DESTINATION AUSTRALIA In praise of the local
Christine McCabe negotiates the ethical minefield surrounding the great 100-mile food debate Apart from the south of France and parts of Italy, South Australia is unique in the range of produce available within a relatively short distance
VERYTHING old is new again as regionality and seasonality, those pre-global market notions that determined what our grandparents ate, become the chosen perimeters for eco-conscious restaurateurs. With the rise and rise of farmers’ markets, and endless television food programs devoted to earnest cheesemakers and growers of everything from truffles to turnips, consumers are being encouraged to think harder about the origins of their food and chefs to source produce locally.
How far you take this concept is another question and at times a very vexed one.
Gordon Ramsay caused a stir when he suggested chefs should be fined for using non-seasonal produce; on the other hand, acerbic British restaurant critic A. A. Gill has labelled self-sufficiency (the ultimate seasonality-regionality end game) as ‘‘ small-minded, selfish, mean, mistrustful and ultimately fascist’’.
Yet there’s no ignoring the argument for thinking globally but eating locally, and some Australian restaurants have taken the 100-Mile Diet, or locavore concept, strictly to heart.
Named the New Oxford American Dictionary’s ‘‘ word of the year’’ in 2007, the term locavore was coined in (where else but) San Francisco. It describes the apparently straightforward philosophy of eating food grown and harvested locally, generally within a 100-mile (or 160km) radius.
Bestsellers have been penned documenting the joys and pitfalls of this process, including The100-MileDiet: A Year of Local Eating by Canadians Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon and novelist Barbara Kingsolver’s lyrical Animal, Vegetable, Miracle .
One Australian restaurant is attempting to adhere to the philosophy as strictly as possible.
The concept for Locavore, opened in late 2007 on the Stirling high street in the Adelaide Hills, ‘‘ was born while holidaying with my wife in Paris’’, says owner Chris March.
‘‘ Every day we embarked on a trip and every day we were offered only food and wine from the place we were visiting. When I returned to the Adelaide Hills I realised few regions in the world could offer more.’’
Regionality was Locavore’s loose guiding principle at the outset, March says. ‘‘ But as we began meeting with Hills producers we discovered we could fulfil the criteria of the 100-Mile Diet with relative ease.’’
Of course there are some critical exceptions — tea, coffee, sugar and chocolate — so Locavore has devised a mission statement to cover all bases: if not local then family farmed, if not family farmed then organic, if not organic then fair or free trade. Thus the restaurant serves rainforest alliance, fair trade coffee, locally roasted. ‘‘ Our get-out-of-jail-free card,’’ quips March.
The immediate Hills area offers a huge variety of produce from fruit, berries and vegetables to beef, venison (including a tasty chorizo), cheese, milk, olive oil, herbal teas and preserves; March dubs the Hahndorf-based, fifth-generation family-run Beerenberg ‘‘ the R. M. Williams of jams’’.
And 100 miles as the crow flies takes in the Barossa, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Plains, the Gulf, wheat belt and half of Kangaroo Island, March advises. Which means the wine list’s a breeze. Of course there’s no scotch and coke but March tells me he has managed to track down a locally produced gin, vodka and brandy as well as mixers, mineral water and fresh juices.
He says that in Locavore’s first year, ‘‘ we were pretty much feeling our way. . . sourcing small suppliers, many home growers, and this year we’ll be expanding our menu’’.
As March points out, most of the food we eat ‘‘ is better travelled than we are’’. ( Choice magazine found that a typical basket of supermarket goodies has travelled the equivalent of twice around the globe.)
Yet so-called food miles are only one indicator of the environmental cost of production and it is simplistic, some say misleading (even deceptive), to measure environmental impact simply by the distance from paddock to plate. And let’s face it, the 100-Mile Diet soon loses its allure if you live in Alaska or Alice Springs.
Recent studies have shown the transport of food accounts for only a small percentage of greenhouse gas emissions; far more are expended growing and producing food, throwing up huge anomalies. A New Zealand report claims their dairy farmers are able to deliver product to Britain with a smaller carbon footprint than their British counterparts.
So complicated is the issue that chefs who research food production run the risk of becoming paralysed by the conflicting arguments, says Hilton Adelaide’s executive chef Simon Bryant. Better known as co-host, with Maggie Beer, of the popular The Cook and the Chef television series, Bryant is one of Australia’s leading champions of regional, seasonal food and he believes the food miles concept, while not perfect, is still a useful tool to apply when buying most produce.
‘‘ Food ethics are challenging and I continually struggle with them,’’ Bryant admits. ‘‘ I try to tick at least three out of five boxes and the notion of food miles is certainly empowering for consumers.
‘‘ We don’t have enough labelling information in this country to make truly informed decisions. That’s the value of farmers’ markets; if you have issues about animal welfare or water you can ask the producer directly.’’
Five years ago Bryant launched the concept of an allSouth Australian menu at the Brasserie in the Hilton (so successfully they’ve trademarked the ‘‘ Seriously South Australian’’ notion) and he makes it his business to visit all suppliers. And there’s not much he can’t find, be it lentils (grown in the state’s southeast) or locally made tofu. Apart from the south of France and parts of Italy, South Australia is unique in the range of produce available within a relatively short distance, he says. And where it’s not local, it’s responsible, such as organic, fair-trade palm sugar imported from Indonesia by a local firm.
Whatever the ethics of food miles, and their reliability as an indicator of the environmental cost of a dish, the local food movement is gathering strength in many developed economies.
In the US the movement has been credited with the revitalisation of small farms (on the rise after a century of decline), while its impact is being felt even by the largest retail chains.
Gill’s scepticism regarding self-sufficiency, inspired by his viewing of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s latest TV offering, River Cottage Autumn , reflects the complexities of modern-day food production. There are so many issues to take into account: carbon emissions, land degradation, water use, animal welfare and the impact of closing food borders on developing nations reliant on export.
However his derision of ‘‘ kitchen gardening’’ as ‘‘ essentially a Marie Antoinette game’’, struck a nerve with your correspondent, who tends to be evangelical when it comes to the joys of the veg patch and backyard chook house.
If that makes me a food fascist, so be it. The ethics of food production have never been more complicated but surely it can’t hurt to reclaim our long-abandoned connection with tilling the soil?
Travel&Indulgence’s contributing editor Christine McCabe lives in the Adelaide Hills and is the author of AGardenintheHills (Pan Macmillan, $24.95).
The food less travelled: Clockwise from main picture, Locavore at Stirling in the Adelaide Hills; restaurant critic A.A. Gill; Chris March of Locavore; Simon Bryant and Maggie Beer on