Tree change to Tilba – chef Paul West finds a producer’s paradise in NSW »
The results are in The River Cottage Australia Cookbook
By Robyn Lewis
I love the honest way Australian chef Paul West starts his book: “I don’t come from a long line of culinary adventurers, my family aren’t farmers and for a long time, my greatest culinary achievement was to spread Vegemite on toast… I wasn’t really interested in what was on my plate”.
Hurrah, a hype-free book. With deepest respect to grandparents everywhere, not everyone grows up in a household where nonnas hand-make pasta and salamis, gleaming preserves are the norm, free-range chooks roam the verandah, and family recipes are lovingly handed down to the grandkids. In this era of working parents, supermarkets, the internet, sports, birthday parties and a gazillion other children's activities, in what little spare time kids have, most are more interested in Facetiming their friends than food (except to eat it) – even assuming their parent(s) have the skills to teach them to cook or eat well.
Cooking is no longer central to life, as it once was when the majority lived in or near the country, or at least had cousins there. Now, we’re urban, busy, and increasingly dissociated from the source of our food, and for many, even what to do with it. Pizzas, takeaways and toasted cheese sandwiches are almost the norm.
It’s often travel that puts us back in touch with food. That trip to Thailand or Vietnam where you sample the street vendor’s dishes and are blown away by explosions of flavours that you’ve never had at home, even in restaurants. Or Europe – more unfamiliar tastes, fabulous pastries, dill-pickled fish, something that stops you in your tracks and speaks to you, or twangs at some genetic memory. Any culture different to your own can do it.
For Paul West, his revelation occurred at 21, while on a solo hitch-hiking adventure around Australia. With the multicultural diversity and huge climate variations we have here, you don’t need a passport to find it. Appropriately, Paul’s occurred in a tiny village in north-west Tasmania called Paradise, where “fed up with camping and staying at hostels, and desperate for a home-cooked meal (even meat and three veg!) I signed up to WWOOF” – aka Willing Workers on Organic Farms.
His host farmer was a Frenchman named Giles, who – the morning after Paul’s arrival – dragged him out of bed at 5 am to pick apples and pears to juice for breakfast. He bit into one of the dew-covered pears: “To this day, I’ve never tasted a piece of fruit that can come close to that pear.” His head spun even more when Giles pulled a freshly-baked loaf out of the wood-fired oven, to be eaten for lunch with veggies from the garden. “In one morning, my whole perception of food and what it could be had changed. I had just witnessed the good life and I was determined to make it my own”.
Despite growing up in the Hunter Valley, Paul couldn’t cook or garden, so he continued his wwoofing journey around Australia, first learning how to grow vegetables. After returning to the Hunter he got involved in permaculture and community gardens, and “realise the way it could bring together people from all kinds of different backgrounds to share in a common joy”. It was there he realised that he didn’t have to be self-sufficient, instead aspiring to be part of a community that shared the same values, as well as food and techniques.
Then came learning to cook – when he started in his early 20s, Paul could not even make fried rice. Obviously not one to do things by halves, this failure inspired him to take on a chef’s apprenticeship.
One thing led to another, eventually to the kitchen of Vue de Monde restaurant in Melbourne, learning culinary skills en route. Then one day, sick of 90 hour weeks, no sunshine and living on adrenaline, caffeine and nicotine, he realised he wanted to rediscover why he learnt to cook. The connection was missing. He resigned.
Paul’s new skills were easily transportable, and with his partner Alicia he headed back to where it all began, Tasmania, where they found work in a country restaurant out of Hobart, and began to live the dream, with their own farm, chickens, garden and orchard. Most would have been happy to stay there, with Tasmania becoming an attractive culinary and tourism mecca, firmly on the up.
But Paul must have the travel bug – and also a friend who contacted him about Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, of UK River Cottage fame. For those who didn’t follow UK TV series, Hugh, a former city journalist, took the plunge into Dorset soils in 1999, and in setting up his veggie patch spawned an empire of cooking, foraging and other food books, TV shows and celebrity. His timing was perfect, hitting a nerve with UK residents dreaming of the same.
Many Australians are now also seeking to reconnect, not only with food and the country, but with each other – from IT experts and journalists, to bankers, physiotherapists and those just sick of the pace of the city, and sometimes its emptiness. Sure, we have social media, but the joys of sharing meals, wine, craft beers and good company are on another level. Many may be able to cook, but produce your own food? The closest most get is at farmers’ markets, and for those who can afford it, at provenance-driven restaurants from Attica and Brae, Franklin and the former Garagistes, and Quay in Sydney, where chef Peter Gilmore rejoices in the source of almost every ingredient he features.
And so to Tilba. Until a couple of years ago, I didn’t know where it was either – for me, southern NSW is flown over, not driven through, en route to Sydney. Way south of Wollongong, east of Cooma, unless you’re a Canberra resident with a coastal ‘shack’ near Bermagui, you’re unlikely to be passing through. But Team Hugh had bought an old dairy farm there, with a view to recreating the River Cottage phenomenon down under. Food shows on Australian TV had taken off, interest in cooking was rising fast, and Hugh had also perceived the groundswell of feeling to eat local, seasonal and fresh that had propelled him to stardom in the UK.
