Blood and guts for lunch Down Under

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The Independent Online
Friday morning and I'm sitting in a marquee in Adelaide, discussing sex, food and cannibalism with one of the most famous cooks in Australia, Gay Bilson. Gay runs the Bennelong Restaurant at the Sydney Opera House and her questions are thoughtful and intelligent, ranging from the dietary habits of medieval saints to the connection between anthropophagy and lovers' talk such as "I could eat you up" - all subjects covered in my book on food, Hungry For You, which is the reason I've been invited to Australia.

I've been in Adelaide all week, taking part in a food and wine writers' festival, and by now I'm prepared for anything, whether it's eating fricasseed kangaroo or being invited to view the arts minister's sister's bedroom furniture (more of this later). Suddenly, though, a member of the audience gets up and challenges Gay to tell me about her blood sausages. Sausages? I wait politely, expecting an anecdote about pig's blood, and Gay launches into a description of a banquet she once cooked on the theme of the body. Its piece de resistance, she says, was a dish of sausages made with her own blood - or would have been if she had been able to find anyone prepared to draw the requisite amount.

Well, honestly. I've often heard cooks complain about not being able to get the right ingredients, but they're usually talking about fresh lemon grass or dried mushrooms, not human body fluids. Gay's story confirms my suspicion that Australians don't just have a novel approach to food, they're obsessed with it - and the odder the combination of flavours the better. On Tuesday I attended a dinner in Adelaide cooked by Cheong Liew, the most celebrated chef in a city famous for its restaurants, along with 80 food writers from around the world, including Claudia Roden and Josceline Dimbleby.

It began with the Four Dances of the Sea, a plate of tiny starters - soused snook, octopus aioli, spiced prawn sushi, raw cuttlefish and black noodles - which we were instructed to eat clockwise, in ascending order of flavour. By the time the pudding arrived, quite a long time later, half the guests had succumbed to jetlag and disappeared, leaving a hard core of determined diners to tuck into what looked like creme caramel with a mysterious black layer in the middle.

"Chopped kidneys?" suggested my friend, the food writer Paul Levy. We were relieved to learn, on checking the lengthy menu, that it was nothing so exotic, merely a layer of chewy black rice. Paul's suggestion was quite reasonable, however, as I discovered when I bought Cheong's book, My Food, the following day. In 1985, he writes, a supply of fresh deer penis suddenly became available and he cooked it for a party of visiting winemakers, cutting it into diamond shapes and serving it in game soup. As I was saying a moment ago, these people will cook anything - and that even goes for the city's taxi drivers, one of whom volunteered recipes for emu and crocodile during a short trip to a nearby beach.

I've never visited Australia before, and all the people I've met have been remarkably kind and astonishingly candid. When I turned up at a local radio station to be interviewed on a breakfast show on Thursday morning, the production assistant greeted me with: "Hello, gorgeous", and explained that she worked there in her spare time, the rest of it being taken up by her role as secretary of the prostitutes' association. She was also, she announced, doing some very interesting research into paedophilia.

This was rather a lot to take in before nine o'clock in the morning and I hadn't really recovered by the time I arrived at the writers' festival to take part in a panel session, harmlessly entitled "My Road to Food and Wine Writing". The other speakers were Tom Jaine, who used to edit the UK edition of The Good Food Guide, and the distinguished author Eric Rolls, who is currently writing a history of Australia in two volumes. Dazed by jetlag and a sudden attack of hay fever, I found myself talking volubly about Lord Byron's dislike of watching women eat, a phobia I attributed to castration anxiety - only to look up and see the audience staring at me in astonished silence. (Cultural confusion, as I have been reminded this week, works both ways.)

At a civic reception that evening, I described this incident to the arts minister for South Australia, Diana Laidlaw, who responded with an anecdote of her own. A committed opponent of capital punishment, she once attended a policy meeting of the ruling Liberal Party - the equivalent of the British Conservatives - where some of her male colleagues were talking enthusiastically about the death penalty. Exasperated, Ms Laidlaw announced that she didn't believe in cutting people's heads off, but she was in favour of rapists having their balls removed. Everyone looked very uncomfortable, she said, and the discussion ended abruptly without a policy decision.

When she had finished telling this story, the minister invited meand an American writer, the novelist Eric Kraft, upstairs to a workshop where local craftsmen had just finished making two bedside tables for her sister. I don't agree with her politics but I can't imagine many British ministers behaving with such charming informality.

The other surprise of the week has been to do with language. Given that we all speak English, I hadn't expected to come across so many unfamiliar words in newspaper headlines. "Raskol at large after Aussie scientist slain" prompted fantasies about killer marsupials until someone explained that raskol is simply an alternative spelling of rascal. Then there's rorting, an activity that has recently brought about the resignation of several ministers in the federal government; disappointingly, it turns out to mean nothing more exciting than claiming your expenses to the limit, instead of trying to save taxpayers' money.

The Australian word I like best, however, is wowserism. I already knew that it meant extreme right-wing Protestantism, but I didn't realise, until this week, that it's an acronym. According to a discussion I heard on a local radio station, it stands for "We Only Want Social Evils Removed"- a modest little request, if ever I heard one.

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