Running a small food business in a tiny country town has largely been the orbit of cafes and pubs in Australia’s past.
In Europe, there’s a long history and a growing demand for small, often 20 to 50-seat, restaurants opening in obscure or remote regions, making a name for themselves by providing a breadth and quality of cuisine to travelling diners, often focusing on local produce and traditional cooking, sometimes modernised.
Names like Le Tracteur in Uzes, France; Asador Etxebarri in Atxondo in the Basque region of Spain and Henne Kirkeby Kro in Denmark have been made famous by the excellence of the food they produce. Many were brought to the attention of the world’s food fans by the late writer Anthony Bourdain in his television series No Reservations and Parts Unknown.
In Talbot, a central Victorian town of just 300 people, a local establishment has been winning acclaim and awards for its no-nonsense, economical and ecumenical approach to food since it opened for business just two years ago.
The Talbot Provedore and Eatery doesn’t describe itself as a restaurant, a cafe or a brasserie or any of the names usually associated with food outlets. It’s simply an ‘eatery’; somewhere to enjoy food without rules.
“We offer two different types of service,” says co-founder Christopher Howe.
“Our food service during the day is more of an upmarket cafe; however our dinner service on Saturday evenings is more of a casual dining experience. Hence we call ourselves an eatery. We don't don't want to be defined as a cafe or as a restaurant; we try to change and offer different food styles and different cuisine styles at different times, and the seasonal dinner every three months is and is another example of that approach.”
The distinctive approach of the Talbot Provedore has been its insistence on the sourcing and use of local produce. All the meats, vegetables, herbs, even the wines are sought and found within 100km of the eatery’s kitchen, which was Christopher’s domain as well as sharing front of house until the appointment of head chef Suthat Sathittanakin 18 months ago.
Howe says the local approach is their ‘heart on the sleeve’ philosophy. The cost and logistics of using local producers is a significant impost on Howe and his partner and co-founder Jayne Newgreen’s time. Howe says it would be easy to contact a city food provider and have everything they need delivered, giving up any control over the provenance of their supplies.
Instead, he says, Talbot Provedore might have 80 different suppliers each week.
“Each one of those is a separate phone call or a text, and an invoice,” Howe says.
“And each of those is a risk. What happens if they don’t deliver? So the management side is a challenge, but I think we have that down.”
It’s all the more extraordinary to be able to deliver local produce of such quality, given the central goldfields’ soils are not renowned for their fertility. Indeed much of the region’s soil has been extensively degraded by deforestation and the gold mining that spread so quickly from the mid-1850s.
Howe and Newgreen have been assiduous in helping support a growing number of businesses around their eatery by providing and outlet for their products. They buy whole carcases of lamb and pork from the nearby Glen Greenock Farm (Suffolk lamb farmed using ethical and bio-organic processes) and Mt Beckworth Free Range (pork, goat, venison, duck, geese and eggs). These are broken down into cuts in house.
The vegetables come from Block 454 in Evansford and a supplier in Clunes. And then there are the ‘really’ local suppliers – the residents of Talbot who have surplus fruit and vegetables from their home blocks and orchards, supplies from the community-maintained garden next to the Provedore (think apples, pears, grapes, olives) and local foragers who bring in seasonal produce gleaned from the countryside. It maybe bunyah nuts from an abandoned farmhouse garden, nettles or thistles for a salad, yabbies from a nearby dam.
“The whole philosophy behind having seasonal menus is that our menu changes every week,” says Christopher Howe.
“It can be nimble and it can react. We still get people knocking on the back door, dropping a box full of lemons and running away. The drawcard is that taste of the region, it's about showing the terroir of our region, showcasing what’s out there; because most people, even locals but certainly tourists, travelling through wouldn't recognise just how much produce is grown in this area.
“They drive through it and see it as sheep grazing and cropping country. There are people out there doing amazing things who don't stand up and wave their flag. We see it as our role to represent them and showcase them and and illustrate to diners and to locals what's actually available in the area, so they can go and support them rather than supporting one of the big supermarkets.”
Head chef at the Provedore Suthat has a background in fine dining in Western Australia. He says he embraces the challenges in using a relentlessly changing palette of ingredients; that it forces him to focus on the flavours at hand and not his own (admittedly great) skill.
“The limiting factor of having just what's around is good, because you can focus on the ingredients rather than having all these things available, but having nothing of that level in terms of quality,” he says.
“When a product is local it's extremely fresh; it's not sitting in a warehouse for a week before it goes to a supplier and comes to us. You do justice to it by not over-complicating it.”
In the end, says Christopher Howe, it’s about giving people good value while taking them on a journey and challenging them a little.
“We just want to make this place a destination, somewhere people want to come to,” he says.
Talbot Provedore and Eatery has a seasonal dinner this Saturday in Talbot. Tickets available by calling 5463 2008; online http://talbotprovedore.com.au
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