A look back at MFWF’s Eel Dinner – 6500 Years in The Making

This year’s highlight MFWF event between chef David Moyle, Max Allen, Richard Cornish and Damein Bell of the Gunditjmara People was so profoundly beautiful—and meaningful— it left guests crying. In this article, Richard talks of the place, people and connections which inspired it.

By Richard Cornish

People were crying. They had been shown something so beautiful and so amazing which had been hidden from them by a culture of ignorance based on a lie. It was The Eel Dinner – 6500 Years in The Making, one of the highlight events of the 2019 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. It was a collaboration between Chef David Moyle, Damein Bell of the Gunditjmara People, wine writer Max Allen and me, a food writer.

In February, David Moyle went to Lake Condah for the very first time. He grew up in Port Fairy about half an hour from this amazing landscape formed by volcano Budj Bimor Mount Eccles’ various eruptions between 40 000 years and 8000 years ago. Great tongues of lava changed the course of creeks and dammed water.

The Gunditjmara people developed an intricate network of water races and eel traps, fracturing the rock with burning coals and cold water. They built houses of stone and smoked eel to trade.

“We all grew up in a world where certain truths were avoided,” says David. “For most of my life I lived near what was once Australia’s greatest indigenous settlement. A small city of houses built around a massive aquaculture centre.” During colonisation the Gunditjmara held on in this rough but beautiful landscapes the settlers’ horses could not traverse the rocky ground. But eventually Lake Condah was colonised with the rocks from the houses used to build stonewalls and later crushed for road making.

The Gunditjmara were forced onto missions and Lake Condah was drained as late as the 1950s. “Where there were wetlands, now there is forest,” says David lamenting. “Where there were houses, now there are ruins. I grew up not far from Lake Condah and no-one I knew ever talked about it. Now I know why.”

Damein showed us around Lake Condah for two days. Over that time, they discussed the menu for the dinner. It would have to have eel, still caught in other lakes in Western Victoria. It would have potatoes to represent the settlement of the area by the Irish and Scots. It would have some other traditional foods. Damein wanted roo. David sourced wallaby that was served as a tartare with salt bush.

Max spoke to the local winemakers namely Crawford River, Hochkirch, Seppelt and Basalt from whom the wines were sourced. Together we made a video which we played to the 120 guests. Damein showed some drone footage that was taken when the lake had plenty of water a few years back. He talked about how the Gunditjmara were slowly returning the lake to its former state by blocking off the drains and allowing it to refill, and described the process that they are taking to have the site recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site. “The World Heritage Centre in Paris decided in March last year that the nomination for the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape has been formally accepted for assessment,” said Damein. “When that happens people will be coming from all over the world to see Lake Condah. And we’re getting ready for them.

“White history has it that we were nomadic people,” said Damein. “But I am here to tell you that were living in stone houses and practising engineering that hydrologists today are in awe of. You can see it all in The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape. People are welcome to come and see it.”

Experiences like this leave an indelible memory and affect us for days and weeks and months because we have been connected with something truly special and meaningful. We encourage you to explore more of the rich stories and to visit the special places of our traditional owners. Visit Budj-Bim Tours.

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