Feast at Australia's Food and Wine Festivals

Carla Grossetti

Festivals Festivals

Experiences Experiences

Fabulous fare is on offer at myriad food and wine festivals that have sprouted like micro herbs around Australia

High Country Harvest Festival, VIC

Rock lobsters, chorizo sausages, sheep’s milk cheese, smoked trout pate: this is just a tiny taster of the fabulous fare on offer at myriad food and wine festivals that have sprouted like micro herbs around Australia. From seasonal fresh produce like heirloom tomatoes to delicious jams and preserves and authentic handmade butter, there are treats and accompaniments to suit every taste and palate. These festivals also woo food lovers with superb seafood, stellar wines and an array of top-notch nosh, culminating in gatherings for gourmands that provide great insights into this country’s ever-evolving culinary traditions. Where will your tastebuds take you next?

Australia’s growing food culture

World’s Longest Lunch, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, Melbourne, VIC

Joanna Savill has an enviable job: as the director of both the NSW Food & Wine Festival and Good Food Month, she lives and breathes in the world of gourmet food and wine. According to Savill, the festivals and events that celebrate all things tasty are increasingly becoming part of Australia’s growing food culture.

“Food festivals reinforce the notion that the celebration of good food is part of the Australian lifestyle – a way to engage with friends, family and the broader community around a shared table,” says Savill.

As well as making food and wine more accessible to a wider audience, Savill says food fests connect visitors with growers, winemakers, artisan food producers, chefs, restaurants and sommeliers.

At the NSW Food & Wine Festival, for instance, held each February, Savill says an expanded program with a greater emphasis on food and wine attracts more than 15,000 participants to the Sydney Cellar Door each day.

In addition to the 100-odd NSW wineries on show, festival goers enjoy live music, tasting tents and a plethora of perky pop-ups such as BodegaPorteño, Restaurant Cuvée, Salt Meats Cheese, Wine Odyssey and Serendipity Ice-Cream, who participated in the 2014 program.

Additionally, CEO Natalie O’Brien says in the seven years that she’s been pulling the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival together, she’s noticed “a lot of growth in this space”. But O’Brien believes the MFWF, which now attracts more than 200,000 devotees each year, goes beyond the mere flaunting of the Victorian food bowl.

“The buzz in Melbourne during the Food & Wine Festival is fantastic and the year-on-year growth has been phenomenal. Shows such as My Kitchen Rules and Masterchef have grown our audience and changed it and that is fantastic,” says O’Brien.

“There are so many highlights – the long lunches, a series on sustainability and food security, and a look at the emerging scene in Melbourne’s suburbs and regional Victoria.”

Those long lunches, held al fresco on large tables laid with linen, encourage around 1500 or so guests to float up to the 500-metre-long table and start chatting with those around them.

A world class experience

Beach BBQ, Margaret River Gourmet Escape, Margaret River, WA

In Australia, the seasons determine the style, size and flavour of each festival. While provenance is duly noted at the Truffle Kerfuffle in Manjimup, Western Australia, in June and the High Country Harvest Festival in Victoria, in May, country NSW’s Festa Delle Salsicce – Festivals of the Sausage – is more of a nod to the culinary customs of the region’s many Italian migrants.

Managing Director of Brand Events and the organiser of Margaret River Gourmet Escape, Michael Hodgson, believes “Australia has more food festivals in absolute numbers than anywhere else in the world.”

In 2013, the Margaret River Gourmet Escape included big-name luminaries such as Heston Blumenthal, Alex Atala and Rick Stein, as well as home-grown chefs Matt Moran, Kylie Kwong and Tetsuya Wakuda.

Hodgson says in addition to offering guests opportunities to enjoy everything from oysters to insects, masterclasses to wine-matching workshops, the coming together “is a real celebration of a place and its people”.

“Australia has festivals that are very much ‘for-the-region’ festivals that try to capture the essence of an area,” Hodgson says.

“As more and more people demand to know where their food comes from, there will continue to be a real resurgence in interest in festivals because people want to go and see where the honey comes from, talk to the potato farmer and meet the local cheesemaker.”

While regional festivals such as Guyra’s Lamb and Potato Festival or the biannual Chinchilla Melon Festival are keen to demonstrate locally prized products, high-end festivals such as Gourmet Escape are more about the “wow factor”, he adds.

