Confession: this story took me a long, long time to pull together.
Not because it was particularly difficult – in fact, Sophie’s words and images spoke so beautifully for themselves. But rather – because reading through her interview required one too many trips to the kitchen. As a food blogger, farmer, mother and immensely passionate foodie, Sophie speaks about food in a way that inspires a deep love of meal time, and an unfortunate corresponding hunger level.
As the brains behind Local is Lovely, Sophie is a freelance food writer, home cook and photographer living on a farm just west of Orange in NSW. As the mother to two children, she focuses on celebrating farmers, delicious recipes, and sharing stories from kitchens, farms and markets across the country.
Sophie has also recently released a new book, A Basket By The Door, offering recipes for comforting gifts and joyful gatherings. (In other words, the perfect solution for anyone wondering what to bring a new mother.) We spoke to Sophie about her food philosophy, how to embrace slow food in a fast world, and her idyllic life on the farm.
Get ready to be hungry …
Tell us a bit about yourself and Local is Lovely.
I am a food writer, blogger and farmer based on our family’s deer farm just out of Orange NSW.
I was born and raised in Sydney, but for the past 14 years have lived here in the central west of NSW with my husband Tim and our kids, Alice (11) and Tom (9).
I studied print journalism at the University of Canberra then travelled and worked throughout my twenties as a features writer and editor, also spending three years with Slow Food Editore in northern Italy (which was pretty much my dream job!).
I also teach social media and content marketing to producers and small businesses via My Open Kitchen (podcast, e-course and workshops). And was awarded Australian Rural Woman of the Year (2016).
What sparked your interest in fresh, seasonal food?
I have always had a love of good food, and this definitely started at home. Mum is a fabulous cook, so was her mother and my paternal grandmother. Mealtimes in our family were always taken seriously, effort was always put into every meal and I will always be grateful that the women in my family set that standard! My two brothers, sister and I all now as much as we can for our families and food is a bit part of any gathering!
Mum is an artist and mostly worked from home so we were really lucky to often come home from school to find her there, usually with something freshly baked for afternoon tea. I vividly remember pushing the back gate open and smelling something like the golden syrup biscuits (Recipe below – maybe?) or a butter cake ready for afternoon tea. It was such a special treat and for me, kind of like love made edible. I know it’s unrealistic to expect us working parents to do that every day now, but I also work from home and when I can, I try and make afternoon tea a special time with some kind of special treat.
But anyway, so yes, I grew up in a family where good, homemade food and set meal times were all a big part of life.
But because I went to boarding school then college, I didn’t actually start cooking (properly) for myself until I was 20 and moved into my first share house. Mum gave me a copy of Jamie Oliver’s first book the Naked Chef and truly that’s what gave me the confidence to really get stuck into my cooking, all his food just looked so tasty and do-able. Thanks Jamie!
Then, as mentioned above, I spent some time working for Slow Food in Italy. This multi-national organisation is dedicated to preserving and celebrating good, clean and fair food and my three years there were like a dream. I wrote articles for the website and then magazine about tiny cheese makers in the Italian alps, about Australian bush foods, about food politics around the world and lots more in between! But perhaps the part of that experience that had the most impact on me was the time I spent in the kitchens of my friends and their families. Those meals which were just so incredibly simple but tasty; a plain tomato salad with a little mozzarella and olive oil was taken as seriously as a dish from a three-hatted chef. A fresh apricot sprinkled with sugar, dotted with butter then roasted and served with thick cream for dessert on a warm summer evening. A homemade pasta with sage butter in winter, the smell of which takes me right back into those tiny, warm and friendly kitchens. All of these meals, so delicious, so practised and comfortable in their simplicity, really made me realise that as long as your ingredients are tasty, you don’t need to fuss to put good food on the table.
Can you explain the slow food movement to us?
Slow Food was founded in 1986 by Carlo Petrini. He came from a town called Bra in Piedmont, Northern Italy but was living in Rome at the time. Petrini and his friends were all so dismayed to see that a McDonald’s outlet was opening at the foot of the Spanish steps that in protest they enlisted a bunch of cooks to help them make and give away traditional Roman dishes at the doors of McDonald’s. This protest was the beginning of the Slow Food movement which is now based back in Bra and plays a significant role in international food politics and discussions. There’s the Slow Food University (yes, such a thing exists!), major events in celebration of biodiversity, farmers and farming, and food education programs for schools around the world.
How can we embrace slow food in our own families and busy lives?
One of the philosophoies of the Slow Food movement that I love most, is the importance of conviviality – the idea that bringing people around a table over food that has been sourced and cooked with consideration and care is an important act. Because the more enjoyable it is, the more people will do it. The more people will celebrate and sustain their food cultures.
