It Tastes Better – cooking sustainable produce with Kylie Kwong

An Australian culinary resource for fresh and organic produce

By Robyn Lewis
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Frogmore Creek Wines, Coal River Valley, Tasmania - true cool climate viticulture at its best

Frogmore Creek Wines, Coal River Valley, Tasmania - true cool climate viticulture at its best [©Frogmore Creek Wines]

It Tastes Better by Kylie Kwong

 

Whatver your opinion of supermarkets and supermarket food, the natural disasters that we’ve experienced lately have demonstrated that without them, many of us would simply starve.

I am fortunate and live on a producing farm; much of our meat, vegetables, fruit and wine are our own. The supermarket is within reach for things we cannot grow or make in our climate and with the time, water and other resources at hand – whether tropical treats like mangoes, tea and coffee, or the herbs and spices to which we’re accustomed – and for cleaning agents and other necessities of daily life in the petrochemical age.

The reality is that many urban people use supermarkets as an extension of their kitchen larder, only with someone else bearing the storage and refrigeration costs. Look out if there’s an emergency and you don’t have backup supplies; their shelves will be stripped within hours.

If you take the supermarket supply chain away, at best we’d be back in time to the limited choice of our grandparents’ generation, where oranges and apples were the only fruit, literally. You’d need to brush up on your cooking and preserving skills as well, without the variety and greater seasonal range that supermarkets offer us.

Sure, some of us live near farmers’ markets, but almost by definition their bounty falls at exactly the same time as your own tomato or zucchini glut, although they may be more organic than your own.

Markets can also add variety, especially if you don’t have space for your own fruit trees (or a garden at all) – and the really good ones sell long-lost cultivars that don’t make it to the supermarket shelves, grown by people who know what they are and who willingly impart their knowledge of how best to use them.

Certainly there are food items in supermarkets that raise question marks: the ginger imported from China is likely to be grown in a destructive ‘slash and burn’ regime, where forest is cleared, and the ginger is cultivated in the exposed fertile soils for two or three years before it’s exhausted of all nutrients, and the process moves on….

Then there are the energy costs of transporting say grapes or lemons from the USA to Australia (or our cherries to Japan), which if properly factored into the final price, would make the produce prohibitively expensive for most – think Harrods food hall on steroids.

Supermarket meat and fish are sometimes (but not always) of unknown provenance, meaning that consumers often don’t know where they came from. This does not necessarily mean they are poor quality, but it may mean they are raised in conditions that we are now less likely to find ethically tolerable, particularly for pork and chicken, or are harvested from the sea using unsustainable or labour-exploiting techniques.

However, there are supermarket foods that are grown well; one example is Houston’s Farm lettuce leaves from Tasmania, which find their way into millions of anonymously labelled supermarket bags around the country each year, but which are young, delicious and grown sustainably, if not 100% organically.

Perhaps it’s stone and other soft fruits in the supermarket that suffers the poorest reputation – they need to be bred to handle transport and storage, often at the expense of flavour, or picked under-ripe to ensure longevity then ripened in ethylene (a natural chemical), and grown in climates and under regimes which favour high yield at the expense of slow-ripened, unirrigated flavour. Cardboard apricots and tasteless, mould-prone strawberries spring to mind.

So, what is a concerned consumer to do? Avoiding supermarkets altogether may not be an option, and the produce in your corner store may be no better.

Reading the label is a good start – ask what country does the food come from? Australia’s food regulations (and those of New Zealand) are amongst the best in the world, and if it’s grown in either country, it’s likely to be produced to stringent standards. Our treatment of farm pigs may not always be fantastic, but it’s a hundred times better than in the pork factories of North America, whose meat we are now importing.

Then ask what region? The nearer to you, the less transport, and possibly the less time it’s been in storage. But after that, it’s up to you as a consumer to acquire some producer knowledge of your own – which is difficult when supermarket suppliers can change from week to week.

Then along comes It Tastes Better written by Kylie Kwong, a Sydney chef known for her simple but delicious cooking style, and her commitment to ethical eating and sustainable living. Her restaurant Billy Kwong uses only organic and biodynamic produce, sourced as locally as possible, and in 2007 became the first ‘climate friendly’ restaurant in NSW. The feel-good factor is high.

The book was published in 2010, and it’s grown on me a lot since a copy landed here just prior to Christmas. Almost straight after its arrival we experienced floods in five states, and the Queensland cyclone, which devastated not only people’s lives and livelihoods, but towns and communities, and many farms in some of Australia’s most important food bowls and cattle country. (The now-famous Lockyer Valley is described as being ‘one of the Top 10 most fertile farming areas in the world’).

Suddenly, the question of where our food comes from is higher on people’s minds, and not just for fashion or lifestyle reasons. And just how fragile IS our food production and distribution system? What would happen if the Lockyer Valley disaster had been even more widespread in our food regions?

