Flight of the gourmands

Author: vivienne stanton
Photography: john laurie

From the air, the world seems to fit within a single, sprawling eyeful. Sloping ranges and folds in the landscape reveal patterns unseen from the ground. You are not an ant, crawling through dusty crevices, but an osprey, an eagle, a broad-winged sea bird, flying high in the sky. Or so it seems from the porthole of our Beechcraft King Air twin-engine turboprop plane, a three-tonne, steel and duralumin realisation of man's noble inclination to fly. We're climbing 12.5m per second to cruise at 20,000 feet on a "Flying Food Safari", a meet-and-eat private plane tour of three of South Australia's prime food-producing regions - Kangaroo Island, Port Lincoln and the Barossa Valley.

The safari has been designed by Outback Encounter, a specialist in luxury tours around Australia, and will involve a week of slurping, swilling, guzzling and gorging on the fresh produce we encounter. Nothing will be shot, at least not by us. But we will stick our hands inside beehives, sucking honey from wax peeled with our fingers, stand waist-deep in pale blue Coffin Bay waters eating oysters shucked so fresh they don't have time to know they're dead, and swim with giant bluefin tuna, delicious forebears of sashimi. From our vantage point at the top of the food chain, the fact we were born without wings will seem merely an evolutionary oversight.

Our safari host is Mark Gleeson, a chef and veteran gourmand who co-owns Providore at the Adelaide Central Market, our first port of call before we head out of the city. If South Australians are known for their foodie stripes, there's no better expression than this: rows of sausages hang like beaded curtains, smelly cheeses arrive weekly from France, and you can buy artichokes grown from the heirloom seeds brought from Italy before the war. Amid all the produce, little old ladies sort through piles of tomatoes like prospectors panning for gold. "Doesn't it make the heart beat fast?" Gleeson says, pale blue eyes darting around the 140-year-old 80-stall cornucopia. It could be that, or it could be the super-strength latte I'm gulping from Lucia's Pizzeria & Spaghetti Bar, an Adelaide institution.

Gleeson whizzes us through the market like a boy showing off his toys, dangling truffles under our noses at the Mushroom Man stall, thrusting transparent pink prosciutto slices at us at Marino Meat & Food Store, and ushering us into the cool room at O'Connell & Sons Market Meat, where Tony O'Connell explains the finer points of a Suffolk lamb: "She's a nice little lamb that one - good shoulders, good legs. A good rump with a nice cap of fat. She'll be good to feed 30 blokes off the spit this afternoon."

After our rapid market immersion, carrying a cheese Esky and Fuji apples for snacks, we are transported by private car to the King Air plane and head for Kangaroo Island, crossing the 110km-stretch south-west from Adelaide in 20 minutes. Below us, waves that could break the hull of a 6000-tonne ship - and have, as numerous wrecks off Kangaroo Island's coast attest - look as benign as those in a paddling pool.

Legend has it that when Matthew Flinders arrived in 1802, the kangaroos were so tame his men simply walked up and clubbed them to death, killing 31 in a single day, and serving up a kangaroo stew made from "half a hundred-weight of heads, forequarters and tails". Hence the island's name.

We didn't eat kangaroo on Kangaroo Island, but we did taste some of the new foods being produced. Until the last few decades, most of the island's 4000 inhabitants survived on sheep farming, but the collapse of wool prices in the late 1980s forced enterprising islanders into other pursuits: abalone farming, Ligurian beekeeping, rare animal breeding and winemaking.

Our plane touches down amid green fields of unripe wheat and bright yellow canola, and we're whisked off in succession to the Island Beehive, Island Pure Sheep Dairy and KI Fresh Seafood. At KI Abalone, general manager Justin Harman, in gumboots and khakis, leads us through a darkened undercover "lab" where 100 tonnes of pink-fleshed mollusc are feeding - some on algae in disc-shaped trays that look like giant Petri dishes.

It's a new industry that's just over 15 years old, and experimentation is key. "We're constantly finding out new things and changing our system of growing," Harman says over the sound of rushing water, which has been pumped from the adjacent sea to simulate natural conditions. Most of the abalone is snap-frozen in liquid nitrogen at minus 40 degrees and shipped to lucrative Asian markets where the meat retails for $100 a kilo. Australia's appetite for the dense-textured sea snail is still nascent, although Koots Salle à Manger in Melbourne and Quay in Sydney are customers. "The thing is, a lot of chefs don't know how to cook it," Harman says. "It's similar to squid; you have to cook it either fast at very high temperatures or very slowly at low temperatures."

