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This year Melbourne Food and Wine Festival returns to the source, understanding the planet we live in – Earth – a celebration of getting your hands dirty, growing and making it yourself, and savouring local produce which also known as locavorism. Over seventeen days, Melbourne will come to life with exciting events like the forever popular Langham Melbourne MasterClass which once again attracted chefs from all around the world and across Australia converge on the city for three days of one-off experiences and masterclasses. I had the opportunity to be in the midst of all the actions last weekend and was delighted to be part of one of the most anticipated events of the festival – Earth Masterclass.

Held at the CERES environment park, I joined a small crowd for an outdoor, on-the-move celebration of cooking and the earth. The event is hosted by a familiar face, food critic and Masterchef’s judge Matt Preston, and presented by an impressive line of respectable chefs from around the world; we will learn the centuries-old art of laying a hangi or an Imu (hawaiian style), baking in clay or cooking straight from the veggie patch.

Boon Wurrung Elder, Aunty Carolyn Briggs, opened the ceremony with storytelling to reconnect Australians with indigenous food, to celebrate first people food of this country 230 years later. As the temperature continues to soar over 33C in Melbourne, Matt Wilkinson led us through the organic farm, explained what impacts on the life of vegetable. A handful of dirt was dug up from the ground to show us what ‘good soil’ smells like.

Ed Kenney with his team flew all the way from Hawaii and demonstrated on building an Imu, a traditional Hawaiian underground cooking pit just like a New Zealand’s Hangi. As the ukulele serenading in the background, Ed prepared whole lamb rubbed with Pa’akai (red sea salt), Pa’i ‘ai (hand-pounded taro paste) and limu (seaweed). The food was then lowered into the fire pit, covered with banana leaves then fully sealed with damp hessian sacks. The food was now left to be cooked for 3 to 4 hours untouched. Ed concluded the class by inviting the crowd to hold hands, as he broke into a Hawaiian tune, a ceremonial song thanking the land, the earth and the food.

The group was led to the SMEG kitchen where two cooking demonstrations were presented by Matt Wilkinson and Michael Stadtländer from Canada. Keeping it simple is the key, Matt whisked up a summer salad of zucchini, corn with smoked yoghurt, wattleseed and herb emulsion. He demonstrated the easy way to whisk up a hollandaise sauce by simply soft-boiling the eggs first.

Matt Wilkinson's Hollandaise Sauce
3 eggs
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp chardonnay vinegar
250g unsalted butter, melted
2 tbsp soft herbs, chopped (such as basil, tarragon, parsley, chervil)
salt and pepper

1. Add eggs in a saucepan and fill with water until the eggs are fully submerged, bring to boil then start timer for 3.5 minutes. Remove and drain, then scrape the soft-boiled eggs into a bowl of a blender.

2. Add mustard and vinegar, blitz using a hand blender until well mixed. Continue blitzing while slowly drizzle the melted butter into the mixture to emulsify.

3. Add the herbs, stir well and season to taste.

Michael Stadtlander prepared a dessert by using local produce, served inside cox orange apple, it was filled with passionfruit mousse, sauvignon jelly.

The moveable class led us to the outdoor area where Italian Massimo Sprigaroli would showed us how to prepare a guinea fowl baked in clay. Massimo believes food should reconnect with the earth where it comes from, hence the clay was actually made with dirt from the farm where they sourced the guinea fowl. Massimo was also kindly to share the recipe on how to prepare the clay.

Massimo Sprigaroli on how to make clay
soil ideally sourced from where the food comes from
2 egg whites
500g plain (all-purpose) flour
salt

1. Add soil and enough water into a large saucepan to make some dirt water.
2. Add flour into a mixing bowl, then sift 200ml of the dirt water and pour into the flour. Add salt and egg white and start kneading until it forms a soft dough.
3. You should make the dough by feel, if is too wet add more flour, if too dry add more dirt water. The dough should be pliable but not sticky. Wrap it up in cling film and transfer to refrigerator until it is ready to be used.

Three hours later, we were back to the fire pit and was time to unveil the Imu. It was like opening Christmas presents, there was a sense of excitement among the crowd as we couldn’t wait to see the end result of the outdoor slow cooked feast. Lamb ribs were sticking upwards, meat was literally falling off the bones, it was a remarkable success.

The last presenter of Earth Masterclass was Ben Shewry of Attica where he would show us how to prepare a hangi. Born in New Zealand, Ben has always incorporated the NZ culture and the traditional cookery method of the Maori in his cooking. Ben told us he ‘laid’ his first hang when he was about ten years old.

I ‘laid’ my first hang by myself when I was about ten years old. It contained only potatoes and I was too impatient and dug it up after only two hours. The potatoes were half raw but I thought it was great! It was this experience that inspired my A Simple Dish of Potato Cooked in the Earth It Was Grown.

Another story he told us was a lot more graphic and sad. When he was a kid, he remembered he used to go to his uncle place where they had geese at the farm. At that age, he was just being a kid doing what kids do, hanging out with friends and looking for trouble. One of his mates initiated the idea of going geese hunting, they ran back to their places and came back with cricket bat, baseball bat, long shovel and hammer. Eventually they spotted a flock of geese in the paddock,  When he was younger, he witnessed a group of men and teenage boys slaughtered a flock of geese at his uncle’s place. As Ben explained, there must have been a surge of insanity rushing through their heads and everyone went wild, as they ran to the geese and “Whack!” (Ben swung a long shovel right in front of the crowd), he said they killed over fifty geese. As the adrenalin rush slowly washed away, they immediately felt traumatised and guilty of what they’ve done. They had to go back to his uncle and told him what had happened. His uncle asked all the boys to go back to the paddock and pluck all the feathers off the geese. The next day, his uncle prepared a hangi of fifty geese and invited the whole village over for a feast. Ben said he would never forget the smell of cooking the geese, it is also one of the reasons to have a dish at his restaurant that pays homage to the hangi.

[Update: My apologies to Ben Shewry for my confusion of the story told from the Earth MasterClass. The story has been since rectified by Ben Shewry himself. It was not my intention to diminish one’s integrity as I admire Ben as an advocate of sustainable eating. ]

By the time Ben finished showing us how to build a hangi, another and also a much bigger hangi that he had prepared the night earlier had been cooking for over seventeen hours, seven hours longer than he would normally preferred. As the sun slowly setting, all chefs were joining effort to dip up the hangi together, whilst the crowd inched closely to watch the hangi slowly being unfolded, there was a sense of strong bonding as we all felt like to be part of the community. All food retrieved from both the hangi and imu were served in a grand feast under the stars with the Festival’s visiting chefs.

The Earth Masterclass has brought us all together. Earth, connects us all.

 

[A Table For Two visited Melbourne Food & Wine Festival as a guest of Tourism Victoria]