It Tastes Better doesn’t answer these questions – these will be big issues for our governments to think about in the next year or so – but it does introduce us to 25 sustainable food producers around Australia, from growers of eggs and poultry through meat and vegetables, to makers of bread, cakes and treats, all of whom are doing their bit to make sure that we can have access to well-grown and made produce. And yes, one is in the Lockyer Valley.

He’s still there, and his name is Rob Bauer, of Bauer Organics. The devastating Queensland floods caused some losses among his organic vegetable crops, but overall his 400 acres of vegetables plus his cattle were largely spared. In fact he says they are now ‘full speed ahead’ and that the region is recovering, although damage to local infrastructure sounds like it will take some time to reconstruct. Which his great news for those fortunate enough to be able to access his organic carrots, corn, celery, melons and more.

Kwong’s organic journey in It Tastes Better starts with Cullen Wines in Margaret River, who were one of the earliest producers of biodynamic wine in Australia. Two other winemakers also feature: Frogmore Creek in Southern Tasmania’s Coal River Valley, and Rockford of the famed Barossa Valley in SA. All three are found on the Billy Kwong restaurant wine list.

Seafood also features highly, as reflects Kwong’s love of marine produce: fresh, hand-line caught wild fish, Kangaroo Island’s southern rock lobster, scallops grown in cages from Mark Eather in Tasmania – bespoke seafood supplier to some of the best restaurants in eastern Australia – whiting, abalone and more.

There is no doubt that fresh seafood of any type tastes better than even one-day-old – the proteins in fish denature very quickly – but if you can’t get fresh then snap-frozen is fine. Whatever, it has to be chilled very fast after being caught; the days of leaving fish in the bottom of your boat should be long over. Certainly, the suppliers in It Tastes Better treat their catches well, and command a premium for their quality.

In South Australia Kwong visits Saskia Beer’s Barossa chook farm, Peter Davis’ Ligurian honey (bees from Liguria in Italy that were shipped to Kangaroo Island in 1884), Col and Joy Leinert’s black Berkshire pigs and Dee Nolan’s olive oil grove – South Australia is blessed with many fine organic food producers. >

Along the Murray she look at the making of Murray River salt flakes and lunches Greek-family style at Robinvale vineyard and winery; other Victorian entries include the fabulous Meredith Dairy goat’s cheese, the Orr’s potatoes and David Tatman’s cauliflowers. Stockists and farmers’ markets locations are listed at the end of the book, which at 450 pages is quite a weighty tome.

Really, It Tastes Better barely scratches the surface – when you start to look into the number and quality of Australia’s organic producers, there’s more than you might realise. Her home state of NSW naturally gets extensive treatment, for these are the producers supplying Kwong’s restaurant on a ‘local’ basis. (I’m not sure that driving 17 hours round-trip to deliver bananas to the Canberra farmers’ market qualifies as local, though).

In northern NSW and Queensland there are producers of organic turmeric and galangal, Barambah Dairy’s milk, cream and yoghurt, and finally, an import replacement for sure, ginger grown by Wally Allen who moved from Barbados to the Noosa hinterlands, bringing his tropical agricultural skills with him.

There are plenty of photos, including many of Kwong – perhaps as reflects their commitment to the organic way of life as chosen lifestyle, everyone looks so very happy. (Given the price premiums, and not being squeezed by the supermarket buyers, it might also be more profitable?).

I would be happy too if I could get my hands on even half this produce (websites are listed, but of course not all the produce can be bought online or posted).

Of course, organic produce comes at a price, and even if it’s available, some of us can’t afford it on an everyday basis. If that’s your situation, consider this a book for healthy treats, and perhaps something to strive towards if you are on a path to greater sustainability. Even if it’s only a day a week, it’s a start.

It’s the recipes that really make It Tastes Better, but because they are scattered through the book by product type rather than the more conventional course-by-course they are a bit hard to find. A separate recipe index, grouped by type, would have helped a lot, as would putting the page numbers on the map entries.

Even better would have been to produce it in two separate volumes: the producers and their stories in one, to read at leasure, and a slimmer recipe companion for kitchen bench use.

My copy of It Tastes Better is now covered in sticky tabs, of things to try – Kwong’s recipes are of the relatively simple, untricked-up style, some Asian-influenced, but just as many not, some having been contributed or inspired by the producers themselves. I particularly like Kwong's recipes for condiments, sauces, salads and simple side dishes that can really lift a meal. Many are of course from the Billy Kwong restaurant menu.

So if you are starting to wonder a little more about the origins, robustness and sustainability of our food supplies, and where to get good food outside the supermarket supply chains, then this might be a useful resource for you.

Kwong is right with the title, It Tastes Better – and for many of the products, it may also be better for our environment and for generations to come.

 

It Tastes Better by Kylie Kwong is published by Lantern Press, an imprint of Penguin Books (Melbourne 2010; hc, 450 pp) and retails for RRP A$69.95.

 

Members and subscribers of VisitVineyards.com and Winepros Archive can click here to purchase It Tastes Better from our book partners Seekbooks for 12.5% off RRP (postage extra).

 

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March 31st, 2011
 
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