Remember a couple of years ago when we all collectively decided that the phrase “farm-to-table” had been irrevocably overused? Rode hard and put up wet, we beat that term beyond redemption. The appropriation of farm-to-table branding by fast-food chains like McDonald’s created confusion as to what those words even mean when lumped together. Is it just a pretty way to say that the food was grown in the ground and eventually made its way to a table? Because that’s not exactly revolutionary.
In a world where greenwashing is far more prominent than an actual commitment to sustainability, restaurants like Australia’s Harvest offer a pleasant surprise. There are no bold declarations splayed across the banner of its website. There are, however, words like “local,” “artisanal,” and “sustainability.” Words that have become part of the waltz used to describe the values farm-to-table once stood for, pre-dilution. And one feels these values on a visit to Newrybar, the town in New South Wales where the restaurant has resided since opening in 2007.
Harvest has all the sensibilities of the community that supports it. Newrybar is in the Byron Bay Hinterland — an area lush with local produce, producers, and wild ingredients. The town was founded in 1881. The town’s bread oven, now Harvest’s still-in-use crown jewel, was built around the turn of that century. Once upon a time, the entire town would use the oven to make the baked goods for the region. Harvest replicates tradition with a weekend event known as Sourdough Saturdays. My girlfriend, Jess, and I were recently able to pass through for a lunch of kangaroo, prawns and rosé.
There is a theme to be taken away from eating at a place like Harvest. Not only do they redefine farm-to-table as community-to-kitchen, but they’re part of a movement slowly building the foundation of new post-Inconvenient Truth and post-colonial cuisine culture. Ask an American what are uniquely American food traditions and you may get a dissertation on barbecue or a rant on where to find the best hamburger. Perhaps — with a little luck — they’re dialed into Indigenous foods and the resurgence of Native cuisine. Meanwhile, ask an Aussie (who may or may not be familiar with Aboriginal foodways) what is Australian food and a common answer might be: “You can get everything here. Asian food, Italian, kebabs, meat pies…” and so forth.
Chefs like Harvest’s Alastair Waddell (and Matt Moran at Aria, Danielle Alvarez at Fred’s in Sydney, among others) have been tactically dismantling that philosophy by diligently riffing on eclectic food traditions with distinctly Australian products and ingredients. A Taste of Kakadu, in the Northern Territory, is helping realign the very idea of “Aussie Food” and re-centralize the conversation around Indigenous Australians. The proof of how all these influences merge is in the pandanus vinegar at Harvest.
Pandanus is a palm-like shrub with tropical fruit found throughout Oceania and long-used by Indigenous populations. You may have avoided fallen fruit while strolling along the waterline on Australia’s Gold Coast and Byron Bay beaches. At Harvest, horticulturist Peter Hardwick takes great care to sustainably* collect ingredients from the surrounding area. An intriguing aspect of the dining experience at the restaurant is a glossary of foraged foods assembled by Hardwick, which is available by request and includes native plants like lemon myrtle, riberries, warrigal greens, and aniseed myrtle. This modest pamphlet simply categorizes the native and non-native foods foraged and gives a brief, no-frills description — unless the ingredient has actual frills like the sea purslane, a coastal succulent.