The anatomy of an on farm food event.
We hold events where our community get to experience first hand authentic paddock to plate meals often in the very paddock that the produce was raised. We’ve just completed this year’s occasion – the first course was called The Lime and The Coconut. Read on for all the details and an abridged history.
Sometime in the autumn of 2011, we came up with the crazy, hair brain idea of having an on farm food event. You know, a bunch of people, some of our customers, enjoying a breakfast in our front paddock.
Given that we were, (and still are) hugely committed to connecting with our community and educating people about real food, where and how it is grown and by whom, of course we would do something like this. I mean how hard could it be?
The idea went that people would come for Sunday breakfast and after tea and coffee on arrival, we would take them around the farm, along the way collecting the various food components for breakfast. Oranges would be picked from the citrus grove, asparagus and spinach harvested from the market garden and our superb pasture raised eggs collected from our laying hens. This would then all be handed to a chef who would prepare the meal whilst our guests sipped sparkling wine in a marquee in the front paddock, after which their just harvested breakfast would be served. A catchy title was devised – ‘Breakfast in the Beds’ – the same catchy domain name was secured and a cracking poster was created.
The first event went so well that we have been running Breakfast in the Beds on the first Sunday in each October to a full house ever since. This response and the joy we received in holding it led us to the next step. If a single course breakfast was so easy then a three or four course sit down dinner with beer and wine could not be that much harder. Or could it?
In addition to promoting Near River and what we do here, a wider choice of produce would allow other artisan producers from the Mid North Coast to be involved. Similarily to ‘Breakfast in the Beds’, another catchy title and domain name was devised and secured. The first ‘Meals in the Fields’ poster was a variation on the successful ‘Breakfast’ image, though since then the bar has lifted.
All of these events occur with the huge assistance of a chef and a team of people both here getting the farm and produce ready, and off the farm as well. Eric Robinson from The Other Chef performed an amazing feat for our first dinner event. Operating with merely a barbecue and two single gas burners at one end of the marquee, the menu featured our vegetables, rhubarb and finger limes, along with Burrawong Gaian chicken. Local wines from Cassegrain and beer from craft brewers The Little Brewing Company rounded out the evening. It was deemed a great success, and the magic of Meals in the Fields had been born.
Then last year we stepped up again, and took on raising all the produce for the event here at Near River. In addition to our pasture-raised pork, we would also rear a batch of pasture-raised chickens in addition to our usual variety of seasonal vegetables. We were very lucky to have one of the restaurants we regularly supply, The Corner Restaurant partner with us, and their head chef Blake Dyer created some magic. Highlights from the menu included Textures of beetroot w goats feta stuffed zucchini flower – Assiette of chicken, grilled breast, liver parfait, confit pressing, crisp egg, garlic, onion, + truffle hollandaise – Rhubarb cheesecake, citrus curd + rhubarb parfait. For this event we remodelled the kitchen in the farmhouse and built it to food grade specification. It’s completion was cut rather fine though – the benching and plumbing were completed at 11.00pm the night before the dinner! The weather was friendly and we held the meal out in the paddock al fresco – an added bonus.
Meals in the Fields is now firmly entrenched in the local food event calendar. Held in the middle of March each year it is timed to celebrate the successful summer season and all that that provides, and is our opportunity to celebrate that success with our community. Our local Council and their Economic and Tourism Department champion our cause, as this event and its uniqueness are promoting the food producers and aesthetic values of the region. Destination NSW are another keen supporter. This kind of support assists us greatly when time comes each year to sell tickets. And while our food events are garnering quite a following, all our other marketing activities are continuing to build our community. In addition to regular posts to our Facebook page and an increasing collection of images to Instagram, it’s our seasonal newsletter that creates the greatest interest as subscribers obtain advance notice of ticket releases. And despite increasing the number of seats each year, we are filling each occasion quicker than the previous years. We must also make mention of the wonderful images that we have to work with. Sarah Norton has provided her services on a number of occasions for which we are forever grateful – Sarah really does make us look great.
