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MFWF 2014: Tarbert’s Table & Eat Ocean, Drink Succulent

Author’s note, or something: I feel odd about publishing a post that talks about haggis during my strictly herbivorous month – you can’t really get a lot less vegan than haggis!

A recent episode of How I Met Your Mother featured a Scottish-Mexican fusion restaurant as an example of ridiculous places that should not exist and things that “do not fuse”.

Funny, not just because it does seem pretty silly, but that in recalling my own recent food adventures, I realised that my opening weekend of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival did in fact feature both Scottish and Mexican “cuisine”.

How I Met Your Mother - 9x21

Amusing as the combination might seem, my experience perfectly represents the rich medley of events that comprise the MFWF, which in turn exemplifies the undiscriminating and incredibly ethnically diverse food culture in Melbourne.

I am so absolutely excited by variety, yet though I was vaguely aware of the MFWF before moving to Melbourne, I didn’t know just how much was on offer. Food festivals back home were one-or-two-day one-venue affairs – I had no idea it could be this incredible, colossal, city-wide celebration of food that spanned two and a half weeks! Several years on, and it’s definitely tied first with Christmas for my most anticipated time of the year. As mentioned in my opening post of the festival, this is my third MFWF run, and I already feel like a bit of a veteran, planning my way around the two and a half weeks while making sure to fit in a diverse range of events.

Each year, the festival has an overarching theme and the individually hosted events that are a part of it try to work with that as the central idea. In 2014, the theme was “Water”.

Tarbert’s Table of the Loch (Golden Gate Hotel)

A mere 24 hours after my first World’s Longest Lunch, I was heading off to South Melbourne’s Golden Gate Hotel with KP for some traditional Scottish fare. This event, called “Tarbert’s Table of the Loch” was run by the Melbourne Venue Company (MWC), who had also organised a themed lunch last year called “A Conquistador’s Adventure”. That event was held in a pub in Port Melbourne, part of a family of pub venues around the city, and was featured in my photo post summarising my 2013 participation in MFWF.

Tarbert is a village in Scotland that is built around a loch (Gaelic for “lake” or sea inlet) and so the meal features several seafood dishes, thus satisfying the MFWF’s water theme of the year.

As it was at last year’s South American feast (A Conquistador’s Adventure, mentioned above), the food was quite delicious overall. It’s a pleasant surprise (for lack of a better word) because these MWC events are catered by the resident chefing talent of the pub it is held at. Often these pubs have a strong, positive local reputation, yet are not exactly famed for their food and the chefs are unknowns.

I am not sure how the MWC managed to find some person or persons at The Exchange Hotel capable of whipping up over a dozen different Central and South American specialties in 2013, but this year one of the Golden Gate Hotel’s very own just happened to be Scottish – a young guy by the name of Fraser, the pub’s head chef.

What’s even more amazing is that they managed to track down a Scottish minister from a local Scots’ church to read a Gaelic blessing before the meat course!

The other guests were a mishmash of personalities – a mix of locals who seemed to frequent the pub and probably saw a flier, people who had travelled in Scotland and missed the food, actual Scottish people who missed their food or were curious, foodies who had found the event online or their friends and spouses who were dragged along. The host or “MC”, if you will, was the very same guy who had dressed up in Spanish conquistador costume last year and was now dressed in a kilt!

Lunch began with canapes of crushed black pudding, crumbed fried scallops and smoked salmon on a sort of plain mini pancake. I thought that scallops and salmon were rather uninteresting choices (though the bite-sized servings were nice enough), but the black pudding was rich and delicious, not too dry, not too overwhelming. Even KP, who normally dislikes black pudding and morcilla sausage and the like, really enjoyed it.

The highlight of all the courses was, almost indisputably, the Cullen skink, which is similar to a rather thick seafood chowder. It was hearty, creamy, flavoursome, subtly smoky and full of fresh seafood-y goodness, topped with one large, perfectly fried potato-and-fish dumpling. Once I had cleaned my bowl, I simultaneously craved seconds and felt like I couldn’t have one more rich, lactose-laden spoonful.

