Like all good foodie cities, Melbourne in Australia is home to a handful of delicious food festivals, from Taste of Melbourne to Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. It was Taste of Melbourne, held in September, that we used as an excuse to travel here last year and get to know the city’s food scene, and the 20-day Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, on at the moment, is partly what has brought us back to Melbourne again.
Taste of Melbourne and Melbourne Food and Wine Festival are two very different festivals, and while most travellers wouldn’t make a special trip to Melbourne to attend either, for food tourists these are great events to build a culinary holiday around. Here are our assessments of Melbourne’s two biggest food festivals.
TASTE OF MELBOURNE
Held over four days in September/October at the Royal Exhibition Building, Carlton, Taste of Melbourne is a one-stop-shop for foodies, and this is its biggest advantage. Its edge-of-the-city location is very convenient for visitors staying in the city centre. Held under one roof means that in one afternoon or evening (there are two sessions), you can try food from around 15 different Melbourne restaurants (some of the city’s best), attend cooking demonstrations by some of Australia’s finest chefs, and taste regional wines and sample local produce.
Of the restaurant dishes we tasted, we loved the sustainable Spring Bay Mussels with baked breadcrumbs from Chef Maurice Esposito of Esposito and St Peter’s restaurants; all three dishes we tried from Melbourne’s legendary Stokehouse restaurant, including Seared scallops with green chilli aioli, almonds and celeriac remoulade, Grilled pork and fennel slider with mustard mayo, and Rhubarb, violet and rose geranium Eton Mess; and from Chef Cheong Liew’s The Botanical, Prawn and pork plums with 1000 year old egg and pickled ginger, and a salad of Olive fried octopus, aioli, steamed eggplant and pickled free range eggs. (All pictured above.)
While the programme features lots of cooking demonstrations called Taste Kitchens (where chefs demo their signature dishes) and Chef’s Tables (round-table discussions with chefs), nearly every one we wanted to attend overlapped with another event or clashed with something else we wanted to do. Whether that was a case of bad luck or bad scheduling, I’m not sure.
A big disappointment was the ‘Masterclass’ with Jindi Cheeses of the Gippsland region. We’d wanted to do a few of these, however, due to their popularity, were only able to get into the From Blues to Bries tasting of Old Telegraph Road cheeses. Whereas the wine tastings we did were fully guided, with plenty of introductory chat from the wine experts during each tasting and time for questions, we got little more than a brief few sentences by the cheese producers and then it was a free for all, each table digging into plates of cheeses in the middle. The only word to describe the aftermath of that was ‘gross’. Instead, there should have been individual plates of cheese portions for each participant and an introduction to each cheese during individual cheese tastings.
The event also features a Producers Market, with much of the exhibition hall taken up by stalls belonging to “artisan producers” and “boutique suppliers”, though we’re not sure where the likes of Nando’s fits. While entry to this area is included in the ticket price of A$30 (A$25 if purchased in advance), tastings of produce (which were tiny), activities (like the wine tastings and cocktail making classes) and restaurant dishes cost extra, so we weren’t sure what exactly the $30 covered – the opportunity to wander by some stalls, talk to some chefs and watch a few cooking demos?
Yarra Valley By The Glass presented by winemaker Kate Goodman of Punt Road Wines and wine writer Nick Stock, the Plumm Wine Glass Experience presented by endearing Aussie wine expert Matt Skinner, and the Sensology ‘Art of Cocktail Making’ classes hosted by Bacardi Lion and Longrain bars were some of the highlights of Taste.
The Yarra Valley is not a region we’re familiar with, though the wines inspired us to learn more. We loved the 2010 Mac Forbes Gruyere Pinot Noir that was all strawberries, cherries, musk and spice on the nose, with nice fruity tannins and lots of structure; an elegant 2010 Giant Steps Arthurs Creek Chardonnay with a fragrant citrus nose, peach and toasted hazelnuts to taste, and a bright acidity; and a supple 2008 Punt Road Cabernet Sauvignon, which, with its cassis, blue fruits and oak nose, and dark cherry, chocolate and earthy palate, Kate Goodman said was typical of the Yarra Valley style.
Matt Skinner’s Plumm Wine Glass Experience was even more fun – or maybe that was just because it came after the Yarra Valley session. Plumm Glasses are Australian-designed, hand-made wine glasses and they’re just as gorgeous to hold as to drink from. Matt’s session was as much about tasting the glass as tasting the wines, which included a Roederer Brut Premier NV, a 2010 Catalina Sounds Sauvignon Blanc, a 2007 Barossa Babe Shiraz, and a 2009 Nanny Goat Pinot Noir. They also gave participants boxes of glasses – worth more than what the session cost.
Attending Taste is an expensive undertaking: activities and tastings costs extra on top of the entry ticket price, and – strong Aussie dollar aside – the Australian events are more expensive than Taste events overseas. The event is part of the global Taste food festival franchise – Taste of Dubai is actually on now in the UAE, and it’s considerably cheaper. For example, the standard entry ticket to Taste of Dubai costs A$20 compared to A$30 in Melbourne. In Melbourne, a VIP ticket cost A$100 and includes VIP lounge access, three complimentary drinks and 30 Crowns, which would get you around three restaurant tasting dishes. The Dubai VIP ticket, with the same benefits, costs A$55. Having said that, if money is no object and your stay is brief, Taste of Melbourne is a terrific opportunity to get an introduction to the food scene and try dishes from over a dozen of the city’s best restaurants.
* Buy an advance ticket, which is cheaper.
* Check the programme online in advance and plan your visit like a military operation, buying tickets to activities in advance too.
* Research your restaurants ahead of time to determine which you want to try.
* Get there early, at the start of the event sessions, to avoid crowds at restaurant stands.
MELBOURNE FOOD AND WINE FESTIVAL
Taking place over 20 days each March, the Melbourne Food and Wine festival is on as I type and hasn’t finished yet and we hope to get to experience more of it, so I’ll save a detailed review for another post. For now, I wanted to offer a quick comparison for our readers from around the globe who might be planning a trip to Melbourne.
While Taste of Melbourne is held in one location, which is super-handy for tourists, the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival happens all over the city and takes many different forms. There are a bewildering 300 events to choose from! There are fun dining experiences, like the world’s longest lunches and food crawls, as well as discounted dining and drinking opportunities such as ‘Restaurant Express’ and ‘Bar Express’, essentially lunch or dinner menu specials at scores of participating restaurants for a significantly lower price than usual.
There are countless masterclasses (hands-on and demos) and dozens of industry sessions and presentations from most of Australia’s and many of the world’s best chefs, from Ben Shewry and Dan Hunter to Rene Redzepi and Massimo Bottura. We attended quite a few of these and they were thought provoking – a must for food and wine writers, bloggers, and avid foodies. My only gripe was that the wine sessions were scheduled at the same time as the food sessions, so we missed out on these.
If you’re a serious foodie wanting to plan a food-focused holiday in Melbourne around a festival, then the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival is the one for you.
* Buy all your tickets online in advance, as the most popular events sell out quickly.
* Use the excellent ‘My Festival Planner’ tool on the site to help you schedule events.
* Base yourself in the centre of the city or around Southbank where many industry events are held.
* Book your accommodation well in advance (accommodation reviews coming soon) as March is a busy month for Melbourne, with the Australian Grand Prix (which we’re attending tomorrow) and a handful of other events on at the same time.
More on the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival in this post.