For the most recent occasion, we garnered the services of our countries first hatted indigenous chef Clayton Donovan who is from Nambucca Heads here on the Mid North Coast. Like most top chefs, Clayton has a wide range of experience both here and overseas along with running his own successful restaurant Jaaning Tree. Last year Clayton also hosted his own show on ABCTV Wild Kitchen. When we arrived at Near River we were keen to utilise endemic fruiting trees in the boundary and shelter belts plantings and many of these are now reaching harvestable age – species like Lemon myrtle, Lemon aspen, Aniseed myrtle, Riberry and Finger limes. Clayton would use some of these fruits to flavour the dishes for this year’s event in addition to other native flavours.
This year the whole meal would be created in the kitchen at Near River, as previously necessity had dictated that much of the preparation had taken place off-farm. Arriving on the Thursday prior, Clayton jumped straight in, and commenced prepping the Burrawong Gaian duck that would form the main course, poaching the pork belly that became the entree, and like any kitchen, had large stock pots on the go reducing buffalo shins and duck stock for what seemed like days.
Having a chef in your kitchen for an extended period is quite an experience. Being able to see how they work and what they use is great particularly when they are using your produce! Roasting pumpkin with aniseed myrtle and five spice; poaching pork belly with bush tomato, rosemary and chilli and lime infused macadamia oil to name two. Even using some water buffalo shin in a reduction that he’d picked up from the AusBuff Stuff crew on his way through as a jus for the pork belly. Luckily our head vegetable grower, Will Burley, spent time as an apprentice chef, and ably assisted Clayton over the two days of preparation.
Meanwhile outside the farm was a hive of activity. The hire company erected the rain insurance policy, a 6 x 15 m marquee, and the supplied tables, chairs, crockery, cutlery and linen where positioned. Glasses were washed and dried, lighting was hung, the mobile coolroom and drinks fridge positioned, and other rain fallback scenarios discussed amid much weather bureau website watching.
And this year it rained. Thankfully we had our guests firmly ensconced in the marquee which was dry underfoot, and a walkway of gazebos were erected to keep the plated meals and service team dry.
The courses came out of the kitchen well, commencing with The Lime and The Coconut – Hastings River oyster w finger lime and coconut foam. Entree followed, Near River Belly being our pork belly w pumpkin, micro greens, davidson plum, apple and water buffalo jus. Then the main, The Birds of Burrawong twice braised Burrawong Gaian duck w pumpkin, greens and rice. The dessert finale was spectacular – Eucalyptus and Chocolate – strawberry gum and white chocolate mousse, riberry w wattles, peanut butter, chocolate and macadamia nut.
Partnering the food this year were wines from Tamburlaine Organic Wines and craft beer from our friends at The Little Brewing Company. The night had been a success. Clayton had done a wonderful job, and the team both in the kitchen and out on the floor were magnificent. Our guests were full of praise and had enjoyed themselves. It seems that we had met their expectations and raised the bar again from the previous year.
Holding these events fulfils many things for us. We get to share our piece of the world with people. In partnership with our team, we share some amazing food and educate people about real food that’s been ethically grown. And we have fun – serving four courses to eighty people out of your farmhouse kitchen lets you know that you really are alive! There are other benefits too – employment within our community; knowledge and skill sharing from chefs to our team; publicity and promotion for the producers of this region; and lastly, tourism dollars for the visitors that these events bring to the Hastings (we even had a couple from New York this year!)
And yes it is exhausting. We’ve learnt some respect for the people out there that do this day and night after day and night.
Will we do it next year? You bet – the date’s been pencilled in; March 20th as it’s close to the full moon. We may well have a permanent structure in place by then that’ll allow us to run Meals in the Fields a little more often. We think we’d be able to cope with it seasonally!
The Coconut Song – Harry Nilsson
This is the ninth post in the recent series about our ongoing journey at Near River, how our ethical pasture raised traditional field grown small holding enterprise has come to look like it does, and what we’re learning along the way.
Here are the previous posts, and yes, I’m an 80s music tragic.