Chow Down Under

It's January, so naturally we look forward to Australia Day

Don't believe Disney or the Internet -- it's really not such a small world after all. If it were, surely in my critical life I would have tasted bunya nuts, wattle seeds, bush tomatoes, and the like more recently than this past week.

Of course I could have experienced these regional ingredients in Australia, their native setting. But aside from money, time, money, opportunity, money, and money, the only thing that has kept me from visiting that undeniably alluring continent has been the lack of a Valium prescription. After all, it's a really long flight.

Not that multiple time-zone hopping has prevented intrepid Aussies from coming stateside. And their plan is to make their presence felt. Or at least tasted and smelt.

That goal was easily accomplished at the most recent Distinguished Visiting Chef dinner at Johnson & Wales University's North Miami campus, where South Australian-born chef Andrew Fielke was inducting both the dining public and the culinary arts students into his "Creative Native Australian Cuisine." Part of an ongoing series, such dinners take place about six times a year, with visiting chefs and accompanying sommeliers hitting all five J&W campuses and eager gastronomic explorers buying out the prix-fixe tickets for the events. The student chefs then assist in the preparation and service of a multicourse meal, paired with wine, under the touring toque and sommelier's direction.

In this case the meal included such dishes as sun-dried tomato-bunya nut hummus in potato cups; wattle seed damper (bread) with sticky bush tomato balsamic and extra virgin olive oil; and prawn and lemon myrtle bisque with coconut lemon myrtle foam and sesame prawn toast. And naturally the wines were Australian as well, chosen by 2001 South Australian Sommelier of the Year Matt Lane and ranging from a clean, crisp Eden Valley Riesling to an elegant and refined Bin 128 Shiraz.

In other words, as our New World cuisine goes way beyond broiled grouper or yellowtail, Creative Native Australian is about so much more than lamb. But the parallel between the two is as appropriate as a latitude line, despite the fact that the Aussies, being from a wine-producing place unlike South Florida, have an advantage in my book. Still, as in other up-and-coming food regions of the world, local chefs are utilizing found ingredients, some of which are aboriginal, but playing with reinvention and highlighting them with modern technique. Hence the lemon myrtle, an ornamental shrub whose leaves release a lemon-scented oil that is valued as both a flavoring agent and an aromatic. Hence the neo-Spanish foam.

Fortunately for those of us who have the double indemnity of not having access to either Valium or e-mail, which is how the Visiting Chef Series is best advertised, intrigues such as sea parsley emulsion, caramelized aniseed myrtle figs, and quandong-macadamia nut pudding are still in our future. As David Doepel, co-founder of Taste Down Under, an initiative designed to promote the use of Australian products in America, promised at the dinner, there's going to be "a lot more of Australia in South Florida in the next few months."

Among the ambassadors of barramundi (a fish related to snook) and red claw yabby (a crustacean), Doepel is likely one of the most enthusiastic. A locally based, expat Australian -- a So Flaussie -- he's been paramount in persuading markets like Epicure to carry indigenous Aussie items. He's also organized Australia Day for January 26, a national holiday he wants to ultimately be as celebrated in the United States as St. Patrick's Day or Cinco de Mayo. And why not? As he notes, "As a nation of immigrants, we have a grand tradition of embracing the national holidays of other countries, particularly those that emphasize eating and drinking."

Exactly. Eating and drinking will be accomplished, then, at participating restaurants across the country. But this is no McDonald's promotion. The South Florida eateries joining up range from Café Ibiza in Coral Gables to Zemi in Boca Raton, and the interpretations of foodstuffs to be presented in three-course prix-fixe meals include Ibiza's pan-seared Adelaide River barramundi with heirloom tomatoes and frisée with a lemon myrtle vinaigrette as well as Zemi's artisan Australian triple crème cheese plate. (See www.tastedownunder.com for more details.)

If the more familiar shrimp-on-the-barby is what you're after as opposed to an investment, no matter how minor, in a complete exotic dinner, Taste Down Under will also be sponsoring a tent at the upcoming FAB Fest: A Taste of the Beach (www.fabfest.com). And Australian celebrity chef Fielke, who recently launched Andrew Fielke Enterprises, is promising a product line. After sampling the smoked barramundi pâté he offered with rivermint at the Visiting Chef dinner, I believe we can look forward to the coming of some g'days, indeed, mate. Not to mention a shrinking world. Aside from the inane song, maybe Disney was on to something after all.

 
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