Crab Agnolotti and flathead Wellington with John Ralley

JOHN Ralley is an ex-pastry chef who built a serious reputation for engineering some of the most elaborate sweets known to man. His croissants are a marvel and people travelled far and wide to divulge in his creations.

COVID struck and John decided to make a move. A vision that could not have been more reflective of his ethos and passion for the environment, cooking and gathering his nutrients. John is a hunter, spearfisho and fisherman. He rarely purchases his meat and has started his journey cultivating and earning his sustenance from the land as self-sufficient as possible.

The Bush River Kitchen is designed to be scaled back from his previous experiences in Michelin-starred restaurants. It currently hosts up to 10 guests. He dreams of managing the property as accommodation with included experiences around the use of fire and wild-caught meats to create thoughtful, decadent and sustainable dishes. An intimate dining setup that truly focuses on doing things the right way, with thoughtful detail in each step of the process. Slowing down and connecting with nature through the complete dining experience.

The Kitchen itself is every barbecuer’s dream. There’s custom-made cast iron cookery that is designed to use flames, coals and heat in a variety of methodologies. An assortment of taxidermied mammals on display reminds us of the complete processes involved in each meal.

Located on an arm of the Hawkesbury “The Bush River Kitchen” sits along Mangrove Creek next to the quaint town of Spencer. Only an hour and a half from Sydney, the beauty and remoteness of this area is jaw-dropping. Spending time with John getting to know the lay of the land was inspiring; intact mangroves, sheer escarpments and thriving waterways coinciding with well-positioned residencies scattered around lush biodiversity. I am kicking myself I didn’t spend more time here when I lived in Sydney.

The Fishing

Originally, we were going to target the infamous Hawkesbury mulloway. With our appointment on the water looming, John mentioned that he had been having plenty of success and said he could guarantee a feed if we chucked a few crab pots out and bashed a particular zone for flathead for an hour or two.

It is important to be flexible around your target species, especially when the goal is a reliable source of nutrition. Additionally, with recent research scaffolding the population reductions in mulloway, it was a no-brainer to go with what the river showed us was in season and ready to harvest.

John has been coming to the Hawkesbury for years and has a solid understanding of the system. His confidence in finding the crabs has developed from time on the water. The limits on crab pots are two per person. We dumped two pots up around his place in a dense mangrove section. The pots were positioned at the mouth of small tributaries that ran off the mudflats with the tide. The other two were placed up past the Brooklyn Bridge. This way we were able to fish for crabs in two very different types of water—the darker more fresh water upriver and the more brackish salty water towards the ocean.

When John targets blue swimmers he tends to station the pots on sand flats out in the middle. Our goal was to focus on mud crabs so we looked closer to the banks around structure. The pots soaked overnight and we were going to go for a flick the following day before the highly anticipated pot checking.

The flathead had been holding in a large shallow section of the river interspersed with weed patches—an ideal scenario in most systems. John is a results-based fisherman. If a technique is working he will stick to it. He remains open to learning new techniques that are applicable in different scenarios. I suppose that is the purest mindset on catching food as the priority. 

He has been smashing the flatties on this bank dragging a frozen prawn behind his beloved tinnie. A Gamakatsu sizeable long shank tied to a small ball sinker. His outfit has seen some action in the past and will continue to do so in the future. You don’t necessarily need the latest and greatest in innovation to get the job done. Sometimes, the simple techniques that are tried and tested save time trying to find the right lure on the day. Sure enough, we pulled up to his zone and started dragging in legal flathead for our main course.

I was having a crack with lures. The Atomic Arrowz estuary rod in 6-12 lb with the recently launched MajorCraft 2500 Ceana. I started off using a variety of different divers. Deeper lures ended up tangled in the weeds and minimised the efficiency of each cast. I started using an Atomic Slim Twitcher 95mm and that was able to stay sub-surface above the structure in the water column. Once I found the right lure for the job, I joined John in landing several fish that ensured we had ample to fulfil the needs of his new signature dish. John jumped on the lure train having success with 4’ Atomic Prongs.

We were having a ball, but the wind was making things difficult. So the call was made to find the pots, hopefully with crabs inside. Working backwards from where they were set, the first pots in the more brackish water produced the goods. Each pot had several sand crabs. Sand Crabs are often confused with blue swimmers due to only a few distinguishing features. The second pot got us excited with a large female mud crab inside. Check your local waterways, we were fishing in NSW where females are legally taken home. Queenslanders need to release any sheilas. Females are easily identified. The ratio of size between body and claw is significantly smaller. The most accurate way is to check below their belly for a flap that holds the eggs. 

On this day the darker water upstream didn’t produce any crabs. Perhaps the lack of rain had lowered the salinity to a less desirable point. Thank god we didn’t take the easy option and lay all of the pots out front! 


John’s attention to detail in the Kitchen is next level. He likes things to be done without taking shortcuts. Alternatives for the average punter are less time-consuming, at the price of authenticity and flavour. I get this overarching sense that when John cooks for someone, he does everything down to the finer details without outsourcing where possible. This way he ensures quality control and consistency. 

