‘Biodynamic’… let’s face it; most people think that’s synonymous with ‘overpriced hyped-up organic’. But as Sustainable Table’s Event Coordinator Riki Edelsten learned at a recent dinner, biodynamics is an age-old agricultural method that aims to create a harmonious closed loop between the land, plants, animals and humans. And to “better the world and transcend where we are”. Riki explains:
The Wild Weeds and Wine dinner, hosted by The Windsor Hotel’s Wallis & Ed, was part of this year’s ‘earth’ themed Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. Chefs Dusty Treweek of Wallis & Ed and Joel Alderson teamed up with biodynamic wine producers Anton Von Klopper of Lucy Margaux and Tom Shobbrook, winner of the 2010 Wine Australia Talent, to create a five-course dinner matched with wine and cider.
Joel Alderson traveled from the wineries in the Adelaide Hills through Victoria’s richest natural pastures visiting biodynamic producers and foraging for edible weeds. All dairy and meat products used were sourced from biodynamic producers. Sustainable produce was also gathered from The Windsor Hotel’s veggie patch located on the roof of Fed Square. The chefs explored to use of ‘earthly vessels and craft’, which involved cooking methods such as curing with a block of salt, baking fish in clay, smoking meat in grapevines and roasting in hay.
My dinner partner texted the next day saying “last night was one of our best nights out ever.” I will raise the bar higher to say the dinner was quite possibly the best I’ve EVER EATEN. Don’t tell mum!
The evening began at the Federation Square Pop-Up Patch. The Pop-up Patch is a community initiative run by The Little Veggie Patch Co. where many top Melbourne restaurants have a little space to grow their own. We were greeted by a suited host and drank cocktails and canapés next to a wall garden. Chef Dusty served caramelised grapes coated in seeds and fennel, and fried artichoke chips that you grabbed with a piece of free range McIvor farm prosciutto and dipped into heavenly aioli.
Upon arrival at the restaurant, we were introduced to the two zany biodynamic wine makers from the Adelaide Hills, Anton Von Klopper and Tom Shobbrook. These guys were a definite highlight of the evening. As Anton poured wine into the ceramic cups specially made for the evening, we began our conversation about what biodynamics is. Anton came to our table between each of the five courses to answer our questions and explain some of the main threads of the biodynamic teachings. Only a person who is completely committed and passionate about what they do displays the kind of energy and bubbling enthusiasm Anton did.
A short history of biodynamics
The development of biodynamic agriculture began in 1924 in Germany when founder Rudolf Steiner gave a series of lectures in response to requests made by farmers. The farmers had noticed that the health and quality of their soils, crops and livestock had deteriorated from the use of chemical fertilisers and they wanted to know what they could do about it.
Today biodynamics is practiced in more than 50 countries worldwide. Germany, Italy and India are the leading countries in biodynamic agriculture – Germany accounts for 45% of the global total. In Australia, biodynamic agriculture began in 1927.
The difference between Biodynamic and organic
Biodynamic agriculture is an advanced method of organic farming, using manures and composts like in organics but also introducing herbal and mineral compost additives in order to improve soil structure and enhance biological activity and nutrient cycles (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other nutrients) essential for plant growth. Biodynamics emphasises the interrelationships of soil, plants and animals as a self-sustaining system, as well as localised production and distribution. The methodology also employs the use of a lunar calendar to guide planting. To receive Australian biodynamic (Demeter) certification, a farm must display a certain soil structure – alive, rich-in-humus and high-in-biological-activity soil.
Over a hearty glass of biodynamic wine, Anton described the purpose of biodynamics as being “to enable humans to eat food that will facilitate pure and deep thought”. “We eat biodynamic food to fulfil our role as humans and learn how to better the world and transcend where we are”, said Anton. He described the biodynamic farm as a “closed living entity”. Products that make appearances on conventional farms, such as artificial fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides, are quick fixes and not part of the biodynamic closed-loop system. Anton believes it is the “role of the farmer to build soil and renew an aging earth”. By doing this the farmer regenerates the land is able to “eat the excesses of the farm, which in turn becomes younger and younger each year, providing increased fruits to the farmer as time goes by”. Anton went on to say, “in a biodynamic farm, the farmer is greeted by animals in a balanced and closed system that welcomes you. Biodynamic farmers keep it basic and see the beauty in nature. I relax when I work and enjoy it”.
