On a recent Melbourne food sojourn, I was fortunate enough to catch up with a couple of Catalan lads, our own Frank Camorra and his good mate, Cesc Castro, a ‘local food insider’ (from Aborigens, a food tour operator in Barcelona). Together with co-writer, Richard Cornish, they’d been collaborating on their new book, MoVida Solera, a book about simple food.. “recipes of the people” to use Frank’s words.
I’ve known Frank for while and was very pleased when the generous, and extremely busy, chef spared some time to talk Spanish food, restaurants and his new book, MoVida Solera.
Last year the original MoVida celebrated its 10 year anniversary. Ten years since they vacated their semi-grungy West Melbourne pub, uplifting the restaurant to Central Melbourne and setting down in Hosiers Lane amid the colourful graffiti strewn laneway walls. I query Frank.. “What has been the most surprising ? What has given you the most satisfaction over those 10 years ?”
He’s quick to respond. Originally starting out in a pub, he never dreamed that he’d be publishing Spanish cookery and tour guide books or writing food columns in the newspaper..
.. that he’d be teaching cooking classes, presenting at gourmet food shows, or guiding food tours through Spain..
.. or that he’d have a stable of MoVida restaurants with various offshoots in Melbourne and now in Sydney (more about those later)..
.. but what he’s most proud of is introducing, bringing Spanish bar eating culture to Australians. When Frank opened the Hosiers Lane MoVida back in 2003, he offered bookable tables in the restaurant as well as walk-in seating at the bar (the latter inspired by his stint working in a Spanish tapas bar.. seeing the diversity of the dishes, wanting to bring that dynamic bar culture back to Melbourne). For the first six months, the bar was little used. Dinner guests wanted to sit in the main dining area, there was a stiffness in the room.. it didn’t feel right.. but gradually diners turned.. they saw the theatre of it, they wanted to be part of the action, to chat with the barman, the excitement of the constantly changing menu, enjoying the handcrafted little eats coming out of the kitchen.. the rest is history.
.. and what is Frank’s mindset as he thinks about produce and the next dish he’s going to create ? Absolutely, it’s about ‘seasonality’ and what is looking fantastic as he wanders through a market. His heritage and upbringing are the other influence, the traditions, and especially the ‘simplicity’ of Spanish cuisine. Whilst Spanish food has surged to prominence in the world’s best restaurant listings, courtesy of innovative chefs with their avant-garde cuisine, it would be fair to say that Frank Camorra is not a ‘sous vide’ kind of guy.. he’s much happier rattling the pans or squishing the innards out of freshly roasted garlic.
This ‘simplicity’ is evident in Frank’s new book, MoVida Solera, a book about “the reality of Spanish food” he explains. These are not Frank’s recipes, you won’t typically find these dishes on the menu at his MoVida restaurants, nor are you likely to find them in cookbooks. It’s simple, peasant style food. I chuckle as Frank professes that there is “no chefiness” in this latest book.
I was fortunate to peruse the pages of this beautiful book, rich colours and vibrant images captured by talented photographer Alan Benson, during its development. With chapters devoted to the major cities across Andalucía, MoVida Solera not only offers up local recipes, it also furnishes a petite city bar, dining and hotel guide at the end of each chapter.
Researching the new book, driving through Andalucía, four lads (Frank, Richard, Cesc and Alan) crammed into a small car, their journey was about meeting the locals, seeing what real people cook. Six weeks travelling some 10,000kms across eight provinces in Southern Spain, they met with butchers, farmers, fishermen, home cooks and chefs. Stunning photos were snapped on the spot, recipes gladly offered up, sometimes coaxed.
Actually, some serious coaxing was needed to procure a few Andalucían pastry recipes from a group of secretive nuns. Walking up to the convent, the traditional method of buying these delicious pastries involved placing your money into a revolving wooden cylinder (a torno) with your purchased pastries rotated back, never making eye contact with the pastry making nuns. It took some fancy talking by Spaniard, Cesc to set-up a brief meeting where Frank talked and joked with the surprisingly cheeky nuns, albeit separated by a large iron grilled gate.
Frank recounts another situation when they visited a seaside fish market (or lonja). As his group of ‘outsiders’ arrived, notebooks in hand, cameras clicking away, the wary fishermen suspected that EU Fishery Inspectors had come a calling. It wasn’t until they explained their project, showing some of Frank’s work, that the suspicious locals embraced them, opening up.. and open up they did, proudly displaying their morning catch before dragging Frank, their new best friend, off to the fish auction.
