Sunday, June 21, 2009

Celebrating the cold

Sydney Winter Festival at Cook + Phillip Park, College Street, Sydney

Is it ironic that a winter festival gets rained out? In Sydney it's probably just inevitable. Our mild winter gives us rain instead of snow but nothing a machine spitting out foamy bubbles can't remedy.

'Snow' outside St. Mary's Cathedral

It's the inaugural Winter Festival in Sydney with organisers taking quite the punt on an outdoor festival with Sydney's temperamental winter weather. With the crowd of Friday night, I think it's a case of 'build an outdoor event and Sydney will come'. And then watch them flee when it starts to rain.

Free promo mug and 'snowflakes'

Having pre-ordered my 'snowflakes' - the casino chip-like currency of the festival - online, I pick up my free mug and blue and white chips, ready to spend and warm up in the winter wonderland.

Careful, little one! The ice rink by daylight

It's a mixture of envy and ridicule watching the ice skaters - I'm jealous that I've missed out on getting pre-sold tickets, but the size of the ice rink and the (in)ability of some is laughable. It's downright scary watching some people trip, stumble and stack their way towards the hard ice, especially with quite an audience.

The ice rink after a session

The ice rink resembles a snow field after a session, with the mass skating creating a layer of shaved ice, surely inhibiting a smooth, gliding skate and encouraging snowballs. We see one kid make a snowball about the size of his own head.

Figure skating display

The boys clearing the shaved ice off the surface are figure skaters in training, showing off their impressive sit spins and double axels between sessions.

It's been snowing!

An ample session of people watching really works up an appetite, so it's time to do the rounds before deciding on some warming winter fare. I spy Justin North of Becasse, Plan B and Etch about doing his thing, as too Matthew Kemp of Restaurant Balzac - both of whom must have gotten a Taste for festival stalls (the Plan B wagyu beef burger makes a reappearance).

Chocolate dipped strawberries by Lush Berries

These massive strawberries are works of art in their fashionable coats of chocolate and other garnishes.

Har gow and siu mai from East Ocean

The East Ocean stall has steam action happening with their har gow prawn dumplings and siu mai pork dumplings in huge bamboo steamers.

Pretzels from La Boheme

These massive pretzel twists are just chilling and hanging out on their special holder at the La Boheme stall, which is buzzing and packed with beer, gingerbread and all other manner of Eastern European treats.

Preparing brie for baking at Del Forno

Little whole individual brie cheeses are inserted with rosemary and other herbs in preparation for baking. We're told it becomes similar to a cheese fondue and I make a mental note to come back, or even to try this at home.

Bread to go with the brie

Churros being freshly fried at La Chiva

We watched a little as churros were pressed out from a contraption and plonked into a wok (?) of hot oil. They bubbled away frying as the mental list increased with dessert items.

Swiss raclette at the Swissotel stand

The browsing ceased at the Swissotel stall where the chef kindly explained the Swiss raclette. Huge half rounds of raclette cheese are put into a specialised raclette grill, the top surface browning and bubbling to a melted goo. The melted layer is then scraped off onto a plate of waiting vegetables and seasoned with cracked black pepper and paprika. The look I exchanged with my fellow festival-er said "Yes!"

Swiss raclette from Swissotel

Served over chat potatoes, gherkins and tiny pickled onions, the cheese is sumptuously creamy and crunchy at the more browned bits. It's simply indulgent with the potatoes, but the pickled onions and gherkin are able to cut through the richness. If this is typical Swiss fare, count me a fan.

Beef ghoulash with rye bread from La Boheme

We waste no time one getting the next dish after demolishing the raclette. I hadn't had ghoulash since my brief time in Budapest and Prague, so I was keen to go back to those lovely memories with a hearty beef stew. The dish attracted many a pair of hungry, envious eyes as I returned with it to our seats.

The paper plate serve of ghoulash didn't look all that appealing but the first mouthful of beef changed everything. The meat didn't quite fall apart to the fork but was still exceptionally tender and flavour-infused. The softly dense rye bread was used to soak up the rich, meaty gravy and this dish alone is reason enough for me to want to check out the actual restaurant in Balmain.

Paella sofrito at El Bulli

The El Bulli stall has a cocktail bar set up, although I found it easier and cheaper to get my favourite James Squire Golden Ale from the Etch stall (and a sample of their cassoulet). Three paellera have a mixed paella going in different stages, fragrantly tempting anyone nearby.

Paella from El Bulli

A generous serve of the yellow rice relieves us of some snowflakes and then a few more, and seduces with its crispened bottom crust, squid, chicken and flavoursome rice goodness. The rice is a little overcooked for my preference but there's strong aroma of seafood that's quite lovely.

