Not many Australians will have heard of the farming district Wanalta, or even its neighboring town Rushworth. But you can bet among those who have, most would be familiar with Kathy Barlow’s delicious country style spreads and preserves.
Situated atop a hill overlooking her family’s sheep farming property, Kathy’s orchard and vegetable patch – the source of most of her ingredients – backs directly onto her kitchen.
“As far as food goes, you can’t get much fresher than this,” says Kathy, who lives with her husband Mark and their four young children on the 720-hectare property about an hour’s drive south-west of Shepparton in the Goulburn Valley.
“We built our home on the farm about five years ago, on a hill – thus the business name Wanalta Hill Specialty Foods,” Kathy says.
It wasn’t long after building the house, that Kathy, an enthusiastic gardener, decided she needed an orchard and a vegie patch.
“The ground in the orchard is heavy clay, so it’s hard to create garden beds. But being on a sheep farm means we have ready access to all the manure we need!”
“I remember the first time I asked my husband to get sheep manure for me,” Kathy recalls.
“I told him I wanted to have a nice long garden bed, so he turned up later that afternoon with a huge truckload of manure that he’d cleaned out from under the shearing shed. There was so much of it! We spread it, covered it with newspaper and rolled out a large round straw bale and let the worms do the rest. Now we have a beautiful ‘big’ vegie patch.”
“We’ve also got about a dozen chooks, so along with the sheep, there’s always plenty of manure available. And any hay bales that are damaged go straight into the garden.”
Kathy’s orchard now contains about 20 trees, most of which border the vegetable patch.
“We have peaches, apples, cherries, plums, orange, blood plums, lemon trees, almond trees, pomegranate, quince, pear, passion fruit, raspberries and strawberries. And for vegies, I grow as much as I can to feed the family and cook.”
Kathy also has a large garden of native trees, which she says play their own role on the farm.
“I particularly love grevilleas – they flower all year round. But the best thing is the native birds and bees also love them, and seem to be drawn to my garden. Having bees about is great, because they help to pollinate our fruit trees and vegies.”
Kathy’s husband Mark – a fourth generation sheep farmer – and his brother breed prime lambs, which are sold through the Bendigo market. But when it comes to Wanalta Hill, it’s just Kathy… well almost.
“Mark helps out with the heavy work when needed – being a farmer, he loves that kind of stuff. But I don’t let him near the stove,” says Kathy with a laugh.
Kathy also gets some help from her mum. But it’s her 89-year-old nana, Perry, who she says is her inspiration.
“I used to love my nana’s quince jelly and apricot jam when I was younger,” Kathy says.
“Whenever I was running low I’d drop her off some fruit and she’d make me some jars. Then it got to the point where I really wanted to learn how to make it.
A number of her nana’s recipes have made their way into Kathy’s repertoire, including the tomato relish.
“She’s very proud that I make them, and every now and then I get a few tips from her so I can fine-tune my recipes.”
Having a strong farming background meant Kathy grew up with her hands in the dirt and with fresh produce readily available – fruits, fresh milk, vegetables and meat.
“I had growing tips from my granddad, and my father has always processed his own sheep and lamb into chops and roasts to fill the freezer – just as my husband does now. I think when you’ve got lovely produce around you, it’s normal to want to cook with it.”
Kathy generally makes a batch of something each day, but towards the end of summer, when the harvest is peaking, she’s at capacity cooking 2-3 batches per day.
“At that time, I’ll generally have a table full of produce. Then mum comes to save the day, she helps prepare – she also loves to cook. And if friends visit, they may get a labeling job,” she says with a wink.
Kathy gets frequent visits at Wanalta Hill and often her friends come bearing gifts.
“Every so often I’m given a basket of fruit by friends – often because they’ve got too much of something – so I make it up and send them back a few jars of something to say thanks.”
“There’s always plenty of excess produce around – sometimes I even have to knock it back because I haven’t the time to cook it all.”
Being in the north of the state means the Wanalta district has particularly favorable growing conditions.
“The climate suits stone fruit and apples, and most vegetables although hot climate crops such as tomatoes, corn and pumpkins also do well. We generally have a hot dry summer, and wet cold winter, which is great for the fruit trees.”
When not looking after her children, helping out on the farm, or taking care of her garden, the demands of running a small business, means the remainder of Kathy’s day is spent in the kitchen.
“With something like beetroot relish, by the time I cut if up and cook it, prepare the jars and then fill and seal them, it’s usually been two or three hours.”
And it’s beetroot relish that is Kathy’s best-selling product.
“I cannot make enough of it. I’ve been begging the beetroots to grow faster because I’ve only got a few jars left at the moment. I think people like it because it’s a familiar vegetable, it’s not too different,” she says.
“It’s beautiful in hamburgers and steak sandwiches and with a ploughman’s lunch. But my girlfriends and I prefer it with biscuits and Brie cheese. I guess it must taste good because I sell oodles of the stuff!”
Aside from her nana’s traditional recipes, Kathy also sells more obscure products such as Kasoundi, a type of Indian chutney, which she loves to make and says is particularly good to eat after about six weeks in the jar.
“A chutney with a vinegar base or anything heavily spiced develops flavor as it sits in the jar and matures,” Kathy says.
