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The Oldest Restaurant in Australia?

09-Oct-2016

Pinetrees pavlova has been served for generations

The following extract is from the first chapter of the Lord Howe Island Cookbook. If you don't find it entertaining, then please call us on (02) 65632177 to register your complaint.

Introduction


“Fatter but fitter” was the three word summary of our guest’s Christmas holiday, and to be honest, we were offended. Yes, he was offered eight courses of food each day, for seven days straight. Yes, most of those courses included sugar, butter and fat … but we didn’t force feed him, did we? Sure, kids will stuff themselves silly if left unsupervised with a table of triple chocolate cookies and caramel tarts, but adult guests, at least most of them, practice self-control … don’t they?

It turns out that they don’t, and neither would we – for good reason. Holidays are about that second course of brioche and poached eggs at breakfast, and (not or) the marinated lamb at lunch, and the flourless chocolate cake at afternoon tea, and the confit duck with duck fat roasted potatoes at dinner, and the lemon tart followed by a soft smelly cheese with quince paste. Add a glass of white wine at lunch, a couple of sunset beers and a bottle of pinot with dinner, and you’re daily calorie intake is in the red zone. And so what? You’re on holidays with your partner (and perhaps your kids, friends or extended family), and you’re happy. Maybe even happier than you’ve been all year.

The trick, we now know, is to balance the calorie credit with calorie debit, so guests at least feel a bit better. You’ll still put on weight. We’re not a health farm. But if you at least walk to Kims Lookout for one of Australia’s iconic views, or swim along a Blinky Beach with schools of salmon, or snorkel Erscotts Hole over dazzling coral gardens, or ride a bike to Cobbys Corner for a BBQ lunch, you may just earn your next meal. That’s the secret.

In good conscience, we’ve also transformed our food into something lighter, cleaner and healthier. We’ve introduced ‘lighter options’ at lunch and dinner (which most people say they should have ordered, but didn’t), and we run Wellness Weeks with wholefood options at every meal, plus healthy cooking classes, and organic wine tasting. But you know what? Even during those weeks, with a dozen serious yoga mums looking kind of intimidating in multi-coloured lycra, the crowd wants chocolate and cocktails. We can’t win.

So our “fatter but fitter” guest was right all along – and so he should be – he’s stayed at Pinetrees more than 20 times and knows the deal. And this book? It probably started as a subconscious way of dealing with the guilt we feel about our guests’ weigh-in figure at the Qantas check-in counter prior to flying home (no joke – they weigh you). But as our late night giggles became ideas, wish lists, plans, then finally, a contracted cookbook project with a production team of 10 people, we realised that we could contribute something worthwhile – and beautiful - to most kitchen shelves. Alasdair Nicolson, our Executive Chef, is a talented chef and his recipes are an honest snapshot of the food we’re proud to serve. The recipes are (mostly) simple, healthy, aromatic and authentic, and reflect the food journey that started at Pinetrees over 125 years ago. 

Some context


Pinetrees has been around for a long time. Our ancestors arrived on Lord Howe in 1842 and settled on Pinetrees land in 1848. We have guest records from the 1890’s, but there were probably guests at Pinetrees from as early as the 1870s. This means we’ve been serving food for at least 125 years, perhaps a bit longer. We’re not entirely sure, but this probably makes us one of the oldest hotels in Australia.

You can imagine the stories we know - passed from generation to generation. There’s Thomas Nichols, a whaling captain, who married the 16 year old Mary Andrews from Lord Howe Island. They had 10 children, born over a period of about 20 years. We have always suspected, perhaps because he spent so much time away from home, that Thomas had another wife and 10 children in another port. When you know that his wife, Mary, was known to sit on the Pinetrees verandah with a shotgun across her lap to make sure that the farm workers put in an honest day, this story makes a bit more sense. Mary and Thomas’s eldest son, Albert Nichols, stowed away on a passing ship without saying goodbye. He made his way to England - stopping somewhere along the way to have “faith, hope and charity” tattooed across his chest – worked hard and was promoted to boatswain on the White Star Line before going down on the Titanic in 1912. In more recent times, there was Gerald Kirby who lobbied for land rights for Lord Howe Islanders (we were all squatters until 1953) and later for an airstrip. And there was Pixie Rourke, our mentor and inspiration, who ran Pinetrees with a big smile, a glass of wine and an iron fist. We still think about her every day. It was Pixie and her sister Kerry who transformed the food culture at Pinetrees, but we’ll come to that soon.

Lord Howe Island is hopelessly lacking in bush tucker – apart from Woodhens, Providence petrels, seabird eggs, and fish. Luckily for the birds (and us) the most common fish species – Yellowtail kingfish – is one of the best table fish in the world. Most places are known for at least one food, maybe cheese, beef, lamb, nuts, olives, spices, lobsters or sea urchins. Our place, Lord Howe Island, is known for kingfish.

