Here is something I never thought would happen back in the days of 4 goats in a field….
One night in early October, just before things went bonkers with Goatober, I had got in from my London deliveries at about 1 am. I flicked on the computer to catch up with the news before I went to bed and as I read an email drop into my inbox. It was from Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and I remember thinking ‘I don’t remember subscribing to that.’ It was an invite asking me if I would like to come to Melbourne to talk about and cook some goat. I wondered how long was a polite amount of time before I answered ‘HELL YES!’
Five months later I was sat in the business class lounge at Heathrow with Matt Williamson, who was coming as my plus one, prep chef and functions as my food brain at all times, waiting for a plane to Melbourne via Dubai.
We had a busy schedule but the first there was lunch. I’m never to busy for lunch. Brae restaurant in Birregurra, a small town about 50 miles west of the city, is run by Chef/Patron Dan Hunter. Dan doesn’t seem like one to compromise, certainly not when it comes to his food or his principals. Everything we ate was grown on the farm. with the exception of the fish. Having arrived at 6.30 that morning this meal was the first thing I ate on this trip and it was like having Australian food culture injected directly into my bloodstream. The highlights were the Sea Lettuce, Corn and Rock Lobster tart (pictured) and the smoked pig cheek, which was eaten before I got the camera out… It was an extraordinary meal, made even more remarkable by the fact that the table next to us was unlikely to be eating the same menu. The waitress, who was absolutely faultless, told us its not unusual to have 10 different menus running in a dining room of 18 tables because Dan will only use the produce when its at its best. Sometimes there isn’t enough of everything for a full service, so tables get different menus. To run a service with food of that quality is hard enough, to do it consistently over loads of tables with loads of different menus is bordering on ridiculous. Like I said, extraordinary. The other thing that stood out was the drinks flight, not the wine flight, but the non alcoholic drinks flight. Being a few hours drive out of Melbourne, the restaurant understands not everyone will be drinking. I haven’t drunk for over 10 years so I’ve had plenty of dry lunches and attempts at non-alcoholic cocktails. This is the first time I’ve felt the restaurant has really put thought into the non-alcoholic drinks pairing and the first time that I’ve felt the drinks complimented the food in a similar way to a wine flight. For me, that speaks to the attention to detail that underpins Brae. And everything comes from a garden that is a short, post lunch stroll away from the table you it eat it at.
I lived in Melbourne for a while when I was 20 so I was interested to see how the city had changed in 20 years. The answer is loads and not very much. It bigger, much bigger, apparently 1500 a week arrive in the city and stay, but at its core it felt the same. Full of sports, optimism, immigrant influence. The cities food takes that immigrant influence and runs with it and this lead me to take up residence in Melbourne’s Chinatown chasing dumplings and Mapo dofu. We had been recommended a few places but ShanDong MaMa was the one that came up the most. After quite a bit of wandering around staring at google maps and looking confused, we found ShanDong Mama inside and old, deserted, shabby old shopping mall. It was packed, obviously but we got a seat because there are few things more efficient than the waiting staff in a busy Asian restaurant. We were ushered to a sharing table and slipped sticky lamented menus. I love the guess work that has to go into menus with minimal descriptions (what is Mr and Mrs Smith?) so there is a little bit of abandoning ourselves to fate. None of it disappoints. The classic pork dumplings have to eaten with extreme care because the insides are hot, juicy and liable burns but my favourite was the pan fried dumplings, the pot stickers. That bit of crunch makes all the difference. Five shared dishes and we are done. It was about £20. Amazing really. The cash and carry of food but as good as anything I’ve eaten anywhere. Value is a curious thing in food. Its often more about what, where, when and how it sits in the memory rather than the actual money you paid that defines its value. This was memorable because the food was excellent and because it was above expectation of the strip lights and torn Lino floors.
