Would you travel 12 hours across continents to partake in a festival that promises good food and better wine? Well, if Nigella Lawson is one of the hosts, why not?
Are you crazy?” the girlfriend exclaimed when I suggested I wanted to go for a weekend trip to Australia. And when I persisted, she said, “Are you going to meet someone there, aren’t you?”
The thing is, my girl and I hooked up on Tinder about six months ago, and even though we hit it off instantly and have been committed for over four months, we haven’t gotten past the “get off dating apps” hurdle. (I believewhy should one;herthinkingmay beotherwise!)
The reason for me wanting to head from Mumbai to Perth was a food event that has been on my radar for a few years now.
The Margaret River Gourmet Escape is a food festival that takes place in a tiny town about 300kms south of Perth, and has caught the fancy of food and wine lovers alike. In addition, to good food made with fresh Australian produce, it promises free flowing top-ups of the most fantastic wines from across the continent, and over the last few years, a good number of “food personalities” and star chefs have been making their way down under.
This year, a friend informed, the big star there is Nigella Lawson; and whatever apprehension I had about flying continents and oceans to be in Australia for just 72 hours, was washed away immediately.
“Sorry babe, I’ve had a longer affair with Nigella, and even longer with good food,” I told the better half, and off I went. As it turned out, Perth for the weekend is not that crazy an idea after all. In fact, the six hour flight from Mumbai to Singapore was longer than the five-and-a-half it took from Singapore down to Perth. Western Australia also falls in the same time zone as Singapore, so there’s less that messes with your head. A friend from Sydney visiting the festival had to deal with a three-hour time difference, while I – who’d come across continents from India – had just 2.5 hours of lag.
The terror of long flights set aside, the next challenge was the distance to Margaret River. Driving down 300km after 10-odd hours of overnight flying can be daunting, but thanks to great roads, same side driving as in India, and a fantastic car – we got the Lexus NX for all our days – this turned out to be a breeze. The NX is the “smaller SUV” as compared to the RX, which my friend drives in Bengaluru. But throughout the 1,000-odd km we did over this weekend, I could hardly feel the difference. The car not only gave us a smooth ride, it also reminded the driver to take some rest every now and then. (Driverless cars may be a thing of the future, cars than interact with you is for right now!)
Our programme at the food festival, we discovered, included curated lunches and dinners with some great chefs from the region and beyond; but every venue was a good 50km away. Going to the festival on the weekend made us drive over 140kms back and forth on a single day, and thanks to the car, great weather and fantastic roads (no thanks to the occasional kangaroo that jumped on the tarmac) – this experience turned out to be a stress-free one indeed.
A taste of Western Oz
One of the first dinners we were treated to was set in a jungle, and preceded by a cultural performances by the natives. If you thought they were wine drinkers, think again.
The meal was put together by a Caribbean chef who has made his mark in Sydney called Paul Carmichael. Time and opportunity may have displaced this chef from his home in the Atlantic Ocean, but it was obvious from his food that his heart remained there. Trout Roe, Jerk Pork Jowl accompanied by the oddly named Dog Sauce (it was just hot dog flavoured chilli sauce) made its way to the table, as the chef made a sight of himself roasting foods on an open fire beside the dining canopy. The main was the challenge: Fish Head, Chickpea and Hot Sauce. Thankfully for most, the dish came with tail pieces as well. Adventurous old me went for the head, which was okay, but – surrounded by people with grossed out faces around me, I skipped biting into the eye.
Foraging, then eating
Post breakfast at The Empire Retreat and Spa, probably the only disappointment on this trip (how can a luxury hotel not have steady Wi-Fi?), we set out on our next expedition.
This time, it was a chef from the region, Paul Iskov, who first took us foraging for fresh ingredients, explaining the significance of sustainability, going local and farming fresh, then served up a meal that had everything from macademia, to saltbush, to kangaroo meat and wattleseed. If we were eating fresh leaves plucked off trees from Paul’s hands in the morning, we were polishing off the gravy using Australian Damper, that could well be eaten on its own.
Vinyards of good food
Dinner on Day 2 took place on the grounds of the stunning Fraser Gallop estate, where new age chef Shaun Quade presented his experiments on a plate. (Well, most of the dishes did come on plates!) Vague names like Pearl on the Ocean Floor gave way to a variety of fresh ingredients set out in front of you to combine and interpret on your own. “The pearl” was the most discussed with diners around the table; some thought it was egg, others said umami. It was upon the chef to show up at the end of the meal to explain.
The evening was a theatrical performance as well, with the number of servers matched exactly to the number of diners on every table. Ours had about 30, and for every course a line of 30 servers made their way through the grounds to the heated dining tent, and stood behind each diner until everyone was in place. Like they say, food isn’t just tasted, it is experienced.
The actual festival…
…turned out to be smaller in scale by Indian standards, but the fact that Australians had travelled 300kms south on a weekend, said enough about the success of the event.
Your entry ticket got you a wine glass, which you used as you went “sampling” wines and not having to purchase any. What this also meant: checks set up by the cops along the routes to ensure no DUI was taking place. This slowed things down, but it was a weekend to enjoy!
In addition to drink there was the food that was fresh, local but also international in its preparation. One spotted a Singapore Airlines lounge that was conducting cooking classes, but the “coveted one” to get invited to was the Lexus Lounge, where VIPs milled about exchanging notes on good wine and better food.
The main stage area, with music and the works, was hosted by Vick, a guy of Indian origin, who brought up chefs to cook meals in front of a crowd of 300. It had stocked refrigerators, a kitchen counter, stovetops, and sink, with assistant chefs who ensured “performances” move smoothly. A special ticket got you access to the two dining tables on the ends of the stage; whatever the celebrity chefs cooked, you got to sample.
Interestingly, amidst the many stalls selling all kinds of foods, one that stood out sold “yellow superfood in a drink.” The Charlick Turmuric Method showcased the goodness of “haldi” that every Indian would know of, and health conscious as Australians tend to be, the line outside this tiny stall, was often the longest!
That afternoon, as we drove back to the hotel, we realised the “drive back” for dinner would mean we’re doing 90kms each way. But the promise of the Goddess Of Good Food, made us get a short nap and back behind the wheel.
The disappointment when we arrived was that Nigella wasn’t cooking herself. It was a finger-food menu curated by her. But then she arrived, smiled and emitted the right kind of noises, and voila… all was forgotten! That night, Nigella was in conversation with a popular local editor and radio show host. They spoke about family and cooking for children and running a kitchen, but the sassiness in every traditional act of cooking and food consumption shone out in bold.
Was it worth flying across continents and oceans to overeat overpriced, pretentious sounding foods? May be. But, was it worth it coming all the way to listen to Nigella in person, see her answer (some comfortable, others not) questions and smile through it all and look nothing close to her real age…? (Yes, I’m crushing!)
Yes, it was. And my girlfriend was right. I was coming down to meet someone I desire, after all!
Source: The Hindustan Times