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The Dirty Chef
From Big City Food Critic to Foodie Farmer
By Matthew Evans
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2013 Matthew Evans
All rights reserved.
I blame milk. That unassuming, ubiquitous white substance that we take for granted in Australia. It was cow's milk that turned my life around, and set me on a path that has changed not only my way of living but also my world view. Yes, that innocent stuff that comes from the bovine udder was the inspiration to help me make the move from gritty, urban inner Sydney to impossibly lush green Tasmania. From a clean and cushy life to one that involves — quite literally — mud, blood and tears. And to the non-food types among you (apparently there are some out there), the story seems more unlikely with every telling.
First, a back story. I trained as a chef. But I'm okay now. I was, post-chef, a restaurant critic for a major metropolitan daily newspaper, able to dine at the finest restaurants in the land. Mostly at someone else's expense. I'd also eaten at Pierre Gagnaire in Paris, at Troisgros in France's south, and in great restaurants across the US, Spain, Italy, China and Japan.
But I was also living in a 3-metre wide terrace house in a narrow lane in Glebe, a decent walk from Sydney's CBD. The overshadowed garden I tried to establish in the backyard was destroyed by snails and rot. There was no room for chickens. I did have some good food locally, though. I had access to a fantastic greengrocer, Galluzzo's, and a baker who made wood fired sourdough bread had just opened their shop front a few doors down. Olives, which I harvested and pickled, grew wild in the streets, and if you timed your morning walk right, you could pick ripe figs from a tree overhanging a path next to the storm water drains without being sprung by the tree's owner. I was eating out at restaurants about ten times a week for work, and still relishing cooking at home.
So what about milk? Well, I grew up with decent milk. But in all my searches for the perfect flavours in the world's great cuisines, I'd forgotten about the taste of milk for a while, until a couple of very small events had a very big impact.
My work, for the Sydney Morning Herald, involved eating at restaurants and then writing about them. You're probably thinking, great gig if you can get it. And you'd be right, it was a great gig. But one day I was at a very swank diner in the centre of Sydney, drinking a cup of coffee that cost, and I must admit I'm vague now on the money, $11 or was it $12 a cup? Anyway, it was very expensive. This restaurant I rated extraordinarily highly — three chef's hats and a score of 18 out of 20, if that means anything to you, and the coffee was the priciest in the land as far as I could tell. But their milk was, well, let's be polite, not memorable. In their defense that was fairly normal for the time, even for places that prided themselves on their ingredients.
Milk has long been a favourite topic of mine. My best-ever job was running around the streets of a suburb called Weston in Canberra, delivering milk to people's doorsteps three nights a week after school. A crate load of glass bottles clutched in one hand, the other pumping the air, my lungs gasping, my legs pounding. The majority of the milk we delivered was normal milk. Real milk. Unhomogenised, gloriously cream-topped full-fat milk in 600 -millilitre bottles. Milk that was golden in colour and great in taste.
That three-hat restaurant's milk didn't taste like that. And it certainly didn't taste like the milk I once watched being disgorged from a cow so we could have Devonshire tea at a farmhouse near Bundanoon in the Southern Highlands. It also didn't taste like the milk that my mate Alan Benson had discovered on a single afternoon's scout of a couple of organic stores in Sydney. He made me do a blind tasting, and suddenly this benign (at least to me), high-quality protein was no longer milk. One milk, in particular, had a different flavour, a different texture. Complex, interesting and delicious, it was an expression of a place, of a herd of cows. By comparison, mass-produced, homogenised milk seemed bland, anonymous, manufactured.
To me, milk was no longer simply milk. It became a barometer of an industrial food system. Instead of having the faint (but glorious) whiff of the pasture and the beast, like the stuff I'd once helped entice from an udder at a two-cow dairy near Denmark in Western Australia, milk was a manmade food. Instead of complexity, regionality, a reflection of the breeding of the animal, it was, in many cases, just white stuff that must have, by law (regardless of the season, the breed, the grasses or the stage in a cow's lactation), 3 per cent fat and 3.2 per cent protein.
And I'd just paid more than 10 bucks — at some place that supposedly prided itself on the quality of its produce — for the least interesting version of milk available.
This, of course, got me thinking. If these famed, fabled and feted chefs were using such a dull version of something so fundamental to their cooking, could there be another story? Were the ingredients that chefs were buying, and their provedores promoting, less than the best we as a nation could actually grow and eat? Chefs and their suppliers had (and still have) a vested interest in telling you they have the best produce in the nation, and that Australia has the best produce in the world. But if they get it wrong with milk — as proven by a mate with a couple of hours spare and a drive to the shops — what else were they using that wasn't so fine?
