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.
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.
One Monday noon at the end of winter, I opened up my tupperware container at work and was greeted by the enticing aroma of truffle. Feeling super smug in the office, I drank in the smell and then savoured every spoonful of the creamy soup. Here was a beautifully “gourmet” version of a frequent weekday lunch staple for me…
As some of you might have seen on Facebook, I’ve had some dramas this week with this blog. First, I wasn’t able to log into my WordPress control panel because it decided I didn’t exist as a user (nor any of the other admin accounts I’d created). Then, when I contacted my web host, even though I told them the most recent working date was last Friday, they decided to restore the database from a backup made more than three weeks ago, hence erasing all the posts and drafts I had worked on since then.
Why, I asked them, would they do something so stupid? Because, they explained, that was the last backup they had of my database as the “daily” backups had been glitching for my account. Thanks for telling me, guys.
Through half a dozen different tricks and some pure luck, I managed to salvage all the posts I had already published, so what you see won’t have changed, but what I did lose was a fully written up yet unpublished post for this recipe. I had this whole intro about how much I love soup – it was a freaking ode to soup, and now it’s gone, and I can’t be bothered.
I think it was something along the lines of how one of my food pet peeves is when people say soup isn’t meal food or isn’t filling. Because it is, ok? If you’ve ever made soup personally, you’ll know that the ingredients were just as solid and real as ever before they transformed into soupy form – it’s not as if they can lose mass through this transformation. Science, people!
Soup is also one of the easiest and quickest ways to have a nutritionally complete meal. On the wintry weekends when I get a chance to, I whip up a big batch that can feed two of us over three weekday lunches or dinners plus fill a couple of freezer zip-lock bags for later.
I don’t often include potato or cream in these batches – I prefer lighter and healthier options to get through my week. However, I couldn’t think of anything better than to pair this more indulgent favourite of mine with the Tasmanian truffle from Madame Truffles I still had left after making lamb ragu.
Normally, I like to have my potato and leek soup with a mild and extra creamy blue cheese, however, in this case I have omitted cheese to allow the taste of the truffle to shine through.
Creamy Potato and Leek soup with Black Truffle
Things to note
Serves: 5 – 6
Time required: An hour or a bit more
What to grab from the shops
Fresh truffle (I used Tasmanian black truffle)
White truffle oil
1 ltr vegetable stock
1 cup water
2 tbsp thickened cream (can substitute with vegan alternatives such as unsweetened almond milk or cashew milk)
1 leek – pale green and white parts – (finely chopped)
4 potatoes with sweet flesh – I used decadent ‘dutch creams’ (sliced into wedges or roughly 3cm cubes)
1 small onion, preferably white, or brown (roughly diced)
2 parsnips (in 2-3cm slices)
6 garlic cloves (minced or very finely chopped)
1 tbsp fresh chopped parsley (roughly chopped)
Lets get soupin’
- Rinse leeks and use only the white and pale green parts – chop off and discard the roots and dark green tops. Cut leeks lengthways and slice finely across.
- Peel potatoes and cut into wedges, then cubes of around 3cm. Peel parsnips and cut into 2-3 cm slices.
- Heat butter in a large pot until it just starts to foam. Add onion and garlic and fry on medium heat until translucent.
- Add leeks and continue to sauté for 10 minutes, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.
- Add potatoes, parsnips and parsley to the pot, then pour over the stock. Bring to the boil, turn the heat down to medium-low and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Blend with a hand-held stick blender until smooth. Strain through a large sieve for extra smooth lusciousness!
- Add cream and blitz with the blender again.
- Add half of the truffle shavings and the truffle oil and mix in thoroughly.
- Serve, topped with freshly chopped parsley and the remaining shaved truffle. Optionally, drizzle in a little cream. Stir in before eating.
