I was invited to visit Pemberton to attend a dinner to celebrate the launch of Sophia Zalokar’s book Food of the Southern Forests. It’s no secret that I love a road trip. It’s also no secret that I have a fascination with food, so this trip was always going to provide so much delight. Following the invitation phone call, I quickly jumped online to have a look at Foragers, which is where I’d be staying. Excitement levels increased, but until I reached Pemberton I had no idea what a stunning backdrop the region would provide.
Food of the Southern Forests is more than a cookbook (more on the book in my next post), it is a collection of stories as told by growers in the region providing an insight into their genuine love of food. Considering I’d never been to Pemberton before, the book was not only enticing by the beautiful food photography (props to Craig Kinder), the beautiful design and the recipes made from produce grown in the region, but by the information told lovingly by the growers and Sophie. It is abundantly obvious that they love the region and all that it provides.
We’ve all heard or read stories about how tough growing produce can be. Until you actually sit down and speak to a grower, it isn’t really easy to grasp the extremes they must go through to come out with a saleable product. Pests, weather conditions, soil conditions, seasonal impacts – it’s not for the faint hearted and after speaking to growers you realise one must really love to do this job.
Our first stop once we hit the Southern Forests was to visit Ray and Sue Harris at their marron farm in Northcliffe. Their farm consists of 39 purpose-built ponds, and at first glance the ponds only add to the beautiful view. As we arrive we are welcomed like old friends, Sue even baked a cake which instantly made her a lifelong friend! We sat down in their home for cake and coffee, and we talked about their journey to Northcliffe and how they find farm life. It’s no wonder they never want to return to the city, the view from their dining room is breath taking.
Ray and Sue are incredibly friendly. We chat about how they came to find their farm and the progress they have made over the last ten years. In the first year they had ten ponds installed, 13 in the second year, and three years later saw a total of 39 ponds on their property which expands 147 acres. The vast space and fresh air is almost incomprehensible to this city girl. Where I live, I could yell out my window to my neighbour without even leaving my seat. Who knows, they possibly even hear me singing at the top of my lungs when I am doing chores! After delightful cake and coffee, Sue and Ray took us on a tour of their farm. The fresh air soon makes you forget about everything else. We drove around on a little vehicle, Emma on the back with Sue, and Ray and I chatting in the front. It’s not long before Ray breaks out a joke.
A frog hops into a bank and asks the teller, named Paddy Whack, for a loan. She asks him for security, to which he pulls out a little ceramic elephant. “Is this all you have for security?” she asks. “Yes,” the frog replies, “I just want $30,000 to go on a holiday. But you should know, my dad is Mick Jagger.” Reluctant to give him a loan based on a ceramic elephant as security, she tells the frog she needs to speak to the bank manager. “There is a frog out there claiming that Mick Jagger is his dad, and he wants a $30,000 loan to go on a holiday. But he only has this as security,” she tells the bank manager showing him the ceramic elephant. To which the bank manager replies, “That’s a knick knack, Paddy Whack, give the frog a loan. His dad is a Rolling Stone.”
Hearty chortling followed from the front and at that moment I felt bad that Emma had missed it. Not only was I delighted at the cuteness of the joke, but also Ray’s delight at telling it. Don’t you just love meeting strangers to discover their sense of humour, and to hear their stories and to be able to share in their life if even for that moment?
I asked Ray if sustaining a marron farm makes them all his babies. In a way yes, as they nurture them from birth. They start with 3000 babies which grow for a year, and they are then graded into male and female and placed into ponds to grow. Ray and Sue manage four growth stages across their 39 ponds at any one time. Did you know that a marron outgrows its shell several times in its lifetime? They shed their outgrown shell exposing a larger shell underneath. Fascinating. As we walked around a few of the ponds we actually saw discarded shells. Oh and by the way, the marron eat the discarded shells for nutrients.
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Our next stop was to visit Jaha Garlic growers David and Catrin. Once again we were invited inside for coffee and chinwags about farm life. David spoke about his childhood, having grown up in the house right next door as a farmer’s son. He left Northcliffe at some point to wind up back there, managing the farm himself. David refuses to use chemicals on his crop choosing to hand weed instead. Hand weeding is labour intensive and they employ backpackers to help them weed the crop which expands over two acres. This year they hand planted 100,000 plants (can you imagine?).
Catrin is from Germany, and I find it fascinating that someone from the other side of the world can wind up in such a remote (but beautiful) place far south in WA. When I ask her how she wound up here, she too laughs. “From Berlin to Northcliffe!” she says. As I look around I can see Catrin has settled nicely into farm life, and why wouldn’t she. Their boys are running around outside in the fresh air amid masses of space, and by just being around them briefly I can tell they enjoy their place in this part of the world.
Catrin and David took us next door to see the garlic crop. It’s obvious to distinguish the rows that have been weeded from the ones that haven’t. The weeds grow rampant. I can’t imagine how tiresome the weeding process is, yet they do it for the love of being able to provide chemical-free garlic. Aren’t we lucky! The crop will be harvested in December and each bulb will be cleaned and trimmed by hand. Meanwhile they will wait for a good rain and hope for a healthy crop.
Sophie outlines in her book: “Small growers play an important role in providing more niche products that in turn contribute greatly to the culinary diversity of our local food culture.” And this is one reason why I believe support for our local producers is paramount. Without people like David and Catrin, we wouldn’t have the choice of locally grown garlic. David spoke about concerns of not getting his garlic out into the market. Timing can be a challenge due to late harvesting (northern suppliers harvest earlier therefore get their products out into the market sooner), and they are hopeful this year they can sell their crop grower-direct.
If you’d like to know more about local produce from the Southern Forests region and the producers, head to the Southern Forest Food Council’s website.
I was invited to Pemberton by the lovely Melissa of Cork and Cheese. All opinions are my own (as always).