Tasting Australia 2018: A guide to South Australia's gastronomic knees-up

Wines from the Taste the Alphabet dinner.
Wines from the Taste the Alphabet dinner. Photo: supplied

Here's a quick trivia quiz.

1. Which is the only state in Australia to boast a former premier who wrote a cookbook? Answer: South Australia (The pink shorts-wearing Don Dunstan, since you ask.)

2. Which state led the nation's innovative dining scene in the '70s and '80s? Answer: South Australia – with ground-breaking restaurants like Neddy's, Possums, Mistress Augustine's and The Pheasant Farm.

Out of the square: The d’Arenberg Cube in McLaren Vale.
Out of the square: The d’Arenberg Cube in McLaren Vale. 

3. Which hills of which state are currently alive with bearded hipsters making natural wine and setting up quirky cult eateries like the Summertown Aristologist? (Answer: that would be the Adelaide Hills, and isn't it nice that said eatery's name pays its respects to the state's trailblazing food and wine forebears?)

Easy, huh? So it's hardly surprising that Tasting Australia, the state's annual gastronomic knees-up – running for 10 days this year, April 13-22 – is just that little bit different from all the other food and wine festivals. It's quirkier; more individual; in some cases, dare we say, even unique. I mean, where else in Oz can you go into a pub (the legendary Exeter, Rundle Street, home to the festival's sell-out Curry Nights) and drink Krug out of a butcher glass, like the wine guys do?

One last question: Which is the only festival in Australia to boast its own airline?

Maggie Beer in Tasting Australia's spectacular Glasshouse Kitchen in Victoria Square.
Maggie Beer in Tasting Australia's spectacular Glasshouse Kitchen in Victoria Square. Photo: supplied

Here's a look at some of the very Adelaide attractions at Tasting Australia.

TAA – Tasting Australia Airlines

A stroke of genius, this one: a 50-seat chartered plane that whisks you off to regional nosh-ups at either Kangaroo Island, Coffin Bay or the Limestone Coast. You're too late to hop on board TAA this year, but there's always next (memo, organisers: the underrated Clare Valley would be nice). And, meanwhile, if you're in the Eyre Peninsula region on April 18, it's not too late to join the festival jetset slurping oysters at the Coffin Bay Yacht Club lunch with Adelaide chef Duncan Welgemoed (Africola) and Melbourne chef Morgan McGlone (Belles Hot Chicken, Natural History).

Vale to Sea – and dinner in a limestone cave

McLaren Vale by helicopter – now there's an idea. So long as you don't mind helping gather ingredients for your degustation lunch along the way. Here's how it works: you meet at third-generation winery Maxwell Wines for a barrel-tasting before taking off on a coastal flight to visit a couple of farmers (this is where the lunch prep comes in). Then, it's back to the winery's restaurant to find out how a chef with a Michelin-starred CV – German-born Fabian Lehmann – can whip up a nine-course lunch based around said ingredients. Maxwell Wines is also grabbing the limelight with a six-course dinner held in the property's Lime Cave, hand-carved into a hill 100 years ago to grow mushrooms for the owners.

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Taste the Alphabet

Not even the winemakers have yet done a comparative tasting of all 21 wines produced so far by McLaren Vale's Alpha Box & Dice. Join them in sampling the boutique winery's full catalogue of small-batch, minimal-intervention wines, each named for a letter of the alphabet (no word yet on which five letters haven't got a run yet). Taking care of the evening eats will be Adelaide chef and native-ingredients champion Jessie Spiby, who's done quite a bit "since leaving MasterChef" in 2015, as her website puts it. Oh, and while you're in McLaren Vale, make sure you take time to check out the other whole box and dice, the extraordinary D'Arenberg Cube, with its Alternate Realities Museum and other things you wouldn't normally expect to see at a winery. (Note, the Surrealist Ball at the Cube, the launch event for the festival, is sold out.)

The Glasshouse Chefs

It's a bit like having dinner in a goldfish bowl – and it all went so swimmingly last year, it's on again for 2018. The Glasshouse Kitchen, a series of see-through cooking and dining spaces at the festival's hub in Victoria Square, will once more play backdrop to a line-up of leading global, homegrown and interstate chefs. And the clincher? A few of the overseas visitors will be setting foot on Australian soil for the first time. Chefs like Carlo Mirarchi, acclaimed by The New York Times for creating "kitchen poetry" at his 12-seat, two Michelin-starred Brooklyn restaurant Blanca. Mirarchi also co-owns a hip pizza joint (which spawned a line of frozen pizzas) but his style can't be pigeonholed: for his Australian debut, the chef has sourced fresh sea lettuce, a coastal plant native to South Australia, among other hyper-local ingredients for his Naturale dinner on April 20.

Then there's JP McMahon, the Irish chef with more hats than a Melbourne Cup. Chef, restaurateur, culinary director, educator, author and founder/host of influential global chefs' symposium Food on the Edge, McMahon is also founding director of the Galway Food Festival, an ambassador for Irish food and an ambassador for Spanish food in Ireland. And now he's bound for South Australia, where he'll be working with Coffin Bay oysters, tuna and Murray cod at his debut Glasshouse gig, Rivers and Seas.

Festival-goers can catch a flight to Coffin Bay.
Festival-goers can catch a flight to Coffin Bay. Photo: Duy Dash

And in the Italian corner? Meet the Costardi brothers, Christian and Manuel, famous for taking risotto to Michelin-star status at their eponymous restaurant in Vercelli, west of Milan; and patissier Andrea Tortora, from three Michelin-starred Dolomites restaurant St Hubertus. Named Italy's Pastry Chef of the Year 2017, Tortora is best known for perfecting panettone.

But Tasting Australia is not all about the new kids on the block. Taking us full circle, back to the pioneering days of the '70s and '80s, will be one of South Australia's best-known cooks – and she hasn't missed a beat since then. You can catch Maggie Beer, with daughter Elli, at a dinner at the Barossa Regional Gallery reprising favourite dishes from The Pheasant Farm (think local hare with hand-rolled pappardelle, and wine grapes baked into bread).

History repeats, as the saying goes, and sometimes that's a damn good thing.

Dinner in Maxwell Wines' Lime Cave as part of Tasting Australia.
Dinner in Maxwell Wines' Lime Cave as part of Tasting Australia. Photo: John Montesi

Tasting Australia, a celebration of South Australian food and wine, runs from April 13-22.

For bookings, see tastingaustralia.com.au