The month of October plays host to a Sydney festival of fine cuisine and quirky history, writes Leanne Templer.

If you'd told Francis Morgan shortly before he was hanged that one day he would have a fancy dressing named after him, he would surely have cursed you for a fool or a madman.

Yet here we are, sitting back to an entrée of Morgan's Pinchgut dressing on gravlax salad as a part of the annual Crave Sydney Food Festival.

Making the experience even more unlikely, the spot where we are eating this gourmet meal is Fort Denison Island's Martello tower, where in 1796 Morgan was executed and his body left hanging as a warning to other convicts.

The convicts called the place Pinchgut because a standard punishment was for them to be left on the island for a week with no food or water.


But there's certainly no lack of food or drink 215 years later. The Australian-themed menu includes kangaroo-tail pie, Cowra lamb - which has a reputation for being the best in Australia - and a Binnorie mascarpone featuring cheese from the award-winning Binnorie Dairy in the Hunter Valley.

I settled on the deliciously moist but crispy-skinned Yamba jewfish with prawn veloute, named after the port town at the mouth of the Clarence River in New South Wales. I followed up with a layered apple and lilli pilli jelly with rhubarb, and yoghurt panacotta made with lilli pilli berries, which are a popular bit of Australian bush tucker, giving food a deliciously tart cranberry-like flavour with a hint of cloves.

The festival includes a lot of history and island-hopping, and the next day we took the harbour ferry to Goat Island, where we were met by 1830s colonial Redcoats, complete with a lively band of musicians and some elegantly dressed officers who appeared worryingly keen on drafting us into their army.

The entertainment included a public flogging, a comparatively benign blacksmith at work and a doctor who was keen to show us his hungry leeches and the antiquated medical instruments used to remove parts of the brain. Not surprisingly, we were keen to move on and escaped on the ferry to Shark Island.

This turned out to be a case of out of the wok and on to the hotplate, as Shark Island was offering wildlife activities with an emphasis on creepy crawlies.

We pushed on to Clark Island for some aboriginal bush tucker and food-gathering but, unfortunately, strong wind and rain saw the fish-trap demonstration and cultural performance cancelled.

However, the aboriginal welcome smoking ceremony, which is designed to encourage positive spirits and drive bad ones away, proved effective and we were able to enjoy some superb kangaroo-and-crocodile sausages.

Back in Sydney, the city was adorned with brightly coloured flags, which we found out were part of the Art and About Sydney festival, which was on at the same time. For the occasion, Queen Victoria's familiar city statue was draped in unusually garish garb, apparently designed by Australian artists as part of the festival, with a fluffy white headpiece which resembled a cross between the busbies worn by the Buckingham Palace guards and Marge Simpson's hairstyle. But the ambience and elegant window displays in the Queen Victoria Building were thankfully unchanged.

From one of the third-floor cafes we watched the beautiful antique wooden clock as it chimed and a royal pageant as the sun streamed through glorious stained-glass windows, and enjoyed the luxury of a coffee and melt-in-the-mouth vanilla macaroon.

This combination of fine food and fascinating history is something Sydney - and especially Crave Sydney - does superbly well. The festival is on again this month and we're heading back to attend the celebrity chef sessions.

Our first taste has left us wanting more.

Getting there: Air New Zealand, Pacific Blue and Jetstar fly regularly to Sydney.

Further information: This year's Crave Sydney Food Festival programme is available at the website. Celebrity chefs range from South American to Asian and Australian, and include Alex Atala from D.O.M. in Brazil, Luke Nguyen, Tony Bilson and more.