A life of food, wine, and travel

Roberta MuirRoberta Muir's passion for food, wine and foreign culture has led her on adventures in Europe, Africa, Turkey, South East Asia and Australia. Since 1997 she has managed Australia's leading cooking school, Sydney Seafood School at Sydney Fish Market. A restaurant reviewer and trained cheese judge, she assisted Australian chef Janni Kyritsis with his cookbook Wild Weed Pie, a Lifetime of Recipes, and recently co-authored A Lombardian Cookbook: From the Alps to the Lakes of Northern Italy with Alessandro Pavoni. (Enter our contest for your chance to win a collection of five books by Roberta, including the two just mentioned.) As if that weren't enough, Roberta also has a blog (Food Wine Travel with Roberta), which is indexed on EYB.  We caught up to Roberta and asked her a few questions about her fascinating career:

How did your interest in food, wine and travel get started?

I think it started with a fascination with foreign places, languages and culture. Back in the days of letters written with pen and paper, when I studied languages and geography at school, we were encouraged to have pen pals - and I ended up corresponding with people from all over the world, some have become lifelong friends and have visited me in Australia or I've been to visit them overseas and we still stay in touch, these days via email. I started reading cookbooks like novels, learning about all the different ways and things people ate around the world - and I was hooked.

Which of your trips have had the most influence on your career in food?

Italy - it always comes back to Italy for me. My first trip there was in 1989 and I spent 6 weeks backpacking from Rome to Sicily with a girlfriend. Every day was a new discovery … simple plates of pasta and glasses of local red wine, sticks of grilled polenta as a street snack. I tasted Campari, pesto and mozzarella di bufala for the first time! I still vividly recall the taste and texture of a crisp panino filled with roasted eggplant and cheese that I bought at the café of a remote railway station somewhere in Campania. Then we dashed up to Florence to visit the Mercato Centrale, two levels of the most amazing food I'd ever seen - it was such an eye opener. Since then I've been back a number of times researching books and just on holidays - I adore Venice, but also love remote Basilicata in the south - and of course Sardinia and Lombardy.

What places are still on your bucket list and what is your next trip?

My husband Franz Scheurer is a photographer - and we're heading to Iran in November so he can photograph the saffron and barberry harvests. We both love the Middle East and are very grateful to have the opportunity to be travelling with two Iranian friends who import saffron and other Persian goodies to Australia through their company 'saffron only' - I've been reading Persian cookbooks for the past few months in preparation. From Iran we'll go to Europe for a couple of weeks in Switzerland and France, visiting the Pays Basque region in south western France as I've never been before. I love border regions, where cultures, cuisines and languages merge - and I'm very keen to experience the Spanish influence on the food of this French region.

You have co-written several cookbooks with chefs - how did those books come about?

Through my other favourite pastime - eating! Franz and I were regulars at MG Garage and Janni Kyritsis and I became friends. I loved his food so much that I kept telling him he had to write a cookbook and I offered to help if ever he needed me to - so when he was finally ready to do it he held me to the offer. It was such a fascinating experience - and I learnt  so much, both about the whole process of creating a cookbook and from Janni about the early days of Sydney's food scene. Franz and I live in Sydney's northern suburbs, where there aren't as many fabulous restaurants as there are in the east or inner west … but we are blessed to have two of Sydney's finest Italian restaurants as our 'locals', Giovanni Pilu's Pilu at Freshwater and Alessandro Pavoni's Ormeggio at the Spit. Again it was through the friendships formed by eating Giovanni and Alessandro's food that we came to write the cookbooks together.

Those two books were A Sardinian Cookbook with Giovanni and A Lombardian Cookbook with Alessandro - any plans for other Italian regions?

Possibly … I'm chatting to a couple of other Italian chef friends - and I do think every region of Italy deserves its own cookbook - as each region is quite distinctive - and delicious!

In addition to co-writing cookbooks with chefs, you also manage Sydney Seafood School, the cooking school at Sydney Fish Market. We index all the recipes on the School's website and also list all the classes that the school does with cookbook authors. What other services does the school provide?

We also have the Sydney Seafood School Cookbook with recipes from 49 leading Australian chefs, which I edited and co-authored, and a whole range of basic cooking classes as well as the ones taught by top chefs - things like seafood paella, a Moroccan tagine, seafood barbecue and Singapore's iconic chilli crab and black pepper crab - the full program is on our website. And the website also has a heap of other seafood info apart from the recipes - cooking tips, seasonal and species info, and answers to frequently asked seafood questions.

You must have access to wonderful seafood at Sydney Fish Market. For visitors to Sydney, why should they visit the Market?

Firstly to attend a Sydney Seafood School class I would hope! But we also offer early morning tours of the seafood auction, which is fascinating and a big hit with out of town visitors. It's such an exciting place, as it's a real working fish market with boats unloading on the wharf, shops selling all the fresh seafood (as well as other great produce - fruit and veg, deli goods, meat …) and cafés cooking up all sorts of seafood dishes …. It's a wonderful snapshot of the Australian seafood industry from ocean to plate!

In addition to all of the above, you have your own blog Food Wine Travel With Roberta (indexed on EYB). One fun feature I have enjoyed reading is your Top 5 Lists (who doesn't love a list) - restaurants, hotels, meals, even movies. What do you cover on the blog?

Each Wednesday morning (Sydney time) I send out a short newsletter with either a simple (non-seafood) recipe or a "Top 5" list of my favourite food, wine and travel experiences (as you say - everyone loves a list) … there's everything from my 5 favourite hotels in Italy, through my top 5 vermouths (the new go-to drink category on wine lists) to Sydney's Top 5 seafood restaurants. Once the newsletter has gone out, the recipes and Top 5s are archived on my website - and of course recipes are indexed on EYB. Subscription to the newsletter is free of course, via the link at the top of the website.

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