AA Gill on how Australians appreciate food
Author: AA Gill
Photography: Illustration by Tom Bingham
Where do you put them? Are they put back in the outback? Do you leave them in the big red for the dingoes? Is there some island where they're corralled and left to topple over on the beach? Do you use them as fertiliser for your pure heritage veggies? Australia, what have you done with your old people?
I've just been among you for a fortnight, and I should start by saying thank you for having me, you couldn't have been kinder. But I also couldn't help noticing that there doesn't appear to be any Australians over 60. Or perhaps no Australians look like they're over 60. There are masses of you that apparently do look or are 60, but none that look like they've got any older. It was my partner, Nicola, who, while walking through Sydney, hissed, "Have you noticed that you're the oldest person here." But I'm only 60, I said. "Exactly," she replied. "If you come back next year, you'll be an Old Testament prophet, an alien from another age."
It's not that Australians don't seem to age; they just stop ageing. Either that, or you come with planned obsolescence, and you're being turned into Soylent Green. The other thing you may not notice is that most of you are a stock size. You are in proportion. You don't get stuck in turnstiles or need two seats on the bus. Australia is not just a lucky country, but a thin country. Which is ironic, because you have all that space.
We particularly noticed because England is now officially the fattest country in Europe. It's also the most densely populated, and it's going to be a sceptred tin of sweaty, bad-tempered sardines who complain unpleasantly and monotonously about immigration, explaining that the country is "full up". You look at them and you think, "Well, yes, it's mostly full up of you. And it wouldn't be quite so replete if your family took their fists out of the crisp packet and restricted their eating to three meals a day." (And then we could let in a lot more skinny Serbian waitresses.)
My old-world job is food writing and it gets depressing when most of the food stories at home are medical. It's about diets. Dinner is not primarily about hospitality, conviviality, community, epicureanism and culture, but about weight and its attendant conditions. People's relationship with their larders has grown sclerotic with fear and tabloid science. And when your attitude to food is as an addict or a born-again, digested fundamentalist, then you lose touch with all the hospitality-community-culture stuff.
After two decades of foodie renaissance, grub in England has run aground on the shoals of calories and competing necromancy about fats and sugars, fasting and bad breath. We are living in a bizarre culture where no one is hungry, but ingredients are anthropomorphised into good and evil. When it's not depressing, it's funny.
I hadn't noticed quite how bad it was until I got to Australia. To eat and talk about food, the Australians I met were equally as obsessed with their lunch. But in all the talks, discussions and interviews I took part in, no one asked a question about diets or saturated fats or calories or metabolising refined sugar. Audiences were more informed and sophisticated about food than I would expect to find in England.
They knew about trends and a basket of regional dishes; you understood cooking terms, and were uninhibited about eating the world. You seem to be very connected with the welfare, husbandry, sowing, harvesting and processing of your food, but health issues are invariably about the health of the planet, not type 2 diabetes. (Incidentally, as I write this the British medical watchdog has recommended gastric-band surgery as a treatment for overweight diabetics in the UK. This is the most depressing capitulation of self-determination, self-control and self-respect.) Australia arrived at a country that ate healthily because it ate well, and also because you're absurdly and childishly addicted to sport and panting. Early mornings in Sydney were a chorus of heavy breathing and sweaty Lycra.
There was one lunch that stood out. It had all the ingredients that make Australia such an enticing, gastronomic place at the moment. It was at Cullen Wines in the Margaret River. Nicola and I joined Vanya Cullen, the marvellously single-minded and moon-touched mistress winemaker who has a palate of old-Renaissance bright precision, and Jock Zonfrillo, a Scots-born chef who spends a lot of his time with indigenous folk, foraging for pre-colonial ingredients to create an authentically indigenous cuisine that isn't an anthropological recreation, but a contemporary interpretation of the past. Like creating culinary myths and legends. It is as culturally rigorous as it is delicious.
He was tasting wines for a dinner he was cooking that evening, and we ate and talked of food and husbandry and conviviality and the absent but ever-present dead. I don't drink, so I just sniffed. Nicola and Jock were very taken with a rosé that was cloudy and slightly frizzante. A wine that had created itself naturally and unexpectedly in a barrel and would never be repeated. It didn't have a name, so we fancifully set about giving it one, settling on Kissing the Pink. As the others communed to toast the christening, I picked up a pencil and dipped the blunt end into the wine and drew a picture on a piece of paper. Jock took a photograph of it and printed it and that night the wine was drunk with dessert and carafes bearing the new label were passed around. A venerably correct Australian lady next to me squinted at it and said, "Is that what I think it is?" Yes, I said. It's a vagina. "How wonderful. How delicious."