The ice rink by night

We conduct some more people watching after eating, mostly to allow for digestion before moving on to desserts and partly because of some serious eye candy on the ice. There's the occasional speed demon skating in quick circles, dangerous-looking backwards skaters and some who look like they've had a few mulled wines before hitting the ice.

As the bubble/snow machine cranks up, it's like a scene from the movies. All smiles and laughter, everyone's rugged up and happily skating, eating or drinking under the lights and floaty snow. It's not enough for me to want snow cold winters but it is very pretty.

A little ice hockey display

During another break between sessions, a few ice hockey kids come out and do their thing with a safe plastic or rubber puck. They seem to struggle on the snow-like surface of the rink. At some point something calls to me - it's wintery desserts calling out to my stomach.

Swiss apple fritters

Having sampled some of the apple fritters earlier, we headed straight to the friendly and busy Swiss fritters stall. An option of apple, pineapple or mixed plate is available and we're handed a plate of freshly hot, golden crumbed fruit within moments.

Swiss apple and pineapple fritters with vanilla cream

Doused in a thick vanilla cream, we're warned these are hot and we're not disappointed. Probably needing a knife, we battle on with forks and take slow, cautious mouthfuls. The texture is crunchy on the outside, soggy fruitiness on the inside. The flavours of cinnamon and the vanilla cream swirl about on the palate to create a happy, hazy sugar hit. And to think it qualifies as one of my serves of fruit in a day - doubly good.

Sated on the food and people watching front, we take time out with a beer or two on the wooden, stair-like platform with view of the big screen. Strangely, Christmas carols have been playing most the night with some now unable to help humming Jingle Bells and the like. A couple of speculative drops fall before a sudden shower clears the decks of eaters and drinkers. Without much in the way of rain shelter, I think a good proportion of the crowd probably called it quits.

The fact that there were crowds reminiscent of the showbag hall at the Easter Show in Moore Park days (think slow moving, in all directions, prams, no concept of personal space) is testament to a pretty succesful, if not squishy, outdoor event. I'm looking forward to a bigger (and drier) event of this ilk next year. Anything that can bring a smile and some fun to the middle of winter on a non-ski trip budget is most welcome.


Belle@Ooh, Look said...

I didn't go because of the rain, but looks like I missed out on a great event. Not quite like the Euro Christmas markets, but the best we can hope for, non?

Anne said...

I managed to defy the rain by going on Friday (the only non-rain day I've been told...) and was generally speaking happily surprised.

My disappointment was the Swissotel stand. Being a great fan of raclette I had expected more. The cheese was far too mild in taste (they must have used perhaps two month old raclette cheese, not better tasting six months) and in my case too burned. And of course, having a stall situation they could not recreate all the fun of having a raclette party with your own table top raclette grill with your friends gathered around (Such fun raclette grills you can order online from Raclette Australia, also a great info site on all things raclette. The stall operators either didn't know that either, or wanted to keep it a secret). Then again, glad they had raclette at all.

The ice rink was a bit small, I hope next year it'll be bigger and the tickets don't run out before you can get some :-(

I loved the apple fritters!

Looking forward to next year!

Oh, what did you think of the Snowflakes currency? It did stop me from spontaneously spend money when I had to first exchange cash...

Trisha said...

went on Friday night after work around 530pm and i guess it was the best time to go - temp wasn't freezing but it was quite cold, there weren't that many people YET, it didn't rain until probably 9pm when we were tuck in bed already, and there was an abundance of seats!

oh and we ordered pretty much the same stuff that you ordered!! :) i had the wagyu burger though and it was delish. :)

Tina said...

Hi Belle - Oui, wasn't it such a rainy few days? I think Friday evening was about the only time it was dry for a good amount of time.

Hi Anne - That was my first raclette experience and I'm a converted fan. The party sounds like fun.
I didn't have any problems with the snowflakes, but I guess I cashed up before the massive crowds on Friday night. Amazing fritters.... :P

Hi Trisha - Loads of seating but you should have seen people flee in the rain (me included - straight to a bar, as it would be...)

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I didn't go either because it was raining on the Saturday. I only wish it went for longer as its a great idea! Fantastic coverage :)

Tina said...

Hi Lorraine - Sydney enjoying winter - it's a novel idea, isn't it? I think it'll be bigger and better next year. :)

Anonymous said...

i heard the ice rink sold out really quickly, in fact you had to book pretty early to get a spot!!

Whenever i have food from restaurants in stalls, they always seem disappointing and a little pricey!!

Can anyone tell me though what was on there big screen? what were they showing? a movie? a docomentary?


Tina said...

Hi sydneyguyrojoe - Yeah, but ice skating had its pros and cons. I know there was footage of Andre Rieu, Christmas choirs and snowboarding. No apparent theme really...


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