MANILA, February 21, 2005 (STAR) TURO-TURO By Claude Tayag  -  As we entered the huge wooden door, Australian Ambassador Ruth Pearce warmly welcomed us into her North Forbes home. A young lady scurried away to get us our welcome drinks; as always Mary Ann and I chose to have red wine. Since we were at the residence of the Australian ambassador, the wines must be excellent, as expected. Nice paintings by Australian artists, including one or two by aborigines, adorn the wall, and there is even a wall décor of a tile mosaic by a Filipino artist of a Binondo scene, which we later learned is from the ambassador’s personal collection. Further into the living room, we were greeted by many familiar faces. Only then did we realize it was a dinner for fellow foodies and food writers. Excited chitchat and greetings naturally followed, as we all relaxed in familiar company.

Mary Ann and I were trying very hard to shed off the extra pounds we gained from the lunch and dinner marathons and binges over the holidays. It would be a hard struggle to resist food and wine that night if we were to share a table with friends and acquaintances who eat with so much gusto.

"Remember not to overindulge," my wife whispered into my ear as we proceeded to the nicely appointed dining room.

"Yes, yes," I said in annoyance. I was secretly pleased to see my name card across the table from hers. "She will not be able to nudge me to stop eating," I thought.

As we searched for our seats, I speed read the menu card on the plate. Although I did not take speed-reading courses, I could speed read menus and even speed-eat faster excitedly, especially if the dishes are good.

Mary Ann, who is more into numbers than words, glanced and counted the number of knives and forks next to the dinner plates. "Five" she hand-signaled to me from across the table; she meant five courses, of course.

By then, I already knew from the menu that there would be foie gras, scallops, duck breast and beef tenderloin, and dashes of truffles. Oh shucks, forget about the darn diet! After all, how often is one invited to dine with an ambassador? (Oh justifications!) Then, Ambassador Pearce announced that we were having an eight- course degustacion. Just tiny portions, she said. My dear wife almost fainted.

The dinner was prepared in the Ambassador’s kitchen by chef brothers Carlos and Anton Miguel. Carlos and Anton are of Filipino, Portuguese and Spanish descent, and they lived for 18 years in Australia. It was our first time to meet the brothers, who came out of the kitchen to explain every dish served that night. They reminded me of Laurel and Hardy; more than their looks, they have the same pleasant demeanor and personality, and as a tandem, they had quite a rapport with the guests as they answered our queries. Well, actually it was more Hardy and Hardy because of their full figures.

Mary Ann was so amused at their story of how they got into cooking.

"When I was in school, I would crack my brains figuring out math. It just did not make any sense to me how one number if you add, roll over and divide will end up another number. The ending and the beginning numbers just did not make any sense," explained Carlos. "While when I’m in the kitchen and I get milk, add egg and butter and roll it over with cream, I come up with a beautiful ice cream. That made much sense to me. The ending and the beginning."

"Same for me here," said Anton, who confessed studying math was like hitting his head on the wall.

This amused Mary Ann so much, since she likes math more than cooking. That was why the Miguel brothers decided to work in restaurants around Australia for actual training. And by their healthy dispositions, just like mine, I can tell they must also be fond of eating.

So, what did Hardy and Hardy, er, Carlos and Anton cook for us that night?

Appetizer was seared sumac-scented Queensland scallops on a bed of vegetables and onions with a yogurt-based dressing mixed with coriander. Sumac, Carlos explained, is a purple spice of dried berries and petals from a shrub, which is quite popular in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cookery. It was a nice light dish for a starter.

Next on the menu was Balmain bug with figs and foie gras.

"A bug?" I wondered, thinking it must be an exotic insect (a signature one at that) as we Pampangos are wont to devour. As it turned out, the bug is our local pitik-pitik (rock lobsters), which was served breaded with polenta and Szechuan pepper. Since I am allergic to crustaceans, I ate only the foie gras and watched the group enjoy their breaded bugs.

The third course was fried coral trout fillet served on top of Portobello mushrooms bathed in béarnaise sauce. The fish’s skin was fried to a crisp. It was light and damn good and it looked like a well-decorated dessert at first glance. Then, we had a mango daiquiri sorbet to cleanse our palates and prepare for what was to come.

The next course was a substantial one: mustard-braised lamb shoulder pie with pears poached in red wine. It was your usual pie.

Up next was what I was waiting for, duck breast with sun-dried cherry jus, which delighted all my senses. This was followed by what Australia is much known for: Australian beef tenderloin. What even made it better was that it was served with foie gras, which was everybody’s favorite. The potato that came with the beef had a piece of truffle. (As always, on the way home, Mary Ann asked what was so special about truffle that she cannot see and taste. Moreso that night, she learned from the chef brothers that a small tin of brined truffle costs P2,600.)

We ended the degustacion with a delicious pudding that was like a light lemon soufflé.

All these we enjoyed with Hardy’s white wine and Shiraz. Towards the end of dinner, all that excellent wine got into my head, as I struggled to keep it afloat above my neck. (I had wine over lunch, too, that’s why.) Then, our gracious hostess led us to her spacious garden where we enjoyed my much needed cool breeze which cleared my head. A lady went around with Hardy’s Tawny port. Ummm, smooth and mellow! I had better run out of here before I finish the whole bottle.

When I was a little boy, Australia was a place where you go to see cute kangaroos and cuddly koalas. Now that I am older, wiser and wider in girth, Australia has become the land of Shiraz, steaks, and dairy. Its biggest export is meat, followed by wheat, beverages, and dairy. Over half of its food and beverage is exported abroad, and the Philippines is its second largest dairy market, with Japan as its first. And I thought most Asians are lactose-intolerant! The Philippines buys 15 million kilos of Australian beef annually, and interestingly, we import over 605,000 bottles of wine from Australia yearly, and the figure is still growing as more and more Filipinos are learning to appreciate wine, it seems.

Kangaroos, koalas, beef, wine, and dairy, and, if I may add to the long list, warm hospitality make what is Australian to me now. Little did we know, it was also a farewell dinner of sorts. The following evening, some 500 guests were at her home to celebrate Australia Day and for a chance to bid the gracious Ambassador Ruth Pearce farewell as she leaves for her next assignment. We wish her bon voyage!

* * *

For inquiries, call Carlo and Anton Miguel of est. Fine Dining at 842-4673 and 0916-367-1239.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved