Down on Rosa's Farm in country Victoria

Regional food and cooking by Rosa Mitchell

By Robyn Lewis
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Rosa's Farm by Rosa Mitchell

Rosa's Farm by Rosa Mitchell [©Murdoch Books]

 

If you want to escape life in the city – virtually or for real – a copy of Rosa’s Farm should be an essential part of your kitchen equipment. For Italian-born Melbourne chef Rosa Mitchell and her husband Colin are living the rural dream, and this is the result of over two decades’ experience and enjoyment.

The book starts with the fabulous story of how they first discovered their Elysian retreat. Back in the 80’s, Rosa was working as a hairdresser, and she was dreaming of a coastal cottage. Husband Colin – who had grown up on a farm – had other ideas: his included vineyards and rolling hills. So, a compromise was reached, and they agreed to look in central Victoria, for something small that would not become a rod for their backs, as often can happen….

Then fate intervened, in the form of an old magazine Colin serendipitously found in a secondhand shop, full of photos of lovely old stone buildings not far from where they had been searching. It mentioned the name of a man who owned them. Yandoit Creek (near Daylesford) was the area.

Even back then, pre Google, it wasn’t hard to track down Vincent Gervasoni, who unbeknown to them was something of a local character. Despite a sign on his gate that said “National Trust, Italian Historical Society and Tourists Not Welcome”, he invited them to see him – and immediately they hit it off.

I won’t spoil the story, but two weeks later Vince (as he quickly became known to them) had found the Mitchells a twenty acre block of land, complete with a few neglected fruit trees and a dilapidated milking shed, almost the antithesis of Rosa’s coastal fantasy. It was love at first sight.

Over the next few years they renovated the shed, planted olives, fruit trees and vines, and become closer and closer to Vince, whose family had pioneered vines in the areas in the 1860s.

In a touching ending of this chapter of their Yandoit life, when Vince passed away without heir, rather than see it developed he divided his farm between his five neighbours, and Rosa and Colin found themselves with an extra 330 acres and many of the old stone buildings that had originally lured them to the area, including Vince’s homestead.

By this time Rosa had become a chef (Journal Canteen, and more recently Hobson’s Bay Hotel in Williamstown) and a founder of the Slow Food movement in Victoria. She and Colin also worked to create a producing vineyard without irrigation, in the tradition of Vince’s forebears.

With her Sicilian heritage, chef’s skills and love of country cooking, she also turned her hand to home produce. Rosa’s Farm is the beautiful result, as full of love and sharing as it is of good, simple recipes.

The book follows on from her first collection of recipes in My Cousin Rosa, which celebrated simple, traditional, lovingly prepared and authentic cuisine. Rosa’s Farm continues this theme, with the addition of more dishes for family feasts and celebrations, and recipes for more obscure things to be found and enjoyed as part of the farming year.

I live on a farm too, and now that our own veggie garden has expanded and made possum, sheep, bird and rabbit-proof, we now have a seasonal glut. So, what to do with it all?

And, what to do with the wild herbs, and that green harbinger of spring, nettles, which we know are good for you but which I have hitherto left for the sheep brave enough to eat them? So when I hit the chapter called From the Garden, I was totally hooked. Stuffed Artichokes baked in Vine Embers? Bring it on! (even if I’ll probably just cook them in the oven).

From pumpkin and chicory to broccoli and fennel, these are veggies found over most of Australia, if not in your garden then from the local market or shop. The recipes are simple and delicious, the sort of thing you can knock up whilst also supervising the kids’ homework, chatting with a friend or multitasking in the kitchen like a human octopus.

They’re less ‘cheffy’ than those in (for example) Mr Wilkinson’s Favourite Vegetables, but no less tasty. Her Raw Celeriac Salad is simple and delicious, and an alternative to the more common mash, and carrots never looked as good as when Roasted with Mint and Red Wine Vinegar.

The Wild Harvest section is equally tempting, with recipes for Wild Fennel Fritters, Prickly Pear and Prosciutto Salad, Mostarda (a fruit paste, not unlike quince paste) of Prickly Pear, Nettle Frittata, Wild Weeds Pie, wild mushrooms pan-friend, pickled and marinated, and Yabby Pasta, for those fortunate enough to have a local supply of this mainland Australian native crustacean.

Carnivores are catered for with a chapter on meat and game, with a big emphasis on free-range chicken; the Slow Cooked Lamb Shoulder is delicious, and there are recipes for Rabbit with Tomato and Onions and Hare Ragu for those into game.

The section on offal is a trifle disappointing though, for those wishing to utilise the entire beast: only ox tongue and pork neck rate a mention, and I’m not sure what Slow Baked Leg of Lamb Under Salt is doing in this section, delicious as it would be for serving to a large group of friends or family – no need to carve, simply pull apart.

Slow Food Australia has nominated the Gervasoni sausage recipe – known as ‘Bullboars’, being half beef, half pork – as an ‘Ark of Taste’ food. Its recipe includes nutmeg, a spice often found in recipes from the north of Italy.

There’s a section on Eggs, Milk and Bread, which personally I find a bit skimpy, although it does contain some obscure treasures as Dried Ricotta Cheese and Fried Milk, and Italian sweetmeat perfect for sharing after a meal with an espresso.

As much as Rosa assures us that “Italians don’t really have dessert, as such, after a meal” the book really shines in the section on Fruit and Nuts. I’m of the school that where you have access to beautiful fresh fruit, there really isn't much you need to do to it, but Rosa has convinced me to try her Almond and Fruit Tart, Apple and Walnut Cake, Blood Plum Cake (I made mine with nectarines, frozen from the summer), and more.

If you are trying to fatten up anyone in your family, or have teenaged boys to fill, this is the section for you (or them). For novice bakers, the recipes are easy, and delicious.

The book ends with a section called Stocking the Larder, which while not being comprehensive (see Adam Liew’s book Two Asian Kitchens for much more on pantry items, especially stocks), does contain some gems like how to dry your own wild fennel seeds, a Pasta Sauce you can make without bottling equipment, and a Plum Sauce which is a local creation for those with no tomatoes.

If you have access to grapes (and some vine cuttings for ash) you can also make your own Vincotto – from the Italian meaning cooked wine – which will save you a bundle at the gourmet foodstore.

The photographs by Mark Roper are delightful and evocative of wholesome country life, family feasts and cooking, and the book is designed and printed in the signature Murdoch Books style.

Rosa’s Farm will adorn your country home, or if you live in a city, have you hankering after simpler days when kids were free to roam outdoors all day, and come home in the evening to a pile of lovingly prepared, fresh and healthy food. But above all, it will be used and loved for years.

 

Rosa’s Farm by Rosa Mitchell is published by Murdoch Books (Miller’s Point, NSW, 2012; hc 224 pp) and retails for RRP A$49.99.

It is available online from Booko.com.au here »

 

Regions

  • Melbourne Surrounds (VIC)

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August 23rd, 2012
 
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