Paddock to Plate. By Yvonne Adams, The Farm at Byron Bay
Think of the last bad coffee you had. You remember where and when it happened, we know you do. Let’s be honest, we all remember. Your best friend, your ex-lover, and the guy you sit next to at work still remember. You were shocked, outraged. Even scared. You had to tell them. WARN them. It was a big day for everyone. You felt violated. It was unspeakable. (Yet you told everyone). You’re ok now, but it was uncertain terrain for a while there. We get it. Failings of the caffeinated variety are especially traumatic. We’re so blessed in the Northern Rivers that getting a bad coffee is about as rare as spotting an echidna. And nowhere near as cute.
The fact is, we are very, very lucky. The food in our region is sensational. The coffee here is pretty bloody good. (Except that one you had). And the people who spend their days, weeks and lives perfecting their craft – be it baking the perfect sourdough, roasting the juiciest locally farmed pork, fermenting seasonal organic veggies or churning ice-cream with native berries hand foraged from the fields next door – these people are quality folk. The kind of folk we’d like to share a meal with, if we had the chance.
Thing is, these uniquely gifted humans are so busy growing, harvesting, foraging and preparing their culinary gifts for us that in most instances we don’t get to meet them. They’re behind the scenes creating and crafting, finessing every little detail of a dish over and over and over again, all so that your 4,000 taste buds have something to salivate over.
If we’re lucky enough to meet the magicians themselves, it’s for a few short moments during the briefest exchange – but in that exchange we’re in the presence of some kind of magic. The chef emerges from the kitchen to personally tell you about your dish, the story behind why he created it, how the ingredients are grown and a brief history of the local land on which you stand. The man serving you local ice-cream points to the paperbark tree behind you as he explains that he used the bark from that tree to smoke the milk.
The market gardener hands you a bunch of bananas as she explains that the trunk of the tree from the bananas you’re about to eat, will be split in half and placed facedown on the soil, creating a microcosm for grubs to thrive and allowing the soil to replenish itself for future crops to be planted. These are all delightful exceptions to the rule, and they add meaning and connection to our experience.
In most cases, we’re talking not to the magicians themselves, but to the good people who take our orders and bring us the food. As your waiter shares the expertly scripted special of the day, you hear the words ‘locally grown’ before one ingredient, and ‘Coopers Shoot’ before another. (Do tomatoes even grow anywhere else?) You’re only going to get as much detail as is necessary to make a decision on what to order, and so often you’re missing out on the full story.
What the waiter doesn’t tell you is that just a few days ago the chef was out in the field (the field you can see from your restaurant table) with the grower (who handpicked the greens you’re about to chow), discussing the produce that would be ready by the weekend and creating a special menu around it (the special you just ordered). They don’t tell you that the pork starring in the roast of the day was hand raised in the paddock to the north, fed only organic meal, and relocated frequently to fresh pastures as part of a regenerative process to ensure long term soil health and farming sustainability. They don’t tell you that the gin in your cocktail contains 17 different botanicals, native to the surrounding forests of the Northern Rivers, foraged by hand. It’s not that these details aren’t important, or even fascinating. They absolutely are. But you’re hungry. And there simply isn’t time.
There’s an implied honesty within the hospo industry. When chefs, waitstaff, baristas, growers, farmers and producers all deliver to a consistently high calibre, it becomes the norm. Mediocrity doesn’t survive, so excellence thrives. We’ve become accustomed to expecting top nosh every time, and we’re often genuinely surprised when something we order doesn’t blow our mind.
“Hedonic adaptation” refers to our unique ability as humans to experience something truly wonderful, and to then expect that every time as our new baseline. We adapt to an ever-increasing ‘normal’ and expect all external factors to rise and meet our new standard. This is where knowing your food comes into play.
The origins of food and the journey from paddock to plate gives new meaning to dining, and adds a connective layer to meals. It transforms the dining experience from a mere transaction to an enlightening conversation. You become part of the story, and the story becomes part of you.
Understanding the paddock to plate journey isn’t complex, but there’s more to it than growing your own vegetables. As Sam Morton of Three Blue Ducks says, “Our connection with The Farmers is pretty unique. We’re fortunate to be working on the very land where our greens come from, so we can see everything that happens. We watch things grow in real time, and this has to be one of the shortest Paddock to Plate Journeys in the Shire. We’re talking metres, not kilometres”.
