Exploring sense of place in rural Australia with tools honed in the Basque country
So this is Mugaritz down under? Not exactly, but then there is something undeniably fascinating about discovering an acolyte of the great Andoni Luis Aduriz practicing his arcane art in a place like Birregurra (population 688), a country town 90 minutes from Melbourne where sheep outnumber people, and the presence of a railway station and a post office loom large among the highlights on its Wikipedia profile.
About the chef: Owner and cook Dan Hunter may have started at Mugaritz as a mere stagiaire, but when he left, in 2006, he was chef de cuisine. At Brae he pays his mentor the compliment of not reproducing his dishes, choosing instead to apply a Mugaritz-like philosophy to cooking with the produce from the surrounding countryside, using it as a way to observe both the landscape and the moment.
What does that mean in terms of things to eat and drink? Good things. Very good things. Hunter has an almost Basque passion for wild things and unusual plants, which are showcased in the likes of his iced oyster (a beautifully textured oyster ice-cream dressed with powdered sea lettuce) and wild mushrooms with milk curd, made all the more lavish with the addition of chicken livers and a warm chicken broth. But he’s not blind to his region’s agrarian traditions by any stretch: witness his studies of local sheep farming, rendered in dishes examining the qualities of dry-aged jumbuck (a term Hunter chooses to use for sheep slaughtered at four or five years), paired with raw flathead and dandelion, say, or barbecued lettuce and beans.