Eating and drinking in Australia
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Meat is plentiful, cheap and generally excellent in Australia: steak forms the mainstay of the pub-counter meal and of the ubiquitous barbie, as Australian an institution as you could hope to find: free or coin-operated barbecues are in car parks, campsites and beauty spots all over the country. As well as the usual beef, chicken, lamb and pork, wallaby, emu and buffalo may be served, but the most common “unusual” meats are kangaroo (or wallaby) – a rich, tender and virtually fat-free meat – and occasionally crocodile, which tastes, inevitably enough, like a mix of chicken and pork, and is at its best when grilled. On the coast, there’s tremendous seafood – prawns and oysters, squid, mud crabs, lobster and yabbies (crayfish) – and a wide variety of fresh- and seawater fish. Flathead is a mainstay, flake is gummy shark, trumpeter and blue-eye is good and barramundi has a reputation as one of the finest, but is easily beaten by sweetlips or coral trout.
Fruit is good, too, from Tasmanian cherries and pears to tropical bananas, pawpaw (papaya), mangoes, avocados, citrus fruits, custard apples, lychees, pineapples, passion fruit, star fruit and coconuts – few of them native, but delicious nonetheless. Vegetables are similarly good, with everything from pumpkin, cauliflowers and potatoes to bok choy and Indian bitter gourds available. Note that in Australia aubergine is known as eggplant, courgettes as zucchini and peppers as capsicums.
Vegetarians and vegans are better served than you might expect of meat-centred Australia, at least in the cities, where veggie cafés have cultivated a wholesome image that suits Australians’ health-conscious nature. Similarly, you’ll find that organic products and gluten-free breads are almost standard. In the country, things are trickier, but most restaurants will have one vegetarian option at least.
A quick word on eskies: these insulated food containers vary from handy “six-pack” sizes to sixty-litre trunks able to swallow a weekend’s worth of food or beer. No barbie or camping trip is complete without one.
Restaurants in Australia charge similarly to, or slightly more than their equivalents in the UK, the US and Canada: a main course in a pub is likely to cost between $20 and $30, while $25 to $45 is the norm in a mid-range restaurant.
Cafés are one of the great joys of modern Australian life. Imported by southern European immigrants in the fifties, café culture in cities and resort towns is excellent, with most places acting as places to hang out with the morning papers and a coffee as much as venues for healthy food throughout the day.
The hotel (ie pub) counter meal is another Aussie mainstay, and in places may be all that’s available: if it is, make sure you get there in time – meals in pubs are generally served from noon to 2.30pm and from 6pm to 8pm, and sometimes not at all on Sunday evening. The food is often simple but substantial; typically steaks/fish and chips, perhaps a daily pie or curry, and a pasta dish. In smarter areas and in cities you’ll find more gastro-pub fare.
In cities and bigger resorts, food courts, where dozens of small stalls compete to offer Thai, Chinese, Japanese or Italian food as well as burgers, steaks and sandwiches, often in the basements of office buildings or in shopping malls, are a good bet for a meal on the go. On the road, you may be limited to what’s available at the roadhouse, usually the lowest common denominator of reheated meat pies and microwaved ready-meals.
Australians have a reputation for enjoying a drink, and the local hotel, pub, tavern, inn or bar has as central a place in Aussie culture as it does in British. Traditionally, public bars were male enclaves, the place where mates met after work on their way home, with the emphasis more on the beer and banter than the surroundings. Nowadays, many city hotels are comfortable, relaxed bars for all, but a lot of Outback pubs remain pretty basic and daunting for strangers of either sex, though you’ll find the barriers come down if you’re prepared to join in the conversation.
Friday and Saturday are the party nights, when there’s likely to be a band and – in the case of some Outback establishments – everybody for 100km around jammed into the building. Opening hours vary from state to state; they’re usually 11am to 11pm, but are often much later, with early closing on Sunday. Some places are also “early openers”, with hours from 6am to 6pm.
Off-licences or liquor stores are known as bottle shops. These are usually in a separate section attached to a pub or supermarket – in many states, you can’t buy alcohol from supermarkets or grocery stores. There are also drive-in bottle shops, sometimes attached to pubs, where you can load bulk purchases directly into your car. If you plan to visit Aboriginal communities in the Outback, bear in mind that some are “dry”. Respect their regulations and don’t take any alcohol with you, even if members of the communities ask you for “grog”.
As the fourth-largest exporter of wine in the world after France, Italy and Spain – in 2018 exports were worth over $2.1bn, the highest value since 2009 – the Australian wine industry has a global reputation. The likes of Jacob’s Creek and Oxford Landing, Yalumba, Lindemans, Wolf Blass, Penfolds and Hardys are fixtures in most European supermarkets. And even if Australia is still stereotyped as a nation of beer-drinkers, Australian viticulture has a long pedigree – vine cuttings from the Cape of Good Hope were shipped with the First Fleet.
Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Sémillon and Riesling are the principal grape varieties, and winemakers in recent years have moved away from a weakness for big, powerful wines which packed a punch in terms of fruit and jams as much as alcohol levels. Aussie wines today tend to be more subtle affairs: spicy or silky, mouth-filling or aromatic reds; fresh crisp whites packed with citrus or tropical fruits that are tailor-made for quaffing with the barbie; and vibrant summery rosés. Nor are they particularly pricey: even an inexpensive bottle will be better than just drinkable, while pricier varieties can produce something really special.