Hodgson says the food and wine enjoyed during the four-day affair is designed to befit the backdrop, while the menus reference the location. The 15,000-plus in attendance in 2013 were predominantly ardent food fanatics who wanted an upmarket experience while communing with some of the best chefs in the world.

“We plunk our guests down on a beach, in a forest, in a cave, amid some of the most dramatic scenery in Australia alongside some of the world’s most celebrated food heroes,” says Hodgson, who also manages Taste of Sydney, Melbourne and Perth with plans to pitch tents in Brisbane, too.

“It is a world-class experience.”

Leveraging our ‘clean, green’ agriculture

While many of the food festivals have a hub of eateries and workshops, others – such as Good Food Month – captivate by popping up in restaurants, cafés and bars with multi-course meals, limited-edition cocktails and live cooking demonstrations.

In 2013, Good Food Month in Sydney and Melbourne welcomed visionary chef René Redzepi of Denmark’s Noma restaurant, ranked second on the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

Savill said the Night Noodle Markets were always a highlight of the established festival, held in Sydney and Canberra in October, Melbourne in November and Brisbane in July.

“Food festivals are a strong means for attracting visitors drawn by our ‘clean, green’ agricultural environment, outdoor lifestyle and the creative energy of Australian chefs and restaurateurs,” Savill says.

“What the Night Noodle Markets show is Australians love a great outdoor food event. Some 30,000 people visit the hawker-style market per night to sample appealing Thai, Chinese, Malaysian, modern Korean, Vietnamese or Japanese food with a contemporary twist.”

Also worth circling on the culinary calendar is the Lovedale Long Lunch in NSW’s Hunter Valley in May, Savour Tasmania in May-June and the Fireside Festival in the ACT, in August.

February is food heaven for those who enjoy shellfish, as South Australia gets in on the act with the Taste the Limestone Coast , Kangaroo Island Seafood FEASTival in April and the Barossa Gourmet Weekend in August.

Local produce is the main event at The Taste Festival in Hobart in December, when the Apple Isle transforms into a circus for all those who are passionate about food. Think fresh seafood, Bruny Island cheese, cool-climate wines, boutique beers and cider and cooking demonstrations from top chefs.

Top chefs show off their skills

From seafood lunches along Noosa’s attractive beachside to the Sunset Concerts in Noosa National Park, the annual Noosa International Food & Wine Festival program is packed with much to inspire.

The roll-call of esteemed chefs showing off their skills at the festival have included Bruno Loubet (London), Alvin Leung (Hong Kong), David Thompson (Bangkok) and Franck-Elle Laloum (Shanghai) as well as prominent Australian chefs such as Neil Perry, Peter Kuruvita, Andrew McConnell, and Ryan Squires.

Chef Neil Perry, director, Rockpool Group, says being part of this annual coming together to enjoy good food is an annual highlight.

“Chefs tend to work very hard, so being able to get away and be in like-minded company and share our love of hospitality, talk about caring for the planet and the community is something I always look forward to,” says Perry.

“The festival is a chance to see old friends, meet new ones, form connections, make important associations and allow for the exchanging of ideas. It also provides an opportunity to talk about what is affecting the industry and the planet and how we as chefs can influence that.”

Festival organiser Jim Berardo says one of the greatest elements of the Noosa festival is its focus on creating an interactive experience and the opportunity to talk and learn from the world’s best.

“The festival mantra is food, wine, music, industry discussions and fun. Together, all of these factors combine to make for a very enjoyable time,” says Berardo.

“Many of the events – such as the Asian, Seafood Afloat and Hinterland food trails are really one of a kind and cannot be replicated in a capital city.”

The sun-soaked four-day event is a customary collage of live cooking demonstrations and degustation dinners presided over by 200 of the world’s most prominent chefs, winemakers, media and food personalities.

Wine time

While all of these occasions cater to those who enjoy a tipple, wine buffs also have plenty of dedicated options, including the NSW Food and Wine Festival, Savour Australia and Orange Wine Week. It’s no wonder Michael Hodgson, coordinator of Gourmet Escape, says Australia is now on the map for travellers looking for great food and wine experiences in idyllic settings. “Imagine being barefoot on White’s Beach in WA with a glass of Margaret River wine in your hand, waves crashing onto the sand, enjoying some of the region’s finest offerings as the sun slips over the sea,” he says.