The Eel Dinner: Discovering food secrets of our past

Chef David Moyle and Damien Bell at Lake Condah.
Chef David Moyle and Damien Bell at Lake Condah. Photo: Richard Cornish

David Moyle is a Port Fairy boy. The Longsong chef grew up fishing, surfing and diving in the beautiful but tempestuous waters off the far southwest coast of Victoria. All his life he was unaware that in the heart of his stomping ground was an anthropological treasure, a massive Indigenous aquaculture system where eels were raised, harvested, smoked and sent off for trade around the country for millennia. Like many locals he was oblivious to an amazing collection of ancient stone huts complete with fire places, grouped into villages built on the edge of the waterways. Now he is doing his best to make the nation and the world aware of the Budj Bim landscape at Lake Condah, 70 kilometres northeast of Portland, where the Gunditjmara people lived for 6500 years.

"This is one of the most amazing places I have been to," he said on a recent site visit to Lake Condah. He and Gunditjmara man Damien Bell are working together to host The Eel Dinner – 6500 in the Making, a dinner for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival celebrating the landscape, traditional foods and the complex history of this UNESCO nominated world heritage site.

The recent drought has seen the level of the water drop, exposing stone water races and floodgates constructed from volcanic rock. "When Budj Bim erupted 6500 years ago it let out tongues of lava that travelled across the country all the way down to the coast at Tyrendarra," says  Bell, a quietly spoken man with a bone-dry wit. "You fellas call Budj Bim Mount Eccles."

The lava flow changed the course of creeks and rivers and created a rocky landscape pocked with sink holes. Lake Condah was created, and the water snaked its way into a labyrinthine network of pools, canals and channels. Bell brings Moyle to what looks a low stone wall with a breech in it. "This is where the eels were caught," says Bell. "A fish trap, made of woven sticks, was placed in this to corral the eels and they were caught in a hand-woven eel net."

"So how were the eels prepared?" asks Moyle. "I'll show you," says Bell. They travel to another part of the lake where a lone manna gum stands, its centuries old trunk hollowed by fire. "Years back a scientist took soil samples from the earth inside the hollow and they found eel fat, evidence the eels were smoked."

They walk to a site nearby where there are semicircular walls of old stone houses built on the edge of what was once a waterhole. The ruins of the house they stand in was excavated and material around the hearth dated to over 900 years ago. "There was a lot more than eels to eat," says Bell. "There were ducks and other birds to net, freshwater mussels, kangaroos coming in to drink," says Bell.

Eel with kelp and saltbush, a dish by David Moyle.
Eel with kelp and saltbush, a dish by David Moyle. Photo: Richard Cornish

"We used to drive around the area visiting our relatives, but we never knew this was here," says Moyle to Bell. Bell simply nods. He has heard this story before. "I wish you could see it when it is full of water," says Bell. Lake Condah was drained in the 1950s for farmland. But over the past decade the Gunditjmara people have been slowly refilling the lake with a plan to restore it to its former glory. "That might take 150 to 200 years," says Bell with a wry smile.

Bell and Moyle continue talking, making plans for the dinner. They discuss a meal based on seafood, eel, native game and native plants. There is talk of some dishes representing the European settlement of the region by the Scots and Irish and finally dessert.

The wines are worked out with wine writer Max Allen, who has accompanied Moyle on the trip. He suggests some fine wines from wine makers in the Henty region including Hockkirch, Crawford River, Basalt Wines and Seppelt from their Drumborg estate. They conclude with the agreement that Bell will come to Melbourne with a Gunditjmara elder as guests and speakers for the dinner. "See you then," says Moyle to Bell. "It will be deadly," says Bell with a grin.

The Eel Dinner – 6500 in the Making is part of the 2019 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and will be held at Longsong, 44 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, on Thursday, March 21 at 7pm. The five-course meal costs $120 and includes matching wines, a short film about Lake Condah and a presentation by the Gunditjmara people. To book visit melbournefoodandwine.com.au

Richard Cornish is a co-curator of the event along with Max Allen, Damien Bell and David Moyle.