His plan with both the fish and crabs is to use every skerrick, except for the gills that became chook food. Both of these dishes are highly appropriate for feeding a larger number of people with only a relatively small catch. There are plenty of healthy extras that beef the dishes up to feed many mouths. They are also both perfect if you intend on really, really impressing someone… perhaps a potential suitor, the in-laws or a big-time client. Who knows? 

Crab Agnolotti with bisque

The plan was to make a ravioli-type crab pasta called agnolotti from scratch with a bisque to become the sauce. The crabs were placed in the freezer to humanely put them to sleep. This also helps to hold limbs together when they get thrown in the boiling pot of water. “Par-boiling” involves a partial cooking of the crab meat. John left these in for about five minutes and they weren’t fully red when they came out. The meat becomes firm enough to extract from the legs, claw and shell. Implements such as skewers, tweezers and a mallet were all used to get even the smallest morsels.

The collected meat was placed in a separate bowl and put aside to become the filling to be encased in freshly rolled pasta. Everything else was gathered into a large stock. Onto the bisque. Crab mustard is the yellow gunk inside the crab. The first time you open a crab this is the part that you would think to immediately wash away into the sink or tightly tie up in a rubbish bag to throw into your neighbour’s wheely bin to avoid the developing odour and because it could not possibly enhance a dish. However, anyone who knows their lobster, prawns or crab; understands that this is the golden sauce that creates the punch to any crustation dish, elevating the flavour profile to new heights. 

John added tomato paste, white wine, garlic, onion, fennel and saffron to the stock pot to boil. This will soften the shell. He used a food processor to blitz everything in the pot, including the shells. It is hard to completely blend everything, so to ensure there are no floaties in the bisque, he strained the soup and set it aside. The bisque will be reduced over low heat with cream added to thicken the sauce for the pasta. Eating even the crab shell means that there is minimal waste and maximum nutrients and flavour extracted from the day’s catch. Taking less to feed more.

The crab meat is combined with Creme Fraiche, thrown in a piping bag (you can use a spoon – he was showing off at this stage!) and portioned onto the evenly sized sheets of pasta. If you cannot be bothered to make your pasta, there are fresh sheets available for purchase to reduce the workload. A little egg wash on the edges of the pasta sheets will keep the package tightly stuck together. Pressing down firmly on the edges to enclose the crabby core. The fresh pasta parcels will need only 2-3 minutes in boiling water to reach al dente and finish off the heart of the agnolotti. 

This is a doable recipe at home. The flavour of the crab was like nothing I had ever experienced. The mustard, the shell and the offcuts were all part of the bisque that outweighed the meat and also stole the show. But the combination of all the elements shows the value of John’s expert knowledge that he has kindly shared with us.

Flathead Wellington

John has built a reputation in recent times for his wild-caught venison Wellington. I can’t say I have ever attempted such a dish at home, but if I saw it on the menu of a restaurant I’d be inclined to double down on that order. His recipe involves a lot of stages, you can simplify his process. His flathead Wellington is well worth the effort at home. Other fish species can also be used just the same. Of course, he made his pastry from scratch, if you aren’t up to it… go grab some good quality puff pastry and get cracking.

Firstly he filleted the flathead. Removed any bones with tweezers. He then rolled the fillets on top of each other in cling wrap to let set overnight in the fridge. The fillets the next day took on a tubular shape. This step is largely for presentation, but it also keeps the density consistent for even cooking.

Foraged pine mushrooms and homegrown spinach were chucked in the food processor separately with various herbs and spices to create layers to the Wellington. He went a step further and hand-made a spinach and dill crepe to help hold them together. Having clear layers that are divided within the Wellington maintains the independence of flavour in each component and ensures that when cut open the different colourations and textures pop.

Anyway, John rolled all of this up into a beautifully presented log with puff pastry. He added some decoration to give it that English Pub feel and slid it into the pizza oven which had been heating all morning. Before cooking, John triple-checked with his laser thermometer that there was an even distribution of heat. He had moved the fire throughout the day to different sections of the oven. All coals and ash were taken out completely before cooking, He says that he cooks bread the following day in the pizza oven as the insulation holds the heat for days.

We couldn’t have a Wellington without gravy… So we need to wind the clock back to when the filleting was taking place. The flathead frame was all kept and placed in a large stock pot. Adding white wine, root vegetables, lemon zest, tomatoes, thyme and rosemary. Again, using all of the animals except the guts and gills. Just like with the crab, John blitzed the stock to grind down the fine flathead bones giving depth of flavour and a plethora of super healthy nutrients. It was strained, reduced and set aside.

To finish the gravy John cooked butter on a skillet stirring in flour. Then slowly added the stock until it reached the desired consistency. A dash of cream with some dill and capers. Further reducing until just right. The antique gravy train was busted out to assist in pouring over the flathead Wellington to complete the journey. 

Holy Dooley!

I had never seen anything made like this before. It looked too good to eat and tasted too good to be true. Taking the time to prepare a meal of this magnitude may seem daunting. But once you get your head around the steps it will become more streamlined. This would blow the socks off any Christmas meal and be incredibly memorable for anyone lucky enough to be involved. 

Bush River Kitchen, thank you John Ralley for having us. It was a great time and I look forward to making it down that way again soon.

Listen to the latest Straight From The Sauce podcast with John Ralley below.

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