Haggis came next, and it was pretty much a given that this famed Scottish fare would feature in a lunch showcasing that country’s traditional cooking. It was served with “bashit neeps” and “chappit tatties”, which mean crushed turnips and mashed potatoes, respectively – I had to giggle as I suddenly had a vision of myself, furiously BASHing turneeeeeps! There’s not much you can say about mashed veges, except I would describe, for example, bad mashed potato to have a powdery texture and taste, and good mash to be smooth, velvety and quite creamy. This was good mash, and the beaten up turnips were good, too.

I can’t have eaten haggis more than maybe twice ever, so I don’t have of a point of comparison, but I quite liked it – it actually tasted a lot like a rich pate, but with oats through it. Rather than being made in-house, it was instead purchased from a butcher in Dandenong (I think?) which was apparently somewhat well known for it. Ah, there you go, I just looked it up. It’s called Rob’s British and Irishy Butchery. Rob makes authentic British smallgoods that seem to be very popular with the immigrant communities as well as delis Victoria-wide.

The meat dish of lamb backstrap less satisfying than all the other courses – mine in particular was a little more than a touch dry and overcooked, and I seemed to also have a smaller serving with thinner slices of lamb than others at my table. The sauce was, moreover, slightly gritty, though quite tasty. I put it down to having a large number of guests to serve, and perhaps others got very juicy and delicious portions.

At the start of the meal, I let the waiters know that I wouldn’t be able to eat the dessert of Cranachan, which included whisky-soaked oatmeal. They were flustered for only a minute, but went to speak to the chef, and came back to inform me that he’d be able to whip me up one of two other options for dessert – a pannacotta or a sorbet selection. Not yet knowing how rich the meal would turn out to be, I opted for the pannacotta, later wishing I’d chosen the more refreshing sorbet! It was absolutely lovely of the chef and wait staff to accommodate my rather last-minute request for a menu modification during an event with so many people to cater for.

It turned out that some people did not seem to enjoy their cranachan dessert very much, which the host had introduced as being similar to Eton Mess (to which comparison I heard a few dissenting murmurs from the Scottish people present), but I have no comment to make as, unlike with wine, I didn’t want to risk having even a taste. My pannacotta, on the other hand, was beautifully presented and quite lovely.

This event also included a “whisky library” with cushy chairs where guests could sneak off to at any point and sample a Scotch whisky tasting flight – quite a nice thing and added great value to the experience (if not for myself!)

Overall, I really enjoyed the afternoon with good food and varied company – though I didn’t feel it was as fun or interactive as A Conquistador’s Adventure, I recognise it was probably a trickier and less “user-friendly” theme to pull off compared to last year’s theme! KP and I both stumbled home feeling full and satisfied, with the feeling of an afternoon well spent, and that’s definitely what I consider a successful event.

Golden Gate Hotel on Urbanspoon

Eat Ocean, Drink Succulent (Mamasita)

Mamasita is certainly an establishment that needs no introduction, being widely known as serving up some of the best authentic Mexican cuisine in Melbourne, and probably the Southern Hemisphere; so I’m not going to dwell in great detail on the food we experienced at this event, which was, as usual, delicious.

This night, Mamasita took on the challenge of hosting a great night and changed things up, bringing out some dishes that were quite different from their usual fare of tacos, quesadillas and deliciously marinated seafood (though we had those, too!)

I jumped at the opportunity to make a booking for this event because, well, normally the restaurant doesn’t take bookings for small groups, and having been a patron in the past, and though having loved it, I’m not all that keen on queuing to get in on the nights I want to eat there. Perhaps it’s my old age.

In the same vein, probably – my main complaint of the evening would be that I ended up with a sore butt from sitting at the bar for over 4 hours – tiny stool, not so tiny butt. This was partially my fault, as I’d been given two options for seating when booking, and while neither were ideal (as I booked late), I chose the bar myself. Nonetheless, I would wager that the bar seating was not designed for long, drawn out events like a 9 course dinner. But hey, at least I got to look at all the pretty tequila bottles all night!

