“People say to me, ‘What’s Australian food?’ and I say, ‘We take the best of the world and claim it as our own.’” It’s quite a neat summary by Carmel McNally, our guide for the two-hour Hunt & Gather tour of Queen Victoria Market, particularly in Melbourne where the proverbial melting pot of flavours has resulted in one of the world’s great food destinations.
QVM is an institution, which lies proudly at the heart of the city, an emblem of its culinary prowess. Opened in 1878, the 17-acre open-air food market attracts chefs, locals and tourists alike five days a week for its phenomenal array of fresh produce.
It doesn’t take long for us to encounter one of the larger-than-life traders, Seafood & Oyster Spot’s Yianni Yiannatzis, who insists on feeding us fresh king prawns and Coffin Bay oysters, and poses for photographs clutching crayfish and octopus. The prawns are fat and sweet, while the oysters, at not much more than A$1 (50p) each, with a squeeze of lemon, are soft and succulent with a subtle taste of the ocean.
Yianni’s been here for 16 years and on Saturdays, his busiest day, sells over 3,000 oysters, among a vast range of seafood — barramundi, gurnard, snapper, hapuka, flake, bream, tuna, salmon, squid, scallops, clams, crab, green prawns, king prawns, tiger prawns…
Some of the traders’ families have been established in the art deco Deli Hall for over 100 years, but the changing population — and subsequent demand — is reflected in the produce on offer. An influx of post-war immigration from across the globe — Italians, Greeks and Vietnamese to name a few, among residents from over 160 countries — has seen a mingling of flavours, fuelled by the ease of access to specific ingredients.
Most of the fresh produce on sale at QVM is Australian-grown, much of it in Victoria, which means it ticks many of the current trend boxes — seasonal, organic and locally-sourced.
Tastebuds suitably whetted, we take the short walk from QVM to Tipo 00, winner of Melbourne’s ‘best new restaurant’ in foodies’ bible, The Age Good Food Guide 2016. Named after the flour used to make pasta, it’s a fairly typical Melbourne restaurant — contemporary, unfussy and unpretentious, with a steady stream of lunchtime trade. Typical, that is, until you sample the modern Italian cuisine.
The chargrilled calamari is bold and meaty, and refined by a courgette, fennel and squid ink tempura. The parpadelle with braised rabbit, marjoram and hazelnut is a classic pasta dish, smooth and silky with a robust, gamey accompaniment. But the peanut butter mousse, raspberry gel, peanut crumb and chocolate ice cream blows everything else out of the water.
The previous night we’d dined at Estelle Bistro, in the suburb of Northcote. Scott Pickett has established himself as one of the city’s top chefs, and the menu here is testament to that. New season asparagus, curd and egg set the pace followed by rockling, black rice and red wine, and rhubarb cheesecake, all accompanied by a good Victorian red — a delicate Pinot Noir.
A city defined by its suburbs, the likes of Richmond, Carlton, Fitzroy, St Kilda and Prahran are home to Victoria Street, Lygon Street, Brunswick Street, Acland Street and Chapel Street, respectively — shorthand for the lively stretches of independent, endlessly popular dining options. And with thousands of cafes and restaurants across the city — said to be more per capita than anywhere else in the world — it’s clear Melburnians are somewhat obsessed with food, and standards are astonishingly high. So where do you start?
“It’s definitely a city you need an introduction to,” says Sarah King of Hidden Secrets Tours. The company specialises in knowing the hard-to-find, word-of-mouth cafes, bars and restaurants that Melbourne seems to thrive on. And coffee, being one of the things the city is famous for, makes the Cafe Culture Tour a fascinating insight into the city’s obsession with roasting, grinding and brewing.
Sarah’s favourite spot, Patricia, needs a guide to find it, despite its proximity to several of the city’s largest office blocks. Inside, it’s standing room only for an experience that’s almost like a wine-tasting, with different beans, myriad roasts and something new to me — cold filter coffee. More like wine or tea, it’s not bitter and has a delicate, sophisticated taste.
I finish the tour in Captains of Industry, a shared warehouse on Somerset Place, where a cafe/bar sits alongside a barber and a shoemaker. It’s a sparse industrial space where homemade lemonade and a steak sandwich on a metal camping plate accompany Lou Reed on the stereo.
