This month I spent ten days in Australia on what they call a ‘familiarisation’ trip (also known as a ‘fam’ or ‘famil’), whereby one or more journalists are transported someplace to experience and report the sights, sounds and smells. Standard operating procedure on a fam is to feed said journalists so consistently and so much that they become incapable of any acts of communication other than a strangled ‘mmmm’—sometimes because the food is so good, and sometimes just because their digestive tracts are backed up to the uvula, and no other sound is possible.
That was me, backed up to the point where I worried that I would part my lips to say ‘Heya goin’, mite’ (which is Australian for ‘Hello’) and bits of yesterday’s lunch would fall out of my mouth. It was consistently great lunch, and I had no desire to lose any part of it, so often the only option was to speak as little as possible and just keep up a constant pre-emptive chewing of cud.
Australia, of course, has no national cuisine, a fact for which many Australians are somewhat apologetic. “Wail,” they’ll say sadly, ‘we’re eating et a Thoy plice, bat they ya goy, thet’s Strine foid for ya—a beet of averything.” I didn’t mind one bit—there was plenty of excellent Thai and French, Italian and molecular food—but native curiosity did demand that I get my palate on an authentically Strine non-vegetarian food.
In their natural state these meats are embarrassingly cuddly. One morning in New South Wales we drove about half an hour out of Sydney to Wollongong, which not only has an entertaining name but is also very beautiful. Here, at the family-owned Symbio Wildlife Park, we saw a range of uniquely Australian fauna: koalas, Tasmanian devils, echidnas, wallabies, and wombats.
The wombat is a devastatingly cute, stout, shambling little creature with a unique form of self-preservation in the form of a posterior as hard as concrete; it dives head first into its burrow, thus exposing only a granite-like butt on which a predatory dingo or Tassie devil can expect to break a tooth. I don’t think anyone eats them.
Nobody seems to eat koala either, perhaps because these animals eat toxin-rich eucalyptus leaves, and also perhaps because it’s somehow unsporting to slay a creature that you first have to wake up.
But kangaroo is another story. At Symbio I walked among a knot of these grazing marsupials and caressed their soft furry heads, looking into their limpid eyes as they twitched their strangely beak-like noses, and so it was odd, that evening, to be tucking into a plateful of them, though not so odd that I couldn’t get through it. “There are soy minny of them they’re a paste in Strylia,” the waitress reassured me with an encouraging wink.
Kangaroo meat is very healthy, because it is an active, low-fat beast, and as far as we know refrains from drinking, smoking and drugs, though nobody can be completely sure what goes on in the Outback. The meat is slightly gamey, and has to be seared quickly because overcooking makes it unpalatably tough—medium rare is the ticket. It’s delicious, and can be found as steak and fillets and as pizza topping, along with emu and wallaby.
I didn’t get to try everything; I was too busy fending off our well-meaning hosts, who were under the impression that all Indians travelling away from India must crave Indian food, and accordingly attempted to steer us considerately towards Indian restaurants all over Australia just as fast as we could dodge them. Next time: crocodoyle.