Pho is a big part of my life. Really. I cannot live without it. If you set me the difficult task of naming my top 5 favourite foods, it probably wouldn’t quite make the cut – I love it, but mostly pho just one of those comfort things. A failsafe fix for a crappy work day.
Once a week, I sacrifice half my lunch break just to get the tram into the city to have pho for lunch. My pho-buddies and I constantly talk about our noodley love in front of other friends (I use “talk about” loosely here – mainly it’s just exclaiming “PHO PHO PHO!” at inappropriate moments) some of whom are vegetarian or vegan; and ok, let’s face it, I’m not sorry. But one of my main instincts is always to spread my love of food and it makes me sad that they have no way of finding out what we’re on about.
In fact, in spite of the large Vietnamese population in Melbourne, a fair few people even among ominvores, are still unaware of what pho is or have just never tried it. I figured that the best way to share my love of the magical bowl of awesome was to bring it to a potluck, and to spread the love even further by attempting a vegan version.
When I’m not eating out, I rarely eat any meat or dairy on weekdays and as such, I’m not unfamiliar with making delicious vegan meals. But what I had never done at home before is make a vegan version of a dish which is traditionally supposed to be totally based around meat!
Pho was worth making an exception for, though. I went on a search for vegetarian/vegan pho recipes online and the results were all miserable. There were definitely some out there, but most were disappointingly inadequate or unauthentic.
But how, you ask, can you possibly make a vegan version of a meat-based dish “authentic”? Well, I too, was skeptical at first, but then I realised that there’s so much more to pho than just its beefiness! Most important of all are the fragrant spices in the stock – their quantity in ratio to each other and to the amount of stock and the stewing time are all factors that can make and break pho. The depth of flavour of the broth is obviously important, but the stock base doesn’t absolutely have to be beef! Then, after serving, all those extras such as that squeeze of lemon, slices of fresh chili, that squirt of sriracha sauce, dollop of chili oil, drip of fish sauce, handful of mung bean shoots and sprigs of Vietnamese mint become the indispensable, customisable “personal touch” component of the dish.
The problem with the recipes I found on the internet was that they were for the most part created by vegetarians who had never tried traditional beef pho, or people generally unexposed to Vietnamese food who just heard about this “trendy” dish and tried to create a “healthy” version. I was determined to piece together my own recipe which kept as many elements exactly the same as the authentic version as possible, substituting only the “beef factor”.
I decided to use mushrooms as the base for the broth, as they’re powerful enough to form the depth of flavour needed, as well as being physically “meaty” enough to substitute actual beef slices in the dish. Making a mushroom consomme would provide the necessary clarity of stock! In addition, mushrooms also contain high levels of glutamate, the magic behind the “umami” taste and can be described as “naturally occurring MSG”. This is pretty important as in a vegan version I wouldn’t be able to include the traditional ingredient of fish sauce, which is extremely rich in glutamate/umami. In addition, I decided, based on the concept of umami, to make “vegan fish sauce” which could be used in the dish and also added as a condiment by the diner in whatever quantities they liked. This all eliminated the need to add any actual MSG (which I would never do anyway, but many Vietnamese restaurants do do).
Experimentation time. I had one test day, which was only a reasonable success after a couple of “saves”, and a second, almost perfect run on potluck day. The main issues in the test run had to do with the consomme – one recipe recommended that I pre-soak the vegetables and mushrooms in olive oil to soften them, which rendered the resulting stock too oily even after several filtrations and skimmings. Then, the cooking time of the final broth with dry spices had to be adjusted – on first try, the spices overpowered the consomme and I realised vegetable stock was more delicate than meat stock and needed less time to infuse with spices, so I set about diluting the over-spiced parts of the stock by pouring half it out, making more consomme and adding that to the original. Of course, the next time I simply reduced the cooking time – we can’t treat it like regular pho as the spices overpower the mushroom broth, which is a little more delicate than beef stock!
DON’T soak your stock vegetables in olive oil, just soak in water!
