I learnt many new things on my first visit to Australia. That water drains anticlockwise Down Under. That Victorian refers not to 19-century England but to the state of Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital. Also that Australia has llamas — and two days into my travels, I was standing face to face with one on a green meadow high above the ocean.
The llama had a serene, supercilious face and her elegance was undiminished by the fact that sprigs of hay stuck out from her mouth. Early training from Tintin comics gave me the cosmopolitan ease with which to handle the situation: step back as if admiring the view before she can spray you with spittle. When I wondered at his choice of exotic pets, Steve Earle of Otway Farm told me the llama was a sheepdog in disguise. It chased away foxes, protected new-born lambs. It was a working member of his farm.
My learning curve was going to get steeper: next I was told pigs are brainier than dogs. As tall, bearded Steve trilled “Dolores!” in an unexpectedly coquettish voice, a giant sow trundled across knee-deep mud to reach him, her emotional complexity obvious and moving. In that second, as Steve scratched her hairy ears, you could see how, in love, the homeliest of faces glows.
Dolores and her colleague, Mildred, live on Steve’s farm to hunt out truffles. Truffles sell at about 2,000 Australian dollars, so Dolores and Mildred were about the most valuable staffers at Otway. At the Atlantic restaurant in Melbourne, when I ate chef Scott Pickett’s truffled chicken wings, savouring each smoky mouthful, I sent a silent note of thanks to Team Dolores.
Melbourne showed me how, in a newish country where traditions hadn’t been inherited via centuries of transmission, it was possible to invent them with flair and imagination. The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival is on its way to becoming one of those traditions: invented only about twenty years ago, it now occupies a central place in Melbourne life. Any stranger I fell into conversation with eventually began telling me about it.
I went to Australia in September, days after Tony Abbott was voted in as Prime Minister. As the plane dipped towards the southern hemisphere, a news item about the elections caught my eye. It was not about candidates or political promises: it was about another tradition involving food. One of the sacrosanct polling traditions of Australia is the community-organised, fund-raising sizzle involving sausages, bread, fried onions. Some people I later asked admitted they went to vote largely for the sizzles even if those particular sausages, by consensus, were “heart attack material”.
I headed out one morning to Victoria Market in Melbourne for my own taste of Aussie sausages. Here, among stalls selling brilliantly coloured fruit and veg, shoes, jackets, hats, seafood, meat, cheeses, olives, breads, honey, and preserves, is a Melbourne legend: The Bratwurst Shop. The queues were long, but the aromas ensured you waited. The bratwurst is a crusty loaf filled with sausages and fried onion and other toppings from sweet chilli to sauerkraut. I picked a spicy bratwurst and settled down outside the stall to eat it, dribbling mustard, messily at peace.
Victoria Market is lined with cafés and even on a weekday dozens of people were there, shopping or sunning themselves over a coffee. When the weather was good, all of Melbourne turned into a restaurant. Its city centre is built on a grid, so even if you’re as brain-dead with maps as I am, it’s easy to orient yourself. Crisscrossing the centre are laneways — narrow alleys where in the old days laundry dripped and rubbish gathered. Imagine the shock if the squalor of the patli gali in Old Delhi or Lucknow’s Chowk were cleared. That’s what the Melbournians did to their laneways. Melbourne eats al fresco when it can. The alleys were heaving with people at lunchtime. The tables buzzed with conversation and the clink of glasses and cutlery. The walls were bright with vast paintings by graffiti artists. And as if he had appeared there after a particularly hearty meal, there was a ten-foot-high, potbellied Ganesha on one of the painted walls.
Curiously for a city with such flamboyant walls, the restaurant signage is so subdued they are almost invisible. The unassuming board that only says ‘Captains of Industry’ takes you upstairs to an eccentric French bistro strewn with sewing machines and shoe moulds. You can have a haircut there while you wait for your food. The legendary Brother Baba Budan café has no sign at all. It’s a good idea to study a guide beforehand so that you don’t miss the best restaurants — their only marker might be a faded door in an alleyway.
In tune with the signs, many of the restaurants favour the distressed look — sprawling warehouse-like spaces, scuffed tables, exposed pipes, unused chairs stacked from the ceiling. At one restaurant, the menu was projected on to its big, bare walls. At another, drinks were served in jam jars. As great an effort must go into the worn-out look as it does to age perfectly a pair of Levi’s.
Together with understated décor, high quality food splicing unusual ingredients and techniques from across the world is what you can expect to find in Melbourne’s restaurants. At Coda, I ate prawn wrapped in betel leaf, which is then dipped in rice batter and fried golden. At Silo by Joost, the emphasis was on earthy, homely ingredients. Their fermented brown rice, broccoli and whey sounded unnervingly plain but turned out to be soothing and delicious to the last mouthful.