Whilst Frank himself is Barcelona born, his family has strong ties to the south of Spain, Cordoba being a ‘spiritual’ home for the Camorra family. This road trip was an opportunity to explore that heritage. Journeying through the region and sharing experiences, what really appealed to Frank was the sense of ‘exoticness’ in Andalucían cuisine, the multiple layers of cultural influence in the food, imparted by centuries of conquest and migration. Phoenicians, Romans, Jews, Arabs and Berbers.. all journeyed through the region, leaving their mark on the Andalucían palate.
That cultural assimilation was the genesis for the name of the new book, MoVida Solera. Solera refers to the aging process by which the locals craft their luscious Spanish sherries. Fractional blending occurs, with new sherries layered into barrels with previous vintages. Old mixed with new, the sherry influenced by everything that came before it, just like the food of Andalucía.
Frank shared these ‘multicultural’ flavours with market goers when he fired up the BBQ at the SMH Growers Market, preparing Seville festival lamb skewers (Pinchitos morunos) and Beetroot salad with fennel and cumin (Ensalada de remolacha).
These mouth-watering lamb skewers, cooked by gypsies on Seville backstreets in years gone by, emphasise the herbs and spices, the Muslim flavours that the Moors introduced during their time of occupation. They also evoke deep memories for Frank recalling hours spent in the backyard, tending the BBQ with his father, an industrious boilermaker who wielded and handcrafted their charcoal grill (as well as the metal skewers). Tender lamb marinated the day before, Dad’s ‘go to’ dish is always savoured at family special occasions.
Earlier we mentioned a “stable of MoVida restaurants”.. let’s take a little descriptive and pictorial tour through each restaurant with Frank sharing a few pointers, differentiators (accompanying photos courtesy of the MoVida meals I’ve relished on progressive visits).
Tucked away in Melbourne’s graffiti strewn Hosiers Lane, the Spanish food at the original MoVida has evolved.
Winning various accolades and “hats” from good food guides, it’s arguably a victim of its own success, diners now expecting something special when they visit. Yes, those original classic Spanish dishes are there, but the food has become more sophisticated, the chef’s given reign to experiment.
That inventiveness has seen the creation of modern interpretations like the ‘must try’ artisan Cantabrian Anchovy with Smoked Tomato sorbet, and the decadent Air Cured Wagyu Beef with Truffle Foam and Poached Egg, both signature dishes that have filtered out across the MoVida restaurant empire. This last visit I salivated over a delightful sandwich (bocadillo), Brioche, Duck Liver Pate and Pedro Ximénez Foam Toasted Sandwich.
This ‘evolved’ MoVida fare contrasts with the aptly name MoVida Next Door, the popular ‘little brother’ tapas bar offering simple Spanish fare with a seafood bent (pristine fish and shellfish arrayed on a bed of ice and cooked to order). It’s more bar style food (most authentic to its Spanish roots) and a MoVida favourite for many, including Frank himself.
Opened in late 2009, MoVida Aqui has more of a “corporate feel” says Frank. Compared to its Hosiers Lane sisters, it’s a sprawling restaurant, seating circa 200 people, including a lengthy bar area (with quirky upside-down illuminated milk crates) as well as outdoor dining.
While its scale allows more patrons to be accommodated, the more exciting aspect is the massive central kitchen, allowing the chefs to branch out beyond the typical Spanish charcuterie and tapas repertoire of the earlier MoVida restaurants. A large charcoal grill (parrilla) turns out succulent smoky meats, such as quail and the house-made peppery Catalan pork sausage (Botifarra).
Slow cooked paellas also grace the menu, Frank observing that “you need space, the right equipment, and careful attention” to prepare a good paella.. as you cook out the sofrito and give the rice time to absorb the flavours and develop a good socarret, that layer of crunchy rice that forms on the bottom of the paella. Try something like the delicious Bomba Rice cooked with Cuttlefish & Squid Ink, served with Aioli (Arroz Negro) and you’ll savour, and appreciate, the ‘chef time’ invested (as they gently cooked out the dish using their metre wide pan).
Imparting a little ‘paella’ history, Frank reveals that rice first arrived in Spain from Persia, brought to Andalucía by the Moors around the 8th Century. Cultivated, irrigated rice crops spread to the north of Spain, ultimately arriving in Valencia, home of the now famous Spanish Paella. Interestingly many Spanish households, with their restricted domestic kitchens, are more likely to cook a wetter, soupier variation of this famous rice dish.
