Sunday, November 05, 2006

Cuisine in the Land of Oz

A piece originally published in Wine International magazine

The Australians are an ungrateful lot. None of them ever troubles to thank the British for giving them a truly priceless gift: the inferiority complex they used to refer to down under as ‘the cultural cringe’. If the Brits hadn’t made all those jokes about yoghurt having more living culture than their former colony, and about wine with names like Chateau Chunder it is quite possible that the fiercely competitive Aussies might never have had the drive to build the Sydney Opera House - or its world class movie and wine industries.

But while the rest of the world has been focusing its attention on Margaret River Cab-Merlot, Mad Max and Moulin Rouge the Aussies have been proving at home and away that they are every bit as skilled and inventive with their frying pans and casseroles as they are with their fermentation vats and film cameras. Somehow, extraordinarily, this young country has developed a vibrant food culture with which some self-satisfied British foodies might have a hard time competing. For anyone doubting the depth and breadth of interest in the subject that now exists in Australia, there was no better place to be than Adelaide in October 2003 for a biannual event called Tasting Australia. Created by two British imports, David Evans and popular local television-chef Ian Parmenter, this is an extraordinary celebration of quality hedonism I’d love to see copied elsewhere. For a solid week, visiting journalists and cooks such as Fernan Adria of El Bulli, Nick Nairn and Rick Stein leave their hotel rooms at dawn to tour around key regions of South Australia and experience local wines and foods, ranging from recent Aussie passions such as olive oil, verjuice - an alternative to vinegar, made from unripe grapes - and quince paste (produced in the Barossa Valley by a local food doyenne called Maggie Beer), to yabbies - local crayfish - roo tail - gourmet possom pate and goat’s cheese from a tiny, wonderfully-named outfit called Udder Delights. As a veteran of three of these events, the most vivid memories I have carried home are of the enthusiasm, commitment and knowledge of the producers of all this food and drink. I learned more, for instance, about the character of different varieties of olive tree in Australia than I was ever able to discover in Italy.

The Aussies could actually teach their European counterparts quite a lot about 21st century farming. Instead of relying on subsidies from Brussels and bribes to leave land to its own devices, they are out there looking for ways to make food taste better - and bring in more profit for the farmer. While our cattle farmers are still coming to terms with the way their efforts to create cheap steaks and burgers resulted in mountains of mad cow carcases, their counterparts down under have quietly been moving into the realms of luxury meat. And you can be sure that there’s little that’s more luxurious than Wagyu beef. Once known as Kobe after the Japanese region where the cattle were traditionally farmed, this is carefully reared, corn and grain-fed meat with unique, fine, fat-marbling. As a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald put it, Wagyu beef now ‘pops up on restaurant menus as frequently as Boney M albums at garage sales’ - despite a cost to the chef of up to £20 per pound. But so too, do all sorts of other locally produced ingredients ranging from Australian Manchego cheese to wild lime chilli marmelade made from outback-grown ingredients known locally as ‘bush tucker’.

The media tour was only part of the Tasting Australia experience; the public, in the shape of some 30,000 residents of the Adelaide and its suburbs were also treated to a Writers’ Festival and a ‘Feast of the Senses’ in parkland on the banks of the River Torrens which flows through the city. Here, to the accompaniment of good live jazz people interestedly browsed and grazed their way past dozens of stalls offering samples of local fare and theatre sessions at which big name local and visiting chefs flexed their culinary muscles. The Adelaideans take this kind of event in their stride, partly because they are used to living in a city that boasts more restaurants per inhabitant than anywhere else in Australia and, I’d wager, most cities in Europe. The Central Market, one of Adelaide’s jewels claims to showcase 48 regional styles of food, and is enough of an attraction to warrant guided tours.

