“At this stage in my career, I’m getting more inspiration from gardening books and looking at produce than cookbooks,” says chef Andre Ursini, who runs Andre’s Cucina & Polenta Bar, its catering arm, and a hydroponic micro-herb business.
Nearly two years ago, Ursini took on the 20-acre former Longwood Camp site in Mylor. The camp has a rich, 80-year history. None of which is agricultural, bar a few old orchards. His vision is slowly turning that on its head.
Branded Lunelli Agriturismo, the multi-purpose facility is “highly geared towards a culinary narrative”, Ursini says. It will eventually encompass permaculture gardens; a cooking school; and spaces for food experiences, retreats and health courses. It leans on the Italian industry of agriturismo, or “farm stay”, put simply. But it’s less working on a farm and more a comprehensive window into rural Italian life.
A decades-old camp lodging makes for an inconspicuous main entrance. The next-door chapel is slightly more becoming with its pitched roof and floor-to-ceiling glass window that overlooks Adelaide Hills vineyards.
But the buildings mask the main event: a slope of in-the-works garden beds and sky-high forestry, peppered with wild mushrooms and a growing collection of beehives. It’s a misty winter day when Broadsheet visits. Ursini meanders down the hillside path. We trail behind.
It’s a work in progress, but that’s the point. “There is no ‘end point’ to this,” Ursini says. “[It’s] a generational project.”
Tackling the lodging’s “Kumbaya, school-retreat feel” is five or six years away. It’s currently posted on Airbnb and will run independently – under the Longwood Retreat banner – for the foreseeable future.
Now, the garden takes priority. It will provide produce for Ursini’s second restaurant, slated to open in Rose Park in mid-2018 – “ish”. Former Press Food & Wine head chef Will Doak is already on board.
“I know what I want to cook with, but how do we actually grow it successfully?” Ursini asks. The answer: engaging the right industry professionals to address issues such as crop rotation, companion planting and the plot’s southern-facing aspect.
The terraced, potager garden is in its infancy: an ornamental kitchen garden (on steroids) that will, in time, blanket the entire hillside. “Whatever we can’t get commercially – which is a lot – we’re ‘gonna be growing here,” he says. “[Ingredients] no one can access unless they grow them in their backyard.”
The produce will be predominantly Italian – artichokes, garlics, edible flowers (“without being wanky”), yellow mountain strawberries and “strawsberries”, a strawberry that looks like raspberry (bubbled, white, and with red seeds).
That’s not to say the property isn’t already bearing fruit, so to speak. “[It] blooms with pines and slippery jacks,” says Ursini, who has taken up wild mushroom foraging. “The porcini grows nuts through here, too.” Existing apple, pear and cherry orchards are also being revived. A local apiarist has been recruited for on-site beekeeping. Two hundred kilograms of honey is expected each year.
One of the property’s lowest-lying areas will be dedicated to barbeque. There’s a repurposed barn-door entrance, (soon-to-be) stone-clad tin sheds and a coal pit for rotisserie. A nearby dam will be drained and converted into an amphitheatre. Picnic spaces have a unique bottom-to-top vantage point.
It’s about the whole experience, says Ursini. “When you go to Tuscany, you sit there and think, ‘Does this tomato taste better or am I being romanticised by the scenery?’ I’ve been in the moment [and] no, it actually does taste better.”
Looking to the future, Ursini hopes to grow 15 to 20 per cent of the produce for his Rose Park restaurant. “You can’t grow [all] your own vegetables unless you’re a 20-seat restaurant that does 20 covers three nights a week,” he says.
The link between growing produce and cooking with it is fundamental to a chef’s creativity. “The chefs will be expected to work up here,” says Ursini. “Knowing how a carrot goes from big to small [is important] ‘cause you can do all sorts of dishes from different stages.”
“I’m known as the polenta guy,” he says, cracking a smile. His second restaurant won’t have a “niche”, Italian trademark. So what should you expect from the menu? “I don’t like talking in clichés,” he says. “All menus should be seasonal. It shouldn’t be a trend.” Being suburban, “It has to be an extension of people’s dining room, too.”
Lunelli Agriturismo doesn’t have a set opening date yet. Ursini’s Rose Park restaurant is expected to open in mid-2018. Keep an eye on Broadsheet for more details.