As Tasting Australia approaches, festival director and chef Simon Bryant shares the recipe behind this vibrant celebration of SA’s food and landscape.
“Would you murder these babies?” chef Simon Bryant asks with undisguised glee as he proffers a handful of baby carrots. Then he swaps “the veal of the vegetable world” for a bright green kohlrabi head and holds it aloft like Yorick’s skull. “How’s it feel to be the coolest vegetable for the last five years?” he demands.
His scruffy beard and short hair are turning the colour of the metal chains around his wrist, but Bryant is still instantly recognisable from his time on The Cook and the Chef. And the irreverent chef is still just as passionate about sourcing the best produce available.
We’re walking through Ngeringa Vineyards, a biodynamic winery in the Adelaide Hills. where a straw-haired lad from Manchester named Andy Taylor has created a thriving vegetable patch on what was once part of the Jurlique Farm. Around us, leaves, tubers and shoots sprout forth in a hundred shades of green. It’s in stark contrast to surrounding properties, where monoculture farms and pasture stretch as far as the eye can see.
It’s hard to imagine a more hands-on farmer than Taylor, who happily plunges his arm up to the elbow in the earth. He spends hours a week looking after this rich, brown topsoil and the red oxidated terracotta clay beneath it. Ultimately, he says, “we’re making soil. And if you’re delicate and do it right, the by-product of that is vegetables.”
Bryant is here because Ngeringa is one of his key suppliers during Tasting Australia, a food festival that’s as much a celebration of South Australia’s landscape and producers as the food that gets plated up. As festival director, he begins talking with suppliers months in advance to find out how the season is going and what produce will be ready when the chefs arrive.
Ideas take root
Bryant works with talent from around the globe when creating the Tasting Australia program, and has to juggle a variety of roles. After identifying each chef’s individual strengths and asking them what ingredients they’d like to cook with, he consults with local producers, then assigns courses based on what’s in season and how the meal will flow. All this has to be done long before the chefs see the produce they’ll be working with, and then adapted for seasonal variations. It is, he says, like running an ‘effing mad’ dating website.
But if there’s anyone suited to the role, it’s the straight-talking Bryant. The hyperkinetic chef’s phone is constantly ringing and he flits, effortlessly, between topics, managing egos and suggesting alternatives so every event has a good flow.
Before he begins, Bryant gives each chef a primer on South Australia’s seasons and what will be available during the festival. He explains the ingredients they may not have worked with before, including a blending guide for Australian spices and a typically earthy description of what they can expect from native Australian citrus (“tannins, bitterness, and some pretty ballsy levels of acid”).
Where the products are familiar but the seasons are not, he finds a solution. Australia is known for its lamb, but because of the festival’s timing, spring lamb is not available. Bryant’s solution is to find an alternative that’s almost indistinguishable. It’s why our next stop is a property on the dusty plains between the Adelaide Hills and the Murray River where fifth-generation farmer Paul McGorman cultivates sheep and grain.
As soon as we arrive, Bryant is checking out the stock that recently arrived from Thornby Premium Lamb’s Kangaroo Island property just two days ago. I’m impressed by how calm and settled they look and McGorman explains that he uses low-stress handling techniques. Because he owns all his vehicles, the sheep don’t need to be taken off feed or water when they’re transported, which reduces their stress levels significantly.
A friendly but tired kelpie with an auburn coat and an arthritic limp follows us around and Bryant nods approvingly as he rubs her behind the ears. “You can tell a lot about a farm by the way they treat their dogs,” he says. “If they’re treated poorly they’re hand shy.” For him, the methods are as important as the end product and even the smallest details can be revealing. It’s why he likes to visit his producers and watch them at work.
There’s something childlike about his insatiable curiosity and I’m not surprised when I see him tasting the feed. “These are delicious,” he exclaims as he grabs a handful of mineral pellets that go into the sheep’s diet along with barley, lupins, pulses and hay. By switching the feed over to grain early in the year, McGorman is able to raise sheep with a creamy fat and mild flavour that are ready for Tasting Australia in early autumn. “It’s not lamb,” Bryant explains to his chefs, “but it tastes like lamb”.
Head for the hills
There’s a huge amount of planning that goes into the festivals, and Bryant has had weekly production meetings since June. “You need to, otherwise the dinner is like having a symphony without a conductor,” he says. “You might have the best food, but if it doesn’t flow, if it doesn’t harmonise, then why are you doing it?”
Even seemingly small changes can have big implications. This year, the Tasting Australia event has moved forward a fortnight to follow on from Adelaide’s busy festival season. It means warmer weather for the outdoor events, but that small shift has completely changed the olive oil supply.
Each event requires three different oils: one for pan cooking; one for finishing; and one for the table. Different oils are also needed to complement the food, bread, butter and salt, which change with each meal.
Previously, Tasting Australia has used first-harvest olive oil that’s bottled quickly without filtering or time to settle. “It means we can really salute the new season,” explains Mark Lloyd, and the result is a robust oil with strong pepper and grass notes. Lloyd is the general manager at Coriole, a McLaren Vale winery that also produces olive oil, table olives and vinegar. Their first harvest has always been part of Tasting Australia, but with the new dates it won’t be ready in time for the festival. Instead, they’ll be providing extra virgin oil from the previous vintage.
As well as supplying oil, table olives and vinegar, Coriole will host a long lunch for guests who fly from Brisbane on Tasting Australia Airlines (a program of chartered flight experiences). Standing on the hilltop lawn, it’s hard to think of a better setting. Patches of red dirt show through rows of vines wrapped in greenery and the sunlight catches the silvery leaves of olive trees below. In the other direction, there are vineyards and stands of gums amid fields of golden grass that lead up to the slopes of the Mount Lofty Ranges. The patchwork nature of the fields emphasises McLaren Vale is not a wine region so much as an agricultural region.
It’s easy to see why Bryant is so passionate about South Australia and the food it produces. “I want people to understand how important each microclimate is,” he says. “The food’s not going to taste better in the region, but it puts it in context.”
The Tasting Australia festival, from 27 March to 5 April, includes master classes, bush tucker experiences, fermenting and foraging feasts as well as VIP dinners and festival stars such as Troy Rhoades-Brown, of Muse in the Hunter Valley, and O Tama Carey, of Sydney’s Lankan Filling Station. For bookings and details about the 2020 festival, visit the website.
Photography: Millie Brown