“Most products have 1-2 year shelf life, so can be eaten at any time up until then. The more spiced, the longer they last.
“The thing I love about preserves is that they enable me to lock in the fresh flavours of my garden, so I have access to them all year round. My products prolong the season.”
While Kathy must make product choices on what is ripe in the garden at the time (or what people bring her), she prefers it this way because her own tastes are seasonal.
“At the moment I’m really enjoying the lemon butter, which is good because the lemons are in season – they’re so fragrant. I’ve only got young trees, so I barter with friends in town for their lemons, but I collect the eggs fresh from my hens.
Having 15 hens in her coup guarantees Kathy always has fresh eggs available.
“I’ve got a real thing for fresh eggs – I’m a bit of an egg fanatic to be honest. I only eat and use the freshest eggs. I like it when the yolks are really orange. When you crack a fresh egg, the yolk is shiny and the egg white holds.”
So what’s next for Kathy?
“I’ll let you in on a little secret; my most exciting project on the go revolves around Christmas,” she says.
“I started selling Christmas cakes last year and they were really popular. So this year, I’m making an all-Victorian fruitcake, using produce from around the region.
“I met some of the producers through Farmhouse Direct. At the moment I have a winemaker, sultana supplier and almonds from The Murray Valley. But of course, I’ll use my own eggs!”
Much like the potatoes he grows, Gordon Jones has a remarkable pedigree. A fourth generation potato farmer, his knowledge of potatoes is about as good as it gets.
From the popular “Kipfler” to the less known “Blue Moon” variety and from the mouth-wateringly named “Dutch Creams” to the exquisite sounding “Pink Fir Apple” variety, there are not many potatoes that Gordon hasn’t had a crack at growing on his 400-acre property near Warragul in Victoria.
“My wife and I began our potato growing business in 1982, supplying fresh market potatoes up the east coast. That’s when Jones Potatoes was born,” says Gordon.
Gordon’s ancestors ran a dairy farm, but began growing potatoes as part of their rotational grazing and cropping strategy – to keep the soil in good health.
Nowadays, Gordon prefers to run beef cows and calves, but his rotational crop of choice remains the same.
“We generally run eight years of pasture in between each potato crop. The combination keeps structure and nutrients in the soil, which produces better pasture for our cattle to feed upon, and better potatoes.”
A family operation, Gordon’s wife and one of his daughters help run the property, but when he travels to Melbourne for the farmers’ markets, he enlists the help of his sister, son and nephew.
“Farmers’ markets give us the opportunity of supplying a whole new set of customers and a great venue to sell our seed potatoes that have grown above the regulated size,” says Gordon.
The potatoes Gordon sells at farmers’ markets, like the ones he sells to Farmhouse Direct customers, are the pick of the bunch.
“About forty per cent of our potatoes are certified “seed potatoes” which are subject to strict quality control regimes – they must be of a certain pedigree and meet all types of specifications. These are sold as planting material for other commercial potato growers,” says Gordon.
“The seed potato quality controls also dictate that once they reach a certain size, they no longer qualify as seed potatoes. This means a certain portion of our seed potatoes (which are high-grade potatoes) need to find new homes – farmers’ markets offer the perfect solution.”
Such are the quality of Jones Potatoes, they can also be found in some of Melbourne’s best restaurants. Vue De Monde on Collins Street in the city, The Commoner in Fitzroy, Boire in Collingwood, and Dog’s Bar in St Kilda all use Jones Potatoes.
While the restaraunts love using his Kipfler potatoes, Gordon says Nicola is the “hero potato”.
“Nicola is incredibly versatile, reliable, has great keeping abilities and has a fantastic flavour.”
But there’s more to Jones Potatoes than Nicola and Kipfler.
“We grow and sell eight varieties of potato at Jones Potatoes – Dutch Cream, Pink Fir Apple, Kipfler, Innovator, Blue Moon, Wilwash, King Edward, and Nicola. They all grow well in our region, because our farm has fantastic potato growing conditions.
“We receive about 1000ml of rainfall and have great red clay loam soil to soak it up, but equally the slope on our property means the water drains well – so the spuds don’t get soaked. It also helps that we have very few frosts in this region.
“We aim to do the job in a way that continually improves the soil and is sustainable. And our wide range means there is something for everyone’s tastes. We have potatoes of all shapes, sizes, colours and flavours.”
While a potato’s aesthetic is important, naturally it’s taste that matters the most and according to Gordon, there are a number of factors that influence this – seasonal conditions, time of year planted and soil type to name a few.
“Of course the varieties themselves have their own characteristics,” says Gordon.
“Our Nicola potatoes are sweeter than the other potatoes. The Dutch Cream variety are more ‘waxy’ than the Innovator or Kipfler or King Edward – which are more floury. Blue Moon, strikes a nice balance – it’s slightly floury, but not as much as the Kipfler.”
And Gordon’s favourite?
“Personally, I love King Edward potatoes - they are light and silky to roast or mash. I will generally have a binge on the full-flavoured, yellow-flesh varieties like Blue Moon, Nicola or Pink Fir Apple, then go back to King Edward for a spell.
“As far as recipes go, I’m a bit of a traditionalist – I can’t go past a good mash.”
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