Frank Camorra is really looking forward to eating out in Canberra. He hasn't spent a huge amount of time in the capital and wants to change that when he comes up from Melbourne later in October for The Canberra Times Good Food Month. "From third hand knowledge it's really progressed a lot and there's a lot of new restaurants opening up following that casual dining trend that's happening in Melbourne and Sydney," he says. "I'm [in Canberra] for three or four nights so I'm going to hopefully try a few out in that period."
Camorra knows a thing or two about relaxed, casual dining. He popularised it with cool, relaxed tapas and sherry cocktails at MoVida, his buzzy restaurant on Hosier Lane in Melbourne, getting diners used to the idea of a drink and a simple platter of excellent bread, fine olive oil and really good tinned anchovies. It's been such a successful recipe that he's turned it into four MoVida incarnations, including one in Sydney.
And now he's turned it into a new cookbook - MoVida Solera, which showcases the food of Andalusia in southern Spain, the warm coastal cities and villages filled with people cooking simple, easy fare. Camorra wrote the book with Fairfax food writer Richard Cornish, and the pair will launch the cookbook in Canberra at the National Gallery of Australia on October 20. I'm hosting the event and I have to confess to Camorra that I've never hosted one before. He's comfortingly casual on the topic ("don't worry, it will be fun"). A couple of days after that, on October 22, Camorra goes into the kitchen at Parlour Wine Room in NewActon for a special Good Food Month dinner. It has sold out completely.
What can diners expect? "My initial thoughts were to structure the menu around the book and then I had a rethink about it and thought, well, it's probably not what people want," he says. Instead, he's put together a classic MoVida menu, filled with the signature dishes from Hosier Lane. "They'll want to try some of the dishes from MoVida and they'll want to try the style of cooking that we do in MoVida."
So there are a few tapas that are absolute musts - an anchovy dish with a smoked tomato sorbet. A goat's curd cigar wrapped in quince. Spanish black pudding made to his dad's recipe. "Those dishes represent what we do, they're usually two or three ingredients, it's bread, tomato, anchovies, it's cheese and quince, classic combinations that work very well but we've just put a little twist on."
The mains are big, traditional affairs - a suquet, which Camorra dubs a Catalan seafood braise, full of tuna, sardines, clams, oily fish and shellfish. A whole lamb done with a sauce from the Pyrenees.
"And dessert which is again a play on classic flavours, it's like an almond fondant," Camorra explains. "This one is creamy inside but it's almond flavour [and] sweet potato which sounds a bit weird but the Spanish eat it quite a lot, it's got that quince and almond combination which works quite well. And fig leaf ice cream which is a classic."
MoVida Solera talks readers through recipes from each different Andalusian city and at the end of every chapter offers suggestions for restaurants, tapas bars and hotels. It's a nod to the fact that so many Australians now book "foodie holidays", planning trips around Michelin-starred restaurants and iconic hole-in-the-wall food joints alike. "I was talking to someone the other day and I think one of the best ways to experience a culture is through its food, it's a great gateway into a location, a culture, it's an easy way in, food," Camorra says. "The part of the book that is the guide is really allowing people if they want to to follow in our footsteps."
Those footsteps are boisterous ones. Camorra and Cornish did the cookbook trip in just over one, jam-packed month. It was a pretty packed road trip as well. "I'm a fairly big guy, Richard is a fairly big guy, we had a two other people in the same car, there was Cesc who is a big friend of ours, he's a Catalan guy who was our fixer, and Alan the photographer. it was a bit squishy," is how Camorra describes it. They collected recipes, visited restaurants, fellow chefs, farmers, fishermen, and home cooks to talk about the food and classic recipes of each region. When they got home to Melbourne, Camorra tested all the dishes a couple of times himself, just to be sure they worked. "Some of the recipes were written down on paper napkins!"
There was a strict schedule of eating. "Every day we'd have breakfast, we'd go to a market, we'd go to one big lunch and then one big dinner and then go to a little bar. First breakfast, second breakfast, first lunch, second lunch," Camorra says with a laugh. "When I got the book I saw the photos and I thought, oh dear.... because I'd put on so much weight."
One day they went searching for a recipe for traditional biscuits produced by tucked away in their convent. They sell the pastries through a "torno", a sort of lazy susan where you deposit your money on a wooden cylinder, it rotates, the nuns pick up the money, and spin the torno back with a package of biscuits and pastries. Camorra and Cornish were keen to talk to some nuns to get their recipe but it proved to be a challenge. "The nuns were very vague. They were charming and it was very difficult to find anyone to talk to us and when we actually did it was behind metal grates at two arms length away," he said. "Mediaeval. I've never really communicated with nuns before, I didn't know what they were going to be like but they were really funny and quite hilarious." In fact, they were so hilarious and charming that the two Aussies left empty handed, without the recipe they'd been seeking.
Let's talk about Australia again. The MoVida empire now includes four restaurants - three in Melbourne, one in Sydney - a taco bar, and bars at two airports. Could Camorra see himself expanding the empire to Canberra? "We've consolidated a bit at the moment, it's getting to the point where we're very comfortable where we are, I don't know if we want to keep growing," he says."I'm always open to possibilities but there's no plans." But he's here in Canberra for a couple of days - maybe the capital can show him great food and good company and he might, maybe, think twice.
Frank Camorra and Richard Cornish will be in conversation with Natasha Rudra at the National Gallery of Australia on Monday, October 20, 6pm. Tickets are $28-$30 from nga.gov.au. Dinner with Frank Camorra is on at Parlour Wine Room on October 22. Sold out. The Canberra Times Good Food Month runs until October 31. See canberra.goodfoodmonth.com for the full program.