I was recently invited on a weekend road trip with a friend who was taking part in ‘a festival in the country’. With that staggeringly detailed information, I set about investigating online festivals in country Victoria, with the added information that it was ‘somewhere near Shepparton’. Seeing as the annual Shepparton festival had come and gone – in March – and there wasn’t much else on the agenda in those parts, I cast the net wider. Nothing in northern Victoria, but what do you know, there was a little something called the Tuppal Food and Fibre Festival in country NSW (somewhere between Tocumwal and Deniliquin for those of you in the know), that sounded kinda big. ‘Yeah! That’s the one’, my friend had said, when I rang to confirm. So it was not really in Shepparton … and also in another state.
I had driven through this part of the world before, on a family driving holiday to the Gold Coast. I have been haunted by a certain lunch stop in the area ever since said holiday, where the emu incident occurred.
Now that I knew where I was going and that I wasn’t attending TractorFest 2014 or something akin to this sort of fun, I was pretty excited. I also knew that Riverina region was agriculturally-rich, particularly in its concentration of fruit orchards. Tuppal itself is the name of the cattle station in this region, containing one of the oldest woolsheds in the country.
We stayed in the town of Finley just north of Tocumwal, in a lovely little Airbnb number, and on our first night decided to venture into Tocumwal for a pub dinner amongst the locals. My compadre, not accustomed to Australian wildlife, was swooped down on and bitten, twice, by a magpie while on a walk by the Murray River, along which the town is situated. After hurriedly fleeing the magpie-invested area and making a beeline for the IGA, there was then a rather loud comment about how cheap the oranges were. The cashier lady didn’t look too impressed by this proclamation. ‘Because it’s fruit country!’, I’d hissed in response, with my back to her.
We then dragged our giant bag of oranges to the pub, looking like tourists gathering supplies for an underground magpie protection shelter. It wasn’t long until I was approached by one of the lovely local gentleman while ordering beers at the bar. He didn’t ask me where I was from, what brought me to Tocumwal or offer to buy my drink. Instead he straight-up asked me for a loan. Thankfully, the highly unimpressed bartender told him to ‘rack off’, and so he dejectedly slid off into a corner, sans beer.
The next morning after an amazing sleep in the country quietness, we set off for Tuppal Station. It wasn’t long out of Finley that wide, open nothingness stretched out before me. It was wonderful, apart from the odd bit of road kill along the tarmac. Suddenly appearing out of this nothingness was Tuppal Station, full of cars, large white marquees and wandering men in kilts each with a different flavour of brass instrument. We parked in the long grass, stomped around to scare off any snakes and then bid each other adieu. After grabbing a strong latte at the espresso truck (gotta love the ubiquity of these), I headed straight to where the early morning crowds gathered to watch three generations of tree loppers hack and climb up trees in the already searing sunshine. I moved onto the famous woolshed after that, watching sheep after sheep being shorn and finding myself in a wool trance while sipping on my latte. The bark of kelpies broke my spell, when they were brought out to show their skills in mustering sheep, as well as highlight their collective idiocy. Sheep are fascinatingly dumb, but cute, creatures.
After a scrumptious pulled pork and coleslaw roll for lunch, I made my way to one of the six marquees, the fibre marquee, to watch a fashion parade showcasing labels utilising Riverina-produced fibres. It wasn’t exactly a catwalk experience a la Spring Fashion Week, but the garments on display and the number of labels using local fibres were impressive, even if the MC came out with a few oddities and some of the older gents fell asleep during the ‘fun and flirty spring dress for drinks with the girls’ segment.
All of this high fashion had made me hungry again, and so I set off for the farmers market, aka, free tastings. I sampled way too many olives, oils, dukkahs and relishes than I care to remember, but one stall that stood out for its exceptionally delicious offerings was that of Wymah Organic Olives and Lamb.
