Shepparton fine food and wine club moves online

By John Lewis

Here we are in a big room - sitting around the table, meals cooking, cutlery at the ready, wine poured and chatting away.

Except we're not all in the same room and we're not at the same table. But we're still ready to eat and drink and the chat is flowing like a flamboyant red.

Members of Shepparton's Beefsteak and Burgundy Club have gathered on the first Thursday of every month since the club was formed in 1965.

A good restaurant is selected, wine chosen and about 30 fellows meet for a chat about their neighbourhood, the world and the price of fish.

The club has a few rules - the night's menu and wine selection is kept secret to prompt discussion about the contents.

There's a dress code of shirt and tie for cooler months and short sleeves for the heat. And no women. They have their own club - The Epicureans. But we won't talk about that.

Founding member Roger Key said the Beefsteak and Burgundy Club had become a Shepparton institution.

“We've managed to stay pretty vibrant. It's a place for professional men who work hard to relax and enjoy each other's company. Over the years it's been a real success,” he said.

So when coronavirus arrived, followed by restrictions on public gatherings, it looked like more than half-a-century of Shepparton tradition was under threat.

Then along came Zoom and the virtual Beefsteak and Burgundy experience.

I have been invited into this select group as a guest to record the historic occasion. But I have an embarrassing secret - I'm vegetarian. But we won't talk about that either.

My secret meal: Lentil soup with fresh basil. The Mornington Peninsula Pinot noir cleanskin was a bribe from the Shepparton Beefsteak and Burgundy Club to keep things nice.

Right, that's the history - let's get into it.

For tonight's historic virtual dinner, chef Ingrid Thomas and her staff at Shepparton's Teller Restaurant have prepared and cooked the secret menu for club members to collect and take home in the afternoon.

At 6.45 pm sharp, my laptop screen lights up and fills with 25 coloured squares - little windows into people's loungerooms and kitchens with a rogue's gallery of blokes on idle waiting for the session to get going.

But hang on - there appears to be some Zoom-bombing going on with wives and partners nodding and smiling in the little windows. It's an international club - and it looks like even Brad Pitt has joined us.

The dress code looks a bit relaxed for the start of autumn. Plenty of open-neck shirts and short sleeves. There's even one fellow sitting on his verandah in camo.

Then there's a bloke who appears to be naked except for a tie around his neck. Either he's just stepped out of the shower because he's late, or he is a nudist who is actually dressing up for the night.

Nobody knows, because we are all on mute - waiting for the all powerful mute-master to connect us and the wine and food master to kick things off.

At 7 pm sharp, mute-master Adam Furphy clicks on the sound and my earphones erupt in a cacophony of joshing, sledging and nicknames - Phillo, Rosco, Snapper, Nipper etc.

Mute-master reaches for the silence button and begins to read the cooking instructions.

When the sound returns, one voice rises over the rest with some important advice: "Don't put the plastic containers in the oven". It sounds like the voice of experience.

There's also a plea from Phillo to the shower man: "For God's sake don't stand up".

To get the night going, president Min Innes-Irons sings a little ditty which could be the club song or something he's just made up.

Either way, it's sung with gusto - and the wine hasn't even begun to flow yet.

Then it's into the food.

Mute-master divides us into "tables" of about seven or eight people who then discuss what they think they are eating and drinking.

Tonight is a restricted menu of two courses and a light wine - which tastes like Pinot noir to my uneducated palette.

It's also a Hunters and Gatherers night - meaning the food has been supplied by hunters or fishermen in the club.

There's general agreement on the wine - a Pinot noir from either the Bellarine or Mornington peninsula. There's also consensus on the gnocchi, chestnuts and mushrooms, but a bit of debate around the meat.

Is it rabbit, hare, pork, venison, or even kangaroo?

Don't look at me, I'm having lentils.

At one point it seemed the Shepparton Beefsteak and Burgundy Club's virtual dinner had been Zoom-bombed by Brad Pitt - but perhaps that was wishful thinking.

Each table nominates a speaker to summarise the discussion. The summary is erudite and informed and it's treated seriously with a round of applause. Thankfully, mute-master does not have to intervene.

Then someone starts a list of interesting dishes from the past - snails, frog's legs, ram's nuts and bull's pizzle, which prompts the comment: "You'll never guess what I put in my mouth tonight dear". I can sense the mute-master's finger twitching.

There's general agreement the worst tasting dish was sea urchin - described as "totally inedible".

Finally there's the big reveal from chef, Ingrid.

The first dish was hare marinated in red wine and spices. Apparently, Nipper lined up three hares and shot them between the eyes with a single bullet. He's that good.

The main dish was venison, and the wine was indeed a Mornington Peninsula Pinot.

Ingrid sums up her week supplying takeaways in the new COVID-19 era.

“If someone said to me a month ago we would be relying on home deliveries I wouldn't have believed them. When you're used to 500 people coming through the door you have to do things differently. But we've always been up for a challenge,” she says.

Mute-master sums it all up for everyone: "This is an affirmation that as human beings we have to connect. And we know that food and the culinary arts are a vital way to do this".

Cheers to that.

The mute button stays off for the rest of the night.