Who thinks I should just shut up and get on with sharing the recipe before I tell my life story?
Ok. Don’t be put off by the length – there are a lot of ingredients, but the techniques are simple.
Vegan Pho with Mushrooms (Indie’s Faux Pho)
Things to note
Serves: 10-12 snack or potluck serves
Prep time: Approx 40 minutes Cooking time: Approx 2.5 hours, on and off (you can wander off and do stuff?)
The Shopping List
Vegetables etc – don’t be shocked at how much mushroom you’ll need!
4 cups (about 400g) button mushrooms
5 cups shitaake mushrooms
2 cups mixed other mushrooms (recommended types include oyster mushrooms, shimeiji and enoki)
2 white or brown onions
1 large (or 2 quite small) carrots)
1-2 stalks celery
1 bulb garlic
2 cm thumb of ginger
6-10 fresh red chilies
Several handfuls of mung bean sprouts
Half bunch fresh coriander
1 bunch Vietnamese mint
1 bunch Thai basil
A few bay leaves
From the Asian Grocers
Premium soy sauce
Hoisin sauce (optional)
1.5 cups wakame (a type of fresh seaweed – other types may also work)
Nori flakes (a type of dried seaweed) or Japanese seasoning packets containing nori
2 trays silken tofu (very soft)
2 large packets (or 600-800g) thin to medium Vietnamese rice noodles, sometimes called “rice stick” – try to buy the best brand, as they’ll have a much better texture
Saffron (optional if you’re on a budget)
From the health food store
Dark agave syrup
The mushroom consomme base
Please note these ingredients are already mentioned in the shopping list above, this just separates them out so you know what to do with them, when and where.
3 cups button mushrooms, roughly quartered
1 cup shiitake mushrooms, roughly quartered
2 cups approx additional mixed mushrooms (I used oyster and enoki)
1 onion, sliced in half rings
2 shallots, diced
1 large carrot, thinly sliced
2 long stalk of celery, thinly sliced
3 litres cold water
2 cups shiitake mushrooms, roughly quartered
1 cup button mushrooms, roughly quartered
3/4 cup premium soy sauce
2 bay leaves
2 tbsp salt
1/2 cup chopped coriander
1 tbsp saffron
- Soak Part 1 ingredients with a pinch of salt in water for approx 2 hours at room temperature.
- Transfer to a soup pot. Add the cold water and bring to a light boil on medium heat, uncovered.
- Turn the heat down to very low, cover with a lid and simmer for 45 minutes
- Add half of the coriander from Part 3 and continue to simmer for 15 minutes.
- Turn heat off and allow to cool for 10 minutes.
- Strain the broth through a sieve/colander lined with 2 layers of muslin cloth.
- Transfer broth back to the pot.
- Add in the remaining Part 2 ingredients.
- Continue to simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.
- Add the rest of the ingredients (coriander and saffron) from Part 3 and simmer for a further 10 minutes.
- Remove bay leaves. Strain the broth through a sieve/colander lined with 2 layers of muslin cloth. Put aside.
Note that if you’re vegetarian but not vegan, and you want an even clearer stock, you can use the “egg white method” of clarification (Google will help!)
Vegan fish sauce (phish sauce)
While the mushroom consomme is simmering away, you can quickly whip up the vegan fish sauce on a separate element on the stove.
Why does a drop or two of fish sauce make such a difference to already great Asian dishes? The key is that word again – umami. I order to reproduce the impact of fish sauce, I needed to find ingredients that were high in glutamate in order to make my vegan “phish” sauce.
What’s needed for this (again, these ingredients are already in the shopping list above)
1 1/2 cups wakame seaweed
3 cups cold water
5 cloves garlic, crushed/minced
1 tbsp peppercorns
1 cup premium soy sauce
Nori flakes or nori-based seasoning
1.5 tbsp miso
1 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp salt
- Pull apart the wakame so the strands are separated
- Combine seaweed, garlic, peppercorns and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.