I felt the pacing of the courses was regular but a little drawn out – as it was quite dark and rather loud, the atmosphere wasn’t really conducive to having involved conversations to pass the considerable length of time.

We started off with a canape of braised octopus with peppers, cherry tomatoes and olives, which counted as the “eat” portion of the first course, which was lovely, but was neither introduced in any way nor served at a consistent time across the venue.

Only before the second course of the ever-amazing Mamasita elote callejero (grilled corn) was the event format and theme of pairing seafood (eating “ocean”) and tequila (drinking “succulent”) explained.

Beer, wine, and tequila were all practically free-flowing throughout the evening, with great variety and well matched with the food. However, occasionally the introductions to the beverages got lost in the din or the staff simply forgot.

Neither the aguachile nor ceviche took me back to my time on the Yucatan peninsula last year – though I did enjoy them and the seafood was fresh and sweet, the preparation wasn’t what my limited knowledge would have considered authentic.

The taco course came as a surprise – smoked eel. Eel is a fish I have never eaten outside of Japanese cuisine, but it worked pretty well. As ever, you can’t go wrong with a quesadilla if it has cheese in it, but to my even greater surprise, after I was emailed a list of the courses we’d sampled after the event, I found that I had eaten something called “huitlacoche”, which upon Googling I discovered means “corn smut“.

So what the hell is corn smut? It’s like a fungal infection that grows on top of young corn, which doesn’t sound very nice… but essentially, it’s just mushrooms. Grown on corn.

When it came to the sopes, the corn bread base was a little dry or stale but the duck and tamarind together was a tasty combination.

My favourite dish of the night was a warmingly hearty and aromatic seafood cazuela (a sort of soup or stew) of barramundi, shellfish, orange and fennel, served with tomato and garlic chilli rice.

There was only one sweet course – frozen chocolate mousse with dulce de leche, fresh cream, sesame praline and figs – and I wasn’t a fan. But then, I’m never really a fan of rich chocolatey desserts after a big meal.

Though the evening had room for improvement in various areas, the food was delicious and varied, the portions and drinks generous, and I sincerely hope Mamasita holds more reserved events like this. To their great credit, the team sent out questionnaires to the attendees, requesting feedback, and if they can take it all on board for future events, I’ll be even more impressed!

Mamasita on Urbanspoon

Thus ends my long story of how Scottish-met-Mexican in the context of my life. It may not be as memorable as seeing men with moustaches wearing sombreros and kilts playing bagpipes, but it was a fun weekend nevertheless.

Week 1 – Because-I-Hate-Plants Diary

Day minus-3 (Saturday, March 29):
A trip to my favourite organic grocer – Passionfoods – to stock up on vegan cheese, nutritional yeast (“nooch”), coconut yogurt, cashew butter, raw chocolate and other cruelty-free goodies!

Day minus-2 (Sunday, March 30):
Attended Animal Liberation Victoria‘s vegan market day in St Kilda, devoured an indulgent salted caramel coconut ice cream (by Zebra Dream), ate some delicious vegan homebaked cookies, and came home with yummy toasted coconut vegan marshmallows.

For dinner, I fed friends Palak Tofu (an Indian-style spinach based curry with medium-firm tofu I fried in aromatic spices). Confession: I ate a bit of Sichuan fish left over from dinner the night before, but hey, a 75% vegan day before my challenge even officially began was pretty good, right?

Day minus-1 (Monday, March 31):
Bought some assorted Jelly Bellies and ate all the red ones before bed, because though their “bellies” (tehehe) are vegan, I don’t know if their food colouring contains bugs. KP went to the supermarket because he had run out of milk for his coffee, and I told him without batting an eyelid to stop murdering baby cows. He looked sad and told me not to say that, because it’s horrible, and I retorted that it’s even more horrible to not acknowledge it. Heh, apparently, I’m already preachy even though I haven’t even started this challenge! The last non-vegan thing I ate before my first week was a white chocolate Magnum right before bed.

