Way down in sleepy Adelaide, it’s taken an expat Scotsman to bring Australia back to its culinary roots—and in so doing, create the world’s next great food destination.
When the blossoms of the bat’s wing coral tree begin to fall, Aboriginal women know it’s time to dig through the mangrove mud for fresh crabs. And when the milky oyster flower blooms, it is nature’s signal that the shoreline beds are lined with fat shellfish. The indigenous people of Australia view themselves not as rulers of the environment but as one with it. Seasons are measured not with calendars but by the changing of the winds, the blooming of plants, and the seeding of grasses. The women’s encyclopedic knowledge of plants and animals has been passed from generation to generation, and before colonization in the eighteenth century, they didn’t just survive on the land, they thrived there.
But today, sadly, that knowledge remains untapped by most Australians. Sad because its literal fruits can be downright startling. “I call it the spontaneous-facial-myalgia response,” says Jock Zonfrillo with a laugh, of the sometimes horrified reactions he sees from Australians at his tiny 25-seat restaurant Orana, in Adelaide. “They screw their faces up—and that’s before they even taste anything.” He’s speaking purely of his food, but Zonfrillo might be referring to something else: a deeply held prejudice that may have more to do with culture than cuisine.
Zonfrillo, who moved to South Australia (by way of Sydney) from Scotland in 2000, is trying to change all that. The menu at the year-old Orana (the name means welcome in an Aboriginal dialect) is a revelatory tribute to Australia’s wild and uncharted fecundity, from obscure plants and fruits (violet lilly pilly, finger lime) to fabled animals, including kangaroos, wallabies, and crocodiles. With Orana, Zonfrillo has joined the vanguard of Australian chefs whose respect for the land and curiosity about the country’s too-often-ignored history are not only helping to bridge the deep cultural divide between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians but are also beginning to answer the once unanswerable question: What, after all, is Australian cuisine?
Food on the continent often takes first-time visitors by surprise. They come in search of landscapes and wildlife and leave wistful about that perfect cup of coffee or that better-than-in-Beijing-or-Bologna restaurant meal. Multicultural, well traveled, and increasingly affluent, Australians have developed a cosmopolitan palate and are masters in the art of appropriation and reinvention. And yet something has long held back the native cuisine—namely, the perception that, despite the bounty of endemic flora and fauna, the food here has always been a copy of some other culture’s, some other country’s. It is that very lack of a definable Australian flavor profile which has prevented it from finding a permanent place on the world’s gastronomic map.Appropriately, it took the culinary world’s ultimate outsider turned insider, Noma founder René Redzepi, to sound the wake-up call. (Though the terrains of Denmark and Australia could scarcely be more different, the gastronomic challenges in the two countries are oddly similar.) In 2010, he stood onstage at the Sydney Opera House and admonished the local chefs assembled before him. “I come here and I don’t know what Australia tastes like,” he said. “You have some of the best chef
Appropriately, it took the culinary world’s ultimate outsider turned insider, Noma founder René Redzepi, to sound the wake-up call. (Though the terrains of Denmark and Australia could scarcely be more different, the gastronomic challenges in the two countries are oddly similar.) In 2010, he stood onstage at the Sydney Opera House and admonished the local chefs assembled before him. “I come here and I don’t know what Australia tastes like,” he said. “You have some of the best chef talent in the world, but why aren’t you using the ingredients all around you?”
Redzepi’s message hit home. Now, just four years later, menus in many of the country’s finest establishments not only integrate native ingredients but make them the stars of the show. In Sydney, chef Kylie Kwong serves up what she lightheartedly calls “Chinese bush tucker,” in which Peking duck is given a new piquancy courtesy of the tart native fruit quandong, and wallaby tail is braised in five-spice powder. At Melbourne’s Attica, Ben Shewry wraps King George whiting in paperbark from the tea tree, an Australian take on fish en papillote.
But of all those who heard Redzepi’s call to action, it is Zonfrillo who has arguably taken it most to heart. Like Noma—where Zonfrillo worked before moving to cook at Forty One in Sydney— Orana embraces a philosophy of cooking informed by nature and place. This came, in part, because of the 38-year-old chef’s other big revelation, one that led to a years-long (and ongoing) immersion in Aboriginal traditions and food. Before Orana even opened, Zonfrillo was traveling to native communities around the countryside, sometimes for months at a time, foraging through the bush, in backyards, and along roadsides for ever-more-unusual ingredients. “At first, some of the people didn’t want anything to do with me,” he remembers. “I really had to work on building trust. But once I did, they were incredibly generous.” In February, Zonfrillo plans to launch the Orana Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving Aboriginal food knowledge by connecting native foragers and elders to restaurants and consumers. “We’re only a few years away from losing a generation of elders,” he says, “and to lose all of that knowledge would be a tragedy for Australia.”
