Australia’s top food festivals: take your pick from Melbourne, Adelaide, Noosa (Financial Review)

By any reckoning, the next two months are the hottest of the Australian food lover’s year.

It’s festival season, when the Big Three – Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, Adelaide’s Tasting Australia and the Noosa Food & Wine Festival – take turns to block out foodie calendars from the end of March to the end of May, with a break for Easter in between.

But this year? Our cups runneth over. In an unprecedented event, the 25th Melbourne festival coincides with the city’s hosting of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards on April 5, when super chefs from Milan to Mexico will vie to be top of the pots in what is widely recognised as the world’s most influential restaurant ranking system.

Adelaide picks up the baton from late April with its first annual (previously biennial) Tasting Australia, a 10-day immersion in the state’s booming food and wine culture; and thence to the Sunshine Coast, where the long-running Noosa festival will be celebrating a rebirth of sorts after its collapse under previous managers in 2015.

For the culinary traveller – that rapidly multiplying breed squarely in the sights of governments and tourism bodies across the nation – it’s a delicious dilemma. Where do you go? Who do you see? And, not least of all, what do you choose to eat and drink?

Here, then, a quick taster of what The Big Three will deliver.

Star city – Melbourne Food & Wine Festival

Chefs, chefs, and more … chefs. Can there be too many? We’re about to find out, when an army of the world’s best zooms into Melbourne at festival time and hooks up with our homegrown talent.

While the awards gala on April 5 is an industry-only event, there are plenty of chances to catch a little stardust elsewhere. To be really in the moment, get to Federation Square on the night to watch the countdown at a free live-streaming event, kicking off with entertainment from Comedy Festival stars and a people’s picnic.

All the festival’s masterclasses this year will feature current or past World’s 50 besties. How to choose between Tokyo funster Zaiyu Hasegawa – famous for “Dentucky Fried Chicken” – Mexico’s native foods champion Jorge Vallejo, Milanese master Carlo Cracco and Peruvian national hero Gastón Acurio?

There’s also the option of lunch or dinner with one of the visitors in collaboration with a kindred local chef: America’s Wylie Dufresne at Town Mouse, or Russia’s Vladimir Mukhin at Lake House, for starters.

Or, if you just want an insight into what makes a top chef tick, catch the #50BestTalks at Margaret Court Arena on April 3, hosted by Annabel Crabb (a parallel event at the Sydney Opera House will be hosted by Crabb on April 1).

Beyond the international circus, a whole other festival awaits. “We’re not just a celebration of food and wine in Melbourne but also of beer, cider, coffee and produce across the state,” says festival chief executive Natalie O’Brien.

“Of course it’s no accident that the World’s 50 Best Awards have chosen Melbourne as their host city. There’s never been a better time to showcase what we do best.”

And for something completely different, why not drop by the festival’s hub, the House of Food & Wine, where wine guy Mark Protheroe will be pouring one-off bottles from all those great local producers you so wish the coolest wine bars would put on their lists, but mysteriously often don’t.

The maverick – Tasting Australia

It’s not just Lonely Planet that ranks South Australia among its top five must-see destinations for 2017. With better bang-for-buck than the eastern states and a proud tradition of doing things its own way, Adelaide is every hipster’s favourite Oz city right now. It’s close to the wine regions. It’s easy to get around. The weather’s good. And, increasingly, its food and wine festival is attracting a level of state government backing to match the singular vision of creative director Simon Bryant.

This year, says Bryant, sounding a little like George in MasterChef, it’s all about the journey.

“I don’t want people to feel overwhelmed, which can so easily happen at festivals,” he says. “So we’ve spread events in such a way that you can move through them logically: there’s a clear route, a journey you can take through the regions and the city.”

In other words, a solution to that festival curse of realising that the three events you most want to go to are all on the same night and at opposite ends of the city.

This year, much of the action at the city hub in Victoria Square will take place not in tents but in a specially built Glasshouse Kitchen. “I’ve decided to embrace the City of Churches,” says Bryant in a reference to the site’s surroundings. “Also, the point is the festival is not about elitism, it’s part of a bigger, more inclusive picture.”

Top international draws at the Kitchen are Slovenia’s Ana Ros, recently named World’s Best Female Chef 2017, who’ll be cooking dinner with festival co-director Jock Zonfrillo of Orana and Paul Carmichael from Sydney’s Momofuku Seiōbo; and everyone’s favourite louche British chef, Marco Pierre White.

This being one of the world’s Great Wine Capitals, Bacchus is big. Highlights include a Fresh Wine Disco at Uraidla, with tastings of just-picked wines siphoned straight from the barrel; and an East End Cellars masterclass with winemakers Steve Pannell, Robert Hill Smith and Chester Osborn.

Hit the beach – Noosa Food & Wine Festival

Is there a better location for a food festival than Noosa? Here’s a plan: you start with breakfast on Main Beach with surfing chef Ben O’Donoghue; move on to lunch at Hastings Street’s Noosa Beach House with local star Peter Kuruvita; stroll up to the Woods for drinks at the Wine and Produce Village; then back to the beach for a French Saloon soirée with Melbourne’s Ian Curley, followed by a digestive or two at the cocktail bash in the beach tipis (a fancy word for tents).

No car required. No jacket either, though gold sandals could be handy.

New director Maria Crews is bringing fresh blood to the recovering festival at both ends of the pay scale. At the top are a three-night glamping trip on a macadamia farm for $3900 (including $2000 worth of festival tix) and a day on Richard Branson’s private island, Makepeace ($295 including wine); while at the people’s end is an increase in the number of events for $40 and under. And somewhere in the middle is the essential seafood experience at Locale, where local fisherfolk will join chefs and “salty dog” John Susman to serve Queensland’s best and freshest straight from a raw bar, fire pits and a wood oven.

The other big change this year is the dropping of the “International” from the title. Why bother, when the cream of Australia’s chef fraternity is falling over themselves to score a gig in the subtropical sunshine? Why bother, when an event like Taste of MoVida on the Beach can sell out in the first two days?

“We’re aiming to make the festival more accessible,” says Crews. “And we’ve brought back the focus on wine.”

Noosa, it’s good to have you back.

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