And this, more than anything, set me on a journey — to discover what was really going on where our food was grown, reared and made. I'd always enjoyed visiting and talking to producers; sometimes I even managed to sell stories to newspapers about it. But now I had an overarching agenda. I wanted to find out why some food tasted better than others, why some growers were better known for the flavour and quality of their produce. And I wanted to share that knowledge as I gained it. And that was the genesis of my book, The Real Food Companion, a lifetime's worth of food knowledge in one tome, intended to be the layman's guide to choosing ingredients.
During this time, I managed to get out into the country a bit. I remember being at a beef cattle property near Parkes in western New South Wales, learning to ride a quad bike in searing heat. The cattle I saw were mostly destined for one of our big supermarkets. The station manager was telling me about the tags the cattle had in one ear; these were scanned by computer to record the animal's details, such as had it ever become lame, how old it was, how much meat it yielded, etc. In the other ear was another tag.
'What's that other tag for?' I asked, every bit the city boy looking at a bunch of 'cows' in a field.
'Oh, that,' the stock manager answered. 'That tag's got a growth hormone in it. We put that in during the last few months, and they can put on an extra kilo a week.'
He added, 'It's a natural hormone. Just gives them a bit of a lift in weight. It's perfectly harmless. Completely safe.'
Despite having eaten more than my fair share of beef over the years, I'd never realized that cattle destined for the pot were given growth hormones. I just thought that they, like us, put on weight naturally.
'How come there's a few of them that don't have tags?' I asked, assuming the cattle were younger or the tags had been inadvertently torn out on a tree or something.
'Oh, those,' the manager replied in that slow broad accent born of the Aussie bush, because you don't want to get flies in your mouth when you talk. 'Them without the tags, those are the ones we're gonna eat ourselves.'
* * *
While I was writing The Real Food Companion, a process that took about three years, I made an even larger, personal move. I left my job as a restaurant critic and fell in love with home cooking once again. I learnt to taste the unfettered flavour of the ingredients, ones that weren't cooked ahead or handled too much — often a practical difficulty for chefs. I travelled to regions of Australia more often, and discovered the questions to ask about the way things were grown, reared or handled.
I had a shocking chat with a chickpea grower which confirmed my worst suspicions about some farms. She grew hundreds of acres of chickpeas and I asked her if she liked eating green chickpeas straight from the pod (something you shouldn't eat much of, because they're a bit indigestible, but they are yum). The farmer replied, 'What?!' in a very unambiguous manner. 'Eat them? Have you seen what we spray them with?'
So I began to wonder, just what was in our food, and why should I trust people who only grow things to sell, rather than growing them to eat? Were there many of these farmers who used chemicals they considered okay for my family to ingest, but not theirs?
As I moved philosophically to a different place, I moved physically too. From Sydney to Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, the island state off the south of mainland Australia. I moved because I wanted to live in a smaller town than I had for the last 25 years; smaller, in fact, than I'd lived in since I was four. I wanted more air in my life, more time for the niceties that small-town living could afford, more time for those around me. I moved because I wanted better quality air than you ever get in Sydney. I moved so I could have three chooks.
And I got to Hobart, the wonderful waterside capital, and realized I could have more than just air and time. I could have it all. I didn't have to live in town. I could actually fulfill a yearning to live in the country. Opting out, or 'tree-changing' as it is sometimes called, is probably a secret yearning of many town-dwelling Australians. (The slightly disparaging local term is hobby farming.) Hobby farmer or tree-changer, I was happy to be either if it meant I could grow my own food.
I had fallen in love with the idea of not just reading about good produce, but wanting to give it a crack myself. What only a year or two before had seemed a pipe dream now became my reality. This ache I had inside to get closer to the soil. To be near my producers and my produce, to be a part of the system that improved the quality of food in my life, and the environment in which it grew; all this suddenly became a serious probability. One day, I thought, I could even start to look for a piece of land of my own.
I was still working on The Real Food Companion and a couple of friends said some of the characters I was meeting as research sounded like they'd make good telly. I thought it would be a privilege and a joy to showcase Tasmania as a state, and artisan producers as a group. So I met with a television production company, who spoke to one of the two public broadcasters in Australia, SBS. The original idea was based around conversations with the food producers at the farmhouse kitchen table, a place where the farmers felt comfortable. I wanted to hear, and I wanted audiences to hear, their stories and to learn why the food they grew or made tasted different to the mass-produced stuff. I would be a conduit to that interaction, a face at the start and the end of the show, perhaps with Nick Haddow, a cheese making mate, to help set the scene. But the stories would be those of the real farmers and artisans we met.
The word came back — a show based on The Real Food Companion, championing local producers in the style that I'd suggested?
'That sounds, really ... ahem ... boring,' I was told. I had just written 65 000 words on the topic, so I hoped it wasn't too boring.
'What else are you doing?' the production company asked.
