Published on 5 August 2021
Annie Smithers grew up on the productive peri-urban fringe of Melbourne, but her interest in working the land herself didn’t come till years later when, having learned the restaurant ropes from the very best at Stephanie’s, she started working in country Victoria. Heading the kitchen at the Lake House in the 1990s, then at Annie Smithers’ Bistrot, which she opened in Kyneton in 2005, and at Du Fermier, the restaurant she opened in Trentham in 2012, she found herself as interested in as where her ingredients came from as what she would do with them. Du Fermier is supplied in large part by the plot of land now farmed by Smithers and her family at Lyonville, and it’s Smithers’ journey from big-city cook to country-town chef and farmer that forms the story of her new book, A Kinder Life, taking in a rich variety of information about growing food and cooking that has been hard-won over 30 years, but is lightly worn. She tells the stories of setting up Du Fermier, the gardens and the buildings on the farm, working with the weather, water and resident animals, and seeking the emotional stability amid the substantial pressures of the restaurant industry, taking in recipes along the way that capture that balance of romance and practicality that has become an essential part of the Annie Smithers legend.
I wrote Recipe for a Kinder Life during the first nine months of the pandemic. A time that I felt like I was in free-fall. Like many of us, I was struggling with the concept of having my passion and my livelihood just taken away from me by an outside force. The existential questions loomed large in my head, but the crowding in my consciousness grew with the bureaucratic nightmare that ensured, grappling with forms and schemes and all that came with a pandemic. In all that misery I tried to find hope, I wanted the book to be positive, inspiring and uplifting. I realised that I was living many people’s dream, a country restaurant, small acreage , animals, family, friends and good productive earth beneath my feet. And there was the positivity, the privileged position that I lived in could be shared, in words.
The pitch to the publisher was… The publisher pitched to me. When the good editors of Thames & Hudson had their final meeting in 2019, the country was burning. As they looked into the future, they felt a book about living a sustainable life was in order. Sally Heath, the reasonably new narrative nonfiction editor, suggested that perhaps I could write it, given my history with kitchen gardening. By the time the contract was sorted out, it was March. March 2020. And the beginning of this nightmare that we now find ourselves in. The book became more than just a guide to growing some vegetables and thinking that was helping the planet. I reflect on all the things that help my life be a little more sustainable and how I try to walk a little more gently on the earth.
The main thing I learned writing it was that there is no point in trying to save the planet if you can’t sustain yourself. Once we find balance within, then we can look outward and start to make changes to our lives that in turn, make a difference for others.
If you cook one thing from this book, it should be the potato and Gruyère terrine. It typifies my life here. I live in a region that grows extraordinary potatoes. The terrine is built in an egg, cream and Gruyère custard that typifies the French farmhouse style of food that I love. Once cooked, it slices beautifully onto a sharp green salad. It’s simple, yet wonderfully complex. One of those magical dishes that always surprises you.
But I’d also love it if you tried the currant and saffron buns. They’re such a tea-time treat.
If you’re a relatively new cook, give the puff-pastry pear tart a try. It’s a classic piece of pastry work; you can buy good quality puff pastry, but the tart relies on a lovely pear, nicely poached, and a classic salted caramel sauce. Once you’ve mastered making that sauce, you can use it for many things in your dessert repertoire.
If you’re looking to extend yourself a bit more, meanwhile I’d start making veal stock. A simple process, but one that can change your cooking life. Once cooked, strained and then reduced, the stock can make you look like a master saucier. Unreduced, a veal stock will also give your braises an unctuous quality that you usually find in restaurants. And if you use it in your soups, the richness and flavour depth will be extraordinary. And of course, it’s incredibly good for you – fat-free bone broth by another name,
When I’m weighing up buying a cookbook or a book about food for myself, I am often torn about the content. Do I want recipes and tips that will help me grow professionally, or do I want to live or re-live an experience? At the moment, as travel is incredibly limited, I go more towards the experience food books. They allow me to dream about what might happen in the future.
The books I refer to most often when I’m cooking change all the time. As I’ve grown older, I find myself referring to some older books more often. Books like Mastering the Art of French Cooking, or The French Kitchen. I’m drawn by their insistence on classic technique. I’m passionate about the history of food, and the history of the techniques involved. Because of the quality of the beautiful produce I grow and use, I often feel I don’t have to do too much to it. But because I’m serving food in a restaurant setting, I want people to feel like they’re getting value for money. It’s a bit of a quandary. These books help me sort this out. Intricate technique can create a little prestidigitation: creating something that seems very simple yet is actually quite complex. The sleight of hand that many restaurant chefs indulge in.
When you’ve finished reading Recipe for a Kinder Life, I hope you’ll have found at least one thing that inspires you to walk a little more gently on the earth. Or even something in there that helps you navigate these curious times. I just hope that the generations that come after me get to follow their own dreams in the same way I have. It is time to start making changes to reverse some of the damage that has been done to give them all that chance.
Annie Smithers' Recipe for a Kinder Life ($32.99 Thames & Hudson Australia) is available now.
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