South Australia's Murray Valley is scarcely a valley at all. The land is typical outback, parched and flat; the ever-expanding vineyards gouged from the saltbush scrub rely on water pumped from the Murray River. The wines are inexpensive and skillfully made though not prestigious, like those from the nearby Barossa Valley. Yet food-obsessed travelers will drive three hours from the Barossaor four hours from Adelaide, or six from Melbournejust to spend one evening in the Murray Valley town of Mildura. Their motivation? A dinner at Stefano's, one of the most exciting restaurants in all of Australia.
Mildura is a surprising setting for culinary greatness. Upon seeing the flower beds at Old Mildura Homestead in 1886, the Canadian George Chaffey optimistically predicted, "Some day the whole of Mildura will be as this garden." Having succeeded in bringing water to dry land in California, George Chaffey and his brother William Benjamin Chaffey came to Mildura with the goal of turning a dusty, unprofitable sheep station into a fertile farming area. Like many an entrepreneur before and since, they promised more than they could deliver: "The Murray River," their prospectus declared, "will afford an abundant supply of water for irrigation during the most prolonged drought." It didn't, and the Chaffeys and many of the immigrants who answered their call went bust.
But Mildura survived, and prospered. For many years, the symbol of its ambition was the Mildura Coffee Palace, a teetotaler's saloon for God-fearing nineteenth-century settlers. In time it became the Mildura Grand Hotel, widely admired for its ultramodern "shower and plunger baths" and for a stylish balcony from which patrons gazed across a bend in the Murray River into New South Wales. Today it's the home of Stefano's Restaurant, run by chef Stefano de Pieri. A few doors away is de Pieri's café and fine food store, 27 Deakin, and half a mile downriver lies the 130-year-old paddle steamer he is negotiating to buy.
Until recently, the outback was a place where you ate because you had to, a scorched land of tatty hotels, bowling clubs and ham-and-pineapple pizzas. In this culinary wasteland, where a decent loaf of bread can seem like a miracle, de Pieri has created a gastronomic haven.
De Pieri emigrated from Italy to Australia in 1974, leaving behind the ancestral farmhouse in which three peasant families lived without bathrooms or televisions but with three separate kitchens. He wanted to be a cook, he says, but drifted into politics and wound up advising government ministers in the state of Victoria on immigration and multicultural affairs. A failed bid to enter parliament bounced him out of Melbourne to Mildura with his new wife, Donata Carrazza, whose father owned the Grand Hotel and was in urgent need of a chef.
Like those nineteenth-century settlers, de Pieri arrived in Mildura under a delusion. The restaurant he found was not the one he saw himself running: "It served steak and potatoes, and iceberg lettuce from a salad bar. I withdrew into my hole downstairs for about five years." That "hole" was the hotel's wine cellar, which in 1991 he turned into the ambitious restaurant that bears his name.
Plump and genial, but with a pugnacious streak that reflects his seriousness about food and politics, Stefano de Pieri was an unlikely hero for the improbable task of putting Mildura on Australia's culinary map. Though he was not trained as a chef, in 1999 he began hosting a TV cooking series called A Gondola on the Murray in homage to his Venetian heritage. Viewers around the country watched him, in baggy shirt and panama hat, dropping in on friends as they farmed snails and cured hams and stuffed their own sausages in the garage. In one episode he made a weed salad using greens he'd picked from ditches and vineyards. With de Pieri's inspiration, visiting Mildura suddenly looked as though it might be a serious epicurean adventure. Two books and a second TV series followed, by which time aficionados and professional critics all over Australia were extolling the remarkable dishes emerging from de Pieri's kitchen.
When it comes to knowing how to make food taste delicious, de Pieri is a natural. He cooks it, smokes it, bakes it and bottles it. And he talks about it with gusto: mocking the "empty bravado" of the soufflé, lamenting the demise of fennel and celebrating the art of the salad"the window," he insists, "into the heart of a cook."
Stefano's is small and dark, its low ceiling and spartan concrete floors guiding the eye towards a series of mirrors etched with paddle steamers. It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with de Pieri's cooking programs that the first thing to be delivered to the table is a little white dish of greenish-gold olive oil served with slices of crusty bread. De Pieri bottles the oil and bakes the bread.
What follows next is a five-course feast that celebrates the cuisine of de Pieri's native northern Italy. The menu changes daily and comes with a disclaimer: "Not all the above courses will necessarily be served, and the menu is subject to the whim of the chef." Nevertheless, what landed on my table bore a fair resemblance to what was advertised, with a couple of tasty additions: a plate of razor-thin slices of prosciutto and small bowls of tapenade and South Australian goat cheese to show off the bread.
The opalescent colors of the smoked swordfish served with fennel and salmon roe perfectly matched their delicate flavors. The roe was from Tasmania. De Pieri gravitates to local ingredients, but he's no zealot about it. "Using local produce is important," he says, "but you can't get bogged down by it. It's not as if you have a market garden here. It's intensive farmingyou get a load of mandarins, then they're over. The same with avocados, oranges and so on. Besides," he adds, "tastes change. Foods go out of fashion, and people stop growing them." Like fennel? "Once you saw fennel all the time. But not now," he sighs. "People have forgotten how to cook with it."
In his first book, he wrote, "Coming from a region where every type of bird was eaten, I have in me a taste for small birds." Hence the perfectly pink and succulent chargrilled quail with arugula salad, lentils and beetroot relish that arrived at my table next. These were followed by de Pieri's spectacular mushroom risotto. The mushrooms he uses are Portobello and porcini; the stock is excellent; the risotto isof coursestraight from the pot (there must be a special corner of hell reserved for chefs who serve reconstituted risotto); and the crucial touches to the dish are the pinch of lemon zest and drops of lemon juice he adds at the end.
De Pieri's braised lamb neck with polenta and spinach and his panna cotta with caramelized orange both demonstrate his trademark qualities of simplicity and richness of flavor. The lamb neck was so tender it almost fell apart under my gaze. The caramelized orange, a nod to the local citrus growers, was the ideal partner for the creamy panna cotta. "Resist any temptation to embellish," he says in his book; the phrase could stand as his culinary motto (along with "Remember fennel").
What does the future hold for de Pieri? No more television, for a start. "It's too distracting from the business of feeding people," he says. There's no doubt Stefano loves feeding people. Two days after an especially memorable evening, he's still basking in the compliment he received from an Italian countess who liked his olive oil. It was like applause for an actor.
De Pieri is currently planning a vineyard on the 40 acres he owns upriver near Swan Hill. And true to an imagination that transformed a musty cellar into a world-class restaurant, he's got some unorthodox ideas for how to do it. He won't be growing the French varietiesShiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnaythat still form the staple Australian styles. "I'm not a prophet," he says, "but I think palates will change. People will look for lighter, more fruity, early-picked varieties like Zinfandel, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Grenache." He fancies the thought of a Mildura rosé that evokes "sun and a light squeeze." And, of course, he won't let the weeds go to waste.
(Stefano's Restaurant, Seventh St., Mildura; 011-61-3-5123-0511.)
Tom Gilling is a novelist living in Sydney. His most recent book is The Adventures of Miles and Isabel, which was published this month in the United States.