“When do u think they will send us to do a real-life review of the food scene?”
Our collective knowledge about the food and wine scene in Australia had been quite abysmal; Audra admitted to Bloomin Onions, some guy at the next table threw out the “shrimp on the barbie” line, and all I could come up with (other than the little lamb chops I love to rub in olive oil and sear to a quick crisp) was the Tim Tam Slam, which I have never personally experienced but remembered having been introduced to by an Australian acquaintance years ago, and which I mentally bookmarked so I could one day get my hands on some and replicate the little cookies for gluten- and dairy-free eaters (more on that later).
We’d been pulled together at the Sunburnt Calf on the Upper West Side at noon on a Tuesday to be treated to some tasty plates and an education on Australian food and wine. Yes, food bloggers and writers really do have rough lives. And as I sipped away my exhaustion with some pretty stellar Chardonnay and put faces and voices to avatars and URLs, we became enamored by the island that is so far, far away.
Out came mushrooms and pork belly laden with a sticky-sweet soy-based sauced and layered with tofu in steamed buns; oysters were tempura-fried and served atop pickled shallots and Worchestershire-bacon butter; my beloved little lamb chops were served with winter root vegetables and accompanied by a minted yoghurt; Pavlova was served with a sticky meringue and fresh tropical fruit sauce. Obviously I couldn’t inhale everything, but I picked my way around what I could and devoured my allergy-friendly main course while flanked by tablemates enjoying seared scallops on one side and an incredibly sweet-smelling vegetarian tagine on the other. I’d heard from Indian chefs that many go to Australia to expand their knowledge of cultural food, as the restaurant culture there is a melting pot of many cultures, and Indian and Asian ingredients are lovingly showcased alongside tropical fruits and rich imports.
As representatives from Australia’s different regions spoke about their local specialties, we started to drool about the possibilities: a tropical fruit that tastes like chocolate pudding in Queensland; roasted coffee in Melbourne; a lavish meal at Michael Moore’s O Bar and Dining in Syndey; food festivals nationwide; space and space and space to breathe, and move, and be and, of course, eat.
“Australian food is a moment in time driven by your state of mind. It’s a bucket of prawns, a wedge of lemon, and a bucket of beer.”
– Chef Michael Moore
Australia, being the ginormous country that it is, has plenty of space and plenty of eating options, of course. But what stood out for me personally were the discussions on the Northern Territory and Tasmania–the Northern Territory for the indigenous cuisine cooked by aboriginal chefs, and Tasmania for its incredible produce resulting from having both the world’s cleanest air and cleanest water. Being the geek that I am, I envisioned maneuvering a rental car for hours on end (the Northern Territory is three times the size of California), stopping at tiny street markets and interviewing indigenous chef Mark Olive at Cicada Lodge (now that’s a chef’s table I’d want to sit at).
By the time dessert came, a few of us were feeling the effects of wine on a Tuesday afternoon… and, yes, honestly, I came to learn more about Australian wine after James Beard Award-winning sommelier Paul Grieco gave me this bit of info during our interview for Serious Eats:
Is there a specific region of the world right now that’s exciting you?
Yes, I’m actually saying this: Australia is the most exciting wine area on the planet.
As far as your six criteria go, what’s working in Australia?
Small producers are doing super-cool things and allowing the grapes to shine. We’ve pigeon-holed Australia to be either super-low end, driven by the “critter wines,” or the super-high ends with massive extracted fruit, alcohol and oak. But what about the middle ground? That’s where most of us live our lives, after all—a balanced life. But we never thought that Australia was making balanced wines. They are, absolutely.
I’d expected to go in learning more about Chardonnay grapes, but I was quickly schooled by the reps from Victoria that their warm days of sun and their cool evenings of sea air makes the climate quite perfect for Pinot noir and Shiraz, with similar results as U.S. wines coming out of Oregon and parts of northern California. As different regions were represented, more words that make my ears buzz jumped out: terroir, minimal processing, artisan varietals…basically good people are passionately making wine that represents their specific regions, and the winemakers feel strong ties to their land and culture, where quality and humility make their way into the wines.
I left the lunch itching to get to Australia, and I automatically started brainstorming how my photographer-partner Brent and I can get the trip covered. One day…
It also made me want to bake. Very soon an Australian white wine cake with meringue and stewed tropical fruit will make its way onto this site. And, soon, a recipe for the Tim Tams I’ve been dreaming of for a few years, and a visual guide to slamming them like you’re Down Under. We were given a packet of the chocolatey biscuits to take along with us, and in the spirit of fusion and melting-pot-ness, I figured my Irish celebration on St. Pat’s Day could take a turn south a bit and my guests could be treated to their first slams. And soon, so will I…