'Ummm ... I'm planning on moving to a farm, fattening a couple of pigs, getting chooks, planting a garden, having my own sheep,' I offered, slightly embarrassed about my very loose plans. 'I've even thought of maybe milking a cow,' I said, vocalising what I had always dreamed of doing, but had never had the courage, or the opportunity, to actually do.
'Milk a cow! Do you know much about milking a cow or rearing pigs?' they asked.
'No, nothing,' I said.
'Well, now that does sound like interesting television,' the production company replied, rather too enthusiastically. Perhaps they already understood a lot more about the kind of show that would eventually be made than I did.
Sour curd tarts
Makes 10 small tarts
Making your own curd is a very simple way of using good milk. I first fell in love with curd tarts when I was hitching around the UK quite a few years ago. Because I was a bit short on money, I spent most of my food budget in bakeries, and hence discovered quite a few regional specialties, including this Yorkshire favourite. You can bake it as a large thin tart, if you like, but I kind of enjoy individual tarts, maybe because it makes me feel a little nostalgic.
1 litre (35 fl oz/4 cups) milk
80 ml (2 ½ fl oz/ 1/3 cup) white wine vinegar
80 g (2 ¾ oz) butter, softened
80 g (2 ¾ oz/ 1/3 cup) caster (superfine) sugar
1 egg, lightly whisked
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg, ideally freshly grated
finely grated zest of ½ lemon
50 g (1 ¾ oz) currants, soaked in a little brandy for a few
hours or overnight
175 g (6 oz/1 ¼ cups) plain (all-purpose) flour
generous pinch of salt
2 teaspoons caster (superfine) sugar
100 g (3 ½ oz) butter, chilled and diced
1 egg, whisked
To make the pastry, place the flour, salt and sugar in a large bowl and rub in the butter with your fingertips. Alternatively, pulse in a food processor. You're aiming at fairly evenly distributed butter, so the flour is not dissimilar in appearance to breadcrumbs. Add the egg and, using the end of a spoon or knife at first, work together until it becomes an even dough. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for half an hour before rolling.
Heat the milk until boiling, turn off the heat and immediately toss in the vinegar and stir twice quickly to distribute the vinegar. Leave to sit, undisturbed, for about 10 minutes or so, letting the curds rise to the top.
While the curds form, cream the butter and sugar in a bowl until pale and creamy. Whisk in the egg until well combined, then fold in the nutmeg, lemon zest and currants with a large metal spoon.
Drain the curd gently through a fine piece of muslin (cheesecloth) or a clean cloth, discarding the runny whey. When the curds are cool, fold gently through the butter mixture.
To assemble the tarts, on a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry to about 5 mm (¼ inch) thick and cut out rounds to line ten 5-cm (2-inch) mini tart (flan) tins or similar. Line the pastry shells with baking paper and pour in some baking weights or uncooked rice. Bake blind at 180°C (350°F/Gas 4) for about 10 minutes until the pastry is pretty much cooked through but not too dark on the edges. Remove the paper and weights. Spoon in the curd mixture, and bake the tarts at 200°C (400°F/Gas 6) for about 10 — 15 minutes, or until the top is starting to colour. Remove from the oven and cool before taking from the tins. Serve the same day.CHAPTER 2
'Twas a woman led me away from the farm in my twenties. I never did have the decency to thank her.
(With apologies to WC Fields)
'You must be kidding,' Lynn said. 'Live in a caravan?'
Now, if you'd met me at 25, even lankier and more unkempt than I am now, with no real means of earning a living, and with even fewer practical skills than I have today, you may well have sided with my then girlfriend. Most would side with her still, including Sadie, the darling woman with whom I now share a child and my life. Living in a caravan is for the seriously hardcore, and I wasn't — and I'm still not — resilient enough to be counted among them.
When Lynn made these comments, I was looking at a block of land out near Wamboin on Canberra's outskirts. A scabby, paltry piece of dirt, with a stubble of bush, some seriously depleted soil and a harsh climate. There was no water. No view. No topsoil. Hardly a track in, though the salesman promised there was a large, handy access road slated to go through the very next year. (It never did.)
It was my dream to step out of suburbia and onto a piece of rural Australia. My own land, no matter that it was degraded and unproductive. No matter that it was frostbitten and drought-prone, and it would cost a fortune to put in any kind of services. It was cheap. This was the one bit of ground I could afford. But there was no chance that Lynn was going to move out of town and live in a very confined space with an incompetent bushie, an apprentice chef who had taken six years to finish his second year of training; someone not famed for his personal neatness in the home. Someone on an appalling income and working even more appalling shift work. No, there was no way she was going to leave town and be ensconced with me in a caravan. And for that I should be grateful.
Excerpted from The Dirty Chef by Matthew Evans. Copyright © 2013 Matthew Evans. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Pork (to market, to market),
Raw milk cheese,
Coq au vin,