Geography is a disadvantage.

Lets be honest – we have always punched above our weight in the culinary stakes down here in the antipodes. And Melbourne’s reputation as a serious culinary destination can not be questioned.  Many visiting international chefs hat I have had the joy of meeting have further cemented that thought in my mind.

The S.Pellegrino World’s top 100 was announced overnight in London.  I am thrilled to see my buddy Ben Shewry from Attica at number 32 and whilst it is a drop from last year’s number 21 spot, it is still an incredible achievement.  The only other Australian restaurant to come anywhere in the top 100 is Sydney’s Quay with chef Peter Gilmore at the helm.

So I have a bug up my arse about this… this list is not really doing us any favours.  Australia has some incredible chefs at the helms of some fantastically talented kitchens, but geography I think is causing us some concern. Because we are so far away from any regular or rigorous judging opportunities, we cant play with the big kids in the sandboxes of the US and Europe. The rise and rise of Sth American restaurants on the list also shows how  close that region is to judging and therefore benefit from their inclusion in the list.

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Ben Shewry is an incredible talent and absolutely deserves to be on this list, as does Pete Gilmore. Why are the rest ignored?  Why is there no more representation? Who are the judges and who do they represent?

Brisbane’s food culture and growth is on fire at present, demonstrated by the recent move of Jake Nicholson who has departed Melbourne to open in Brisbane.  Ryan Squires is at the only three hatted restaurant in Brisbane (Esq and Esquire) and should be on the list. His food is spectacular. Then there are those chefs who nobody really knows, apart from those in the industry, who will never appear on the list.  They have not done a Masterchef spot or been a guest on the other reality food program and so they are not known. So they are not under consideration.

From my size, most can determine that I am partial to a good feed and a slurp or two of wine. I also have had the luxury of eating at some of the finest establishments this country has. I am constantly, pleasantly surprised at the level of skill and talent we have here on our very own doorstep.

It begs the question – at what point will we be recognised as a serious player in the global food scene when only two of our most incredible restaurants can make such a list?  We have one of the best festivals going around – that has seen guests from every one of the top ten (from my memory) restaurants make their way down here to be a part of, along with many others who are not on the list.

The global food scene is better because we are in it and it is in some part due to people like Ben Shewry, who has spent considerable time and effort in trumpeting his skills and those of his fellow Aussies on the international stage.

Aaron Turner is also playing on this stage – currently in Tennessee.  Brett Graham at The Ledbury in London (voted number ten last night) is a lad from Newcastle.  We have seen many Aussies at the stoves and elsewhere in some of the better restaurants across the globe.  Dan Hunter at Brae (formerly of Mugaritz in Spain voted at number 6 last night) has a fine pedigree and has worked with some of the best.  Shane Osbourne – a Perth lad, earned Michelin recognition at Pied a Terre in London.  I am sure there are literally hundreds of chefs I know who have been in kitchens placed in the top 100 last night. Even Heston Blumenthal, whose Dinner in London came in at number 5 last night, has seen how important we are by bringing The Fat Duck to Melbourne for a six month sojourn at the end of the year.

I am not sure that we should place too much faith in these Northern Hemisphere centric awards – only for the fact that I get frustrated with the results every time – just for the lack of Aussies who deserve to be there in the mix. Needless to say I am probably being a bit parochial but its time we paid less heed to these awards and celebrated those that are successful.

 

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Dont cry for me…

I know, I know… its far too obvious but in this heat it is quite possible that I am lacking imagination!

Argentina is the next line of that song from the musical, Evita.  Attending an event at True South in Black Rock as part of the 2013 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival reminded me of Argentina… mostly because the chef at True South, Mauro Cagliari is Argentinean and the dinner he prepared with fellow Argentine Martin Molteni of Pura Tierra was a feast of magnificence.

Pura Tierra is translated, from my crappy Spanish, to Pure Earth, and given Eva Peron is buried in the cemetery across the road from Molteni’s restaurant in Buenos Aires, I am sure I can be forgiven for the musical references that will be peppered throughout this missive.

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It was a beautiful night – as the sun set over the ocean across the road from the restaurant, diners were treated to a rare experience. Five courses of simple ingredients, melded together to create something that my fellow diners and I could not fault.

 

True South is a brewery as well as a restaurant, and we were greeted with a house made cider, which on this night of 1000 stars and high temps, was a welcome start. Crisp, tart and just delicious. We snacked on some roasted beetroot and the most delicious cheese pastries.  I had to have three of those and it was a challenge to stop at just three.

 

A great lump of house made bread, studded with rosemary and apparently baked with pig fat was delivered to the table, crusty and warm, and we hoofed it down with gusto!

