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Food to drink by: South Australia

Food to drink by: South Australia

Move over, chocolate and vanilla. If Vic Cherikoff is right, wattleseed will soon rank as a similarly important “world flavor.” Cherikoff, cookbook author, chef and co-host of the Australian television show “Dining Down Under,” is widely credited with being one of the major influences in popularizing wattleseed and other native Australian foods by making these ingredients available commercially. When roasted and ground, wattleseed, which comes from acacia trees in South Australia, has a nutty flavor that hints at coffee and chocolate.

“Wattleseed is one of the most prolifically used native ingredients,” says chef Andrew Fielke, who has likewise been a proponent of native Australian foods for more than 20 years, first as a restaurant chef and now as a consulting chef and guest chef at venues in Australia and around the globe. Like Cherikoff, Fielke also has his own line of specialty native food products.

Fielke describes himself as passionate about Australians using indigenous food resources with a modern cuisine.

“The goal was always to promote and use as many of the native Australian food specialties as possible,” he says, to promote commercial growth of these products and give Australia “a culinary identity.”

On his catering menu, for instance, Fielke teams old-as-time Australian native ingredients with cutting-edge culinary techniques to create dishes such as spiced yabby bisque with coconut-lemon myrtle foam. Yabbies are freshwater crayfish from South Australia, Fielke says, and lemon myrtle is a leaf somewhat similar to kaffir lime leaves with a citrus-floral fragrance used as a flavoring and for tea. While lemon myrtle is from farther north in Australia, it is one of the country’s most widely used “rediscovered,” indigenous ingredients.

Illuminating what’s Down Under

“South Australia is the first state in Australia that wasn’t colonized as a penal colony,” says Will Ford, a native South Australian who is chef and co-owner of Eight Mile Creek, an Australian restaurant in New York City. “It’s known for its wineries. Barossa Valley is a very famous wine area, as is Coonawarra. It’s a vast, vast area, [larger than] the size of Texas, probably one-fifteenth of the population of Australia. There are large tracts of grazing land and tremendous seafood varieties. It’s a very laid-back state, with beautiful wineries, beautiful beaches, very scenic coastal waters and coastal areas, and quite a rugged, tough, quite dry interior.”

Nineteenth-century settlers in the state’s Barossa Valley included German Lutherans fleeing religious persecution. German influences still are felt, along with influences from the Greek and Italian immigrants who followed and influences from more recent immigrants from Asia. According to South Australian government figures, about 20 percent of the state’s population of approximately 1.5 million was born overseas.

Immigrants to South Australia have always brought culinary traditions to their new home. Asian cuisine has had a strong influence, with Thai and Indonesian restaurants abounding and such dishes as pad thai rubbing shoulders with rack of lamb on conventional menus.

In contrast, Australia’s indigenous ingredients have remained largely untapped, with many only recently enjoying limited acclaim through newfound and innovative uses.

“The natural jewels of South Australia are a secret, even to most Australians,” Cherikoff says. “South Australia reflects the Aboriginal, Italian and German food-focused races who have made this region their home, albeit for differing lengths of time. Their culturally typical produce applied in the modern ‘Mediterr-Asian’ fusion style results in a range of lighter dishes, suited to a warm climate yet featuring much of the state’s agricultural bounty, both indigenous and exotic.”

Cherikoff says that the native berries called munthari in South Australia, along with wattleseed and quandong, a desert peach, “are the major species native to the area, which contribute to the increasing exports of our authentic foods. Add to these prawns, mulloway, abalone, kingfish, salmon, freshwater trout, yabbies and the world-famous bluefin tuna, and possibly kangaroo and emu as red meats, and there is a world cuisine begging to be created.” Mulloway is a farmed fish not unlike monkfish or lobster in texture, Cherikoff says.

New creations highlight old culinary staples

Using authentic Australian ingredients gives dishes what Cherikoff likes to call the “wow factor.”

“These meals are unmistakably Australian,” he says. “You can taste the outback, the rainforests, and the woodlands and forests in between. This is food at its best because eating out becomes an experience in the same way as art would be all the more fascinating if artists suddenly had all these new colors with which to work their magic.

“And I don’t mean just shades of the familiar. These new foods, which come from the world’s oldest living culture, are able to inspire even the most cynical, resistant, over-worked, catering-weary chefs as they rediscover cooking and the rewards they imagined way back in their apprenticeships.”

