The day started well, how could it be otherwise when you arrive at work on a perfect Autumn morning to find several kilos of chestnuts waiting for you? Every year in April my employer (the Southern Otway Landcare Network) holds a lunch in conjunction with it’s AGM. This event celebrates Landcare’s efforts to rid the Southern Otways of pest plants and animals through the time honoured method of eating them. Animals are hunted, weeds plucked and our community of volunteers come together to celebrate another year of hard work. We call it the Feral Feast. Organising the Feral Feast was one of the first major tasks I was designated when I started at Landcare a little over a year ago and what a glorious task it was. I had to organise shooting contracts and clear out my fridge at home so that a couple of men in gumboots could pack two beautifully butchered feral deer into it. I took the chefs up to Otway Herbs on a golden April afternoon to forage for greens. Little baskets of rabbit rillettes made the rounds with a fresh apple salad and a certain local individual shared clandestine shots of home-made wine, including an aromatic delight made from the berries of the locally indigenous Coastal Beard Heath.
The early morning chestnuts came from the grove of one our members. The nuts are glossy and mahogany red, unbelievably fresh and begging to be roasted. Some of them are sitting on my dining room table right now. Their days, possibly even their hours, are numbered. The day, however, got better. This year our event is to be catered by Steve Earl, head chef of local restaurant La Bimba. Steve is also a man who has harnessed the awesome power of the Otways to grow fungi: he is a man in possession of a productive truffle-farm. I knew little of his property and the things that occur there when I turned off the Great Ocean Road and drove up into the hills. Stepping out of the car I was nearly knocked sideways by the smell of woodsmoke on an early Autumn afternoon – the smell of Lapsang Souchong and leather boots drying by the fire.
It all started out fine. Steve’s lovely mother in law greeted me at the house and instructed their dog to take me to the shed and his master. We talked for a while about the Feral Feast, about the hunting and storing of deer and other matters. So far, so good, although I was starting to find Steve’s enthusiasm for ethical, wild harvest meat production infectious and at least half my mind decided to occupy itself with fantasies of late dusk deer hunting. Sometime between the discussions on the availability of rabbits and startling information about eating local hermit crabs my grip on reality broke somewhat. The rest of my time at Steve’s place largely consisted of me trying to keep my cool in face of the ridiculous beauty and productive capacity of his property.
Coral pink Pine Mushrooms and strong, yellow Slippery Jacks were plucked from the lawn for me to feel and smell. The heritage apple orchards and heirloom tomato patches were investigated. A plant that Steve described as a Hawthorn was plucked out of a creek. It has a tuber that can be used like an especially fragrant sweet potato and the flower, fleshy but with an ecstatically delicate fragrance, is apparently used in African goat curries. We passed stands of elder-flowers and a fruiting feijoa. We drove past the truffiere with its young but healthy stand of English Oaks and Hollyoaks. Dolores the truffle pig was sadly unavailable for viewing. Up past the truffiere we came to the paddocks upon which Steve lovingly grows his meat – special breed sheep and cattle. The animals are perched on hillsides with million dollar views to the horizon, marinating in the salt howling in from the Southern Ocean. The animals are friendly, docile and content. Steve is in no hurry to grow them and their meat will marble well. They are processed comparatively locally in Colac to supply La Bimba. Their life is good and their food miles low.
Before I left I was lead through a series of small gardens, dark and Autumnal, dotted with tables and secret places, across old lichen covered wooden bridges and down a gully where a waterfall drops into a little pool. Here Steve showed me one of his latest experiments – a few small Wasabi plants the colour of freshly peeled broad beans. Their future is uncertain: Steve is waiting to see if they will withstand the fast moving waters that come down these streams in heavy rains. I, for one, will be keeping my eye out on the menu at La Bimba as I walk down the Main Street. What an afternoon. I tried not gush, really I did, but I can quite honestly say that I have never looked forward to an AGM as much as I am right now.