Quirky locations are quintessentially Melbourne. The city is riddled with cobblestone laneways, rooftop gardens and other tucked-away spots, many of which are burgeoning food destinations.
Half the fun of being in Melbourne is seeking out the hidden doorway of a hot new restaurant, discovering hole-in-the-wall cafés, stumbling across heritage-listed buildings housing bakeries and boutique wine bars, and jumping on the tram to explore the latest gentrified neighbourhood with a trendy coffee-shop strip. Melbourne is also home to around 140 different cultures, which have transformed pockets of the city into vibrant immigrant communities. Chinatown stretches along Little Bourke Street;Lygon Street is an Italian precinct; Fitzroy marks the Spanish quarter; Brunswick is a Lebanese hub; and diners head to Victoria Street in Abbotsford for steaming bowls of noodles or pho, a Vietnamese soup. The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival taps into all of this. The result is a gastronomic programme that is unequivocally Melbourne: right down to its eclectic locales and multicultural, mouthwatering roots.
Dinner in a pottery studio, a picnic in a rooftop garden, a progressive Vietnamese feast travelling by rickshaw, a South American adventure and a tram-stop dinner series were all on the menu during the last festival, which is held annually in spring. “One of the things that makes the festival different is actually using Melbourne, the city, as a stage to host the festival,” says Melbourne Food and Wine chief executive Natalie O’Brien. “It is about the laneways, the architecture, the small and intriguing spaces where you will find an incredibly good coffee or the bakery that’s just opened up, or the crêperie that’s literally a doorway in the city.” The city put funky mobile food trucks on the map in Australia, it’s a haven for ‘pop-up’ cafés and coffee shops, and alternative dining spaces spring up like mushrooms in laneways, warehouses and unused spaces. Fleeting mobile food spots have flourished globally during the current quest for cheaper, more casual dining options. A café economy has also thrived, and Melbourne, with its low-key vibe and cosmopolitan crowd, was quick to embrace the gastronomic shift. The festival has mirrored this.
The centrepiece of the 2013 programme was the Urban Coffee Farm & Brew Bar. Literally a mini-jungle in the heart of the city, it comprised 175 Australian coffee trees a nd 1,400 Victorian-grown tropical plants. From this hand-built coffee den, Melbourne’s top baristas and roasters crafted coffees for the public, who could sip, savour and learn about coffee regions, processes and bean varietals.It was inspired by the city’s deeply entrenched coffee culture, which arrived with Italian and Greek immigrants and has exploded into a fully-fledged industry that has made Melbourne into the country’s most celebrated, caffeinated, hub “Every man and their dog is opening a café [in Melbourne], and it’s great because it’s providing opportunities for people to bring in different beans and showcase what coffee can be,” says Ben Bicknell from wholesale roaster 5 Senses Coffee. Bicknell says having coffee as a focal point of the festival this year was perfect timing. It coincided with international recognition of the city’s coffee credentials (Melbourne hosted the World Barista Championship this year), and helped to increase focus on coffee as a culinary item, rather than just a functional one. “The Melbourne public has really accepted and embraced coffee, not just that café lifestyle but as a great overall sensory experience,” Bicknell says. “Where you have sommeliers in great restaurants, you now also have baristas in cafés who know so much about the different origins [of the beans] they’re dealing with, and the flavour profiles that are available, that they’re able to offer a much deeper experience.”
While the festival’s ingredients, or events, change annually, the foundation it is built upon – a rich multicultural masterstock, if you like – only intensifies in flavour.O’Brien says Melbourne Food and Wine has embraced the city’s multicultural food scene since the inaugural festival 20 years ago. “The birth of the festival was really when Melbourne had its renaissance in food off the back of [a] very rich culture of immigrants that had historically brought wonderful cuisine to Melbourne,” she says.At this year’s festival diners could indulge in events such as Pho Fever at Sunshine restaurant and Pavarotti’s Favourites at Café Di Stasio, they could take a Mexican tour at Mamasita, or a trip down Burmese Lane to eat lunch in the laneway outside Red Spice Road restaurant. Another constant factor is the festival’s timing; it’s always held at the time of the harvest and vintage time in Victoria so produce is at its best. However, smaller events are now held at other times of the year. In June, the ‘Roast Collection’ of events paid homage to rare breeds, heirloom vegetables and the lost art of the traditional roast, while looking forward to September, the ‘Spring Graze’ programme celebrates spring’s new bounty of Victorian produce. “We promote the festival in March, but we are really pointing to come to Melbourne for the rest of the year,” says O’Brien. “We’re not like another event where we pack up the tennis rackets or the Grand Prix cars and say ‘we’re finished’. We actually pack it up and say come back next week, next month or next year because this Melbourne food experience is here to be had all year round.”
5 Senses – Taste
Indulge your taste buds on a tour of the city’s chocolate hotspots. Chat to chocolatiers, taste handcrafted chocolates and stroll around elegant arcades and architectural icons in a chocolate haze. Macarons, truffles and ice cream are on the menu, so take it a bite at a time. chocoholictours.com.au
5 Senses – Touch
Pop Up Patch
Get your hands dirty at Federation Square’s Pop Up Patch, a roof-top veggie garden comprising 140 plots that are leased to the public and restaurants in the complex. Join an interactive edible garden workshop and learn how to grow your own produce from the greenfingered professionals. www.fedsquare.com/eatdrink/ pop-up-patch
5 Senses – Scent
Wake up and smell the coffee at Di Bella Roasting Warehouse. The roastery takes coffee connoisseurs on a journey from crop to cup. Smell freshly roasting beans, join a coffee appreciation class or brush up on your home-machine barista skills. www.dibellacoffee.com.au
Whole Larder Love
Head to Springmount, an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Melbourne, for a Whole Larder Love weekend workshop. Learn to dispatch chickens and skin rabbits. If that’s too hardcore, take the fly-fishing and trout curing workshop, or classes in sourdough baking and vegetable gardening. Stay in the heritage-listed homestead, which is beautifully fitted out in the style of a French farmhouse, or choose the ‘glamping’ option in the renovated stables. www.wholelarderlove.com
5 Senses – Sight
Sightsee Melbourne by tram. Hop on and off the free city-circle tram tour every time something piques your interest (or appetite): from famous landmarks to a queue outside a coffee hotspot, or a blackboard menu advertising a must-have dish of the day. www.visitvictoria.com