Being a good cook is about understanding history and the culture of cuisines other than your own. Because of increased travel and globalisation we all borrow little snippets of information from different parts of the world — subconsciously or otherwise — to build our dishes, a little like the way a bird builds its nest. If you just take the ‘new’ without considering that the idea or technique is maybe thousands of years old, then you build a cuisine that is hollow, confused and without emotion. For me it’s important to have a connection with the past, a respect and empathy for animals and plants, an emotion felt through a memory of a culture experienced or an event that defined you at one point in your life.
The catalyst for this dessert, Pukeko’s Eggs, was a beautiful painting by my father of two pukeko birds in their swamp home. As a child I felt that my father — a gentle man, a lover of nature and birds, and an artist — always held me accountable for my actions. He taught me and my siblings to tread lightly and to observe the wildlife all around with respect. As a young adult, what my father had taught me had become lost as I focused on the things that most young cooks concentrate on, technique instead of the ingredients. It wasn’t until I grew older and had three children of my own that I truly appreciated what my father was saying and realised how much he had influenced me.
I feel as humans we often just take and give little thought to our actions. These days, when I’m foraging for plants on the coastline, I’ll spend a few minutes picking up litter, too, as a way of giving something back. I’ll swap Mother Nature a tin can for some sea lettuce. I like to try and leave the surrounds a little better than when I came.
So when my father gave me this painting I knew I had to create a dish to honour my father’s teachings and the pukeko.
The New Zealand pukeko bird is quite a character and provided my family, as I was growing up, with great entertainment, from the vocabulary sounds they use to express themselves to the way they constantly flash their white tail feathers. My father best describes them as ‘knowing’ and ‘inquisitive’, as he painted them in their natural habitat, the swamp at the bottom of our property. They ‘just like to be a part of it all’ and that ‘they are always observing me but pretending not to be’, he says.
Pukeko, not unlike me, are often seen foraging for food beside roadside ditches, but, unlike me, they have been forced to do so because their natural habitat, the swamplands, have almost disappeared due to human expansion. This cheeky bird, with its majestic scarlet bill and iridescent blue feathers, is known for raiding farmers’ crops of potatoes, kumara (sweet potato) and grain as well as scoffing plenty of grass from farmland in true pukeko fashion, under the cover of darkness. It is these stealthy characteristics that have enabled the pukeko to sustain its numbers and even flourish in the face of human intervention.
When we first served this dish, I would place a photograph of real pukeko eggs alongside the chocolate ones (an identical image of the eggs in a swamp nest) and joke with the customers that ‘these are the eggs of the native New Zealand bird the pukeko. It’s endangered, and it’s illegal to have these eggs in Australia so please don’t tell anyone that I served you them because I could get into a lot of trouble.’ I’d coolly walk away and then watch from the kitchen as they looked at what was in front of them. Their puzzled, slightly frightened looks said it all: ‘Does he really expect us to eat these?’ Slowly they would touch the eggs and pick them up, examining them closely. Eventually, when they bit into an egg, their expression changed from horror to a large smile as they discovered the salted caramel and chocolate within.
This dish wouldn’t have been possible without the help of a close friend and expert of all things cacao, chocolatier Tad Lombardo, who developed this technique for making the eggs. Attica has had many special people who I call our helpers — generous friends who support the restaurant because they believe in it and none more so than Tad.
To remove the egg shells from the moulds, place the moulds in the refrigerator for 5 minutes. Remove from the refrigerator and let the moulds sit at room temperature for 5 minutes, then tap on the bench to remove the shells.
To assemble the eggs, heat a clean, flat, metal baking sheet in a 50°C (122°F) oven. At this stage, it is important to wear cotton or rubber gloves so as to not mar the surface of the egg with fingerprints. Working with 2 egg shell halves at a time, momentarily touch the egg shells onto the heated sheet, then press the 2 halves together. Carefully remove any excess chocolate from the seam.
Heat a metal skewer and melt a small hole on the underside of the egg. Pipe
When ready to serve, build a swamp nest from grasses and place the eggs in the nest.
© 2012 All rights reserved. Published by Murdoch Books.