Just before we moved into Stage 4 restrictions in Melbourne, we were lucky enough to catch up with the very talented Graham Hill of much loved Collingwood wine bar Smithward. Stylish, generous, not to mention his ability to cook a mean raclette — we can’t sing his (and his lovely partner Georgina’s) praises enough when it comes to Smithward’s support and celebration of Victorian wines and local producers.
We are delighted to say that Smithward is still open for pickup and Graham has added some of their incredible wines to the menu! For those of you who live outside the area — can we recommend one of Smithward’s gift cards?
Thanks so much for having us Graham! We are big fans of your Collingwood wine bar and its focus on Victorian wines and produce. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and the impetus for starting Smithward and opening up a such a considered and intimate space?
Smithward began as a spontaneous thought bubble ten years ago. Georgina and I lived in London for five years, I worked at the BBC and Georgina was at a TV production company.
We continued to revisit Europe regularly after we’d permanently relocated to Melbourne. One night on one of those return trips we settled in a tiny bar just off Canal Saint-Martin and declared to ourselves that we would be ‘regulars’ there if we lived in Paris. Over the next few weeks, we travelled around France and Spain and experienced many more small bars, and we returned to that thought again and again, and ultimately decided that if we couldn’t live in Paris, Paris would come to us, in the form of our own wine bar!
We always knew it would be petit and influenced by Europe but stocked with local producers, and very much inspired by the little venues we fell in love with, that featured authentic, quality food produced right behind the bar.
We love that you support and work with so many local makers, vineyards and producers — could you talk a little bit more about why this is something that is so important to you?
When I'm describing a wine to a guest I'm remembering the winemaker, the time we visited their vineyard or sat in their shed, patted their dog, the road-trip we took to meet them. That immediate connection with the maker takes the wine from being a product to being a story, an experience. Something personal. It suits the intimate nature of our tiny 17 seater.
We only pour wines we absolutely love and we only buy from producers we like. These people live and breathe wine-making and we like to continue that dedication right through to the moment someone raises a glass to their nose and to their mouth at Smithward.
And importantly, Victoria is home to so many amazingly diverse wine regions, all responsible for stunning produce.
We continue that dedication to ‘local’ through our cheese and charcuterie suppliers - our raclette cheese is from Mortlake and made with organic milk from Timboon (l’Artisan), and our charcuterie is from the Macedon Ranges (The Meatroom), Ballarat (Salt Kitchen) and closer to home, City Larder.
Another one of the many things we love about Smithward is the incredible attention to detail – from hand-making delicious sourdough and gnocchi, to the meticulous selection of wines. Could you talk more about the importance of time and process, the handcrafted nature of each dish, and why you wanted Smithward to represent this approach to food?
Several reasons. Naive enthusiasm, curiosity, and a determination to do things right! We came at this from a non-hospo background and established our approach to everything from a customer’s perspective. No short-cuts. This also meant we had no idea what we shouldn’t do! So, we bake our own sourdough bread, make our pastry from scratch, whip fresh mayonnaise, pickle and ferment, all in a space smaller than a typical home kitchen. Our approach is - if we can possibly make it ourselves, then we should. It’s so rewarding. A recent couple dining with us had convinced themselves there are stairs behind the bar leading down to a basement full of cooks.
We respect the authenticity and effort of our winemakers and strive to complement that ethos with the food we produce and the way it all comes together.
Talking about wine – it’s an often spoken about delight for many Smithward devotees that you’re likely to try a wine from exciting and perhaps lesser-known makers and vineyards. What is it like working so closely with small producers and how do you go about the selection process with your lovely partner Georgina? (Could we tempt you to share an anecdote or two about your wine touring experiences? )
Pre-covid, we’d book a Flexicar and regularly head out to different parts of Victoria for a wine-buying trip. While an increasing number of small winemakers are finding their way to us in Collingwood, we continue to strive to discover un-sung producers via our road-trips. This keeps our wine list unique and ever-changing. When someone is making as little as 30 dozen of a particular wine it means there’s always something new to try. That keeps things fresh for our customers, and for us.
These trips have become an unexpected highlight of running a wine bar.
We’ve sat in a concrete water tank buried underground and repurposed in to a wine cellar at Simonsens in Geelong; in the Pyrenees we visited Equus and discovered they had a museum of restored vintage merry-go-round horses (and amazing wines made by Owen Latta); in Bendigo, a 9am shiraz tasting with North Run winemaker Lincoln was followed by an unexpected breakfast of freshly baked croissants courtesy of his partner Marsha, a Michelin-star-trained pastry chef!
We’re forever amazed by the generosity of time we experience.
What does a typical Smithward day look like? Early starts at 6am baking bread?