I think we can embrace these philosophies in our day to day lives by taking a bit of time to source that really good, locally grown tomato, some nice fresh olive oil and fresh cheese, taking a moment to set the table, maybe throw some flowers in a jar and just sit and enjoy the food and conversation and sense of connection and being a part of something quietly important.
I worry that people feel like cooking is a competition these days, that every meal has to be Instagram-able and look like it could win a reality cooking show! When really, people just want nice tasty food and a calm, happy environment in which to enjoy it.
A plate of pesto pasta and a green salad for a dinner party is fine! Some barbecued chops with a potato gratin and rocket is a delicious dinner. I’m not saying don’t make an effort with the food, just think more about where it comes from and stress less about the cooking process so you can enjoy it more.
Tell us a little bit about A Basket by the Door.
In the book’s introduction I tell the story of how, on coming home from hospital with our first child Alice, there was literally a basket by the door waiting for us. It contained slow-cooked lamb
shanks, a bottle of wine and jar of biscuits and it completely blew me away. Such consideration, such a lovely and very useful gesture!
And since then, I’ve tried to do the same as much as possible. Because I really believe that nothing says ‘I’m thinking of you, I’m here if you need me and I care about your wellbeing’ more than a basket or esky or just a jar of something you have taken the time to make for someone.
What are some of the most memorable baskets you’ve left at a door, and or what occasion?
My most favourite things to make for anyone, but mostly new Mums, is the chicken pie. It is a labour of love (fitting I think!) but just so comforting, delicious and there’s something about that golden crust and creamy, gentle interior of poached chicken and vegetables blanketed in white sauce. And I always recommend when making this to double or triple the recipe so you have one pie to give away, one for the freezer and maybe one for dinner that week.
I also love to make and give batches of the muesli bars to friends who might be needing to fill a gap but are too tired, hungry or sad to cook anything for themselves. These bars are full of protein and kept me going when I was breastfeeding and hungry all the time!
But perhaps the thing I like to give most is a jar of homemade jam, a log of cultured butter and loaf of bread. I think it’s such a simple but delicious and thoughtful gift.
New mothers are so often completely depleted. What are some of your favourite gifts to drop by?
As mentioned above, the muesli bars are a great gift for new mums. I also think soup is a good option because it’s so easy to re-heat and eat. The chicken harira soup in the book is a favourite, full of gentle spices, chickpeas and chicken, it’s substantial enough to feed the whole family. There’s also a lovely, grounding Dahl in the book, I think a container of this with a little posy of fresh flowers or herbs (or both!) and some fresh fruit would be a gorgeous basket to leave at a new Mum’s door.
I also think a couple of freshly made smoothies can be helpful, especially when they are loaded with nuts and greens. Things that you may not think to shop for or chop and eat when in that fog of exhaustion in the first few days being home with your baby.
Food plays such an important role in being able to say “I love you” to those around us. How do you showcase this in your own family?
I don’t always succeed, I get carried away with busy-ness like everyone. But I do try, as much as possible, to be a bit thoughtful in how and what I cook. My son Tom absolutely adores a plain chocolate cake (hence the recipe for Tom’s Chocolate Cake) in the book. When I make that, he knows I did so because he loves it.
Alice’s favourite thing ever is lasagna, and so I make it on the night she comes home from school camp, exhausted and needing down time and nourishment. I think by making a fuss of people through food is a pretty nice thing to do. To remember people’s favourite foods and dishes and to make them especially for them. My family in particular would far prefer their favourite dishes every birthday rather than me experimenting at every meal with fancy fiddly foods. I think having certain things you make for certain people on certain days is a really lovely ritual and family tradition.
And I really want the kids to know that you don’t need to spend lots of money on expensive presents to make people feel valued and special. A ‘love bomb’ drop of say a tray of figs and some honey labne can do the job for much less money and much more impact.
How do you get your children involved in the preparing and giving of food?
Alice loves wrapping and decorating cars and preserve labels! Tom isn’t all that helpful (yet!) in the kitchen but he is learning and of course loves getting involved whenever we bake anything (mostly so he can lick the bowl!). I hope they see that we make an effort to put together care packages for people, and what that means both for them and us.
In 2016, you were named Australian Rural Woman of the Year. Is this your proudest achievement?
Winning that award was of course super exciting and I was proud to be there representing women in rural and regional Australia and the contribution they make to our communities. But I think, or hope, my proudest achievement is a joint one; the family and family business Tim and I are growing here on the farm.
What do you love most about where you live?
The space! The fact that our kids can play an active role in our livelihood and, except for right now when it’s so very dry and dusty – the beautiful countryside!
How can those living in cities better support farmers?
I think by getting in the car and travelling to country towns and regional areas, supporting local businesses and getting out and visiting farms (when possible) and farmers markets. This is a double win I think because small town businesses get some extra business but also because perhaps the city visitors go away with a better understanding of what life is like, especially in a drought, and how hard people in the country are working to stay afloat and keep producing all the beautiful food they do!