For now, though, there is Zonfrillo’s own education, which is evidenced in every plate he serves at Orana. The multi-course dinner here is presented along with a number of small dishes—which the chef calls alkoopina, the Dieyerie tribe’s word for snacks—and which together create a sort of hymn to the region’s richness. South Australia is famed for its seafood, and so a meal might begin with a barely seared Spencer Gulf prawn dusted with dehydrated Davidson plum (a rain forest fruit) or with meaty Kangaroo Island scallops wrapped in lemongrass-like leaves of Geraldton wax—a flower more likely to be found in a prom corsage or a vase on an elderly woman’s mantel. Next might be a samphire (a wild coastal vegetable) risotto accompanied by smoked ’roo tail, or chewy ribbons of crocodile served in a puddle of fermented gray mangrove seeds and peppered with black ant salt.
But Zonfrillo tips his hat to contemporary flavors as well as indigenous ones. Fried wild salt-bush tastes uncannily like salt-and-vinegar potato chips, and shaved pumpkin roasted in beef fat recalls a classic Sunday roast. But it is while sampling the palate cleanser, a wild salad of native and invasive species, that many diners have the revelatory moment that Zonfrillo hopes to evoke. Astringent and fibrous yet delicately sweet, it’s both complex and straightforward. And it achieves the ultimate: It tastes like Australia.
If one part of Zonfrillo’s revolution involves his embrace of Aboriginal flavors, the other part involves his embrace of Adelaide itself. Although the city of 1.29 million people has a proud past—it was the first on the continent to be established by free citizens rather than convicts—it is today thought of as an also-ran, sleepy and provincial in comparison to sophisticated Sydney and Melbourne.
Yet the town, and the surrounding region, might also be considered the ur-home of Australia’s own so-called paddock-to-plate movement, a place which has always embraced a style of eating that was more about pleasure and taste than sustenance. It was here that, in the 1800s, the first Germans and Italians settled, bringing with them their love of food and wine. Today, Adelaide is arguably the country’s wine capital, and in every direction the suburbs yield quickly to vineyards dotted with rusty tin sheds and hemmed in by bush. It is an unmistakably South Australian landscape.
In the late nineteenth century, a terrible phylloxera wiped out most of the country’s old-world vines. But because South Australia is so isolated—850 miles west of Sydney; 460 miles northwest of Melbourne—its vines managed to survive. This means that the regions around Adelaide now have some of the oldest producing vines in the world. You can find robust Shiraz in the Barossa Valley and delicate rieslings in the Clare. McLaren Vale has Italian nebbiolo; the Adelaide Hills are home to exciting young biodynamic winemakers; and there’s a powerful cabernet sauvignon being produced in the terra rossa of Coonawarra. Each of the regions is within a couple hours of Adelaide, making the city for oenophile travelers what San Francisco is to Napa and Sonoma.
Like northern California, South Australia is the birthplace of a particular style of rustic yet refined cooking. Alice Waters has her antipodean equal in Maggie Beer, a 70-year-old bush matriarch and self-taught cook who was the first to bring real attention to food in the Barossa Valley. In 1978, Beer and her husband, Colin, opened Pheasant Farm, the restaurant responsible for changing the way Australians think about provenance and seasonality. She fused a European cooking style with a gutsy, generous Australian approach, one that is still emulated in the cafés and bistros of South Australia. Pheasant Farm closed in the ’90s, but Beer continues to run a shop on the original site, where visitors come to buy pâté, verjuice, and burnt-caramel and fig ice cream for the road.
And while the land here is rich with plantings and farms, it is also thrillingly wild. Just off the coast of South Australia is one of the country’s most beautiful anomalies, Kangaroo Island. Often referred to as Australia’s Galápagos for its varied and unique animal life, the island has a dramatic coastline populated by seals and birdlife; farmland with more kangaroos than sheep; and roads populated by echidnas gingerly attempting to avoid encounters with four-wheel-drive cars. But it is the less visible life that really intrigues. The creeks teem with freshwater marron, the lobster’s sweet Australian cousin, and the sea with fields of scallops and abalone. The island is also home to the world’s best-preserved bee sanctuary. Immigrants from Italy brought their Ligurian bees to Kangaroo Island a century ago, and now that the bee is extinct in Italy, this island is the only place it still exists. The honey it produces from native wildflowers is prized globally for its distinct flavor and delicacy.
“You can find incredible produce here,” says Zonfrillo. But more important than that, perhaps, is that in South Australia, one feels the collision of old Australia—a culture dating back 40,000 years—and new, and, shimmering on the horizon, something else completely: a cuisine that, by combining both, creates something altogether original. It is nothing less than the story of Australia itself. “Just as indigenous art beautifully depicts our landscape and brings Australians together,” says Maggie Beer, “so too can food.” A country that revels in reinvention deserves nothing less.
Original Article: CN Traveler