• Flavourhood Tours: sharing "rich and vibrant" food experiences in Melbourne. (James Califano )Source: James Califano
A place a tourist would walk past without a second glance may well be the home of astoundingly good food, steeped in history, and cheap to boot.
By
Larissa Dubecki

14 Mar 2017 - 2:15 PM  UPDATED 14 Mar 2017 - 4:53 PM

Ten o’clock on a Saturday morning and a bunch of strangers are meeting outside the Coburg library. It’s business as usual in this multicultural heart of Melbourne’s northern suburbs. Hijab-wearing women rush by on their way to Coburg market, an elderly man wearing a fisherman’s cap saunters past looking like he’s on the way to the port at Thessaloniki, and families of all stripes pile out of vehicles in the nearby supermarket carpark to indulge in the time-honoured ritual of the weekly shop.

Our group of ten is about to eschew all things mass-produced, however. We’re embarking on a food tour exploring the family-run, the small-batch and the authentic. We’re in Coburg to taste the hometown terroir.

Flavourhood Tours is run by Raffaela Ceddia, a young Italian-Australian woman who grew up in nearby Pascoe Vale. She started her walking tours last year “because I love food and I love Sydney Road. A tourist would never come to Melbourne and think, I’ve got to go to Coburg, but there’s such a rich and vibrant food culture on offer.”

Raffaela’s singing a tune with which I’ve recently become familiar. My first food tour experience was last year in Spain. Two of them, in fact - one in Madrid, the other in Seville, run by the same company and equally incisive, showing a small group of outsiders the very inside world of tapas. The take-home message was simply this: a restaurant or cafe that a tourist would walk past without a second glance may well be the home of some astoundingly good food, steeped in history, and cheap to boot.  

And thus to the experiment of applying the same insider knowledge principle to one’s home city. The Flavourhood principle is to fit a world’s worth of cuisines into each tour, so we start with a sprawling breakfast mezze spread at Zaatar, a bright corner shop run by two Lebanese brothers where the plates are heaped with plates of grilled sujuk (Turkish sausage), baked eggs topped with sumac, smooth white peaks of labneh (hung yoghurt), olives and salad vegetables, all mopped up with flatbread just out of the wood oven. It’s fortifyingly good. It’s also slightly terrifying to know this is only the opening salvo of four hours of eating power.

Onwards and upwards. Next stop is the granular Greek espresso, so thick you could almost stand your teaspoon up in it, at Vasili’s Garden, a café and garden shop run by TV identity Vasili Kaniadadis. It’s best tried metrio - with a little bit of sugar - and goes brilliantly with the classic walnut honey biscuit known melomakarona

Any self-respecting northsider would be aware of Mediterranean Wholesalers, the brilliant Italian behemoth on Sydney Road. But this is the first time I’ve been privy to a tasting at the deli counter, where dishes of sheeps’ milk pecorino - the sharp, crumbly Roman version; the milder one from Palermo - are laid out alongside assiago (a cows’ milk cheese), just-shaved salumi (San Daniele prosciutto, mortadella and porchetta), and the savoury Puglia biscuits known as taralli, these ones flecked with fennel.

The tour becomes, at some point, a blur. We visit the Royal Nut Company, the backstreet warehouse where the shelves bristle with every nut imaginable, all dry-roasted on-site and unbelievably cheap compared to the supermarket. We swing by Trivelli Cakes for a gorgeous Neapolitan sfogliatella, thin layers of flaky pastry with a sweet ricotta filling. The Half Moon Café, a busy Egyptian felafel shop, makes the Middle Eastern staple from broad beans rather than chickpeas for a vibrant green, wetter style felafel - and the house made pickles are exceptional.

 

At South American café Neruda’s it’s all about yerba mate, the dank, rich herbal drink along with Chilean pancakes and guava paste. Owner Gus Vargas assures us it’s good for the liver - just as well, seeing our last stop is the Retreat Hotel for a well-deserved pot of Brunswick Bitter. 

It’s a whirlwind. Cultures and cuisines intersect but never collide. As Raffaela says, “It’s not a beautiful street, but it’s where people live real lives and eat real food.”

Flavourhood Tours is in its business nascency, buoyed by a 2012 report from the Madrid-based World Tourism Organisation found that gastronomic tourism is a bull market. “Such tourists have higher-than average expenditure, they are demanding and appreciative, and they eschew uniformity,” says the Global Report on Food Tourism. “(G)astronomy cannot become a bland and anonymous product; it must have personality, because otherwise it will become vulnerable, de-localised and subject to adulteration.”

So how to get a taste of your town? In Sydney and Melbourne, SBS’s own Maeve O’Mara has been running Gourmet Safaris walking and bus tours for the past 18 years, exploring food themes such as Greek in Oakleigh, and Lebanese in Punchbowl. Gastronomic pockets of western Sydney can be explored in the company of immigrants with Taste Tours, and Adelaide’s Feast on Foot offers, among other things, a dumpling tour. It’s not hard to see they’re all onto something. For the food obsessed, a holiday destination can live or die on its food reputation. It's why I'd chose Mexico over its near neighbour Cuba (sorry, Cuba). 

But what this calorie-laden Saturday has taught me is that a food tour isn’t just for holiday. It’s a way to make home feel that little bit more special. 

Flavourhood Tours is also holding Coburg Food Race events during the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. 

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