To enable humans to “think and feel deeply”, the biodynamic farmer sprays horn silica onto the earth, which is prepared by grinding quartz (the product of winter)and stuffing it in a cow’s horn which is buried in the earth over the summer months. This silica provides the balance of summer and winter. This is where we started to delve into the more spiritual side of biodynamic farming…
“Eating biodynamic brings purity of the mind and allows us to open the mind to the whole cosmos.” Anton continued the conversation between generous pours of delightful Chenin Blanc, Barrel Fernented Apple Cider, Shiraz, and more.
But if the purpose of biodynamics is to enable us to think more clearly, how does the biodynamic philosophy sit with alcohol consumption?
“Alcohol has no place in biodynamics to be honest. I am not a believer that there is something called biodynamic wine because it doesn’t actually allow you to think deeply. There are grapes grown to biodynamic principles, but not biodynamic wine.” We then asked Anton if he drank himself and he answered, “yes, heavily.”
The evening was full of character, charm and challenges. The menu celebrated the foraged and biodynamic delicacies with dishes including; tempura of coastal seaweeds, wild mushrooms, Mount Zero olive oil and Zeally Bay sourdough, salt water lobster from Robe with aloe vera and lovage, broth of Flinders Island wallaby tail, oyster, smoked eel and sea succulents, McIvor Farm pork with green acorns (cooked in the earth and trod upon… interesting tenderising process?!), Warialda Belted Galloway tendon and shin baked in clay with abalone, aaaaand house-made sheep milk curd, fig, walnut and chocolate clay.
After the meal I had a chance to sit down for a one-on-one with chef Joel Alderson.
Tell me about your one-week gathering journey.
The brief was to visit producers and areas in Victoria that would feature on the menu and to collect wild produce along the journey. I thought it just as important to highlight amazing producers that have a similar philosophical approach to us. I also wanted to give the diners reference, so that they would leave with a greater understanding of the work that precedes the product that they enjoy.
The produce foraged along the journey was quite disappointing, but a story within itself. After such a long, dry summer that most had experienced, seeing the land just outside Melbourne metropolis area was a real eye opener. The landscape was so dry that a lot of what I expecting to collect wilted or didn’t sprout. A large amount of the wild leaves, herbs and produce were collected from around Merri Creek, the beach and a vineyard in the Yarra Valley.
What advice would you give to would-be forages?
I don’t think there’s a problem foraging in the city like some people believe there is because of pollution. I believe we put far worse things into our mouths every day. If we are concerned about pollution affecting our food a possible food source then maybe we should be considering the problem at the actual source.
It is a case of common sense and caution with foraging. I would recommend researching the topic either online or one of the books on the subject actually written for Melbourne. If you’re not sure what it is, don’t eat it!
Check out the Sustainable Table blog post on edible weeds or the Hello Little Weed website.
What advice would you give to people about consuming meat?
Use the whole beast, not just traditional premium cuts. For this dinner we used cuts like pork neck, wallaby tail, eel, beef shin and tendon. If we make the conscious decision to eat all of the animal we not only help by supporting the producers and eventually lowering the prices because the animal is made entirely useable and saleable, but we open ourselves up to far more interesting flavours and textures.
If you had an opportunity to change the food system, what would you do?
I would pass a law that everyone be forced to plant at least a 1 x 1m vegetable garden at home so they too could learn the trials and tribulation of producing your own food. Everybody can find the space for this, whether it’s on their balcony or windowsill. It’s not only sustainable, but emotionally very satisfying.
Tom agreed with Joel:
“Start with yourself. Grow veggies at home, get your neighbour to start growing veggies. One person at time.”