.. and “what’s the best type of rice to cook up a delicious paella ?” Frank promptly replies “Spanish Calasparra Bomba”. Yes, it’s more expensive, but its highly flavoursome, given its ability to absorb liquid, taking in the piquant sofrito, swelling to nearly three times its original size. Also, it’s not as starchy (you don’t want the dish to be too creamy) and it’s more forgiving than other varieties (harder to overcook).
As he continued to grow the MoVida family, Frank launched two airport bars (Melbourne International and Sydney Domestic terminals) offering travellers a broad menu of fast serving small eats, perfect accompaniments for a pre-flight tipple of Spanish wine.
A little cafe offshoot, MoVida Terraza, came and went, surprisingly replaced by Paco’s Tacos, a Mexican tacqueria pushing out soft shell tacos loaded with exotic fillings. Sitting at a communal table, sampling a few tacos on a summer’s afternoon, sipping a Corona.. it’s a nice place to chill.
.. he even dabbled with a MoVida Bakery for a while..
.. and then he moved north. It’s fair to say Sydneysiders were drooling in anticipation when Frank finally opened his latest MoVida franchise in October 2012.
Attesting to his professionalism, and desire to ‘get it right’, Frank relocated to Sydney for six months as he established MoVida Sydney (although it wasn’t all work as Frank got to hometown support his beloved Sydney Swans). Successfully transplanting the DNA of the Melbourne restaurant, Sydney embraced the Spanish bar culture, Frank especially proud of the exquisitely tiled counter bar where customers can dine and wander through the delightful sherries on an expansive Spanish wine list.
In Frank’s rustic Surry Hills restaurant, this little outpost of Spain, patrons savour traditional tapas – bite size eats of Jamon or Poached Galician Style Octopus as well as those afore mentioned modern interpretations. More substantial plates include Slow Cooked Pork Belly Finished on the Charcoal with Carrot Salmorejo and Padron Peppers.
I’m tempted to draw a parallel and liken the Sydney experience to that of the ‘multicultural’ Andalucians. MoVida has been 10 years in the making to get to where it is today, it’s Melbourne restaurants growing, successes and lessons learned, always evolving.. and we get that benefit, the best of that, an assimilation, coming our way to Sydney.. I’d say that makes us very lucky.
Some while back, there were rumours of another Sydney based MoVida restaurant, perhaps in the CBD. “Any truth in that ?” I ponder. We explored an option many months ago, Frank replies, but it’s more about consolidating now. Having said that, if they did come across something they like “who knows ?”
Turning away from Sydney, Frank shares his thoughts on some Melbourne dining hotspots. He’s been enjoying the ‘fresh’ cuisine of Pei Modern (as have the visiting Catalonian chefs he’s entertained), the pizzas in the Salumi Bar at Ombra (an outpost of his old boss and good friend, Guy Grossi) are exceptional.. and make sure you take your family to Lau’s Kitchen in St Kilda.
Bringing our conversation to an end, we briefly talk favourite cookbooks, realising we’re somewhat kindred spirits.. both owners of vast cookbook collections that we page turn and draw inspiration from (I forget to ask Frank if he cops as much flak as I do over the diminishing space in our home). One thing’s for certain though.. I’m thoroughly enjoying this latest addition to the MoVida library.. it’s unearthing of the cuisine and culture of the Spanish South, the diversity and vitality of the people, the stirring, richly coloured photography..
.. an idea for a food inspired holiday to this sun-drenched region of Spain is already forming in my mind.
Frank Camorra.. thank you for sharing.. and thank you for following your heart all those years ago and bringing that fun-loving, vibrant Spanish bar culture and food to our shores.
Postscript: .. and by the way, Frank did come across something he liked.. MoVida will be opening its first international outpost in Seminyak, Bali, in June 2015.
1 Hosier Lane (off Flinders St), Melbourne, Victoria Australia
+61 3 9663 3038
MoVida Next Door
164 Flinders St (cnr Hosier Lane), Melbourne, Victoria Australia
+61 3 9663 3038
Lvl 1, 500 Bourke St, NAB building (via Lt Bourke St), Melbourne, Victoria Australia
+61 3 9663 3038
Lvl 1, 500 Bourke St, NAB building (via Lt Bourke St), Melbourne, Victoria Australia
+61 3 9633 1222
50 Holt St (cnr Gladstone St), Surry Hills, New South Wales Australia
+61 2 8964 7642