Saeed Saeed heads to Australia for a walking tour of the Victorian capital with chef and author Allan Campion.
Melbourne embraces its foodie reputation proudly
The leafy suburb of Carlton in Melbourne's north and the countless restaurants and delis making up Lygon Street have for more than 50 years acted as a sociological bellwether for the city - from migration to its fashion trends - as I discovered when I joined a personalised foodie's walking tour of the street with celebrated Melbourne chef and author Allan Campion. If Melburnians' love of coffee and more cultured pursuits have led them to be derided as "latte sippers" by less enlightened neighbouring Australian states, the meeting spot picked by the affable Campion points instead to a love of pâté.
"That's beautiful," he mutters, as he reaches for another pâté-filled mini baguette. "This is the real McCoy - real food and none of this mass-produced stuff. Pâté can be like chocolate. You can keep eating and eating poor-quality chocolate and never get that chocolate hit. It's the same thing with pâté. If you have great quality you can eat a little bit, enjoy the amazing taste and say, 'OK, I'm done'."
We're inside the cosy La Parisienne Pâtés (290 Lygon St), the first stop of his "Foodies' Walking Tour of Carlton". While Melburnians pass by enjoying a fine spring day - fashionistas mix with students and mothers with prams - inside we could have been in an authentic French boulangerie.
Since French chef Stephane Langlois opened it more than a decade ago, La Parisienne Pâtés has earned its reputation selling a wide variety of treats, from drinks, jams and mustard to rabbit and duck pies.
Helping himself to yet another mini baguette while eyeing the duck confit in the counter fridge, Campion says the shop is part of a greater culinary awareness sweeping Melbourne's suburbs.
Aided by the popularity of cooking shows such as MasterChef Australia, which made an unlikely local television star of chef George Calombaris - a recent Gourmet Abu Dhabi guest - and the ever-growing annual Melbourne Food and Wine Festival this month, the term foodie has become a label proudly owned by everyone from hipsters to families.
"This food culture just didn't come out of nowhere," Campion says. "They have seen things on television and followed the TV shows, they tasted some of it, tried the recipes and now they are hooked. "
Such insights make Campion and his tour a delight.
Beginning in 2004, Campion designed the three-and-a-half-hour stroll as a one-off event celebrating Melbourne's culinary scene. Its success caused him to run it regularly and include additional tours of other Melbourne culinary hot spots, including the city's famed China Town district, coffee shops and outdoor markets.
The tours also accommodates various appetites. Some include a sit-down, multi-course meal at a featured restaurant while others, as in the case with this tour, offer small tastings at certain stops. Campion says his intimate tour groups - stretching to a maximum of seven persons - cater to both international tourists and local families. He says the Lygon Street route is dear to him because its culinary development echoes Melbourne's rich migrant history.
Affectionately known as Little Italy, thanks to its large Italian population, Lygon Street was once a poor immigrant area. While the narrow stretch is now distinguished by ultra-chic boutiques selling everything from jewellery to Afghan kaftans, in the 1950s the street was home to Melbourne's many emerging communities - English, Italians, Poles, Indians and Jews - that opened their own stores, restaurants and delis, selling a little slice of home.
Take the nasally stimulating experience that is Gewurzhaus at 342 Lygon Street, for example. The name may mean "House of Spices" in German, but the store is actually home to more than 300 varieties of spices, herbs, salt, pepper and sugar from all over the world, and all are blended on site.
As well as Lygon Street's history of accepting new culinary traditions, Gewurzhaus's assistant manager Christine Allan says the decision to open the store here in 2010 was also down to shrewd economic insight.
"People in Melbourne are interested in fresh ingredients," she says. "Also now with the global financial crisis some people can't afford to always eat in restaurants but at the same time want quality food, so they just come here and find the spices they want and cook at home."
And for those less-learned souls, Allan and her staff are there to help with instructions on how to use Saudi baharat for lamb shanks, cardamom pistachio to caramelise a crème brûlée and how the Eritrean spice berbere can add an extra kick to a meat or vegetable stew. "People are curious and they want to try different things," she says. "Not long ago a man came in and said he was so happy that he made a 'salt 'n' peppa' squid for his partner. Years ago such a thing wouldn't have came to his mind when it came to home cooking."
Newcomers such as La Parisienne Pâtés and Gewurzhaus, Campion observes when exiting the latter, have encouraged some of the street's older retailers, who shook up their tried-and-tested approach by adding some bold products to their repertoire.
As we stroll down the street, passing an ice-cream store and hole-in-the-wall cafes, Campion points out other notable delis, one of which is King & Godfree (293 Lygon St). Housed in a single-storey building dating from the 19th century, the store practised a roaring trade as a wine merchant selling a safe yet predictable array of cheeses. Recently, however, more innovative varieties have started making an appearance in their fridge.
