Chef O Tama Carey’s Sagra dinners aren’t just a means to an end. “The experimental nature of the dinners is important,” she says. “It’s always new dishes, there are very few repeats and from them we have found great dishes that have stayed on the menu.”
She’s made her way out of the kitchen at Berta to explain the concept behind the venue’s Sagra dinners. “The dinners are a great way to test the boundaries,” she offers, as we gaze out onto Nithsdale Lane. “And I think it’s a nice way to eat. It’s interesting and it’s fun – you don’t want to take them too seriously.”
Sagra is an Italian concept celebrating seasonality through feature ingredients or dishes. “It basically means ‘festival’, so it’s based on seasonality…it’s just like a festival where everyone gets together and celebrates one seasonal ingredient.”
At Berta, the concept of Sagra has manifested in the form of a weekly Wednesday four-course dinner, with all dishes focusing on one key seasonal ingredient, from start to finish.
“The month before, I go through what’s in season,” says Carey, explaining the process. “I work closely with my organic farmer from Kangaroo Valley and he’ll tell me what he’s got coming up in terms of vegetables. But often we might do things like anchovies or pork; in spring we did spring lamb; we’ve done a spring cheese one… It’s not necessarily just a fruit or vegetable that’s the focus ingredient. We’re doing an olive one next week with our own olives,” she says gesturing towards a row of enticing jars lining a high shelf.
“It’s a good brain exercise,” she says. “The ingredient is the best starting point for writing a menu and then we come up with new ideas.”
While the changing menu can be a lot of work for the restaurant, the process is one that Carey enjoys and it’s certainly rewarding. “After we have the ingredient, then I think of the flavours that go with that and what I want to match it with. It all flows from there.”
The text step is testing and assessing the produce as it comes in, influenced by other surrounding ingredients, some of which are an added surprise from markets trips. Focusing on one ingredient allows for creativity – as in the sundae with anchovy in the caramel sauce, or the creamy eggplant gelato – and facilitates some truly memorable moments.
“We did a honey Sagra and we were able to use our own honey from our rooftop hives. It was our first batch and it has taken us since May – through some teething problems – until February to harvest. But we went up on the Monday, got the honey, extracted it here in the restaurant with help from Urban Beehive, and we got 16 kilograms of our own honey. We went through nearly all of that in one dinner…it was very special.”
Seasonality also means that the dinners are not only inspired by the seasons, but prey to them as well, as Carey discovered with her melon Sagra.
“One year, I’d had so many different kinds of melons available, like champagne melon. But when the season came around the following year and we were planning the melon Sagra there was only watermelon available…that was it.”
The same thing also happened with blood oranges. Luckily seasonal ups and downs can usually be predicted in advance of the dinners and guests can be notified of changes to the major ingredient in advance, though it hasn’t happened often.
The other important factor in planning a Sagra dinner is balance. “You want to incorporate the ingredient, but you don’t want to leave people feeling like they’ve eaten 17 tins of anchovies. You want to have that balance of using the ingredient as many ways as you can but still create a nice dinner.” It seems you can have too much of a good thing.
But perhaps the one question on everybody’s minds is, does she take requests? “I’ve got one regular customer who comes in every week and says, ‘You’ve got to do a pomegranate Sagra’.
“I haven’t done pomegranate before, but I’m going to this year, for him.”
Sagra Dinners are weekly, every Wednesday at Berta.
- When we dropped in eggplant was on the menu – with plans for an eggplant gelato dessert with sugar syrup dipped eggplant chips.