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What followed were five incredibly well executed courses, matched with either beer or wine – beers made in house and the wines imported from Argentina.  It is rare that I am willing to offer such extraordinary praise but this was all but faultless. The few things I could comment on were a delay in the first course coming and a dessert that was not to my taste, but it had been an already arduous day and I may be just being ridiculous.

 

A ceviche of kingfish was Paco 1 – and it was great – raw fish marinated in citrus, sliced raw baby beets and radish, fines herbes… just lip smackingly good.

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The next course challenged me… corn, pumpkin, beef all melded together in a sweet sauce, and topped with meringue.  Not usually to my taste but the house made chili beer served with it was clever – hoppy and malty and pulled the sweetness apart on the palate. I loved it.

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Next up.. the offal course. Sweetbreads cooked in another sweet tinged sauce, on a superbly soft mash, with a collection of mushrooms. Again, deftly handled and for non offal lovers, they taste just like chicken! Another house made beer, this one bigger and bolder than the last and again, supremely matched – they know their stuff these Argentines.

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Resident chef Mauro showed off his skills on the dance floor with a display of the tango, before he let the professionals take over, and folks, dinner and a show!  How could I complain.  He is quite the soft shoe shuffler and it was a ice break to prepare us for the next course… Rib Eye of beef.

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This was incredible – slow roasted and served with chimmichurri, roasted kipfler potatoes, i sliced it with the butter knife. There were at least 80 people in the room and I know that every piece of beef that was eaten was amazing. A glass of Malbec on the side, one of the most popular and widely grown grape varieties in Argentina, made for the right mate for this dish.

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Dessert was not to my taste as mentioned but I wont let this dampen my enthusiasm… Pumpkin, corn, chocolate and passionfruit- an interesting mix and none of it too sweet – was devoured by those around me so I know it was also very good.

 

I tend to be somewhat critical as a rule but I was so pleasantly surprised at how well everything was done. The staff were super attentive – we did not have to ask for anything.  Water kept coming, glasses were taken care of, and napkins rolled the moment any one as much as moved from their chairs.  The food was plated in front of us allowing no room for error and none could be found!

Mauro and Martin are a brilliant combination of talent, personality and bravado and I was thrilled to be a guest at this event. It proved yet another triumph for the restaurant and they deserve a hearty congratulations from myself, the guests around me and the gathered.  I am going to have to head back – I hear the suckling pig is a ripper.

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I dined as a guest of True South and the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, however, that does not form my opinion nor have they received favourable comment in exchange for my attendance.

I am off to the convent.

Now before you start with the alarm bells… I have not had an epiphany and no I am not becoming a nun. As fetching as the nuns habit looks and given the multitude of sins it might hide, I just don’t think I could carry it off.  One must be willing to pledge one’s troth to god, and quite frankly, the only pledging I  am willing to make is that I pledge to remain an atheist, I pledge not to try and ruin other people’s lives with my outmoded ideas (i.e.- religion) and I pledge my soul to hedonism until I fall of this mortal coil and am no longer.

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However, Bursaria – a Melbourne based event and catering company, run a lovely space at the Abbotsford Convent – home to slow food, an arts and culture precinct, restaurants, health and wellbeing  and other noble pursuits. The convent was in danger of becoming apartments and the Abbotsford Convent Foundation have fought jolly hard to stop that happening and preserved the space that has been the home of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd for many years.

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Lunch was to be a simple, 2 course affair, showcasing the talents of Studley Park Wines, located just 500m from the convent.  I was blindly unaware the wine was being made just 4km from the Melbourne GPO and made as well as it is.  The rose served pre luncheon and through out lunch, was terrific. They also served a cabernet (a tad too on the juvenile/acidic side of the scale for my taste) and a bright young chardonnay. I was very pleasantly surprised.

There were speeches from Allan Snaith, the man, who with his wife Lizette, are the people behind Warialda Belted Galloway Beef  and a fine job they are doing producing incredible steers for slaughter, and the owner of Studley Park Wines, Andrew Clarke who gave us some history of the wines he produces.  The area on which he grows the vines (before the wines are masterfully crafted by Llew Knight of Granite Hills), has been an agricultural site in the Kew region for over 100 years, and is a flood plain on the shore of the Yarra River. We also heard from Maggie McGuire, CEO of the Abbotsford Convent and Alison Peake of Slow Food Melbourne.

We gathered on a beautiful sunny Melbourne lunchtime in the courtyard of Rosina Room – it once housed older women penitents who had been placed with the Sisters of the Good Shepherd by the courts. Its appropriate that a horde of hedonists arrived to sully it up on a Sunday. A glass of the aforementioned rose and some canapes became the order of the day.

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The room was beautifully put together for our arrival, and we were seated at tables overflowing with herbs, a selection of house baked breads and other interesting pots of things.  A sizeable chunk of waiting gave us plenty of time to mingle and mosey with those others on the table and catch up on some goss with buddies – regaling tales of what has been a busy start to the 2013 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.

