The governor of Slow Food Australia, James Broadway, organized a culinary trip to the Sunraysia region and its capital, Mildura. The purpose of the trip was to introduce the incredible diversity of produce and producers of this remote region and to demonstrate, first hand, that man-made disasters can be turned around with ingenuity, pride of workmanship, dedication and loads of passion.
The trip started on Friday morning in Melbourne, by bus, stopping at a great coffee shop, called Tog’s Place, in Castlemaine, chatting to Katie Carr, the owner of the Mt. Alexander Fruit Gardens in Harcourt, an orchard converted to ‘pick your own fruit’ then on to the classified organic roller ‘Laucke’ flour mill, situated adjacent to the Loddon River. Lunch was served at the Passing Clouds Winery by Graeme Leith and Sue Mackinnon, consisting of locally smoked ham, prosciutto, sun-dried tomatoes and olives from Peter Caird of Victoria Olive Groves, perfectly matched to their wonderful wines.The Angel Blend, especially, stands out for its quality and ‘impossible to forget’ label. Next stop was at Wedderburn, Eathrone and Wan Pty. Ltd, where the pistachios (Ohadi and Sirora varieties) and the pickled olives of Judy and Wan Tye Fay were outstanding. Last stop, before arriving in Mildura by nightfall, was at the local pub in Wycheproof for an ice-cold beer and a chat with Ian Milburn, Managing Director of Glenloth Game.
Dinner was organized at the Mildura Grand Hotel, where the host, Stefano de Pieri, served a superb and simple meal of pizzas and sausages, bread, beer and wine. We were welcomed by Don Carrazza, Stefano’s father in law and owner of the Mildura Grand Hotel, who told us a bit of the history of his family and the town.
Don’s first job after he got off the boat from Italy was as bellboy at the Mildura Grand Hotel at the tender age of 15. Thirty-two years later, he came back and bought the hotel.
Carrazza’s parents emigrated from Italy in the 1950s and established a small produce garden on the banks of the Murray River. Disastrous floods hit th whole district in 1956, most of the Carrazzas’ gardens were washed away, and young Don had to leave school and find himself a job.
Working at the Mildura Grand Hotel for 2 years, Don persuaded his bank manager to lend him the money to open a little café like the ones you commonly find in Europe. A totally novel concept for Mildura, Don introduced espresso and cappuccino coffee to the locals and the rest of the story is history.
Don bought the Mildura Grand Hotel in 1989 and he started to refurbish the rather run-down place, adding a huge ballroom, a new staircase, a presidential suite and upgrading the by now100 guest rooms. Stefano married Don’s daughter and opened Stefano’s Restaurant in the cellar of the hotel.
Saturday started with a breakfast at the hotel, followed by a trip by air-conditioned coach to the salt flats of SunSalt, where Duncan Thomson, the local salt baron met us and explained his enterprise with all of us standing amidst huge mountains of many-colored salts.
His efforts at turning an irrigation disaster into a commercial industry, whilst at the same time reducing the effects of salination in the area, are remarkable. He holds a strong belief that the production of salt using inland brines should be encouraged and carried out wherever economically viable. Salt has been quoted as being ‘Australia’s Greatest Battle’. Present figures indicate that an area approximately the size of a football oval is being lost to salinity every hour. The impact of salinity is immense, resulting in losses of millions of dollars in agricultural production each year. Biodiversity impacts are also of importance where wetlands are adversely affected due to salinity.
It has been stated that the salinity problem in the Murray Darling basin is the most significant environmental problem affecting Australia as we enter the next millennium. The Salinity Audit recently carried out on the area has predicted that the salt load exported to and through the rivers will also double. Every ton of salt removed must help is some small way to assist the salinity problem of inland Australia.
Duncan and his company SunSalt have been a leading force in Australia for almost 20 years, producing all varieties of salt products from the saline aquifers. If consumers were informed of where the product originates from, they could play an important part by using inland salt, thus reducing salt imported from the sea. SunSalt has concentrated on the agricultural salt market and is only just about to venture into the gastronomic market.
