A country-style restaurant garden provides fresh, seasonal, organic food
The first kitchen garden at famed NSW restaurant Bells at Killcare was originally planted by former head chef, Cameron Cansdell. Surrounded by a large expanse of formal gardens, manicured lawns and immaculately trimmed box hedges, and protected by a rustic post-and-rail fence and giant scarecrow, this tennis court-sized garden appears as a rural remnant of the area’s farming origins.
It’s no leaf-perfect vegetable garden, either, but a working garden, and one of three organic gardens at the boutique hotel and restaurant. “It’s more than just the convenience of growing fresh herbs and vegetables close to the kitchen,” Cameron says. “It’s about being able to prepare and serve freshly picked vegetables to customers within a very short time to maximise flavour.”
The kitchen gardens provide the Bells chefs with a culinary playground in which they can grow vegetables not available in the markets, including heirloom varieties, and develop and experiment with new tastes. The largest of the three is nearly the size of a football field. It’s planted out in a circular design with the larger crops in the back rows so they don’t shade plants, and a variety of different beans, Sicilian zucchini and other climbing vegetables scrambling up and over the fences.
The bountiful crop is a magnet for the local wildlife, though. While the garden is surrounded by a high fence to keep feral deer out, the native ducks and white cockatoos can nip over the top. An ingenious system with a central pole and humming tape that radiates out like the spokes of a wheel helps to deter them. And there’s a surprise for the invaders. As the last line of defence a few chickens are kept in the garden and they are very protective of their patch. They scuttle down the wide rows between the plants, seeing off any avian intruder, and are well rewarded with a smorgasbord of vegetable delights at every turn.
In addition to the guard chickens, the restaurant runs a flock of around 50 chooks that are in turn protected by Enzo, a large Maremma dog. They are free to wander in the paddock and provide a continuous supply of eggs for the kitchen. The chickens are part of the organic recycling system and are fed surplus from the garden and selected vegetable waste from the kitchen.
The gardens are managed along sustainable principles. Biodiversity is maintained with practices that are in balance with the natural environment: companion planting, natural plant fertilisation and organic pest management. In the restaurant kitchen, green bins are used to collect the vegetable waste (including paper towels) and these are then tipped daily into a series of 400-litre Aerobin composting systems and layered with hay and leaves from the garden. When kitchen waste exceeds the capacity of the bins, a pit composting system is used. The compost provides natural fertiliser for the gardens, fostering healthy soil and growing conditions.
Initially, the garden was cared for by the kitchen staff but as it has grown they now have a full-time gardener to manage what has become a small, productive market garden. Leaves, branches, grass clippings and other rich organic matter from the 8ha of sprawling gardens are collected and also become part of the composting program.
Bells supports total sustainability. Rainwater is collected for the garden and kitchen, and all household cleaners and so forth are fully biodegradable. Bells is also looking into ways to safely recycle meat and fish waste so it can also be used for the garden.
A number of beehives have been placed around the garden to provide fresh honey to serve in the restaurant. There has been a noticeable difference since introducing bees, particularly with the improved pollination of plants in the vegie gardens, which is essential for good yields of some of the flowering crops.
The challenge for the chefs is to increase on the menu the amount of produce that comes from the garden. It varies from season to season and can be up to 50 per cent in the summer months. The menu is designed around the available produce and to some extent this is driving planning and changes to the garden.
The chefs and gardener know what they’re good at and tend to grow these, which include a lot of different varieties of tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, beans, corn and leafy greens. With a good source of traditional Italian seeds available in Australia, the opportunities to experiment with vegetables not normally served in restaurants are endless.
“Take puntarelle,” says Cameron. “It’s a variety of chicory so sweet and delicate that it can just be blanched in boiling water, then drizzled with olive oil and flavoured with lemon juice or garlic and chilli. When young it can also be used in salads.”
As part of the continuous evolution of the gardens, a small orchard that includes olives, citrus and quince is being expanded with new plantings of stone fruit, custard apple, avocado and finger lime. A lot of different herbs are used by the chefs, so the kitchen garden with the post-and-rail fence is soon to be converted into a dedicated herb garden that “will grow every herb under the sun”.
The man behind the restaurant’s philosophy of simple, seasonal dishes inspired by the produce grown and harvested onsite, served alongside regional food sourced from local farmers, is award-winning chef Stefano Manfredi. He has been involved since it opened in 2007 and it was the garden that saw the restaurant, rebadged Manfredi at Bells, honoured with the Good Living Sustainability Award at the 2012 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide Awards.
“As an Italian, gardening is in my DNA,” says Stefano. “Italian cooking is very simple and relies on the quality of the primary produce. There is nowhere to hide.” This approach, well established in many European rural restaurants, is now occurring at the grassroots level in cities. In Sydney, Ryde TAFE campus, the largest hospitality training centre in the Asia-Pacific region, is converting its old tennis courts into a kitchen garden so the budding chefs not only have access to a range of produce but can learn about seasonal cultivation cycles.
It looks like we can look forward to an ever-increasing number of chefs exploring the possibilities of organic kitchen gardens. As they have discovered at Bells, many visitors to rural retreats want more than comfort, great food, a spectacular location and a nice spa. They want to see and learn about how their food was grown and the chefs at Bells regularly take visitors on tours of the kitchen gardens.
Words by Nick Vale
Originally from Good Organic Gardening magazine, Volume 5 Issue 6