A self-sustaining prophecy

Date

John Newton

Country love ... Mickey Robertson is not scared of the dirty work.

Country love ... Mickey Robertson is not scared of the dirty work. Photo: Steven Siewert

For those who dream of making a tree change to a farm in the country with an abundant kitchen garden - but not too far from the comforts of town - here is a source of inspiration or a cautionary tale, depending on your point of view.

The story of Mickey and Larry Robertson's journey at Glenmore House, in the foothills of the Razorback Range near Camden, will either turn you off the idea or spur you on to head for greener pastures.

Australian-born Mickey married Larry, a Scottish businessman, in London where she was studying interior design.

Glenmore House homestead.

Glenmore House homestead. Photo: Steven Siewert

They moved back to Sydney in 1986 and bought a small house in Woollahra, Mickey's home suburb.

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''At some stage we were asked by a English friend to find a property which could be used as a conference centre,'' Mickey says, ''and in the process, Larry looked at this place, which was useless for that purpose.

''Five or six weeks later he rang me and said 'Do you remember that house in Camden I told you about? I went to the auction today and I bought it.' I said, 'What do you mean you bought it? We've still got a mortgage on this house!' That Saturday I went down and saw it for the first time.''

Lavender in the garden.

Lavender in the garden. Photo: Steven Siewert

What she saw was a seriously dilapidated 1840s sandstone house surrounded by a series of farm buildings including ironbark slab stables, a disused dairy, hayshed and barn - all in bad repair on 11 hectares of neglected land. That was 25 years ago. It's just about finished now. ''Like a lot of people, the dream was to move to the country one day,'' Mickey says. ''I thought it would be a lovely thing to do at the age we're at now - but not just after we got married. I was going to push my baby up and down Queen Street and I found myself down here with one gas ring and a cold water tap. The whole thing was an absolute nightmare - but at the same time huge fun.''

The Robertsons moved into the old house with a makeshift kitchen in 1989. Their first child, Clementine, was born in 1990. They restored the barn so Mickey had an interior decorating showroom; at the same time she began to read about gardening. They moved back to Sydney for two years in 1993 but continued work on the house, renovating the stables and putting in a pool. They moved back in 1994, second child, Bonnie, was born in 1996 and by 1997 the kitchen was finished. The big question was - what to do there?

''People kept asking us could they get married here, so at first we did weddings,'' Mickey says. But having created an extensive ornamental garden, she decided she really wanted a kitchen garden.

Sorrel soup.

Sorrel soup. Photo: Steven Siewert

''The whole point of living here was the romantic notion of picking your own fruit and vegetables,'' she says. ''I found [landscape architect] Steve Batley who comes from a permaculture background and he suggested a crop rotation garden on one side and a permaculture on the other.'' Mickey started kitchen garden classes in 2009, taught by horticulturist Linda Ross, while she prepared food from the plot for the students' lunch.

''I'm not a trained cook,'' she says, ''but people kept on saying 'we love what you cook, why don't you do kitchen garden cooking classes?' So I ran the first one in autumn last year. And everyone said 'when's the next one?'''

''In the classes I really only use the things I grow, very little meat at all - we might use a bit of prosciutto. We might do a risotto and always a green salad. We don't do classes in January or February because it's too hot - then we get revved up towards the end of March when I'll be introducing capsicum, aubergines and tomatoes.''

Pamboli (Mallorcan tomato toast).

Pamboli (Mallorcan tomato toast). Photo: Steven Siewert

For Good Living, Mickey picked sorrel for soup and purple Russian tomatoes to make pamboli, Mallorcan bread and tomato toast, with bread she made that morning. ''Larry's parents lived on Mallorca, that's why I've planted the almonds and olives,'' she says.

On tasting her food, it's easy to see why her cooking is popular. ''It's taken me several years to get to grips with seasonal cooking. But now I don't buy anything more,'' she says.

Meat may soon be on the menu. Mickey is trying to work out where she can have the Red Angus cattle they raise slaughtered and incorporate them into the cooking classes. As we look out over the kitchen and ornamental gardens, with massed plantings of heirloom roses, lavender and rosemary, studded with old and newer trees, Mickey says, ''my parents were Anglophiles and this thing about golden hills and country gardens was instilled at quite a young age.

''I grew up watching The Good Life [the English television series about a suburban couple living self-sufficiently] and now our youngest daughter watches it and thinks it's a hoot,'' she says.

See glenmorehouse.com.au.

Sorrel soup

Adapted from Sarah Raven's Garden Cookbook, this is an ideal first soup for autumn. I find it's best made in advance, as this allows you to use my tactic to keep its fresh green colour.

250g sorrel

25g unsalted butter

1 tbsp olive oil

3 spring onions, finely chopped

2 leeks, finely chopped

300g potatoes, peeled and chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 litre vegetable stock (home-made is best)

150ml pouring cream

Collect sorrel, remove stems and ribs and wash a couple of times in a big basin of cold water to remove any grit. Spin and lay out on a tea towel to dry. Warm butter and olive oil in a large saucepan and sweat shallots and leeks until translucent (don't allow them to brown). Add potatoes, a little salt and pepper, toss to coat, then stir in the stock and simmer, covered, for about 25 minutes. Take off the heat and leave to cool, then puree. Take dry sorrel leaves, cut into strips, then whizz in a blender until smooth. Once soup base is cool, add whizzed sorrel, cream and check seasoning. Leaving the soup base to cool prevents the sorrel from turning to a rather unattractive shade of olive green. Whizz all the ingredients together and warm soup through to serve, without boiling. Thin with stock if necessary. This method seems to work well, as the sorrel doesn't really need to be cooked: warming to serve does the trick without causing discolouration, and I think it tastes more tangy.

Serves 6

Pamboli (Mallorcan tomato toast)

An alternative to bruschetta, this is simply scrumptious - especially surrounded by a host of late-summer/autumn veg such as aubergine, capsicum and zucchini. Add some chevre, a few olives, or just eat on its own.

1 rustic bread loaf, cut thickly, one slice per person.

1 clove of garlic, peeled and cut lengthwise per slice of bread

1 very juicy tomato per slice of bread (I like to use Purple Russian)

Toast bread lightly. Pour a generous dollop of olive oil over each slice. Rub oil into toast well, using cut side of garlic cloves. Cut tomato in half (at its mid-point, not lengthwise), then squash and rub over the slice of toast, discarding the skin once you've squished all the middle out.

Recipes from Mickey Robertson