The Secrets of the Abbotsford Quadfecta
The the Abbotsford Convent's food precinct is about as far away as you can get from bain-maries and plastic cutlery.
The term food precinct tends to make me think of overcrowded food courts, filled with overstuffed baguettes and suspiciously cheap sushi. But the Abbotsford Convent has one, and it's about as far away as you can get from bain-maries and plastic cutlery.
Call it the Quadfecta, if you please. The Convent Bakery, Kappaya Soul Food Cafe and Lentil As Anything are all snuggled into the serene Kitchen Annexe space, with The Farm Cafe at the Collingwood Children's Farm just around the corner. Back in 1902, the Annexe was constructed as a key aspect of the Convent building, and the Sisters used to feed up to 1,000 people a day from its many kitchens.
You can still find the two magnificent masonry woodfired ovens used by the Sisters inside the Convent Bakery, where, on a daily basis, its artisan bakers now produce old-fashioned wood-fired bread — free from religious reference and baked straight on the oven brick floor. There is a beetroot sourdough that's the colour of red velvet, and they also make the best escargots in Melbourne (except for perhaps the flaky scrolls swirled with sultanas at Filou's). The glass display cabinet is packed with pre-made sandwiches, pastries, quiches, pies, croissants, tarts and cookies, and stands right beside the counter. It's nearly impossible to pay for an order without impulsively buying a treat or at least admiring the fluffiness of the strawberry cookies sittin’ pretty in the wheat-free section.
The Bakery offers a full breakfast and lunch menu as well as the ready-to-go stuff, and the coffee is certified Fair Trade and organic. It's roasted in-house and available for purchase, and the Convent Bakery house blend means that local farmers get a fair price for their coffee harvest. Adjacent to the Bakery there’s a little hole in the wall known as the Boiler Room, where the nuns used to keep warm during the winter months. It now sells wine, spirits, liquors and cold, refreshing beer from midday. Like the rest of the Quadfecta, the Convent Bakery can get pretty crowded, especially during summer, so just close your eyes and think pious thoughts if people start to jostle and hustle around you. The goods coming to you are definitely worth the wait.
To the left of the Convent Bakery, underneath a spreading peppercorn tree, sits Kappaya Soul Food Cafe. It’s a quaint Japanese restaurant about the size of a Bento Box which offers simple, artful food at reasonable prices. The brown rice onigiri balls come with your choice of different fillings — think flaky salmon, pickled daikon, tempura prawn and walnut — and the green tea mousse is lightly drizzled with matcha syrup. Other highlights on the menu include the Breakfast Bento (order a creamy latte alongside it if early morning miso freaks you out; $9) and the mushi dori (steamed chicken and mushroom over broth; $7).
Desserts at Kappaya are highly recommended, and the space is fully licenced with a melange of Japanese beers behind the bar. There is a staggering selection of green teas sourced outside Kyoto and served in gorgeous ceramic teapots. A particularly delicious fizzy pink moscato provides the perfect prelude to a list of organic local wines.
Lentil As Anything
To the right of Kappaya there is a small corridor leading down to Lentil As Anything, generally known as 'that hippy joint where you pay what you feel like'. The philosophy of philanthropy over profit has served Lentil As Anything well for over ten years — it's astoundingly popular and thriving in several inner-city suburbs. However, the Abbotsford outpost is the only one where you'll regularly find live music as well as local art.
So to the food: Lentil As Anything is vegetarian, in case the name didn't give it away. Expect plenty of tofu, curries, dahl, stir-fried vegies, and pasta mixed with baby spinach. There's usually a green salad or two to go on the side and rounds of fresh white bread to mop up the sauce. The vegetarian tag means the spread is super-friendly to vegan and gluten-free eaters, but there is usually at least one dish at the buffet with feta lurking behind a stalk of broccoli.
While the hippy ethos is in full effect, Lentils' management doesn't shove the meat-is-murder message down your throat. It's a peaceful place, though busy, and nobody stands over you when you pay — you simply slip whatever you feel the meal is worth into a large box with a slot in the lid. Nobody watches and the customers at Lentils are a friendly crowd; some are regulars who clearly just want a good feed, while others just find the experience priceless.
The Farm Cafe
The heritage and formal gardens at the Convent are beautiful at any time of the year and it's an easy wander past the main entrance to the Collingwood Children's Farm. Open 365 days a year, rain, hail or shine, the inner city haven is a much-loved Melbourne locus. In late 2005, two young volunteers had the genius idea of turning their pancake and coffee stall at the monthly Slow Food Farmers' Market into a cosy cafe with a paddock-to-plate ethos. The Farm Cafe is gorgeous, surrounded by veggie plots and 7 hectares of farmland. It's the kind of place where toddlers get up close and personal with roaming ducks while you sip a latte.
Meals are made from scratch in the tiny kitchen and the food is sourced from just outside the kitchen door. The menu has a Kids and Adults section, and if you're one of those who prefers breakfast without baby-toting brunchers, you're in the wrong place. Live out your farmyard fairytale with the Ploughman's Lunch (ham off the bone, pickles, cheddar, apple, pork scratchings, bread and butter; $17.50) or try an organic beef sausage roll (served with herbed slaw and house relish; $12.50). Vegetarian food is far from an afterthought here, and the Green Eggs (caramelised fennel, silverbeet, quinoa, herbs, poached eggs and garlic aioli; $15.50) are a standout, second only to the Autumn Pear (poached William pear with nut granola, vanilla yoghurt mousse and sticky pear butterscotch; $10.50)
The best thing about The Farm Cafe and the Abbotsford Quadfecta in general is the relaxed atmosphere and idyllic setting in genuine, earnest, down-to-earth nature. It just feels good to be there, and the therapeutic benefits of a visit last long after you've left the Convent grounds.
Published on August 22, 2013 by Hilary Simmons