If you can think of a better way to arrive at a food festival than on foot, the scent of bush spices and smoked meats in the air and the crooning vocals of Owie Paroz rolling across the turquoise waters of Darwin Harbour to greet you, then I’d like to hear it. It certainly beats being frisked by a humourless, rubber glove-wearing police officer with an expression that dares you to test exactly how deeply she is permitted to search, which is how I enter most festivals down south. This was a welcome change.
After a one year hiatus, TT2019 made a welcome and much-hyped return to Darwin, only this time it was in a proper, outdoor festival setting with live music throughout the day.
It all went down at Fort Hill Wharf, originally a colonial cemetery then an iron ore-loading facility, but now mostly frequented by silver-haired Western tourists in socks and sandals, alighting from cruise ships and wondering which way the ‘Paris’ end of Mitchell Street is.
On Sunday it was transformed into a carnival of colour, aroma, music and blissful dry season breezes, and it was with enthusiasm that I and my trusted associates Lewis and Laverne showed our bags (just our bags) at the gate and entered.
The Producers’ Pavilion
Showcasing local NT produce, the Pavilion seemed like the best place to start for a trio of hungry Darwinites. We did half a lap before Lewis and I stopped to sample some dried mango at Tou’s Garden when Laverne vanished. How we lost her so quickly and completely is a mystery to me as the Pavilion was almost fully enclosed and she was wearing a frock of such vivid peach that she should have been visible from space. We eventually caught up with her at the opposite end helping herself to a fistful of dates from the Red Centre’s Desert Fruit Company. We made her promise never to do that again (lest we tie a cat bell around her neck) and moved on to Pincha Salt, where the ladies there beckoned to us with the promise of a taste of their wares.
They sprinkled every salt blend they had into our greedily outstretched hands as I tried to decide if the black loomi and cassia laced Pollunu (Sri Lanka) or sumac and marjoram peppered Magirefta (Greece) was my favourite. Arnhem Bush Tucker caught our attention with a whole rosella bush perched on their table; the propierters encouraged us to taste the bitter, blood red leaves from which their chutneys and jams derive their distinctive flavour. A couple of dabs of fiery bush tomato chilli later and we found ourselves darting into the sunshine in search of a refreshing drink. The gin bar seemed the most sensible option, and here Lewis acquired three locally made Green Ant gins with lemon and tonic, including one (Lewis’s) with an actual ant.
We returned to the Pavilion for the Eva Valley Meats kitchen demonstration with Kate Murray, who guided the assembled crowd through recipes for beef jerky and beef bone broth, however it was the beef liver pâté that proved to be the super-tasty surprise. It had an earthy, organic flavour to it, very different from the gamey richness of duck liver pâté, that paired perfectly with the crisp G&Ts we had so recently acquired.
Not wanting to overdo it in the first couple of hours, we polished off our gins and made our way back to the Marquee near the entrance for our Around the World Wine and Cheese tasting with The Smelly Cheese Shop. Here we were expertly guided through the tasting by a Canadian escapee from the health profession named Caleigh Hunt. She had fled for the world of artisanal cheese some ten years before, and her knowledge of the industry was matched only by her passion and enthusiasm. This included
the delightful little fact that the only true difference between brie and camembert is the size of the wheel it comes from.
Our own fancy-pants selection included a soft French Delice des Cremiers, a hard, raw cows’ milk from SA, a Belgian washed rind named Herve L’Exquis a la Biere and capped off with a sweet and creamy gorgonzola. Paired respectively with Veuve champagne, sauv blanc, a saucy little Darymple pinot noir (which later sold out at the wine bar) and a tawny port, we were well and truly festive by the time our cheeseboards had been scraped clean of rind, dried currants and bikkie crumbs.
The Main Concourse
By now well fortified, Lewis, Laverne and myself headed for our first tour of the main arena. Much-loved local muso Owie Paroz, in a truly epic set of nearly three hours was still belting out the classics on the main stage as the whole Festival relaxed into a lazy Top End Sunday vibe. Local catering and training legend Karen Sheldon and her team put on a sensational display of bush foods, spices and complimentary dishes. A bamboo spoon of rogan josh with a tender cube of lamb and a fat little potato poached to spicy perfection, followed by a delicate slice of vegetable lasagne. That plus multiple samples of tangy powdered bush apple and spiced dukkah proved hard to beat, but we were willing to give the others a chance.
Wine Selectors provided an alternative tasting to the Cheese masterclass and almost as long a chit-chat with three whites, three reds and a rose. Flavourista offered samples of sweet and savoury infused olive oils (lemongrass and ginger was particularly zesty) and flavoured salt and herb blends. On my way to the gin bar I corralled two young members of the Defence Force and was promptly offered a smoked red wine and pepper berry kangaroo skewer and the opportunity to become a chef on HMAS Sirius.
The smoked croc ribs at Nitmiluk Tours and Cicada Lodge were so gorgeously marinated in lemon, ginger, chilli and soy that we actually convinced Laverne, a signed and sealed vego since she was 12, to give them a go. Meanwhile, I was kicking myself for not grabbing a Smoky J cheeseburger when I had the chance, particularly after hearing that TT volunteer Mel ate four in one go. The Smelly Cheese Shop, in addition to the masterclass offered free tastings of six cheeses plus a 10 dollar mac ‘n’ cheese jaffle for the Sunday struggler. We skipped the latter in favour of the former and ended up with a four-cheese showbag, thoughtfully supplied in an insulated paper bag and stored in the stall fridge until we claimed it.
A little night music
Dusk was falling as Lewis, Laverne and myself intercepted celebrity chef Manu for a selfie (he obliged graciously, even though I suspect he was on his way to the loo), before finding a table on the ocean side of the wharf as Caiti Baker sang to the crowds. Unbeknownst to me the local mosquitoes were also enjoying a Taste Festival of their own, feasting on my bare legs, silent and unseen under the table. The Chung Wah Society drummers played and the dragon weaved through the nightime crowds as they flocked forwards for a last-minute feed and the headline act.
Finally, Pete Murray took to the stage and brought a fitting end to an awesome festival, playing a solid rock ‘n’ roll set to a packed, sated and happy crowd, even inviting some of the local kids on stage to show off their best moves. As Pete took his bow in the cool, dry season breeze, Lewis, Laverne and myself gathered our souvenirs of cheese, bread, noodles, chutneys and salts, and readied to leave. The rest of the crowd were already drifting back along the old concrete wharf toward the Waterfront, treading the same steps as so many cruise ship passengers before them, but with the knowledge that they had already seen the best of Darwin.
Photos from left at top: Beef liver pậtė by Eva Valley Meats; Green Ant Gin and tonic with actual ant; Pete Murray with unofficial local back-up dancers; Smelly Cheese Shop masterclass; Defence Force croc and roo sticks.