From 1 to 8 May, Tasting Australia will celebrate local produce, including ingredients that express the state’s food identity and culinary culture.
By Fleur Bainger
On the remote sand flats of the Coorong, as shards of shells carve at their feet and waves smash their legs, pipi diggers harvest a little-known shellfish that’s making its way onto the country’s best restaurant menus.
Pipis – otherwise known as cockles and once commonly used as fishing bait – have had an image make-over, and foodies are the main beneficiary.
The butterfly-shaped shells harvested at Goolwa, just over an hour’s drive from Adelaide, are set to get a hefty boost at 2016’s Tasting Australia.
The eight-day food festival will not only drench its hosting state, South Australia with progressive thinkers and change-makers from around the world, it will also hold abundant dinners infused with brilliant local wine and let celebrity chefs such as Cheong Liew, Andrew McConnell and Maggie Beer loose in kitchens and on stages everywhere.
Most of all, it will celebrate local produce, particularly ingredients that express the state’s food identity and culinary culture.
The word on pipis is already getting out. Matt Moran was an early adopter, using them at Aria, as were Neil Perry at Spice Temple and Ben Shewry at Attica.
“More and more of these high profile restaurants are starting to put our pipis on their menus,” says Tom Robinson, director of Goolwa PipiCo.
“Our hope is as people try them in restaurants, they’ll become more comfortable with eating them and so far, that’s what we’ve found.”
Uptake has allowed the Goolwa Pipi company to shift its focus away from the bait market: where once 80 per cent of production was sold for bait, now only 13 per cent is allocated to this outlet.
“We’ve always thought there should be more people eating SA pips than just the Asian market,” says Robinson.
“If you look at cuisine around the world like paella, vongole pasta and cockle style dishes in Europe, they all use small crustaceans.”
Tasting Australia Town Square, Adelaide
Rising star Jock Zonfrillo – Australia’s answer to Rene Redzepi and Tasting Australia ambassador – is also a fan.
Crusader for native cuisine
He serves the sweet, firm meat at Orana, his game-changing Adelaide restaurant that crusades for native Australian produce in the most persuasive of ways: through the stomach.
He pairs them with another favourite foraged ingredient, marsh cress.
“Pipis are another product in our armoury that’s world class. You’re not going to eat shellfish better than that,” Jocksays. “It’s a classic SA product.”
Zonfrillo has long expressed his frustration at the lack of a clear Australian food identity, with chefs borrowing so much from international cuisine, influenced by Australia’s history of migration.
An immigrant himself – he was born in Glasgow to a Scottish-Italian family and moved to Australia in 2000 – he’s been eager to show what native foods can add to our culinary repertoire.
He’s spent a decade working with Aboriginal communities and foragers to source wild ingredients such as gubinge, quandong and sprouted bunya that are more sympathetic to the Australian environment than farmed foods that don’t grow naturally here.
“At Orana, we work with food in a way that’s respectful to the first Australians but also captures today’s Australian culture,” he says. “The roots of the gastronomy I’m trying to create are firmly in the land.”
This love of local produce is one reason he agreed to become one of Tasting Australia’s ambassadors. “We’re doing a lot of different things (at the festival). It’s good to get the message out,” he says.
With the 18-year-old festival not staged until May – 2016 marks the first year of it becoming an annual event – Zonfrillo is still fine tuning his involvement in some of the many food events.
But he says there’s a good chance his provocative, revelatory green ants will make an appearance, particularly in a large-scale dinner he’s planning.
The event will link directly to the festival’s theme of landscapes, connecting the source with the product and its flavour. The dinner will also be inspired by what he does at Orana, which is a degustation-only experience for just 25 diners.
“We want to make the Orana stuff as accessible as possible to everybody,” he says. “We’re trying to do something on much a bigger scale. We could do up to 180 guests, we just need to pick the dishes carefully.”
The festival events list is enough to get anyone’s stomach rumbling with desire.
Back to origins for cook-off
A standout, the Origins Dinner, groups together more than 30 of Tasting Australia’s featured food and drink stars from around the world, Australia and the state in a secret location.
“We’ve told them, cook what you like, not what you cook for customers,” says festival co-director, Simon Bryant, best known for his turn on TV show, The Cook and the Chef with Maggie Beer, who is a patron of Tasting Australia.
For the dinner, Bryant shortlists 100 food products and ingredients, shares his selection with the chefs and then helps curate an indulgent grazing-style menu.
The chefs also express what they’d like to be using, with plenty of interest already shown in native foods.
“There’s been a massive resurgence and all the chefs want to use them,” he says. “We will take the chefs to Reedy Creek Nursery, the biggest propagator of bush foods in SA.”
This exchange of information is a big part of the festival, which pairs speakers and visiting chefs with farmers, producers and local chefs. “We take the chefs to the farm gate; this is a participatory festival,” says Bryant.
Gourmands from the US at Tasting Australia
For example, speaker Liz Carlisle from the University of California’s Berkeley Food Institute will be going to a Clare farm to talk about her work in Montana, where farmers switched from a reliance on maize to growing lentils, which they value-added to create better returns and greater control over the market.
In Clare she will be visiting Katherine and Jim Maitland, who grow wheat and pulses for their company, Pangkara Foods.
The couple is creating a similar story by producing durum pasta and developing a range of ready-to-eat chickpea and fava bean products. Lentils are next in line.
Meanwhile, chef Anthony Myint will also travel from the US to share his story of pioneering the charitable restaurant industry in San Francisco and New York City.
“He had food trucks before anyone had heard of them,” says Bryant.
“He also did ‘pay as you wish’ early on.” As well as visiting SA farms, Myint will be cooking at Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens Restaurant.
Bryant says Tasting Australia will be a brilliant collaborative learning opportunity.
“We’ve invited chefs and producers from interstate who we believe we’ve got something to show, but also they’re doing something in their patch that we can learn from,” says Bryant.
Chefs will hold regular cooking demonstrations and skill sessions at Town Square, the free-entry epicentre of Tasting Australia, held in Victoria Square.
Called Eat, Share and Think Sessions, the latter will involve numerous discussion panels chewing the fat on current industry topics and proposing solutions.
A number of regional food outlets will be dotted through the square, fuelling all those within and tempting festival-goers to travel to the Barossa, Flinders Rangers and the Adelaide Hills, where many more Tasting Australia events are being held.
Bryant says he couldn’t be prouder of his adopted home state and all it has to offer, and hopes visitors will leave with a similar sentiment.
“I choose to be here, and I’m not a native so I feel I can say this without being parochial,” he says. “It’s an incredible place and it’s amazing produce to work with.”
Tasting Australia will be held in Adelaide and various locations throughout South Australia from 1 to 8 May 2016. See and download the full program from the Tasting Australia