Despite being made from broadly similar stuff, soft goat cheese and fermented cow milk typify opposite ends of the European cultural and historical spectrum.
The soft cheese is a key ingredient of French cuisine, beloved of gastronomic giants such as Brillat-Savarin and Escoffier. The fermented milk, on the other hand, originates from the northern side of the Black Sea, around Russia, Ukraine and Georgia. A version, made from horse milk, is recorded by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, and was favoured by Attila the Hun’s hordes.
It is probably a mark of the robust diversity to be found in Australian food culture that both were much in evidence during Central Victoria’s annual celebration of all things edible and regional, the 10 day Daylesford-Macedon Produce Harvest Festival.
The festival – which ran from April 24 to May 3 – comprised more than 40 food-themed events in towns around the state’s central highlands region, augmented by special offers from dozens of restaurants, cafes and wineries.
The events included master-classes by cheffy stars, including Andrew McConnell from Melbourne’s Cutler & Co, fellow Melburnian Daniel Wilson from Huxtable, and Sydney My Kitchen Rules presenter Colin Fassnidge.
Many of the region’s artisan producers offered workshops. Highlights included a half-day cheese-making foray at Goldfields Farmhouse Cheese in Mt Bolton. In nearby Eganstown, the guys at Jonai Farms, who raise rare breed pigs, provided a four-hour introduction to butchering your own hog, then curing your own bacon and pancetta.
For the more squeamish – or vegans – animal-free edible adventures were in ready supply. The gates to the enormous chestnut orchard at a property called Duneira, halfway up Mt Macedon, were thrown open for an afternoon of dedicated foraging and on-the-spot roasting. In the village of Trentham, a substantial part of the main street was given over to the annual Spudfest – a colourful and noisy celebration of the local farmers’ potato haul.
The success of the annual DMP Harvest Festival lies in its admirable refusal to be doctrinaire. The touchstone food values of ‘local’ and ‘organic’ are central to its agenda, but their interpretations are admirably broad. Thus, coffee-bean roasting demonstrations are fine: the roasters are local, even of the beans were grown half a world away.
One might hope the pigs used in the full-day charcuterie workshop in Kyneton lived happily nearby, but proof was not necessarily demanded. Visiting Melbourne pho chef Jerry Mai honoured the spirit of regionalism by using local beef in his dishes, but happily (and necessarily) nodded to globalism by adding star anise, cinnamon and fish sauce.
The keynote event of the festival was the Regional Producers’ Day, held in the grounds of Daylesford’s world famous Lake House restaurant. An annual event that pre-dates the rest of the fest, the day is a tumultuous amalgam of produce stalls, tastings, and cooking demos, attended by thousands.
Here, among many other things, visitors could taste the soft goat cheese – offered by Goldfields Farmhouse and a second artisan dairy, Holy Goat at Sutton Grange. Here, too, fermented milk was offered by The Fermentary, a small Macedon business that specialises in probiotic-laden products, including kimchi.
For Producers’ Day organiser Larissa Wolf-Tasker, the appeal of the event – and indeed the rest of the festival – is rooted in something truly fundamental.
“It’s about the story,” she said. “The greatest appeal of an event like this is that you get to connect with the people who are growing, farming or making the products. That’s a completely different experience to going into a shop to buy ingredients, however good they might be. Here, a carrot isn’t just a carrot.”
Ms Wolf-Tasker said that acknowledging the connection between food and its origin – establishing the chain of evidence – was a critical step in a process that stops seeing what we eat as the depersonalised end-product of a megalithic industrial system.
“Knowing the story is important when it comes to putting a value of food,” she said. “It’s about reassessing the value of food, compared to what we spend on a plasma television or buying stuff from Bunnings.
“If we want food that contributes to health and wellbeing, and to sustainability, we need to pay what it’s really worth, not what it’s discounted to. I think people are more prepared to do that when they understand its story.”
She’s right, of course. Attila the Hun never looked for the cheapest fermented milk around. He wanted only the best. And look what he achieved.