“You’re moving to Canberra? Have you gone completely mad?”
This was the less than stellar response from many of my Sydney mates when I said I was leaving to accept a job in the nation’s capital.
But a funny thing happened when I mentioned my plans to expat Canberrans, or those who’d spent more than a scant few hours checking out the city’s galleries before hightailing it back to the big smoke.
“You’re going to love it,” they said with a knowing nod. “You’ll never come back.”
And so it has transpired that three years after those early conversations, I remain happily ensconced in Canberra. The job wasn’t for me, but the city definitely was.
What’s not to like about the wide, open spaces, the nature reserves and the ease of commuting? Or the fact you can always find a parking spot?
I’m still mesmerised by the wildlife – the sound of currawongs and king parrots, and seeing kangaroos on my front lawn.
But the thing that sealed the deal was the amazing food and wine scene. And I don’t make that statement lightly.
Food and I go back a long way. I’ve eaten raw chicken in Tokyo, deep fried bee lava batter drizzled with grasshopper glaze in Copenhagen, and fermented shark in Reykjavik (thank goodness for the accompanying glass of Icelandic schnapps to wash down the taste of ammonia).
Food and travel are inextricably linked, and despite the encouragement of my Canberra-loving acquaintances in those pre-move days, I did have a niggling doubt about what was in store from a gastronomic perspective.
I needn’t have worried because it turns out that if there’s one thing Canberrans love more than good food, it’s talking about good food.
It seemed everyone in my new hometown had an opinion on a great breakfast spot I had to try. Or the best coffee in the city. Or a recommendation for a fab little restaurant I could find if I took the first turn left, then hard right, then doubled back, ducked under the fence and rapped three times on the door before uttering a secret password.
And thank goodness for that because without this excellent local intel, I’d be hungrier than Kate Moss a day before Paris Fashion Week.
Canberra, I found, hides its considerable culinary light under a bushel. There’s none of the brashness of Sydney – the glitzy waterfront fit-outs, the Kath Day-Knight “look at me, look at me” exhortations – or the achingly cool Euro-chic of Melbourne’s laneways and basement diners that can have you breaking a sweat about whether your pantsuit is just the right shade of black.
Canberra is full of unexpected finds and experiences that whisper “authentic, down to earth, quality and community”. Things you need to make a bit of an effort to find, but when you do the rewards are rich.
Of course, there are the big-ticket dining spots. I’ve had meals at Aubergine in Griffith and Pilot bar and restaurant in Ainslie that are equal to, or better than, any I’ve had in capital cities around the world.
It took a bit of getting used to the fact that so many of Canberra’s best dining experiences are found in nondescript neighbourhood shopping strips. I’d have whizzed right by the concrete expanse that is the Pearce shops without a backward glance had one of my food-loving friends not told me to look a little closer.
That’s how I discovered Rama’s Fijian Indian Restaurant. It’s clocked up nearly 30 years serving generations of locals.
And how pleased I am that somebody tipped to me that Narrabundah shops is home to what has become one of my favourite places to eat: XO. If they ever take the Asian bolognese off the menu I’ll be chaining myself to the local bike racks.
Perhaps it should be no surprise to find that many of Canberra’s best dining experiences sit at the heart of the community.
Local is the byword when it comes to Canberra’s food culture. The city is blessed with a plethora of wineries and small producers on its doorstep.
In recent weeks, I’ve visited John Pye, who has been turning out the most delicious black garlic in homemade fermenting machines in a shed on his Bredbo property; Wayne Haslam, who at his Blue Frog Truffles farm in Sutton produces the high-quality black truffles that grace the tables of some of Australia’s best restaurants; Charlie and Julia de la Barre de Nanteuil, who use olives from their Yass and Cowra groves to produce uniquely local oils; and Erica and Nic Dibden, further down the track at Tilba Real Dairy on the NSW South Coast, who despite coming perilously close to losing their livelihood from bushfires early this year, continue to produce award-winning dairy products.
Much of the produce from our surrounding areas is shared with the Canberra community through the city’s restaurants and food markets that are another jewel in Canberra’s culinary crown. As someone who sees markets as a window into the community, I couldn’t have been more delighted to find the likes of Capital Region Farmers Market and Woden’s Southside Farmers Market right on my doorstep. Eat your heart out Queen Victoria Markets in Melbourne.
There are so many more things to rave about: Canberra’s bakeries, the city’s sophisticated coffee culture, the fantastic Asian food hub in Dickson, quirky little eateries in galleries and op shops that are punching well above their weight.
Canberra, you’re cooking with gas. And I’ll be dining out on this next time I catch up with those negative nellies in Sydney who clearly wouldn’t know their Morks from their Mooseheads.
Michelle Rowe is Region Media’s food and wine editor. She also runs Canberra-based communications consultancy PitchPerfect Media.