We went on a fun “crawl-and-bite” outing, eating one meal over four different places, a normal Melbournian way to spend an evening. We had kingfish sashimi, sweet corn tempura, and warm sake for an appetiser at Izakaya Den, one of Melbourne’s nearly 200 Japanese restaurants. Then we strolled to Little Hunter for steak and red wine. If we went down the road to Pellegrini’s we could have had a hearty pasta from one of the vats bubbling all day in the kitchen, where everyone eats. Afterwards, we trundled on to MoVida Next Door for a touch of deconstructed cheesecake (I had never met one before; it is irresistible) and muscadet. Then, as if our stomachs were bottomless, we ended the evening with flamboyant cocktails at Eau de Vie, a dungeon-like bar.
At Eau de Vie, quantities of liquid nitrogen foamed and smoked as if we had entered a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean — all to chill a martini. There were times at Melbourne’s restaurants when I felt that the showmanship was a little too precious and this was one. Elsewhere I came across cucumber purée and red chilli coaxed by chemicals and water baths into something that looked like a green poached egg with a red centre. It dissolved in your mouth — and returned to being cucumber purée. Molecular gastronomy is trendy in Melbourne, and feels exciting and adventurous on first encounter, but I discovered there was a limit to the number of poached cucumbers a girl can eat and still be surprised by. What is certainly remarkable is the range of choice: one day began at Gardenia’s with mussels, miso, and green tea zapped to foam by technology, and on the next we were eating fat blueberry pancakes as old-fashioned as they come, at Bayleaf, a diner on the seafront.
Ingredients are the key of course — which cook doesn’t know that? I was surprised by the profusion of olive oil, cheeses and truffles sourced locally and was told that the Italians who inundated Australia during the Gold Rush in 1850 turned to farming when the gold dried up. They were in a country with a long coastline and grew and ate what they knew best: Mediterranean food. The Chinese came too, setting up a Chinatown in 1851 that exists to this day. The numbers of Vietnamese and Greek immigrants were considerable, with the Vietnamese name Nguyen the second most common in the phonebook. Eventually Australia’s cuisine became the definition of fusion where everyone borrowed and mixed things up. When I asked the food writer Richard Cornish to describe the real, traditional Australian meal, he looked confused for a long time.
One of the earliest things those far-sighted Italians set up were vineyards. Today, just as it’s hard to find a good wine in India, it’s hard to find a bad wine in Australia. From the rosé at Jack Rabbit vineyard that tasted as fresh as spring, to the velvety Seppelt Shiraz at the Atlantic, we drank every kind of wine. I had to pay my respects to wine so extraordinary and so, as other people make pilgrimages to temples, I walked twelve blocks on a rainy day to the Prince Wine Store. It had the hushed air that art shops have, of people focussed on particular needs. In a partitioned-off inner space, a mountain of a man sat at a table surrounded by about 200 empty glasses, while two others made notes on their laptops. Animated murmurs drifted from the room. Around the barn-like shop were shelves and shelves of wine, some with notes scribbled on to them, others quietly, self-evidently glorious.
If Australians are passionate about their wine, the other drink they are fanatical about is their coffee. In Melbourne alone, there are hundreds of cafés with speciality coffees: some single-origin, some blends, roasted to order. Dark thick espressos, pour-over coffees as light as tea, filter coffees, and cold liquors that have dripped all night through a complex arrangement of beakers. The baristas are usually young men and women with the cool of rock stars and the focus of scientists. Surrounded by intricate, shining assemblages of pipes and knobs that constitute grinders, coffee machines and filters, they have the air of belonging to a cult. At Dukes coffee bar, they come in early to weigh out precise measures of coffee into tiny metal boxes to prepare for the day. To prepare the grinder for a new coffee, they erase the earlier aroma by grinding a couple of the new beans and throwing out the powder. Definitely something ritualistic about it — and the Brother Baba Budan café is even named after a monk who brought across the first coffee beans, from India.
If we were starting to feel guilty about our frantic consumption, there was the consolation that some of it was sustainable, even charitable. At Shebeen, a bar modelled on a favela pub, the alcohol is sourced from developing countries and the profit goes back there. Both Dukes and Silo by Joost showed us how they used food waste: everything, including coffee grounds, was composted. Their milk came in reusable containers. The coffee was ethically sourced. Nothing was wasted, not even olive brine and broccoli stalks.
Good coffee and great wine are enough to ensure a quick route to heaven — but to make things better still, Victoria has fabulous seafood. From Melbourne we drove down the Great Ocean Road, on a cliff edge along the Bass Strait, white-topped waves battering the rocks below. I ate octopus, flathead, eels and bugs — a crustacean with legs that are alarmingly expressive even when battered and fried. I ate mussels, calamari. Fish that had been pickled, smoked, fried or just cured.