- Lower heat and simmer about 15 minutes. Strain out the solid parts through double muslin, and return the liquid back to the pot.
- Add the soy sauce and nori flakes, bring back to a boil and cook until mixture is reduced by almost 1/3, or for 15 minutes.
- Stir in miso and mix very well until fully dissolved. Simmer for a further 5 minutes.
- Strain again through a double layer of muslin.
- Allow to cool for 10 minutes then pour into a bottle and shake well.
- Place aside as we’ll use it in the next part of the recipe!
Spices for pho (quantities here are from my first semi-failed attempt – refer to recipe for the quantities you should use)
What you’ll need here (all ingredients are already listed in the shopping list)
2/3 (approx) onion – sliced in rings
Ginger – finely sliced
Garlic, 5 cloves, minced
4 whole star anise
3 whole cloves
1 cassia bark (approx 5cm)
1 cinnamon stick, bruised
1 cardomom pod
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon palm sugar
1.5 tablespoons dark agave syrup (or to taste – if you can’t find agave, can replace with coconut sugar or more palm sugar)
3 tablespoons vegan fish sauce (from recipe above)
2+ tablespoons salt (or to taste)
2 cups fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced attractively
2 tubs of silken tofu, sliced into approx 2cm squared cubes
- Prepare a slow cooker, or large stockpot or soup pot.
- Heat up a frying pan on medium for 2 minutes.
- Throw in the dry spices (star anise, cloves, cassia bark, cinnamon, cardomom pod, fennel seeds, coriander seeds) and toast for 3-4 minutes or until fragant. Then throw the spices into the slow cooker/stockpot
- Turn up the heat on the frying pan a little to medium-high, then throw in the onions, ginger and garlic to sear until sweetly fragrant. Also place these with the spices in the slow cooker or stockpot.
- Get the mushroom consomme we set aside and bring it back to a gentle simmer in a separate pot, adding 1 cup of water to it at the same time.
- Pour the mushroom broth onto the spices, onions, garlic and ginger.
- Add the salt and palm sugar.
- Turn the slow cooker to “low” or “auto” setting, or if using a pot, low heat. Cook for 15 minutes.
- Remove just the cinnamon stick and cardomom pod from the broth, leaving the rest of the spices.
- Add the agave syrup and vegan fish sauce.
- Add the sliced shiitake mushrooms and tofu.
- Continue to cook on low for a further 15-20 minutes until mushrooms are quite soft.
Almost there! Putting it all together
What have we got left?
Good quality thin Vietnamese rice noodles for 6 half-serves
Thai basil, many sprigs
Vietnamese mint, many sprigs
Chillies – as many as you want chopped, deseed optional
Several handfuls of Mung bean sprouts
Hoisin sauce (optional – I don’t usually use it personally)
Vegan fish sauce, the bottle we made earlier
3 lemons, quartered (total 12 wedges)
- While the pho broth is simmering, you can start to cook the rice noodles. Cook in two batches unless you have a very, very large pot, as, like with pasta, you need enough room to bring it to a rolling boil. Make sure it still has a little bite to it and don’t let it get too soft and soggy.
- When the broth is done, serve by placing noodles into a bowl then ladling pho on top of it.
- Serve with the mint, Thai basil, chopped chillies, bean sprouts, lemon wedges, on a plate in the middle of the table for free use, along with fish sauce and sriracha sauce.
- Inhale this amazing dish like there’s no tomorrow!
Deliciously served in little plastic bowls at potluck! And look, someone’s wearing Black Milk soup leggings!
So, that’s it! I hope I haven’t completely scared you off. This really is a fairly easy recipe once you get the hang of it. A big pot of my faux pho lasted like ten minutes at a potluck where there ended up being tons of left over food, even though three quarters of the attendees were omnivores.
Try and rope your significant other into chopping vegetables for you, and you’ll have a much easier time of it, I promise!