Of course this experience leaves me with more questions than answers. Where did this obsession with food come from? How did it start? Natalie O’Brian, chief executive of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, tells me it’s hard to pin down to one particular thing — it’s more the result of several factors that have come together over the past 25 to 30 years: the influence of the multicultural make-up of the city; Australian chefs’ willingness and desire to travel and absorb new flavours and techniques; the city’s natural larder; and the exceptional local wines.
“There’s a whole diversity in terms of the terroir — from the Grampians to the coast — and a lot of wine varieties,” she says. “So that’s a really good base to start from.”
The 10-day festival, now into its 23rd year, kicks off on 4 March with the ‘world’s longest lunch’ — a 500m table, hosting 1,600 guests, stretching along the main straight of Albert Park’s Grand Prix track — followed by nearly 300 events across the state.
A short drive out of the city, meanwhile, will take you to increasingly adventurous and ambitious dining experiences. Dan Hunter’s Brae in Birregurra and Lake House in Daylesford both win plaudits for their upscale seasonal menus, while Melbourne’s acclaimed chef and restaurateur, Shannon Bennett, is working on a project some 45 minutes east of the city in the Dandenong Ranges.
Burnham Beeches is a derelict 1930s art moderne mansion and estate that’s being painstakingly reimagined as a restaurant and hotel. The Burnham Bakery and Piggery Cafe are the only components open, but head chef Joel Bradley shows us around the 56-acre property, illustrating the self-sufficiency that will provide the kitchen with everything from truffles, honey and emu eggs to carrots, herbs and even a dairy.
Further down the coast, the Mornington Peninsula is just 90 minutes from the city. It offers rolling green hills and sumptuous countryside and is home to boutique wineries making some of the finest cool climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir you’ll find anywhere in the world. Curling around Port Phillip Bay’s eastern half, this playground for locals is also blessed with a host of exceptional restaurants at the wineries themselves. The likes of Five Minutes By Tractor, Montalto and the Flinders Hotel’s Terminus gain as many accolades as anywhere in the city.
But the hottest restaurant in town — Ben Shewry’s Attica, number 32 in the world, no less — is tucked away in the discreet suburb of Ripponlea and has a terrifyingly long waiting list. As they say, Melbourne is a city you need an introduction to. visitmelbourne.com
Four places for a taste of Melbourne
Scott Pickett’s first restaurant in Melbourne’s northern suburb of Northcote has now been usurped by ESP, his newly-opened fine-dining restaurant next door. But the original Estelle, an affordable bistro, still excels. The menu is simple (Diamond Valley Pork, Sher Wagyu, Spanner Crab), focusing on top quality produce with some exceptional local wines.
Winner of Melbourne’s ‘best new restaurant’ in The Age Good Food Guide 2016, Tipo 00 has a minimalist interior and an open kitchen, but it’s easygoing and amenable. Pasta is obviously the highlight here, but it’s not your typical pasta bar — this is a highly accomplished modern Italian restaurant with a quietly confident flair about its dishes.
Captains of Industry
If you need evidence of Melbourne’s hip cafe culture credentials, then its infamous laneways should be your port of call. Entrepreneurial artisans have brought the city’s forgotten alleyways back to life with coffee shops, bars and restaurants. This converted warehouse offers a barber, shoemaker and cafe — for excellent coffee, homemade lemonade and superb steak sarnies.
Blink and you’ll miss it. Although Patricia is one of thousands of coffee shops in Melbourne, this one stands out for its approach and style. The dedication to the roast and the filter here defies expectation. The décor is a mix of dark woods and stark white tiles juxtaposed with a pink neon sign. And while it might be standing room only, it’s hugely popular for obvious reasons.
Five Melbourne food finds
The hub of Melbourne’s food scene is as important to locals as it is to visitors. Head here for the best of Victorian produce — fresh seafood, meat, fruit and vegetables, cheese, wine and charcuterie.
Hidden Secrets Tours
Melbourne’s a city you need an introduction to, and what better way than taking one of these foodie, cafe, design or laneways tours?
A seemingly ubiquitous dish in Melbourne’s pubs, the best ones are hotly debated. Recipes vary, but are generally based on a butterflied breast topped with tomato sauce, ham, cheese and breadcrumbs.
Melbourne Food & Wine Festival
Running this year from 4-13 March, the 23rd MFWF hosts events across Victoria, showcasing all the things that make Melbourne a veritable ‘gastronomic playground’.
Melbourne’s seaside suburb is awash with cake shops, cafes, bars, restaurants and pubs. Don’t miss Acland Street, Fitzroy Street and the Esplanade for the best in beachside dining.
How to do it
Published in the April 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)