We also walk past Donnini's Home Made Pasta (320 Lygon St), another stalwart of the street. It not only offers fresh pasta but also offers radical ideas such as its artichoke and pine-nut ricotta. It has also become the rare place where you can find home-made pappardelle - the less glamorous cousin of the tagliatelle pasta. "Don't worry, it will have its day," Campion remarks solemnly, as we stare at a packet in the shop window.
Campion's choice of what businesses to visit or observe externally depends on the strength and confidence of the store owners.
"It's not just about what they are selling," he says. "It's also about the stories behind the stores - that's what people most enjoy. Before, some of the businesses were not confident enough about speaking to the public, but that is slowly changing now with the popularity of the street."
The next place, Campion promises, is the beginning of a new trend. Located on Elgin Street, a narrow but busy thoroughfare off Lygon Street, Bezela (105 Elgin) is viewed as Australia's only free-range deli, with meat from animals and hens all raised in smaller herds in unconfined conditions. Curiously, for such a meat-filled store, Bezela does a roaring trade among the city's vegan crowd.
"They come here and try our vegetarian dishes," says co-owner Jess Merrett. "But they don't have a problem with us because we know we are very ethical in our dealings."
With some meat products nearing AUS$50 (Dh198) per kilo, Merrett says customers need to change the way they shop. "Some people still need to get used to picking up only enough for the day - for example, four slices [of meat] only - as opposed to just getting things in bulk at the convenience store," she says. "Otherwise they will come to the counter and receive a shock at the price."
Not far away is a store making new tricks from old concepts. It may call itself a "Mozzarella Laboratory" on its website, but the Italian deli La Latteria views cheese-making as an art rather than a science.
It was this creative impulse that drove Giorgo Linguanti to forgo his cushy career in advertising and transform his cheese-making hobby into a full-time living.
La Latteria is as much an exhibition of his artistry as a deli. Here, you will find his famous Bocconcini Leaf, a deliciously designed flat cheese resembling Lebanese pita bread, which can be stuffed with fillings.
Another signature item is his Divaloetti (Little Devil), a small provolina-shaped smoked cheese that packs a punch, courtesy of an olive filled with chilli cheekily placed at its heart.
"People in Carlton are friendly and they allow you to be creative," he says. "Some of the things that I do here would not be appreciated in Italy because they are conservative when it comes to their cheese. Over here, they at least give it a try."
The same innovative spirit can also be found in the gelateria Il Dolce Freddo (116 Lygon St), the last stop of the tour. "This store, on a Friday night, has queues down the street," Campion says. While a gelato store in an Italian neighbourhood maybe a no-brainer in a business sense, examining the store's range of flavours is akin to reading the tea leaves regarding the city's future.
For more than a decade, Il Dolce Freddo has been catering to the changing face of migrants and international students calling Melbourne home. The results are offbeat flavours such as pandan, durian, avocado, green tea and Parmesan, all nestling alongside the traditional pistachio and tiramisu.
Co-owner Donna Terry says this inclusive approach is essential to the store's longevity.
"You have to keep up with what people want," she explains. "A lot of the kids that come here - for example, the international students living in this area - look for specific flavours and we are the only store they can find that will do it using real ingredients."
Terry recalls a time when the store began making a small batch of durian-based gelato for visiting Indonesian and Malaysian students.
"The smell went right upstairs, I couldn't believe it," she said. "It was only a small batch at first but they were so excited they went screaming down the street with their tubs and spoons."
Terry says Lygon Street's constant evolution keeps store owners on their toes; their willingness to create as well as discard old habits is essential to keep business afloat.
"Besides, it keeps things interesting," she says. "Everything changes and we must be open to that."
It also keeps Campion on his toes. His tours are never the same because they always incorporate fledgling businesses.
"Everything is always evolving and changing," he says. "That just means you have to keep coming back."
If you go
The flight ??Return flights to Melbourne from Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) cost from Dh6,660, including taxes.
The tour Melbourne Food Tours (www.melbournefoodtours.com) Foodies' Walking Tour of Melbourne runs for up to three-and-a-half hours and starts from A$699 (Dh2,774) for a group of up to seven people. Melbourne Food and Wine Festival (www.mel-bournefoodandwine.com.au) runs until March 21.
The hotels Double rooms at the boutique Royce Hotel (www.roycehotels.com.au; 00 613 9677 9900) in Melbourne's business district cost from A$229 (Dh901) per night. Double rooms at Vibe Hotel (www.vibehotels.com.au) in Carlton cost from A$125 (Dh492) per night.