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Gourmet's lasting flavour - 40 years of Gourmet

When they get around to building a museum to the Clare Valley’s winemaking history, and surely one day they will, there will need to be a special place set aside to display Jane and Andrew Mitchell’s old dining table. It was at that table Australia’s first wine region gastronomy event was born.

Words: Nick Ryan | Originally published: Valley Magazine, Autumn 2024 | Image: Gourmet Weekend at Mitchell Wines in 1985

"I had been to the Gastronomy Conference put on by food writers Barbara Santich and Michael Symons in May 1984,” Jane Mitchell recalls.

“All the best chefs in the country put on this amazing feast-I was eight months pregnant with my youngest Edwina, but that didn’t hold me back- and it got me wondering if we could do something like that in Clare.”

With a mind firing on as many cylinders as Jane Mitchell’s it wasn’t long before a plan began to take shape.

“A small group of us- my husband Andrew, Peter Barry who was Chairman of the Clare Valley Winemakers and local chef Janet Jeffs – got together to discuss how we might bring something to Clare that combined the great wines we were making with the really exciting food scene emerging at that time.

“I’d long thought about some kind of ‘progressive lunch’ through the Valley, where people would pop into the wineries for a little plate of something from a really great chef and a glass of wine from the small, family owned wineries that were the heartbeat of the Clare Valley.”

“It seems simple now, but it was actually a pretty radical idea back in 1984.”

The group decided an event of this kind would work best around the long weekend in May, a time that fit nicely with the traditional concept of celebrating a recently finished harvest and showcased the region in all its autumnal beauty.

The idea hatched at the dinner table and enthusiastically promoted to his members by CVWI chairman Peter Barry, was quickly embraced by the region’s winemakers, with the likes of Paullets, Skillogalee, Grosset, Taylors and Sevenhill committing to a participation that still continues 40 years later.

With the winemakers on board, it was time to work on the chefs.

A sign of how well the region’s wines were regarded, and how their compatibility with food was so well understood, can be found in the programme for that inaugural event.

Australian culinary icon Cheong Liew brought the team from his acclaimed restaurant Neddys to feed the masses with duck neck sausage and kangaroo pie at Quelltaler, while the legendary Cath Kerry showed a daring willingness to surprise at Grosset with a menu that promised Stuffed Goose Neck and Crepinette with Trumpets of Death!

A quick Google was not an option for visitors in those days, but if it were they would’ve been relieved to find Trumpets of Death were mushrooms, not a particularly bad choice of musical act from Jeffrey Grosset.

Taylors teamed up with Duthy’s, a leading Adelaide restaurant of the day to serve Brains and Mushrooms wrapped in filo with beurre blanc, the classical French restaurant La Guillotine lured Francophiles to Jim Barry wines with Escargots Vol Au Vent, while Janet Jeffs showed why here Kilikanoon Restaurant was such a drawcard for the region with Terrine en Croute flying out the door at the Stanley Wine Co.

But the culinary firepower wasn’t just restricted to South Australia.

Australia’s most famous restaurateur of the day Peter Doyle, was a man well acquainted with the quality of the Clare Valley’s rieslings.

His iconic eponymous seafood restaurant at Watsons Bay in Sydney Harbour was a happy hunting ground for gastronomic travellers from all over the world in search of the special thrills that come when enjoying the finest seafood with one of the world’s greatest wine styles.

“When Peter heard about what we were doing, he couldn’t be left out,” recalls Jane, who arranged for Doyle to cook at Mitchells for the first two years of the Clare Gourmet Weekend.

We had Scampi which no one had heard of, grilled on BBQ with an oil and fennel glaze. That required us driving along all the back roads near the winery collecting wild fennel the morning of the event.

We did 400 serves and sold out by midday, so we then cooked sausages left over from a tasting the previous day. No one cared that just wanted enjoy the day.
One unique element of the event’s early days was a idea executed by the Alsatian winemaker Michel Dietrich, who was then the winemaker at Quelltaler.

“Michel and he had been involved in a France with post vintages tastings where winemakers all came together to taste the results of the vintage,” Jane explains.
This took a little more organising but wineries all bought into the spirit of the thibng and brought along all these fizzing and stinking ferments for a tasting at the Town Hall The tasters who came along found it fascinating. This tasting evolved over years to one year old wines, but there was something wildly charming about those early ones.

We sold gourmet sausages on bread outside, all very basic but that was the charm of it.

There’s a great sense of pride from all those involved in the various manifestations of this event from its earliest days right up to know.

It has grown and evolved, adapted and recalibrated, but its true essence- to celebrate one of the world’s great wine regions and share a bit of the good life that those lucky enough to call it home enjoy- has always been at its heart.

Peter Barry sums it up best.

“While the weekend has come a long way and changed significantly since that first year, I feel proud to have been a part of it from the very beginning - the weekend is a credit to the Clare Valley.

The Gourmet Weekend changed the face of interaction between wineries and consumers. It was the first festival to focus solely on food and wine and helped to promote the region and restaurants before the days of social media.”

Long may it continue.

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