A CONVERSATION with culinary activist and Melbourne Food and Wine Festival guest chef Michael Stadtlander is possibly the most direct route to uncovering the information and education that awaits Melbourne as the annual 17 days of foodie festivities roll into town.
"Chefs have a very big role to play as a middleman between the agricultural society and the dining public," the Canadian chef says of the importance of creating awareness around the links between food sustainability, environmental issues and provenance. "We can play a significant part in shaping a new [food] culture."
This year's theme of "Earth" circulates around these ideas of ecology and source. It's a round-up of national and international chefs and winemakers who know what it is to dig deep into dirt as a prelude to creating the perfect plate, and who are keen to spread that knowledge; those who are focused on considering how the world will feed itself in the decades to come.
In this way, it is a chance to rediscover beginnings and learn about food from some unlikely sources, including an extreme-cold-climate hunter-gatherer (Magnus Nilsson), a former pro skater-turned-salt king (Virgilio Martinez) and a Hawaiian whose fans include Michelle Obama (Ed Kenney).
All three will take part in the Earth MasterClass, a headline event to be held at CERES Environment Park. From the long-ago tradition of the laying of the hangi (an earth oven) as demonstrated by Ben Shewry, to baking in clay with Italian farmer, producer and Michelin-starred chef Massimo Spigaroli, the eight-hour festival will bring diners back in touch with traditional cooking methods alongside ideas of caring for the soil that nurtures the food we harvest.
The notion will take on a lighter spin with a cellar door and artisan market (Put Victoria on Your Table) bringing together the state's finest artisan produce – think breads, cheeses, charcuterie and preserves – alongside, in the grounds of Como House and Garden, wines from more than 40 Victorian wineries.
Picnic on the lawn against a backdrop of live music and cooking demonstrations from Adam D'Sylva (Coda) and Darren Purchese (Burch & Purchese).
If it's a more cerebral approach you're seeking, the Theatre of Ideas is back, pitting some of the world's most intriguing culinary minds against each other in forward-thinking discussions. Listen to chef-cum-farmers Matthew Evans (Tasmania) as well as Nilsson (Sweden) and Stadtlander tackle questions surrounding food sustainability in the years to come.
Of course, Melbourne wouldn't be Melbourne without coffee, and this year's festival is encouraging a 17-day round-the-world style exploration of the humble bean and the producers and baristas who make it great.
Designed by international practice HASSELL to mimic a terraced coffee plantation, the structure in Queensbridge Square will be built from reclaimed materials used to transport coffee to Australia: everything from timber pallets to shipping crates, softened with a mini-jungle of more than 125 Australian coffee trees sourced and grown especially for the project.
Throughout the festival, the Urban Coffee Farm and Brew Bar will offer coffee from a daily rotating roster of the city's best baristas, coinciding with the national barista championships on the festival's opening weekend.
For those with more of a food bent, the Langham Melbourne MasterClass series is on again, offering the chance to touch base with an influential roll-call of local and international chefs whose individual takes on food and cooking are both intriguing and inspiring.
From the king of Mexican cuisine, Enrique Olvera, to a young gun rearranging traditional French ideas on the humble bistro, Bertrand Grebaut, to lauded locals such as Andrew McConnell, Aaron Turner and Karen Martini, each will be demonstrating and exploring his or her connection with earth through food.
Consider these opportunities that go hand-in-hand with the Perfect Match and Acqua Panna Global Wine Experience – both events gathering experts such as international wine authority Jancis Robinson to speak on the poetry of wine and its connection to the food we eat.
And of course the festival wouldn't be the festival without the World's Longest Lunch: a weekend of delicious excess that will bring long tables to 20 different regional locations around Victoria, taking place everywhere from the wharf at Echuca to a winery in the high country.
With more than 50 events under $50, an emphasis on butchery and provenance, unusual ingredients, technique and – ultimately – on the new-food frontier as we are facing it today, festival 2013 is offering 17 days of fun earthly pleasure with a thoughtful twist.
■ See melbournefoodandwine.com.au
■ For the full festival program, see Friday's Age.
■ Tickets go on sale on Friday.