169 Domain Road
South Yarra VIC 3141
+61 3 9820 7888
I love soups. And by that, I mean proper soups – not the stuff you find on shelves at your local supermarket. So when the folks at PR Edge, on behalf of La Zuppa, invited me to be part of a judging panel to determine the winner of a nation-wide search for the soup company’s newest soup flavour I was initially like, ‘Yeah, nah… zzzzzz!’
But curiosity ended up getting the best of me. I had never tried a La Zuppa soup before and as much as I stay away from packet meals, I wanted to know more about a company that claims to keep their gourmet soups fresh on shelves for so long without putting nasty stuff in it. So I accepted the invite to be on the judging panel. The fact that the judging event was held at The Botanical, featuring a five-course meal may or may not have anything to do with my decision to say ‘yes’, too.
It was a beautiful spring day in Melbourne, with the sun coming out to play and the wind stirring things up too. I bumped into fellow food blogger and panellist, Angie, on the tram so we ended up walking into the restaurant together.
We, along with Jenny, were one of the early ones so we used this opportunity to mingle with Laura from PR Edge and some of the Valcorp representatives (who were also part of the judging panel).
While we were waiting for the others to arrive, I got talking to a few of the lovely Valcorp ladies. The La Zuppa brand belongs to La Gina, famous for their canned tomatoes, and Valcorp is La Gina’s parent company. La Zuppa’s soups are 99% fat free and do not contain any dairy or gluten, great for those who cannot eat those things. They also claim to be free from artificial additives and despite the absence of funny numbers in the list of ingredients, there is nothing on the packet that says that they are also preservative-free. When asked about this, I was told that the reason why the soups stay ‘fresh’ on shelves for so long is because of their air-tight packaging. Okay.
Limoncello cocktails were being dished out to the guests upon arrival. They looked amazing but because I had to be back at work after the event, I decided to say no to a cocktail. After all, I was going to have a few glasses of wine over lunch so the less alcohol I drank, the better!
The judging was held in a private room, where a long table was beautifully set up. I liked how the event had a ‘yellow’ theme from the cocktails the guests were given, to the lemon centrepiece on the table. It not only reflected the spring theme, but also provided a link to the Flavour competition, where the lucky winner would get a trip to the Amalfi coast where lemons grow in abundance.
Cheong Liew was the executive chef at The Botanical for many years but he has since retired. Taking over Liew’s role is fresh face Luke Brabin, who was sous chef at Gordon Ramsay’s maze restaurant and spent several years working in China before that. He was responsible for the menu this afternoon, a lot of which played tribute to his time in Asia.
Once Luke was done, he headed back into the kitchen while we got our judging thinking caps on. Basically, we were assessing the soup’s taste but factors such as marketability in the Australian market was just as important. Out of approximately two thousand entries, there was a total of five finalists and Luke had the task of cooking a soup based on those five flavours and creating a matching dish to go with them. Obviously the winning soup, when it finally hits the shelves next year, won’t be a Brabin creation due to legal, manufacturing and marketing factors but it will come pretty close.
We also received personalised judging spoons – too awesome!
We nibbled on some bread while waiting for the first course to arrive. It was beautiful and chewy house-baked bread that was accompanied by a very soft and delicious butter.
This is our 2010 Shelmerdine Sauvignon Blanc from the Yarra Valley, the accompaniment to our first course. It was a cool, crisp wine reflecting the region’s temperature and was the perfect partner for the first soup and dish pairing, which practically screamed out, ‘SUMMER!’
At this point, the sun was being a pain in the arse by shining directly down at our section of the table. One of the Valcorp guys was annoyed because his eyes do not take well to extreme sunlight while I was annoyed because the sun was interfering with my photos. Thank goodness the sun glare was only temporary though.
I, and a few other bloggers, did love the soup but I did make a comment on how it’s a soup that would get you full really quickly, especially if there is 420g of it.
The Mexican corn soup was perfectly accompanied by a gentle serving of chipotle prawns, watermelon, chilli and corn salsa. The flavour combination was so fresh and simple – it made me want more. I also liked the sweet touch that the watermelon gave this dish too.
The next dish was also light and simple. It was a white cooked chicken served with vermicelli noodles and a sesame, chilli and soy dressing and greens. The accompanying wine was a 2010 Te Mata Estate Woodthorpe Vineyard sauv blanc, which was perhaps a bit more intense than the first one we had (in a good way).
The dish tasted beautiful; I wasn’t sure whether I liked the chicken’s lovely just-cooked texture or the dressing more. It was also a dish that I would expect to see in my lunch box rather than one served at a former hatted restaurant but hey, it tasted good regardless and that’s all that mattered for now.
