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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 1: Crispy, juicy, roast pork!

Like the genius that I am, I decided it would be a good idea to schedule a potluck lunch at work one business day before going on leave. You know, while I was busy handing over my work and trying to get last minute errands done before Mexico.

No matter how busy, lazy or broke I am at the time of a looming potluck, I can never bring myself to show up with frozen sausage rolls, store bought food or even a lazy cake – like it’s some sort of cardinal sin for me to contribute those things. Luckily, I have a little repertoire of easy go-to dishes up my sleeve that are delicious crowd-pleasers, but that I can whip up fairly quickly in my sleep. They’re like wardrobe basics, or dressing to a formula on a morning when you just can’t be bothered but still want to look presentable.

Siew yoke (crispy roast pork)

One thing that I’ll often make is my take on Chinese crispy roast pork, or “siew yoke” – it’s hugely popular with omnivore friends and acquaintances from all walks of life and I always get asked for the recipe!

Siew yoke (crispy roast pork)

I still never know what to do when this happens – see, I don’t write, use or keep recipes. I can explain what goes in a dish in terms of ingredients, but for the rest of it – from quantity to preparation steps to cooking time – I just go by instinct, common sense and experience. There are lots of factors you can only consider at the time of cooking (which is why many inexperienced cooks follow recipes to the letter but still have disasters), and I feel like it’s a huge hassle to have to jot all that detail down.

In the end, I decided to write up my siew yoke recipe – my first written recipe ever – figuring it couldn’t be that hard. It’s just roast pork! Ha! So here it is – not as simple as I’d like, and you’ll have to forgive the guesswork vagueness of the quantities as I never measure anything and add stuff in more than one go.

This is the first of two posts based on two dishes I had to conjure up for this recent potluck – the next will focus on Taiwanese stewed beef noodle soup.

Indie’s Crispy Siew Yoke

Things to note
The key to great, crispy, crackling is the complete absence of moisture in the pork skin before cooking. In this recipe, we do a few things to ensure we dry out the skin as much as possible.

When choosing your pork, buy free range at your local farmer’s market. Try and find one which is neatly trimmed and cleaned (some butchers do a lazy job of trimming hairs etc.) and very close to the same thickness all the way through the cut of belly.

Prep time: About 20-30 minutes, unconsecutive. Cooking time: About an hour
The cooking times and temperatures in this recipe are all based on a 1 kg piece of pork (give or take about 100g).

What you’ll need

  • 1 kg free range pork belly
  • Chilli bean sauce (in a jar from most Chinese/Asian grocers)
  • Red fermented bean curd (in a jar from most Chinese/Asian grocers – sounds odd to the uninitiated, but this is essential!)
  • Chinese five spice powder
  • Rock salt
  • White pepper
  • Garlic – minced
  • Brown sugar
  • Premium soy sauce
  • Sesame oil
Left to right: soy sauce, rock salt, five spice powder, red fermented bean curd, chilli bean sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil

Left to right: soy sauce, rock salt, five spice powder, red fermented bean curd, chilli bean sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil

Prepare the marinade

Mash up 4-5 pieces of the fermented bean curd
Mix with about:
   2 tablespoons of the chilli bean paste
   About 2 tablespoon of soy sauce
   Plenty of minced garlic to taste
   2-3 tsp of brown sugar, melted
   Good sprinkle of salt
   Five spice powder – depends on how much you like it, but you don’t need very much
   About 2 tsp of sesame oil
Mix well!

Crushing the fermented bean curd

Crushing the fermented bean curd

Now, the Pork!

  1. Clean the pork, trim any excess hairs and make sure the skin very dry
  2. Pour the marinade into a dish big enough for the pork and deep enough that it goes at least 2/3 up the height of the meat while lying flat
  3. Put the pork into the dish, meat side down so that it’s in the marinade – make sure skin side is up and does not touch the liquid at all!
  4. Brush or rub marinade on the sides of the pork that are not already covered by marinade (again, being careful with not touching the skin on top).
  5. Score the skin of the meat with a sharp knife – vertical scores about 2-3cm apart. Make sure not to cut too deep.
  6. Cover the skin with salt – lots of it! This is to bring out all the moisture in the skin so that it “crackles” well!
  7. After 20 minutes, you’ll find that the skin has “sweated”. Rub off this moisture with a paper towel (pat dry), add more salt, repeating this process about 3 times
  8. Meanwhile, marinate for at least 2 hours, leaving it in the refrigerator. I find it better if it’s 4-5 hours. Longer than this and the acids in the marinade can start to “cook” the outermost layer of meat, making the bottom couple of millimetres quite tough
  9. If you have time to marinate for 4 hours or more, leave the pork in the fridge uncovered to further dry out the skin.
  10. If the skin hasn’t had sufficient time to dry out before cooking, GET OUT YOUR HAIRDRYER! That’s right: hairdryer. You’re going to be a piggy stylist. I would probably do this step regardless. Blow dry the pork skin for approximately 15 mins on LOW HEAT or cold setting. Make sure it’s not too warm, or it’ll start to cook the meat!
  11. Preheat the oven to 190°C (if you have an old oven with bad heat circulation, you might want to try 200).
  12. Repeat the salting/sweating/drying process from steps 6-7 one more time.
  13. Sprinkle a bit of Five Spice powder all over the skin, just a little bit, but spread evenly all over. Cover with a thin but even layer of salt.
  14. Wipe/clean the marinade off the pork meat, making sure it’s dry
  15. Place the pork directly on an oven rack, so that the juices will drip through it. Put a roasting dish or whatever on the rack underneath to catch the juices. You can make other things, like gravy, with this afterwards.
  16. Roast on 190°C for 10 mins on fan
  17. Turn the heat down to 180°C and roast for a further 20 mins.
  18. Wipe off any excess salt and moisture (if any) from the skin. Turn the oven setting to “Grill” (or “Broil”, if you’re in America). Grill for 22 minutes. The reason for this is that the grill setting focuses on heat from above, which is what is going to make that crackling crackle!
  19. Turn the oven setting to “Fan Grill” (or grill or broil if your oven doesn’t have that setting) and the temperature up to 200 and grill for 3 minutes. If you don’t have fan grill, leave it on “grill” but turn the heat up to 220 for these last 3 minutes. This will direct heat from the top of the oven straight onto the skin of the pork, helping it blister and finishing off the crackling nicely.
  20. Remove from oven rack and place on a large wooden chopping board. Allow the pork and juices to rest for about 10 minutes.
  21. Slice pork along the vertical scoring, and then again horizontally along the same intervals so that from a birds-eye view it looks like 3cm square pieces, as per the second photo above and the one below.
  22. Serve! Gobble!
Slice the pork so that the crackling layer is in 3 cm squares

Slice the pork so that the crackling layer is in 3 cm squares

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