Tasting Australia 2014 will kick off at the end of a month that’s already been generously served with food and wine festivals. Not only will this year’s event herald the new format of the program, it will run in the same month as the second Adelaide Food and Wine Festival and hot on the heels of the Kangaroo Island FEASTival. Whether this will detract from or enhance its popularity is a question yet to be answered. The consuming public will either feel they’re replete with food and wine (if such a thing is possible), or, having had their taste buds well and truly aroused, be eager to continue the feast.
Tasting Australia has an illustrious history, the inaugural event having taken place in 1997 under the aegis of the Australian Major Events division of the Tourism Commission. It was the brainchild of Ian Parmenter, an English born chef, well known for his television show Consuming Passions, and a celebrity chef at a time when that term had barely entered the vernacular. Parmenter’s vision was to showcase Australian cuisine to the world. Although WA based, he selected South Australia as the venue because of our unique regional food and wine producing areas, amenable lifestyle and climate and general accessibility.
It was a breathtakingly ambitious concept and at the time a novel one. Although the organising bodies must have been apprehensive, their investment was richly rewarded when the first festival was hailed as an outstanding success and established as a biennial fixture in the food and wine festival calendar. There could be no greater proof of its success than the glowing commentaries penned by members of the international media, who it was touted at the time came grudgingly, anticipating a parochial non-event, but left waxing lyrical and dying to get tickets to the next one. Claudia Roden, a culinary icon, described the event as one “which grips the heart … a wonderful way of putting Australia on the gastronomic map”.
The renowned American Gourmet magazine (no longer in publication) was moved to print a feature on South Australia entitled “The Sweet Adelaide”, in which the writer, Rory Ross, commented “the standard of cooking and the cornucopia of ingredients is remarkable. The restaurants are astonishingly good and plentiful”. (If only he could see us now! And if anyone still has a copy of that edition of the magazine I’d love to read it.)
As well as focusing on the passions of the palate, the 1997 event saw the inclusion of the Australian Food and Wine Writers Festival. In much the same way as Writers Week has become linked to the Adelaide Festival of Arts, the writers festival celebrated the natural synergy between different artistic forms of expression, in this case, the culinary and the literary, or the fact that as one commentator noted “the pen is mightier than the fork”. A five day event, organised in collaboration with Arts SA, the Australian Food and Wine Writers Festival was held in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens (the home of its big sister, Writers Week) and attracted food writing luminaries from across the world. Names that ring a bell included Charmaine Solomon, Rick Stein, Michael Symons, Stephanie Alexander, Maggie Beer, Marion Halligan, James Halliday, Philip White and Barbara Santich.
An associated initiative that started with the first festival was the Cordon Bleu World Food Media Awards, the first of which were presented in 1997. The awards were promoted as a “comprehensive international competition” designed to recognise excellence in food related media across many forms, including broadcasting, journalism and television. The awards continued in concert with Tasting Australia up until 2010, attracting in that year over 4,000 entries.
With the burgeoning popularity of food writing today, and the wealth of food writing expertise in South Australia alone, it’s a pity the Food and Wine Writers Festival seems to have disappeared from the calendar. While Writers Week is now an annual event and is wonderful in its own way, food writers are poorly represented. Some might groan at the prospect of yet another festival, but we are the festival State and it seems to me there’s an opportunity here waiting to be grasped by some enterprising body.
Tasting Australia 2012, although an even greater success than its predecessors, ended in a public stoush between Ian Parmenter and the State Government resulting in a severing of relations between them. Although the opposing parties broadcast different versions of the contract non-renewal debate, Parmenter was widely condemned at the time for what was billed as a “dummy spit”. His parting shot that he feared future events could be “dumbed down” into something little more than a small, regional festival may have been tainted by sour grapes. Who knows? He did a fantastic job while he held the reins and deserves full credit for having the perspicacity to introduce the event to South Australia in the first place. There’s no doubt it served to elevate the status of South Australia’s food and wine culture into the international league where it rightly belongs.
This year’s Tasting Australia, which is in the capable hands of Simon Bryant and Paul Henry as co-directors, with Maggie Beer as patron, is taking place from 27 April to 4 May. It’s being promoted as a reinvigorated event, but it’s also been substantially reconstructed (or should that be deconstructed?). Rather than showcasing a cast of celebrity chefs, the focus will be on farmers and producers. Based around the theme of “origins”, this year’s event will feature South Australia’s unique provenance, emphasising a sense of place, tradition and community.
This reinvention is timely, given that the food scene in Australia is vastly different now from that of 1997. Food and wine festivals are now held in capital cities and regional centres across the country, all with their own galleries of luminaries and world class produce.
Despite the change in direction, there will be no shortage of attractions, with more than 40 events being staged in the city, as well as many regional tours and workshops featuring farmers markets, foraging, vineyards and wine tastings. Big names will not be entirely missing either, with the inclusion of Fergus Henderson, the renowned “nose to tail eating” expert and Skye Gyngell a Michelin Star winning chef and author of the best selling “A Year in My Kitchen”.
With an exciting diversity of attractions based around the themes of eat, drink, share, think, the 2014 Tasting Australia shows every indication of being just as good as previous events and with the injection of new ideas and a fresh approach, it should stimulate the tastebuds of even the most jaded festival goers. For the full program, which continues to expand as I write, go to Tasting Australia.
by Anne Green