Susan Gough Henly samples a taste of the past with Victoria’s heirloom gardeners
I’ M out for a sunny Sunday lunch, sitting on a terrace in Dromana, on the Mornington Peninsula about an hour’s drive from Melbourne. The scent of thyme, rosemary and tarragon wafts from nearby garden beds, where these herbs are interspersed with waves of green onions and bright nasturtiums.
Before me is a plate of freshly caught snapper and coriander salsa, heirloom carrots with sage and burnt butter, and fivecolour silver beets served with currants and pine nuts. It all goes down well with a local Winbirra Viognier.
No, this is not one of the dozens of winery restaurants that dot the peninsula. I have just explored the unusual 2ha of cottage gardens, overflowing with oldfashioned flowers and heirloom vegetables and fruits that surround historic Heronswood House, home of heritage-seed producers the Digger’s Club.
In our madly rushing world, where talk of climate change and genetically modified foods is a constant in the daily news, Heronswood is a haven of delicious fecundity. The food on my plate is nothing short of sensational. When did I last taste carrots this full of flavour? Have I seen silver beets with red, orange, yellow and pink stems? I want to know more.
Clive Blazey is the man behind it all. In 1978 he created the Digger’s Club, supplying unusual seeds and plants to passionate gardeners across Australia through a mailorder catalogue.
Blazey and his wife, Penny, bought Heronswood in 1983 to create a showcase for gardens that are beautiful as well as productive. In the early 1990s, Digger’s developed heirloom vegetables for the home gardener after doing a series of trials based on flavour and yield. Today, Digger’s actively promotes ‘‘ the edible landscape’’, integrating vegetables, flowers and fruit in home gardens as a practical approach to sustainable living.
‘‘ When seed merchants began pushing expensive hybrid varieties, I began to smell a rat,’’ Blazey says.
‘‘ Not being open-pollinated or firstgeneration, hybrid vegetables are not true to type the next time around, so gardeners have to keep buying seeds. Even worse, these hybrids were bred for supermarket use.’’ Tomatoes are the best argument against this type of growing.
Blazey says the ideal was to have tomatoes with ‘‘ firm shoulders’’ to allow for long-distance transportation without splitting the fruit and that they should be slow ripening so they could be picked green and ripened in supermarket cool rooms. Taste and nutrition were never considered, he says.
Heirloom tomatoes, by comparison, are bred for flavour and will ripen throughout January to April, which is perfect for the home gardener. But with the mass marketing of hybrids, hundreds of these oldfashioned varieties have been lost. Seed Savers, a non-profit organisation in the US, has preserved more than 20,000 strains of endangered vegetables.
Digger’s sources most of its heirloom seeds from Seed Savers. It sells 38 varieties of tomato, different types for salads, sauces and pickling.
The Heronswood Cafe was added in 1996, built with tailings from the local quarry for its rammed-earth walls and with phragmite reeds from the Tootgarook Wetlands, close to nearby Rosebud, for the thatched roof.
The aim of the cafe is to provide food ‘‘ fork to fork’’, with the minimum of time and distance lost between where the produce is grown and where it is eaten.
These days, the gardeners note on communication boards what will be ready to pick in a particular week and month, and the cafe chefs learn more about the vegetables and fruits that are grown so carefully on their doorstep.
Cafe manager David Weill spends much of his time sourcing local ingredients. The kitchen garden is supplemented by organic produce from farms at Red Hill and Rosebud; cheese comes from Red Hill Cheese, mussels from Flinders and fish from one or two Port Phillip Bay fishermen.
The cafe’s Heronswood Plate is its showcase. It includes meat, fish or chicken and vegetables from a menu that changes daily and seasonally and that, while I’m here, features enticing dishes such as roasted bull’s blood beetroots with horseradish cream and roasted red onion, roquette and chevre salad.
By the time I am nibbling contentedly on strawberry shortcake with lemon cream, I am beginning to think that I could start growing some of these vegies myself, at home in Melbourne, expanding my focus on lavender and roses. But as I look around this magnificent garden, with its welltended beds filled to the brim with sweet peas and artichokes, California poppies and billowing bushes of fennel, fantasy comes face-to-face with a big reality check.
This is where chief gardener Simon Rickard steps in to boost my resolve.
He shows me a set of four mini plots, which together equal the size of a two-car garage. They’ve been developed to demonstrate how easy it all is. They contain $20 worth of seeds planted during the season, which have produced enough to feed a family of four for a year.
The seeds are bred for flavour, a long harvest and easy picking. Rickard leads me along rows of heirloom gold rush lettuce, first grown by Chinese market gardeners in the 1850s because it could withstand Aussie drought conditions, and espaliered dwarf fruit trees, four growing in the space of one regular tree, with all the pruning and picking done at shoulder height. He shows me the clever way slow-growing parsnips and fast-growing radishes can be grown together, and much more.
Back at the cafe, Tasmanian chef Luke Palmer tells me his main purpose is to keep the dishes as natural as possible so people will see how easy it is to grow produce at home and cook delicious meals from it. ‘‘ The richness of flavours in the food comes right from the garden,’’ he says.
Heronswood Gardens, Nursery and Cafe, 105 Latrobe Pde, Dromana, Victoria. Open seven days, 10am to 4pm; www.diggers.com.au. TheAustralianFruit&VegetableGarden by Clive Blazey and Jane Varkule ($39.95 from Digger’s Club).
Cottage industry: Heronswood Cafe, above; lunch on the terrace, top right; and the vegetable garden