While those first few weeks of the Coronavirus pandemic in Australia seem a distant memory now, they were largely defined by one thing: panic buying. As a nation we flocked to the shops to bulk purchase household staples, meal planning for a fortnight or more, before supermarkets were forced to implement purchase limits on certain items...
For those of us who regularly duck to the shops every second day (guilty as charged), this kind of forethought was foreign. But for Australians living rurally, it’s a way of life – ironically, one that was effectively blocked by the buying limits that meant they often were unable to access their regular weekly or fortnightly shop.
Author of The Cedar Tree, Nicole Alexander, knows what life is like on both sides of the fence. Following a career in finance and fashion, she decided to make the move back to agriculture and rural life. She’s now settled in Moree, where she rarely shops more than once a week. Take away is a rarity, and food wastage is an absolute no-no. We asked Nicole what we could all learn from cooking and shopping the ‘bush way’…
Nicole Alexander is the author of The Cedar Tree published by Penguin Random House on 3 March 2020, RRP $32.99
You worked in both finance and fashion before returning to agriculture. What's the biggest difference in the way you eat when living rurally?
Firstly, you’re preparing and eating all your meals at home. There is no takeaway. When I was living on our property it was a 220 kilometre round trip to the town of Moree (North West NSW) to get supplies. With no corner shop available, a meal menu and accompanying list was vital. During work-intensive periods on-farm, sometimes it was a good ten days before a shopping trip was possible. Now that I’m living in Moree I still keep a list and rarely shop for food more than once a week. It’s out of habit I guess, but once the fridge is filled it’s one less chore to worry about. As for take-away, I’m still not a great fan.
What would you say the 'bush way' of cooking is? How would you describe it?
For us, it’s about healthy but also filling meals. We eat protein with lots of salads and/or vegetables. It’s not all cakes and scones as some cookbooks would have us believe, although I’m partial to homemade choc-chip butter biscuits with my morning cup of tea.
What are your go-to weeknight recipes?
Our diet is varied, but at least a couple of days a week we’ll have something cooked in the oven – fish, chicken pieces or a cut of lamb or beef with salad or roasted vegetables (if you can manage one baking dish, compartmentalised with baking paper so the juices don’t turn the veggies soggy, it’s a saving on washing-up as well!). A weekly savoury omelette, Asian style bowls and zucchini pasta with homemade sauce are also favourites.
Shopping the 'bush way' must involve more planning and bulk purchasing - tell us about that?
There’s that list and meal planning I’ve already mentioned, but storage is also a major component. When you purchase meat at the supermarket you should remove from packets (the packaging isn’t air tight) and store in plastic wrap to prevent freezer burn. Check the expiry dates when you shop, and try and store your purchases in both the fridge, freezer and pantry so that the first to expire items are always at the front.
What are the staples you always have in your pantry or fridge?
Carrots, pumpkin, cauliflower, onions, celery, beans and zucchinis. Extra frozen veggies for soups and casseroles. Lamb, fish, chicken and chorizo sausage, and vegetable stock. I love herbs, and make good use of my herb garden every day. It’s a super easy way to add zing to a meal.
Have your shopping and cooking habits changed much during lockdown?
Not really, although I’m trying my hand at the odd new recipe on weekends!
Food waste is a big issue in cities - do you think it's a problem rurally as well?
As a producer, I’m conscious of the fact that Australians are very fortunate to have the majority of their foods home-grown. I see food as a valuable resource that should never be wasted. Most people on properties feel the same way. What we can’t grow we have to buy like everyone else, and food is expensive, although for some there are probably more options available if you’re on a rural holding or have a garden, such as composting or feeding chickens. Over-generous servings, picky eaters and our throw-away society leads to wastage everywhere. If I really can’t use left-overs as a base for another meal, a snack, or for a stock, then I’ll revisit what I’m cooking and the food portions I’m serving.
What meals do you remember most vividly from your childhood? Have you kept any in your repertoire?
That weekend roast lamb will always be a favourite. The leftovers are brilliant for lunch or you can add some curry powder, rosella chutney, onion and carrot to the meat and cook up a simple curry. Serve with rice.
What do you think urban families could learn from shopping and cooking the bush way?
Meal planning and making lists makes us think more about the foods we eat, and how we prepare them. A little extra time spent on your weekly menu means less time shopping, keeping to budget, and less wastage.
As a writer, what's your ultimate 'brain food'?