The Taste of Melbourne Festival is on this weekend. It is exactly the sort of event I often don't get around to attending despite good intentions, so I accepted SBS Food's offer of a VIP pass and $60 of Crowns. I was concerned about going once I ran my eye over the restaurant dishes and saw how few vegetarian mains were available. Consequently, I spent more time on the sugary side of the menu than I would prefer but I had a lovely time.
I arrived and had my first inkling of how busy it would be when I saw the queues at the entrance. My first impression was that the place was packed with stalls catering to those who wanted to eat meat and drink alcohol, neither of which interests me. I turned my attention instead to the beauty of the Exhibition Buildings.
I have spent a lot more of my life admiring historic architecture than dining in fancy restaurants, so I am no expert on the latter. I was more excited by the magnificent interior decoration than by celebrity chefs. I was more comfortable browsing the producers stalls than the restaurants. It was exciting to be able to try food from restaurants that I don't usually frequent but my enjoyment was somewhat dimme by the scarcity of vegetarian mains.
Fortunately Cindy and Michael have shown that vegetarians can eat well in such places but to see the offerings at Taste of Melbourne you wouldn't think so. The lack of vegetarian dishes from these high end restaurants is disappointing. Surely 14 restaurants presenting three dishes each should be able to have more than one savoury vegetarian dish among them. It implies that to eat good food you must have meat. But where is the creativity, the environmental good will and the generosity found in catering to vegetarians (or vegans or celiacs or others).
I had my crowns (tokens that the restaurants accept in lieu of cash) so I set about finding the Izakaya Den stall in the pop up restaurant who offered the only savoury restaurant meal that was vegetarian. The sweet corn kaki-age with green tea salt was delicious.Little mounds of fresh juicy corn were fried in tempura batter. Together with the amazing salt, it was a light and tasty with a perfect balance of sweet and salty flavours. It was worth trying just for the unusual and beautufully coloured salt.
En route to the pop up restaurant, I had stopped at Longrain to taste the mocktails (ie the ones with no alcohol). I ordered a Virgin Calmin' Miranda of mandarin, apple, cranberry and pink grapefruit juice, garnished with passionfruit. You can see a glimpse of it in the above sweet corn photo. Not a combination I would normally choose, I found myself wishing that there was more of this refreshing juice. I don't go out to bars often these days so I don't know if the bartender's performance with the cocktail shaker is the norm but I found it over the top.
After trying the one savoury main on offer for vegetarians, I then turned my attention to the desserts. The first one I wanted to try was from Charcoal Lane, not because I was unable to attend a work dinner there last week, but because it intrigued me. The raspberry and rosella flower cannelloni with strawberry and native mint salad didn't let me down.
The 'cannelloni' was a sheet of rosella flower gel made from something called elastic gel that I was told did not have any gelatine in it. It was wrapped around a light fruity mousse. I loved how the smooth creaminess contrasted with the fresh minty strawberry chunks. It was both simple and impressive.
Next was The Bombe from The Stokehouse! Fun to order and amazing to eat! This dessert was another fine pairing of flavours and textures. It was a slice of tangy intense strawberry sorbet, creamy white chocolate ice cream, and meringue. It was undoubtedly the most impressively presented dessert of the day but I was still surprised at how good this tasted.
I don't know how they managed to have the ice cream so firm and the meringue beside it cooked crisp and golden brown on the outside. I do know that the meringue was unlike any I have had before. It was soft and sweet like raw egg white and sugar when I dug my spoon in. I will always applaud a dessert with some fresh fruit and this was no exception. The strawberries on top were the icing on the cake!
Two desserts were probably quite enough but I had the opportunity and commitment. However I wasn't sure I could continue pumping all that sugar into myself. Fortunately I passed the Yarra Valley Dairy stall and took a taste of some blue cheese for some balance. It fortified me to try the Pistachio 'panna cotta' with caramel salted popcorn from Sarti. I am not normally a fan of either. The popcorn was too sweet but I did enjoy a few mouthfuls of the panna cotta which was silky smooth and full of flavour but by then I was unable to eat much.