All of which begs a question: is there any such thing as Australian cuisine? To which I’d respond with a query of my own: given a set of bottles that might include unoaked 12% Hunter Semillon, 14.5% Barossa Chardonnay, Tasmanian Pinot Noir and Margaret River Zinfandel, can anyone define a single style of Aussie wine? The answer in both cases is that ‘Australianness’ consists of of an appreciation/requirement for flavour (the blandness often found in the US is rarely encountered here), coupled with a readiness to experiment and an unusual openness to all sorts of influences, from Italy to Indonesia. The most extraordinary thing about this is the speed at which both food and wine cultures have evolved. 50 years ago, when Max Lake the surgeon-cum-winemaker-cum-gastro-philosopher first visited Europe with his wife Joy, the flavours on offer shocked them to the core. Looking back, Joy says now ‘I’ll never forget the taste of my first Italian coffee, but that was just the start of it...’ Today, while the comfortable blandness of Starbucks lattes has regrettably gained a tiny foothold in Sydney, it is easier to get a decent coffee in Australia than anywhere else in the English-speaking world. Revealingly, this country is second only to Italy in its per-capita ownership of domestic espresso machines, and in its taste for real coffee in the shape of a ‘short black’ a ‘long black’ or a machiato - an espresso with a small shot of milk. Caffeine-lovers down under can now pay the Coffee Days Gourmet Coffee Club $27.50 (£12.50) per month, for which they get a pound of beans from a different part of the world. After which they are invited to pop along to a chatroom at where they can discuss their reactions. The rationale behind the company is simple: according to is founder Mark Rotenstein ‘Australians love coffee, but we haven’t educated ourselves to the same level as [we have about] wine’.

Neal Whitaker, a British-born editor who arrived down under from the UK five years ago is fascinated by how much greater the hunger for words and images of food and wine is in Australia than in the UK - and by the fact that despite a polulation a third the size of the UK, there are actually far more food magazines down under than there are here. He carefully disassociates himself from the cynical view that Aussies read about food because there is so little else for them to do, but agrees that the cultural cringe and the isolation of being thousands of miles away from anywhere are both still far stronger than most Australians would care to admit. Whatever the cause, it was revealing that Whitaker’s most recent trip to London was for the launch of a UK version of Delicious, Australia’s biggest-selling food magazine. Vogue Entertaining, another excellent recipe-packed Antipodean monthly for which Whitaker is responsible, is still sadly only available in the UK as an import.

The food revolution has undeniably been fueled by a conspiracy of two forms of migration. On the one hand, since the 1970s, every year, vast numbers of young Australians have set out on voyages across the globe before or after going to university. Rumours that this rite of passage is, like voting, a legal requirement in Australia, have never been proved, but it’s a very rare Australian who hasn’t spent a year or so backpacking and in Europe or Asia - or probably both. If this kind of travel which involves living and generally working in foreign countries rather than flitting through through as a tourist, has been credited as inspiring the Aussie taste for wine, it has done even more to create an openness towards, curiosity about, and knowledge of a wide range of foods and dishes. It is no coincidence that the Lonely Planet guides are published in Melbourne. The newly acquired taste and tolerance for foreign food those itinerant Aussies carried home with the souvenirs of their trips, was fueled by the huge influx of Asian and European immigrants who, between 1951-2001 helped to swell the population by over 116%. (for comparison, the equivalent figures for the US and Britain are 80% and 17% respectively). The impact of that immigration cannot be exaggerated. Switch your television to the SBS network, and you’ll see the news in languages ranging from French to Lithuanian. Read the SBS Guide to Eating out in Sydney and you’ll find restaurants offering regional cuisine from Iran, Laos, Malta, the Philippines, Poland, Serbia, the Ukraine and Uruguay. One chapter is memorably devoted to ‘Lebanese, Iraqi and Armenian’ restaurants. While many of these restaurants offer genuine examples of the cooking to be found in those countries most of the cooks have been happily influenced by their environment. Stefano Manfredi, one of Sydney’s most respected chefs and restaurateurs put it well: ‘When the Italians arrived in Australia, they treated it as though it were another part of their own country, a rather larger island rather a long way south of Sicily’. Palermo, Pisa and Perth all have their own versions of Italian cookery.

The Italian acccent is evident throughout Australia, but what sets modern Aussie cooking apart is probably the way that Asian ingredients, flavours and techniques are now taken as much for granted as garlic might be here. In the wine section of a recent weekend edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, for example, a Clare Riesling, was paired with a vegetable tempura; for the Hunter Semillon, the recommendation was salt-and-pepper squid, while Chardonnays are variously matched with chicken satays and Sang Choy Bao. Never heard of that particular Malaysian dish? Don’t worry, nor had I. But I was just as challenged by ingredients like the galangal required for the recipe for Green Chilli Nahm Jihm that appeared in another part of the paper.

Perhaps the final word on the state of food down under, and the final adieu to any lingering culinary cringe, should go to Jeremiah Tower, the chef who is known in the US as the father of California cuisine and one of the world’s leading culinary commentators. ‘These days’, he wrote recently in the New York Times, ‘London and San Francisco are the gastronomic suburbs of Sydney. Australia is the epicentre’.

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