Those early settlers were lucky to have an endless supply of kingfish, but they still had to grow fruit and vegetables, milk cows, make butter, raise pigs, keep chickens and ducks, and trade their surplus for salt, tea and clothing. And this was the food setting for Pinetrees cooks over a hundred years ago. In hindsight, and if you can ignore for a minute how bloody hard it must have been to live in almost complete isolation, we were kind of cool. Most of our produce was organically grown with zero food miles. We served rustic style dishes on enamel plates, with mostly paleo ingredients. If only we had celebrity chefs, lifestyle TV programs and food bloggers in those days.

And so it was for generations of guests – wake up to the early morning bell and tea with bread and butter, and then space the day out between breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and supper. Yes, seven meals a day and lots of cream cakes. Guests would swim, walk, fish, sail, snorkel, ride, read and relax, and then come together for meals and a drink. Not much has changed, except, perhaps, the food.

Change


When the custodianship of Pinetrees (we don’t really see ourselves as owners) changed from the fourth to the fifth generation of the family in 1976, a flood of new ideas arrived. Pixie, Ed, Kerry and Bruce (aka ‘the big four’) had lived in Sydney, been to university and travelled through different food cultures. Kerry roasted and ground her own spices for Indian curries, Bruce cooked Elizabeth David’s lentil soup, Pixie made beef Bourguignon in a big orange Le Creuset pot and Ed cooked barbeques and delicious little chicken satays over red hot coals. The big four understood the difference between cooks and professional chefs, and knew that the future success of Pinetrees depended heavily on the food experience.

They fired the existing chef on their first day. He was found dancing in the moonlight, drunk, and had forgotten to place an order for the next ship. Ships only arrived once every six weeks, so that was a bit of a problem. Another chef was fired after he played golf in the sun all day, drinking lots of beer to keep himself cool. He came to the office in the late afternoon and told Pixie and Kerry that he was too drunk to cook, that the dinner prep had not been started and, by the way, that he had stolen Ed’s bicycle to get to the golf course and crashed it into a tree on the way home. This, we’ve discovered, is modus operandi for most chefs, but we love them for their talents and lack of Latin. Pixie and Kerry cooked every meal until a replacement chef arrived.

Within a few years, Pinetrees had changed from a base to explore Lord Howe to a place with really good food. Guests came from everywhere to eat classic English, French, Italian and probably at bit of Chinese food. By the early 1980s, we were serving sashimi and sushi (not that many people ate it) and Nasi Goreng (especially when we were waiting for the ship to unload). There were BBQ lunches at Neds Beach and excursions on the Albatross to North Bay. In Sydney and Melbourne (our main markets), new restaurants were serving Thai, Japanese, Malaysian, Vietnamese and other regional food, and in the mid 80’s Margaret Fulton’s ‘Encyclopaedia of Asian and Oriental Cookery’ delivered authentic recipes to the masses. Food was changing, and so were we.

There were the low points as well – the culinary equivalents of our orange chenille bedspreads and paper doilies. A visiting journalist described Pinetrees as “the tinned beetroot capital of the world”, and there may have been a giant mermaid with bare breasts carved from frozen margarine at a New Year’s Eve buffet. Then there was the visiting Sydney chef who insisted that Pixie order pink eye potatoes and fly them in on the freight plane, because he couldn’t cook his special menu without them (they ended up mashed and under the kingfish and Pixie was furious). We’re also not that proud of our early fusion dishes such as the salad of pineapple, coconut and marshmallows, which we served with fried fish. What the f..k?

For the next 20 years, Pinetrees served mostly European classics mixed with enough Asian influence to keep the chefs excited and the guests happy. Our soups and desserts were standouts, as was the freshness of our food. We baked bread every day, used local milk and beef from cows in our back paddock, and served lots of local kingfish – of course. 

Our food


With Pixie’s death in 2010, Pinetrees passed from the fifth to the sixth generation – us (well, Dani, because Luke will always be a blow-in from Sydney). Yes, we were foodies, and we loved watching Rick Stein DVDs and reading cookbooks from cover to cover (like, you’re reading this one), but do you think we’d ever spent time in a commercial kitchen? Not even close. Like most of our generation, we’d travelled and lived in different parts of the world, and we’d eaten loads of authentic food from different cultures (often with consequences), so we knew what we liked.

We also knew that Pinetrees had to evolve again to keep the younger guests engaged with the place and attract new guests. It was a fine line. Change too much and we’d lose our regulars. Change too little and we’d have limited appeal to new guests and potential regulars. Eventually we decided to take our regular guests with us. It would be a food adventure for everyone. And you know what? They all came along. Only once has someone said that the food was better in the old days – and he was at least 115.

