Strolling around the picturesque village of Berrima in New South Wales recently, Peter and discovered a delicious and quirky larder door, tucked away at the bottom of the stairs leading down from the main street. I'd like to introduce you to the store owners, chefs Veronica Stute and Justin Wells, a.k.a. Two Skinny Cooks.
Both chefs, Veronica and Justin packed up and moved from restaurant life in the big smoke to their Southern Highlands weekender, where they're wowing locals and visitors alike with the delicious spoils of their home and locally grown produce, which you'll see in my postcards below. Regular readers will have seen me showcase the (very yummy) blood orange honey recently.
Peter and I enjoyed chatting with Veronica and Justin, before spending time shopping for goodies in the store. Our conversation follows below, together with an interesting recipe for cold smoked Atlantic salmon for cooking:
Hello Justin and Veronica. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me… it was such a pleasure to meet you and we loved the store.
Thanks Lizzy, it was a pleasure to meet you both too.
Please tell me a little about your background. I understand you’re both chefs and previously owned a café called 'Strangers with Candy' in Sydney, right? (Incidentally, you’re very clever with names)…
Yes, we are both chefs but prefer to be called cooks, as this is what it’s all about. Veronica cooked her way around Melbourne and I did the same in Sydney. We started our first venture together in 1996, when we got into the gastro pub grub scene. In 2001, we started 'Strangers with Candy’ in Phillip St, East Redfern. There was only us and Fratelli Fresh back then, and a whole lot of old warehouses. The name 'Strangers with Candy’ is from an outrageous American Comedy series by Amy Sedaris, and we thought it was a perfect name for a restaurant. We had ‘Strangers' for ten years and, during that time, decided to buy a weekender in the Southern Highlands, where we could escape the hectic restaurant lifestyle. This is when we started growing our own vegies and fresh herbs to supplement the restaurant menu and caught the growing bug.
What’s the inspiration behind Two Skinny Cooks -Larder Door- in Berrima and how long ago did you open? And why Berrima (other than the obvious… it is such a gorgeous place)…
After ten years at ‘Strangers’ we decided to sell and move to our highlands weekender full time. We then opened 'Two Skinny Cooks’ café, opposite Eschalot Restaurant, where we experimented with adding the retail side of things with the café model. We had a lot of our old customers from ‘Strangers’ come down for a visit, as it’s so close to Sydney, yet worlds away. After three busy years, we decided to close the café to concentrate our efforts on the retail side of things. We started doing the local markets with all of our new products. The markets were lots of fun and a great learning curve. After six months, we found another space available in Berrima and decided to set up the new Two Skinny Cooks -Larder Door-. It’s like a market stall, where you can taste test everything before you buy.
Tell me a little about your food philosophy at Two Skinny Cooks, the larder door…
Fresh is best. Straight from the ground then bake or bottle it. We strive for products that are all natural and free from artificial colours and flavours. Our motto is: slow-Fast Food, where fast food isn’t bad for you. Growing our own, and using the local produce of the Southern Highlands, we’re able to create a wonderful product range of restaurant-quality take-home food made with all natural ingredients. To compliment our local range, we also stock some fantastic artisan products, which are made using traditional methods.
What about the locally grown foods that you produce and sell… do you grow it all yourselves? And, do you keep chickens too?
Most of our vegetable selections are heirlooms from seed savers around the world, as well as here in Australia. Heirlooms have an exceptional flavour, high yields and a long harvest season. These are very different plants to the ‘Supermarket Variety’ hybrids, which are created for long storage life and aesthetics, rather than freshness and flavour. The best flavours and nutritional values come from using fresh produce. We try to capture that essence of the garden in all of our products and support artisans around the world, who are baking and bottling direct from the source.
We try to grow as much as we can, but it’s very seasonal produce, so a lot of our products are short run items. We might make 150 jars of peacharine jam from our trees, then that’s it until next year. When we have a glut of produce like our tomatoes, (last year we had 16 different varieties yielding around 300kg), we make them into everything; pasta sauce, soup, casseroles, smoked semi-dried and fresh cherry toms in punnets.
Our 'Chicken Mahal' houses ten of our girls, who help us out in the egg department. This could be the secret as to why our Portuguese tarts are starting to receive legendary status amongst the locals.
Which are your most popular products?
