By Lisa Herbert
The only thing that’s not happening on the farm right now is rain.
Otherwise it’s pretty busy for a remote, lonely olive grove. And the sky is relentlessly blue.
We’re now counting down to not only hosting one hundred lucky lunchers for the Melbourne Food & Wine Fest’s Longest Lunch, but also to the arrival of fourteen beautiful bell tents that will harbour our intrepid glamping folk. But the main thing we’re excited about is the reopening of our gorgeous Millstone Café, which for five weeks from the 1st of April, will feed and refresh locals, climbers, tourists and glampers, all just in time for visiting chefs, the annual Pink Lake salt harvest and of course to make it more interesting, the olives will be bursting into ripeness while all this is going on. Even though it’s not raining, it’s pouring.
As a cook I’ve never felt so privileged. The area surrounding us here in the Northern Grampians is just bursting with product and produce, like quinoa and lentils, farro and barley, but I’m also able to use the Mount Zero oils and olives, from the farm. We’re growing some lettuces, leaves and herbs (well we’re trying to beat the chickens to their lush greenness) quinces and muscatels, but it is the olives that steal one’s breath away. They’re currently hanging from the branches like so many earrings, changing the shape of the trees as they, in spite of rainless days, grow fabulously plump. Pendulous, shining berries they are a surprising green, almost emerald green, not olive green, that comes later, after brining.
I find myself thinking about the olive trees a lot, about how astonishing they are. It hasn’t really rained since January, but there are millions of olives growing fatter and fatter as if they’re being injected with goodness from some underground source. It must be the magic of the tree itself, for to have existed for 6000-8000 years as the olive has, there must surely be some magic involved. Perhaps it’s the energy exuded by the trees that keeps me awake at night, not the moon, not the strange peaks of the Grampians, not the chocolate brownie recipe I had to test at 11pm.
Having to create menus for the café has meant I’ve been out and about meeting people, tasting preserves and jellies, terrine and pastrami, sourdough and free range hams, bacon and bread. Just throwing some of these beautiful, delicious things on a plate by themselves would be stunning enough, but I’m busy trying to devise ways of putting them together beautifully and also getting my absolute favourite oil onto as many dishes as possible, the stunning agrumato that is Mount Zero’s lemon pressed olive oil. Mama mia, this stuff is like liquid sunshine. I’ve kept a few casks aside (I’ve been hiding them at the very back of the pantry where no one ever looks) so I can smother it over poached eggs and pumpkin & spelt salad and you can dip your bread with dukkah in it, or indeed, rub it all over yourself. (They’ve been doing that for thousands of years anyway, rubbing olive oil on skin. The Greeks annointed great athletes with it, women have used it in skin and hair care for millennia.)
And so, from tomorrow it starts, and many aprons will be worn – large jars of home-made tomato and ginger chutney, cumquat compote, pickled onions, pickled cauliflower and cucumber, bottles of real lemonade and lemon-barley water, will begin appearing on the café shelves in readiness.
Cakes will be tested, jams and peaches from Dimboola will be delivered, terrines from Great Western and hams from Ballarat, bacon from Nhill, sourdough bread from the Great Ocean Road will all be received with pleasure and gratitude.
Then cutlery and glasses will be polished and platters and boards will be stacked in readiness. Tables and chairs will be brought out of retirement, and in the end the shelves will be groaning with produce, the ovens on and bread baked. Then the doors will open, for an April Fool’s breakfast and off we go.
But for today, a long, head-clearing walk with Molly and Lily around the base of Mount Zero and Hollow Mountain is on the agenda. Before the sun gets too high in that relentless blue sky, and before the apron is donned.