Real people, making real food, at real places

As published in Rusty's Byron Guide: people, politics and culture 2021

Real people, making real food, at real places

Real people, making real food, at real places 2000 1333 Table Under a Tree

We live in times, at least in the western world, where food is equal parts entertainment, therapy and escape. We’ve all got the lingo down pat, and know our mise en place from our mirepoix. Plating up is a thing; chefs are celebrities; and social media is swamped by food trends that defy belief.

It seems that cooking is no longer mere functionality.

In lots of ways, that’s a trend to be grateful for. It’s gotten lots of people out of the drive-through and into the kitchen, cooking up a storm for themselves and for their family and friends. We’ve reconnected with that uplifting feeling of preparing a meal as a way to nurture people around us, in times of celebration, sadness or of happiness. And haven’t we all needed that lately.

We’ve aspired to be more creative and we’ve started to see that food, that ingredients, can provide an experience as well sustenance.

But, if we only engage with what we see and taste on the plate, have we missed out on an equally profound part of a meal?

I think so, because arguably the most enriching part of the act of preparing and enjoying food is embracing the connection with the people who raised it, made it or grew it.

I firmly believe that everyone has a story to tell, and that everyone’s story is interesting, if only we stop to listen. I’ll never tire of meeting a farmer or a grower and talking to them about what they do.

And here in the Northern Rivers, there is an amazing network of foodies whose stories are compelling. They are incredible people; relatable in their normality and intriguing in their quirkiness. There’s characters and comedians. There’s poets and punters. There’s truth-seekers and trend-setters.

For many of them, food wasn’t their first calling, yet they’ve found their way to it.

There’s the architect and builder couple turned protein farmers Georgina and Morgwn Goddard, whose Brooklet Springs Farm turns out chicken, pork and beef that you have to taste to believe. Inspired by health issues and the struggle to find a responsible source of pasture-raised protein, they threw caution to the wind to start their own small scale farm. Love them.

There’s former teacher turned producer in Steve at The Australian Native Bee Company and there’s an IT specialist who now specialises in sublime ice cream in Mark at Teven Valley Farm. Seriously, try his pumpkin spice ice cream. Divine!

There’s a film-maker who smokes fish at The Bay Smokehouse, a former music industry staffer whose cheese is superb (Cheeses Loves You) and chefs-turned pecan farmers at Barefoot Farms.

How about two former military officers, Jed and Sana at Esperanza Farm? Raising heritage breed pigs on their farm at Corndale is a world away from the life of an Army engineer and the first female Australian Defence Force Academy graduate to complete the Army’s pilot training course. Their ham is hands down the best I’ve ever tasted.

There’s a Russian chef, who had an epiphany at a temple in the Himalayas, who now makes an incredible range of seasonal krauts, ferments, tonics and tinctures right here in our neck of the woods. That’s Katerina from Suria Foods.

There’s a French surfer who came to Byron on holidays, and never left, and now has us all addicted to pickled garlic. That’s Antoine at Byron Olive Co. There’s even Pam Brook, a dentist who became Australia’s macadamia queen at Brookfarm, and whose family went on to create Cape Byron Distillery, just crowned as Sustainable Distillery of the Year at the Icons of Gin Awards in London.

And if the tales of how these folks came to do what they’re doing doesn’t blow you away, the story of the human effort, not to mention passion, that goes into growing, producing or making their local products will. Or at least, it should be if you really want to understand where your food comes from.

Take Katie at La Finca Booyong, Her pasture-raised eggs have to be handled by a real person (that’s most likely her) about seven times before they find their way to a local shop. It puts the price of a carton of eggs into a different light when you think about it.

Or how about Claire at Wattle Tree Creek, who makes superb pickles, chutneys and jams. She has to wash, chop and cook something like 150kg of fresh veg every week. I get RSI even thinking about that!

So many of our local food characters are quiet innovators, testing boundaries and carving out niches and opportunities that we all reap the benefits from.

Frank at Nimbin Valley Rice and Pecans took the family dairy farm in a new direction, with an initial foray into nuts and then into unique dry land rice. People are always amazed that rice can grow outside of a paddy field, let alone in a paddock much like you’d expect to see wheat or oats. To enjoy local rice, grown just up the road is pretty incredible.

Jonas from Fair Game Wild Venison has one of those businesses that make you wonder why no one thought of it before. He’s trying to solve the environmental problems created by feral deer through a simple solution: wild-caught venison. With a team of field-harvesters and access to a number of properties where deer are especially problematic, Jonas provides quality venison for local tables. Win, win, win.

Have you heard of kombucha for sheep? Warren from Local Dorper Lamb makes something akin to that for his herd! He makes a very funky sea weed fertiliser that he ferments for eight weeks before using. It help keep his sheep’s digestion healthy and fertilises the paddocks at the same time.

And then there’s Mullum’s local craft brewers, Wandana Brewing Co, who are putting into practice research that shows music can impact on the way yeast behaves! Ananda, Chrissie and co brew each of their different beers to a different style of music. Who would have thought!

Yes, there is something very special about the food culture of the Northern Rivers. It’s not just the quality of the produce or the depth of the local cafés and restaurants that use it. It’s not only the vibrancy of the region’s network of farmers markets and the community members and visitors that frequent them. No, the Northern Rivers food culture is much more than that, much deeper than a trend or a passing fad. It is the cumulative, layered enthusiasm, eccentricity and toil of real people, who are making real food at real places. And that’s sustenance for the body and for the soul.

Georgina Inwood is the owner/operator of award-winning small business Table Under a Tree (www.tableunderatree.com.au). Table Under a Tree delivers locally grown and made food direct to locals and visitors as well offering private farm and food tours of the region. She is also on the executive of Northern Rivers Food, the region’s not-for-profit member group which supports and advocates for the local food industry from the paddock to the plate.

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