by Sue Hoffart
In a farmers’ market south of Adelaide, I am struck by a nutty flashback to Tunisia. Thankfully, it’s not the grotty, dirt-cheap package holiday accommodation and rotten weather I’m remembering from 15 years ago. It’s the fresh pistachios. Two things saved that spur-of-the-moment North African adventure from abject disaster; a sense of humour in the face of universally unfriendly locals, and my first taste of fresh pistachios.
Having identified the clusters of pretty pink-hulled pods, we learned to delve inside to a softish, greeny-pink core so different from the familiar aged, dried, salted version. We discovered the nuts embedded in mountainous slabs of nougat, sold by surly men who wheeled their carts through the dusty streets of Tunis.
By contrast, the 60 or so stallholders at Willunga’s Saturday morning market are a cheerful bunch, plying us with samples and culinary tips.
I’m distracted by furious calculations: how much can I devour in the next couple of days, and how much of this bounty can we slip past the food police at Auckland Airport?
Aside from pistachios, this ridiculously abundant corner of South Australia offers up freshly-picked figs and almonds, as well as muscatel and sultana grapes, and locally-pressed oils made from olives, macadamias and hazelnuts. Most weeks, shoppers outnumber the town’s resident population of 2200, filling their baskets with rainbow ribbons of pasta and stone-ground sourdough bread. ??Locals chat as they gather their weekly groceries and city day-trippers travel here from Adelaide, a 45-minute drive north. They buy farmed rabbit and free range duck, curls of organic dried ginger, slabs of Frangelico-laced blueberry and almond tart whist eying up a glorious array of cheeses.
Beyond the market and the town’s historic stone buildings, a leafy sea of vineyards obscures reddish-brown earth. The actual ocean is 10km west. The beach at Port Willunga feels like Greece, with its fine white sand wedged between arid cliffs and fantastically clear, tepid water. A cluster of whitewashed houses with blue shutters and scarlet geranium window boxes wouldn’t look amiss.
Willunga itself sits on the edge of McLaren Vale wine region, which is dotted with more than 60 cellar doors best known for their full-bodied reds. We spend a pleasantly woozy afternoon making barely a dent in our wish list of must-visit wineries, once again miscalculating consumption rates and maximum luggage allowances.
It’s no easier further north. Draw a circle around Adelaide, give it a 200km radius, and expect to find a bewildering 200-plus vineyards within two hours’ drive of the provincial capital. A friend and I made a pathetic attempt at tackling the Barossa wine region several years ago, ceremoniously driving over Jacob’s Creek near the winery giant of the same name. Our first, addictive glass of sparkling Shiraz was quaffed inside a tasting room that looked like a tiny, ancient, stone cattle barn. We were still suffering from post-lunch bloat when one winery presented us with a platter of fresh almonds, cured meats and locally baked German-style bread meant to showcase the region’s produce. It was horrifying. So much food, so much wine, only one stomach. That was Peter Lehmann winery, where they ran the gamut of crisp Riesling to velvety Shiraz, served by the sommelier in a private vertical tasting. It was wonderful and undoubtedly educational but no less overwhelming when we hit the road again with our map and directory of only a hundred and something more wineries to go.
It’s a wonder I remember anything, really. I’m lousy at wine touring on this scale, given that it requires both a clear head and a well-thought out plan of attack. I can’t bring myself to spit good wine – and South Australians don’t really do bad wine – so I invariably feel light-headed and unable to soundly judge much after a couple of part-glasses on an empty stomach. Or I eat too much winery food and grow drowsy and disinclined to move on with the tour. ??So it’s surprising how vividly I recall parts of that adventure. Vines brushed with autumnal rusts and golds with bursts of burgundy. The unexpected hills on a Riesling cycle tour in the Clare Valley (isn’t Australia meant to be flat?). The fat kookaburra who stared back at us in the grounds of Sevenhill Cellars, whose vineyards were established by Jesuit priests for sacramental wine production.
Back in Adelaide, my stomach compels a return to two places from an earlier visit. The first is Auge, a knock-out contemporary Italian restaurant that has collected a string of awards since the night I tucked into that tiny espresso cup of frothy basil and sweetcorn soup.
Then there is Adelaide Central Food Market. If Willunga transports me to Tunisia, this magnificent 140-year-old mother of food markets scatters my taste buds around the globe. To Poland for cheesecake, to Russia for Piroshki, on to Greece for baklava and the most glorious, creamy yoghurt laced with passionfruit. Spiny red rambutans remind me of fruit stalls in Thailand.
Lucia’s very Italian café and produce store has been in the same family for three generations. Remarkably inexpensive bottles of local olive oil sit among the distinctively Australian offerings that include crocodile sausages and the dried berries produced by an Aboriginal community.
I could happily lay my swag inside this bustling, multicultural, multi-sensory culinary mecca, to quiz the stallholders, ogle and sample and dine until I developed a special South Australian paunch and waddle. ??In fact, my sole complaint about the market relates to its location – I’d rather it was several thousand kilometres east, in my back yard.
Favourite Foodie Finds:
Smartly casual ‘Fino’ knows how to utilise regional produce, often bought from the Willunga market stallholders outside the front door. Willunga, t: +61 8 8556 4488. w: www.fino.net.au
Stunningly good woodfired lamb pizza at ‘Russell’s Pizza’ and a no-cutlery, no holds barred attitude to fun dining. Hours are limited, bookings essential. Willunga, t: +61 8 8556 2571.
Perched on cliffs overlooking Port willunga’s gorgeous beach, Star of Greece café is ideal for a long, lazy lunch or an ice-cream and fish and chips at the adjoining kiosk. Port Willunga, t: +61 8 8557 7420.
Award-winning contemporary Italian fare at Auge. Adelaide, t: +61 8 8410 9332, w: www.auge.com.au
Lunch beneath a giant olive tree at ‘Skillogalee’ Vineyard and Restaurant. They have charming accommodation, too. Sevenhill, Clare Valley, t: +61 8 8843 4311, w: www.skillogalee.com
Willunga Farmer’s Market. Saturdays 8am-12.30pm. t: +61 8 8556 4297, w: www.willungafarmersmarket.com
Central Adelaide Market. open Tue-Sat, hours vary. t: +61 8 8203 7494, w: www.centralmarkettour.com.au
Adelaide Showgrounds Farmers’ Market is a big city version of Wllunga’s market, with many of the same stallholders, plus extras. Every Sunday except during Adelaide show time, 9am — 1pm. t: +61 8 8231 8155, w: www.asfm.org.au?
If all those cellar doors are overwhelming, visit the National Wine Centre of Australia for education, tastings, exhibitions and information. Adelaide, t: +61 8 8303 3355, w: www.wineaustralia.com.au
Travel and accommodation information, w: www.southaustralia.co.nz