For the last eleven years I have lived in a small house on a windy hilltop in Poowong East, ninety minutes east of Melbourne, surrounded by 113 acres of steep but fertile land. I ended up here by a strange and circuitous route, all because, some 15 years ago now, I asked myself a question that I committed to taking seriously – what would it take to eat the way I really want to eat? Thinking through the answer prompted a whole series of decisions that in hindsight seem nuts, but somehow at the time made perfect sense… such as quitting my well paid job in Sydney, moving interstate (twice) and buying this run down and difficult farm when I had never done a day’s farming in my life.
But now here I am, and I’m very glad that the younger me was crazy enough to do all that. Because now we do eat exactly how we want – from the garden, with the seasons, with no chemicals, by our own hands and hard work, with animals living as they are meant to live. And as far cooking goes, it was the best thing I could ever have done. I have learned what broccoli and asparagus taste like when they have just been picked, that fresh potatoes never need to be peeled, and new season parsnips don’t need to be cored. I’ve learned that hidden away in the need to practice thriftiness and frugality is creativity, and I would go so far as to say joy in cooking, and in eating. And I’ve learned that when you have such beautiful ingredients to work with, the less you do to them the better.
I hope you enjoy these simple but delicious dishes that are all about getting food back to where it seems happiest – on a big platter, in the middle of a shared table, surrounded by people who have come together to celebrate good company, good food well grown, good conversation, and a good laugh.
If you made me choose (but please don’t) these tarts would be right up there as one of my most favourite things to eat – the combination of leek, thyme and plenty of butter is so simple, yet utterly delicious. The secret to their success is long, slow cooking of the leeks (I often leave them for hours, cooking almost imperceptibly on the side of the wood stove) and making sure that when you fill the pastry shells with the custard, that the pastry is hot (otherwise you will end up with the dreaded soggy bottom).
Leeks are easy to grow in the garden and are very low maintenance – if you start with one of the heirloom bulbing varieties (that send up new leek-lets from the base of older plants that can then be separated and replanted) you will have a perpetual supply of the best, most tender, finger thin leeks to use for these tarts, braise in butter or combine with walnuts and beetroot for an unusual and refreshing summer salad. Although at first glance these might seem complicated, once you’re comfortable with making the pastry and custard they are really quite simple, and perfect for lunches and dinner parties, as you can make the pastry, the infused milk and the slow cooked leeks ahead of time, and then casually assemble the components and bake at the last minute, glass of wine in hand!