While the dialogue around sustainable eating, cooking and growing has come a long way in recent years, it’s still almost always had with those at the latter end of the chain – the chefs, winemakers, brewers and bakers – and not with those who begin it. “Farmers are often excluded from that conversation,” says Alyssa Mittiga. The self-described “farmer-in-training” (she’s also worked in food policy and hospitality) has joined forces with Son of Dot’s Jay Marinis (behind fan favourites Ute Boot and Bus Boot) to help change that.
“It’s something that’s been in my mind for a long time, and I think it’s come from seeing our food system from so many different angles – it started with marketing work and then flowed to farming and working in hospitality – and having that circular experience of how all these things connect and how they work or don’t work,” she tells Broadsheet.
“I realised there was nothing tangibly connecting the things I was seeing together in one place. And if there was, it wasn’t fun or anything that touched on food culture in the way wine or hospitality does.”
Enter Top Soil, a new food festival at Norton Summit’s Scenic Hotel (which is part-owned by Marinis) bringing together farmers, winemakers and chefs to discuss sustainable agriculture. It’s not an approachable topic for everyone, so the pair are planning to make it more digestible by wrapping it up in a day of good eating and drinking.
There’ll be a “tasting table” run on a wine-tasting format, “but instead of the winemakers talking about what’s in the bottle, they bring their grape-growers along and talk about how the grapes are grown,” says Mittiga. “And alongside them are farmers having the same conversation about their soils and their vegetables.”
Growers include Maggie’s Farm, Small World Bakery, Ngeringa, Nomad Farms, Australian Native Food Co, Goolwa Pipi Co and Papershell Farm, some of whom will be paired with chefs. “So instead of them [sharing] their product like they would at a farmers market, it’s going to be zhooshed up,” says Mittiga. So you can sample cuts of Nomad Farms’ chicken in a ramen by Justin Healy (Quality Noods). Or try Goolwa pipis cooked by former Aristologist chef Oliver Edwards (now at Hazel in Melbourne), who’s flying in for a guest stint.
There’ll also be a special Scenic Hotel menu for the day using ingredients from the producers: think Small World Bakery loaves served with Kangaroo Island olive oil and Warndu native dukkah, a Ngeringa plate of roasted vegetables, and a dessert made with Australian Native Food Co’s green-ant marmalade.
Each grower and producer has been selected for their farming practices: namely, their commitment to rebuilding the health of the soil they’re taking from. “There’s an underlying essence, which is sustainability, and these producers are doing it not because it’s a marketing tactic but because they are taking custodianship over a piece of land and they’re regenerating that land,” says Mittiga.
Both she and Marinis are conscious that any dialogue about land is inherently linked to conversations around land ownership and Indigenous culture and farming practices, and that will be a key focus at Top Soil.
The event will also give back to the land by turning the food scraps from the day into compost using a method called bokashi. “We’re literally making topsoil from this event,” says Mittiga. (There’ll also be a workshop on how to do this at home.)
On top of that, there’ll be talks by Sydney chef Palisa Anderson (Boon Luck Farm, Chat Thai), Emily Salkeld and Chris Duffy (Small World Bakery), and Rebecca Sullivan and Damien Coulthard (Warndu); wines from the Son of Dot stable, including Scintilla, Commune of Buttons and Travis Tausend; and music by Runebilly Rattle, The Various Nefarious and Midlife Crisis.
Top Soil takes place on Saturday May 15 at The Scenic Hotel. Tickets are $38 and available online now. (Those who can't afford the ticket cost are encouraged to email firstname.lastname@example.org for a complimentary ticket.)