December 2007 - January 2008

The Nation Reviewed

Buyer’s market

By Gay Bilson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Tasting Australia, a biennial event in Adelaide, is aptly named, for although it delivers a dizzying series of culinary entertainments for local audiences eager to get close to their favourite cookbook writer, who usually has a show on pay-TV which spawns collections of recipes, its central ambition is to flog the merits of Australian food and wine to those who will pack up, fly out and write about it when they’ve recovered from the party.

The South Australian Tourism Commission is the major backer, and branding dominates, from big boys like Singapore Airlines and the Lifestyle Food Channel to products like Illy coffee and Fiji Water. The latter comes from, yes, Fiji, “hundreds of miles away from the nearest continent”. Bottles of the remarkable elixir sat in front of every speaker at the James Squire Food, Beer & Wine Writers’ Festival, its advertised purity somewhat sullied by distance.

Sessions were held at the South Australian Museum. The first, poorly attended, had a panel of food journalists talking about Celebrity Chefs. Tall tales were told, reputations fiddled with and the consensus was the obvious: chefs have willingly become brands themselves. Things doddled along through cooking-show presenters telling us why they have such a good time cooking on television, and then came a debate with the affirmative proposing that Dining is Dead.

Alan Saunders, of Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone and the only wit on stage, rightly suggested the topic lacked precise definition but argued for the negative anyway, along with two prominent Sydney chefs who need us to agree for their businesses to survive. Cherry Ripe, for the affirmative, defined fine dining as competitive sport, and the contributions from the audience, now at least a couple of hundred strong, inevitably descended into complaints about service.

A little nourishment seemed a good idea. I’d brought bread, cheese, salami and salad greens from home, and shared them with a friend. We made sandwiches and grumbled in the sun, and when I asked her what might be the reason behind the abject state of most talk and writing about food, she replied, “I think people are desperate for intelligent and serious debate.”

The Very Big Brand Rick Stein (now on the Lifestyle Food Channel and with a book on Mediterranean food just out) was on the next panel, along with Our Very Own Brand Maggie Beer (her most recent book has a cover embossed with pretty machine embroidery, subliminally suggesting home and craft all wrapped up in one $125 promise) and a modest New Zealander, the lawyer and food writer Margaret Brooker, whose most recent book has recipes for cooking with children. No, not as ingredients.

They talked about terroir, the notion of the local and seasonal. Stein owns four food businesses in Padstow, Cornwall, including a fish-and-chip shop where the chips are proudly cooked in real beef fat - Padstow being far from New York, where such a practice would not be allowed by City Hall. He spoke well about the declining populations of fish in his area, then fell into the abyss by suggesting that the solution is to charge more for them in his restaurants. The idea that we need to charge more for food is a complex and political issue, one worth debating, but surely not when aligned with exclusivity. Lord knows if Stein is ever in Padstow, anyhow. He told stories about his travels for his latest pay-TV series, admitting to the televisual bias of only choosing locations that live up to his expectations of them.

Beer spoke eloquently about the Barossa, the depth and richness of its immigrant-Lutheran tradition of mixed farming. Stein reckoned that terroir is more about an emotional bias than flavour, a subtle point which wanted discussion but got none. The Corsicans, famous for their artisan cheeses and now featured in his television series, import much of their milk from France. Brooker bravely suggested that the very fact that we are in a position to talk about terroir and advocate local production and eating shows just how privileged we are. 

While this last session preached to the converted, it did offer a little meat and gristle, along with romantic sensibilities and book sales, although nothing was followed through and argument not encouraged. Everyone agreed with everyone else. Metaphors aside, a panel or debate on vegetarianism might have produced a feisty session, but would have sold no books.

Food is so beholden to commerce, so lacking in independence from the idea of marketing, as opposed to the original definition of ‘market’, that our personal relationship with what we eat seems to have no legitimacy. Yet this is really all there is: the growing and production of food, through to its transformation into dishes in kitchens, is so completely material, so literally down-to-earth, so nutritionally necessary that it defies advertisement. But something else altogether is for sale at Tasting Australia.

Alice Waters, the culinary Athena of organic California, quotes Cézanne on her letterhead: “The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.” It hardly needs pointing out that Cézanne was not writing about food, that it’s a witty theft in the service of culinary change. At the festival in Adelaide, the audience, hypnotised, seemed to become amici curiae, upholding the law of the food writers’ court, colluding in keeping food in its place - which was up there on stage and in the book tent. If they wanted more, as my friend suggested, then it was scarcely apparent, unless you count the person who asked, in a near-final session on culinary traditions and heritage, what the panel had to say about indigenous foodways in Australia. Nothing, but then Madhur Jaffrey is Indian, Elisabeth Luard is English but has documented European peasant food, Antonio Carluccio is a cartoon-like Italian with umpteen restaurants in London, and Rick Stein has made a brand of Cornwall and travels in the Mediterranean - where, in Sardinia with a camera, he asked the maker of a marvellous traditional dish of wild boar with mountain herbs, olive oil and potatoes what he’d like to eat when he returned home from his adventures in the wilds for television. The Sardinian peasant smacked his lips and nominated salmon roulade.

Luard, articulate and interesting, spoke of the way recipes change once they have been written down by outsiders to a secluded culinary culture. Because of culling, choice and often compromise, daughters begin to cook their grandmothers’ and mothers’ recipes by the book because this is how the outside world knows them. She also spoke of the trust which goes both ways when an outsider is asked to share the food of an exotic culture. Trust: now there’s another topic in need of serious discussion, for we have come to trust the industrial and the sealed, not the freshly dug.

Jaffrey offered a lovely reference to an ancient Ayurvedic text in which the actions of cooking - chopping, stirring, heating - are recommended as meditative foreplay to dining. She also starred later at a lunch based on her recipes at the Chapel Hill Winery Gourmet Retreat, in McLaren Vale. This is my home turf. I tried to book, only to find that although the event was advertised to the public it had always been booked out by Jaguar, which had naming rights to the event. Every $95 seat had been given by the company to food and wine journalists. “As you know, Gay, things aren’t always what they seem to be,” apologised the courteous and kind (she found me a seat) woman who runs the place.

The menu promised Indian dishes based on local produce and matched with Chapel Hill wines, so what came to the table was a very modern meal indeed, much more Australian than Indian. McLaren Vale, idyllic, close to the sea, has its limits. It has an almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon population, for a start. At least the winemaker at Chapel Hill is a talented young man whose Greek parents came here by mistake decades ago. He spoke winningly about the wines; the chef spoke about the food. The view from one large window was entirely filled with a spanking new Jaguar which whisked Jaffrey away.

In each of our show bags was a copy of her latest American publication, Quick & Easy Indian Cooking, its text dating from 1996. This choice seemed to underestimate the culinary interests and skills of the guests. Two decades ago in Sydney, Jaffrey had given cooking lessons at the Australian Gas Cooking School. Things were different then. There was no brouhaha, no branding. One dish was a leg of lamb marinated in yoghurt with spices, garlic and ginger, then baked with dried figs, ground poppy seeds and ground toasted almonds, a marvellous lesson in the geography of the Mogul invasion. That day, she came, she taught, she conquered.

Gay Bilson
Gay Bilson is a writer, literary critic and former Sydney restaurateur. Her books include Plenty: Digressions on Food and On Digestion.

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