TGIFOOD

WALTZING MELBOURNE

How Nigella saved Australia’s food capital from its pandemic blues

How Nigella saved Australia’s food capital from its pandemic blues
Nigella on stage with MasterChef Australia original Alice Zaslavsky, who took part in the very first season. (Photo: Facebook)

If you’re feeling a bit unsure of yourself as we stagger into a hopefully post-pandemic world, I highly recommend the following: invite Nigella Lawson to pop over and give you a pep talk.

I am happy to report this works for people and for cities, as my hometown of Melbourne discovered this past weekend when the (ironically) self-titled Domestic Goddess came to town to help us celebrate the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. 

Now, to understand this event properly you need a little context: in the Australian scheme of things, there are two big cities on the global stage – Melbourne and Sydney – and of the two, only one of them has a glorious, glittering harbour decorated by the wonder that is the world’s most famous and eccentric Opera House.

Melbourne – indeed, almost any other city with the exceptions of Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro – looks a tad shabby by comparison. So in recent decades, Melbourne’s city planners decided that while we couldn’t compete with Sydney on aesthetic grounds, we could just reinvent ourselves as something else completely. 

And thus did Melbourne become a city where you go to do things, rather than to look at things. The “events capital” of the nation, and it’s a tag we take very seriously indeed. It starts in January with the Australian Open tennis, careens through March with the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and the Australian Grand Prix, shivers through winter as the original home of Australian Rules football, places its bets in November with the Melbourne Cup horse race. And so on.

Scores of other grand moments are scattered in between, meaning you can land in Melbourne at almost any time of the year and find something enormously interesting to do. This was all marvellous until Covid came along in March 2020 and made it impossible for anyone to do anything. In the two years since, events have been cancelled with numbing regularity, and a foul and glum mood has settled across the city. 

When, we wondered, would things return to glory? Would they ever?

Which brings me back to Nigella. She is a regular visitor to these shores, most famously as a guest judge on the Australian version of MasterChef, which is filmed in Melbourne. During the pandemic, the show had to make do with what it had – and so it used a Nigella Hologram, beamed in from London to look as if she was standing in the MasterChef kitchen. But needless to say it just wasn’t the same. 

The return of MasterChef is celebrated on Melbourne’s trams. (Photo: Neil McMahon)

And so it was with great excitement that we learned the queen of home cooking would be making her first post-pandemic foray into the outside world and coming to our shores for the food and wine festival, which was cancelled almost entirely in 2020 and held in more restricted circumstances in 2021, when border closures meant it was a locals-only affair.

But this year it was back to full strength, and armed with a dazzling calendar of events prepared to show off the label Melbourne truly covets for itself: one of the world’s great food cities. 

That it is, and given Australia’s natural inclination to walk around preening with a discreet chip on its shoulder, we never tire of hearing these words from other people. And when it comes to “other people”, who better in the world of food to pat you on the back in effusive terms than Nigella? When her two MFWF events went on sale, they were sold out in minutes. Your columnist, an occasional Twitter correspondent of Nigella’s when I am sharing my experiments with one of her recipes, was fortunate enough to score an invitation to Drinks With Nigella on Saturday, and in the interests of research I boldly ironed a shirt for the first time since 2020 and sallied forth into the throng.

Prior to the event I had fevered hopes of actually meeting the queen herself, swapping kitchen tips and so forth like the best friends we would not become. Alas, several hundred other people had the same fevered hopes, so this was not to be. But what a joy it was to hear her in conversation for an hour with Alice Zaslavsky, a veteran of the very first season of Australian MasterChef back in 2009, who has since carved out a highly successful career as an author and media personality celebrating her love of food.

Alice and Nigella are made for this type of soirée – both adore food with a passion that is infectious, and on their own admission they both love to natter. And natter. And natter some more. As Nigella herself put it: “Neither of us is short of a sentence or two. We can babble on for a long time and we have been babbling downstairs. Constantly. And we will babble later.”

Babble away, queens! No one was complaining, certainly not in Melbourne – the city that endured the most days in lockdown of any city on the planet, with a population busting to return to normal life.

Nigella in charming mode, as she always is. (Photo: Facebook)

Nigella, a journalist before she was a food writer, has the reporter’s instinctive sense of mood and ability to describe it, and within minutes she had summed up her hosts – and herself – perfectly. 

“This has been the most wonderful thing for me because we’ve all been confined to quarters and I feel like [we’ve been] looking at the same patch of sky for an awfully long time. And it hasn’t always been blue,” she said. 

“It’s like a dream to come back … for me, Melbourne is really feeling quite electric in the air. It really feels exciting, it feels like a beautiful creature coming to life again. And I’m very grateful. The energy is there, that creativity and spark. And that’s one of the things that Melbourne does so well, which is that there is this wonderful respect for the land and all the produce. After all, you can have all the great chefs in the world – and you do – but without good produce it doesn’t mean as much.”

The World’s Longest Lunch is a popular event on the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival calendar. (Photo: Facebook)

The crowd, needless to say, delivered rapturous applause – her words proving effective as both diagnosis and cure. 

She was keen to share her belief that with the world seemingly going to hell in a hand-basket, there has never been a better way to share simple pleasures. Food chief among them.

“We all feel that the well has run dry. And I think you need to feed yourself with beauty. You need to feed yourself with human connection. Those things are very important. So being here, for me, is to marry all those things together. I feel both excited but very moved and very grateful.

“I think the really important thing is to be grateful for the pleasures in life … [it’s] about things that happen every day. We must take time to take pleasure and be grateful, and being in Melbourne makes me feel that gratitude, but also I will wallow in the moment. I don’t want to rush it.”

This photo of Nigella on stage with MasterChef Australia original Alice Zaslavsky captures the spirit of the day. (Photo: Facebook)

There was an hour of this, and it wasn’t enough. We would have stayed all night. The room was lulled with pleasure and swelled with joy. There was plenty of talk of food, and plenty of food for thought – about where we’ve just been, where we are now, and where we’re now headed. Nigella is an expert guide, and there is pleasure in hearing her share her wisdom, even if you’re not sharing it with her one on one.

For that, though, there is always Twitter, where I later posted a photo of Nigella and Alice, captioned simply: “Church.”

Did Nigella reply? Of course she did.

“It did feel like the most beautiful cathedral,” she wrote.

And this: “Thank you so much, Neil. I’m only sorry I didn’t get to meet you.”

And if you think I’m not printing that out and sticking it on the fridge, you’d be very wrong indeed. DM/TGIFood

Neil McMahon is a Melbourne-based writer and author who in an earlier incarnation covered events in South Africa as a correspondent and columnist in Cape Town.

Follow Neil on Instagram @neildmcmahon

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