This week we preview the 2017 delicious Produce Awards and shine a light on some of the best food in the nation
Cool as a cucumber is one way to describe acclaimed chef Andrew McConnell. But even the unflappable Melburnian could barely contain his excitement at the recent national judging of the delicious.
Produce Awards. Appraising entrants from the “earth” category, including heirloom carrots, organic mushrooms and biodynamic greens, he was overwhelmed. “It’s like being in a market in the south of France, if not better,” he says.
Two decades ago, Australian ingredients were considered lacklustre by some industry players. But in recent times, savvy farmers, fishermen and culinary entrepreneurs have raised the bar, spiking demand for Australian fare around the globe.
Food makes up seven of the top 10 fastest growing industries, according to IBISWorld.The total value of farm exports is projected to reach $48.7 billion in 2017-18,with premium products particularly sought. Rock lobster, our most lucrative seafood, is expected to reach export values of $716 million.
“We have world-class restaurants in Australia because we have world-class produce,” says chef and restaurateur Matt Moran. He nominates Mondo White Rocks veal from Western Australia and Blackmore Wagyu from Victoria (“the best outside of Japan”) as two industry standouts. Blackmore has drawn plaudits from eminent chefs including the UK’s Heston Blumenthal and American Thomas Keller. “Plus we’re selling truffles to the French,” says Moran, laughing at the irony. Australia is now the fourth largest truffle producer in the world.
Gavin Booth of Australian Truffle Traders in Manjimup, WA, says a decade ago, there was some resistance in Europe to antipodean truffles. “But once chefs tasted them, they loved them,” he says. Like many truffle farmers, Booth exports 80 per cent of his crop, mostly to Michelin-starred venues.
The list of homegrown heroes is a long one. Sher Wagyu from Victoria is on the menu at upscale establishments
including the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong and New York’s Morimoto restaurant. Australia’s Oyster Coast in Sydney delivers oysters to discerning diners in Asia within 30 hours. Goat’s cheese from Victoria’s Meredith Dairy flies off the shelves at Whole Foods in Los Angeles, while Cobram Estate keeps amassing awards in New York for its outstanding extra virgin olive oils.
The verdant bounty of Australian produce has received exposure from two events recently. First was Noma Australia, the sell-out Sydney pop-up from Danish chef Rene Redzepi, which ran from late January to April in 2016.
“That a chef the calibre of Rene was inspired enough by Australian ingredients to orchestrate the pop-up speaks volumes,” says chef Kylie Kwong. “As he showed, we are up with the best.”
Second was The World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards, the Oscars of gastronomy, which was held in Melbourne in April this year. International chefs, sommeliers and gourmands who attended were exposed to local treasures including Fraser Island spanner crab, Paroo kangaroo, Mooloolaba tuna and West Australian scampi. According to event host Tourism Australia: “The project has already generated over 4000 media articles with an audience reach of 3.9 billion and an equivalent advertising value of over $42 million.”
“We’ve changed people’s perceptions,” says Moran. “Now I am so proud for any foreign chef to come here. They all say we have the best food in the world.” The chef says he is regularly wowed by local produce he has never seen before.
Native ingredients, spotlighted by Redzepi and other pioneering chefs, are finding favour too.The Lime Caviar Company from Queensland currently dispatches fresh finger limes to the UK, Italy, Singapore, Hong Kong and France. Michelin-starred chefs Jean-Luc Rabanel and Paul Bocuse are fans, and so too are retailers such as Eataly in Milan.The company will next year
unveil a packaged version of citrus caviar. “It’s a world-first – a frozen, spoonable lime caviar with no preservatives,” says owner Ian Douglas.
The delicious. Produce Awards showcases the cream of the crop, the most sustainable, ethical and palatable products from around the country. State judging took place earlier in the year, then in June, 10 leading chefs, including McConnell, Moran, Maggie Beer and Shannon Bennett, assembled for the national evaluation.
“We focus on new products, consistently outstanding producers and what’s on the radar of our foremost chefs,” says project manager Lucy Allon. Allon has the exactness of a scientist and the logistical prowess of a military commander – traits that come in handy when wrangling the cornucopia of entrants from coast to coast.
This year’s contenders include everything from organic quinoa to pastured quail. When the judges tasted the game bird, the reaction was very positive. “The flavour was phenomenal,” says Beer. “I’ve never had flavour like that before,” adds McConnell.
The winners of the 2017 Produce Awards will be announced at a gala event in Melbourne tomorrow night. Find out who
they are in the September issue of delicious.