6 min read.Updated: 09 Sep 2016, 10:59 AM ISTMeher Mirza
Free-range produce and fair-trade living in the Barossa Valley reinforce the uniquely Australian food story
My uncle is a tall man, crinkly of eye and wry of smile. He has lived in Adelaide, in South Australia, from well before I was born and we have not met in many, many years. He is old and walks with a stick but is not an easy man to refuse and so, although a touristy wine destination like Barossa Valley does not pique my interest enough to spend the one day I have in Adelaide there, we tumble into the back of his car and drive off.
Cupped by a line of lumpy hills, Barossa Valley is not extraordinarily beautiful but it has heaps of charm. The road unspools ahead of us, reeling and twisting and winding. On either side, the hills are combed with vineyards and eucalyptus trees, what Australians call gum trees. While we ribbon up the hill, my dad, uncle and aunt swap stories about life in long-ago Calcutta, where they had all lived for decades.
One by one, the disgraceful escapades of my foremothers and forefathers are raked up. They provoke much hilarity in the car, and we fall about laughing. My uncle’s eyes light up during the telling of these tales and my aunt, who is driving, guffaws. The car wobbles a little bit.
It sets the scene perfectly for the bacchanalian day we have planned.
Soon we are at our first stop, the Kellermeister vineyards, where the winsome young lady behind the counter looks a little askance at my uncle’s gruff Parsi accent as he asks for a wine tasting. “I have been here 45 years, young lady. Before you were even born," admonishes my uncle.
Wine is poured into sparkling glasses and I discover that my taste veers towards a dry white wine, The Rambling Ruins, the Eden Valley Pinot Gris. My father, who has the exact opposite taste in wines, goes in a big way for the crisp Riesling—called The Wombat General. Was there ever a wine with a more appealing name? My aunt insists on buying several bottles of wine for us to drink when we are back home, along with a jar of Oakbank Flavours’ Quince Paste from Adelaide Hills, its sweetness laced with the pucker of lemon.
Kellermeister emphasizes sustainability and the purity of Barossa’s provenance, as do all the wineries I go to. We move on to arguably the most famous winery in the region, Jacob’s Creek, where we are to partake of a wine-soaked feast at its restaurant. Here too, I am told, the focus is on fresh, locally grown, seasonal produce. More often than not, it is picked from the accompanying kitchen gardens. Chemicals are eschewed as far as possible. All this helps shape a rather compelling narrative, one of sun-soaked, pristine lands, abundant seafood, vine-ripened produce and free-range, fair-trade living, a siren call to an unspoilt past. In most places, this would feel like a marketing gimmick. Here, it rings true.
At Jacob’s Creek, we share plates of the naturally fermented sourdough roll served with a pat of herb butter, olives and locally produced olive oil. The intensely green, clean taste of the fresh olive oil instantly floods our mouths. A plate of perfectly crisp chips and aioli is brought to the table; to my mind, the aioli is redundant (and I am a stern taskmaster when it comes to chips). “Sometimes, the simplest things are the hardest ones to perfect," my uncle says to me. I nod. The perfect chip is a thing after my own heart as well.
My dad’s southern calamari is deep-fried, a typical Aussie pub dish, but my potato and chive dumplings come swimming in a moat of butter and cream, and melt in my mouth. The crisp Coorong mullet, on its creamy bed of smoked corn salsa, and the venison fillet are glorious. There is nothing particularly distinctive about the dishes, I could have eaten them anywhere. The real treasures are the ingredients, plucked from the natural larder of the valley.
We wash the food down with waves of fruity Sauvignon Blanc Cuvée and bursts of reminiscences that sparkle more than the wine—“Remember how we sneezed all over the beer and our chairs broke?" “Remember when my jaw was stuck together with toffee at the moment that I had to give a speech?" Into the meal are distilled the flavours of our remembrances, a feast of the stomach and the soul.
As the afternoon fades into evening, I am taken to Maggie Beer’s shop. Wrapped around the shop are her orchards and pheasant farm. Inside, we taste a pâté made from the hapless bird. It is intense and rich and, according to my aunt and uncle, it is what took her from near-oblivion to superstar status in Australia. Beer is a culinary icon, a gourmet grandma, cook and restaurateur who focuses on seasonal, local and preservative-free food. She has built an empire that includes an orchard, a farm, a residential cottage, where guests “choose fresh herbs from the kitchen garden and wander through the fruit trees to pick fresh pears, apples and apricots", and a shop.
The shop is alive with customers and stacked floor to ceiling with treasure: a smoky Cabernet BBQ sauce, jams made from burnt figs and Seville apricots, molasses-coloured vino cotto, verjuice, duck, currant and muscat pâté, salted caramel syrups. There are tasting plates everywhere and even though our stomachs are heavy with lunch, we help ourselves to everything. It is all made-in-Australia, if not right there in the valley.
My aunt insists on buying some of her favourite Maggie Beer burnt fig, honeycomb and caramel ice cream for us (it is as luscious as ice cream can be), my uncle buys us a Morello Cherry And Dark Chocolate Almond Ice Cream. They wave away our weak cries of denial. A green extra virgin olive oil, the brandy butter sauce, and the fig and fennel paste are liberated from the shackles of the shelf. Our bags fill slowly with loot.
Soon it is evening and time to leave Adelaide. I don’t know when I will come back. My uncle enfolds me in his long arms and holds me tight, as tight as the fingers that seem to be crushing my heart. He puts one hand on my head; tears fog our eyes. We promise to meet again but, in my heart, I know that it will not be so. I look at my shopping bag and cry.
■ Try the free wine tastings offered by every winery, or sign up for a vineyard tour
■ Picnic in Maggie Beer’s orchard
■ Catch the small exhibition about wine-growing in the Barossa Valley at Jacob’s Creek
■ Wander through the Barossa Farmers’ Market, which sells all manner of local produce on a Saturday morning.
Well, wines, especially the Eden Valley Riesling and, perhaps, a Shiraz. I have heard good things about the cheese from The Barossa Valley Cheese Co. And everything from Maggie Beer’s shop, especially her quince jam and pheasant pâté.
The Kellermeister vineyards have a splendid view of hill and dale. The granddaddy of wineries, Jacob’s Creek is worth a stop, even if you don’t lunch there.