The Spanish Heart of Australia's Second City
Bar Lourinha is perhaps the truest to form tapas bar in Melbourne. Sharyn Cairns/©ICEX
Author: Richard Cornish/©ICEX
Australia’s second city, Melbourne, sits at the southern extreme of the island continent. Greater Melbourne sprawls around a large bay and at its heart is a tightly compact Central Business District (CBD) on the banks of the Yarra River where the first European settlers arrived in 1835. Vast gold reserves saw a rush of people from around the globe including the USA, China, France and Spain and the creation of a great Victorian colonial city with grand buildings and lengthy tree lined boulevards. Today Melbourne is considered the cultural capital of the nation with music, food, sports, arts and fashion festivals held throughout the year. While Spanish have been part of this multicultural city since its early years, (some of the city’s icons such as the Parer’s St Kilda Pier Kiosk were built by Spanish families) it is in the fields of cutting edge culture, commerce and gastronomy that flavours of Spain shine through ‘Down Under’.
We start in the National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Rd, a few minute's walk from Melbourne's CBD. In this modern concrete and stone hall of artworks Spain's modernists and classic artists are well represented, and through controversy, have become icons. In 1986 Picasso's 1937 work Weeping woman was the target of arts activists who called themselves the Australian Cultural Terrorists. Persons still to this day, unknown, stole the painting and demanded more security for priceless art. Picasso's work was returned 17 days later to a railway station locker. Other Spanish artists whose work is in the collection include Miró, Goya, Dali, Murillo. A favourite of many is El Greco 1600 enigmatic work Portrait of a Cardinal.
A ten minute walk along the river promenade to the new Hilton South Wharf reception brings one face to face with a contemporary coral-like wall mural of Barcelona born artist Dani Marti. Called Time (is the fire in which we burn, inspired by John) it is made from copper and steel pot scourers and commands the cavernous like reception hall. The adjacent bar, Sotano, a warm but expansive, modern riverside bar is lined with Australian hardwood and showcases Spanish conservas (preserves), beers and jamón - displayed in a massive glass refrigerator that theatrically dominates the space.
Barcelona's Ramón Freixa was Executive Chef at the a la carte restaurant next door, Nuevo 37, until September 2011. The Catalan chef designed menus seasonally and flied in to show the European trained crew how to execute his benchmark dishes which may be a traditional xatonada-salt cod with romesco sauce or turrón- a modern dish consisting of an uncharacteristically savoury nougat served with a sphere of foie gras. Nowadays Nuevo 37 is managed by a Freixa's apprentice, Phillipe Perrey.
A few kilometres to the north, easily accessed by the network of trams that criss-cross the city, is North Carlton, described as the Notting Hill of Melbourne, and home to Rathdowne Cellars. They are owned by the Kidd family, multi-generational aficionados of Spanish wine. "I love the subtlety and complexity of the wines from Ribera del Duero," says Cameron Kidd, "and dad just adores Sherry." The Kidds stock four lines of finos, four manzanillas, six brands of oloroso, eight of amontillado and a dozen different Pedro Ximenez. Their weekly free tastings on Friday evenings can be quite sociable events.
Ham & Beers from Spain
A short distance back towards the centre of the city is the Fitzroy. This has been the traditional heartland for Spanish expatriates heading to the simple corner store Casa Ibérica, the Melbourne home of Spanish comestible goods. The smell inside makes most Spanish-born homesick: the sharp tang of pimentón ahumado (smoky Spanish paprika); the rich saltiness of bacalao (salted, dried codfish) and the reassuring aroma of jamón. Owner Alice de Sousa was born in Portugal but is considered by local Spanish to truly understand all cuisines from the Iberian Peninsula. For decades she has imported some of the finest extra virgin olive oils and Sherry vinegars into the country and stocks a broad range of conserved goods.
Across the road is headquarters to the bastion of flamenco in Australia. Arte Kanela is a flamenco group based around brothers Johnny and Richard Tedesco. Lauded by the media and adored by fans they use their tapas bar, Kanela, as a performance platform but are just as likely to be seen around town performing with local sultry chanteuse Kate Ceberano or hip young band the Cat Empire.
A ten minute walk down to Gertrude Street brings us to the 95 tram route and one of the coolest strips in Australia where urban grunge mingles with cutting edge fashion, art and cuisine. The chef at restaurant Cutler and Co., Andrew McConnell, is a big fan of Spanish food and always has excellent jamon Ibérico de bellota from Jabugo on the bar menu.
A block further east is Añada, a compact lively bar and restaurant with a Spanish menu prepared by Jesse Gerner, an Australian born chef who trained under Sam and Sam Cook from Moro in London. He takes classic Spanish dishes and presents them in a modern, stylish manner in a room that is casual bordering on laid-back. The cellar is stocked with 30 different Spanish wines complimented with a good range of quality Australian wines while the barman is constantly pouring, Mahou, Rosita and Alhambra Spanish beer for his thirsty crowd. It's a good idea to book as it is an exceptionally busy business.
A one minute walk further east takes us to Books for Cooks, a book store specializing in culinary cook books including over a hundred books on Spanish cuisine including a section of new Spanish language culinary books and some old classic household cookbooks in Spanish. On the opposite side of the street is the Dianne Tanzer Gallery. This is home to Australian/Spanish artist Juan Ford. His works of hyper-real still-lifes and modern portraiture has seen this young artist collected in the major galleries across the nation.
