The fate of nations depends on the way they eat.
Jean-Antheleme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste
Australia is poised to explode onto the global culinary stage. There are food routes and wine routes, a food community that understands that dining locally makes infinite sense – and tastes better – and some of the finest culinary publications on earth. All this with a population of a mere 18 million. In March of this year, I travelled to Adelaide, the founding home of the Symposium on Australian Gastronomy, to pose that question to some of Australia’s culinary intelligentsia. I’d attended the 11th Symposium when it was held in Hobart, Tasmania and it had started me questioning whether this Symposium, the first one appropriately named “The Upstart Cuisine” in 1984, may have played a major role in fast-tracking Australia’s understanding of its national potential.
Adelaide is a hot bed of delicious food experiences. In fact, former Lord Mayor and current Minister of Tourism for South Australia, Jane Lomax Smith, proudly claimed, “Adelaide has a huge advantage — it can position itself as the gastronomic centre of the Southern Hemisphere”. A tall order, but with typical Aussie attitude, she just might make it happen. Certainly the raw material is there. It was in Adelaide that the first olive trees were planted in the 1840s; it is one of the few cities on earth that has a vineyard the caliber of Penfolds within its boundaries; it is the home for The National Wine Centre of Australia (see below for further information) and the home of the international media extravaganza, Tasting Australia along with its attendant Jacob’s Creek World Food Media Awards. The Central Market rivals any of Canada’s finest, selling cheeses from all over the nation and spices from Queensland and roasted Macadamia nuts that are one of my favourite food memories. The Research Centre for the History of Food and Drink is located at the University of Adelaide as is the world’s first graduate programme in Gastronomy, not surprisingly overseen by Dr. Barbara Santich, one of the founders of the Symposium.
For this Symposium, entitled ‘The Edible City: Ideas for Urban Gastronomy’, the organizers, sent out a call for papers to their list of former participants. The collection reads like a ‘who’s who’ of the Aussie food community, from ABC-radio broadcaster, Alan Saunders and food maven Maggie Beer of the Barossa, to the Australian answer to Julia Child, the prolific Stephanie Alexander and the feisty, opinionated, multi-award winning publisher of Divine Magazine, Andrew Wood.
As one participant described it, “We talked about food and wine till we were tired of it…then we went off and ate and drank and then when we were tired of that, so we talked about it some more.” This was precisely what happened—in casual, low-key venues from an old marina clubhouse to a school meeting room—and the subject was Australian food. Theories like Jane Jacob’s model of how cities drive economic development evolved into the ultimately practical like Stephanie Alexander’s recent project, a school garden that incorporates not only the growing but the cooking of the student’s production or Jane Adam’s encouragement of Farmers Markets. This year it was associated with the Adelaide Fringe Festival and dove head long into a project that ruffled a few stodgy feathers. Festival organizer and Symposium founder, Gay Bilson, took her idea of sharing extraordinary food with the patients of Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Working with Dhyan Marga MacKenzie, the former wife of Canadian super-star chef Michael Stadtlander, the two overcame huge obstacles (like a kitchen with no stoves) to ‘provide a “holistic sense of well-being” for the patients who could not take part in the Festival’, by serving them beautiful meals with the freshest South Australian ingredients to nourish the body and the spirit (see the menu below).
The blueprint of the symposium programme was also reflected in the design of the meals. There was always an inherent philosophy to the menus. There had to be a reason for each dish, be it Australian interpretation of a Middle Eastern reception or local blue crab barbecued on a series of retrofitted old barrels or the request that went out long before the final programme was developed for homemade biscuits. It was before one of those meals, a simple meal of Hainan-style chicken rice and delicate freshly made bean curd with ginger syrup by Adelaide’s most celebrated chef, Cheong Liew, that I finally caught up with Alan Saunders. His show, The Comfort Zone, a food and wine dialogue, is broadcast nationally. Saunders has been attending the Symposium since 1988 in all its incarnations from camping in the Grampions outside of Victoria to the sumptuous events of Hobart. His assessment of the impact of these symposia was direct: “The ideas that are tossed around have had an influence on how chefs cook and how writers write”. They get things “onto our [editor’s note: the media’s] agendas.” For Stephanie Alexander, the relevance has been to find kindred spirits and to build dialogues. “ I always come away with three or four valuable contacts.”
The Australian Symposium is unlike any other—heady often times interspersed with sips of homemade limoncello or good wine, and always filled with debate and dozens of ideas that point to the past while squarely addressing the future.
Anita Stewart, of Elora, Ontario, is an award-winning freelance journalist and culinary activist
To find out more
Barbara Santich, Searching for Flavour, Wakefield Press, Adelaide
Stephanie Alexander, A Shared Table, Viking/Penguin (Australia) 1999.
Divine Magazine www.divinemagazine.com.au
Research Centre for the History of Food and Wine http://www.arts.adelaide.edu.au/CentreFoodDrink/
The Queen Elizabeth Hospital Menu
Dukkah* with olive oil
Tomato soup with basil and roasted almonds
Roast chicken salad
Rice with chilli sambal
Orange and passionfruit trifle
*Dukkah is a ground nut and spice mixture originally from the Middle East that has been widely adapted across Australia. Dip your bread into olive oil and then into the dukkah mix.
The National Wine Centre of Australia (NWCA)
The National Wine Centre of Australia is one of the highlights for any trip to the city. Beside the International Rose Garden, the Botanic Garden and the Bicentennial Conservatory, the NWCA has its own small vineyard and a permanent exhibit about the burgeoning wine industry. Its restaurant alone is worth a trip because the wine and the food both change with the region that is being featured. When a group of symposiasts collected there after the wrap up session, the region was Barossa and we toasted each other with a Seppelt sparkling shiraz before dining on perfect smoked duck broth with noodles and bok choy and smoked salmon with balsamic-glazed fingerling potatoes and chervil aioli.
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