Photo: Creative Commons
Rick Stein (Photo: Thomas Ridley Foodservice via Creative Commons)
Visiting my Australian home for the first time in five years last Christmas, last night I returned, watching celebrity chef Rick Stein’s episode of BBC2’s: A Cook Abroad: Rick Stein’s Australia.
Viewers were taken on a tasty tour through Aussie cuisine’s past and future, usefully utilising Stein’s 30-year association with the country. Visiting the Sydney digs where his cooking aspirations began, he showed how a nation formerly famous for burnt “snags on the barbie”, now served sophisticated mouth-watering meals, rivalling restaurants worldwide.
Even meat pies, my own school canteen childhood favourite, had grown up. Once soggy pastry cases holding little but gravy, these were now filled with exotic meats like kangaroo.
Considerable time was spent showcasing the country’s fish and seafood but considering this is Stein’s forté and Australia, the world’s largest island, this was understandable.
What lifted the programme, making it so fascinating, was contrast – the continent’s evolution from culinary backwater to producing foods for the future. Interesting ingredients from exotic meats to native herbs, fruit and vegetables, that Aboriginals cooked with for millennia and local chefs proudly proclaimed were the next big foodie fad.
Tasmania, formerly Australia’s Isle of Man, was the new gourmet-go-to. Although its cool climate has produced world-class wine for some time it was, until recently, seen as little more than a hippie-hideaway by mainlanders. On my last visit I’d heard surprising rumours through friends and family of the Island State’s new restaurant reputation.
Jumping from “Tassy” to nearby Bruny Island, Stein met a pig farmer turned wallaby hunter. This metre high mammal resembling a small kangaroo is now in high demand for its tasty flesh. Shy, nowhere near as common, the kangaroo’s cute compact cousin is protected on mainland Oz.
On Bruny Island, off Tasmania’s coast, an estimated 10 million wallabies thrive, decimating crops. Stein accompanied him on a night-hunt to shoot a fresh victim, then watched him prepare fresh “free-range native bush meat” and one killed earlier, left to hang. Due to its high muscle content wallaby meat is tough. It looked delicious and Stein stuffed it down. This was not a show to watch while hungry.
The foods’ diversity plus Stein’s hosting, although his cheeky-chappy routine can often grate, were excellent. Pigs wandered around the hunter’s farm, hinting at the past but this show focused firmly on Australia’s food future. Avoiding the clichés often seen on many Australian-themed programmes, even the music was understated – not a didgeridoo was heard. Featuring fascinating facts, it was tasty television in every sense.
Returning to mainland Tasmania, next stop was a distillery due to its superb single malt: the world’s best. Scottish viewers probably switched off at this point but, Tasmania’s Scottish cool climate, lakes and mountains, helpfully highlighted, it rang true. A single malt, lover myself I hungered to go but 70 per cent proof and, astonishingly, £20 thousand a bottle, this was sadly outside my budget.
Inland fish farms further highlighted Australian food’s ethical environmental emphasis. Who knew Japanese sushi chefs prized Tasmanian salmon more highly than any other?
Stein almost went too far during a corny dash delivering fresh salmon to the renowned Japanese sushi chef resident in a sleepy Tasmanian backwater. But the mouth-watering morsels the sushi chef prepared and his sublime knife wielding skill made up for it, demonstrating why people travel from everywhere to eat there. As Stein said: “Tasmania’s hidden secrets need advertising.”
Watching this I wanted to go and suspect I wasn’t alone.
25 per cent of global abalone, one shellfish I’ve never tasted, is Tasmanian, 75 per cent sent to China. Renowned in Melbourne and Sydney, it’s not familiar across most of the mainland. A slow-growing mushroom-like mollusc, if cooked incorrectly this delicacy tastes like “boot leather.”
A fisherman cooked his in ghee aboard his boat, serving it with one of Tasmania’s famous Chardonnays. Stein devoured it, dubbing it: “The best seafood Australia isn’t eating.”
Delicious TV – this was the BBC at its best. Stirring renewed patriotism within me, I loved the environmental emphasis, especially considering Australia’s current Government, refuses to acknowledge climate change. Timely, tasty, it captured Australian character, and potential, perfectly.