20 September 2019

Feasts for the senses at Parliament House

| Michael Weaver
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Parliament House spring program

There’s a feast for the eyes and tastebuds at Parliament House as part of their spring program. Photos: Region Media.

It’s easy to see why the head chef at Australian Parliament House, David Learmonth, and head gardener Paul Janssens feel like they have the best jobs in Canberra.

Last week, the weeping cherry trees blossomed and this week the chefs are preparing a feast of foods featuring the best produce Parliament House can source.

The bees are busy, and so is the engagement and public programs team who bring the spring program to life.

Our tastes buds were on high alert as Chef David takes us through the high tea tasting plates he’s prepared for spring tea in the courtyards.

“This is a lamb mignon that we’ve wrapped in serrano pepper and garnished with some yoghurt and a dukkah spice,” says David.

He then points to some of the really sweet stuff, with a bit of savoury on the side.

“This is a cornet-shaped croissant that we’ve filled with a leek and onion sous vide with some parmesan crisps.

“And this one is a wonderful Victorian cheese. We’ve just put it on some olive crumb and made a crème fraîche pastry, and used a bit of truffle salt from the truffles at Bredbo.”

Lucky there’s more as these delights are best eaten in one mouthful.

“This one is our take on a Twix that we brand with the APH logo and garnish with gold leaf.”

There’s always more.

The homemade honeycomb is as fresh as you can possibly get, made with honey from the beehives at Parliament House.

David says the 16 full-time chefs and a sprinkling of part-timers come in for the spoils of high season. The high teas often book out in advance, so you need to get in quick to spoil yourself.

“Everyone really loves what they do here. We have a lot of diversity in the building, from the senators and all the delegates, but all this just highlights what we have from all corners of the country, so we’re really fortunate to present food in the ways we do.”

Head chef at Australian Parliament House David Learmonth has the tastes of spring at his fingertips.

From here, it’s hard to recall the raspberry tart with vanilla cream, but we really should move on to the Spring Courtyard Tour, where head gardener Paul Janssens has Parliament’s 17 courtyards looking spectacular.

Paul has been on the job since the gardens opened in 1998. He started at Old Parliament House in 1986 before moving to the Botanic Gardens and returning to the Parliament’s current home.

“Spring is great when you hear the birds chirping, along with the smell of cut grass,” he said.

“Our courtyards are the main areas, but we’ve also got nine hectares of native gardens around the outside of the precinct. The public can go through those gardens at any time. Many of the native trees and shrubs are indigenous to the region.

“At the moment, we’ve got the azaleas, camellias and cherry trees all flowering, along with some crab apples which are looking their best at the moment, too.

“In the next week or two, I’m expecting the Mt Fuji white cherry tree to flower as well,” Paul said.

Head gardener Paul Janssens in front of one of his favourite trees in the Parliament House courtyard, the weeping cherry, in full flower.

With the dry weather, he says the gardeners have taken some precautions to ensure there’s no extra drain on water supplies. Their water management strategies ensure Parliament House is on a stage one water restriction regime at all times.

“We’ve had to irrigate a bit this winter due to the dry weather, but we always plan for the transition into spring and then into the heat of summer,” Paul said.

There are 19 gardeners in the team at Parliament House, including a first-year horticultural apprentice and a greenkeeping apprentice.

“We manage 23 hectares, of which 13 hectares is gardens and nine hectares of that are native gardens. There’s also 10 hectares of turf, which is about the same as 20 football fields.”

This spring there are four ‘meet the gardener’ tours from 29 September. These are limited to 15 people and include morning or afternoon tea. These tours book out well in advance and bookings are essential ($65 for general admission; $55 concession).

“They go for about two hours and I explain all about how we maintain the gardens and their nutrition, our fertilisation and our pest management system. Our guides also do a courtyard tour where they go through the plants on show in the back parts of parliament that people don’t normally see,” Paul says.

Of course, there’s plenty more, and you can find out all about the spring program on the Australian Parliament House website.

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