Three courses, fine wine and delectable desserts. It was a full table at the ‘longest lunch' that opened the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival in Mumbai.
It's like being on stage just before the curtain goes up. That adrenalin buzz. That heady sense of breathlessness. That almost imperceptible tensing of muscles. 170 waiters line up silently behind the table. 1,500 wine glasses are similarly lined, with military precision. In the kitchen 85 chefs take a last, quiet, deep breath. There's a minute of stillness, and the 500 plus guests begin to spill into the enclosure. The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival has officially been declared open. In Mumbai.
“Melbourne is a great meeting place of the world,” says Ted Baillieu MLA and Premier of Victoria, just before the event. “Mumbai is also a great meeting place of the world. We share a passion for art, culture, fashion, food and wine…” Which is why, he says, they chose to open the 20-day festival here in India, outside Australia for the first time since it began twenty years ago. This is just another manifestation of increasingly strong ties between the countries. “We already have 35,000 Indian students enriching our multi-cultural base. We are proud of it, we defend it, we promote it,” says Baillieu.
About 60,000 Indians visited Victoria last year, 20 per cent more than the previous year. Another reason, perhaps, why the festival is opening in muggy Mumbai, under a long winding canopy of dramatically poufy white cloth and whirring pedestal fans that are more atmospheric than functional.
Events are one of the engines of Australia's tourism industry. “About 23 per cent of our visitors are event visitors,” says Baillieu. There's the food and wine festival, of course, which begins in March and draws 300,000 people, bringing together chefs, celebrities and gourmands. You're probably familiar with the Melbourne Cup, International Comedy Festival and the Australian Open Tennis, which sells 75,000 tickets a year. Less known are festivals such as the Melbourne India Film Festival — run by a former Mumbai resident — which garnered attention last year for organising the world's largest Bollywood dance class.
Though when it comes to choreography, the waiters at the Grand Hyatt, Mumbai could probably give sequinned hip-swinging dancers a run for their money. They swing into action simultaneously as the city's glam crowd settles down at a single long lunch table, which snakes across the garden, winding, twisting and heaving with food and wine. This is the ‘longest lunch,' a precursor to a similar event which will be held in Melbourne next week as part of the annual Food and Wine Festival. The menu's been decided by charming chef Adam D'Sylva, who runs one of Melbourne's hottest restaurants, ‘Coda'. Oh, and if you're one of the many ‘Master Chef Australia' addicts you will remember him from the last season.
D'Sylva's signature style is inspired by multi-culturalism. Local ingredients, most of which come from across Victoria, cooked in a way that channels the food traditions of Asia, specifically Vietnam, China and Singapore. India has a profound influence. “My dad is Indian and my mom's Italian. I grew up with a bowl of pasta, and a bowl of rice and curry on the table. I thought that was normal till I started going to school and found out that not all families eat that way.” The day before the event, D'Sylva, along with executive chef Jean Christophe Fieschi hosts a Master Chef-style master class at Celini, the Grand Hyatt's Italian restaurant. The class menu includes plump scallops topped with salty salmon roe, and a young coconut pannacotta. “They actually bring the coconuts to the hotel and slice them open in front of you,” D'Sylva says excitedly to his class. “And it's so tender. So fresh.”
The food he chooses to showcase strikes a careful balance between Australian flair and Indian ingredients. It opens with chilled white wine, a crisp Little Yering Chardonnay 2009 from the Yarra Valley served with buffalo mozzarella salad with zucchini fritters. As waiters place the plates across the 200-metre long table, Aussie entertainer David Malek struts along the side of the table singing old classics, each with a twist from down under. The next course is smoked pomfret salad with tamarind and roasted rice dressing. This is designer food under Olympic 100-metre dash conditions. The chefs are working against the clock to get each course across to more than 500 guests. Each plate has to be flawlessly styled, with every sprinkle and herb in place. And this is their first attempt. So, yes, they falter occasionally. While the first course is vibrant, the second is a little breathless. Fortunately there's plenty of wine, and we move fairly quickly to course three: kung pao chicken in a completely new avatar. It's subtly spiced and tasty if just a bit tough.
Dessert is D'Sylva's classic pannacotta, piled high with tapioca — “perfect for people with gluten allergies” — and seasonal fruit. Bright chunks of pineapple, mango and kiwi (“which doesn't really taste of anything, but is so pretty!”).
(The writer was in Mumbai at the invitation of Tourism Victoria.)
Keywords: Melbourne Food and Wine Festival