As the year draws to a close and the weather warms up, here in South Australia thoughts will be turning to planning our summer holidays. For many of you I know that will mean a trip up the river for a break, either in a shack or in a houseboat with lots of long, languid days mucking about with boats, friends and barbecues, but I wonder how many of you realise what a great foodie destination the Riverland has become? All of the producers along the River Murray in Australia struggled during our recent, very long, drought but the growers at the bottom end of the river really have done it the toughest with drastically reduced water allocations and problems with the growing salinity in the river affecting their crops. The benefits that were brought by the increased flows in the river when the drought broke were then undermined by the incredibly strong Australian dollar resulting, for most of the citrus growers, in a bumper crop that they subsequently had trouble exporting. The impact this has had on the regional towns cannot be underestimated, but then neither can the tenacity and versatility of rural Australians and we have seen them take on these challenges in any number of impressive ways. Let me introduce you to a few of the newer reasons you might want to take a trip up the river.
At the very heart of the diversification and development of Riverland food products is a group called Food Riverland. Established nine years ago, the Food Riverland membership consists of local growers, manufacturers, packers, distributors and members of the hospitality industry whose goal is the development and nurturing of a food culture specific to the Riverland and to promote Riverland food products regionally and nation-wide. Food Riverland is the organisation responsible for that amazing showcase of Riverland food and culinary talent, the Chefs of the Murray dinner, hold a “Tasting Riverland” event at annual Field Days and is responsible for the Riverland Farmers Market which is held in Berri. The Farmers Market, which struggled badly during the drought and only held on due to the sound financial management of Food Riverland, offers the many small growers and producers of the region a secure venue for some of their interesting and niche products as they seek out ways to branch out and diversify.
There you will find things like Ed and Judy Cottam’s prunes. Most Australian grown prunes come from around Young & Griffith in New South Wales, but in 2004 Ed and Judy planted some of the original French D’Agen plums on their mixed fruit block, where they also grow quinces for Maggie Beer, and they market these through the Farmers Market . You will also find locally produced smallgoods, olive oils, native wattleseed products, fresh sugar cane and some of the most delicious ripe tomatoes I have ever eaten which were grown under biologically controlled conditions using insects to control pests and diseases.
Some of these small producers find that the support of Food Riverland and the Farmers Market enables them to go on to become larger producers, as is the case with Barry Porter and Helen Jones and their “Kolophon Capers“. Their desire for a better tasting caper product with lower food miles resulted in their development of their own caper crop processed using a dry salt method (using, of course, Murray River salt). Sold at the Farmers Market and now through various retailers, their lines have now grown to include Caper Seasoning, Caper Powder and the astonishingly tasty brined Caper Leaves – all of which are attracting a great deal of attention, including a Bronze Award at the Sydney Fine Food Show 2011 and being named a finalists in the Delicious Magazine Produce Awards 2011.
The Food Riverland group also includes the Riverland Organic Group, a band of regional certified organic growers who meet regularly to share information and techniques and encourage the development of organic produce in the area. This group includes the Howie’s of Fat Goose Fruits whose organic citrus is grown on a family property which has been producing fruit for 100 years and which they converted to organic management in 1994. Fat Goose is another significant example of the success which can be achieved in the area, with their fruit being available not only in the immediate region, but at the Adelaide Showgrounds and Willunga Farmers Markets, around Australia and with some being exported to Singapore and Malaysia.
Food Riverland is run by a committee of dedicated and passionate volunteers who are working to preserve, expand and develop local food production and is one of several different regional food groups in South Australia, all of whom play a significant role in the support and promotion of local food products and without whose work many struggling producers would not have survived.
While in the Riverland Lambs’ Ears and Honey was a guest of