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How to survive a food festival

The challenge of getting through seventeen days of way too many amazing food events may not seem like a real problem to you… but it so is. It’s a serious, very serious, first world problem, and one I face at least twice every year. The Melbourne Food & Wine Festival (MFWF) has just begun and I’m just brimming with excitement about the schedule I’ve organised for us, so indulge me while I share with you the secrets of planning the perfect foodie itinerary. My guide will be interspersed with photos from last year’s MFWF for your viewing (and my drooling) pleasure.

Restaurant Express: Charcoal Lane. Top: Wallaby tartare, horseradish potato salad, egg yolk gel, smoked bread.
Middle left: Sashimi of King Salmon, finger lime & chilli crab, pickled beetroot, radish. Middle right: Tanami spiced Kangaroo Loin, potato gnocchi, pumpkin puree, rosella flower jus.
Bottom: Gremolata & goats cheese stuffed swiss mushrooms, saltbush, golden beets.

There are a couple of main types of food festivals in Melbourne. Events such as Taste and the Good Food & Wine show happen on a single day, or a few consecutive days with much the same programme and food available throughout. These, though not so exhausting, can be challenging to tackle in their own way if you want to experience everything in the limited timeframe available without totally breaking the bank – but I’ll get to these another time.

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A Conquistador’s Adventure (The Exchange Hotel, Port Melbourne). Centre: Scallop ceviche. Right: Crab tostados.

A Conquistador’s Adventure. Left: Chicken, lime and avocado soup with fried tortilla. Centre: Big bellied beef empanadas. Right: Stuffed calamari with quinoa and broccoli, pepper and piso sauce.

The MFWF belongs to the other type – it’s a massive, city-wide affair, with countless separately ticketed events across numerous venues over a couple of weeks or more.

Coming out of the MFWF alive, without being left with a depressing bank balance and without having packed on 20 kg is no task to be scoffed at if you love food and new experiences as much as I do. Many Melbournians are aware of the MFWF being on, but aren’t aware of how to get involved or don’t really care enough. In many cases, they probably want to check out some events but have no idea where to begin finding out what’s “good”! Take a look at the festival website and you’ll understand this dilemma. “Spoilt for choice” is an understatement. If you feel overwhelmed by the wealth of information, this guide isn’t for you (just look at the pretty food porn pictures). If you like lots of information but just don’t know how to get organised, keep reading!

A Conquistador’s Adventure (The Exchange Hotel, Port Melbourne). Left: Peruvian warm purple potato and pumpkin salad. Right: Beef asado with green chimichurri

A Conquistador’s Adventure. Left: Pork belly with black eyed peas. Right: Chicken sudado with saffron rice

Even though I’m passionate about food, as with everything that requires planning, I tackle the task methodically and systematically. Let’s go.

Over the past three years, I’ve started the process in early February, although I would actually recommend starting in mid-January and booking some of the signature events even earlier than that. I keep making this same mistake and so many amazing events are sold out by the time I inquire about them.

Left: WTC Urban Picnic (WTC Wharf). Centre: Queensbridge Square and Urban Coffee Farm. Right: A taste flight at the Urban Coffee Farm, on this day featuring Dead Man Espresso

Queuing for a taste flight at the Urban Coffee Farm

First, I set a budget. How much can we responsibly spend over the entire festival period, and how much extra can be scrounged up by saving in other, unimportant areas of spending, how much will we save in groceries considering we are eating out several times per week (and do I really need to buy that pair of shoes this month?)? Once I have a solid number, I move on to the next step.

Hay Fever (The Woods of Windsor). Left: Hay ash butter, yeast free organic sourdough. Right: Hay smoked kingfish, citrus emulsion dressing, pickled celery, avruga caviar.

Hay Fever. Otway Pork Belly, variety of mushrooms, hay and dashi infused consomme.

Hay Fever (The Woods of Windsor). Left: Gippsland duck breast, curried cauliflower, wilted witlof, hay baked sweet potato and heirloom beetroots. Right: Nutella Paddle Pop, pineapple ice, hay infused ice cream.

The MFWF website allows you to search events by date and region. Ideally, now that we have a car (we didn’t during last year’s festival), I want to look at all of the events across Victoria, just in case, and all of the dates, but I start by filtering on Melbourne Metro, as I only really want to be going regional on weekends. I go through the full list of events, open every single one which looks remotely interesting in a separate tab, and after every 10 tabs or so, read the descriptions and decide if it’s interesting enough to go onto the initial shortlist. There are lots of deciding factors and a lot of side-research is often involved – price and location, of course, the “theme” of the event, and much more importantly, the reputation of the restaurant hosting it and/or the chef featured. Host restaurants that have been on my go-to wishlist are also prioritised. Anything that doesn’t make the shortlist has its tab closed immediately, with one exception – I leave open the page for the Restaurant Express lunches. I’ll get to those later.