To this day, the best restaurant meal we’ve ever had was at Christine Manfield’s Universal in Sydney – just after it opened and before she received Two Hats. Each of the six courses was from a different part of the world, each was absolutely authentic in style and flavour, but each was made with the very best local ingredients. It was like street food on cocaine. And that was us. From that day on we devoured regional cuisine cookbooks, DVDs and cooked (or at least tried) authentic recipes from David Thompson’s ‘Thai Food’, Christine Manfield’s ‘Spice’ and Neil Perry’s ‘Balance and Harmony’.

The one chef who lives with us most days, but whom we’ve never met, is Anthony Bourdain. We don’t talk about his food – we’ve never tasted it – and we don’t have any real desire to travel to New York to eat at Les Halles. But his blend of Rick Stein and Hunter S Thompson makes perfect sense to us – intelligent, sympathetic, insightful, provocative and rude – a perfect combination to challenge the way you think about food. We’ve learnt more about regional cuisine from Anthony Bourdain than we can say.

At Pinetrees, we hired chefs who could cook with spice and balance big flavours, and decided that our niche in the food world would be aromatic and authentic food, with an emphasis on quality. Easier said than done, but that was the plan. Like most people, we’d had enough of Mod Oz fusion, and decided that Tandoori chicken pizzas weren’t for us (or our guests). We’d tinkered with molecular and deconstructed food, but that was too fussy for our style of service, and didn’t really fit (although occasionally there’s some sodium alginate in the kitchen). Instead, we built a repertoire of relatively simple dishes that came from somewhere. It didn’t matter where - so long as the dish’s origin could be marked on a map, we were happy.

Along the way, we made friends with chefs who cook this style of food – guys like Peter Kuruvita, Steven Snow and Mike McEnearney – and they’ve guided us through the potential pitfalls. Our closest mentor, Tom Kime, has taught our guests, worked with our chefs and reminded us often over the last four years to be proud of the food that we serve, and we are Tom – honest. If you don’t own any of Tom’s six cookbooks, you should, because they are excellent.

The experience


We’re not a fine dining restaurant where you go for a special occasion, and we’re not a luxury lodge where you go for a long weekend. We’ve stayed at those places and had amazing degustation menus, but two nights is enough. After eight courses, your pallet is kind of numb, and you feel sorry for the poor dessert chef who spent all day preparing twelve flawless desserts for pissed guests in a food trance.

Most of our guests stay for six to ten days, and eat three meals a day – four if they make it back to Pinetrees for afternoon tea. They expect fancy food, but also want something simple, tasty, fresh and healthy – “approachable food just a bit better than we cook at home” one guest said. Unless you can cook, we’d like to think that every meal is quite a bit better than what you’d have at home, even the poached eggs with herb hollandaise. But maybe this book will help restore some balance.

During a typical stay, guests will have fresh fruit, muesli and yoghurt for breakfast followed by something substantial. They’ll return at lunch for a selection of ‘one dish’ salads and chef specials, or if they venture further afield, they’ll have a wood-fired BBQ of local kingfish, salads and home-made bread (and maybe a bottle of wine). A bit later, they’ll converge on the Pinetrees verandah for an afternoon tea of scones, biscuits or cakes, and then drift to the boatshed deck for sunset drinks. Dinner is normally over four courses with a soup or starter, main, dessert, and a selection of cheese with all the trimmings. Our wine is all rated from 94 to 97 points by James Halliday, and is inexpensive.

Guests normally make new friends and join other guests for dinner – it’s always been that way. It helps that your mobile phone doesn’t work and that you have to ride your bike to the Museum to connect to the internet (ironic, isn’t it?). Most people lead busy lives and haven’t made new friends for years, but, as we’re loading them onto the bus to the airport at the end of the stay, we often see them swapping phone numbers, email addresses and big hugs. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what job you do or who you know – on holidays, people just get on. Lord Howe is a great leveller.

A few years ago, we were visited by three young, rough fishermen from Geelong. They’d saved for two years to catch Lord Howe kingfish, and they were on a mission. They arrived in their tight Geelong AFL shorts, and wore them every day, which was a new look at dinner. They also swore – a lot. Somehow, accidently, the boys were shown to a table with a group of elderly ladies from Mosman and made enthusiastic conversation about the “big f..king kingfish”, “f..kwit boat operator” and “that c..t of a shark”. We were horrified. Someone was going to get fired. But, as luck would have it, the ladies giggled, laughed and winked. It was better than a live comedy act, and they all sat together for every meal for the next five days. We learnt from that experience that the middle generation (i.e. the ones our age) are normally the stiff ones. The oldies and the young ones get on just fine.

