Farm to Table #3: Borrowed Ground Growers, Moruya, NSW
Recipe, words & images by Harriet Davidson
For our next feature in the Farm to Table series, Harriet road trips south to Moruya on the NSW South Coast to visit young couple Eliza and Alex on their produce farm, Borrowed Ground Growers, where supplying produce to their local area is only just the beginning for the spirited and inspiring couple.
Borrowed Ground Growers
August 24, 2020. That’s the date the first seed of Borrowed Ground Growers was planted by young couple, Eliza Cannon and Alex Chiswell. Cut to November and rows of perfectly straight mignonette lettuce, tomatoes ripening on the vine and carrots that look more like art than food sit on their four-acre farm off the main street of Moruya on NSW’s South Coast.
“At the root of it, we want to feed and we want to educate the community” says Eliza.
At the root of it, we want to feed and we want to educate the community.
Alex’s horticulture background and love of harvesting produce that has physical benefits, as opposed to plants being purely aesthetic, brought him and then primary school teacher, Eliza, down to Moruya in 2016 to do an internship with Fraser and Kirsty of Old Mill Road Farm. “We got the bug after spending the summer there,” says Eliza. A return to Sydney saw Alex working on flower and produce farms just out of Sydney before the couple jetted off to Canada where they spent two years working and learning about farming. “We mentioned to Fraser and Kirsty that we were looking for some land on our return and they offered us this place to rent, so we came back from Canada and made the move south in February.”
I wandered around the farm with the enthusiastic couple as they picked from their perfectly sown rows of produce. “Beetroots, carrots, spring onions, fennel, greens, leeks, broccoli,” the couple list off. There’s an incredible variety of produce growing on Borrowed Ground. Cipollini onions, zucchini, sugar baby watermelons, cucumbers, patty pan squash, eight varieties of tomatoes, corn, radish, eggplant, Cubanelle peppers are all on the list for the summer months, along with flowers like the lovely dried Billy Buttons that add that fun touch of yellow to many of our homes.
“We’re getting into those warmer months. We just got our artichokes in that Jules and Elsa are going to show us how to cook with.” Alex and Eliza run the farm with the help from young couple, Elsa and Jules, whose plan to open a French bistro in Sydney’s Potts Point foiled with COVID-19 hitting. They made the move south and are now working on the farm but from the sounds of things, definitely haven’t left their love for cooking in the city.
“Elsa and Jules are epic chefs,” says Eliza. “I can’t fathom the food we’ve been eating. We eat fish on Tuesday’s from the market and Jules did this amazing swordfish with a caper sauce last night. It was so good.” Elsa pops into the farm’s large, open shed to feed her sourdough starter. “These guys bake bread,” says Eliza, “we go through a loaf a day. It’s so alive.” Quite the life.
Elsa and Jules are epic chefs.
Eliza and Alex are committed to not only feeding the local community, but being a voice to help educate about seasonality and the realities of farming through the farm, whose name acknowledges that the land they farm on will always belong to our first nation’s people. The couple intend to consult the Elders of the local area to make effective and accurate decisions with their farming practices.
The Moruya community has been wonderfully welcoming and supportive to the new venture. “In our first week of supplying boxes we solidified 40 customers,” says Eliza. “For the local community to get behind us before they’d even tried our produce is pretty special and we’re super appreciative.”
Alex and Eliza originally thought they’d supply Canberra restaurants and markets with their produce but they’ve had a wildly positive response from the area. “It’s awesome, it means we get to keep our food local and lower our food transport,” says Alex. “This area has such a strong support network,” says Alex. “There’s not just great farms in the area, there are also the people building that knowledge base and support network around the people farming.”
We get to keep our food local and lower our food transport.
“Sage Markets does that so well,” says Eliza about the local produce markets. “They’ve really built that supportive foundation for suppliers, growers and producers”. Alex and Eliza explain that these markets are on Tuesday afternoons to give farmers the opportunity to work in more traditional working hours so they’re not spending their weekends working.
“It’s such a large skill set to take on yourself so it’s really nice to have a network with those foundations to balance out the skills through the community,” says Alex.
As well as being quite the green thumb, Eliza is a passionate cook. Along with Borrowed Ground’s weekly produce box, subscribers get Eliza’s recipes delivered to their inboxes based on the week’s harvest. “Try these” Eliza hands me a leaf she’s just torn. “They’re so salty. It’s a baby beet leaf. We put this in our salad mix and they’re really great in a quiche.”
