The simple life

Green Lifestyle

Paul West of River Cottage Australia talks about the connection between growing and cooking food – and his perspective really does hit the spot.


Paul West and Digger.

Credit: Caitlin Howlett



Credit: Caitlin Howlett


One of the Cornwall Black sows.

Credit: Caitlin Howlett

The goats

The cheeky goats.

Credit: Caitlin Howlett


One of the prolific herb and vegie gardens.

Credit: Caitlin Howlett


Wonky vegetables straight from the garden.

Credit: Caitlin Howlett

country-style kitchen.

A true country-style kitchen.

Credit: Caitlin Howlett


The picturesque River Cottage Australia.

Credit: Caitlin Howlett

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What aspects of sustainability are most important to you here at River Cottage?

Being here is an opportunity for me to practise and share the story of regenerative agriculture. It’s a way to grow food that doesn’t take away from the environment – it actually gives to the environment.

Diversified farms like this help the organic matter in the soil, increasing the natural biodiversity and habitat. So instead of the ecological wastelands that happen with monoculture – that need to be managed on an industrial scale – with this, you can exist very close to the natural world, and you’re genuinely in the swing of the natural world and the seasons.

Another thing is that we’re bringing in the net of how far food has to travel, by becoming a producer rather than a consumer, which I think is a key shift for citizens in a modern world where everything is so consumer-driven. Whereas working on farms, the financial returns aren’t necessarily enormous, but the spiritual returns are, well, I mean, just look at this, what a workplace! I feel like I’ve landed in paradise on Earth.

Do you have a favourite part of the property?

It’s kind of hard to think about it as individual components because it’s all so linked. I do enjoy going up into the ridge in the back paddock because you’re close to the national park and you can look back over the house and see most of the property, the rolling fields, and then more fields in the distance before the sea. Up there, you’ve got great sense of separation from everything else as you’re surrounded by rolling pasture and trees and the farm, with the ocean in the distance.

Why is being close to the ocean so great for you?

The ocean provides an entirely different larder. If you look at the Indigenous cultures of this area, the ocean was a fundamental part of their lives and their diet. It’s such a rich, marine ecology down here that it’s one of the nicest parts of the ocean that I’ve had the privilege of living near. You go down to the beach and you’re surrounded by Banksia forests, the water’s crystal clear, sea eagles are flying above, and there are stingrays and fish and sharks – it’s all there. You’re the only human there, and you realise that there’s so much more to the world than our aspect of it... because in the greater scheme of things we’re just another organism.

How do you find being able to grow your own food and then cook it now?

It’s just the best. As a chef, you’re very much an ‘educated middle-man’. You get new ingredients in every day, you chop, prep, cut, cook, and send it out to the discerning customer, but you never get to sit down and share that meal with the customer. All the fruits of your labour go to someone else’s enjoyment and a small financial return.

But doing it like this, your work is for yourself; it’s for your own enjoyment. Obviously to an extent there’s a degree of financial vulnerability to it. But I used to cook for 50 people and share with none of them, and now I cook for five, and sit down and eat with all of them. I found it hard when I was a chef to be constantly cooking for people and having no repour with them.

Growing and cooking your own food just makes sense. The truth is in the origins of food, where it wasn’t cooked by the French aristocracy, it was cooked by the farmers. All this separation, this isolation of production – the idea that farmers have to grow, and chefs have to cook, and that there shouldn’t be any crossover – doesn’t make sense. Food has always been a peasant agricultural pursuit.

Look at Italian food, Chinese food, all the different classic cuisines are founded on farmers being cooks – farmers growing, and then cooking what was available. And they made it enjoyable because they had to eat it! There’s no point in eating gruel and cardboard, you may as well try to make the most of what you have available for your climate, season and region.

Do you have a food hero that you look up to?

