By Amy Watson | Images by Nick McKinlay
A little while back I spent the morning with Erika Watson and Hayden Druce of Epicurean Harvest at their beautiful hillside farm in Blackheath, New South Wales. Rain, mist and biting cold wasn’t what I had envisioned when I planned my visit with them but what started in unfavourable conditions ended up being nothing short of magical.
Epicurean Harvest started back in 2013 and quickly caught the attention of some of Australia’s top restaurants, such as Quay, Bennelong and Sepia with their organic vegetables that were able to be grown specifically to the chefs specifications. As well as catering for restaurants, they also supply their produce to community projects, co-ops and local buyers. The pair had recently finished their horticultural studies together at Sydney University when the idea of creating a farm based on sustainable and organic practices came about after neither of them could find an existing project that suited their ideals. They quickly found out they were onto something good.
Arm in arm, Erika carefully walked me down the muddy driveway in hysterics over me managing to slip one too many times. Hayden was hitting golf balls into the mist. As newly established mountain dwellers, they would soon show me that these elements don't put a damper on a great time.
"Work doesn’t stop because of the weather. This is the reality of it, which is great for people to see and realise", says Hayden.
As he traded his golf club for a watering can, Hayden began to water the vegetables (yep, while it was raining) and Erika and I nibbled our way through the rows of vegetables. It's here she speaks of the beauty of lean season; the time between the end of the winter harvest and the beginning of the spring harvest. Rather than seeing it as the off-season, Erika prefers to view it as an opportunity to harvest other parts of the vegetable that are often overlooked, such as the flower heads, shoots and leaves and would love others to do the same.
"The lean season - the skinny season - is all the flower heads, all the shoots that are really tender. All the energy has come out of the root that you usually harvest and goes into the shoot, so it’s quite soft and sweet. It’s not the season for the root, it’s the season for the shoot."
With our fresh picks, Erika creates the perfect lean season salad complete with broad bean leaves, kale, turnip flowers, radicchio lettuce, baby orange and purple carrots (from winter), pickled onions (from summer) and a crumble of goats cheese. It’s crunchy, colourful and delicious; and surprisingly for a salad, exactly the hearty fodder we needed on a dreary Blue Mountains day.
What started as a small project for Erika and Hayden quickly transformed their local food system which is not only self-sustaining but also enables the community to flourish, with the couple recently setting up new land in Hartley with the intention of helping other local growers prosper as well as expand their own business. Their commitment to community is amazing and leaves me thinking about how I too could be involved with something like this - they're encouraging but also realistic when they say it's hard work. "It's very rewarding though", Erika says with a smile.
The philosophy behind lean season has taught me that in farming, as well as in life, you need to make the most of what you're given and that with a little imagination, you can create something truly beautiful.