But I wasn’t in Melbourne to just eat. I did have some work to do so the next day I headed back to The Malthouse Theatre to take my seat one the ‘Is sustainability sustainable?’ panel being chaired by @samsifton of the New York Times. Joining me on the panel was Jill Duplex and Alla Wolf-Tasker. I have contributed to a few of these panel in the last few years and they are always best when you have people with opposing views. That is often a hard to find because the sort of people that get invited to contributre to food festivals aren’t the sort of people that disagree with the idea of a sustainable food system and it becomes a case of preaching to the converted. This is where Sam Sifton did such a great job. He wasn’t afraid to poke at the logic and arguments that underpinned the statements being made. My contribution was along the lines of ‘We need better food education.’ There aren’t many problems to which “we need more education’ isn’t the answer. I think shopping for good produce and cooking your own food is much more fun than buying ready meals and putting it in a microwave. I appreciate that isn’t possible for everyone, all the time but if people can introduce it into their lives, or set a bit of leisure time side to do it, the better off they will be. The final thing to say about the panel was the promo shot taken by Dan Mahon. Its very funny. I think we look like a Fleetwood Mac tribute band… You can listen to the whole thing here.
This was my main event and I was delighted when it sold out quickly and we even managed to squeeze my brother, who lives in Hobart and was in town for work, in at the last minute. To be honest, I was surprised it sold out as quickly as it did. I had no idea if the good people of Melbourne would go for a goat dinner or not. After all, Australians have no more history of eating goat than us Northern Europeans do, but it sold out. Perhaps there is a market for goat meat in Australia…?
We were welcomed in to the Bomba kitchen like old friends. Whenever we do these events when we just takeover other peoples workspaces and they generously tolerate us, patiently dealing with our stupid questions like ‘where would I find the clingfilm.’ Bomba is owned by Jesse Gerner and the kitchen is headed by Andrew Frisk. Its a long stylish room, half restaurant, half 1930 Chicago speakeasy large windows looking out onto the busy Lonsdale Street at one end and with an open kitchen at the other. See were lucky enough to have Dan Mahon with and its his photos you see in this segment. Given how dark the restaurant it was, he did a brilliant job.
The menu was, inevitably Kibbeh Nayyeh, the dish that follows with me everywhere I go. Even on to an Australian breakfast show podcast… You can listen to that here. Twice cooked kid with bitter leaves and anchovy. Slow cooked kid shoulder with fig leak pilau and seasoned yoghurt. Smoked goat tacos and Cabrito al disco. All recipes from (the recently announced James Beard Foundation award, but more on that later..) the book. The idea was to try and show the diversity without freaking everyone out and to make sure we balanced the carcass so the farmer could just give us whole beasts. As is the way with these event I do little GoatChat at the beginning. One of the questions the questions I usually ask is ‘How many people here have never eaten goat before?’ Usually at least 70% of the restaurant will raise their hands. In this case there was only one hand sheepishly raised. You’ve guested it folks..my brother. Seen in the photo to the left with Jesse, the owner of Bomba.
Its was a fun evening. I dusted off my waiting skills and carried plates to the tables, without making to many mistakes. Its partly a way of making sure I get to meet everyone and answer as many questions as possible and partly a way of making myself useful. I signed a few books and made a plan to visit Taylan, the goat farmer who had provided the kids of the dinner. I was looking forward to doing some exploring.
Taylan has a farm about 50 miles north of Melbourne. That doesn’t sound a lot but it is a different world from the city. Jesse, being the diamond that he is, said he’d lend me his car for a few days. I picked it up and drove out the city on my way to Tallarook. There is a point where the city very definitely ends and the countryside very definitely begins. After about 30 minutes the space opened up and everything went a dusty brown against an intensely blue sky. Google maps has a decent guess where Seven Hills is but driving down the road/track is more an act of faith than actually being confident where one is going.
Taylan and his partner Rebecca greeted me with lunch and we sat and chatted about life farming out in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. Like everywhere in Austraila they have been under drought conditions for a few years and farming is hard. He is optimistic however and says ‘its might all change tomorrow.’ Even without the drought I cant imagine its easy but like farmers everywhere, Seven Hills has diversified and they have camping grounds, a conference centre and holiday lets. Taylan isn’t the kind to let the grass grow under his feet and he clearly loves the land he stewards. Later we drive round the bumpy tracks to take a look at his goats and see a bit more of the farm. Taylor tells me goats play a key role in fire prevention by clearing all the dry scrub that without them would lay on the ground just waiting to burn. He’s laid all the fencing and water lines so he can use more of the land for goats but without rain they cant grow grass, maize or any other crop for feed, so he doesn’t have as many as he’d like. Once again he is optimistic though. When it rains he tells me, everything turns green and he will build his number back up.