After trudging through sheep farms and muddy abalone sheds, arriving at the Cliff House - one of Lifetime Private Retreats' three luxury houses overlooking the sandy curve of Snellings Beach - feels like stepping onto a seduction set in a movie. There's an open fireplace with roaring blaze, soft music playing, drinks laid out and a Jacuzzi heating up outside.

Collapsing on the shag rug seems a good option, but owner Nick Hannaford is hosting dinner in the converted shearing shed on the hill. Not wanting to go into farming, Hannaford and his sister Rachel decided five years ago to turn their family property into a resort. A former chef at Jolley's Boathouse on the Torrens, Hannaford caters all guests' meals. On this night he serves local produce including KI marron in vanilla aïoli, olive wood-smoked KI salmon, South Rock lamb shoulder with semolina gnocchi and slow-cooked porchetta on fennel, pear and mint salad.

The pork is provided by fellow dinner guest William Marshall, who runs Will's Rare Breeds Farm, where he painstakingly raises 27 rare varieties of pig, sheep, cattle and poultry in a bid to keep them from extinction. "They call me the Indiana Jones of rare breeds," he says of his ability to track down unusual animals. As for the pigs: "They're all called Harry Trotter." Doesn't it feel strange to eat animals you've named, I ask. "Eating them will be what ends up saving them," he replies, "thanks to consumer demand." The pig we're dining on is a Large Black, a breed with fewer than 60 registered breeding sows in Australia. "The older breeds are slow-growing with lots of intramuscular fat, which carries more flavour and more texture," Marshall explains. "You won't get this sort of thing in a supermarket."

Islanders can be a quirky bunch. Maybe it's the enforced isolation, but it seems entirely within the spirit of the place when, shortly after mains, the guitars and tambourines come out, followed by a box of colourful wigs, the full adornment and appreciation of which is aided by the KI wines we're drinking.

The following blurry morning, we go walking along Snellings Beach to the mouth of Middle River, past the shack where Nick Hannaford's grandfather, Sir James Holden of Holden cars, and his mate Jack Tolley of Tolley Wines used to pull in bream from the river off the deck. We gather tetragonia, a type of native spinach, which Hannaford cooks for lunch in the Taverna, his family's old boatshed. We spear periwinkles with sewing pins and swirl them in Girgar butter sauce, and devour barbecued King George whiting and calamari skewers as the waves crash gently behind us.

Back on board the plane we head for our next stop, Port Lincoln. While Kangaroo Island is full of downhome rural charm, this small coastal city at the southern edge of the Eyre Peninsula is all flash, cash and big fish - southern bluefin tuna, to be precise, the business of which has created more millionaires per capita here than in any other part of Australia.

Just 20 years ago the town was struggling after over-fishing slashed the annual catch from 25,000 tonnes to barely 5000 tonnes. Then, in 1993, Japan, Australia and New Zealand devised a quota system that allowed trawlers to catch a set quantity of southern bluefin in the wild. That, combined with a system of fattening the tuna on pilchards in underwater cages to maximise oil content and bring out a pink-red colour so loved by wealthy Japanese buyers - has translated into big bucks, and the place has a definite new-money feel.

Shiny Dallas-worthy homes line the Port Lincoln marina, overlooking million-dollar boats. Our host, fourth-generation farmer and local guide David "Lunch" Doudle, points out a statue of Makybe Diva, tuna king Tony Santic's Melbourne Cup-winning mare. Every January, the town celebrates its collective good fortune with a four-day Tunarama Festival, the highlight of which is the tuna-tossing competition.

Doudle takes us to Coffin Bay, where Lester Marshall of Coffin Bay Oyster Farm hands out rubber waders and leads us Moses-like into the sea. He pulls a pillow of shells from the water and shucks an oyster as big as his hand. "This is the king size," he says, "for the really mad oyster lover." Coffin Bay oysters are different from other Pacific oysters because their large adductor muscles give them a sweeter flavour, while the salty waters of the Bay make for a distinct "marine" taste, Marshall says.

Meanwhile, back at Marshall's shack overlooking Kellidie Bay, "Lunch" Doudle has prepared lunch (his nickname is starting to make so much more sense): a trestle heaving with marron, prawns, yabbies and Moreton Bay bugs. Until now I'd been pacing myself, but something about the zippy enthusiasm of the place grabs me and the seafood surplus brings out a feeding instinct that suggests a bloodline to a seagull.

Some decorum needs to be restored before we arrive at our next destination, the refined Barossa, 70km north of Adelaide. What better place to start than stately Seppeltsfield, one of the Barossa Valley's oldest wineries, founded in 1851 by Joseph Seppelt, a tobacco merchant who migrated to Australia from Silesia, in present-day Poland, in 1849. Date palms and European elms surround the old homestead, on what was once the largest family-run vineyard in the country. After falling into the corporate hands of Fosters (which sold it in 2007), new owners Nathan Waks and Bruce Baudinet are keen to return Seppeltsfield to its former glory, one of their plans being to restore the winery's original open-air fermenting vats for its iconic wine production.

