Noosa's annual food and wine festival is a sensory wonder, writes Nici Wickes.
Noosa. Just the name evokes images of endless sunshine and stunning beaches. As I headed off to the Noosa International Food & Wine Festival, flying to Brisbane then driving up the aptly named Sunshine Coast, I couldn't wait to get there.
Ahead of me lay three days in which to immerse myself in a festival featuring over 200 chefs, winemakers, food writers, artisan producers, entertainers and more, all gathered for this extravaganza, now in its ninth year.
The first day saw the sun shining and temperatures that went from warm to mild to downright hot (I kept asking the locals "Is the weather always like this?" to which they'd reply, "No, it's not usually this cold"!) and I set out on the first of my festival activities.
This was one of the hottest tickets in town - the Asian Food Trail. Imagine more than 100 avid foodies all excitedly climbing aboard mini-vans to be transported to the Sunshine Coast Hinterland for a tour of the Garnisha Spice Gardens, followed by an Asian banquet cooked by superstar chefs David Thompson, the king of Thai street food, Cheong Liew from Botanical and Martin Boetz of the terrific Longrain restaurants, and Australian TV chef Poh Ling Yeow.
In charge of crowd control and general corralling duties was the ebullient food writer Matt Preston, the prefect master of ceremonies.
On arriving at the spice farm we were greeted with sensational nibbles (kingfish sashimi with cashew nut nahm jim, grilled scallops with kaffir lime, lemongrass and red chilli and more) and cocktails, then let loose to get lost among the lush and sprawling acres of kaffir lime trees dripping with fruit, tall chilli bushes laden with dazzling red and orange firecrackers, trees from which we were encouraged to chew and rub the leaves to discover their numbing allspice flavour or aroma of fresh curry.
Back at the open-sided barn the chefs were busy creating magic in makeshift outdoor kitchens. And what a feast it was.
Testimony to the fact there are no bad ingredients only bad cooks, I found myself enjoying fermented durian (that horrendously smelly fruit) in a delicately layered curry created by Cheong Liew while Martin Boetz thrilled us with grilled octopus and pork belly paired with a watermelon, roasted chilli and black vinegar salad.
David Thompson's biryani style spiced chicken was a taste and textural wonder but the best was saved until last, with Poh's green pandan coconut pancakes. She had lovingly hand-rolled more than 500 of these little lime-coloured beauties, then stuffed them with caramelised coconut before dousing them in a slightly salty coconut custard. They were meltingly tender.
As our bus rolled down the hill back to Noosa Heads and the sun slid down the sky, I could well see why this is always the first of the festival events to sell out every year.
The following day it was time to hit the main festival programme. With big name chefs like Fergus Henderson (St John, London), Davide Scabin (Combal.Zero, Italy), David Thompson (Nahm, London and Bangkok), Alvin Leung (Bo Innovation, Hong Kong) and Ben Shewry (Attica, Melbourne), I knew it was going to be a case of good strategy if I wanted to see them all in action.
Festivals are a superb opportunity to listen and learn from these culinary greats and to have one's knowledge base expanded by being exposed to new techniques, ingredients and ideas.
On the main stage Thompson create a crispy fried soft shell crab dish. As he deftly mortared and pestled his way through a spicy Thai paste, I could see why he's referred to as one of the most knowledgeable and inspiring guides to the vibrant world of Thai street food. His cooking demonstration was a lesson in the simplicity and complexity of the flavours in Thai cooking.
Next I caught Ben Shewry cooking wallaby. Known for his foraging habits and sustainable approach, his aim is to honour and elevate local ingredients. To this end, he was whipping up a wallaby blood sauce to go with his fillet. I felt squeamish at first but by the time he'd talked us through it and paired it with a macadamia nut puree, native pinenuts and currants and sweet soft onions, I was licking my lips.
Next was Philip Johnson, of astounding Brisbane bistro E'cco, and Peter Kuruvita, who worked their magic with seared scallops and ocean trout, respectively. Hunger set in so I mingled with the crowds milling about myriad food kiosks.
I settled on slow roasted lamb shoulder with fresh pomegranate and mint sauce, cooked by Matt Preston, an amazing pulled pork dish and then, to top it all off, a pavlova served with fresh whipped cream, baked bananas and caramel sauce.
I needed to sit down so headed for the packed pavilion where a lively panel discussion on international food trends was under way. Hilarious Alvin Leung slugged back wine as if to prove the increasing trend for Chinese diners to enjoy wine with their meal.
When "foraging" came up in discussion, he quipped that if he was to follow the trend for foraging, then in Hong Kong diners could expect to be eating a lot of dirt.
Davide Scabin, speaking through an interpreter, joked that it was hard to get away from zero miles where he's from in Italy, a country that identifies as having 200 distinct regional cuisines within a land mass smaller than Queensland.
Shewry got more serious and talked about chefs becoming more open to sharing and Thompson talked about the need to know the history behind dishes before changing them.
No agreement was reached about whether celebrity or executive chefs, who can't always be found in the kitchens of their restaurants, was a good thing or not, but there was total agreement that MasterChef was not teaching people about cooking, rather it was about "selling dreams".
The final day of the festival climaxed with the Best Dinner in the World, which came with the high price tag of $750 per person. Before you baulk, consider this: when else would you get the opportunity to partake in a seven-course dinner, matched with premium wines, cooked by seven of the world's most talented chefs, all of whom have featured in the World's 50 Best Restaurants list?
The excitement for me was watching these chefs meticulously prep for the dinner. Here are chefs at the top of their game, working alongside each other, in unfamiliar kitchen set-ups and under pressure, yet they made it seem effortless. They all understand the rhythm of a kitchen.
* The Noosa International Food & Wine Festival is held each May. Next year's festival will run from Thursday, May 16 until Sunday, May 19.By Nici Wickes