Gravy train; the secrets behind a Ballarat staple

IN an age dominated by Masterchef and molecular cuisine, few things hit the comfort food button quite like old fashioned gravy. Whether your preference is for jus, gravy or simply sauce Jack Callil learns a few secrets about a winter warmer. Pictures by Justin Whitelock and Jeremy Bannister  

Most people refer to the gravy that “mother used to make” but for Fiona at Breezway this was a tough starting point; her mother’s gravy was dreadful.

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But it turned out for the best, her mother’s penchant for packeted variety of gravy has motivated Fiona now to always make it from scratch.

Cooking for the marginalised and homeless at Breezeway, it’s Fiona’s Sunday roast that draws up to almost 100 regulars every week.

“I remember my mother always buying those frozen peas and packeted gravy,” she said.

“Anyone can open a packet though, but it takes something more to make a real gravy.”

Ballaratians know that it’s that authentic, golden-brown nectar that flows strong through our veins.

A mere whiff and we’re back at the dinner table.

We see our mothers loading up behemoth piles of vegies, our fathers picking meat out from between their teeth.

We hear our siblings fight to the death over first use of the gravy boat.

We know it’s what we rely on each Ballarat winter more than our calloused skin, steel hearts and industrial beanies.

As far back as we can remember, we’ve gone ga-ga for that godly concoction of flour, salt, a little red wine and a debatable dollop of tomato sauce.

For Fiona, she knows it’s what keeps us going.  

 “Everyone here always wants extra with their meals, you can never have enough,” she said.

Fiona said it was her culinary passion that motivates her to volunteer at Breezeway, and her earliest memory of cooking involved gravy.  

“Our family used to have Sunday roast every week together, hands-down, no exceptions,” she said.

“Sure, mum had her own way of making it but I suppose that’s what makes it special. It’s the family recipe.”

Every week Fiona continues that tradition, with her kids coming over to regularly share a roast.

“They eat and run,” she said.

However, there’s no place for tomato sauce in her recipe, not when you can use lemon or chilli flakes instead.

“Yuck! It’s just a paste. It’s not a real thing. I’d never put it in my gravy,” she said.

“Anyone can open a packet though, but it takes something more to make a real gravy.” - Fiona, Breezway

“I caramelise my onions and use fresh rosemary, that’s my secret.”

But while that home-cooked sauce stirs memories of a warm fires and licked lips, it also has its place on Ballarat streets as one of our most beloved indulgences.

David Bending, the owner of Ballarat’s notorious Gravy Spot, says that during his 13 years there he’s seen people of all creeds come in for gravy.

 “Girls in costume, men in bikinis, sometimes people just come in completely naked,” he said.

“I’ve seen some pretty strange things here.”

But despite the regular chaos at Gravy Spot, Mr Bending makes sure that it’s his gravy that remains consistent.

“People want to know that they can come in and get the same taste every time,” he said.

“Kids just love it and it keeps them warm too, especially during Ballarat’s winter. You can see the steam just pour of it.”

But beyond selling it, Mr Bending agreed that gravy took him back to his childhood.

“It was always Mum who made it. I’m sure she was the first one who taught the recipe for it,” he said.

“It’s just a homely thing, isn’t it? It reminds you of family.”

But Mr Bending agreed there are better things to add for flavour than tomato sauce.

“Kids come in and ask for it, and that’s on top of the gravy they already have,” he said.

“But that’s not my thing, at home I love it with bacon, mushrooms and a bit of Worcestershire sauce.”

Yet stranger things can go in gravy than tomato sauce, according to head chef at the North Britain Hotel, Dillon Griffin.

“Vegemite. I know people who put vegemite in there,” he said.

“Some people just put anything in to enhance the flavour.”

Dillon Griffin - head chef North Britain Hotel. PICTURE: JUSTIN WHITELOCK

Dillon Griffin - head chef North Britain Hotel. PICTURE: JUSTIN WHITELOCK

With his own secret recipes, Mr Griffin says proper gravy should really depend on the kind of meat it’s served with.

With chicken, a nice cranberry sauce can be perfect.

Or you could even blend that sauce with apricots for a tangy remoulade, said Mr Griffin.

“It’s called the mother sauce for a reason,” he said.

“It’s so versatile.”

When Mr Griffin thought back to his own childhood, gravy reminded him of pure competition.

“I have three brothers and a sister,” he said.

“So I remember us all eyeballing that gravy boat, fighting to the death for the last little bit,” he said.

“No one ever wants to be the last one on that boat.”

When perfecting the perfect recipe though, Mr Griffin says there aren’t really any tricks.

“You just need to use the real thing, the meat juices. My mum always made the best roasts, but you could’ve called her the ‘Gravox queen’,” he said.

“She’ll kill me for saying that.”

But cooking gravy the home-cooked way is tradition.

What was born from modest drippings has now evolved into a standalone sauce of its own.

At any one moment there’s somebody, somewhere, lapping up with their finger the last little bit of it.

It’s become more than a sauce, transcending a recipe set in stone.

It’s become a personal thing.

Gravy for us is a time in the past, memories of simple dinners and warm belly in a Ballarat winter.

Most of all, it reflects our personality.

So who knows, maybe Paul Kelly had it right adding a dollop of sauce for that extra tang.

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