My moment of truth came at the Sea Bounty’s oyster farm. If you write about food, you need to eat everything — but something wobbly and slimy and fishy in a shell? I looked at the tray with its rough grey shells, bits of rawness inside, lemon wedges, green sprigs of mint — I had never had the courage before for oysters. But when I allowed one to slide down my throat it was just as everyone described: fresh, delicate and mild, like jellied seawater. Naturally molecular cuisine.
Eat & Drink
Coda: Vietnam meets France in unexpected, exciting new form. The restaurant has a bar, understated, relaxed décor and is popular for working lunches. Its executive chef and owner Adam D’Sylva also owns Melbourne’s first upscale Indian restaurant, Tonka. Basement, 141 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, +61 3 9650 3155, codarestaurant.com.au
The Atlantic’s Donovan Cooke is among the most renowned seafood chefs in Melbourne. Crown Entertainment Complex, 8 Whiteman Street, Southbank, +61 3 9698 8888, theatlantic.com.au
MoVida Next Door: Southern Spanish tapas and raciones served at high bar tables. 1 Hosier Lane, Melbourne, +61 3 9663 3038, movida.com.au
Izakaya Den: A smart, spacious basement with a 30-metre bar; subtle Japanese-style tapas, imported Japanese beers or cool, dry sakes. Basement, 114 Russell Street, Melbourne, +61 3 9654 2977,izakayaden.com.au
Little Hunter: For serious carnivores. Renowned for its wood-roasted pork neck, fresh pork sausages and steaks. 195 Little Collins Street, Melbourne, +61 3 9654 0090, littlehunter.com.au
Eau De Vie: A cavernous, intimate space with some unusual and stylish cocktails. 1 Malthouse Lane, Melbourne, +61 412 825 441, eaudevie.com.au/Melbourne
Jack Rabbit Winery: A variety of wines, including rosés, and a magical pear cider plus an ocean-facing restaurant with a truly astonishing view. 85 McAdams Lane, Bellarine, +61 3 5251 2223, jackrabbitvineyard.com.au
Gladioli: In the tiny village of Inverleigh. The food is worth trying if you can manage to weave a trip here into a road trip down the Bellarine Peninsula. 14 High Street, Inverleigh, +61 3 5265 1111,gladiolirestaurant.com.au
Chris’s Restaurant: Overlooking Bass Strait, spectacular ocean views, the freshest seafood and warm service. 280 Skenes Creek Road, Apollo Bay, +61 3 5237 6411, chriss.com.au
Otway Farm: High above the ocean with green slopes and a brook thrown in, this is a farm worth a visit. Book in advance and its chef-turned owner might take you on a farm tour and give you lunch.farmerchef.wordpress.com
Bayleaf: Cosy place with delicious breakfasts. 131 Great Ocean Road, Apollo Bay. +61 3 5237 6470
Cumulus Up: Small menu served at large tables where everyone sits together. A large open kitchen, lots to drink and a lively buzz. 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, +61 3 9650 1445, cumulus.com.au
Brother Baba Budan: Understated, quiet and relaxed, with fabulous coffee. 359 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, +61 3 9606 0449, brotherbababudan.com.au
Alice Nivens Café: A bright-lit little space with good coffee, lovely pastries and a flamboyant owner full of stories. Port Phillip Arcade, Shop 13, 228 Flinders Street, Melbourne, alicenivenscafe.com
Dukes: Busy café in a heritage-listed community house in the heart of Melbourne. A percentage of annual sales from the coffee house is pledged to environmental causes. 247 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, dukescoffee.com.au
Queen Victoria Market: Opened on 20 March 1878 and spread over 7 hectares, this is the largest open-air market in the southern hemisphere. Almost one thousand traders sell everything from exotic fruit and vegetables to authentic Australian artefacts and souvenirs. 513 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, +61 3 9320 5830, qvm.com.au
See & Do
Hidden Secrets: A three-hour walk through Melbourne’s lanes and arcades to discover local designers, speciality retailers and unusual architecture. PO Box 12830, Melbourne, +61 3 9663 3358, hiddensecretstours.com
Walk Melbourne: Eight different food walks through Melbourne, from dumplings to coffee to luxury weekend food discovery packages. +61 411 182 911, walkmelbourne.com.au
Prince Wine Store: Fine, large selection of Australian and other wines. 177 Bank Street, South Melbourne, +61 3 9686 3033, princewinestore.com.au
The Rooftop Honey Project: Puts beehives on rooftops (or gardens) in Melbourne. They have 70 hives placed around the City of Melbourne. Worth looking at if you have time for their tour. rooftop-honey.myshopify.com