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Food

Matthew Evans: Creating Community

Matthew Evans is peering intently at a shiny lime green spear of asparagus. It’s freshly watered, so it glistens in the sun. He bends it, and there’s a clear, sharp snap. He looks up at the group gathered in his top paddock and breaks into that ever-enthusiastic grin often seen on The Gourmet Farmer.

“Why does one spear of asparagus taste so different to another?” Matthew asks. There’s a few raised eyebrows, some murmurs and the shuffling of shoes, but no one is sure enough to vocalise their opinion. “It’s the grower that makes the difference,” says Matthew. “Whether it’s carrots, apples or berries. It’s what the producer puts into it – how they grow it. That’s the difference. No two farmers’ spears of asparagus will taste exactly the same. Just like wine-making. It’s how the grapes are treated that leads to the end result – to the taste of the wine. Cheese? Bread? It’s what someone puts into it. That’s the difference.”

There are lots of nods as the group trails behind as Matthew ambles through some higgledy piggledy rows of fruit trees. “We didn’t put them in straight rows,” he says. “Apricots, plums, peaches and nectarines. Not the season right now, but you can see the blossoms.”

We can indeed – there are hundreds. He plucks off pieces of this or that, ducks down to nip some coriander and basil leaves, tastes some of the tips and moves on. Every now and then he offers someone a bite of something, and there’s plenty of smiles as the fresh tastiness hits taste-buds.

Critic to community

Matthew has long been sampling and commenting on food, but in the first chapter of his career in the big smoke, it wasn’t like this; he didn’t live in well-worn Blundstones and a faded farmer’s shirt.

Over a decade ago, Matthew was a major Australian food critic, trying, tasting and judging the dishes that chefs and nervous waiters placed in front of him, with the power to make or break a restaurant via his well-worded opinions in top newspapers and magazines.

He enjoyed that life at the time, but now he’s truly in his element, as a farmer. It’s a laborious but glorious life lived largely outdoors on his Fat Pig Farm, with his partner Sadie and their son Hedley.

“This is where we’re supposed to be,” he says. “People ask if we ever regret the tree-change and we laugh. This is what we love doing. It’s a lifestyle we’ve chosen with care.”

And despite being city slickers with a TV profile, the community has embraced Matthew and his little tribe.

“I often thought we’d be considered outsiders because of our city background,” says Matthew. “But if you embrace those around you, and ask for help when you need it, and offer it when you think your community needs it, then doors open.

“We’ve been blessed with so much support. We couldn’t ask for a better place to live and work, culturally, environmentally, socially and geographically.”

Pig-spiration

While Matthew mainly works on the land and in the kitchen, Sadie runs the business they’ve created: an enormous shed-like restaurant sitting halfway down a hillside surrounded by glorious folds of the Huon Valley, in Australia's southernmost shire. It’s called Fat Pig Farm after some ‘girls’ that Matthew wants us to meet.

“There’s Audrey, Jackie and Denise,” Matthew points to the rotund Wessex Saddlebacks munching on piles of food scraps. Seeing their dad, they snuffle on over to check everyone out. They snort and shuffle about the rows of legs, raising their black and white hairy snouts in undisguised, cartoon-like expectation.

“They want mushed apples,” says Matthew. There’s no apples on offer, and so after a thorough inspection of pockets and bags, off they all potter.

We then potter up to the restaurant where a five-course degustation is primed to begin. Inside, it feels like a friend’s very large dining room made to comfortably seat 46. Sadie greets guests as they wander in from the deck, where they’ve been nibbling on bread fried in pork fat topped with seared beef. The treat has been matched with Bill McHenry’s locally produced gin, mixed with a homemade strawberry and rhubarb shrub.

Everyone takes a seat and finds a bulb of white Japanese hakurei turnip gracing a deep blue napkin – perfect fodder for a still-life painting. Matthew explains it’s a welcome turnip; an offering to represent what the land is producing right now.

In the kitchen, there’s more where that came from, as the staff are bustling about cooking up a storm.

“We’re not trying to serve the best food in Tassie,” says Matthew. “We serve the food we love, from the land we love.”

This is a major part of what Fat Pig Farm offers – a genuine taste of a small region of Tasmania. Matthew sources olive oil from their local Uber driver, who lives about 500 metres down the river.

“We do buy in cheese, because we have friends in the trade who make it better than we can,” says Matthew with a laugh.

“Our fruit and nut trees are immature, so apart from the apples, which we grow hundreds of kilos of, we source walnuts from Coaldale and peaches from the Cane family across the river. We are blessed to live in a state where growing a huge variety of things is part of its history. Tasmanians often have a connection to the soil, and for many, it’s in the growing of food.”

Time to dine

The much-anticipated entrée is an artfully presented picking plate of Fat Pig prosciutto, pancetta, olives, kimchi and buttered radishes. And then out rolls something we’ve all caught whiffs of – a crisp-pastry pie filled with ricotta and spinach, nettle and rocket. It’s been baking in the outdoor wood-burning oven, filling the air with an intoxicating scent.

Wood-fired sourdough rye bread with creamy cultured butter (two of the things Matthew loves making daily) are also laid upon the table. There’s a beet and goat’s curd lentil salad and roasted, shredded pig, a salad of spring flowers, and spicy Asian-style sausages that make the tongue tingle.

This is followed by a smooth rice dish with purple sprouting broccoli, wood-roasted carrots, spigarello and snow peas, sprinkled with the neighbour’s olive oil.

For dessert, the beautifully rustic apricot cobbler with thyme ice-cream matched with a Home Hill Pinot Noir is as warming as an old friend’s hug.

Soil agenda

Matthew and Sadie drift around the room, greeting people and chatting to them about life, food, science, and other items that are raised in an environment nurtured to spark conversation around food and farming. Matthew explains that every piece of produce, if not grown on Fat Pig Farm, comes from as nearby as possible, and the grower is always known to he and Sadie. This whole exercise is as much about honouring the land and community as it is about lauding the food.

“We are custodians of this farm, where the Melukerdee Indigenous Australians lived for 35,000, possibly 45,000 years,” he says. “Our aim is to leave this parcel of land in a better condition than when we arrived, so that future generations can enjoy it, like we have today.”

Try Matthew Evans' recipes at home: 

Spinach and ricotta pie

White wine steamed cauliflower

Golden syrup dumplings

 

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