The following day I got to sample more of their fine produce in the meat marquee. I spent much of that day said location, after catching the cooking demonstration program and deciding that it would be a day out of the dry heat well spent. It started out well. I tried a lamb curry and raw beetroot salad, both yum, and watched Gardening Australia’s Costa Georgiadis on the stage passionately discussing the importance of food education, sustainable farming and supporting local producers. But there was a catch to all of this free food. Head cooking demonstrator also worked for a cooking appliance company, and began increasing the name-dropping of said company with each recipe. She then discussed party plans, franchises and the sophisticated configurations of the knives in the knife set. Just when I was about to walk, she mentioned the all-important pressure cooker in their range, and I sat back in my seat. ‘I’m going to show you how to make a risotto in a pressure cooker. You’ll never look back once you see how easy this is!’, she enthused. Please don’t hate me, dear readers, but as a pressure-cooker sceptic, I needed to see this for myself.
I kept my mind open (truly) and hoped that the Spring Vegetable Risotto would knock my socks off. Sadly it didn’t. Water-logged and lacking seasoning, the vegetables were added after the risotto had been cooked (‘to avoid them disintegrating under the might of the pressure cooker’) and so their flavours did not permeate through the rice. Just to prove that I can be fair, the lamb chops cooked under pressure were extremely tender.
And so because I was teased all the way home about my aversion to the pressure cooker and my general food snobbery, a few days later I made my most favourite risotto – pumpkin, mascarpone and sage – in a bid to test my own theory that traditional was still best (and thereby proving that I am, indeed, a food snob) in the case of risotto. For me, it definitely is.
I will say this for the Tuppal Food and Fibre Festival, it may not be the Taste of Melbourne (which is on this weekend and a wonderful way to sample dishes of restaurants of the ‘we don’t take bookings’ variety), but it is certainly the real deal. It was heartening to see all of the kids learning about where their food really comes from and ways to sustain food production, in a setting that was certainly welcoming and full of exuberance. Highlights for me included sampling damper straight from the ground and the appearance of the ever-enthusiastic Costa, however watching the kilt men having a rift over which tree to best perform under was, I’m ashamed to admit, kind of amusing, especially after the disappointment of a pressure-cooked risotto.
1kg butternut pumpkin
1 onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 cup Arborio rice
1/3 dry white wine
approximately 1 litre hot vegetable stock
2–3 tablespoons dried or fresh finely chopped sage
2–3 tablespoons mascarpone cheese
2 tablespoons parmesan cheese
extra virgin olive oil
20 g butter
sea salt and black pepper
Peel and cut the pumpkin into rough chunks, then place on a lined baking tray. Drizzle with a little oil and season well, then roast in a moderately hot oven until tender. This should take about 30 minutes. Remove and allow to cool for 10 minutes, and then puree in a food processor. You can also boil and puree the pumpkin, but roasting gives the risotto another flavour dimension that I think can’t be matched.
In the meantime, prepare your other ingredients including the vegetable stock. I like to have mine ready to go, soup ladle included, so there’s no last-minute kettle boiling and the process isn’t too drawn out. Wash the rice thoroughly in a sieve and leave to drain.
When all is ready to go, add a tablespoon of oil to a large frying pan and sauté the onion and garlic for 30 seconds on a medium heat. Add the rice to the pan and stir until the rice is translucent, for about a minute or two, being careful not to burn the onion and garlic.
Add the wine to the pan, which should sizzle and be quickly absorbed by the rice, continuing to stir. Before the rice is too dry, add ladleful of stock and stir or give the pan a shake, chef-style, to even out the rice and liquid. And then continue on, adding a ladleful of stock after each absorption of liquid, until the rice is almost al dente but still a bit raw. Add the pumpkin puree and stir through, then the sage and more stock. This is where a guerrilla-like approach is required… as we’re all a little different with our risottos. I like mine al dente, so I’m not too heavy handed with the stock at this point. After adding the pumpkin, I might add one more spoonful, then the mascarpone (to your liking), parmesan and butter, leaving this addition of creamy ingredients to the end. Once to my liking, I check for seasoning and switch the heat off, then leave it to sit for a minute before serving and maybe adding half a ladleful of stock if the middle is a little too thick, but my rice is perfectly cooked. The risotto should be wet, but not too thin and runny; creamy, but not stodgy. It’s tricksy, and yes, you need to stand there and care for it, without pressure. But, I promise – it’s creamy, comforting heaven on a plate.