The farming system is completely different to ours. Australia doesn’t yet have a large commercial goat dairy industry so the problem with the waste product billies is by no means as acute as it is in Europe but I have no doubt it will come. If a goat meat market can be developed in Australia, when that dairy industry does come, it will be much better positioned than the European one ever was. It will have that extra revenue stream from the billy goats and not have to deal with the issues that arise from euthanising perfectly healthy animals. The other major difference is the outdoor and free range nature of the farming. As I have written and said many times the housed nature of the UK dairy system is essential on animal welfare grounds because the goats diet and foot health needs to be managed. In Australia they don’t have that problem. The dry climate is perfect for goats. The free range system does come wth some challenges. Allowing the goats to graze and forage means that the diet is not a tightly regulated and this may have detrimental effect on the growth rates and final carcass quality. But as is the case in Europe, this is a market in its infancy and I am certain these issue will be resolved over time.
That evening Taylan and Rebecca take me to the Tallarook Hotel, the local pub where he refuses to let me pay for dinner. Tallarook is a community of about 850 people. Over a massive steak Taylan tells me how the guy behind the bar is also a volunteer fireman, how he has various unpaid public service roles, most people do, and how the young kid collecting glasses is being looked after as he goes though a difficult time. The sense of community is palpable and heartwarming. ‘I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else’ he says. When we get back to the farm he checks the water tanks. There is no mains water so he’d put the pump on to fill the tanks from a bore hole before we left, and switches off the generator, there is no mains electricity either. The next morning I leave early but not before taking a picture of the tree in field in front of the farm house. It had been killed by a lightening strike a few years earlier but still stands, its pale ivory remains seemingly more suited to landscape than a living tree. I’m reminded of Bill Bryson saying ‘Everything in Australia is trying to kill you’ I cant help but admire the tenacity of the people that choose to farm here.
The next stop was Jonai Farm to meet a friend I had made on twitter over about 8 years. Tammi and her family have a small farm just outside Daylesford about 80 miles west of Taylan at Tallorook. Tommi is a fearless and outspoken advocate of small scale, sustainable farming and food sovereignty. She has written extensively on the subject, is president of Australian Food Sovereignty and represents them at The International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty at the UN conferences on Climate Change.. You can read here blog on food ethics here. and the Jonai Farm website is here. In short Tammi is a planet brain coupled with a campaigners doggedness. She is also a master butcher, smaller holder and has a fridge full of cured pork. I couldn’t wait to meet here after all this time.
I arrived in time for lunch and sat down with the farm team. Everything we ate was grown the farm, much of its either pickled or fermented and it was absolutely delicious. The farms has a few volunteers coming to work and learn, there is a couple who live on site and Stuart, Mr Jonai farm. Stuart has the look of a man with a long list of jobs to do. I can see over his shoulder a solar panel next to the lake. I had asked Tammi about it when I arrived. I wondered if they had to pump water drinking water from a bore hole like Taylan. The answer was no but the panels drove a pump to push water from the lake around the farm. It had been made after a visit to the scrap yard. Stuart had found the panels and (I might be misremembering this) a washing machine motor, hooked it up with some kind of sorcery and mounted it on an old trailer. That is a resourcefulness and up-cycling genius I can only stare in wonder at.
After lunch we wonder round the farm. Most of the outbuildings, fences and veg plots seem to have got their compolents in the same place as the water pump. Tammi and I chat about what they are trying to achieve with the farm. One of the things that comes up is the reintroduction of native grasses. I hadn’t realised that most of the grass on which Australian livestock graze are introduced from Europe and have squeezed out the native Kangaroo and Wallaby grass. This has had a devastating impact on the soil as the European grasses have much shorter root system and neither hold the moisture in the soil or hold the soil together. The result is increasing desertification. In fact just about everything The Invasion bought with it has been a disaster for the indigenous Australian ecosystem. Nowhere has this been better explained than the book Tammi insisted I read, Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe. I read it twice in the following days. Few books have moved me in the way Dark Emu did.