Take the tram back to the centre of the city, get off at Spring Street and walk walk down towards the river to Little Collins Street. In a small, wide window building, nestled next to the back entrance of the auspicious Melbourne Club is Bar Lourinha. Young, fun and with a no reservations policy this is perhaps the truest to form tapas bar in Melbourne. Chef Matt McConnell (brother to Andrew) fell in love with the Iberian Peninsula many years ago and the menu reflects both his love and understanding of the foods of Spain and Portugal. It could be grilled sardines, a cogollos like lettuce and anchovy starter or rabbit and morcilla de migas (black sausage and bread crumbs).
From design chairs to Spanish films
Continue west down Little Collins, south onto Russell then west onto Flinders Lane. Shadowed, narrow and cobbled in rugged basalt stones this is one of the many small laneways that criss-cross and interconnect various areas of the city. With lower rents than the big tree lined street the lanes allow a diverse range of businesses to thrive. Stylecraft, although a lofty furniture showroom, feels more like a museum of modern design with the works of some of the globe's best designer gathered under the one roof. Followers of interior design would automatically recognize the organic lines of the nested tables of Jon Gasca of Stua - part of the father and son team based in San Sebastián (Basque Country). There's the beautifully blocky lines of Marco Ruiz's chairs he designs for Navarre company Dynamobel.
Walking westward along Flinders Lane for a hundred metres there's an even smaller laneway off to the left. The walls of the buildings in Hosier Lane are covered in colorful street art, graffiti so popular that artists come from all over the globe to add their work. At the end of the lane hangs a small sign that reads "Bar Vino y Tapas". This is MoVida, Australia's best Spanish restaurant owned by Barcelona born and Córdoba raised chef Frank Camorra. Camorra still makes morcilla (black sausage) with his dad and serves this and other classic dishes such as croquetas (croquettes) but instead of filling them with the traditional bacalao he uses sweet, rich and earthy Australian smoked eel (a product once made by local aboriginal people).
Specialising in raciones (shared plates) Camorra brings classic Spanish dishes like estofados (slow cooked meat dishes) and his own take on modern Spanish with his benchmark cecina (air dried beef) with truffle foam and poached egg. Adjacent to MoVida is MoVida Next Door, a bright, fun bar specializing in Sherry, dishes from la plancha (on the griddle), fried seafood and ice-cold Moritz beer imported from Barcelona.
Opposite this is the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and home to La Mirada, Melbourne's annual Spanish film festival. For two weeks every April modern Spanish films, Spanish classics and films from Hispanic countries take over the screens of ACMI. In 2009 Madrid director Pedro Almodóvar half a dozen of his favourite Spanish films for the festival allowing audiences a taste of Spanish cinema from the 1950s,'70s and '80s.
A walk past 19th century St Pauls neo-gothic cathedral, and north along Swantson Street brings one to Bourke Street, a pedestrianised mall planted out with sprawling fig trees. At one corner stands the old colonial era post office, a towering edifice with internal and external colonnades that was transformed into an upmarket shopping centre at the turn of the 21st century. Majorcan shoe brand Camper takes centre stage here with their bright and comfortable shoes dominating the almost all white retail space.
Directly across the mall is MNG just one of the 1223 Mango clothing outlets worldwide and incredibly popular with young Melbourne women. A few minutes walk further west along Bourke Street brings you to MoVida Aqui. This is the third MoVida restaurant in Melbourne and has commanding views over the classical dome that sits over the old law court. It has an outdoor kiosk that serves all day bocadillos (Spanish sandwiches).
Fifteen minutes south east of the centre of the city by train or tram is the funky shopping street of Chapel Street in Prahran. It's young, fun, pumping with energy and for over two decades been the place to see and be seen. No wonder this exciting young fashion label Skunkfunk, based in Guernica in the Basque Country, has opened a store on this strip adding a strong sense of European styling to a culture dominated by casual streetwear...
Setting a trend in the food fashion stakes is San Churro, a shop that specializes in churros (fried Spanish doughnuts) and chocolate. Local food lovers really love the fact that they use quality couverture chocolate from Barcelona company Chocovic and carry a line of Spanish chocolate covered almonds called Catanias. (Chocovic's master chocolatier Ramon Morató strengthened ties with Melbourne in 2009 by being one of the hit celebrity chefs at that year's Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.)
A short walk west along Commercial Road brings one to Oliveria -a shop specializing in extra virgin olive oil, many of which are Spanish. Owner Morrie Behrmann also stocks a great range of conservas (preserved foods) including mussels from Galicia, razor clams from Cantabria and wood roasted piquillo peppers from Navarre.
Like Spanish cities Melbourne is blessed with municipal markets. These are generally great Victorian buildings housing fish, meat and fruit and vegetable sections. The Prahran Market, across the road from Oliveria houses several delicatessens which sell imported Spainsh cheeses such as Manchego, Valdeón and Menorca-Mahón.
Those who admire fine interior design make Bridge Road, Richmond a destination. 10 minutes by tram from Prahran the strip is lined with importers and manufacturers of furniture. Considered a temple to the modern is Living Edge, a showroom dedicated to the world's best. Valencia's Andreu World's Lineal range of stools and chairs are striking because of their sheer visual elegance and lightness of form.
Richard Cornish is a Melbourne-based food writer and an award winning author of cookbooks, including four on Spanish food.