Party like a pagan
Hobart’s mid-winter celebration of food, wine and the solstice will take you back to the roots of civilisation — you might not even be able to Instagram it
The meltdown of a wi-fi network in one of Australia’s capital cities is surely the sign of a good party. That’s what happened last June when almost 45,000 people attended the Winter Feast in Hobart, a three-day food festival celebrating the winter solstice and the best Tasmanian food and wine.
“In my 30 years of organising events, I have never seen an event grow so fast or have so much interest so quickly as this one,’’ says artistic director Gillian Minervini of the festival, which is only two years old. “We averaged between 10,000 and 15,000 people a night. It was almost impossible to get a flight from Sydney or Melbourne to Hobart last year when it was on, even the wi-fi went down because there were so many people in that particular area.”
The Winter Feast is part of Hobart’s Dark Mofo festival, the brainchild of David Walsh’s groundbreaking Museum of Old and New Art. Last year’s event attracted 120,000 people to music, art and theatre performances that celebrate all things wintery, dark, subversive and even a little bit strange. This year it runs from June 12 to June 22 and culminates in a naked dawn swim in the freezing River Derwent.
Minervini, a Sydney-based events creator and director, says MONA approached her three years ago to “do a big food event” celebrating Tasmanian produce as part of the first Dark Mofo. “There are a lot of food festivals now and they are very formulaic,” she tells WISH. “We wanted to do something that was very different and draw on the solstice and celebrate Hobart in winter. Half of the event is outside. We have these amazing huge open fires and people love it. If you dress well — and I recommend a couple of pairs of socks, not just one — and you have the right whisky and the right food and a spot by the fire, it is incredibly atmospheric and it is a lovely place to be.”
The Winter Feast is held at an old pier wharf in Hobart for five days this year from June 17 to 21 (it was extended from three days last year because of overwhelming demand, not enough seats, too many queues and a few complaints). The venue will be transformed into a giant bird’s nest. “The owls are not what they seem,’’ the Winter Feast website notes, quoting television show Twin Peaks. “Beware the birds and banquet for five nights inside a giant nest.”
“My favourite moment is when people first walk into the venue,” says Minervini. “The designers do such an extraordinary job with what really is a giant aeroplane hangar. Just hearing people gasp at the transformation or just walking around the site and seeing people taken totally by surprise by a wilderbeest or some sort of weird entertainment happening around them — it is just fantastic.”
To help celebrate the longest (and coldest) night of the year, as well as the pagan-inspired design and entertainment, you have the food, glorious food. Dozens of local food vendors are selected by the curator, the happily named Jo Cook, and guest chefs are flown in from around the country. This year Sean Moran (from iconic Bondi restaurant Sean’s Panaroma) and Jake Kellie (from the Estelle Bistro in Melbourne) are on board as well as Tasmanian producers of whisky, rice paper rolls, croque monsieurs, wood-fired crayfish, Ethiopian stews, fruit crumbles, Indian street food, quince cider, smoked pulled pork burgers (I could go on but I am making myself too hungry).
Cook says she scouts Tasmania for producers and tests vendors’ wares at the weekly MONA food markets during the summer. She limits each vendor to just three dishes. “So what they do, they do really well,’’ Cook says. “It’s food I want to eat, it’s food I would be really proud to eat and to share with anybody.”
Cook has especially vivid memories of last year’s roasted pork buns by Tasmanian farmer, chef and cookbook writer Matthew Evans. “He is just at the top of his game,” she says. “He raises his own cattle and rare breed pigs so you know they have just been cared for beautifully and then he is an excellent chef ... He does a fat pig bun. [The roasted pork] is all pulled apart and the juices and fat are put back in, it is dripping with flavour, it is just beautiful.”
The feast takes the use of fire to the point of art. “We do this massive BBQ — it’s an installation, really,” says Minervini. “Taking these chefs out of their very nice kitchens and literally having them on the street, with these walls of BBQ and fire and an almost medieval way to cook meat — it is just fantastic. [They are all] covered in charcoal by the end of the night.”
The Winter Feast, now running for five days, uses fire to cook, to warm diners and even as artwork