Visiting the Blue Mountains farm supplying Sydney's fine diners
Author: Paulette Whitney
Photography: Ben Dearnley
Escaping for a weekend to Sydney, I'd scrubbed my hands raw to avoid sharing any farm smells with my city friends. As a grower it's enlivening to eat in new places and see how produce is prepared. After a weekend with perfectly clean hands, though, my belly was content, but my heart was happy to find itself on a train headed for Blackheath in the Blue Mountains with the prospect of rolling up my sleeves and getting a bit of earth between my fingers again.
I'd met Erika Watson and Hayden Druce, the couple behind Epicurean Harvest, when we'd traded advice on Instagram about the best way to keep radish flowers fresh (lightly misted in a container lined with damp kitchen paper), or our favourite carrots (the jury is still out on that- there are too many delicious varieties to choose between). The list of Sydney restaurants they supply reads like a Who's Who - Quay, Bennelong, Sepia, Bentley, Yellow, Restaurant Hubert, Ester, Fred's, 10 William St, LuMi, Automata and more - along with feeding mountain locals at Lyttleton Stores and Mesa Barrio at Lawson. Since I was in the neighbourhood, it was a given that I'd go and pull weeds with them; that's what market gardeners do on holidays - weed other people's plots. And enjoy it.
I'd never been to the Blue Mountains, and I craned my neck to see past flocks of tittering ladies on lunch outings. Each escarpment was more stunning than the last as the train moved ever upwards to Blackheath and Hayden and Erika's first garden.
Erika and I weeded while Hayden sowed radishes of every hue. After a token amount of work we gathered tiny Cocozelle zucchini with blossoms like lanterns, purple Cherokee tomatoes warm from the sun, and luminous baby Purplette onions for lunch, and hopped in the van and drove over the hills to eat them at Erika and Hayden's new 49-hectare farm at Hartley.
I was unprepared for the immensity of the landscape, all looming escarpments and vast valleys, but as we entered their newly bought land I felt cosy, a little like I was still in Tasmania - the differences in our latitude is mitigated by their extra altitude, giving us similar frosty winters and warm summers, perfect for frost-sweetened parsnips and wild summer cucumbers.
We cooked our little onions, zucchini, and very fresh eggs in the Megalong Gold extra-virgin olive oil that Erika and Hayden help harvest and press, then we shared the candy-sweet onions as they talked of their dreams for this land. As well as vegetables and herbs, there were whispers of mushrooms, honey and livestock.
There can be no clean eating on a dirty planet - Hayden and Erika care for the plants and soil without the use of synthetic herbicides or pesticides, and take a scientific approach to plant nutrition, regularly testing soil and cultivating very little, storing carbon in the soil and avoiding nutrient run-off. As the conversation turns to chefs they single out Martin Benn from Sepia for his low-plastic ethic. When the produce is delivered to Sepia, it's all transferred straight to trays belonging to the kitchen, completely avoiding plastic waste.
It's all a bit dreamy, really: two horticultural scientists with masses of creative energy, wonderfully nurtured relationships with chefs and a commitment to producing nutritious food in an ecologically sound manner, finally owning their own bit of land. They can now invest in permanent fences, enjoy the luxury of the morning commute being done on foot across a paddock, and plant trees and stay to watch them grow. I'd wished I was staying to watch them grow, too. But I bid this farm goodbye for now as the sun dipped, turning the escarpments around us a thousand shades of orange, knowing that when I returned there would be a cornucopia awaiting me.