food festival aversion

I’m a food blogger: a sporadic one, I’ll grant you, but a food blogger nonetheless. So why did this year’s Melbourne Food and Wine Festival leave me cold?

Some of the initiatives sound great, for example Lauren Wambach’s Rickshaw Run in Footscray, or the wonderful SpeakEasy Cocktail Tram (I wonder how many people dressed up this year?). But I feel many fall a bit flat, sounding great on a website but ending up a bit disappointing in their execution.

One recent case in point was the Taste of Melbourne event that took place in Albert Park last November. We headed down there late on Sunday morning, cancelling our usual breakfast plans to spend a sunny day grazing amongst the stalls. What we got were hour-long waits for tiny portions of food from a dozen or so trendy restaurants, and the rest of the food stalls banned from selling ready-to-eat food so that the named few got the revenue. Our only spoils were a couple of sticky beef buns and a soft shell crab tortilla to share from The Smith. They cost $20 and barely made up a couple of mouthfuls of food each. We left after two hours, stomachs still rumbling.

And so it was that, in the spirit of eternal optimism, we headed down to The Immersery last night, expecting to spend the evening sampling some good food and wine. Southbank was buzzing with crowds enjoying the Moomba festival, the Food and Wine festival and one of the last balmy evenings of summer. We found our way to the floating bar and settled in.


The festival’s website painted an exciting picture:

A bustling riverside meeting place and home to Victoria’s hottest food, wine and cocktails.

Celebrate the wonder of water at the Festival’s spectacular hub anchored to the Yarra River in Queensbridge Square; a bustling riverside meeting place and home to Victoria’s most inspiring food, wine and cocktails over 17 days.

The website also promised “fine drops from Victorian wineries including Seppelt, Coldstream Hills and T’Gallant”.

What we got was a wine list that featured only the three wineries mentioned above, all of which undoubtedly offer great quality wines, but the narrow choice was disappointing. There was a couple of cocktails of the day if you were interested, and a handful of beers and ciders.

The food offerings were two tasting plates, both costing $30 and neither looking larger than a starter. We surreptitiously inspected what our fellow diners were eating, decided we were all much more hungry than that, and toddled off to find some proper food on Southbank. Pity, because the river views were perfect.


Thankfully there are other, much more entertaining, experiences to try in this great foodie city, like the growing fleet of food trucks, or the Footscray Food Blog/Consider The Sauce annual picnic and Westies awards, so all is not lost.

The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival has its place in terms of tourism and industry publicity, but I have concluded that it’s often better to keep it local and personal, rather than rely too much on these huge commercial festivals to deliver on what is, after all, a passion for most and a labour of love for many.

The Ark of Taste

Back around the other side of the convent, Orlando and I entered the Ark of Taste. It was all quite mysterious: we queued for about ten minutes to get in, and stood in a dark confined space surrounded by red velvet curtains whilst a woman called Astrid explained what we were about to see.

The idea of the Ark of Taste is to try and protect some of the world’s food which are endangered. The International Ark Guidelines state that to be accepted onto the Ark of Taste all products must be:

– Outstanding in terms of taste
– Endangered or underthreat
– Related to or part of the history of a group of people
– Related to or part of the history of a place
– In limited production

Inside, we were given tasting implements (spoon, dipping stick etc.) and wandered from stand to stand tasting and hearing about the many foods which are endangered.

An elderly lady from the Australian Countrywomen’s Association explained that backing skills were being lost as so many people were too busy and relied on shop-bought cakes and sponge mixes instead of using the old methods. She patiently explained not to “go at your sponge mix like a bull at a gate” but to stir it gently so as not to remove the air from the mixture. Certainly the sample I tried was as light as a feather.

The aged beef was unbelievably tender and full of flavour. I asked the man what the ideal time was to hang beef, and how long the usual supermarket meat had been hung. His reply was that three to six weeks was a good time to age beef, whilst the stuff we buy in the supermarket was so fresh it was “still yelling” as he put it.

The leatherwood honey from Tasmania had a distinct smoky flavour to it. The rare smoked eelhad a distinctive and delicious taste.

A poignant stall showed Mount Emu cheese which used to be made in rural Victoria, by introducing a particular mould into the cheese making process. When the cheese-maker’s lease expired they had to move to new premises, and the new local council would not allow them to use this particular mould for health and safety reasons. Without it, the cheese was no longer special. The last of these amazing cheeses were manufactured in 2004, and the cheese maker has not gone out of business permanently. And we think that the EU has the monopoly on bureaucracy.

Orlando got chatting to a man called George from up near Albury on the border with NSW. He was there with his wife and daughter. The daughter had just graduated and was finding it as hard as we had to get a job in Melbourne, where who you know is more important that what you know. The man’s sister and brother-in-law had a stall in the Ark of Taste with locally-produced fortified wines, a fino, an amontillado and an oloroso. We tasted all three and Mena squirreled two of their tiny tasting glasses away in her pockets.

I tasted some real butter, made from the milk of a single jersey herd, and never frozen like the mass-produced butter we buy. What a completely different taste.