16 Feb Favourite Top-Secret Undercover Vegetarian…?
A Hidden Secret’s Tom Mullins – The Secrets Behind a Hidden Secret
You can judge a man’s true character by the way he treats his fellow animals. — Paul McCartney
Flipping fabulous vegetarian…
My Surf Coast Life discovers there are no big little lies behind a Hidden Secret. We cut the pastry with Tom Mullins – and hit hard with the wooden spoon – to find out who’s really behind the secret at a Hidden Secret. So if you can’t keep one – a secret, that is…
MSCL – Now, Tom, you know as well as we do, it’s no secret that a Hidden Secret is not such a hidden secret about the Surf Coast.
We apologise if our opener sounds a bit Irish – but it’s in all of us somewhere, to be sure, to be sure.
We know you’re not from about these parts – originally. Tell us a bit about your background, and why you made the decision to settle in Australia. It’s a no-brainer, really, we know. So we’re not even sure why we’re asking. We’re just keen to get the pastie started (ouch!)…
TOM – In 1989, I moved to Australia from England with my family – to fill a skill shortage in the aircraft Industry. Prior to that time, I was an aircraft engineer with the Royal Navy – Fleet Air Arm – for 20 years. I started work with Hawker de Havilland in Melbourne, initially working on the conversion of RAAF planes to enable them to be refueled in flight. I worked on a variety of aircraft contracts, until 2002.
In 1999, we moved from Melbourne to Maude. After my time at Hawker de Havilland, I was employed working at a number of local vineyards. In 2009, my wife and daughter started Hidden Secret. They became very busy, so I joined them – in 2010 – when we built our own commercial kitchen on our property.
MSCL – On the pastie thing – if you’ll excuse our indulgence: Our dear late father argued the point ad nauseam, so you may be able to enlighten us. Is it pas-tee or pars-tee, in your professional and all-things-pasty expert opinion? You seem to know more about the ins and outs of the humble pastie than anyone we’ve ever met, so we’ll take it on the chin if our pronunciation requires correction.
We’re also well aware that this line of questioning is not advancing our dialogue to any satisfactory degree. So we promise to move on – after we have the verdict.
TOM – We say pastee, and more and more people must be saying pastee – or maybe we just don’t notice the difference anymore. But we don’t care. As long as people eat them and enjoy them, we’re happy!
MSCL – What was behind the decision to manufacture Hidden Secret vegetarian and vegan products? We’re pleased as punch, as really, really, really good-tasting vegan and vegetarian fare is not that easy to come by – let’s be honest.
TOM – Our daughter Christina started working for Meredith Dairy at weekends; and I would help her sell the cheese at the various markets. The cheeses were very popular, but cooking with goat’s cheese was unusual at the time. Customers kept asking what could be done with the cheese – besides just eating it, of course.
Christina started to make a few tarts as samples, to provide ideas, but customers wanted to buy the tarts. Gradually, they were selling really well. In 2009, we decided to make enough produce to attend a market, to see how things went. We sold out really early. The rest, as they say, is history.
My wife Cherry has been vegetarian for all of our married life, and has cooked vegetarian meals from scratch for nearly all that time. We all ate vegetarian meals at home. It was decided that our point of difference for a Hidden Secret was that all our food would be vegetarian. We endured the silly jokes and usual nonsense; but were shocked by the number of other vegetarians out there who couldn’t find tasty vegetarian food when they ate out. Word spread, and the business grew rapidly.
MSCL – Now, we have a fair idea of not what – but who – is the hidden secret behind a Hidden Secret. Who’s really driving the wheel here, Tom? Doing the hard stuff? Who’s the genie in your kitchen?
TOM – When Christina first made those fledgling tarts, she had never made pastry before. Practice makes perfect, they say – and she practised and practised until she was happy with the results.
In 2013, Christina won a Bronze Medal at the Royal Melbourne Show for her pastry. Two years later, she was asked by the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival promoters to demonstrate how she made her pastry for the gluten-free tarts. Christina is still a perfectionist with the pastry, and she’ll never attempt to make it on hot days. She seems to know intuitively when the conditions will be just right.
MSCL – From where do you source your ingredients? Everything a Hidden Secret produces smacks of a bygone Enid Blyton Faraway Tree magic. Without giving away ‘the secret’, do you follow any traditional family recipes that a Hidden Secret hold dear? If so, whose?
