Going Back to the Land Down Under
Getting Quinces to ‘Reveal Themselves’
August 2005 — Steve Cumper recently faced a crisis that is not uncommon in young families that have moved from the city to start a new life on a farm. He had to explain to his five-year-old son, Archie, why the cute little calf that had been frolicking in the fields a few days earlier now resided in a freezer, cut up into chunks of meat. “That was a great experience for us,” Cumper says, speaking for himself and his wife, of their first harvest of home-grown beef since they moved from Melbourne, Australia, to a 25-acre homestead outside of Hobart in Tasmania two years ago. “But my son was quite traumatized by the experience of losing the calf. I explained to him that he didn’t have to eat the meat.”
“I guess the island mentality in Tasmania — and to a degree, a sense of isolation — has prompted a lot of self-sustaining practices. For me, that was part of the attraction of moving here. And it really is such a lovely little corner of the world.”
It is a philosophy of food that Cumper adheres to as much as possible in his main line of work as head chef at Peppermint Bay, a restaurant and special-events venue on the D’Entrecasteaux Channel 45 minutes south of Hobart. He buys meats, seafood, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, preserves and tracklements (an Old English word for condiments served with meat) from dozens of local producers, who have turned farming and specialty-foods production into a fine art. His “valued local suppliers” get top billing on the first page of the Peppermint Bay dining room’s menu.
Cumper spent the decade before his move to Tasmania working at a succession of leading restaurants in Melbourne, where he opened Soulmama, a vegetarian cafe. Earlier in his career, he was a chef at The Pheasant Farm, where Maggie Beer, an Australian version of Alice Waters, and her husband, Colin, raised pheasants, guinea fowl and quail and extolled the virtues of local, seasonal cuisine. “I spent the next 10 or 12 years looking for a similar experience,” Cumper says. “I think I found it here.”
On his 25-acre piece of Tasmania, replete with “chickens and the whole catastrophe,” Cumper is part of a growing back-to-the-land movement in Australia, which has sparked a remarkable rural renaissance in Tasmania. An island 150 miles south of the Australian mainland a little larger than West Virginia with a population of half a million, Tasmania is isolated and pristine. Though nothing but open ocean stands between the island and Antarctica, Tasmania is as far from the bottom of the world as southern Oregon is from the top of the world. At that latitude, it has a cool, temperate climate and is sometimes called the “apple island” because of the prevalence of that particular crop. The Peppermint Bay menu illustrates the diversity of other local products at Cumper’s disposal, from octopus and water buffalo to heirloom quinces and Tasmanian saffron.
Tasmania’s Island Mentality
“I’m really amazed at how much product you can find here,” he says. “Things like stone fruit and olives thrive in different parts of the island. Some of the growers are traditional landowners who have always farmed. They’ve realized there’s a market for quality product and they’ve diversified. There are also younger people who’ve cashed in their chips and have moved to Tasmania, bought a piece of land and are trying to be self-sustaining and at the same time, produce something that’s marketable. They are what you might call alternative lifestylers. They have been in the vanguard of reigniting what was already here in terms of the bartering and gate-to-plate scenarios.
“I guess the island mentality — and to a degree, a sense of isolation — has prompted a lot of self-sustaining practices. For me, that was part of the attraction of moving here. And it really is such a lovely little corner of the world,” Cumper says.
It is a corner of the world far south of the equator where August is the dead of winter. But with the island’s mild winters, there are “plenty of people still providing us with lettuces, cabbage and broccoli, cauliflower, parsnips and carrots,” says Cumper. Serving an average of 200 meals a day, he can’t rely exclusively on the small batches of produce supplied by local growers. “So we have to supplement by buying from market,” he says. But the menu is never without some local, seasonal produce, and in the Tasmanian winter, one of Cumper’s favorite local items is the quince.
As in the United States, in Cumper’s part of the world, quinces are what he calls a “grandmother fruit,” something that everyone’s grandmother knew well but has largely slipped from sight. Its relative obscurity, oddly enough, may be working to the quince’s advantage these days, explains Bob Magnus, who sells fruit and saplings from his orchard of heirloom apples and 15 varieties of quinces not far from Peppermint Bay and is one of Cumper’s suppliers. “Even if it is a grandmother crop, there are still lots of grandmothers out there,” Magnus says. It also is slowly gathering a younger constituency among back-to-the-land types and trendy chefs.
“There’s much more chance for Australians to move to the country — what you call homesteading — and buy five acres and grow your own food,” Magnus says, to this reporter calling from California. “There’s quite a culture of that here in Tasmania . They’re well educated. They’re looking for a new lifestyle. They’re demanding much more than supermarket produce. The fruit trees I sell fit into that lifestyle. And if you write about food, you surely know that people are looking for new and other and unique tastes, and I think quinces fit very well into that trend.”
Slow Cooking Quinces
Cumper happens to fall into both of the demographic groups that Magnus identifies as prime targets for a vendor of quinces. True to form, Magnus reports, Cumper is “something of a quince freak.” On his winter menu, Cumper offers several takes on quince, using the Smyrna variety, which is “probably my favorite fruit,” he says. The key to success with the fruit is slow cooking. “They take a long time to reveal themselves. They’re not like cherries — simple and instantly satisfying.”
One dessert on Cumper’s winter menu is billed as “pot-roasted quince ice cream cone with quince syrup.” To concoct that dish, he cooks the fruit in a pot with a tight-fitting lid until the quinces turn a dark crimson color, a process that takes five or six hours. Then he churns the fruit into ice cream and serves it in the center of a plate garnished with slices of pot-roasted quince and a cone of crispy tuille pastry inverted on top “like a dunce cap.”
Truer to the quince’s middle eastern origins, Cumper also slow-cooks the fruit with lamb and serves it with harissa or couscous and yogurt.
There are also some uniquely Australian items on his menu, such as pepperberry mayonnaise. Indigenous to Australia , the pepperberry looks like a juniper berry, and has a very pungent flavor between horseradish and pepper. “When they’re put in a mayonnaise or sauce, they turn it a light purple color. They lend themselves to a lot of different applications,” Cumper says.
An Alternative to Protectionism
Though Cumper revels in locally produced food products, he’s uncomfortable with the rising chorus of support for shutting the door on imports, a strategy that has a particular appeal at the moment in Australia, which is swamped with cheap produce from both the United States and China. “Protectionism is a tricky and difficult thing, which has its own rewards and drawbacks,” says Cumper. He believes better educated consumers and producers can offer a more benign antidote.
The McDonald’s fast-food chain has unwittingly delivered a useful lesson to both groups in recent months. After years of boasting in its advertising campaigns that it buys most of its produce from Australian farmers, the company recently dumped its Australian suppliers of potatoes when it found that it could buy them cheaper in New Zealand. “That has led to some second thoughts among members of the farming community who are by nature very conservative,” Cumper says. “They’ve learned that once a farmer commits to selling their entire crop to a McDonalds or Safeway or Coles, they can turn around and screw them later on.”
The incident has also set off “a groundswell of interest among consumers in asking where food comes from,” Cumper adds, an interest reflected in a newly launched Australian magazine called Regional Food. Hopefully, consumers will look around and discover that there are locally produced foods that have advantages in freshness, variety and quality that cheap imports shipped across oceans can’t match. Producers, meanwhile, are discovering much the same thing, as Cumper has seen first-hand in Tasmania. “Instead of concentrating on the cheaper side of the market, our growers should concentrate on the quality side of the market. That’s what we have here, and I think it’s a marketable advantage.”
— Mark Thompson