Australia’s New Culinary Capitals: South Australia

This article appears in Volume 29: The Taste Issue

After an early flight from Victoria, I find myself ducking into the shady halls of Adelaide Central Market. Although there are a few chi-chi cafés where bearded graphic designers sip flat whites among its 80 stalls, the floors are raw concrete and there's a twisted tube map of rusting pipes on the ceiling. Mark Gleeson, who has run café Providore for more than two decades, sits on a spindly chair outside Lucia's Pizza and Spaghetti Bar.

As he drums his feet on the black-and-white lino, he tells me the story of its founder, who introduced locals to "exotic" ingredients such as olive oil and garlic through her secret tomato sauce recipe. "She arrived from Italy in 1957 with nothing but a suitcase and a sprig of grape vine hidden in her bra," he says, between enormous bites of pastia (a sweet cake containing egg noodles and ricotta). "She was the mother of the thriving market community you see today. I can still picture Lucia with her big curly hair, standing in that doorway, sipping an espresso and smoking cigarettes."

A woman matching that description almost exactly suddenly appears. The ghost of Lucia? No: her daughter Maria, who still runs the café with her sister Nicci. "The market's like a village green where the community gathers," Gleeson continues. "You'll find bankers and politicians rubbing shoulders with farmers and tradies." Maria gestures towards a gaggle of iron-haired academics, the tote bags at their feet spilling over with heritage tomatoes from Greenside Greengrocer and black angus beef from O'Connell's Meats. "They've been coming for spaghetti bolognese every Thursday for more than 30 years."

We drive into the textured tapestry of the Adelaide Hills. The homesick European settlers who arrived here in the 1830s planted oak and pine trees that still tower over the road, while apple orchards and sheds selling free-range eggs slide by. However, despite the region's peacefulness, high up in the small Basket Range town a rebellious micro-movement is gathering steam. "We call it the beautiful wine movement," laughs Taras Ochota, of Ochota Barrels. "We're all experienced winemakers and sommeliers who have chosen to farm organically on a tiny scale and operate on handshake agreements. It's about respecting the purity of the vineyard and everyone involved."

Ochota reminds me of a modern Robin Hood, as he leads the way in an algae-green shirt through an organic vegetable patch to a garden shed filled with French oak barrels. Although he spent his youth playing bass in punk bands and dreamed up the company on a surf trip to Mexico, Ochota's credentials are as impressive as the rose-scented riesling he's currently swishing around his mouth in time to the Joy Division song blasting from the stereo. "My wines have a foundation in science, but it's a creative project really," he remarks. "At the end of the day, I'm not solving world peace. It's just a fucking drink."

Fifteen minutes by plane and I reach Kangaroo Island. This is the Australia I recognise from postcards: a wild place where there are more kangaroos than cars on the road and white-bellied eagles soar low over vast seas of eucalyptus mallee. The pale limbs of narrow-leaved gum trees reach for each other over the road, until it feels as if we are driving through a natural church.

Koalas blink from the canopy and our keen-eyed guide, Craig Wickham of Exceptional Kangaroo Island Tours, points out the golden spines of a young echidna (anteater) ambling towards a Tate's grass tree. Later that night, as I stare at the horizon from the polished-stone lounge of the ultra-luxe Southern Ocean Lodge, I realise with a jolt that there's nothing standing between me and Antarctica.

Bound together by their geographical isolation and the economic reverberations of the wool crash that decimated the island's farming industry in 1989, the island's food producers are tight knit and take an innovative approach to sustainability. There's Fooksy the fisherman, who flaps away curious pelicans as he shows us the special net he uses to allow young fish to escape and flourish to full growth; John Lark, whose award-winning craft gins are made with 48 botanicals mostly foraged from his own 20-acre garden; and Dave Clifford, who, with his daughters, runs Clifford's Honey Farm, home to the world's last pure colony of Ligurian honey bees. "It's the respect for nature and sense of community that make our island's food scene so special," says Craig, licking a drop of smoky sugar-gum honey off his finger.

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