TOM – We source as many ingredients as we can locally. But depending on the time of year, that can be difficult. We have a local lady who loves her hens. We buy our eggs from her; she delivers direct to us. In winter and spring, we grow as many of our green vegetables as we can. But once the weather warms up, we can’t do this, because we have only one water tank. We live in an area with low rainfall; it’s also a very windy spot, so everything dries up. We base our food on old recipes, but have updated our range with new ideas and products.
MSCL – We know a Hidden Secret caters for parties and functions, as you ‘did’ our baby shower – and beautifully. It was so lovely the way you miniaturised everything into tiny, baby-sized delicacies. Our Melbourne guests were keen to know if a Hidden Secret would be edging in on any Big Smoke suppliers any time soon? Do you distribute to local retail outlets?
TOM – Our main retailer is Harveys of Highton; we deliver there on Thursday afternoons. We also supply a few smaller outlets and cafes. We can supply food for small parties and functions. We’re often asked to supply food for vegetarian or vegan party guests, or for anyone who requires gluten-free, vegetarian or vegan food. We regularly supply our local shire council when they have an event.
MSCL – Our favourite Hidden Secret take-home is the Vegan Mushroom and Pumpkin Wellington. Fear not; we’re not about to take you down the pastie route again, Tom. But yours are the best pasties we’ve ever sampled – anywhere, and ever. You can actually see ‘real vegetables’ inside, which is not the norm. Most pasties – disappointingly – appear to be shovelled up with what resembles colourless pureed baby mush. The pastry is heaven, too. How so?
TOM – Cherry makes the pasty mix, and each batch of vegetables is cooked separately; they are then combined – prior to being placed in the pastry case. We don’t add anything to bulk them out, so people can actually see what they’re eating.
MSCL – Tell us about your tarts? That came out all wrong! But you know what we mean. Do you have a favourite?
TOM – My favourite tart is the Three Cheeses, Leek and Fennel. The recipe was devised by Christina in 2009, and still remains a favourite today. All the recipes have been created in the kitchen. At one time, we made eight different varieties each week, plus tarts – three different varieties. With the increased demand for gluten-free tarts, we reduced the number of varieties on offer to four – the ones that could be cooked with a gluten-free polenta and quinoa coating.
MSCL – How do you spend your down time – that’s if you have any? What inspires you when you’re not at work?
TOM – I love to read. I work on my garden – except in summer, when all I can do is keep things alive. I’m slowly building an extension to our home – only one room – but I find it difficult to work on that during the hot days. I start work in the kitchen at 5am. When I’ve finished – and have no more deliveries to make – I enjoy working outside. I have a spare desk in my garage, and I use that for doing jigsaw puzzles. I like to complete these when the weather’s too hot outside.
MSCL – Our favourite question – We ask everybody this! What are you listening to right now? And reading? And watching?
We should warn you, Tom, that if you answer “The darts” to the ‘watching’ bit, you may find this interview draws to an untimely end.
TOM – No! I’ve not played darts since I left England, and I can’t even remember when I last played. Not really my cup of tea!
I’m currently reading a book about the history of Cambodia. Cherry and I travelled there in December with our son David, daughter-in-law Sophie, and grandsons Jeremy and Brandan – we thoroughly enjoyed our time there. I bought the book during our holiday. I like to read nonfiction books and biographies. I’ve tried to read fiction, but don’t really enjoy it.
I prefer documentaries on TV, but will watch lighter programmes – especially if I ‘m tired. We watch a lot of UK TV. I have an eclectic taste in music, and enjoy pretty much everything.
MSCL – We get our fix of you at the Torquay Farmers Market. Where else can we find you and the Hidden Secret team?
TOM – The markets we attend – besides Torquay Farmers Market every Saturday morning – are:
Bannockburn – the first weekend of every month
Ballarat Lakeside – every second and fourth weekend
Ocean Grove and Talbot – every third weekend
Queenscliffe and Aireys Inlet are seasonal
At Torquay Farmers Market Hidden Secret maintains two separate stalls, with cakes available at one, and our savoury products at the other.
At the other markets, we have one large marquee with sweet products one end and savoury the other end. The cakes are made by our daughter Angela and her husband Paul.
Photo credit Tina Murphy
MSCL – Thank you so much for your time, Tom. Please pass on our thanks to the powers that be in that secret kitchen of yours. We know who you are! A Hidden Secret makes the Surf Coast a happier and healthier place – for all seasons. But we especially look forward to a winter oven brimming with a Hidden Secret hidden secrets.
And — if you’d like to know a secret – we’ve been known to bung a pastie or two into a piping hot oven on a 42-degree day at MSCL HQ – and eat the odd lemon tart – or three – for breakfast. Nothing strange about us…