“Our veg box is more than a box,” says Eliza. “We’re sending recipes with our box each week and are being super transparent with our seasonality and what’s available. Some people missed out on radishes this week so I sent them a detailed note about why and spoke about the game of farming. We send people a list of what they can expect in their boxes but you never know what weather is ahead and helping to get people into the process and educating them about the realities of farming is central to that process. It’s a lot of extra work but it’s what I really love doing; making sure people really understand what we do. Yeah, you might get fennel four weeks in a row but I’m going to show what you do with that fennel for those four weeks.”
When I asked about the motivation behind signing a five-year lease on a produce farm Eliza spoke about society’s connection with food. “After working on Old Mill Farm, I started to notice the disconnect people have with food, and the unhealthy relationship we have with it at the hands of convenience; justifying food choices with a lack of time. It’s the way society has been conditioned to think.”
For Alex, it was largely about creating more meaning in his work. “I was pretty blasé about what I ate. I like good food but my motives were more about the process of growing things. I didn’t have a job that I felt was worthwhile and this has really filled that void for me. We’re not going to feed everyone but we want to help change the mentality around produce and shopping locally.”
“We’re seeing the impacts of large, industrialised agriculture that had that “get big or get out” mentality now. Those huge dust storms, erosion, top soil is blowing away, organic matter levels are dropping to all-time lows. If we keep doing that, we’re not going to have places to farm.”
“This idea that you get what you pay for doesn’t always translate for people to food. When it comes to food, people want it as cheap as you can find it. It’s the one thing your body needs to survive, with water, and people aren’t willing to pay,” says Alex, “but the reality is our produce is usually on par or cheaper than these large scale supermarkets. There’s a lot of misinformation around that.”
When I asked about the impact of 2020’s events on small scale farming and consumer’s buying habits, Eliza spoke of how much the bush fires and pandemic have highlighted the vulnerability of our food chain. “We’ve noticed an increase in demand for local produce; people’s priorities have definitely shifted but there’s still a lot of work to do.”
This idea that you get what you pay for doesn’t always translate for people to food.
And long term? The couple are looking at the Japanese model of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). “It’s a model where there’s a shared risk between the grower and the community,” says Eliza. The customer invests at the beginning of the season, which covers upfront costs that the farmer has, like seedlings or infrastructure. The share carries the customer through the season with weekly vegetables. The idea is that the customers share the risks with the farmer like, for example, extreme weather.
“It basically means they’re riding the wave with you of your surpluses and losses, and limiting food waste as it allows the farmer to plan their production. It’s a model that’s built on building transparent relationships and empathy, plus it’s educational,” says Eliza. “I really love the idea of it.”
Eliza explains that they’re using parts of the model already in the way they’re communicating with their customers and they hope to build on it.
“We’re really lucky in the region – there’s a lot of ground work that’s been done with people who live in the area and are already in touch with that understanding so we’re benefiting from a lot of hard work from people who have been doing this work down here for a long time,” says Alex. “It’s great. It’s what we need going forward – more awareness. It’s not for everyone but it’s nice if people are at least aware and can make educated decisions about their food. “
Borrowed Ground Growers produce boxes are available through their website in the Moruya region, from Narooma to Bateman’s Bay.
Harriet zipped home to her kitchen with her Borrowed Ground produce box and spent the following morning, inspired by Eliza’s dinner plans of a fennel tart, cooking a beetroot, walnut and goat’s cheese tart for lunch.
Beetroot, walnut and goat’s cheese tart
This is a recipe you could use a range of vegetables for, from asparagus and peas in the spring, to tomatoes, zucchini or eggplant in the summer and pumpkin in the winter, playing around with the herbs, cheese and nuts. Here, I’ve used Borrowed Ground’s beautiful beets. Beetroot leaves often go to waste but they’re wonderfully sweet and earthy. I’ve sautéed them in a similar way you would spinach to create a base layer for the tart but you could also use them in a pesto or salad. The walnuts add that crunch texture I love and the goat’s cheese a nice creamy richness to balance the earthy flavours of the beets. Serve this for lunch or light dinner, or take it on your next summer picnic. With the warmer weather rolling in, I can’t get enough of dressed cold and crunchy salad greens. I’ve dressed Borrowed Ground mignonette lettuce with an olive oil, anchovy, lemon dressing to go along with the tart.
