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From San Sebastian with love (and cheesecake)

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This is a little story about cheesecake.

Not just any cheesecake. Arguably the best cheesecake in the world obsessed over by a cult of cheesecake lovers who have made it the global taste sensation it is today.

And the best bit is—you can access this cheesecake in Canberra.

But to tell you the story of this cheesecake we first need to go to San Sebastian, in Spain (via our imaginations, of course).

La Vinã is to be found on Calle 31 de Agosto in the Old Town of San Sebastian—a place renowned for its bar food, which called pintxos and which has to be seen to be believed…Here is a visual aid, you’re welcome.

San Sebastian Pintxos. You point to what you want, and pay by weight.

La Vinã was founded in 1959 and has become famous for one particular dish—a baked Basque cheesecake.

They bake hundreds each week and sell them by the slice.

As someone who made the pilgrimage to this tiny café one afternoon just to experience one slice of cheesecake (and then went back that night to have another, then took friends back the next day) I can attest that this particular alchemy of sheep’s milk, cream, eggs and sugar, is something you won’t forget.

Could you eat an entire La Vinã cheesecake? You would not be the first to try.

And it turns out that Gerald Ong and his partner Esther, who run Project Enoki in Verity Lane Market, couldn’t wipe this cheesecake experience from their minds either.

Gerald, formerly the sous chef at Chairman and Yip, and Esther, formerly head pasty chef at Pialligo Estate and also pastry chef at Sonoma Bakery in Braddon, are so obsessed with food that they headed straight to San Sebastian for their honeymoon back in 2019.

Gerald Ong and Esther Loke—master cheesecake bakers.

Gerald, who had studied Basque cooking as a teenager and who had tasted La Vinã’s cheesecake on holiday with his parents, made it a priority to take his new bride shortly after their arrival.

According to Esther, she was a little perplexed by how much fuss surrounded La Vinã.

“We sat at the bar and I saw these cheesecakes lined up against the wall, I wondered to myself, ‘I mean how good could a cheesecake be?’.”

Then she put a spoonful in her mouth—the fluffy middle with the caramelized top—and suddenly it all made sense.

“It had a wonderful texture and the tang of the cheese, and it did not disappoint.”

When they returned to Australia, the couple started cross-referencing all the online recipes of La Vinã with their collection of Basque cookbooks and got to recreating it in their home kitchen.

By the time they opened Project Enoki last October, they had pretty much perfected it. The only difference is they use Meredith Dairy goat’s cheese and sometimes Pecora Diary goat’s cheese rather than sheep’s cheese which is difficult to source.

They usually receive one of two responses from customers who see the sliced cheesecake lined up in their glass counter, according to Esther.

“People either say, ‘um, is this burnt?’ and I explain that we bake it at a very high temperature to get that intense caramelisation, whereas a lot of other people recognise what it is straight away and some have even been to La Vinã.”

Sadly, this writer only recognised it for the first time a few weeks ago and is very sad to hear that Project Enoki is finishing its residency at Verity Lane Market next week. But that means there are still a few days to cram more cheesecake in.

And wherever they end up, Gerald and Esther have been buoyed by the success of their interpretation of La Vinã’s star product. They have been fielding requests for entire cheesecakes, including a recent order from a Colombian chef who is temporarily stranded in Canberra due to COVID.

“He always has this Basque cheesecake for his birthday and his mum makes it. He got one from us this year and it’s lovely to know that it brought back all of his childhood memories.”

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