A Delicious Harvest
STORY AND IMAGE S BY R ICHARD CORNI SH
It is the middle of winter, yet the garden bears a plentiful bounty. Wood sorrel, chicory, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, Jerusalem artichokes, baby carrots. In the hothouse grows spicy red mizuna and the last of the bull horn peppers. This is Dairy Flat Farm, the kitchen garden of Alla Wolf Tasker's Lake House restaurant kitchen. It is part of Barcaldine House, a 15 ha property nestled in a bowl of rich volcanic soil at Musk. It is the realisation of a lifelong dream of the award-winning chef. "We have always had great produce from our growers," says Alla. "Now we are joining them. What is harvested in the morning is on the plates at lunchtime," she says. "There is nothing comparable on this planet to freshly picked vegetables."
To find someone to be head gardener was no easy task for Alla. That person needed to have the skills of someone who understands culinary vegetables, who knows the needs of the kitchen, the prevarications of the seasons and organic pest control is no mean feat. That person, however, almost fell from the sky 12 months ago when Alla and her husband Allan took over the farm. The woman's name was Jen. Jen Pryke. She was formerly a gardener at Raymond Blanc's hotel and restaurant Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in Oxford, England. Jen's partner Claude Le Goff is a sommelier and had travelled to Daylesford to join the Lake House team. Alla and Jen got talking and soon Jen was out at Dairy Flat Farm. "The first thing I did was run my hands through the soil," says Jen enthusiastically. She was elated on finding deep, chocolate brown soil that had not been disturbed by intensive agriculture and an environment still quite intact with bugs, birds, reptiles and the odd marsupial. "The healthier the environment the less pest management we need to do," she says.
From her experience working with the Raymond Blanc kitchen team, Jen knew how to run a kitchen garden for a busy restaurant. She knew how to work with chefs and what they needed. Jen has been incredibly successful in her 2ha plot. In just 12 months she has already grown around 175 different varieties of fruits and vegetables that have all graced the tables at Lake House. There's a haunting quack from a wood duck on the dam. "They love my French sorrel," she says as she puts a fork into the soil. Jen carefully levers up a bunch of crisp, young carrots. Next, she pulls out an earthy pile of Jerusalem artichokes. Within minutes they are washed, packed in boxes with leafy greens and driven off to the Lake House.
Back in the kitchen, Head Chef Brendan Walsh looks over the produce. He looks pleased. "What has changed is that plan our menus way in advance," he says. "We can start talking about what we are going to be harvesting in summer have a good deal of confidence that we can get specialty ingredients." He pauses. "The other side of the coin is that we are truly seasonal. If there is a frost the night before it can destroy some of the more tender plants. That means we have to be flexible at the same time. The garden has its challenges," he says, "but it is a real joy." To prove a point, his Sous Chef Annabelle Grieg plates up a very attractive dish of golden Jerusalem artichokes filled with house-made curd, fine strips of cured lemon peel, cornflower and calendula petals. A rich and hearty Jerusalem artichoke soup is poured into the bowl at the table. Nutty, earthy, slightly sweet and tangy it is a masterpiece in layering of flavours. I mention that it is truly delicious. Alla is standing nearby. "I know," she says. "You can't beat fresh vegetables."
Lake House: King Street, Daylesford. (03) 5348 3329 | lakehouse.com.au 30 Roddas Lane Musk VIC 3461 passingclouds.com.au | (03) 5348 5550