Damien Pignolet’s Pâte Brisée, via Stephanie Alexander
I spent much of my isolation on the South Coast with my family drooling, dreaming and cooking my way through Stephanie Alexander’s Cooking and Travelling in South-West France, from her stuffed cabbage and seven-hour lamb to her prune and Armagnac tart, very often using the goods from the farm I was working on. It’s now one of my favourite cookbooks. One of the greatest discoveries from the book was the shortcrust pastry recipe that was handed down through Stephanie’s friend and pastry chef, Damien Pignolet. I’ve used this pastry for many tarts and quiches, and use it here for this recipe. It’s simple, wonderfully flaky and perfectly buttery. Having a good pastry recipe up your sleeve is a brilliant way to use the season’s latest produce, but if you’re short on time, use Carême’s Shortcrust Pastry.
180g unsalted butter
240g plain flour
Pinch of salt
3 tbsp water
Remove the butter from the fridge 30 minutes before making the pastry. Sieve the flour and salt into a large bowl or straight onto your bench. Chop the butter into cubes and toss in the flour, lightly rubbing to combine.
Make a well in the centre and pour in the water. Use a pastry scraper or spatula to combine the paste to form a rough heap of buttery dough making sure not to handle the butter too much.
Using the heel of your hand, quickly smear the pastry away from you across the workbench, gathering it together. Press it into a flat cake, wrap in cling wrap and refrigerate for 20-30 minutes.
When you need the pastry, roll it out with a generous dusting of flour. Pre-heat the oven to 200C degrees. Line a 24cm tart tin with the pâte brisée and blind bake for 20 minutes. I put a layer of baking paper over the pastry before baking and use baking beads to weigh it down, but you could use rice to do this.
80g soft goat’s cheese (I like Meredith Dairy)
100g firm goat’s cheese (I like Frico Chevrette)
½ cup walnuts
Half a cup chopped parsley (leaves and stems)
1 bunch beetroot leaves
1 tbsp butter
Five spring onions
2 cloves of garlic
Pastry case, blind-baked
Turn down oven to 180C degrees after cooking pastry.
Scrub beets and cut off top and tail. Cut each one into 2cm thick rounds, cutting through the middle revealing the beautiful rings of the beets. Place on baking tray and drizzle with olive oil, a good sprinkle of salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Place in oven for 20 minutes, or until starting to soften, flipping each round over halfway through.
Meanwhile, in a heavy cast iron pan, warm a few tablespoons of olive oil and a tablespoon of butter before adding in sliced spring onion and crushed garlic. Sautée with a pinch of salt and crack of pepper for a few minutes, until starting to soften. Add in a bunch of roughly chopped beetroot leaves and mix together, along with a quarter of a cup of roughly chopped walnuts. Once leaves have softened, remove from heat and stir through 50g soft goat’s cheese. Set aside.
Whisk together eggs, grated hard goat’s cheese, half a cup of chopped parsley, a good pinch of salt and solid crack of pepper. Set aside.
Once beetroot is cooked, remove from oven.
Add beetroot leaf and walnut mixture to the bottom of the prepared pastry case, smoothing it out and patting it down so it’s level. Next, add in the egg mixture before arranging the beetroot slices as you like, making sure the egg mixture doesn’t cover them. In between each slice, add in chopped walnuts and chunks of the remainder of the soft goat’s cheese. Sprinkle with salt and cracked pepper before placing in oven. Cook for 15-20 minutes, until egg is cooked to the touch and the tart is just firm in the middle.
Let sit for 15 minutes before removing from tart tin and serve warm, or cold if taking to a picnic. Serve with fresh, crunchy green leaves like this beautiful mignonette lettuce from Borrowed Ground Growers, dressed with a vibrant olive oil, lemon, anchovy dressing.
Harriet uses an IN BED 100% linen tea towel in red stripe, tablecloth in mustard, and napkins in white and stripe. Harriet served this meal in ceramics from South Coast-based Motion Ceramics, which you may have seen in restaurants like Sydney’s acclaimed Fred’s or now-closed A1 Canteen. They’re beautiful, to look at, to touch and to eat from.