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Mr and Mrs Snaith’s Warialda Belted Galloway slow braise arrived with some semolina polenta and some greens.  Simple Sunday fare clearly the order of the day.

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A  vanilla and rose panna cotta followed, with some pomegranate syrup, pistachio and biscotti – as rich as one would hope for and a pleasant dessert.. I waddled out of this event I think!

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A quick wander around the gardens at the Abbotsford Convent is a must on any sunny Melbourne day and that’s exactly what a fellow luncher and myself chose to do – basically the long route back to the car, revealing beautiful buildings and stunning gardens.  One can only be pleased that the apartments idea simply never eventuated.  The Bursaria team were able hosts and popped together the perfect nosh for Sunday lunch, showcasing some local producers and introducing a new audience to the wonders of the convent – more to the point, how they can be interacted with on an almost daily basis.

Now, time for a lie down before I get up again to eat!

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Playing with some meat on St Kilda beach

Now that I have your attention!

I joined some other very keen folk on St Kilda beach on a Saturday morning (after a reasonably committed Friday long lunch) for a bit of learning.  The sun was shining, the water lapping at the sand and in the background, I observed two hours of someone’s yoga class that I could have done without. However, along with my fellow BBQ lovers, I took part in this masterclass from one of Australia’s most noted grillers – BBQ king, Chris Girvan-Brown.  This was all part of the Redheads BBQ festival, another mini festival in the orgy of indulgence that is  the 2013 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.

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Its fair to say that, until a recent interview with Chris on my radio show, I was not clued in to the ever emerging BBQ scene in Australia and that we are taking our lead from the fanatic American grilling madness.  I wasn’t aware, for example, that the Jack Daniels Invitational was a feature on the US BBQ scene. But it is, and so now you are informed as much as I am.

Smoking and BBQ are not something I would normally do on a Sunny Saturday morning in Melbourne.  I tend to reserve these activities for an hour when it is considered civilised to drink beer – but there I was.  As the sun started to develop a bit of a sting, we were treated to a masterclass filled with tips to make your BBQ experience something to boast about.  There were no snags and pre purchased burgers here please – no sirree!

Rib eye, lamb racks, brined chicken wings, pork fillets that had been marinated in apple juice, a lamb shoulder cooked overnight for 8 hours and literally falling off the bone, chicken breast injected (by us) with a very fancy syringe machine to add flavour and boost the moistness and the piece de resistance, a chicken curry cooked in a coconut (that I had to saw in half) in a BBQ.  It was delicious, and I am not one to blow my own trumpet, but for something that took myself and the BBQ master about 4 minutes to prepare, it tasted pretty darned good to me.

There were a few moments through the 2 hour presentation that would have done well on an episode of Benny Hill (and I do blame myself for these).  There was a particular moment when a syringe with holes in the side was used to inject a nice plump chicken breast  with some marinade (from the inside so it did not burn).  This turned in to some giggles about syringes on St Kilda beach and the lack of novelty in that, but again I digress.

I walked around the BBQ festival as the hordes began to arrive and I am assured the remainder of the day was as successful as our own masterclass.  The aroma remained with me all day (in my hair and clothes) and I was constantly reminded of the fun that was had in these two hours.

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If I was a grunter, I would have had some Tim Allen moments looking around at some of the exceptional machines that were littered in stands around the festival – something for every taste and skill level among the grills, roasters, smokers and assorted BBQ paraphernalia.  I enjoyed learning some more about this emerging trend among Australians and am glad we have a new 4WD to hitch around the new appliances that are on my wish list now.

The World’s Longest Lunch

Its not every day that one can boast that lunch’s menu was loving designed by the Grand Dames of the Australian Culinary Landscape .. Maggie Beer and Stephanie Alexander. Normally my lunch menu is lovingly designed by 2 slabs of bread, some sort of smoked pig and a lump of cheese.  But, I digress.

Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer need little introduction, and the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, now in its 21st year  I am sure was thrilled that Maggie and Stephanie could offer their services to prepare the menu.

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A casual 1230 people sat down at tables laden with fresh produce, pots of fruit, vegetables and flowers, and all fitted with white linens and wine, ready for us to devour.  It was a beautiful setting, as the sun peeped through the trees, and the tables snaked their way along the path through the magnificent Fitzroy Gardens in Melbourne.

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Scattered with consumers, media, lovers of fine food and beverages, and sponsors, the guests were treated to three courses – the first two designed by Stephanie Alexander and the dessert by Maggie Beer, but all with the thread of fresh, seasonal produce and a great deal of love.

The World’s Longest Lunch has become a tradition for me now – I think this may have been the 8th year where I have wiped a friday afternoon off my diary and enjoyed some amazing food, with thousands of lovely people in some iconic Melbourne locations.