Restaurant Express: Punch Lane. From left to right: Lime cured kingfish, short grain rice, fig & shiitake salad; Beef carpaccio, eggplant croquettes, shallot & black pepper dressing; King salmon, fennel, prawn and avocado salad, white peach dressing, bisque sauce; Pork loin, basil & eggplant, crisp puff pastry fritters.

The shortlist is a spreadsheet and the fields include the event name, a link to the event page, the price and any optional notes (such as “difficult to get to”). At this first stage, there will probably be time clashes, but that’s ok. Each event gets highlighted a different colour based on how much I want to attend it to help me prioritise clashes later on. The list is sorted by date, as the search results are sorted by date anyway.

Forage & Feast – Mornington Peninsula and Lamaro’s Dining Room (South Melbourne).

Getting to the end of the full list of events for Melbourne Metro may take me a couple of sessions of a couple of hours each. Worth it. I then move on to the regional events, again opening them in tabs, only clicking on weekend dates so I am not tempted to drive 4 hours out of Melbourne on a Tuesday night for something particularly enticing. I slot these into my shortlist spreadsheet into the chronologically appropriates rows.

Forage & Feast – Mornington Peninsula and Lamaro’s Dining Room (South Melbourne). Top left: Cheese tasting at Red Hill Cheese. Top centre: Port Philip Estate. Top right: Wine Tasting. Bottom: Beautiful, fresh produce sold straight from the farm.

Forage & Feast (Lamaro’s Dining Room ). Top right: Confit heirloom beets, toasted grains, St Brandon goat’s curd. Bottom: Two Tastes of Quail – tempura five spice quail, Asian slaw, soy lime caramel & BBQ quail, fried cauliflower salsa, grilled nectarine.

Once I’ve confidently covered every event on the website, whether ruling it out or shortlisting it, I look at my list more carefully. I add up the sum of the event prices, and of course it’s ridiculous. I take a copy of the sheet, and on the duplicated sheet, I write the sum formula at the top of the page. I then started deleting entire event rows from the page – first, out of any scheduling conflicts, I delete the one(s) that appeal less, then the events I can most easily do without experiencing go next – and watch that sum number go down until it’s no more than a teensy bit over the budget I set earlier minus $80 (get to that later).

Smokin’ with Gavin Baker (Little Hunter). Left: Raw watermelon on dashi ice, dandelion, sweetened bone fruit, umami powder. Centre: Smoked Goat’s Milk Custard, pickled walnuts, peas and their shoots, verjus. Right: Chatham Island Blue Code, tobacco and wood smoke, native sea grasses, grapes.

Smokin’ with Gavin Baker (Little Hunter). Left: Wessex Saddleback slow roasted over orange wood, kale, cider vinegar. Right: Smoked Burnt Butter Ice Cream, chargrilled corn mousse, popcorn crumb, fried silk.

Now I start making reservations or buying tickets. Keeping in mind that not everything will still be available and I might have to replace some events with backups, I start with the ones I’m most desperate to attend followed by the ones I can book online without calling anyone up. If I come across an event that’s sold out, I can go back to one from my initial shortlist (remember, I made a copy before I deleted ones) and replace it with something of a similar price range. Because the one I replace it with might not be in the same time slot, I might have to jig the schedule around a bit to suit (some events have multiple sessions on different days, some having those are good for this situation), so it’s all in constant flux until I have everything booked in.

Lights Out (The Bohemian).

“Restaurant Express” is run every year by MFWF in partnership with a number of top restaurants across Melbourne – you get a two course lunch plus a glass of wine, and tea or coffee for $40. Although once upon a time, it was only $30, this is still an excellent deal as some of the participating restaurants are of a very high calibre and often quite expensive usually. It’s a good opportunity to sample the food at these establishments before deciding if it’s worth going back for a more substantial meal. Now, often after the whole booking process, I end up with more left over in my budget than just the initial $80 I set aside – if this is the case, I can choose between whether we want to go to two Restaurant Express meals or three, or whatever depending on what is left. As there are dozens of restaurants participating, I choose where to go based on location (CBD is good for a Friday business lunch while the inner north might be a good weekend option) and days of availability (as some restaurants only offer the express menu on certain days of the week). Once I’ve made my choices, I make the lunch reservations, usually online – restaurants don’t take any payment upfront for Express lunches.