The accompanying carrot, ginger and coriander soup tasted just as fantastic. I’m a bit contradictory in that I’m a food blogger as well as a health freak so this healthy-sounding soup that was not only good for you but tasted amazing definitely won me over. While I can’t see it making La Zuppa big bucks, it’s a soup that I will definitely try and make myself at home.
A serving of steamed Hapuka and a side of corn and coriander salsa accompanied this soup while a glass of 2010 Curlewis ‘Bel Sel’ Chardonnay from Geelong provided a bit of intensity with some BOOMBOOMPOW to draw out the nice but otherwise muted flavours of this dish.
Who would have thought to pair fish and corn together? Only Luke Brabin.
We were venturing into heavier territory with the first of our red wines, the 2011 Red Claw Pinot Noir from the Mornington Peninsula. I’m a big fan of this drop, which is full of cheeky cherry and berry notes so I was delighted to see it make an appearance.
It made friends with a pork cotoletta, essentially a fancier version of a pork schnitzel, and some Italian coleslaw.
The pork cotoletta was nothing like any chumpy pub schnitzel I’ve ever had. The pork meat was amazingly tender and juicy, thanks to the bone being left on the meat during the cooking process. The coating was wonderfully golden and crispy, and I liked that it was flavoured with parmesan cheese and a myriad of herbs.
The matching soup was a Tuscan vegetable and bean soup, a vegetarian minestrone if you like. It was a hearty soup and one that I would probably make in my slow cooker every now and then. But to buy it? Probably not.
The final main was a lamb rogan josh with raita. This dish screamed out ‘suburban Indian’ rather than Domain Road, South Yarra so I found it to be an odd inclusion, just like the white cooked chicken dish. That said, it was a beautiful dish accompanied by a 2010 Giant Steps ‘Sexton Vineyard’ Merlot from the Yarra Valley.
I did like the curried pumpkin soup better, though. I love pumpkin soups and curry always get my juices going so this soup was perfect. The only issue I had with it was that there are 10 billion kinds of pumpkin soup flavours on supermarket shelves at the moment so La Zuppa/Valcorp would need a lot of work done if they wanted this soup to stand out from the competition.
That was the end of the soup-tasting but certainly not the end of the afternoon. We spent a few moments grading the soups in terms of taste and marketability and after some really tough decisions, a winner was finally picked.
Naturally, we couldn’t leave without having some desserts. The dishes we tried during the course of the event aren’t actually on the Botanical menu so this is not a ‘legit’ review of what the restaurant can to offer per se. However, I’m pretty sure that the dishes on the restaurant’s a la carte menu would be of a similar style to what I enjoyed that day.
That said, the lime cheesecake that I had for dessert does feature on the dessert menu so you can try it for yourself. I don’t normally take well to cheesecakes – they’re too heavy for me – but I was wowed by this one. The lime cheesecake was surprisingly light and airy – almost like a panna cotta. It was decorated with a lovely strawberry essence, this season’s kiwifruits, bits of broken biscuits and a candied celery on top. I would so order this again.
Unfortunately, work was beckoning so I had to turn down the coffees and macarons that were being passed around.
I had a wonderful afternoon. I was glad to finally to dine at The Botanical and catch up with fellow bloggers, new and old. It was also a pleasure and honour to be part of a judging panel for a consumer product and I came out of this event, knowing a lot more about marketing FMCGs and the complicated processes that it involves. While I do know the winning soup flavour, I can’t tell you on this blog so you’ll just have to stalk La Zuppa’s Facebook page if you’re interested.
In the meantime, I’m looking forward to trying The Botanical’s a la carte menu when I have a free Sunday afternoon. And while I’ll never be an off-the-shelf soup buyer, I will admit that La Zuppa’s soup range do taste better (and closer to a real soup) than the other stuff that’s on the market.
To wrap up this post and to celebrate the end of La Zuppa’s Flavour competition, the kind folk at PR Edge, La Zuppa and The Botanical have agreed to pass on a $200 voucher to be used at The Botanical. To be in the running for this pretty amazeballs prize, all you need to do is:
- Follow me on Twitter (@libishski), if you haven’t already done so, AND
- Tweet me a soup flavour that you’d like to see in the La Zuppa range somewhere down the track.
Please note: You must complete BOTH STEPS to be eligible to win the prize.
I will then pick a winner and arrangements will be made to have the voucher mailed to you.
This competition will close at 5pm on Sunday September 23rd 2012 so make sure you get your entries in by then!
Disclaimer: libishski was a guest at this event, thanks to PR Edge, Valcorp and The Botanical.