Most states in the southern half of the country have wine-growing regions and, as in America, most vineyards welcome guests. You can easily lose a few happy days pottering around vineyards, sampling wines and chatting to makers. The most celebrated wine-producing regions are the Hunter Valley in New South Wales and the Barossa Valley in South Australia, but you will also find superb vineyards in the Yarra Valley, Victoria, and the Clare Valley, South Australia. More recently, Margaret River in southwest Western Australia has emerged as a gourmet hotspot of world-class wineries and restaurants. If you buy at the wineries themselves, you’ll be able to sample in advance (see box above). That said, most bottle shops have a good range of reasonably priced options from around the country, and at some specialist bottle shops staff can advise on varieties to suit your palette.
The Australian wine industry also makes port and brandy as a sideline and there are two (in)famous dark rums from Queensland’s sugar belt that are well worth tasting: the sweet, smoky Bundaberg and the more conventionally flavoured Beenleigh. They’re of average strength, normally 33 percent alcohol, but beware of “overproof” variations, which will floor you if you try to drink them like ordinary spirits.
Finally, a word about whisky. Scots will dispute the malts as second rate, but the Australian whisky industry is winning plaudits from connoisseurs. Tasmania, the most Scottish of Aussie states, with similar peaty streams and pure environment, is the centre of production, with fine single malts produced by distilleries such as Lark, Hellyer, Nant and Sullivans Cove.
Australia has a thriving coffee culture, thanks largely to the waves of European (and most notably Italian) immigration in the 1950s. You can get a good cup right across the country, with standards particularly high in Melbourne. Australia is also the birthplace of the flat white: an espresso topped with milk that has been heated to produce “micro foam” but is not frothy. Meanwhile, a “short black” is the local term for an espresso, and a “long black” is an Americano (without milk).
Before the first European colonists settled on the continent, Aborigines followed a nomadic lifestyle within extensive tribal boundaries, following seasonal game and plants and promoting both by annually burning off grassland.
Along the coast, indigenous people speared turtles and dugong from outrigger canoes, and even cooperated with dolphins to herd fish into shallows. On land, animals caught were possums, snakes, goannas, emus and kangaroos, while more meagre pickings were provided by honey and green ants, water-holding frogs, moths and various grubs – the witchetty (or witjuti) being the best known. Plants were used extensively and formed the bulk of the diet. This food became known as bushtucker.
Until 1993, it was illegal to sell or serve kangaroo or emu anywhere outside of South Australia, but following legislation that allowed their consumption in other states, emu, kangaroo and even crocodile are now readily available on restaurant menus.
There are also several bushtucker tours and safaris available (particularly in the Northern Territory), which give an introduction to living off the land.
In a restaurant, BYO, or Bring Your Own, means diners may bring their own wine to enjoy with their meal. Some establishments add “wine only” after BYO, but the understanding is generally that you may not bring spirits or beer. A small corkage fee – around Aus$5–10 – is usually charged, either per bottle or per head. Some licensed restaurants also allow BYO wine, but throw in a steep corkage fee to the price of your bottle – you might as well stick to their wine list.
Some foods are all-Aussie. Here’s a selection sure to make any expat antipodean long for home.
Imagine a wrapper of stodgy breadcrumbed dough filled with a mess of beef, veg, thickeners and flavourings, then deep-fried. Inspired by the spring roll, they say, but you could only get away with it in Australia.
Sounding positively wholesome by comparison is this swagman’s staple – soda bread baked in a pot buried in the ashes of a fire. It’s not hard to make after a few attempts. The secret is in the heat of the coals – and a splash of beer.
A chocolate-coated sponge cube rolled in shredded coconut.
A dessert concoction of meringue with layers of cream and fruit; named after the eminent Russian ballerina. Made properly with fresh fruit and minimum quantities of cream and sugar, it’s not bad at all.
The apotheosis of the meat pie; a “pie floater” is an inverted meat pie swamped in mashed green peas and tomato sauce. Floaters can be surprisingly good, or horrible enough to put you off both pies and peas for life.
Regarded by the English as an inferior form of Marmite and by almost every other nationality with total disgust, Vegemite is an Australian institution – a strong, dark, yeast spread.
Witchetty grubs (witjuti)
The king of Aussie bushtucker, these delicacies about the size of your little finger are dug from the roots of mulga trees. Eating the plump, fawn-coloured caterpillars live (as is traditional) takes some nerve, so give them a brief roast in embers. Either way, they’re oddly reminiscent of peanut butter.
The smaller wineries tend to have more charm and intrinsic interest than the larger commercial operators and it’s here you’ll often get to talk personally to the winemaker or snare some wines not generally available in wine shops. Groups are welcomed by most wineries but are encouraged to book, although some places are too small to accommodate them. You’re under no obligation to buy wine, but coming away with a few of your favourites of the day and some fruity adjectives to describe them is part of the fun.
For a novice, wine tasting can be an intimidating experience. On entering the tasting area (or cellar door) you’ll be shown a list of wines that may be tasted, divided into whites through to reds, all printed in the order that the winemaker considers best on the palate. This is fine, but if you are visiting several wineries and are only interested in reds, by all means concentrate on the reds. Always look at the colour and clarity of the wine first, then give it a swirl and a sniff. Then take a deeper sniff with your nose inside the rim of the glass to try to appreciate the aroma or bouquets you can pick up. Then take a sip, rolling it around on your tongue before swallowing; there’s always a spittoon if you don’t want to swallow. A great way to learn more is to think about what you can pick up on your palate and then check it against the winemaker’s notes. Don’t be shy about discussing the wines with the person serving – that’s what they’re there for, and even wine snobs are down-to-earth Australians at heart.