I have never, in my life, aimed for a 6am start, so our bread making routine was developed with a suitably nocturnal, 3 day timeline in mind!
My day typically starts at noon, gently waking the sourdough for a second rise ahead of baking. Often there's a visit from one of our winemakers for a delivery or tasting of something new and delicious. Then, three or more hours of solid food prep for the evening's service, with a brief break to shoot the day's socials. Fresh bread smells fill the air, doors open at 4pm. We farewell our last guests at 11pm and then there's a couple of hours of cleaning up and doing any necessary prep for the following day, for example, I do step 1 of the pastry prep the night before it hits the menu. And sometimes it's better to do pickling at night to avoid filling our tiny space with overpowering smells just ahead of service. So, yeah, tends to be 12 to 13 hour days. Mondays I do very, very little 😉.
Favourite movie / book / tv series featuring food or a bar / restaurant?
I have a 3pm appointment every Sunday to read Jay Rayner’s latest restaurant review in The Guardian UK and in the meantime I’m enjoying his latest book, ‘My Last Supper’. It’s a joy to read someone who is so passionate about food.
On screen - it’s Monk’s Cafe, The Winchester pub from ‘Shaun Of The Dead’, Gabriel Gaté on Le Tour and last night we watched Stanley Tucci’s ‘Big Night’ - so I guess that means pasta will be back on the menu soon…
Wednesday night is the Graham specials night, what has been your favourite Wednesday dish?
Our pre-lockdown Wednesday small plate and matched wine offer was an opportunity to trial new ideas and simultaneously provide a deserved mid-week reward to customers. Some dishes grew and migrated to become regulars on our daily menu - the parisienne gnocchi is a good example - others were just fun at the time (burger balls anyone? Cheese burgers baked in pastry!). I guess I have a soft spot for our five-hour french onion soup. It was our very first Wednesday special and makes a return each winter. Brings a tear to my eye every time.
As we're in another lockdown in Metropolitan Melbourne, are you finding time to work or develop new ideas?
At the time of the first lockdown, driven in equal parts by blind panic and adrenalin, we only paused for 24 hours before launching our takeaway service. This time around, we've taken a little longer, to take the pressure off ourselves and to introduce a few dishes specifically designed for eating at home. During both lockdowns, takeaway is important as it allows us to stay in touch with our amazing regulars and also give them a little highlight in the midst of all the gloom. We'll be spending our extra spare time pickling and fermenting, planning our menu and discovering new wines for our re-opening...
We'd love to include a little recipe to share as part of the series for people who can't get to you in Collingwood…
Smithward’s Parisienne gnocchi with sage & stilton cream
Makes 4 serves
- 120ml water
- 60g butter
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 80g flour
- 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
- 1 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
- 1/4 tbsp tarragon, finely chopped
- 1/4 tbsp chive, finely chopped
- 60g gruyère, finely grated
- 2 eggs, beaten
- Salt & pepper
- 100ml double cream
- 100gm stilton cheese (we prefer Colston Bassett)
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped sage (packed)
- Salt and pepper to taste
For the gnocchi:
- Melt butter in salted water. Add flour. Stir until dough comes away from side of pot and steam rises. Approx 5mins.
- Remove from heat and add herbs, dijon, gruyère. Stirring gently but thoroughly.
- Beat eggs, add one at a time, mixing thoroughly. Aim for a consistency where dough slides very slowly from a spoon.
- Season to taste.
- Fill piping bag with dough, rest for 30 mins. At this stage, dough can be held refrigerated for 24 hours...
- Heat a large pot of lightly salted water to a simmer.
- Working in batches, pipe gnocchi into the boiling water, cutting into 2cm lengths. Continue cutting for 1 minute.
- Cook for two minutes, or until gnocchi start to float to the top of the water. Then remove and place on a greaseproof-paper lined tray. Repeat piping until all is done. Transfer the tray to the refrigerator to cool. At this stage, boiled gnocchi can be held refrigerated for 24 hours....
For the stilton cream:
- Heat cream over a low heat, simmer until thickened. Add stilton, sage and seasoning. Simmer for a further 5-10mins.
- Ahead of serving, fill oven-proof dishes with Gnocchi (14-16 per serve), top with a generous pour of stilton cream, coating all the gnocchi, scatter with fresh sage leaves. Bake at 180c for 10mins until golden and bubbling. Season and serve with fresh sourdough for mopping.
Photography at Smithward, featuring the work of makers Ryan Foote, Adriana Christianson, Alison Frith, Katie Ann Houghton, Katherine Mahoney, Vanessa Lucas. Jewellery by Shimara Carlow and William L Griffiths. Hand model — Eliza Tiernan.
Interview by Sarah Weston and Eliza Tiernan