It’s chilly and the night sky is cloudy and dark when we pull up outside a corrugated iron shed strung with fairy lights in the north-west Victorian countryside. This is the mess hall of self-taught sustainability champion Rohan Anderson, and it’s cosier than it sounds. We’re welcomed with open smiles and a bear-paw handshake from Rohan, who has blogged about his self-sufficient lifestyle of growing, gathering, hunting and cooking local produce at wholelarderlove.com.au for the past four years. His book of the same name was published in September 2012 and is packed full of practical tips, Rohan’s earthy, documentary-style photography and his easy-to-follow recipes.
“When I first received an email asking me if I’d be interested in writing a book, I deleted it! I thought it was spam,” he laughs, adding that he’d be quite happy living in a hut and not seeing anyone except his partner Kate Berry and their four daughters for days – weeks – on end.
But people, thousands of them, are interested in what he’s doing, so he’s started ‘skill-sharing’ by offering a range of weekend-long seasonal workshops. We’re along for ‘wild mushroom, rabbit, trout and fly fishing’; others involve learning how to dispatch, butcher and cook a chicken. As spring nears, the focus will shift to setting up a vegetable garden, curing meats and making sourdough starters.
“I’m no expert, so I’m keen to learn from others, too. If you know a different or a better way to pluck a chicken, then let’s see it!” enthuses Rohan, who grew up on a small farm in Gippsland. “I’m not a professional chef – I’m noteven a trained cook. I’m just some dude, trying to feed his family sustainably. It’s autumn, so right now we’re all about mushrooms and rabbits and apples and potatoes,” he adds. And boy, are we.
It’s Saturday morning and the dozen or so people here on the workshop are up early after a night ‘glamping’ al fresco in converted stables. Inside the mess hall, the table is spread with toast, scrambled eggs, crisp bacon, sausages and a huge pot of breakfast beans. Tea and coffee are in plentiful supply and, before long, Rohan is showing us the saffron milk cap mushrooms we’ll be foraging for in a nearby pine forest. In the forest, Rohan explains that the roadside is the best place for gathering mushrooms as traffic spreads the spores. Then he tells us that he isn’t sure how we’ll go today, since summer was “mega hot”, and there hasn’t been much rain for this time of year.
But we’re in luck. After the first eureka-like discovery of a sturdy orange cap peaking through the pine needles, we find more and more. They seem to come in pairs and, within the hour, all our baskets are full. Before long we’re back at the homestead feasting on various combinations of mushrooms cooked with butter, sage, thyme, chilli, Salamanca sausage, cheese and chorizo. The mushrooms are nutty and robust, and we’re pleased to have plenty left over.
At this time of year, Rohan goes out rabbit hunting every few weeks, and he’s made sure we’ve each got a rabbit for our skinning session. I have never butchered anything before, but I eat meat, including rabbit, and I’m determined to do this. The hardest part is gutting the rabbit. It’s also the most delicate task. Done carelessly, it’s messy and smelly. Done well and it’s a smooth, almost surgical procedure, quickly followed by skinning and butchering. Rohan demonstrates separating out the back legs (“good for cooking low and slow in stews”) from the back straps (“the best cuts”).
We wash our hands and move on to preparing rainbow trout. Most of us opt to learn how to gut and prepare the fish for baking whole; the more adventurous among us are keen to master butterflying. Also known as splitting or kiting, this boning technique is perfect for fish intended for smoking, and that’s straight where these ones are headed – to Rohan’s smokehouse.
We eat the trout for dinner two ways: in a rich pasta sauce with a sprinkling of Parmigiano, then from the smoker, woody and faintly sweet. There’s a generous serve of grits on the side – locally grown organic potatoes boiled, then fried until crisp – which we enjoy with Rohan’s homemade salsa picante (hot sauce), before heading outside to warm ourselves around the bonfire.
On the Sunday morning, we head to the local reservoir where Rohan dons his waders, heads into the water and shares with us what he’s picked up about ‘stream craft’ – the mysterious lore of fly fishing. Today we are ‘blind casting’ and hoping for the best – stripping the line out and moving it back and forth above our heads (“think 11 o’clock and 2 o’clock”), building up kinetic energy, then landing the fly on the water. “That’s called the presentation,” Rohan explains, “and it’s important to do it as gently as possible. But I’m more interested in the fish on the plate than the lingo, to be honest,” he adds.
We spend most of our time at the reservoir gradually perfecting the art of casting and presenting; no-one actually catches a fish. “That’s the thing about living seasonally, you’re at the mercy of the elements,” says Rohan. “You can’t always eat what you want.”
But no matter – there are rabbit burgers on the go back in the mess hall. Made like most of Rohan’s dishes from a few simple ingredients (yesterday’s rabbit back straps, chorizo, bacon, thyme and smoked pimento), rolled in flour and then fried, they come between two fresh buns, along with Rohan’s green tomato or zucchini relish, and a great, melted hunk of vintage cheddar from the Great Ocean Road Dairy.
As we tuck in, I feel something I don’t often feel for the source of my meat patties: grateful. Rohan nods. “When you source your food yourself, you come to understand its life cycle and develop a relationship with it. When people learn how to dispatch animals, they can feel quite emotional,” he says. “And you know what? We should feel emotional about the food we eat. We should be taking it a hell of a lot more seriously.”
For more information about Rohan’s weekend workshops, visit wholelarderlove.com.au.