Coming upon the fertile fields of Mildura after miles of dry Mallee shrub you have the sense of entering an oasis. For a writer, arriving at the Mildura Festival elicits a similar response: here, at last, is a place to be refreshed and fed, metaphorically and literally. It is a friendly and delicious affair, where writers are fêted because their work is valued and where enjoyment seems raised to a fine art. If ever writing was thought to be food for the mind, then here food for the body is regarded as spiritual nourishment as well.
Over the years, this writers’ festival has evolved into a combined literary and culinary event. At the heart of the festival is the Mildura Grand Hotel – where the writers are splendidly housed and where many events take place – and at the heart of that heart is Stefano de Pieri, celebrated chef and connoisseur of fine writing. Though the festival at this point owes its existence to many people, its inception was Stefano’s idea, along with Philip Hodgins. For a long time many of us thought of it as ‘Philip’s festival’ because he was the leading spirit – both before and after he died in 1995. But if Philip is the genius loci, then Stefano is clearly the genius of the place. He has managed to raise a fledgling festival into a soaring annual event. One can only imagine the diplomatic and political skills it must take to accomplish such an organisational pièce de resistance in a rural city. But it says something too for the people of the region, for their loyal attendance at the festival speaks volumes in itself.