I decided I needed another drink. Having enjoyed the first mocktail, I returned to Longrain for another. This time I chose the Virgin Moscow Mule of fresh lime and mint topped with ginger beer. It wasn't as good as my first drink. Maybe too much sugar had passed my lips or maybe the noisy dj dulled my senses but I found it too sweet for my liking.
My fourth and last restaurant dessert that I tried was the hot date tart from Esposito. It was not served hot but I suspect the pun was more important than the temperature. It was nice with a wintery combination of spices but was quite dense and the sort of slice that I would expect to see in a cake shop than a high end restaurant. (Update: I just found a proper description thanks to Thanh - "Hot date tart made of lemon shortcrust pastry, date compote cooked in spice, orange juice, port and an almond frangipane".) I had a small spoonful or two but could not summon up much enthusiasm for it, because I had really hit the ceiling of my sugar intake. On another day, I might enjoy it more.
I should mention that one of the enjoyable aspects of the day was the many different places where you could sit and eat. The Age newspaper and Gourmet Traveller magazine were free with entry. You could choose to sit in large couches, at a high table with stools, at this lovely marbled topped table next to a cumquat tree in the photo, or even stand at a table of fake grass. Something for everyone!
Having used up my crowns (which are the only currency accepted in the restaurants), I set off to browse the producers' stalls. Being a vegetarian means developing an ability to ignore those whose world revolves around meat and enjoying what else is on offer. There was an interesting range of chocolates, pasta, cheeses, dips, jams, ice creams, olive oils. The one glaring omission was the lack of any bread bakers. Fortunately I could still admire sweet food.
The first one that caught my eye was the Chocolate Master. The chocolates were exquisite to look at. I just loved these gorgeous chocolate shoes. I sampled a couple of the small beautifully coloured chocolates (after I got home) and they tasted as wonderful as they looked. There were quite a few chocolate and ice cream stalls which I would have tried if I hadn't been on a sugar high.
I was pleased to see that Maria's Select Foods were selling small tubs of gnocchi with pesto. Someone beside me said that pasta with feta and olives was amazing but I just took the first thing available as I needed some salt in me.
I also enjoyed sampling the pesto at Alberto's Delicacies. The eggplant pesto was delicious but I ended up taking home basil pesto and some fresh fettucine to please the folks at home. It made an easy dinner that night. Alberto was a character, telling me how he used to wake on a Sunday morning to find his mother making pasta to the strains of opera.
Perhaps my favourite place was the Yarra Valley Regional Food Trail. This was just like browsing a really interesting farmer's market. Lavender honey, kiwi fruit chutney, rhubarb and raspberry jam, lemon myrtle gluten free shortbreads, meringues, poffertjes and plum pudding were among the foods the took my fancy here. And, like most of the other stalls, they were staffed by friendly folk who were generous with their free tastings. The Lavender Lady, dressed all in purple, of course, invited me to visit her farm.
I arrived home with a swag of purchases. Rochester Ginger Wine, Culinary Lavender and Lavender Honey from Warritina Lavender Farm, Rhubarb and Raspberry Jam from Yarra Valley Gourmet Foods, Pesto and Pasta from Alberto's Delicacies, Smoked Cheddar and Honey and Cinnamon Yoghurt from King Island Dairy, Chocolate with Cinnamon Almonds, a Raspberry chocolate and a Honey Caramel chocolate from the Chocolate Master and Gourmet Traveller. All very fascinating for little hands.
The verdict: I hope to be back, although the $30 entrance fee is prohibitive and the crowds were overwhelming at times. The lack of vegetarian dishes from the restaurants is disappointing but the food I tasted at the restaurants was inspired and shows that food can taste excellent even when not made fresh to order. The producers' stalls had a great variety of interesting and good quality foods. Good food and friendly stall holders in a beautiful setting is the perfect recipe for a relaxing and enjoyable day.
Thanks to SBS Food for a great experience. For more reviews and photos, see other bloggers who have written about the event: Iron Chef Shellie, Kitchen Wench, Off the Spork, Sweet Cherry Pie, Jeroxie, More Food = Happy Life, Melbourne Gastronome, I Eat Therefore I Am, SBS Food Blog.
The Taste of Melbourne
Royal Exhibition Buildings, Carlton
26-29 August 2010