Lady Bower cafe owners Jason Chan and Vanessa Nitsos receiving some lemons from the garden of regular customer Kate van der Drift.
Lady Bower cafe owners Jason Chan and Vanessa Nitsos receive lemons from the garden of regular customer Kate van der Drift. Photo: Joseph Feil

Justine Costigan

When Helen Howard drops into Melbourne's Lady Bower café for a coffee, she'll sometimes ask for a free bag of coffee beans to take home. No, she's not being cheeky – Lady Bower co-owner Vanessa Nitsos is happy to oblige. It's an informal trade for the bunches of herbs Howard drops off to the cafe regularly.

A coffee, breakfast, maybe even a three-course dinner, are some of the trades regularly made between local gardeners and savvy café owners with both a desire to source local products and an eye on the bottom-line.

I might offer dinner for the harvest from a whole mulberry tree – that's three months worth of jam for us – or it might be an offer of coffee or breakfast. It's pretty fluid. 

After all, what could be better than sourcing fruit from a garden just down the road? Usually harvested the day it's eaten, trading excess fruit, herbs, vegetables and flowers for a meal, or coffee or a jar of jam, is a deal that seems to work beautifully for both the local gardeners and the restaurants.

Alex Elliott-Howery from Cornersmith and customer Steve Bishop, who brings rocket and other herbs to the cafe.
Cornersmith's Alex Elliott-Howery with customer Steve Bishop, who brings rocket and other herbs to the cafe. Photo: Sahlan Hayes

James Hird, co-owner of Buzo and Wine Library in the Sydney suburb of Woollahra, keeps an eye on what's growing in his local neighbourhood. If he knows it's a good year for lush rosemary, plump backyard lemons or juicy mulberries, he'll put out the word to his customers that he'd love to have any excess from their gardens. As well as sourcing locally, he also has his own rooftop garden and a beehive.

Hird says his garden, plus local backyard produce, can only ever supplement his stockroom needs. But he says the effort to source produce which doesn't require anyone to get into a car is worth it. "It's a huge untapped resource. We go through about six market bunches of rosemary a day. To take out the cost of this alone has an effect on the bottom-line."

There's a benefit for the growers too. Hird always offers something in return, but says there are no hard-and-fast rules to the exchange. "I might offer dinner for the harvest from a whole mulberry tree – that's three months worth of jam for us – or it might be an offer of coffee or breakfast. It's pretty fluid."

In Melbourne, Nitsos alerted locals to her interest in local produce before the café even opened, and by the time it was ready for business in February 2012, she already had a couple of nearby gardening enthusiasts willing to share.

When Helen Howard started dropping in bunches of herbs from her garden, Nitsos would always offer a cup of coffee in return. "When I started bringing in stuff, Vanessa would ask me to stay and have a coffee, but as I was usually on my way to work, I couldn't stop. So I asked them if I could have a 250g bag of coffee every couple of weeks in return. It's a handy arrangement. I (wouldn't) do it for money, but it's good to do a trade."

Kate van der Drift donates figs and lemons from her garden to Lady Bower and loves to see "Marchant Avenue figs" on descriptions of the café's jam. "It's just giving for the pleasure of giving. Plus, I like seeing the things that Lady Bower does with my ingredients – it's often something I would never have thought of."

Nitsos says that in the hospitality game, every little bit helps. "The local produce helps us to put things on the menu we couldn't usually afford, such as micro-herbs. And it reinforces our commitment to seasonality. Although, a customer did come in once and asks us why every cake we had was made with orange."

Backyard gardeners are a proud bunch. When Steve Bishop drops in bags of rocket to Cornersmith in the Sydney suburb of Marrickville, he's simply happy to know the excess won't go to waste, and that Cornersmith customers will be eating his home-grown produce.

Cornersmith co-owner Alex Elliott-Howery says she was amazed by the response to one of her requests for produce. "It started with chokos. I put a call out on social media and a note in the café and the chokos came rolling through the door. We were inundated."

Elliott-Howery says the large family homes and gardens in the suburb have an abundance of produce and many newer families in the area don't know what to do with them. "There's a craving to be part of a community and this is a great way to do it. I always offer a coffee, a jar of pickles or lunch in return, but 80 per cent don't want anything. People are so generous. Twice I've cried when people have come in unexpectedly and given us something."

Cafes are only now catching on to a trend that has been quietly flourishing in Australian suburbs for decades. Canberra nurse and blogger Bec Pollock swaps fruit and vegetables with other members of the Urban Homesteading Club. At its monthly meetings a swap table is filled with produce, homemade preserves, seeds and seedlings to share.

"We also trade details of potential urban foraging sites, including blackberries, quince and apple trees, and have been wanting to develop a local Food Foraging Map," she says. "There are people in our group who fish and collect edible weeds, and plenty of people who are keen to glean, or scrump too. I just bought the Weed Foraging Handbook, and was amazed at how many of the (many) weeds in our backyard are actually edible."

Crop swaps and urban harvest groups have a long history in most Australian cities, but renewed interest in the concept has come from a growing understanding of the impact of food miles and a desire to eat locally and seasonally. Many groups have links to Transition Towns, an Irish movement encouraging greater energy and food self-sufficiency, that's now worldwide.

At the monthly Altona fruit and vegie swap in Melbourne's west, locals are encouraged to come along even if they don't have any homegrown produce. Mara Chambers is a regular and says you don't even have to have a garden; there are other things you can bring along besides fresh produce.

"It could be something you've baked or your favourite seasonal recipes," she says. "There's also lawn clippings and shredded paper which are great for composting as well as edible seeds you've saved or edible seedlings and cuttings."

The appeal of fresh produce is widespread. At The Three Blue Ducks in Bronte, Sydney, chef and gardener Grant LaBrooy says the café's kitchen garden has now become a magnet for locals, who come to admire the chooks and see what's growing. The café hosted a dinner using community backyard produce as part of the international Grow It Local movement on April 1 and LaBrooy hopes to do more events in 2013.

And the sharing works both ways. Some regular customers get more than they bargain for when they order a coffee – a gift of warm, freshly laid eggs to take home.

Community harvesting

Do a local internet search using the terms "crop and swap", "community harvesting", "urban harvest", "urban farms" or "transition towns" to find a local food-swap group.

Cafes

Buzo, 3 Jersey Road, Woollahra, (02) 9328 1600, buzo.com.au

Cornersmith, 314 Illawarra Road, Marrickville, (02) 8065 0844, facebook.com/cornersmith

Three Blue Ducks, 141-143 Macpherson Street, Bronte (02) 9389 0010, threeblueducks.com

Wine Library, 18 Oxford Street, Woollahra, (02) 9360 5686, wine-library.com.au

Lady Bower, 1a Marchant Avenue, Reservoir, (03) 9469 5851, ladybower.com.au

Also encouraging local backyard produce:

Kitchen Kulcha, 43 Glenlyon Road, Brunswick, (03) 9380 6111

Red Brick Café, 215 Mont Albert Road, Surry Hills, (03) 9836 0009, facebook.com/redbrickcafe