Whole Larder Love author Rohan Anderson
The crisp wind leaves Rohan Anderson’s salt-and-pepper beard unmoved. His hair is clamped under a trucker’s hat, and his eyes are hidden behind the reflective lenses of a pair of Aviator Ray-Bans. There’s a smudge of mud right across them.
“People think I’m some sort of whack job, a conspiracy theorist – I’m not a conspiracy theorist, I lived through it. I’ve cured my hypertension, my anxiety and depression, all by lifestyle choices, and I’ve lost some weight. I’ve still got a little way to go, but.” He pats what looks to me like a pretty trim waist.
He’s been working in his garden, a large patch of earth at the back of what must have once been a potato farmer’s house. That’s what they grown out here – in the Central Highlands at the rural edges of Ballarat – potatoes.
Rohan tells me the soil is rich, alluvial, and as the soils get poorer to the north and the west, the crops change, wheat instead of potatoes. The farmhouse is surrounded by red dirt, rolling, ploughed fields. Shaded by tall trees, the house is an island of green.
“We moved into this house last winter,” he says. “This was just paddock – the garden is all built with bits of wood I got from the tip, and a pick and a shovel digging up the soil. It took a lot of work but it didn’t cost me anything.” The timber used to construct the raised garden beds is mismatched – there’s a section of signage – but it doesn’t look shoddy.
“This is all The Nursery Project is …” he points the stream of hose water out and over the garden. With The Nursery Project he wants to replicate this garden, but on a grander scale, create a place where people can come and learn about growing, cooking and preserving food.
“I just say to people, connect with your food – eat real food. Get off the processed stuff,” he says, watering as we go, pulling the hose behind him, explaining what’s planted. “This is a little spring crop here. The broccoli will be ready soon. We got some carrots on the go, garlic will be coming out in the next two months, loads of kale, a couple of various rockets, and bits and pieces, but it’s still just the tail end of winter crops. See, I’ve got celery still on the go. I cooked a risotto with broad beans from last year that I had in the freezer. I didn’t have any onions, because I’ve eaten all my onions, so I used the celery as the base for the soffritto. So there’s not much on the go at the moment, but in three or four months’ time, this place will be gangbusters: zucchinis, tomatoes.”
He wasn’t always a man who knew what a soffritto was. He tells me his journey to this patch of vegetables in the country, to becoming the author of his cookbook Whole Larder Love. He worked for corporates in the city: “Coles Myer head office, which is pretty hilarious.” This from a man who draws attention to the supermarket-bought Granny Smith apple I consume on our way around the garden: it’s out of season, it’s been sprayed, and I eat it unwashed, my teeth cracking through its shiny green skin.
“I got caught up in that lifestyle of convenience – working six days a week like an idiot. Same as most people. You get busy, you start going to the supermarket every day at the end of work to pick up something for dinner, oven-fried chips, chicken tenders, fish fingers or you just get takeaway. I got very sick, I got very fat – you reach a low point. This…” he points the hose over the garden again, “it’s completely changed my life.”
We walk inside his polytunnel that’s warm and humid as Queensland. He waters tomato, jalapeño and Habanero seedlings.
“I stopped buying meat, I started hunting – rabbits. I go all around here, there’s plenty of paddocks that I’ve got permission to shoot on.”
Out of the polytunnel, his little scrap of a rescue dog, Gem, who has been following us from garden bed to garden bed, is now passed out in a pool of sunshine.
“There’s a dead dog, Jesus,” he says. “These are elephant garlics here – they’ve been in since June; I usually pull them out around Christmas time. I’ve got garlic for about six to eight months of the year and then it’s gone. That’s another important thing I’ve been battering on about for years – when I’m out of garlic, I’m out of garlic. It’s taken me a long time to get used to that. Not having a tomato in June in Australia.”
“All these potatoes,” he gestures out over the fields, “you should see the machinery that gets around here. Huge diesel tractors that take up two lanes on a road, that everyone has to drive behind while they go from one paddock to another. They rip up the soil and at the height of summer all these beautiful dams that are full of water go empty and are sprayed by massive sprinklers. Irrigations systems to water potatoes that are going to be made into McDonald’s fries, that are making people unhealthy.” Out in the paddock is his other dog, an English pointer, his hunting dog. The dog is standing perfectly still, pointing his nose out into the potato fields.
As I drive away from Anderson’s home, I get caught behind a tractor, wheels way taller than my car, with long arms coming out of its yellow and green sides. I crawl behind it thinking about potatoes, waiting for a chance to pass.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 6, 2014 as "Whole larder rosy". Subscribe here.