Australia's emerging food and wine culture
Robert Hill Smith heads Yalumba, Australia’s oldest family-owned winery, dating from 1849, and is a staunch protector of family tradition – yet he leads the charge with new wine styles and varieties. At the other end of the spectrum are young winemakers who ferment biodynamic wine in huge ceramic eggs or serve it rudely fresh from demijohns on bar counters.
It’s that relaxed approach that marks Australia’s food and wine community out as being different from the rest of the world. In the same way that customers are encouraged to leave the tie at home, so too chefs, waiters, growers, winemakers, baristas and sommeliers have a down-to-earth approach that is warm, welcoming and unpretentious. “It’s hard for me to put my finger on it, but I think the relaxed, professional, quality blend is what we do so well, and so differently to the rest,” says Andrew McConnell, chef and owner of Melbourne landmarks Cumulus Inc and Cutler & Co.
There’s also pride that stems from the fact that Australia has never been a more exciting or rewarding place to eat. That extends to a desire to connect with and celebrate Indigenous produce, unique ingredients that can only be found in Australia.
Kylie Kwong describes it as “Australia on a plate” which, for her, means integrating native ingredients with the classic Cantonese dishes of her heritage.
Up and coming chefs, too, are embracing the produce around them with a confidence that reflects the maturing of the Australian food culture.
In just one generation, the Australian palate has moved on from the English-leaning “meat and three veg” approach to the diversity of cuisines enjoyed today and a freedom to explore new flavours and techniques.
“We’re cheeky,” says Australian food writer Jill Dupleix. Without the weight of a large population and long history bearing down upon us, she says, we’re free to experiment and eat what we like.
The Australian food and wine industry is a bounty of passion and self-deprecating humility. It has a democratic mindset that holds firmly to the belief that good food and wine should be accessible to everyone, and an acute sense of itself that is clear in both the people and the food.
Benjamin Cooper, from Melbourne’s Chin Chin, believes there is a warmth to our hospitality and a genuine enthusiasm.
“A lot of it comes down to people,” he says. “Australians have a terrific attitude to dining and cooking. We’ve embraced all these cultures, ditched a lot of the stuffy tradition and bring a genuine passion to what we do.”