He’s also keen to spread the sustainable, ethical eating message and some of his campaigns including Chicken Out! and Hugh’s Fish Fight to our shores, and to get more local people everywhere sharing land, food and knowledge, and in doing so, building better communities. So, there was a meeting of minds with Paul. This took place via an application for a TV show, in which Paul beat many thousands of hopefuls, to relocate in a few short months and turn it into his own bit of paradise, and to begin to spread the sustainability message down under.
Two years on and many failures and successes later, The River Cottage Australia Cookbook launched in conjunction with River Cottage Australia Season 3 on Foxtel’s The LifeStyle Channel. Its 320 pages are predominantly recipes, sure, but it’s far more than that – a call to the country, as it were, and a mini-handbook for sustainable living and farming.
OK, most of us aren’t going to hit the jackpot to feature in a TV show, be given or inherit a farm, or – increasingly – even have relatives on the land. A third of Australians were not born here, so country connections are increasingly rare. So what can we do?
The River Cottage Australia Cookbook starts out with some sensible advice on how to play a more meaningful role in how your food is produced, and in what you eat. As consumers, we have huge influence, and eventually, even supermarket buyers take notice (witness the return to smaller, more-flavoursome legs of lamb in one of the two majors, when they realised that the massive, lean leg roasts that were bred for economic efficiency and not for taste were not what people wanted to buy, cook or eat).
As Paul says, the first step is to care, “about how your food is being produced … who is reaping the benefits from its sale … how far it has to travel and … how it will benefit you”. Care enough to ask questions. Care enough to take your custom to someone who can answer them to your satisfaction, and with a smile. Care enough to pay a little more (although increasingly, farmers’ market produce is cheaper than the supermarkets). Care about your nutrition.
And wherever you live, celebrate food daily – it’s not just fuel, but something that can bring together family and friends, create memories and joy. More and more we travel for experiences, but with food, great experiences can also happen at home, at those of friends, and elsewhere in our own country as Australia’s culinary standards lift nationwide.
Some of the recipes in the book are from Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall and his UK recipe team, but if you have many of his own books (as I do) you won't find much repetition, and those that are have been adapted for Australian produce and seasons. Many are by Paul himself, who states that they’ve been selected “to be simple, accessible and to celebrate the unique flavour of each ingredient”.
There are the usual sections: Vegetables and Salads, Fish, Meat, Bread, Dairy and Sweet Things, plus an intro called Kitchen Notes about seasonings and How to Sterilise Jars (he obviously hasn’t tried the microwave method!)
Some recipes I’ve tagged to try include:
- Spaghetti with Rainbow Chard, Chilli and Ricotta
- Savoury Pumpkin Pies
- Crab Apple Relish
- Hugh’s Persimmon Coriander Salsa (yes, I have a garden and orchard)
- Smoked Trout
- Flathead Steamed in Seaweed
- Crunchy Whole School Prawns with Lime and Chilli
- Beer-battered Tempura Yabbies with Kaffir Lime Mayonnaise
- Hugh’s Grilled Octopus Salad with Lemongrass Ginger Dressing
- Beer-marinated Chicken Wings
- Wild Rabbit, Braised and Fried (yes, please eat out national pest!)
- Kanga-ragout (environmentally friendly, lean meat)
- Kangaroo with Beetroot and Mustard Greens
- Jersey Beef and Stout Pie
- Pork Larb
- Rabbit Rillettes
- Sourdough Loaf (and Starter recipe)
- Beer Bread
- Cultured Butter
- Hazelnut Syrup Cake
- Warm Curd Cake with Honey Rhubarb
- Double-decker Zucchine Cake (one for the kids, for sure!)
- Berry Panna Cotta
- Blackberry Clafoutis
- Banana Tarte Tartin (the classic apple version is in Hugh’s book River Cottage Fruit Everyday)
- Hugh’s Spiced Plum Fumble (a very easy cross between a fool and a crumble)
- Pancakes with Poached Tamarillos
- Sweet and Tangy Finger Lime Cordial
- Watermelon Granita
- Sweet Mint Lassi
Enough to keep me busy for a while!
But I also want to visit Tilba, which is near Bega of cheese fame. I’ve now heard more about the rich pasturelands, the shorelines and the beaches of South Coastal NSW, and the idyllic photos by Mark Chew have me dreaming of a relaxing holiday there, perhaps in a laidback beachside town more reminiscent of a childhood summer than a 5 star hotel. Fishing will be a must, and there’s a local winery and restaurant, another at Bermagui, plus the destination Drystone Restaurant to the south (see links below).
The River Cottage Australia Cookbook is also published in the UK, and no doubt it will attract tourists to Australia's shores, in search of a slice of paradise too. Come on, you won’t be disappointed! Not just in Tilba but right round the country, from south-west Western Australia to Tasmania and Far North Queensland, more people are reconnecting with their food, the environment and each other, and creating great new experiences in the process. So get out there, dive in and enjoy what this undiscovered NSW region has to offer.
The River Cottage Australia Cookbook by Paul West is published by Bloomsbury (Sydney and London, 2015; hc 320 pp) and retails in Australia for RRP A$45. It is available from all good booksellers and can also be purchased online via Booko here »
More travel information on Tilba and surrounds, and other inspiring ‘grow it, eat it’ cookbooks are listed below.
- South Coast NSW (NSW)
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