If you pass by Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market on February 1, chances are you won’t be passing by. It’ll be hard to walk past the smell of barbecue wafting out from under it’s high ceilings and filling the air along Elizabeth Street. It’ll be hard not to stop and eat some brisket.
The market will host the Melbourne Barbecue Festival, a free day of barbecue stalls, demonstrations and entertainment, showcasing the best of Melbourne’s slow and low style barbecue and competitors from around Australia.
Matt Vitale is one of the organisers of the festival, and half of Southside Smokers. He’s a local foodie and a barbecue cook himself, competing in barbecue competitions both locally and internationally.
He explained that the barbeque we would find at the festival was a different thing altogether to the charred up sausages we’re used to out the front of Bunnings. “American-style barbecue typically involves cooking over indirect heat, at low temperatures for longer periods,” Matt explained. “Whereas in Australia we typically cook barbecue on direct heat, higher temperatures and shorter cook times. Americans would call what we do ‘grilling’.”
So less sausages and steaks, more pork shoulder, ribs, and beef brisket, which was quite uncommon in Australia until just a few years ago. “It takes a lot longer to cook American-style barbecue,” Matt says. “But what it lacks in convenience it makes up for in flavour.”
While the southern United States are still the top destination for barbecue internationally, the past few years have seen a definite surge for barbecue in the Australian south. “But Melbourne, as it does, has started to develop it’s own distinct style and make barbecue its own, just a little bit.”
Matt says it’s pretty exciting in Melbourne right now. “Trail-blazers like Fancy Hank’s, Smokin’ Barrys and Paul Reitmeier of Silver Creek Smokers have spawned a growing community of Melbourne pitmasters, with newer entrants like Red Gum BBQ, Bluebonnet Barbecue and Burn City Smokers adding to the growing list of American-style barbecue operations, and helping to develop a distinct Melbourne-style barbecue.”
For the uninitiated, Matt says there are also some great barbecue restaurants open on a regular night out in the city. “Fancy Hank’s has been doing a great job for a while now. Le Bon Ton does fantastic brisket, and Bluebonnet Barbecue is a must try.”
But if the Americans have been smoking brisket and making meat delicious using a low heat for so many years, why is it that barbecue joints in Australia only seem to be springing up now? Matt says part of it is Melbourne being such a food-focussed city means they’ve always embraced new food trends, and barbecue is it. But the rest of it is down to travel. “I think the rise of the American-style barbecue trend has a lot to do with the States becoming a more affordable travel destination over the past few years than it traditionally has been, which has given many Australians exposure to the rich and diverse barbecue food culture there, and a desire to bring some of that culture back home.”
While Melbourne Barbecue Festival will certainly feature the classics, there are also some surprising additions to the menu, with stalls reflecting Melbourne’s cultural diversity bringing different flavours to the table. At Zapatas Kitchen you’ll be able to try Mexican “ranchero” style barbecue, Hoy Pinoy will be barbecuing pigs on the spit Filipino-style, and other stalls will be cooking Italian style porchetta. “Although America has a very distinct and popular style of barbecue, there are many interesting and delicious traditions of cooking meat over coals and woodfire around the world,” says Matt. “In future years, we’d love to see Babi Guling (Balinese suckling pig) and Argentinian barbecue among others on offer as well.”
Melbourne may be the barbecue hot spot at the moment, but it’s not the only destination for barbecue in Australia. Matt shared some of his favourites. “If you’re on the Gold Coast you should check out JR’s Smokehouse Barbecue at Miami Marketta. In Sydney, go to Vic’s Meat Market to see Kong, Australia’s largest custom smoker, tended by pitmaster Hillbilly Wes.”
And where should we travel to if February 1 sees us catch the barbecue bug? Well, the places you’d expect, really. “Memphis in May is the world’s largest pork only barbecue competition, held on the banks of the Mississippi.” says Matt “The American Royal, World Series of Barbecue in Kansas City is the world’s largest barbecue competition, with over 500 teams from around the world.”
There’s also the prestigious Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue, which Matt has competed at himself. It’s held annually at the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg Tennessee, and teams must have won a grand championship of a qualifying event, or have their name drawn in a lottery to compete.
Despite the barbecue boom, Matt says his favourite barbeque is still the one he cooks at home. “One of the greatest things about barbecue is that it’s easy to cook great barbecue at home, anyone can do it. To be honest, the ribs I enjoy eating most in Melbourne, come out of the smoker in my backyard. That surely has much to do with being able to eat them just when they’re ready, and the satisfaction and enjoyment of having cooked them.”
Apparently the trick is time and patience. And having the right gear. “Weber, Hark and ProQ make some great entry level smokers that are perfect for getting you started. Like anything, it takes practice but once you get it right it is totally worth it. Many people graduate to more professional units, like Yoder smokers, which are hand-made in Kansas City, but are available here in Australia. Others may be enticed by Primo smokers, which are versatile grilling and smoking units in one.”
While there will be a lot of delicious food for barbecue newbies and curious foodies to sample at the Melbourne Barbecue Festival, what Matt is most excited about it the competition. Barbecuers from all over Australia will compete for the title of Grand Champion of the Melbourne Barbecue Festival Cook-Off. There’s a prize pool of over $15,000 and the winner will be invited to compete internationally, including at the Jack Daniels World Championship in Tennessee.
It seems once you’ve begun barbecuing it’s pretty hard not to go all in. Be careful walking past the Queen Victoria Market on February 1 – you could find yourself back there next year as a pitmaster yourself.
Jess O'Callaghan is finishing up her media degree and producing the Meanjin podcast. She writes for Right Now, Something You Said and Farrago.