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has always been a food and farming hero to me. He’s an incredible powerhouse. He’s been championing the cause of regenerative agriculture for over 18 years – before organic farming, green grocers, and wholefood shops, and before it was embraced by mass culture, or a part of people’s lifestyle. So, he’s always been a hero for me.

Other than Hugh, for a domestic food hero, Les Higgins the Bush Tukka man was a childhood hero of mine. There is bush tukka around here, but I haven’t had a chance to discover much of it yet. It’s a bit of a sad story that the traditional local knowledge isn’t here within this community as much as it could be. Really, it’s not anywhere that it used to be, no doubt. You definitely have to eat out of the ocean. Even the national park on the mountain itself has been logged and cleared over time, and there was a gold rush in the early days.

In terms of Australian gardeners – Costa is my beard hero and my gardening hero. He makes gardening fun! And he’s passionate, he really lives for it.

What would you suggest for someone that can’t live on a farm and still wants to be connected?

Urban agriculture is the most important aspect of modern agriculture, because there’s so much potential to grow food in the city. There’s all these spaces, and there’s so much great waste. Think about all the organic waste that comes out of a city, from every restaurant, cafe and every unit – you could make enough compost to cover the nation out of that! Also, urban places have that youthful culture of innovation and creativity and finding new solutions to things, and that’s exactly what is needed.

The first thing to do is this: get engaged. Actually take an active interest in your food. Drop out of the major chains and start going to the smaller green grocer, or farmer’s markets, and try to reduce the number of people between the product and you. Don’t worry if it’s hard, because it gets easier with time. The more questions you ask, the more interest and passion you’ll eventually find, because you’ll be satisfied with the answers you’re getting to the questions you’re asking.

If you go to your green grocer and they can’t answer questions about where things were grown, keep asking until they can find out, or find a new green grocer. The same with your butcher – stop going there if they don’t know if what they’re selling is a grain or pasture-raised beef, where it was grown, or what age it was killed at. They would know that if they were really passionate about what they sell.

The good thing about living in the city areas is that you’re spoilt for choice in terms of the quality of produce that’s available. If you were to go down to the local Woolies, the produce is crap compared to what you can get at a beautiful organic grocer in the inner-city Sydney. The best farmers send their produce there because it fetches the highest premium.

I started my journey in an urban area, and I didn’t have any experience in gardening. I lived in a terrace that had a cement backyard, so I went to a community garden, and that’s how I learnt to garden. The great thing is that gardeners are open books; they’re not like, ohhh, that’s my secret fertiliser that I put on this, or my secret tomato pruning technique, and if you ask questions they’ll pretty much talk your ears off. They’re so happy to share their knowledge and experience because it’s their passion. The community gardens in most of the metropolitan and urban areas are great – you’ll meet like-minded people, there’s a diverse cross section of people from society.

Just make sure you don’t give up! Get into guerrilla gardening, put some pots on your windowsill on the kitchen, just embrace that chance to grow things, and don’t be disheartened if they don’t work the first time. Even people that farm for generations still have things that don’t grow, or even animals that die. I think a lot of people get disheartened because they go and buy a weak seedling from some massive store, and buy some sterile potting mix, plant it, and it doesn’t grow – the poor plant probably hardly had a chance. Keep trying, plants want to grow, things want to live, it’s just finding that nurturing aspect within yourself to make it happen, because it’s great to be able to give life to things, it’s so gratifying. And it’s essential to being a human – it means you don’t get stressed out about silly things, because you’re focussing on all this joy and life and happiness that the bad things just don’t carry as much weight.

Obviously, the world still isn’t perfect, but you don’t sweat the little things as much.

Click through the arrows on the photo above to see more of the idyllic River Cottage Australia. Seasons 1 and 2 have finished airing on Foxtel, and Season 3 is now being filmed. You can buy the DVD of Season 1 from here: www.shop.abc.net.au/products/river-cottage-australia-2dvd, and Season 2 will be released on DVD later in the year. Keep an eye on this page for more info: www.rivercottage.net/about/latest-news/australia.