Canberra - So Tasteful

by Sally Hammond

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As the waiter places a goat cheese tartlet flanked by green papaya salad in front of me, then faultlessly pours wine from its decanter, and whisks away an invisible crumb, I can't believe I am dining in Parliament House. In the Private Dining Rooms. Minus the pollies, minus the stuffed shirts.

You see, they moved out some time back. This is OLD Parliament House, and these rooms are also minus several layers of paint and veneer, which have been painstakingly stripped off to reveal the original delicate art deco hand-painted wall panels.

I'm in The Ginger Room, love-child, brain-child restaurant of noted chef, Janet Jeffs, who by day runs a highly efficient catering business, but moonlights here, teasing the best flavours out of a French-Vietnamese fusion of ingredients and styles.

That may be the new use of the old seat of power here in our Nation's Capital, but it's a metaphor for what's going on all over the place, here. Just as this city is known for its seasons – it snows, it blows, leaves drop and, sadly, bushfires raged through the suburbs one summer – so too is there a season of change in Canberra.

You still have the glum and squat government buildings and too much sixties-era civil-servant housing blocks (or at least that's what they look like) but even they are masked by boulevards of trees that green, glow, strip and bud in time to the seasons.

At Silo bakery, in classy Kingston, I shoehorn myself into a bentwood chair at a narrow table and inhale deeply. Sourdough and sugar, a waft of mould (and stronger) if the cheese room door opens, and coffee – local, Cosmorex – makes me want to check if there's a way I can stow away overnight.

And if you think this is going to be all about food, you could be right, for Canberra's eating has changed pace along with everything else. There's an inordinate ratio of restaurants, cafes, bars, bakeries and cafes to the population. It makes you wonder if they're building kitchens in houses in Canberra any more.

But I know they are, because I also visited Flavours – The Culinary Centre, in Fyshwick, where ex-Raffles Singapore chef Jan Gundlach is devoted to teaching anyone and everyone (that's home cooks as well as professionals) the tricks of his trade. I watch as he deftly rinses the shells of freshly shucked oysters – not under the tap, in lightly salted iced water – then baptises them with sake, and drapes a sliver on wakame seaweed on top, to help them feel at home again.

Between meals, there is plenty to do in Canberra. The showpiece of the place has to be the colourful, in-your-face National Museum of Australia, opened in 2001, which has already welcomed more than two million visitors. The building is not finished (metaphorically, we were told) because history is not finished. The various pavilions that compose and fill the space could, in theory, be moved.

Architecturally the lines of the building are meant to collect the formal lines of Burley Griffin's Canberra grand plan and tie them together. And far above the main hall, there is a loose masonry "knot", one trailing end a crimson line that extends as far as the car park.

It's all very avant-garde, but essential to see for an overview of Australia and the people who have contributed to the country, with personal stories and memorabilia sprinkled throughout. It's as much about Vegemite and Hills Hoists as it is about fossils and Federation.

So how do you neatly describe this place – a city in a territory, landlocked by a state? Canberra, the capital that governs Australia, is scarcely larger than a good-sized country town. There are possibly more public servants than in any other city in the country, and you can buy fireworks and X-rated videos here even though they are banned in other states. Then too, although the Canberra region is becoming known for its wines, most of the wineries are technically in NSW.

And perhaps most amazing of all, the formal and trend-setting design of Canberra was due to Walter Burley Griffin, a man who was born in America and died in India, that won a world-wide contest in 1912.

The lake, central to Canberra, is named for this man. Take an early morning balloon flight and see its boomerang shape softening the overpowering symmetry of the city layout, spokes radiating out from the very centre of it all – Parliament House, the new one – on Capital Hill. Burley Griffin's graceful parades and promenades, circles and tree-lined avenues are best seen from above, and a flight in a basket across it all, silent except for the gentle whoosh of the balloon burners, even on a frosty autumn morning, is well worth the 4am wakeup call.

So what if you've "done" Canberra before. Maybe there was the obligatory family trip years back, to show the children the seat of power, the War Memorial, and get some fireworks. But there's more reason, now, than ever to go back.

This time pack an picnic basket and pick up some of Australia's best smoked meats at Poachers Pantry in Hall, just minutes from the CBD. Come prepared to do some wine-tasting too (and buy some for your cellar), take in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia, or take a side-trip to dine at Grazing, in Gundaroo

Stay for Sunday, so you can spend as long as possible at the Old Bus Depot Markets, only open on that day, and make your last stop at Silo so you can grab some of that sensational bread and cheese to take home.

After all, you'll want to keep the taste of Canberra with you as long as you can.



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