When people hear about Australia’s Barossa Valley, they may not necessarily think about Napa in the early 1970s. In fact, they may not think of anything at all. Situated an hour north of Adelaide in South Australia, the Barossa feels like a time machine back to the beginning of America’s wine boom, with sleepy small towns, friendly people, and over 150 wineries producing world-class shiraz (that’s syrah to you Frenchies) and everything else along the oenological spectrum.
The similarities to Northern California don’t stop with the wine, though. There’s an emphasis in the Barossa on using local, seasonal ingredients to create incredible fresh food to pair with the region’s finest vintages, and there’s no place where that’s more prevalent than Appellation at super luxury retreat The Louise in Marananga. Appellation is the French Laundry of the Barossa. They’re focused on serving simple, elegant dishes with the best products the area has to offer and they do absolutely everything they can in-house, from growing their own produce to curing an impressive array of pork products in their wine cellar.
Executive chef Mark McNamara is at the helm of the award-winning restaurant. He’s an affable British transplant who geeks out when talking about the difference between his globe artichokes and his Jerusalem artichokes. That makes him the perfect person to talk to about the growing farm-to-table movement in the Barossa Valley.
What’s your background as a chef?
I trained in South Australia. I came here as a teenager from the U.K., then did four years as an apprentice before moving back to the U.K. But I missed so many things about Australia – the big open skies, the fresh food, the attitude of Australians – which is quite irreverent. There’s no kind of pretentiousness with Australians, so I came back about a year later.
Do you have a particular food philosophy that you follow?
I think the garden is kind of the starting point. When we very first came here, I produced a document that said these are the things I want to do: I want an organic garden, the food should be wine-centric, it should all be local produce, I want to bake our own bread, I want to do our own butchery, and, as it’s come to pass seven years later, everything that was on this list is there.
Is that what it’s all about for you? Doing everything yourself?
In many ways, it really is about old skills. It’s about maintaining traditions.
Does your garden dictate what you’re able to serve in your restaurant?
The garden is very important. It’s the barometer for us. If it’s not growing in our garden, it’s not growing in the Barossa. We are very much a Mediterranean climate in terms of our food, so it’s olives and stone fruit and almonds and it’s grains, wheat, legumes. Our whole philosophy is informed by what we’re seeing here in the garden.
Are the growing seasons fairly consistent in the Barossa?
It’s been a really weird season. For the last year, it’s been totally unpredictable as to when anything’s going to grow and how. So we went from having 7, 8, 10 years of droughts to this time last year, we were having floods. Since then, the seasons have been helter-skelter. We had asparagus growing in the middle of winter [June in Australia]. Asparagus doesn’t usually poke its head out until September!
Do other restaurants in the area share your emphasis on farm-to-table?
Most people have got a little herb garden and that’s certainly how we started. When I first came here, the first thing I did was put an herb garden in and then I kept hitting Jim up every time we sat down for a glass of wine, saying “When’s my real garden going to come?”
Are there any local crops that you grow that you really like working with?
For a long time, I used to fight with my chefs. I didn’t like rhubarb. Rhubarb and wine for me are really bad bedfellows. They just don’t go together. However, we started using rhubarb in a savory way and the acidity there works in a totally different way than it does with sugar.
What kinds of things are you doing with rhubarb in a savory way?
We’re using it with fresh pork. We’ll use rhubarb instead of applesauce. Or we’ll make a granita with rhubarb as a sorbet.
What’s the coolest thing you’re doing out here in the garden?
That little experiment behind you there is a little trellis of hops. So we’ll be brewing. I’ve got a whole team of chefs in the kitchen who are fascinated with the origins of things: how to brew, how to make wine, how to pickle, how to preserve. It’s the things that people used to do that supermarket culture has taken away from us.