I often say it took 20 years for us to be an overnight success. In business terms it would certainly be seen as a slow burn, yet that, I feel, has been our strength. Our food journey has been a long one that first opened to the public on the 19th January 1979, the date we opened our Farm Shop at the Pheasant Farm. The whole idea of the Farm Shop was gleaned on a visit to Europe when Colin had been granted a Churchill Fellowship to study gamebird breeding, some 5 years after we actually started farming.
I was a Sydney girl brought up in a food family, something quite rare for those times. I had travelled a great deal, but when Colin and I married in Sydney, and as a country boy from Mallala in South Australia, after three years in high pressure jobs I was easily seduced by the idea of moving back home, for Colin that is, and follow his vision to farm pheasants. This was to be the luck of my life – coming to live in the Barossa.
As it happened, after settling there we learnt that Colin’s forebears had come to South Australia from Silesia, arriving in 1848, and were amongst the early pioneers. It augured well!
Every part of my food journey began because of the Barossa. Food was always important to me, however it was the Barossa that showed me the rhythm of the seasons, surrounded me with a wealth of produce on my doorstep, grown in our Mediterranean climate and gave me my first ever sense of community and belonging. And more; I was hungry to learn and I took on the essence of the Barossa tradition, and I know we have been able to add to it over these last 35 years or so, in making Australia aware that we had such a strong regional identity that came from the settlers from Silesia and England who brought their traditions with them and melded with the climate; small farmers who were self sufficient. It was the true peasant culture, in all the strength that brings. That tradition is about making the most of the produce to hand; wasting nothing; following the seasons; respecting every plant or animal used for food by utilising every part of it and preserving food; making it when ingredients were plenty, and for all my years, in one commercial way or another, this has defined me.
From the simple days of the Farm Shop where I cooked everything we grew, and that of our neighbours, within the year, with great audacity, we morphed into a restaurant. In restaurant terms it was fairly humble in that we were definitely a farm first, no fancy fit out, in a difficult location in the centre of our vineyard down a very rough track, but with no training or experience I simply cooked, relating to the produce to hand and my thrill and my skill was every day using what was in season and never wasting anything, whether farmed, or wild, that I had to hand. I learnt the Barossa traditions of picking watercress from the creeks, mushrooming, preserving, making my own butter from unpasteurised milk that was legal at the time; foraging was always part of it all, long before it was fashionable – it was a Barossa tradition that I absorbed.
We were farming pheasants and vines from 1973 and then planted a quince grove, and not much later, an olive grove.
From the very beginning of the Farm Shop, and later the restaurant, I utilised everything I could to hand, firstly from our own produce and that of our neighbours. We farmed quails, so made pickled quails eggs as a sideline, we collected neighbours quinces, often from neglected trees and made quince paste by first making a quince jelly and then making a paste from the ‘leftover’ cooked quince, to create the Quince Paste. I cooked pheasant every way you could imagine, made terrines from the pheasants, quail and guineafowl and neighbours’ chickens. I made pate from a mixture of chicken livers and added some pheasant livers to it – the livers being so high in iron it was all about balancing flavour, so I bought in extra chicken livers, as the pate became so popular we began to sell it outside of the farm. I began making the pate in a small home style food processor in the Farm Shop kitchen, only baked in the logs we still cook for a few customers now, burning out small processor motor after another, until we bought our first commercial sized machine, second hand. Still I made the pate every day, in the restaurant kitchen, after lunch service. About 1985 we rebuilt what had been the incubator room on the farm to be a small pate processing room and that remained till November 1996. Given our first customer in the early 1980’s ordered one block a week; it was the beginning of what was to be our first ‘core’ product that began with utilising what many would have seen in those days as a waste product .
In 1984 when we had a surplus of Rhine Riesling grapes, unable to sell them, as an inveterate reader, I knew about Verjus from french cookbooks so with the help of my friend Peter Wall, at the time at Yalumba, we made the first commercial batch of Verjuice which was, we have always believed, to be the first in the world as it happened.
In 1991 as this simple country restaurant, we won the premier food award in the land; the Gourmet Traveller Remy Martin Award for best restaurant in Australia, to everyone’s amazement, mine included. To cheekily put it into context, it was the year before a chef I so admire, Neil Perry, won the same award. Whilst this contributed to business enormously, with, from the moment it was announced in Sydney, helicopters vying for landing rights in the ram paddock to bring the food cognoscenti to lunch at the farm, it could be called a mixed blessing, as we won the award for what we were; a country restaurant following the rhythm of the seasons and my drive to use everything to hand; waste nothing in that Barossa tradition. Fortunately, the majority of our clientele revelled in what I was doing, but every now and then there would be the customer who was looking for the bells and whistles of a much more sophisticated venue and those I couldn’t, nor did I want to, satisfy.
