A Chef and Her Garden
STORY AND IMAGES BY RICHARD CORNISH
Menu planning starts early for Du Fermier chef Annie Smithers. A dish she serves in her Trentham dining room may have its genesis months, six months, or even years earlier. Annie is no ordinary chef. She doesn’t take pen to paper, like many chefs, six weeks before the change of menu, and work out what she will be cooking that season. Instead she paces the ground at her Lyonville kitchen garden working out what she will plant in the coming year. As the vegetables grow and the fruit ripens she refines her menu, serving up on the day only what is perfectly ripe and ready to eat.
We discuss this as we wander around her 1.5 hectare patchwork of garden beds at Lyonville. Here the top soil is dark, smells sweet and is over a metre deep. In it she grows leeks, carrots, beetroots, peas, corn, mangelwurzels, pumpkins, leafy greens and other vegetables. She comes to a row of beans, their first heart shaped leaves emerging from the earth. These, explains Annie, are Flagrano Beans. They are a French shell bean inside of which are nestled a chain of lovely pale green beans. She is contemplating serving these later in summer with some poached chicken and a little boudin blanc. We come to a row of potatoes: Dutch Cream; Pontiac and Nicola. “I love the flavour and texture of small, new potatoes,” she says. “But they are something that you just can’t buy.” Instead, before service, she grubs under the soil, working by feel to find the potatoes that are just the right size without having to pull out the entire plant.
A cool breeze picks up. “We are at 775 metres and it is cold climate gardening,” says Annie. “It is very different to Malmsbury.” She moved the kitchen garden from Malmsbury in the winter of 2017 - it had been supplying her eponymous Kyneton bistro. Annie very quickly understood just how different the climate was and built poly tunnels to help protect plants from the cold. They also act as a windbreak. The kitchen garden sits on top of rise in the land looking out over the headwaters of the Loddon River and needs protection from the prevailing wind. Another layer of protection is a hedgerow of hazelnut trees and lines of fruit trees. Annie has opted for French varieties such as Calville blanc d’hiver, an apple developed in the 1600s. “It is the apple to make a tarte tartin,” she says. “It develops a deep golden colour and lovely caramel notes when it is cooked. It is so delicious.” Near them are planted plum trees. Annie's eyes lights up as she talks about the trees. These are D’agen plum trees, a variety bred to produce plums that are sweet but also high in acid making them perfect to dry for prunes. The trees are small and it will be a few years before they are producing much fruit. “I am going to semi dry the prunes,” says Annie. “And these will be used in clafoutis,” she explains, describing the rich, sweet, fruit-baked-in-batter so popular in France.
Although young, the kitchen garden is already producing a great deal of the fruit and veg in Annie’s kitchen. Within a few years it will be supplying around 90% of her need for vegetables. “It is a work in progress,” she says with a laugh. It is also a huge commitment that speaks volumes of Annie’s life dedicated to a cuisine that is connected to the land and the seasons.
Du Fermier, 42 High St, Trentham.
Open for lunch Friday, Saturday, Sunday,
Monday. Bookings essential. (03) 5424 1634