We tasted a white, flaky salt, (not too dissimilar to Maldon), a wet gray salt (similar to a fleur du sel), a pink salt, (quite unique in crystal size and taste), a golden salt and a coarse, brown rock salt of intense flavor. Inland salt lakes contain natural algae, which vary in color from light pink to almost crimson. When the salt is harvested, it is quite pink but gradually bleaches when exposed to sun and light. This algae is used as a natural food coloring in products such as margarine. The crystal size varies according to the seasonal conditions. Last summer was one of the hottest on record so the crystal was quite small due to quicker evaporation. This season is milder so crystals are larger, as they have more time to develop and ‘make’. The salt contains natural minerals (ie, magnesium and calcium). I do hope that these salts will be produced and packaged for the consumer in the near future.
From there, we drove to the Chalmers Nursery, the largest vine nursery in Australia, which rises like a Fata Morgana out of the harsh saltbush plains. Bruce and his wife Jenni showed us around the amazing property, explaining what they do and how, whilst the Slow Food team from Melbourne whipped up a terrific lunch from the supplies loaded on board of the bus from 47 Deakin Street, Stefano’s café in Mildura.
Bruce Chalmers grew up in Balranald on a sheep and wheat property and worked for seven years in New Guinea where he met Jenni, now his wife. On returning from New Guinea, he purchased 65 acres from his family, where he started growing vegetables, and the first five acres of vines in 1978. In the late eighties, they began to experiment with vine grafting and registered the name Chalmers Nurseries Pty. Ltd. After many trials and failures the eventually grew to be the largest vine grafting nursery in Australia, the first to be accredited ISO 9002 and went on to be the overall winner of all categories in the joint WINTelevision/Mildura Health Fund/Mildura Private Hospital Business Excellence Award for Agriculture.
Lunch in the garden – fresh produce, fruit and a huge variety of cheeses, accompanied by Chalmers wines – was wonderfully relaxing. After almost bogging the two buses in the lower part of the vineyard, we made our way back to the hotel to freshen up and leave for the ‘piece de resistance’ of the trip, the grand dinner on the salt flats near Mildura, anther venture of Duncan Thomson’s.
Arriving at sunset we were greeted by a single long table for 120 people, erected on the causeway between two salt flats. The setting sun presented an incredible palette of colors, reflecting from the pure white salt and the azure blue of the water. Adding to this, a fabulous display of traditional dance by the local aboriginal children, the smell of the camp ovens, and the abundance of local yabbies, already sitting on the salt that was holding the tablecloths in place, and the smiling faces of Stefano and his superb team, holding it all together, the picture of a Bacchanalian feast of immense proportions was complete.
The dinner was as spectacular as the setting, the food superbly presented and cooked to perfection. The yabbies were among the sweetest I have ever tasted and the deep-fried anchovies in the fresh dough a revelation. I noticed the not so quiet struggle of the diners to get their hands on more of the zucchini flowers and the saltbush mutton alone justified the trip.
Sunday was declared a ‘free day’ and we took advantage of the weather and bashed our 4WD out to the Mungo National Park situated 110km north-east of Mildura. We wandered through the huge dunes ringing Lake Mungo, called the Walls of China, admiring the weird and wonderful sand structures and learning about the discovery of Mungo Woman and Mungo Man, human remains dating back 26,000 and 30,000 years respectively.
On Sunday night, we had dinner at Stefano’s Restaurant and here is what we ate: tortino of greens, baked Murray perch with julienne vegetables and salsa verde, tripe with soft polenta, quail tortellini in brood, roasted Kangaroo Island chicken served with turned potato, roasted Roma tomato and asparagus, vanilla bavarois with fresh mango. All accompanied by a selection of Italian wines. What can I say? Magic!
Monday was again spent on the road. A quick visit to Gino and Elina Gareffa’s Tabletop Grapes, then on to the Poet’s Café in Charlton for a sandwich lunch. We arrived in Melbourne, tired and elated by nightfall.
My little group of three from Sydney were the only ones to ‘self-drive’, as neither of us could make the time to fly to Melbourne and join the bus. We had a fabulous trip with good roads both ways, meeting friendly people on the way and drinking bad coffee with a smile in small country cafés. But there was one thing that stood out on the way to Mildura and that was when we stopped at the Royal Mail Hotel in Goolgowie for a counter lunch. The service and the food were so good we timed our return trip so that we could repeat our lunch there. Again, friendly, efficient and helpful service, a welcoming smile matched by honest and good food, with a perfectly chilled beer to match. I would recommend anyone traveling the route to stop there for a bite to eat.
Thanks to James Broadway for a monumental effort! Well done, mate!
Franz Scheurer is an Australian Slow Food member, chef and food writer.
Photo: at the salt flats