We chatted until we reached the pig pens. Ethical pork is what Jonal Farm is all about. They have a small herd of Black Pig from which they sell though a Community Supported Agriculture scheme. They also make all kinds of charcutire, but more that later. When we arrived Cybele the pig was farrowing and a few tiny newborn piglets, in a confused state, had crawled though to the wrong side of the fence. We scooped them up and placed them next to their mum as Tammi help deliver 5 or 6 more piglets. For some unknown reason Cybele had decide to start farrowing away from the pig arc and in the full glare of the sun, which is far from ideal. Just when we were wondering how we were going to persuade her that she needed to get in the shelter, she got up and wondered up the hill. I got the feeling she had had more than enough of being the centre of attention. Richie gathered together the rest of the piglets and soon they were all bedded down in the arc and left in peace. Seeing the care and tenderness of touch with which Tammi assisted Cybele in her farrowing really bought home what it means to be an ethical farmer. The animals aren’t commodities but partners. They are valued contributors to the life of the farm and without whom it wouldn’t be possible. It is an ecosystem in which they have, inevitably, one bad day but that inevitability is not the defining characteristic of the animals life. There is much they are to be steered though before they become valued products in their afterlife. As farming finds it place in the new environmentally conscious world we live in small farms, like Tammis providing ethical and sustainable meat while being responsible stewards of the environment aren’t just part of the solution. They are the solution. I leaned against a fence post and marvelled at my luck in getting here just time to watch such a beautiful site.
From one end of the pigs life cycle to the other as the next stop on the tour was the boning and curing room. I had followed the acquisition, build and development of the charcuterie side of Jonai farms on twitter and Instagram. It is, like many of the farms outbuildings, an old shipping containers and came in on the back of a lorry in June 2013, paid for by a successful crowdfunding scheme. You can read about that effort in Tammis blog here. It’s a tail of Tammi’s tenacity and plenty of that Stuart ingenuity that manages to pump water with scrap metal and discarded washing machines.
After 6 years of turning the pigs on the farm into just about everything Jane Grigson suggests in Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery the hanging room is full of treats. Were looking for more evidence of the respect Joani Farm has for its pork, I would point you towards the curing room. Few thing reverence like investing years in carcass to make it the best it can be. There is an evangelical streak to Tammi, of course there is she is a campaigner, and I think this is an important part of it. This curing room screams “Look how good this stuff can be.’ A key strategy in changing consumer habits must be showing the general public how the quality of the meat they are sold via large multiple retailers is, in general, garbage. Small farm, ethically reared meat is, in general, not garbage. The guys at Toast Ale Company have a brilliant slogan: ‘If you want to change the world you have to throw a better party than those destroying it.’ The message here is the same.
Tammi takes down a 3 year old ham and suggests we open it up for me to try some. It really was turning into an excellent day. After cutting though the bark (Is it bark? I don’t know the name for the hard outside skin of a cured pig leg. I’m sure the Spanish will have one. It probably sounds quite sexy too.) the cured meat inside is exposed. The colour ranges from deep maroon, to copper and auburn and its has all the complexity of flavour. Its odd, and maybe its me imagining it, but I swear that there is a taste of acorns in the ham. Perhaps its not the acorns that puts the acorny flavour into those dehesa pigs after all?
My farm tour compete its time for me to head back to the city. We pop into the house for a coffee before I leave. Tammi, while pushing late summer vegetables into Kilner jars for pickling, asks me how the trip came about. I explained that the MLA had, though sponsorship of MFWF. Tammi turned and looked me in the eye. “Do you feel dirty, taking the MLA’s Money? Because you should.’ It was quite a moment, being pinned by such a blunt and unvarnished question. A question that went straight to the heart of my integrity. And I loved her for it. Of course its the question she asked. What else would I expect from someone so committed to a fair farming system. Someone so committed to the breaking down of monolithic structures *designed* to make life difficult for people farming the way the Jonais do? The world needs fierce and uncompromisingly campaigners and I am not one. I’m to much of a pragmatist, but I do need people like Tammi to set the parameters. To give me a ethical base line.
My answer was indeed that of the pragmatist, along the lines of ‘Cabrito has a very specific goal and this trip will help accomplish that goal.’ Im not sure Tammi was entirely convinced, but she still gave me a hug and a kiss goodbye so all was well. If there are two sides in the battle for a better and fairer food system, Tammi and I are definitely on the same one.
My final appointment of my trip was a roof top lunch at Bomba hosting some Melbourne Big Wigs. I am indebted to Tom Broadhurst at Long Walk Films for the video below…
And with that it was time to head back to the UK. I was very lucky to be asked to make this trip and am very grateful to all those that made it happen. I look forward to continuing to develop the relationships made in Melbourne. As Goatober goes from strength to strength I’m sure there will be some Australian involvement and there is more on that to be announced soon!