Cherikoff cites Fielke as a chef who has influenced the fine-dining cuisine of South Australia, adapting indigenous ingredients to Fielke’s “own flamboyant, artistic cooking style.” He also points to Maggie Beer, co-host of “The Cook and the Chef,” as someone who has helped to get the word out about indigenous ingredients “by adding signature products to simple dishes” and promoting them on her television show.

“We are very much a multicultural country with cultures from all over the world, but we had not really a strong tradition in our own right as far as culinary history and food history,” Cherikoff says. With the exception of the one “shining example” of the macadamia nut—which is native to Australia—Fielke says, “white Australians failed to recognize any native food specialties in terms of commercial crops.”

But observers say that South Australia is well-positioned to play an important role in the emergence of a new national cuisine made of ancient ingredients cooked with up-to-date flair.

“South Australia has a wealth of food resources and a variety of production areas,” Cherikoff says, “from the clean waters of the southern ocean and the growing aquaculture industry on the coast to land-based operations up in the gulf country of the Eyre and Fleurieu Peninsulas.

“Then there is the range of agricultural ecosystems, which start on the coast sand dunes, where munthari, or native cranberries, are wild-picked and farmed alongside paddocks of pasture and feed for stock and fields of canola, cereals and grains. Moving away from the coast to the Mediterranean climate of the Adelaide hills and east along the Murray River, this region is defined by olive groves, tomatoes, wine and table grapes and a bounty of other fruit and vegetable crops.”

Further north, the land becomes more arid, and beef, sheep, cereals and grains abound, he says.

“However,” he says, “all of this arid region once sustained Aborigines and commercial harvests of wattleseeds, quandong and a few other species that are now fueling an industry.”

While native ingredients are being used in more restaurants, especially upscale restaurants, Fielke says, “availability of the raw product for the general consumer is still quite limited, and you have to seek it out pretty hard.

“The big challenge for [the specialty food] industry is a lot more education and awareness and a lot more capital investment into the industry, and then to get the product out so people can access it easily,” he continues. “It’s very interesting in other countries how cuisine is started in homes, taken up in restaurants and tricked up. In Australia, this type of cuisine has gone the other way. It’s come in at the top and slowly filtered down to the home use, quite the opposite.”

Adelaide’s cosmopolitan market

The multicultural character of South Australia comes into sharp focus at the Adelaide Central Market, whose stall-holders—all independent vendors—represent heritages from diverse countries in Asia as well as Eastern and Western Europe. Mark Gleeson, who recently sold his 120-seat beachside restaurant to concentrate on his gourmet retail outlet and his food tourism business, leads guided tours of the market. Open just four days per week, it is said to attract somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.4 million visitors a month.

Of the market today, Gleeson says, “the atmosphere is incredible, like being in someone’s giant house with everybody busy preparing for a huge meal…all ages, all cultural communities, all cuisines…the smell of roasting coffee…wafts of bacon crisping on a grill…the sweet tropical aroma of mangoes…peaches…apricots…fresh basil and fresh mint straight from the market garden.”

Favorite food and beverage pairings

Burge Family Reserve Draycott Shiraz with seared rack of lamb and garlic mash, using the same Shiraz to make a Shiraz-pepper jus—Will Ford

Grosset Riesling with sautéed marron (Australian crayfish) with lemon myrtle-butter sauce—Will Ford

Emu carpaccio with black truffle oil and Fox Creek sparkling Shiraz, a Champagne-style red—Will Ford

King George whiting with Coopers Pale Ale—Mark Gleeson

Black Angus 500-day grain-fed ribeye steak with Samuel Gorge Shiraz from McLaren Vale—Mark Gleeson

Wattleseed Pavlova, a rendition of the classic meringue dessert, with a Barossa “sticky”–a sweet wine—Vic Cherikoff

…and South Australian wines to enjoy on their own

Peter Lehmann Stonewell old reserve wines, Rockford Basket Press Shiraz, Burge Family Draycott Reserve Shiraz—Will Ford

South Australia Sauvignon Blanc: “crisp, clean…it leaves the palate fresh”—Mark Gleeson

Many fortified wines, particularly as an aperitif; also the new trend of light-bodied sparkling wines, both red and white, as refreshing alternatives to the excellent beers from South Australia—Vic Cherikoff

As Australia eases into fall, while the Northern hemisphere awaits spring, Gleeson looks forward to the season’s first apples, which usually arrive at the market within two to three days of being picked. Olives also are about to be picked, “which means we will have that peppery, bright-green oil for our winter cooking,” he says.

All of these ingredients and culinary influences play out against the backdrop of a region best known for its wines. According the Australian Wine and Brandy Corp., an Australian government statutory authority, Australia has about 2,000 wine companies and ranks as the world’s fifth-largest wine producer, after France, Italy, Spain and the United States, and is the fourth-largest exporter.

