It's been raining for the last couple of weeks along the East Coast of Australia, but it isn't all good news. New South Wales is enduring land-churning floods. Dams that supply Sydney are at a three-year high of 49.6% capacity, which New South Wales Premier Morris Iemma estimates will add seven and a half months to the supply of drinking water. Which doesn't mean that we have more water to grow food. The headline on an Australian Associated Press report yesterday was "Murray-Darling irrigators get grim news."
Prime Minister John Howard said in April that there would no water allocations for irrigators from July 1 onward unless heavy rains fell. The dire water situation in Australia's food bowl has changed little since April despite recent rains. Federal and state governments have all but confirmed that Murray-Darling Basin farmers will get no water for irrigation starting next month. Under that scenario, water can only be used for the consumption of people and livestock.
This is grim for all of us. The Murray-Darling region supplies somewhere around 40% of Australia's food.
"Behind the clutter," photograph of Justin North (center) at Becasse by Xiaohan Shen.
The New York Times has turned to Australian chef Justin North to write a story on the effects of climate change and the drought on food production in Australia and what that means for chefs and restaurants. North's restaurant Becasse, the Sydney Morning Herald's Good Food Guide restaurant of the year for 2007, is at the pinnacle of the rarefied French culinary tradition in Australia and a very urban success story. He was tagged as a "chef to watch" by Food & Wine Magazine in May, which mentioned Becasse's crystal chandeliers that hover above the diners like a group halo. Georgia, his wife and restaurant manager, has won awards as a sommelier and drawn praise for the quality of service that she provides.
So what does it mean when North says of his success, "It's all about the produce"?
North's May 2006 cookbook, Becasse: Inspirations and Flavours, is broken down into the building blocks of his cuisine: lamb, beef, seafood, game birds, and the foodstuffs derived from spoilage and bacterial infection that have been raised to art forms — truffles, mushrooms, cheeses. Each section is built around a study of a farmer or purveyor who supplies his restaurant and their agricultural practices, which he aligns with the refinement and precision of his own skills as a chef. On his days off North traveled around Australia to meet these people. (There's a longer study of the book on my site, Soul Food, as well as links to the sites of the farmers and purveyors he profiles.)
He has written another cookbook, is now opening a new restaurant and has an eight-month-old daughter, but he still travels when he can. In an e-mail yesterday, he told me that he'd just visited a farm that breeds rare black pigs. "They are an endangered species with only about 40 sows left in Australia and about 400 world wide, they have a wonderful life, completely free range, amazing flavour."
In his book The Future Eaters, environmental scientist Tim Flannery writes that the European system of pastoral agriculture and the introduction of grazing animals, predominantly sheep and cattle, have caused much of Australia's environmental degradation. The land would be best served, he suggests, by returning it to native grasses and for us to use native animals adapted to those grasses — kangaroos and emus among them — for our meat supply. Yet it's the inheritors of the European traditions, chefs such as Justin North and the purveyors and farmers who supply him, who are paradoxically among the strongest stewards of the land, and some are working with government research facilities and universities to better understand and protect the land and all of its species.
The Sydney Morning Herald recently asked Justin to cook an entirely organic lunch for Tim Flannery and 82-year-old cookery writer Margaret Fulton, who is a staunch environmentalist and has taught generations of Australians a respect for fine food. I asked North if he'd discussed agricultural traditions with Flannery.
"Not really, as the focus was more on Tim and Margaret, and me in the kitchen so it was difficult to get the opportunity to talk in much detail," he replied. "But what we did discuss was that we all need to embrace change, from farmers, growers, and suppliers, in order to protect our land. The small percentage of passionate growers who do let go of antiquated farming practices are leading the way, which I hope the book highlights, but I think it is the big players, the mass producers that are ruining our land. Their margins and profit seem to outweigh their respect for our land."
The pace of change is happening so fast in Australia that it seems as if overnight we've gone from just becoming aware of organic food in a widespread way, to facing the loss of organic food, to contamination of all our food by genetically modified food.
"When I opened the first Becasse in Surry Hills it was all about trying to get good produce at a reasonable price. Where it came from didn't really matter," North told the Sydney Morning Herald. "But you wake up over time, and I realised that I have a responsibility to do my part. I still want to be cooking in 10 years' time, and with really good produce. But if I go about things in a haphazard way and don't care for the environment with my purchases, there will be produce that I won't be able to get. As you mature as a chef these things become more important to your own philosophy and in a commercial sense as well. People are putting more demands on us: they do want organic and sustainable produce."
The photographs in the Becasse book, of the farms, produce, and the animals, and of the dishes Justin North has cooked, are beautiful in a way that has a nearly unworldly perfection. This beauty has a symbolic function. It makes us aware of exactly what’s at stake to be lost should we lack respect for our food and how it’s produced.
I asked how he is thinking about genetically modified foods and where he turns to for his information. "I don't have a great deal of knowledge in this area, therefore it is difficult for me to form an educated opinion based on anything in particular," he answered. "But it's started me thinking. More and more fine dining restaurants are opening, and the higher awareness and demand on quality produce by chefs, coupled with the lack of understanding of clever sustainable purchasing and the thought processes behind it, leaves me thinking sooner or later something has to give, if there are no wild fish left for us to eat, and beautiful pastures for cattle to graze, then is this where we will see an increase in genetically modified foods to cope with their surroundings?"
He finishes: "This is a subject I feel I should have a better understanding of."