Restaurant Express: PM24. Left: Pan Seared Salmon Fillet, crushed potato, wood sorrel, lobster vinaigrtte. Centre: Rotisserie Sirlon, shallot beef jus, potato gratin. Right: Ora King Salmon Gravlax, cucumber remoulade.

Potluck Staples 2: Taiwanese beef noodle soup

There are several famous traditions of beef noodle soup in East Asia but whether it’s patriotism or familiarity or something else, I’ll always prefer the Taiwanese version. Sitting at a wobbly little wooden table, dented metal stool under me, on a street corner somewhere in Taichung, scooters whizzing past… and in front of me a steaming, aromatic bowl of beefy, spicy soup with tangy mustard greens and elastic noodles. For me, this is the ultimate comfort food, far beating a big cheesy burger or creamy pasta which is heavy on fat and light on flavour.

A small, potluck sized serving of Taiwanese stewed beef noodles

A small, potluck sized serving of Taiwanese stewed beef noodles

Welcome to part 2 of my Potluck Staples series. This is the second dish I made for my colleagues for a shared lunch I unwisely arranged in the middle of a busy period at work. Because it consists of hot soup and freshly cooked noodles, it’s not something that’s suitable for every kind of potluck unless you have access to a kitchen – however, I have the luxury of living about 10 minutes from my office! I also made crispy roast pork belly – check out that recipe and post here.

Much richer and more of a guilty pleasure than Vietnamese pho, the Taiwanese take on beef noodles is a dish of national pride. Though my take on their take might differ from the old recipe of many a Taiwanese ama, to me it at least tastes like the most faithful adaptation of the street food I love that I can remember ever eating outside of Taiwan. Once upon a time, I scoured the internet for decent recipes and over the years I have pieced them together, with touches of my own, to create this. I’ve never written it down before, so every time I make it, it’s a tiny bit different. Now I’d love for others to give it a go!

I make my beef broth in a slow cooker, as it allows me to leave it going for much longer and allow the flavours to really develop – the recipe will be based on this technique but can easily be adapted to cooking on the stove on very low heat.

Taiwanese stewed beef brisket noodles (Niu Rou Mian)

Things to note

Serves: 6 (or 10 snack serves)

Prep time: About 30 minutes, unconsecutive. Cooking time: 8+ hours, but mostly unattended

What you’ll need

From the Asian grocers
At least 3 tbsp chilli bean sauce (adjust according to how spicy you prefer it to be – I personally use almost a third of a jar as I love chilli)
1 cup premium soy sauce, or ¾ cup dark soy sauce
½ cup rice wine (cooking wine)
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 -1.2 kg wheat noodles, preferably medium or thin. If using dried noodles, buy the kind that are white and straight, in long packs, rather than “curly” in squares like instant noodles.
Optional: Taiwanese mustard greens to serve on the side (you can also pre-prepare this yourself if you aren’t short on time – here is a good recipe). Unfortunately, this time I had time to neither buy nor prepare any :(

From the market
800 – 900g boneless beef brisket, cut into approx 4cm cube pieces, trimmed of any large bits of fat
Beef bones, rougly 1 kg (your local butcher will be happy to give you some from the back if not on display) in fist-sized pieces
2 cups beef stock or chicken stock – homemade or store bought fresh from the butcher, not tinned, cubed or powdered (this is optional, but will boost flavour depth)
1-2 cups chopped chillies (to taste) – any red chilli, chopped finely. NB: most of this will not go into the soup, but will be served on the side for the diner to add to their taste
8 garlic cloves – minced
1 medium brown/yellow/white onion – sliced into half-ring slithers
1 large or 2 small tomatoes, any kind
Ginger – amount to taste, but no more than 2 cm – very thinly sliced or chopped finely
1½ cups chopped spring onions, the green parts only
1 bunch coriander – chopped finely

Rice wine for cooking, chopped chillies, spring onions, coriander, tomato, ginger, garlic and various dried spices including tangerine peel (the funny looking stuff)

Chopped chillies, spring onions, coriander, tomato, ginger, garlic and various dried spices including tangerine peel (the funny looking stuff)

Spices
4-5 star anise pods
2 tsps sichuan peppercorns (normal black peppercorns can be used if you can’t find these)
2 cinnamon sticks
6-7 cloves
3-4 bay leaves (fresh preferred but dried is ok)
4 black cardamom pods
1 tsp Chinese five spice powder
Dried tangerine peel, 3-4 pieces (from your Asian grocer)