Whilst the Pheasant Farm Restaurant gave me both the platform and the fame, it also burnt me out, as the control freak that I am, I would not leave the stoves. Two years after the award, with the pace never slowing down, Colin came to me to say it was time – even more than that, he gave me an ultimatum, the restaurant or him. Not a second of thought to agree that we closed, but have to admit I probably never would have made that decision myself. We gave four months notice of our intent and went out at the height of our fame, giving our public 4 months notice of this, and myself, totally free range to cook anything my heart desired and our public trusted me.
There was a two year lull whilst we built our export kitchen in Tanunda with the chance to export our pate to Tokyo for a Japanese businessman, Toshio Yasuma, who became a much loved friend.
Whilst the export of the pate didn’t survive because of international issues of bird flu; huge costs of Aqis needed to attend each production, that it was simply not cost effective over relatively small orders that had to be flown in, all at great cost. However, the building of the export kitchen gave us the huge advantage of a state of the art facility, with the highest standards of hygiene and critical controls, to allow us to feel confident to continue to make our Pheasant Farm Pate without preservatives to maximise its flavour and texture.
When we opened the Export Kitchen in November 1996, we had four staff, and today with the Farm Shop and farming included, we have over 100 staff, so we have grown to both doubling and tripling our kitchens in Tanunda, side by side. Others might call them factories, but I refuse to, as everything we make we do so with the same love and attention that I did those years ago in my restaurant kitchen.
In this kitchen in Tanunda, we make all of our products including pates, all of our fruit pastes, jams, sauces, sugos, chutneys, vino cotto and many of the syrups for our ice creams, and as I’m always developing other products that can be made in our kitchens, this list is added to every year as I look for other products to make the most of our local produce first, before looking further afield, such as Christmas puddings utilising the dried fruit from our orchards.
That utilising of everything to hand has been my raison d'être and was the base of everything in my restaurant and everything since then. However, just like my restaurant days, the stars were my local seasonal produce, but passionate about food in general and always learning more about food and traditions of the Mediterranean particularly, my ‘basket of goodies’ has always had a distinctive edge, rather than populist, and has always been a celebration of produce.
All my ideas, all of my product development, still begins in my kitchen at the Farm Shop; not much more than a home kitchen really. This is what I call ‘stove top samples’. Getting the flavour and the concept right, always with the idea of ‘can we make it in the export kitchen’ or ‘do we have to find someone to make it for us rather than not have a great product in our portfolio’. The second stage is to scale up in our small seasonal kitchen at the farm. The third stage is scaling up even more at the much larger kitchen in Tanunda. Often the limiting factor to a new product is the huge cost of packaging equipment to make a product safe and transportable.
If we are unable to make it ourselves and it still resonates as being special, we try to find a partner in South Australia to make it for us. It is not an easy matter to find someone who will make a product for you with as much care and attention to detail as you will do yourself, but it is sometimes possible, then, and only then, if we are not successful in South Australia, we move interstate if there is speciality equipment we cannot supply here.
When we do this, in pure business terms it would be called ‘contract manufacturing’ however my way is far from the norm of arms length business, as most often occurs in the food industry. When a company makes something for us, it is with a long process of co- development of the scaling up of a product with either myself, or one of my very small team, in situ, whether it’s in Adelaide or Melbourne, it’s the same thing. Once we have it right, and that often takes a long time to do, I often use the term, “I’m like a monkey on everyone’s shoulder”, making sure that all the attention to detail we would give in our kitchens is happening there. And of course the proof of it too. So it’s a long and never ending journey when we have someone making something for us.
When we do this, in pure business terms it would be called ‘contract manufacturing’ however my way is far from the norm of arms length business as most often occurs in the food industry. When a company makes something for us, it is with a long process of co- development of the scaling up of a product with either myself or one of my very small team in situ whether it's in Adelaide or Melbourne it's the same thing. Once we have it right, and that often take a long time to do, I often use the term, "I’m like a monkey on everyone’s shoulder" making sure that all the attention to detail we would give in our kitchens is happening there. And of course the proof of it too. So it's a long and never ending journey when we have someone making something for us.