Pinch me. I must be dreaming. Here, in the heart of regional NSW, the land of kelpies and white Toyota utes, I find myself in a scene similar to one I once stumbled upon (literally) down a midnight alley in Rome – family, friends, eating, drinking, dancing, laughing, under strings of festoon lights.I’m in Canowindra for the annual 100 Mile Dinner – a highlight of the very popular Orange F.O.O.D Week festival held every April. Long communal tables are set for 340 guests, running the length of Canowindra’s historic crooked main street. Diners are bussed in 56 kilometres from Orange for this event, and tickets sell out on day one. Brightly coloured lanterns zigzag over head against a starry autumn night sky. The scene is quite delightful.
This year, F.O.O.D (Food of the Orange District) is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Over the past two decades it has become one of Australia’s most successful and authentic regional food events, never losing sight of its core philosophy to promote and support regional produce and producers, and in so doing, support the local economy and regional tourism. Considering the International Slow Food movement was founded only three years earlier in 1989, Orange’s F.O.O.D group could justifiably be described as a pioneer of the modern regional food movement in Australia.
The degustation100 Mile dinner represents the very best Central NSW produce prepared by the best Central NSW chefs and cooks. It takes its name from an experiment in local eating which turned into a best selling book called “The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating” by Canadians Alisa Smith and JB Mackinnon, published in 2005.
One hundred miles is roughly 160 kilometres – but the “160km Dinner” just doesn’t have the same ring. The 100 Mile Diet’s motto is “Local Eating for Global Change” – it’s all about food miles, carbon footprints, how far food travels from paddock to plate and supporting local farmers.
Edwena Mitchell is a member of the F.O.O.D Executive Committee and the co-ordinator of the 100 Mile Dinner in Canowindra. She is also a cook and caterer of formidable reputation. A typical no-nonsense country woman, Edwena runs her own successful catering business, is on every committee under the sun, works the family farm and shuttles children from one sporting event to the next. I asked Edwena if the 100 Mile concept – eating seasonally and regionally and supporting local economies – could ultimately save the world?
“Not all at once!” she laughs. “But it is the trickle down effect – you have to start somewhere!”
At face value the 100 Mile dinner is an excellent tourism and promotional event for regional food and wine. But beneath the fun and frivolity lies a serious and worthy cause. Edwina says it’s all about sustainability and conservation .
“Many farmers and producers would laugh at being called conservationists, but in reality we all are,” she says. “Around our area, after eight years of drought, conserving moisture and pasture and still managing to produce was the only way to scrape an income. And then there are “food miles” to consider. Why are we importing apples and other vegetables from China when we produce our own?”
But for one night at least, economic and political pressures are swept to one side as people enjoy all that is good and delicious about fresh, seasonal, local food.
Braised duck with kipfler potatoes and beetroot relish from Lindl Taylor and Josie Chapman in Orange is simply mouth-watering.I want to go back for seconds, but there are other things to try. Bathurst lays on a fantastic slow braised venison osso bucco with baby carrots, Tuscan kale, Dutch cream potatoes and gremolata. Canowindra cooks bring it home with an incredible dessert of organic honey panna cotta with poached organic figs and hazelnut bread. What makes the menu special, is that almost all of the produce has been sourced from within the region. Think of Orange as ground zero and the region radiating out over 160 kilometres. The pork came from Trunkey Creek Pork near Blayney, the duck from Dutton Park Ducks in Young, and the goat from Meadows Prime Chevon in Lyndhurst. Fruit, vegetables, cheeses, nuts, honey, oil, bread and wines are all sourced locally too.
Close to midnight, a conga-line appears out of nowhere and I am swept away.A middle aged man, who looks like he should know better, grabs me by the waist and laughs “Let’s Conga!” Not usually a team player, I surprise myself and join in the festivities. A group of local musicians are playing on the sidewalk in front of the old bank building. It’s cold, but no-one seems to notice. There is a real atmosphere of carnivale.
Then, as quickly as it began, it’s over. Like a flash mob, one minute people of all shapes and sizes are dancing and laughing in the street, the next they have picked up their belongings, boarded a bus and are gone.
By midnight the hard working committee and local volunteers are stacking tables and sweeping the street. Like Cinderella, Canowindra has turned back into its normal, reliable, unadorned yet lovely self. The ball is over. By 8am the following morning it’s business as usual. A young bloke in a big hat parks his hotted-up ute and races in to the bakery for a pie, the local publican receives kegs from the daily beer truck, and the shop owners of Canowindra open their doors for another day.
If you want a seat at next year's 100 Mile Dinner (April 16th 2012), be ready to purchase tickets in February 2012 at www.orangefoodweek.com.au