Canberra food writer and winemaker Bryan Martin loves nothing more than a good experiment, but even he concedes he went too far when he used a SodaStream to make mashed potatoes.
First, they were cooked. They were whipped with eggwhites, pushed into a soda bottle and pumped full of nitrogen. While the results were super light, even cloudlike, mashed potatoes, he agrees ruefully that there are probably better ways to spend your time.
In the kitchen as in the wine cellar, Martin is a dedicated experimenter. His work at the highly esteemed Clonakilla vineyard and with his own Ravensworth label led to a nomination as Australian winemaker of the year. And he now joins Region Media as a regular columnist on food, wine and life.
It all could have been so different, though: Martin spent five intense years studying to be a concert pianist before realising that “I was probably just going to be a music teacher”. Born and bred in Canberra, he and his wife Jocelyn returned here around 20 years ago after they’d lived overseas and worked in Melbourne and Tasmania where Bryan ran his first professional kitchen.
“Mum got me hooked on cooking at 12”, he says. “I was one of seven kids, I loved it then and I still do”. He’s a self-taught chef whose time in Tasmania started an obsession with fresh produce, one not particularly sated by a stint cooking at the Hyatt with Nile perch imported from Uganda.
Winemaking beckoned and Martin was fortunate to hook into the unique Canberra wine world, populated not by millionaires who like the idea of owning a vineyard, but curious former ANU and CSIRO scientists fascinated by experimenting, much like himself.
Rob and Kay Howell at Jeir Creek gave him a start as he studied first viticulture and then wine science at Charles Sturt University, and he began a contract winemaking business with partners including Greg Gallagher.
Bryan met Tim Kirk, son of John who is one of Canberra winemaking’s founding fathers in 2003 and became, in short order, the first full-time paid winemaker in the district. Clonakilla’s remarkable growth over the past 20 years is the stuff of legend, as the shiraz viognier took the world by storm.
But Bryan and Jocelyn had purchased their own block of land in 2000 and he was itching to make wine for himself, rather than for other people. Those were the origins of Ravensworth.
At Ravensworth, Bryan’s reins are just that bit looser: he calls it “an organic vineyard”, but also buys in fruit from around the district. Producing 5500 cases each year under his own label makes him a fairly large small winemaker these days.
“Last year we used 22 different varieties of grapes and made 16 different wines. Sometimes we’ll do a small run like zinfandel just to see what happens – the shiraz viognier was an experiment all those years ago. It can be a bit wild and woolly at Ravensworth, but I do it very carefully. I learned that from Tim: be experimental, but do it properly”
Bryan says there’s a growing market among younger wine drinkers for imaginative, even downright odd wines and reckons the average age of his Ravensworth customers would probably be under 30.
“I just want to have fun with it. I enjoy surprising people. I’ve tried to make wine like you would have back in ancient Italy, using natural materials, using amphora. I teeter on the edge of the natural wine movement because I use no additives, nothing but grapes and whatever wild yeasts form”.
The basic philosophy is the same in the kitchen. Bryan says he went through “a sous vide and science” period with his food but now enjoys cooking quite simply. “All that fussing around can make you a better cook in that it teaches you technique. For example, I now cook at a much lower temperature”.
But it’s super fresh produce that inspires him these days, along with food writers like Yotam Ottolenghi. “People are growing more of their own vegetables and the markets in Canberra are great. I like going there for inspiration when I’m writing about food. It makes me think about the process”.
But if it’s mashed potatoes on the menu these days, the SodaStream is no longer required.