South Australia produces more wine than the country’s other areas, or about 43 percent of the country’s total. Its nearest competitor is the state of New South Wales, which comes in second with about 24 percent. Famous South Australian wine-producing areas include Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, Adelaide Hills, Coonawarra and McLaren Vale.

Game for game

The iconic symbol of Australia, the kangaroo, also has become more common on restaurant and home menus. Fielke still categorizes kangaroo as a specialty meat, not as widely used as beef or lamb, but says that it’s more common in South Australia, where it has been legalized for human consumption for a longer time than in other parts of the country.

One of Fielke’s signature dishes is kangaroo fillet, char-grilled rare to medium rare, with braised kangaroo tail in a quandong-chile glaze, paired with “a good South Australia Shiraz wine.”

The tail is “superb, like oxtail, rich and gelatinous,” Fielke says.

Ford of Eight Mile Creek points out: “Many years ago, before there was a beef or lamb industry, people ate kangaroo. But after the beef and lamb industry came over, it virtually stamped out kangaroo [as a food item].

“Now it’s kind of like a gourmet item. It’s now become sort of a mini-cult item, because it’s so lean and healthy. So it’s quite popular now, though nowhere near as popular as beef or lamb.”

Maggie Beer

Cook, writer, farmer and food producer Maggie Beer is known in Australia for her role as co-host of “The Cook and the Chef” television show. For many years, she operated the award-winning Pheasant Farm Restaurant in the Barossa Valley, one of Australia’s premier wine-growing regions. Today, her Farm Shop offers picnic fare and her own line of South Australian specialty foods as well as the family’s Pheasant Farm Wines and Beer Bros. Wines.

What is unique about South Australia and its cuisine?

We have a true Mediterranean climate and, speaking for my own food, it’s totally produce-based, and we have so much to choose from. Our market gardens are so close to the city. We have great markets and farmers markets. Our waters are clean green, and other than the drought [in Australia this year], we do things well.

What are some noteworthy local specialty ingredients?

For me, it’s my verjuice. It is the juice of unfermented, unripe grapes, and as a gentle acidulant it is a great boon to cooks.

How did you get into verjuice and what are some of your favorite ways to use it?

We began making verjuice in 1984 simply because of grapes we couldn’t sell and my interest in cooking and reading about verjus in French recipes. Probably the best way to use verjuice to begin with is to deglaze chicken or seafood or vegetables—all of which are simple and wonderful.

Describe one of your favorite Aussie food-and-wine matches.

One of my recent matches was lamb’s brains cooked in nut brown butter with capers with Seppelts Flor Fino Sherry.

What South Australian wine do you enjoy drinking on its own—not as an accompaniment to a meal?

Sparkling Pinot Chardonnay—our own ‘Molto’ is my personal favorite. Held three years on lees—it’s a wonderful yeasty, briochy flavor. We have so little of it though.

What changes have you seen in South Australia, and the Barossa Valley in particular, since you moved to the area?

Sadly, I’ve seen grapes take over from our wonderful soft fruits and mixed farming. This comes from financial imperatives, but is such a loss. However, the feel of the community and the sense of belonging is as strong as ever.

How is the South Australia wine business different now than it was 10 or 20 years ago?

As grape growers, we have seen every cycle from “dirt farming” in the early ’70s to oversupply and the vine pull of the ’80s, the heydays of the ’90s, and up until the last two years, the times of ever-improving quality. —Mary Caldwell

“Kangaroo is extremely lean,” Ford says. “So unless you’re really marinating it, you have to cook it rare or medium rare.” Ford describes the meat as dark red with a flavor similar to that of lean beef with “a touch of gaminess, but not like venison.” Kangaroo pairs well with the “sort of chocolaty overtones of Cabernet,” he says.

Emu, a flightless bird related to the ostrich, shows up on menus, but less often than kangaroo.

“It is a difficult meat to prepare, and out of the whole bird, there is only a fan fillet as a premium cut and two other muscles worth cooking at home on the grill or barbecue,” Cherikoff says.

He notes that the leg meat makes a “superb” prosciutto, which is supplied mostly to restaurants. Lemon myrtle and alpine pepper, which grows in Australia and is ground with the plant’s leaves, goes well with emu, he says.

“It is a rich, red meat,” Cherikoff says. “Most people think it should be a white meat, but an emu is not a giant chicken.”

Special Report

Food to drink by: Cuisines of wine and sake regions

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