Three Blue Ducks hold strong to the values of growing what you can, buying mindfully and locally, cooking thoughtfully and keeping your footprint as light as possible. The growers supplying their Byron Bay restaurant grow on the very same land, so their greens are sourced just metres away, harvested by hand and often-times carried on foot to the cool room. It’s a living example of the Paddock to Plate Journey.
Growers in our region have an intricate understanding of the local climate, seasonality amongst different plant species, and the particular conditions in which some plants thrive and others won’t survive.
We’re quick to forget that most fruit and vegetables don’t grow all year round or in every region. Thanks to technology and globalisation, our favourites are readily available throughout the year at supermarkets, albeit often frozen and having travelled for thousands of miles. Our local farmers markets show us what’s in season, and you can often count on one hand the number of kilometres your produce has journeyed to your basket.
And Chefs are incredibly artistic. Masterfully combining textures, working with colour and flavour palettes, various temperatures and precise timing to create edible works of art for us to enjoy. And many are working with an ever-changing set of ingredients. Unlike the artist who uses the same set of paints to create each painting, the seasonal chef is constantly adapting their menu to incorporate ingredients that are available when nature says so.
The relationship between local growers, restaurants and retailers is like an endless dance. For the chef who genuinely cares about the origins of their ingredients, they can be assured of quality and farming integrity. The seasonal availability encourages creativity, and their menus remain as fresh as the produce they use. From a growers perspective, the certainty of demand from chefs allows them to be intentional about creating a garden that will be fully utilised, minimising waste and allowing better planning. Local restaurants and chefs agree to buy produce from local growers, and local growers commit to growing enough to cater for the needs of their chefs.
And for us, “the consumer”, There are countless benefits of sourcing fresh produce from our local community. By supporting local, organic growers, restaurants, cafes, retailers and farmers markets, we receive a higher concentration of nutrition. Matthew Evans’ book “Soil” shares the concentration of nutrients in organic vs non-organic varieties, and heirloom varieties (that is, the traditional varieties that are not associated with mass-production) are particularly rich in nourishment. We’re also keeping our hard-earned pennies circulating in our local economy and reducing our carbon footprint.
Buying out-of-season produce that has travelled hundreds or even thousands of kilometres, means preserving processes such as freezing, chemical washing and use of additives designed to extend shelf life or slow ripening, can significantly reduce nutritional value.
Northern Rivers Food Founding Chair Pam Brook, adds that the biggest challenge to our local growers and farmers right now is our climate. The stronger and more resilient our region becomes in the face of adversity, the more we seem to band together. There’s power to knowing that we can rely on our local markets.
As we saw during the waves of panic-buying over the past couple of years, our local communities become vulnerable when we’re dependent exclusively on one region or one supplier as a single source provider. Localisation – growing, farming, and supporting local – strengthens our community and allows for diversity of production, which in turn is better for the earth and ultimately better for all living beings. Local, seasonal growing and buying are all the more compelling when we look at the bigger picture.
“We’re fortunate in the Northern Rivers to have a supportive local community and a healthy tourist trade, so our messages are shared far and wide. Organic, sustainable and regenerative farming practices are commonplace in our region, and there’s a hunger shared between both locals and visitors to understand the reasons why our farmers and growers do the things they do. We’re not going to survive unless we take care from the ground up”, Pam says.
Members of Northern Rivers Food either grow, produce or are headquartered in the Northern Rivers. By nature they’re adding value to the local community, employing and training locally, contributing to our economy and our communities. It’s one of the foundational organisations in support of the paddock to plate journey – a literal mingling space for growers, farmers, chefs, retailers and small businesses operating in the food industry to meet and collaborate.
Locals in the Northern Rivers have likely heard of the Harvest Food Trail, which is one of a handful of opportunities for members of the public to connect with local farmers, growers and chefs in a more connective way. There’s a full weekend of interactive and immersive experiences on offer 30th to 31st July, and it’s the perfect chance to truly connect with your food and the Paddock to Plate Journey.