⅓ cup brown sugar, or to taste
Salt (to taste)
Cooking oil for sauteing

Making the base broth

  1. Bring a large pot of water to the boil and quickly boil the beef bones for about 4 minutes to remove any surface impurities – this is an optional step but makes for a clearer, “prettier”, stock. Pour out the water.
  2. Boil 2 – 2.5 litres of water in a kettle. Set the slow cooker to “high”. Place the bones inside the cooker and pour the boiled water over it, making sure the bones are fully submerged. (If using the stove, bring a large pot of water to the boil, then turn the heat down to medium-low and place the bones inside)
  3. Add salt to taste
  4. After leaving on high for 20 minutes, turn slow cooker setting down to “low”, or “auto” if it has this setting. Leave for at least 5 hours, or overnight. (If using a stove, simmer on the lowest possible heat for 2-3 hours).
  5. Remove the bones and discard them. Skim some of the fat off the top, but not all – leaving some in will help lock in flavour later on in the cooking process. Strain the stock through a very fine sieve, or loosely woven muslin cloth.
  6. Clean/wash the slow cooker or pot you have used.
Beef bones and chopped chillies

Beef bones for making stock

Now the soup, with everything!

  1. Take the strained stock from the previous step and transfer it back into the slow cooker (or a large stockpot on the stove) while it’s still hot. If you’ve allowed the stock to cool down or you’re doing this step on a separate day, you will need to bring it back to the boil in a pot before adding it back to the slow cooker. If the liquid is hot but not boiling when starting out, begin the slow cooker on high setting and turn down to low after 20 minutes (and proceed with other steps while waiting).
  2. Add all the dry spices to the broth except for the bay leaves – the star anise, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamom, tangerine peel and five spice powder
  3. Add the soy sauce, the rice wine and the (other pre-prepared) stock
  4. Bring a small pot of water to the boil and parboil the tomato(es) until soft – 5 minutes should do it. Remove from the water and in a bow, crush it roughly with a spoon.
  5. In a pan with a small amount of cooking oil, add the sliced onions and minced garlic and saute for 1 minute…
  6. Add 1 tbsp of the chilli bean sauce (leave the rest), ½ cup (or more) of the chopped chillies, ½ of the chopped spring onions and a few slices of ginger to the pan. Saute for a further 2-3 minutes or until everything smells amazing!
  7. Transfer all the sauteed contents of the pan to the broth simmering in the slow cooker. Add the remaining chilli bean sauce, or however much you prefer.
  8. Heat up a different pan (or clean the original) on high heat with a very small amount of cooking oil. Once the oil is hot, bring the heat down to medium, and transfer the beef brisket pieces to brown the cubes on all sides. If the pan isn’t large enough, you may need to do this in batches as the beef pieces should only fill one layer of the pan! Only sear the meat, do not cook – 4-5 minutes total per batch should be ok for these small pieces. This browning process brings out extra flavour that will be reflected in the resulting soup.
  9. Add the browned beef to the soup in the slow cooker, along with any juices from the pan. Make sure the meat is fully submerged in the broth.
  10. Add the brown sugar.
  11. Add salt to taste.
  12. Add ⅓ cup of the chopped coriander, and then finally, add the bay leaves, leaving them to float on top of the soup.
  13. Slow cook the beef soup for 2 hours on “low”, then check the meat’s “doneness”. Cook for a further 20-30 minutes if necessary. (If using the stove instead, simmer on the lowest heat setting for 1 hour before checking.)

  14. Once the soup is done, remove and discard all the “solid” bits other than the beef – this means the star anise, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamom pods, tangerine peel, bay leaves, tomatoes, onion slices and ginger pieces. Then remove the beef brisket and set aside for a moment.
  15. Strain the broth through a fine sieve or muslin. Add the brisket back in!

Taiwanese stewed beef noodles

The last stretch: noodles, serve and eat!

  • Cook the noodles according to the packet instructions and drain – fairly firm and al dente is best, as they will continue to soften in the broth after being served
  • Prepare 6 (or however many) bowls. Place a portion of noodles into each bowl, and then spoon a portion of the soup and beef onto the noodles, minimising “splashage” in this order.
  • Garnish with a little pinch each of the remaining chopped coriander, spring onions, chillies and optional mustard greens. Serve extra of each on the side so the person eating can adjust to their own taste.
  • Omnom…

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