First Slowjourn


November  2008
            AS the guests at The Agrarian Kitchen wandered up to inspect the garden after the official opening speeches, Katrina Birchmeier  passed us walking towards the kitchen with a big bowl of radishes only just pulled from the ground.
            Before the rain drove us inside, guests were being offered now washed  radishes to dip in aioli.
            A few days earlier I had been at a morning tea at Herdsmans Cove Primary School at Gagebrook, where we were offered a beetroot-chocolate cake made by parents using beetroot grown in the school garden by gardeners aged between zero and four.
            The shift from food as purchase, to food as something you grow yourself has been astonishing in the past decade – astonishing to older generations, no doubt, in that we ever moved away from it. But, however far we have drifted,  home-grown is back with a vengeance.
            The Agrarian Kitchen at Lachlan near New Norfolk, is the new business of Rodney Dunn and his wife Severine Demanet.  
On what was bare paddock when they moved there 16 months ago, they already have an extensive garden of heirloom varieties of vegetables, an orchard of 37 trees, two Wessex Saddleback pigs – which at the moment are grubbing over what will be the 500 square  metre  berry patch – many Barnvelder  chooks, two Jersey cows and nine geese, two of which are on death row.
            Starting now, but at full throttle from January, they will run cooking schools at the 1887 school house they have converted, with the help of an $185,000 tourism grant, to a classroom kitchen, complete with a wood-fire  oven designed by Alan Scott,  a dining room, and living quarters for them and their 20-month-old son Tristan.
            Groups of no more than eight attending a one-day cooking class will begin by going out to pick vegetables and fruit and  collect eggs (probably they will not have to milk a cow or throttle a goose), bring it back to the kitchen, cook it, then sit down to share the meal they have prepared.  
            Or, you might enroll in a master class in preserving conducted by Sally Wise, pastry cooking under the tuition of her son Alistair Wise, charcuterie by Dunn and his friend Luke Burgess, pork cookery with wessex saddleback breeder Lee Christmas or cider making with a sixth-generation cider maker.
            Dunn and Demanet quote Wendell Berry on their brochures: “An agrarian mind begins with the love of fields and ramifies in good farming, good cooking and good eating.”
Soon-to-be cider teacher Derwent Valley mayor Tony Nicholson remembers when farms in the valley ranged from less than a hectare to 16ha or so, when households raised fat lambs, kept chickens and had a house cow. The summer round of work would begin with picking berries, then there would be a brief “sit-down time” before Christmas and the hops harvest and  bringing in the apples. By autumn,  one had time to make cider from the surplus apples.
He is delighted to see the revival of a distinctly Tasmanian food culture in the valley and the injection of ideas and skills from people coming to settle here from the mainland.
Dunn said he grew up on a large cattle station in NSW. He trained as a chef – he and Luke Burgess both were apprentices of Tetsuya Wakuda, who attended the opening – then branched into writing about food, including a three-year stint as food editor of Australian Gourmet Traveller. He says he has had to be a quick study “garnering the skills of country life”.
Today’s schools begin imparting skill of country life early – to children under four in the case of the kitchen garden at Herdsmans Cove School that is part of the B4 early learning program co-ordinated by Suzanne Purdon.
There the garden beds are waist-high (for three-year-olds) in the shape of daisy petals. Irrigation is clipped overhead, so that there is unobstructed room to ride a bike among the garden beds.
Last month they planted herbs, carrots and strawberries. Cabbage and cauliflower are coming along, and they harvested silverbeet, spring onions and beetroot – and made a chocolate cake with it.
At Rosetta High School, assistant principal Spencer Woolley,  has been the driving force behind a round garden in the school forecourt where broad beans, beetroot, peas, rhubarb, kale, onions and more are thriving, but which at the start of the year was 15cm of soil covering builder’s rubble.
The garden is part of a science option that is also seeing the clean-up of a creek. Seventy students have worked in the garden this year, and last week 10 of them each took home a carrier bag full of lettuce.
People of all ages participate in the Bridgewater community garden, Riverside Nursery, where Chelsea Barnes co-ordinates activities.  The garden has existed for some years is sprouting new  life under new management and a grant of $80,000 from the Smith Family.
Wine grapes, fruit trees, sweetcorn and peas grow under nets. A chandelier graces the chook pen. Outside the nets individual families have their own plots, but Barnes said this will be re-organised into more efficient row planting that allows for crop rotation. “If a group of mothers takes ownership of looking after the corn, they will get first pick of the crop,” she  said.
Young children come to the garden to be amazed that one seed potato can produce “10, 20, 30 potatoes” said Barnes. Year 10 girls recently enjoyed an outdoor pamper session experimenting with such things as avocados and egg whites for skin care.  The interest of boys on the work-for-the-dole scheme can be sparked by handing them a whipper-snipper.
All the groups working in the garden get together once a month, and every day between 9am and 4pm the public can buy plants at the garden in Eddington St “just like Chandlers” said Suzanne Purdon.
It’s a far cry from when cooking was called home economics, was taught to girls only, and everybody made the same batch of biscuits to take home.  How much better fitted for the future are children who grow the food they cook and who prepare a meal that they eat together. 
Those of us taught the old way can always go to the 1887 schoolhouse in Lachlan for a garden-to-plate experience.  Check out www.theagrariankitchen.com for details.
Elaine Reeves