Paddock to Plate
Thai jungle curry of duck. Photo: Jennifer Soo
It's hot and balmy in the middle of the night and mosquitoes have got through the net. Outside, the drone of crickets is deafening and soporific; frogs join in and we have a symphony. Later, it must be almost dawn; there's rustling, things big and small. A night dweller sounds as if it's eating an apple on the verandah, enjoying it, too, smacking its lips in delight. Then a heavier sound, clearly two-legged and purposeful.
I close my eyes, positive it's a velociraptor, a good-size one, too, trying to get a claw grip on the stilts of our place. However, it's not the Cretaceous and we are not in Mongolia. We're in far north Queensland, and I reason it's a cassowary. To lighten the scene, this bird hits it head on the floor and I swear to God it says, ''D'oh!'' Far above, another creature, a striped possum maybe, is tossing quandongs and Davidson plums to the bird, bouncing them off our tent. Nature, as they say, is all around us.
We arrived late last night and, this being an ecolodge - using the term ''lodge'' in its loosest sense - it was a relief to see the sun rise through the ferns and vines at Crocodylus resort near Cape Tribulation where Captain Cook found so much despair. We're staying in tents set on stilts to keep the larger creatures out.
The morning is very peaceful, nothing but rainforest sounds, and a diesel engine firing up in the distance. Quiet, that is, until the kids fall into their own desperation. ''Dad, there's no power points. How do we charge the iPad?'' And it gets worse. ''Dad, we can't find the television. There's no 3G signal!'' They look around for a hidden console that will reveal the iPod dock and remotes so a 50-inch flatscreen can pop out of the ceiling. There's much hyperventilation and anxiety as we explain there are no mod cons. That's the point, and by god, we are going to enjoy it.
The lodge has a series of tents set up so you can't see or hear each other until we congregate at the main tent, with lots of lounges and tables around a haphazard kitchen and bar. It's all shared facilities and still no technology, the only power board is packed full of chargers trying to get enough power to find, to no avail, at least one bar of connection. The managers, so laid-back, show us around.
When you get to the edge of civilisation, there's this distillation of humanity. You could be in Broome or Eaglehawk Neck. Devoid of pretension and shaving cream, folk here are as raw as they come, and it slowly permeates your own demeanor.
Breakfast is reminiscent of a '50s sheep station. ''Ya can have your eggs anyway ya want,'' our singleted host drawls. ''As long as it's fried or scrambled.'' I ask for a skim soy latte, but we're so far from humanity she doesn't respond to my urban joke.
Life goes on at three-quarter pace. The roads are especially quiet, aside from the crazed locals in huge four-wheel-drives. We head to Cow Bay to check out the beach. It's 29 degrees, slightly humid, almost perfect. The beach is one of those stretches of coastline that people outside Australia can't believe are so common.
But there's a reminder we're not in Bondi. ''Warning,'' the sign, which has taken a fair amount of bullet shot, says in bright yellow, ''Crocodiles are in these waters and may cause injury or death.'' Sure, I think, that's overstating the obvious, like a commercial dryer with a sign saying, ''Warning, if you get in here, you are likely to go in circles.'' We nervously wade knee-deep into the sea, very aware there is most likely a pair of eyes watching us, the mouth turned up in smile.
Food-wise, its mostly burgers made from wildlife such as barramundi, crocodile and emu, or various forms of caesar salad. But I'm hanging out for a jungle curry, a fiery and fragrant mix of south-east Asian ingredients that would go down so well here, and I'm tempted to put in a request with the kitchen brigade, but I think they're on to me and my carelessly veiled criticisms.
Here's a version of that jungle curry using barramundi made into dumplings, steamed and coated with the gravy.
Bryan Martin is winemaker at Ravensworth and Clonakilla, www.bryanmartin.com.au
Jungle curry with barramundi dumpling, lime leaf and tamarind
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp red curry paste
2 snake beans, chopped into small pieces
4 kaffir lime leaves, very finely sliced
Dice the fish and coat with the fish sauce and curry paste. Leave for an hour, drain off any liquid, then grind to a paste. Next, place in a mixer bowl and beat with a paddle (or do this by hand) until it's quite pasty. Fold in the beans and kaffir lime leaves. Form into little balls. Place in a warm bamboo steamer set over boiling water and steam until just set. Cool until needed.
2-3 red chillies, chopped
3 red eschalots
2 cloves garlic
3 coriander roots, scraped clean and chopped
1 tbsp chopped fresh turmeric
4 candlenuts, chopped
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp white pepper, ground
2 tbsp oil
thumb-size piece of galangal, finely sliced
2 stalks lemongrass, just the lower half, pounded flat
6 Thai eggplants, quartered
handful pea eggplants
4 kaffir lime leaves, torn
50g tamarind paste, soaked in ½⁄ cup hot water
2 tbsp fish sauce, plus extra
1 tbsp palm sugar
3-4 small green chillies, chopped, to serve
Grind the red chillies, eschalots, garlic, coriander roots, turmeric and nuts to a paste with the salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a wok and fry the paste until it releases a lot of aroma, without burning it. Add a cup of water, the galangal and lemongrass, then cook over a high heat for 10 minutes to incorporate the flavours. Stir in another half cup of water - it should be liquid but not watery.
Add the eggplants and lime leaves. Cook for 10 minutes. Add the barramundi dumplings and heat through.
Off the heat, add the drained tamarind, fish sauce and sugar. Taste for balance between heat, sour, sweet and acid. Serve with green chillies and extra fish sauce.