Tomato & Apple Relish, Portuguese Tarts and the whole range of take-home soup, curry, casseroles and pasta sauce, which customers take home for the convenience of slow-Fast Food.
Who are your food heroes and why?
Veronica was 2nd chef to Brian before taking over the reins at the Palace Hotel in Darlinghurst, Sydney. Brian was a pioneer in the Gastro Pub Grub scene and was a master at creating simple combinations of great produce that had punters lining up for more.
The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation will in no doubt go down in history as one of the best tools for the teaching of food reality.Teaching children how to grow, harvest, prepare and share fresh, nutritious food is the true essence of the garden. Through this foundation, Berrima Primary School is now home to an amazing kitchen garden and culinary learning system.
We met ‘Tets’ when he dined at ‘Strangers’ one evening and were inspired by his amazing humbleness. A lot of people don’t realise that as well as being an incredible chef, his behind the scenes work with food production companies has helped to revolutionise fresh food supply chain systems throughout Australia.
A pioneer in the paddock to plate movement and educating the world about the concept of regional dishes reflecting the local produce. When I cook at home, it’s usually a Carluccio-inspired recipe.
When it comes to cookbooks, do you like the pages to be kept pristine, or splattered with oil and other good things?
Drizzles, dribbles and wine stains, it just happens that way. We normally call them ingredient X.
Is there a recipe you’d like to share with Good Things readers?
We needed a very simple and quick way of doing our own cold smoking for the café, as we know how good food can taste by using this traditional method, but there was no simple or inexpensive solution available in Australia. After a lot of research then trial and error, we came up with our own design using stainless steel mesh, wood pellets and our backyard BBQ. This is how we smoke all of our bacon, sausages, cheese, garlic, tomatoes, salmon and tuna. The flavour is amazing. This design has worked so well and is so easy to use we decided to add it to our retail line of products.
COLD SMOKED ATLANTIC COOKING SALMON
This recipe does not create a ready-to-eat product. At the end of the process you will need to cook the salmon like a normal fillet. Cooking the salmon will kill off any harmful bacteria and make it completely safe to eat.
Start with salmon fillets, which are around 150g in size. Soak the fillets in the following curing brine for two hours in the refrigerator.
(This brine will be enough to cover about 10 pieces of salmon).
500ml cold water
50g pure cooking sea salt
50g brown sugar
50g white sugar
1 tbsp black peppercorns
6 bay leaves (crushed up a bit)
1/4 tsp all-spice
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
2 garlic cloves (coarsely chopped)
1 tbsp fresh ginger (coarsely chopped)
After two hours remove the salmon from the brine and place on a rack uncovered in the fridge to form a pellicle (glassy, dry surface which will seal in the salmon oils and allow the smoke to stick to the fish). It’s good to leave them overnight to ensure a good pellicle formation.
The pellicle plays a key role in producing excellent smoked items. It acts as a kind of protective barrier for the food, and also plays an important role in capturing the smoke’s flavor and colour.
The fillets will now be ready to cold smoke for about 4 hours. Once smoked, wrap in plastic and store in the fridge. Your salmon fillets are now ready to cook up as normal. We pan fry ours but you can also throw them on the barbie or in the oven for 10 minutes at 200 degrees C.
Great, thanks! And finally, what’s for dinner at your place tonight?
We’re snacking on Small Cow Farm Eastern Feta and our own Beetroot Relish.
Black squid ink tagliatelle with prawns, beurre blanc and fresh herbs from the garden.
Believe it or not: A movie called ‘Chef’. It’s about a chef who loses his restaurant job and starts up a food truck in an effort to reclaim his creative promise (sort of reminds us of where we started).
You'll find Two Skinny Cooks -Larder Door- at Shop 1/117 Old Hume Highway in Berrima (down the stairs behind the Bay Tree Gallery). Make sure you pop in! The store is open between 10am and 4pm from Thursday to Sunday, and also on public holidays. Visit the web site for more information or to shop online.
Tell me dear readers, do you love discovering gems such as Two Skinny Cooks -Larder Door- in your part of the world? Have you ever cold-smoked salmon? And my Australian readers, have you been to this delicious treasure trove of a store?
I'm Liz, a.k.a Bizzy Lizzy,
the writer, cook and traveller behind
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.