Longevity is key at our next stop, Henschke Hill of Grace vineyard, where gnarled 140-year-old vines with trunks as big as limbs yield intense shiraz grapes. Now in their fifth generation of winemakers, the Henschkes still supply communion wine to the Lutheran church overlooking their vineyard, in a field surrounded by river red gums, peppermint gums and she-oaks.

At Tscharke Wines, sixth-generation vigneron Damien Tscharke belongs to the new breed of winemakers breaking with tradition; he was the first producer of savagnin and montepulciano in Australia. Still, in a place where blood runs thicker than water (if not wine), his eyes are firmly on the past. His award-winning 2004 Lumberjack Touriga Nacional fortified wine is named for his grandfather, a lumberjack by trade. "He used to come down every vintage to help out. I called him my voice-activated pump because he'd be sitting there with his cane at the pump switch and I'd be yelling 'On! Off!' He'd be there from daylight till dusk. One day he said to me, 'Why are you making all these sour wines? Every vineyard needs a port.' So I decided to make a port because of my pop."

We leave Tscharke as the light fades and head across the road to The Louise, where five-star suites with private outdoor showers and in-room espresso machines await, along with dinner at the acclaimed Appellation restaurant, where we enjoy a duck tasting plate, South Australian snapper and local lamb cooked three ways.

The rest of our time in the Barossa is spent ploughing our way through various local goodies: Washington Washrind from The Barossa Valley Cheese Company, Gill Radford's five-course tasting lunch made with home-grown organic vegetables and served with crisp 2008 Radford Eden Valley Riesling, and a sampling of Grange at Penfolds winery.

Our final stop in the Barossa is Hutton Vale, home to seven generations of the Angas family, a South Australian dynasty. We climb Mount Edelstone, a windy patch of hill dotted with the remains of a pear and apricot orchard planted by John Angas's grandfather. "Up here I'm master of all I see," says Angas, standing tall in his farmer's uniform of RM Williams boots, jeans and woolly jumper as he surveys the 800 hectares of vines, sheep and rolling countryside at the northern end of Eden Valley.

We head back to the 1850s barn for dinner, warmed by an open fire and several glasses of Hutton Vale shiraz. After so many days of eating fine fare, all I want is good, simple grub, and that's exactly what we get in the form of lamb pie, homemade bread and sliced cold cuts served with Jan Angas' Farm Follies brand of homemade chutneys and pickles. That leaves just enough room for the homemade apple pie that follows. But only just.

While technically I'm the huntsman on this Flying Food Safari, I leave feeling like a lamb that's been fattened for slaughter. Heading back home, liver in tatters but belly content, I'm grateful it's my luggage, not me, that's weighed.


Outback Encounter
Seven-day Flying Food Safari from $9995 per person, all-inclusive (based on eight people). (08) 8354 4405

Lifetime Private Retreats
Three distinctive houses overlooking Snellings Beach. From $410 per night per house (accommodation only) or $1100 per person per night for the full-service package (includes all meals, beverages and private chef). Snellings Beach, North Coast Rd, Kangaroo Island, (08) 8559 2248

The Louise
Luxury suites overlooking sweeping vineyards in the Barossa. Suites from $435 to $765 per night including breakfast (weekend rates). Cnr Seppeltsfield & Stonewell rds, Marananga, (08) 8562 2722

Fine dining on-site at The Louise: fresh regional produce paired with local and international wines. Seppeltsfield Rd, Marananga, (08) 8562 4144

Adelaide Central Market
Open Tuesday to Saturday. Gouger St, Adelaide, (08) 8203 7203

The Barossa Valley Cheese Company
67b Murray St, Angaston, (08) 8564 3636

Coffin Bay Oyster Farm
(08) 8685 5021

Island Beehive
1 Acacia Dr, Kingscote, Kangaroo Island, (08) 8553 0080

Will's Rare Breeds Farm
Stokes Bay, North Coast Rd, Kangaroo Island, (08) 8559 2115

Open Monday to Saturday. Henschke Rd (Eden Valley Moculta Rd), Keyneton, (08) 8564 8223

Hutton Vale
By appointment. Mount Edelstone, Eden Valley, (08) 8564 8270

30 Tanunda Rd, Nuriootpa, (08) 8568 9408

Radford Wines
By appointment. (08) 8565 3256

1 Seppeltsfield Rd, Seppeltsfield, (08) 8568 6217.

To arrange a visit, contact Damien Tscharke on 0438 628 178. Seppeltsfield Rd, Marananga

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