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

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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

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