“Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” says the man from the SES who is on the plane across the row from me on the small aircraft. He’s just waiting to get home to nearby Broken Hill but Mr NQN and I are excited for another reason. For our anniversary weekend, we’ll be meeting celebrity chef Stefano de Pieri and cruising the Murray River in a Houseboat and seeing what else the Mildura and Murray River region offers.
We alight at Mildura and take the drive to where our houseboat is moored. Our home for the next two nights is the luxurious “Sweet Indulgence” a three bedroom, ten berth luxury houseboat from All Seasons Houseboats. There are three rooms with queen beds and two ensuites, a fully operational kitchen just like one on land, a dining room table and a large sun-drenched dining suite upstairs alongside a spa bath that could fit several in it. There is tea and instant coffee provided and filtered water although sugar and milk need to be brought in and in the bathrooms, there are soap, shampoo and conditioner.
Mr NQN is the captain here as he has sailing experience and he undergoes the necessary lessons on how to maneuver the boat and park it. Most people that take the houseboats out drive them themselves (it’s fairly easy) but there is the option of having a driver should you need one.
There’s just a quick moment to freshen up before it’s time to head across the road to the Friday night Sunraysia markets. They’re usually held on a Sunday but the late sunshine means that they are also held some Friday nights. There are approximately thirty to forty stalls selling a range of produce.
Much of it is made up of fresh fruit and vegetables as Mildura is part of the Riverina fruit bowl region. Table grapes, citrus, figs and a wide range of vegetables including some as interesting as an apple cucumber are sold. To eat these, you peel them and slice them much like a cucumber in a salad or sandwich although I found them very bitter.
A popular stand is the Mettwurst stand -the recipe is from the 1960s and Mettwurst is really one of those popular German items via South Australian that doesn’t really see its way around the rest of Australia. It’s a fermented meat sausage and comes in varieties like garlic, pistachio and several variations of chilli. Their store is about 160kms away and regular customers make a beeline for a whole link or half link and know exactly what they want.
Plump figs steeped with honey and nuts are wrapped up and sold individually at the Mourquong Ridge Fine Foods stall. Trays of fat figs bursting at the seams are sold for $4 a tray. Spaghetti squash are harvested and organic fruit is also sold here. Large nets of oranges are hauled by burly customers while even larger nets of butternut squash anchor tent poles.
We mustn’t delay though because we are expected in the town centre, about five minute’s walk away from the houseboat and markets. Tonight is the start of the Arts Festival and the town of 60,000 people buzzing. We’re headed to Stefano de Pieri’s newest venture, the Mildura Brewery. Stefano’s face beams down from posters around town and he is akin to a town mayor. He helped put Mildura on the map with his “A Gondola on the Murray” television series. He is warm and welcoming and surprisingly hands on. He is busy running around bringing dishes to tables and making sure that all guests are looked after.
The Mildura Brewery Pub is the former Astor Theatre and the bones of the structure are still there with a modern refurbishment. Stefano and his wife Donna opened it up as their own a few months ago. Stefano was born in Treviso near Venice in Italy and emigrated to Australia in 1974. He first landed in Melbourne where he took the unlikely turn of editor of Nuovo Paese, an Italian newspaper. After this he tried a stint working for the Department of Ethnic Affairs working on immigration policy and almost running for a Labor party seat but it was disillusionment with the political system that saw him leave. Marrying Donna and moving to Mildura saw another change in his life when his father in law Don Carrazza who owned the Grand Hotel asked for them to help.
Stefano de Pieri
He is still involved in politics from a cultural perspective and particularly how it affects his community in Mildura, especially from an environmental perspective. “This is a marginal area and we are very exposed to climate change. Half a degree is enough to unbalance the whole thing here.” He wrote an opinion piece for The Age newspaper which advocated a compromise, not a popular for the greens but one which he felt was the only alternative to move forward.
And what does he think of Julia Gillard? He says that he finds it difficult to separate his friendship with her from the political side but says that “90% of the vitriol about her is because she is a woman. You always hear people ‘I hate that woman’ but you never hear them say the same about the men.” He also praises the town’s involvement with the arts that started when Senator Robert Dunlop Elliott owned a substantial collection of art and left it to the city. “The arts centre was built before the roads were paved” he adds.
His status as outspoken chef with a strong intellectual side especially in regards to politics means that he has definite opinions. “They’re (city chefs are) all silly talking about produce but still living in the city. Why don’t they come to where it is grown? Victoria is well punctuated with reasonable restaurants but it took 100 years and it has only happened in the last 10-15 years. By right, we should have more. We should have a body of food practices-we have wheat and lamb so our dishes should be pasta and lamb and cake.”
He still keeps a house in Treviso which he visits several times a year, both on tours to Italy and for personal sabbaticals. It was growing up on a farm that taught him about using produce and he tells us “my heart is with simplicity” when I ask him about his cooking style. And this is shown in his latest venture at Mildura Brewery.
Stefano is also a microbrewer specialising in craft beers. There are seven on offer here and we choose two: a mallee bull, a strong ale and I choose a honey wheat beer, the sweetest of the lot which has the distinct flavour of honey followed by wheat and is really very refreshingly crisp and good.
The menu is a crowd pleasing mix of fresh Italian items, roasts to share and pub classics like fish and chips and chicken parmigiana. Stefano offers to bring us a mix of his favourite dishes. It starts with a dish that we had seen come out to many tables. Beautiful, plump white figs are quartered and served with their magenta seeds facing upwards alongside house made capicola (cured pork shoulder or neck) and house made bread drizzled with divine olive oil and baked in their wood fired oven.
The second dish is soft duck cooked with carrots, celery and herbs, the juices making a delectable sauce for the casarecce pasta. The pasta is by Barilla who have an association with Stefano from his stint on Masterchef Professionals. With this, we have a glass of his 2011 Sangiovese.
Lamb shoulder $30
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