Oh and what did we eat and drink? We kicked off with a tidy glass of Yarrabank Cuvee sparkly, or White Rabbit Ale beer for those in the mood.

Turkey prosciutto with figs, watermelon pickle, and fior de burrata -with a glass of Yering Station 2010 Village Chardonnay

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Saffron marinated roasted lamb rump, with farro, spinach and mint and slow cooked sweet peppers. Washed down with Yering Station 2010 Village Shiraz Viognier

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And in true Maggie Beer style, a baked vejuice custard with glace cumquats and granola crunch. A glass of pink Yarrabank Creme de Cuvee paired nicely.

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Another World’s Longest Lunch to add to the bank that I have and another wonderful celebration of food, beverage and old and new friends.

On your marks, get set! Goooooo

On your marks, get set.. and gooooo.

The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival has officially started and the gathering of media, sponsors, supporters and hangers on gathered at the Urban Coffee Farm and Brew Bar, an installation in Queensbridge Square – to formally kick things off.  And kick we did.

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If I was a sports coach and I could speak to friends and colleagues in sporting parlance, I would advise them that through the next  17 days, we have to work as a team!  We have to take on the opposition  (the food and drink) and treat them with the respect they deserve. We have to support one another in the field – maybe even assist if anyone needs to be stretchered off for a lie down!

We have to remember that we need to play a full game – we need to be ready for a full 4 quarters of the game, and not just play the first half well. It’s a marathon, not a sprint!

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I imagine there are a couple of sprinters who may have awoken a tad dusty this morning, and there are some serious long distance runners who are geared up to devour their way through the World’s Longest Lunch today.  With a menu by the Grand Dames of Australian food, Maggie Beer and Stephanie Alexander, the long distance athletes of food will be smacking their collective chops post luncheon.

And I am sure there will be a few staggering middle distance athletes who might be seen wandering the streets this afternoon, not sure if they will see it through the weekend.  Please point them in the direction of the Urban Coffee Farm and Brew Bar for a shot or two of some of Melbourne’s finest caffeine injections! That will perk them up.

I have a full dance card – and I will be sharing the details of each of the weekend’s suitors with you.

First off, best get my runners of to get through the World’s Longest Lunch.  The ladies are waiting!

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Please send your condolences to my liver and other organs

I am concerned and losing a little sleep, because, well, it is almost Melbourne Food and Wine Festival time.  This, for many, is great news, excepting my good friends – liver, kidneys, heart and other major organs that will, in all likelihood, suffer the effects of this festival.

I am a lover of all things Melbourne Food and Wine and this is the time where our fair city comes in to her own – a time when food lovers and foodies from across the city, state, nation and the globe, gather to exchange ideas, to learn from one another and to celebrate the magnificence that is Melbourne and her dynamic food culture.

This years festival theme is Earth, and from 1st – 17th March I intend to assault readers of these pages with posts about all manner of events. From The Worlds Longest Lunch, The BBQ Festival, some visiting chefs, Masterclasses, breakfasts, lunches and dinners will be included, as well as some events that are focussed on my favourite pastime of beverage swilling.  There seems to be a bit of this.

There is plenty to celebrate here and trust me, my nose will be deeply enveloped in the festival trough.

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I expect there will be highlights and food crushes a plenty again.  Over the years, I have fallen in food lust with some wonderful exponents of their craft and I know that 2013 will be no different.  The Jelly Boys from Bompas and Parr  and the fabulous Nigella in 2011, the sublime talents of Stevie Parle and THAT pistachio soup of 2012 along with Brett Graham, the amazing Massimo Bottura and David Chang again, and who can forget David Chang and Roy Choi in 2010?  In 2009 I revelled in the fabulousness that was – with Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal, and my first encounter with a young fellow from Denmark by the name of Rene Redzepi.

 

It is not just the  Internationals… We get to see the best of our home grown talent as well. I am looking forward to being a part of the Langham Masterclass Series again in 2013, and to host my little room up in the dizzy heights at the top of the hotel. What fun this year looks to be, with Martin Boetz of Longrain, Aaron Turner from Loam, Andrew McConnell who is the Midas of Melbourne and the fabulous Frenchman, Guillaume Brahmi. How could a fellow be unhappy with that, but it gets better.

Swedish wunderkind Mangus Nilssen from  Faviken, 600kms north of Stockholm looks to be leading the charge for my international crush this year, along with Massimo Spigaroli, the King of Parma.  Alistair Wise, the Hobart boy who has taken Manhattan by storm and the lads from the Three Blue Ducks at Bronte will round out a wonderful 2 days of Masterclass action for me.

 

I am looking forward to sharing MY Melbourne Food and Wine Festival with you over the coming weeks and I hope that you can please send your condolences to my live and other organs… no doubt they will need it post 17th March.