write.

The main inspiration of this post is that it's been a while. And instead of the usual "sorry guys, I've just been bus-eee", I decided to put a bit more thought into it. On a macro level I can totally account for the busy-ness (kick-started a side hustle, returned to my comms job 2 days a week, went to my sister-in-laws wedding in Sydney) but isn't it hard to narrow that down to the day-to-day?

Do you have to bill your time at work? I am so good at it. But imagine if you had to bill your time at home. What would be your go-to for those voids? "Unproductive"? "Filing"? "Team meetings"?

I'm probably all of the above. Because social media is totally "filing", right?