Day 1 (Tuesday, April 1):
Lunch: Palak Tofu (leftovers from Sunday)
Dinner: Soba noodles with broccoli and shiitake mushrooms, curry miso broth, toasted sesame, garlic and nori.

I went down to the cafe on the ground floor of my office building to grab my usual soy cappuccino, and for the first time, wondered if the chocolate powder they always sprinkled on top was actually vegan. I guess I should ask for it without chocolate next time. It felt very strange to be looking at all this food I knew I couldn’t eat – a new experience for someone with no food intolerances and previously no dietary restrictions of any sort. My eyes lingered on the muffins and baked goods that I rarely glance at usually. It’s not difficult yet, only strange, but it’s only day 1!

Tonight, Angela asked if I wanted to have some funny Chinese mock-meat jerky stuff while waiting for dinner to cook and we had a look through the ingredients. The following conversation happened:

Angela: Would you like some soy jerky?
Me: Are you sure I can eat that?
Angela: Hmmm, it has food colouring, but I’m not sure if it’s the one made from bugs or whatever
Me: I probably shouldn’t eat it…
Angela: You could look up the additive number? I’ll look it up for you.
*5 minutes later*
Angela: *reading from Wikipedia* Errrr, it says it used to be made from coal tar but now it is mostly made from petroleum”. There you go, you can eat it. No animals, just petrol.
Me: Great :/

Day 2 (Wednssday, April 2):
Today, I found out through some internet research that Jelly Bellies are not, in fact, vegan! I’m not only talking about those pesky reddish ones that may be made from cochineal or whatever, but in fact, each and every Jelly Belly has been “polished” with beeswax to give them their shiny coat! Ugh! Needless to say, my vegan friends were not happy about this revelation!

I’m realising that randomly craving baked goods and pastries in the afternoons or early mornings is going to become annoying. It’s not like it’s something that happens everyday, but maybe once or twice a week, I feel like I just need that donut as an afternoon post work pick-me-up. Other times, like this morning, I just feel a whim to grab some fresh macarons on the way in to work! Resisting these things isn’t difficult just yet, but it might start to be a week or two in!

Lunch: Mixed mushrooms vermicelli from Miss Chu
Dinner: Caught up with a friend over zucchini dumplings and vegan Mapo Tofu from Shandong Mama
Dessert: Dairy-free pandan-coconut gelati from Gelateria Primavera Gelateria Primavera on Urbanspoon (by Spring Street Grocer – the most delicious and authentic gelati I’ve found in this city so far. O SO STRETCHEEE!)

Day 3 (Thursday, April 3):
As I was a bit under the weather, my yearning for baked goods reached its peak – I needed to go to the post office, and went to one further away because I knew there would be a place that sold vegan cupcakes across from it.

Lunch: Chives gyoza from Gyoza Douraku Gyoza Douraku on Urbanspoon (my top 3 favourite dumplings in Melbourne!) and Chocolate-on-Chocolate vegan cupcake from Joy Cupcakes
Dinner: Vegan cannelloni with mushrooms, crumbled tofu mince, quinoa, tomato, thyme and oregano, topped with mozzarella-style Cheezly
Dessert: Citizen Cacao raw vegan chocolate truffles (bought from Spring Street Grocer last night) in flavours “strawberry and coconut” and “Proud Mary cold drip coffee”

Day 4 (Friday, April 4):
After four days of not being able to choose to eat 85% of what I came across in the city (though it’s not as if I would have normally eaten those things just because I came across them!) I was excited to go to a vego restaurant where I’d be able to choose from most things on the menu. Shakahari is one of my favourite vegetarian restaurants in Melbourne, but the service on this occasion left much to be desired :( Shakahari Vegetarian on Urbanspoon

Lunch: Left over vegan cannelloni
Dinner: A variety of vegan deliciousness from Shakahari Vegetarian restaurant in Carlton. A highlight was the tofu caramel dessert.
Drink: Passionfruit juice with jelly from ChaTime

