GOLD DIG­GER

Susan Gough Henly sam­ples a taste of the past with Vic­to­ria’s heir­loom gar­den­ers

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

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.

Check­list

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).

Pic­tures: Susan Gough Henly

Cot­tage in­dus­try: Heronswood Cafe, above; lunch on the ter­race, top right; and the veg­etable gar­den

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