TASTING AUSTRALIA 2012 – “Bring it on!”

Just received the news that the next Tasting Australia –  April 26 to May 3, 2012 will be the last, at least in Adelaide. Amazingly, next year will be the eighth time this biennial festival has been held. I’ve been at the last four and, if I get the call, I’ll be in ‘The City of Churches’ next year for the last hurrah. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Since its inception in 1997, Tasting Australia has become a huge international success, providing a unique opportunity for chefs of the celebrity and the ‘up-and-coming’ ilk, restaurateurs, food producers and winemakers to mingle with the world’s food, drink and travel media at, at the same time, sample and celebrate some of the best that Australia has to offer in the way of produce, food products, wines, beers, hospitality and tourism. It’s also a significant event for the public at large. Many of the world’s best known culinary talents demonstrate their expertise on a daily basis. In addition there’s a full programme of ancillary events including talks, discussions and debates, all aimed at the food conscious – truly a ‘Feast for The Senses’ as more than 60 such events are planned. And it’s not all in the mind – during the festival there’s a wealth of gourmet food and drink to be sampled, in a scenic setting along the banks of the River Torrens. When you take into account that South Australia’s famous wine regions which also host some ace artisan food producers are a convenient drive from the city, there are many worse places that the dedicated foodie could be than Adelaide on those 8 days in May/June… ..and few better.

I shall miss Adelaide. Since I started going to Tasting Australia it’s come to seem like a second home. I arrive and check in at The Intercon (used to be The Hyatt). I take the elevator to my room. Inside, the light on the bedside phone glows. I pick it up and find eight messages of welcome – “Saw your name on the guest list, be great to see you, in the bar at half-six?” I wander uptown, off to the Hatters to pick up a new Panama; go over to Browns where they sell stylish threads in Size Fat Bastard; pop into the wonderful Star of Siam for a spot of lunch; then into the amazing Central Market. I return to the hotel clutching half a dozen fragrant white peaches, some brilliant Barossa kabanossi and yet another second hand lens for the Nikon. A quick shower and I’m ready to face the world  downstairs. Ah, there’s David from KL, Shannon from Melbourne, and oh my god Bhisham from Bombay! Brenda and Rick ‘that bloody Spurs supporter’ from Sydney, Jools and Catherine from NZ, Toni ‘the 13th famous Belgian’ and a whole host more. One big rolling, bloody party.

Memories, memories… Me and Paul Rankin getting an upgrade to First of Malaysian Airways. Like travelling on your own private cloud, complete with a cut glass decanter of Otard cognac to which we did a deal of damage. Paul getting mobbed by pretty hostesses at KL airport. Me convincing him “They think you’re Billy Connelly, his shtick goes down big here.” Late nights in The Apothecary 1878…

..Playing one of my songs on Australian radio accompanied by Festival front man, the inimitable Ian Parmenter on gob harp. Doing dinner at Magill Estate with Peter Gago and being given the opportunity to revisit the 1986 Grange.  Acting as Rosemary Shrager’s guide and roadie in The Central Market. Her TV stuff is big in Oz. It felt a bit like walking round Calcutta with Mother Teresa in tow. A woman actually came up and told her “You’ve changed my life”. Cheong Liew’s feast at The Hilton. Getting locked out of my room at Chapel Hill and thereby becoming part of the folklore of wonderful MacLaren Vale. Being with Will Studd, Australia’s answer to the Sheridan brothers, when the news came in that Bill Hogan (Desmond & Gabriel) had won his case against the ‘Food Police’. The impromptu seafood festival at Michael Angelis’ house. Maggie Beer in the kitchen, flashing that 1000 watt and dead genuine smile. Oysters, mussels, crab, lobster, clams, various white fish, smoked salmon and the best taramasalata I’ve ever tasted. Wonderful wines too and some Talisker 10 to top off the evening… .. Antonio Carluccio’s gargantuan collection of (mostly filthy) jokes. Listening to the stall holders’ choir at Willunga market. A memorable long lunch at Fino. With Sydney journo and surfing queen Julica Jungelhuising, spiking the drink of a gobshite journalist by mixing black currant cordial with his Merlot. He was very impressed “particularly with the bouquet”.  Trying and failing to surf in company with Rachel Allen.

Beauties and The Beast

Singing a medley from ‘Oklahoma’ with a busload of convivial people. Learning what ‘a cleansing ale’ means and getting thoroughly cleansed.

Of course it’s not all beer and skittles, nor wine and ‘pokies’ (slot machines to you). For the food and drink writer there’s a very serious subtext to Tasting Australia. A lot to visit, see and taste and a big learning curve to boot. The programme is not for the faint hearted, you need stamina for this gig, matey. We are up early and on the bus, back late and ‘hanging’ as we say here in Ireland. But in the process I learned a hell of a lot about Australian food and Australian wines and the Australian attitude which seems to be  ‘can do’ rather than ‘it’ll do’.

An introduction to Australian native tucker at Langhorne Creek

I can’t leave Tasting Australia without mentioning that it is simply the best organized gig ever and one that all other festival/conference/seminar/food and wine tour organizers should take a look at.  Things happen when and where the programme says they will. Journalists, normally considered an irrelevance if not a nuisance for getting in the way of the guests and celebs, are extremely well catered for. Our wants and needs are understood. The press centre has PCs and power sockets aplenty; there’s an interview room; space for chilling out as well as for partying and a press kit that lacks for nothing, with decent bags to carry it in. Not to mention the provision of good espresso to give you the much needed wake up call before you set out and a fridge full of James Squire’s finest ale to welcome you back to base after an exhausting day.

Family resemblance?