Day 5 (Saturday, April 5):
The long-awaited day arrived! I ate with several friends at Smith & Daughters, a Latin-cuisine vegan restaurant we’ve been waiting on to open its doors for a year, and then another couple of weeks for us all to be free and able to get a group booking. It did not disappoint. The blogosphere has been strewn with rave reviews for this eatery since its opening “First Taste Feast”, to which many “real” bloggers were invited. I suppose I could add my own two cents at some point! Smith and Daughters on Urbanspoon

We also stumbled upon Merry Cupcakes nearby on Brunswick street which is a healthier kind of (vegan) cupcakery using less saturated fat and less sugar in their goodies – I grabbed some of the said goodies for tomorrow.

Dinner and Dessert: A veritable Latin feast at Smith & Daughters
Non-vegan things I ate: Some milk chocolate sent to me from a friend in Germany and half a Spanish hot chocolate from San Churro.

Day 6 (Sunday, April 6):
Late morning snack: A Merry Cupcakes “Blondie” cupcake
Lunch: Mushroom, egg and goat cheese galette from Breizoz (not vegan, obviously)
Dinner: Tom Yum rice noodle soup and fried vege dumplings from Loving Hut. It was not amazing, to be honest (and was not my first choice, as I wanted the vegan Bun Bo Hue but they had run out) Loving Hut on Urbanspoon
Dessert: Mister Nice Guy “Golden Gaytime” mini cupcake

Cooked some shell pasta and combined it with diced tomatoes and the left over “mince” filling from the cannelloni I made earlier in the week to create a healthy “bolognese”, and froze it in serving portions.

My cupcake from Merry was delicious, though it definitely “tasted healthier”, if that makes sense, even compared to regular vegan cupcakes – KP had a taste and didn’t like the icing in particular but perhaps he could taste the soy in it whereas I could not? Merry Cupcakes on Urbanspoon

I have realised how much more I’m spending on groceries as a “vegan”, despite not buying any meat. Firstly, vegan substitutes to things such as yogurt, cheese and mayo tend to be quite expensive. Quinoa isn’t exactly cheap, and tofu and tempeh don’t cost a lot less than meat if you’re buying a good amount of it. Plus, now that it’s not possible to run out during lunch and get a delicious rice paper roll for $3, I have to take packed meal every single day for work and, at least until I learn to eat “boring” cheap lunches and sandwiches, it’s ending up more costly. However, I’m having heaps of fun creating delicious vegan meals.

Being the weekend, I was going to allow myself a non-vegan snack or two from the market – but disaster struck! I asked for a spinach and cheese borek, but was given a spinach and lamb borek, and only realised the meat was there after taking a bite! Despite being an omnivore only a week ago (and almost certainly intending to return to being one in three weeks) I was so disappointed and angry! I felt weirdly tainted and… and impure… which I’m sure is a rather melodramatic thing to say, though it’s not because I’ve turned into a crazy hippie, but probably more because I felt a powerless loss of control that is hard for a control freak like myself to cope with!

What I’ve discovered is that, on top of the happy knowledge that I’m eating an almost entirely cruelty free diet right now, the self discipline has had amazing validating qualities for my obsessive compulsive tendencies! It’s one thing to do what I was doing before – to not eat meat as much as most meat-eaters, to not drink dairy milk and consume less than the average amount of dairy – and of course an entirely different thing to know that you can’t, and to actively stop yourself from doing so. I used to not infrequently go a whole day without consuming any animal products, but more often than not that was something that just happened rather than a conscious decision. Even just one day consciously deciding you cannot do something makes a world of difference.

Week one summary?
I have only eaten three things containing any animal product (milk chocolate, a hot chocolate and a galette) in my first, shortest week of the challenge, not including being unwittingly served lamb and having previously thought that Jelly Bellies were vegan.

All things considered, this challenge is proving simultaneously easier and harder than I thought it would be.

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.

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