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The Australian Food Companion

By KASEY WILSON -- Wine Access Magazine

Australia is the only country in the world that occupies an entire continent, whose physical features range from damp jungles to dry deserts. There's virtually nothing that cannot be grown or raised Down Under. Strangely, though, while the nation's wines have taken their place among the most respected in the world, comparatively little is known about Australian food.

Still, Australians themselves take their food seriously and are entering an era of unprecedented food production and gustatory appreciation. The Australian gourmet scene is flourishing, and in this era of easy global access that is good news for foodies in the rest of the world, including Canadians.

Says Kathy Snowball, the food editor of Australian Gourmet Traveller magazine, "The new trends in Sydney revolve around the fabulous produce available. Now the city's chefs are into more simple presentation, fewer flavours on one plate. And now some producers have the same kind of star quality as chefs: Last year we had a very successful series of awards for food producers and distributors. Sought-after premiere ingredients are now being labelled with the names of the growers and other producers."

Australian produce, as long as it has been available, has always had special seasonal appeal in Canada. When our fruit orchards are freezing, those of Australians are blossoming; when our vegetable gardens are under a foot of snow, theirs are filled with produce soaking up the famed Australian sunshine. More than ever, this fresh produce is being imported into Canada.

In recent years, the list of major imported produce has been led by English cucumbers, asparagus, lychees, mangoes, and citrus fruits. Australian seafood, too, is seeing rapid growth in exports to other countries. Canada imports mostly abalone, tuna, and the tasty and wonderfully Australian-sounding barramundi. (But as far as we know, no yabbies yet U a freshwater crayfish.)

Meat products, especially lamb, have long been a staple of Australian food exporting, and that business is both growing and expanding to take in new products, many of them exotic. Interestingly, for instance, Australians (the only people on Earth who regularly eat their national animal) are now aggressively marketing kangaroo meat around the world.

Dining Kangaroo?

Most Canadians have never seen a real kangaroo. Film footage of kangaroos they've seen, and photographs and cartoon kangaroos on television. But the reality of kangaroos, especially as a dinner entree item, is still a significant leap outside Canadian cuisine. This is true, despite a very large body of evidence that kangaroo meat is organically produced, lean and rich in protein, low in polyunsaturated fats and, quite apart from anything else, extremely tasty.

"When kangaroo might be legally available in Canada is at present anybody's guess. Best estimates say it could be allowed in specialty stores and restaurants in six months to a year."

Australia's aboriginal people have been hunting and cooking kangaroos for thousands of years, but non-natives hadn't even seen a kangaroo until 1629. The first record of a European actually tasting kangaroo meat dates back to 1793, when Spanish explorer Alejandro Malaspina pronounced it "very good for sustenance, inferior to veal, but better than many others."

It would have made sense if, not too long thereafter, kangaroo had become a major Australian food export, but it didn't. Despite its desirable properties, kangaroo has not even become a common international export, and in fact its sale was, until recently, illegal in many parts of Australia itself. The meat has been exported since 1980, but it wasn't until 1993 that a new law allowed the sale and consumption of kangaroo in all Australian states. While kangaroos are presently hunted, kangaroo ranches are becoming a hot topic of discussion all over Australia, and word is that several operations are about to open.

The reason for the kangaroo's lack of wide international popularity to date has nothing to do with the meat itself or any kind of public resistance to it. Instead, a tangle of similar government restrictions have kept this flavourful fare from many dinner tables, including those in Canada.

In March 1995, after 21 years of attempted market penetration, the United States government determined that Australia's red and grey kangaroos (in total there are about 50 species) were in no way ecologically threatened, and allowed kangaroo meat on the nation's dinner tables. France approved it in 1996, and Belgium, Holland, and Germany have recently become kangaroo-consuming countries.

In Canada, after six years of lobbying, it still isn't legal to sell kangaroo, but it can be given away. Which is what happened recently in Vancouver when the Australian Trade Commission linked up with specialty importer Hill's Fine Foods to offer Canada's first legal taste of kangaroo. Chefs from Canada's Culinary Olympic team prepared it eight different ways for a gathering of leading BC restaurateurs, and they agreed universally that this lean and flavourful meat could make a valuable addition to many menus. When kangaroo might be legally available in Canada is at present anybody's guess; best estimates say it could be allowed in specialty stores and restaurants in six months to a year.

Australian Lamb

The star among Australian food exports is still, of course, lamb, all the more so because of advances in technology and transportation. Formerly, Australian lamb was most often a frozen product, but these days much of the world (including Canada) can obtain the lamb fresh. And this freshness has led to a whole new appreciation of the product.

Backed by intense global marketing, fresh Australian range lambs are grass fed, the meat is free of additives, and it is most often shipped boneless, trimmed, and packaged as individual-serving cuts, making it a popular value-added product in the international marketplace. According to the Australian Meat and Live-Stock Corporation, these new cuts, coupled with their freshness, are proving popular with Canadian chefs as well as those in many other parts of the world.

 




Recipe

Lamb Chops with Mint Pesto and Tomato and Mozzarella Salad

I first ate Australian lamb when I visited Australia in 1980 and was pleasantly surprised with the fresh, clean taste. Here is a quick, easy, and delicious recipe for lamb from colleague Kathy Snowball, food editor of Australia's Gourmet Traveller and The Wine Magazine.

8 - 12 trimmed lamb chops

2 bunches asparagus, trimmed

virgin olive oil

2 tomatoes, cut into wedges

1 buffalo mozzarella, cut into wedges

1/3 cup baby olives

1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Mint Pesto

1 cup firmly packed mint leaves

1 cup firmly packed flat-leaf parsley leaves

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/4 cup pine nuts

1 clove garlic, chopped

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

For mint pesto, place all ingredients in a food processor, process until well combined, then season to taste.

Brush lamb chops and asparagus with oil and grill or broil until cooked to your liking.

Combine tomato and mozzarella wedges on 4 serving plates, sprinkle with olives and drizzle with combined red wine vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. Place lamb chops and asparagus to one side and spoon over a little mint pesto separately.

Serves 4

Wine Suggestion

Coonawarra shiraz (Wynns 1996) or cab-merlot (Rynill 1996) will have the acidity to go with this Italian-influenced dish, and enough mint, fruit, and pepper to capture the essence of the ingredients.


This article first appeared in the April/May 1999 issue of Wine Access Magazine

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