Our guests


We have about 2,500 people to stay every year, and they eat about 50,000 meals. That’s a busy kitchen.

Our guests are kind of sticky, and they come back regularly. Yes, a week at Pinetrees is cheaper than the land tax bill on a coast house at Mollymook or Terrigal – so their loyalty kind of makes sense. But they also have a sense of ownership. Every Christmas, when demand and rates are highest, our regular guests kind of run the place. They pack up the boatshed, help themselves to clean beach towels from the laundry, coordinate the lunch requirements, and organise the activities. One even stepped in to solve a staff problem – he had 20,000 employees across Australia so our squabbling chefs didn’t know what had hit them.

Three families who met over fish and chips at kids’ dinner 15 years ago became firm friends. They always travelled in the same week in January school holidays and their kids grew up together. They didn’t live too far from each other, and caught up in Sydney for dinner at least once during the year. One of them confessed recently to stealing a few of our menu holders. To be honest, our menu holders are pretty daggy A5 Perspex numbers and he’s a partner in a Sydney law firm and really should know better. It turns out that he needed the menu holders because it was his family’s turn to host the annual ‘Pinetrees in July’ dinner in Sydney and he wanted it to be better than last year’s. We’ve never been invited, but we hear that it’s a four course affair with white tablecloths, warm bread rolls, soup, choice of three mains, choice of three desserts, cheese and a bottle or two of really good wine.

Outside of regular season, our guests come from everywhere. We meet photographers, divers, surfers, adventurers, bird watchers and walkers. For ten days each year, after New Year’s Eve on Sydney Harbour and before peak season at Deer Valley, we host the Lear Jet and super yacht crowd. They’re surprisingly easy to look after, but again, that’s the effect Lord Howe has on people. We often think that hosting people on holidays is the best job in the world. No matter what state they’re in when they arrive, all – well almost all – of our guests leave us happy, relaxed and grateful. They even kiss us goodbye at the airport. Can you imagine running a five star business hotel in a big city? No thanks, we’d rather stay here and stick pins in our eyes.

Our chefs


We were once told that if our Executive Chef was just an alcoholic, then we had a keeper. Most have gambling habits, drug addictions, sex addictions, personal problems and anger issues. They have no impulse control and reliably say yes to every bad idea. They live from pay day to pay day. You see, there’s a difference between hotel chefs and restaurant chefs. The former, we now know, like clipboards, standard hours and career progression, while the latter are loose, unruly, messy and incredibly talented. We’ve always hired restaurant chefs – at a cost – but it’s worth every warning letter (and the occasional abrupt departure) because they can cook.

Our current Executive Chef, Alasdair Nicolson, is far from the stereotype. He has no vices – as far as we can tell – and if he drifted towards something criminal or even mildly anti-social, his gorgeous wife would beat him to a pulp. Guaranteed. Most of the chefs we’ve known over the years couldn’t write down a recipe, even if you asked them nicely. When someone asked us for the ingredients in a curry paste after a cooking demonstration a few years ago, we didn’t even ask the chef, we just copied something straight out of a well-known cookbook and hoped they didn’t have that book at home. But, except for our guest chefs’ contributions, every single recipe in this book was written by Al. That’s about 50,000 words of serious dedication.

Alasdair grew up on the Isle of Skye and, like so many of his compatriots, made his way to Sydney where he worked as Sous Chef, then Head Chef, at the iconic One Hat restaurant, The Grand National, in Paddington. He moved to Lord Howe in 2013, loves the fishing and is here to stay. Al’s food, as you’ll soon learn, is the real deal. 

Next


The problem with loyal regular guests is that someday they stop coming - in our case, when they kick the bucket. If you want to come to Pinetrees for Christmas, you need to scan the death notices in the Sydney Morning Herald between May and October. Those who do get in are usually young families, and the cycle starts again. Outside of Christmas, though, we’ve been keenly encouraging a new group of more active guests to visit. Not younger guests – they all go to Bali for cheap luxury villas with personal butlers – but active guests. People who can walk, kayak, ride, snorkel and play golf, sometimes all in one day. And it’s working. Our event weeks in autumn and spring bring adventure racers, ocean swimmers, fitness freaks, bushwalkers, surfers, yogis, photographers and foodies. Our old reputation as a place for “newly weds and nearly deads” has gone, and to be honest, we’re relived. There’s a middle ground between the twenty somethings and ninety somethings, and we’re proudly pitching to them. Not all of them – just the ones who want to get wet, salty, sandy and sweaty, for at least part of the day, and then eat really good food.

Click here to purchase over 150 recipes in the Lord Howe Island Cookbook.

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