It's Hugh take two

Karen Hardy
River Cottage Australia's Paul West with Tilba pig farmer Martyn Noakes.
River Cottage Australia's Paul West with Tilba pig farmer Martyn Noakes. 

When Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall made the decision to extend his River Cottage empire Down Under he wanted to give it a particularly Australian flavour. What he probably didn't expect was that one of the first flavours would be beer. But what could be more Australian than that?

Executive producer David Galloway was scouting locations between Batemans Bay and Bega when he drove into Central Tilba.

''I stopped at the pub to have a beer, at the Dromedary, it's a great old place,'' Galloway says. ''I got chatting to the publican, Mick Youlten, and his wife Maz and Maz said, 'Let's jump in the car and I'll show you a few places' and that day we found the site for River Cottage Australia.

The former dairy farm in Tilba, now home to the Aussie Hugh.
The former dairy farm in Tilba, now home to the Aussie Hugh. 

''I thank someone up there that there was something on the market because it's the perfect place, from both a picturesque and a practical point of view.''

The property is just a couple of minutes out of Central Tilba, nestled underneath Gulaga Mountain, a nine-hectare former dairy farm that needed a little tender loving care but had plenty of potential.

''It was a little rundown and it hadn't been lived in full time for a long while,'' Galloway says. ''There's a 1930s weatherboard cottage on the lot, a couple of old cast-concrete silos, an old dairy that hasn't been used for 30 years, and an old chicken coop that had the most extraordinary vines growing out of it.

Sea change ... River Cottage Australia's Paul West with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Sea change ... River Cottage Australia's Paul West with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall 

''We sent Hugh a photo of the place the next day and he said 'buy it' and that was it.''

The next step was finding an Aussie Hugh. Fearnley-Whittingstall came to Australia early on to look the place over and to shoot the first episode, but it was never his intention to feature in the eight-part series full time.

That honour will go to Paul West, 29, a chef from Tasmania and self-confessed River Cottage tragic. ''It's probably not something a grown man should admit about another man but I did get butterflies in my stomach when I heard Hugh coming down the garden path of the cottage for the first time,'' West says with a laugh. ''I was in the kitchen and I heard that voice, 'Hello, is anybody home?', and I looked out the window and he was coming up the path, carrying a box of vegetables. I won't say I went weak at the knees but my heart was definitely in my mouth.''

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West quickly won Fearnley-Whittingstall over. ''The luxury of the selection process is that you don't have to have a tick-box list,'' Fearnley-Whittingstall told Foxtel magazine. ''At least, that's not how it works for me. I was looking for a gut-instinct feeling and that's what I got when I met Paul. Of course, you can do it in the tick-box way. You can say, 'How good is his cooking? How does he look down the lens?' - you can do it all like that. But for me it's, 'Does he have a twinkle in his eye? Can you see genuine enthusiasm? Does he have real integrity?' and I saw it straight away when I saw Paul.''

West grew up in Murrurundi, a small town in the Hunter Valley, where his parents owned ''a toy shop for farmers, selling knives and guns and jeans and boots'', but now lives in South Arm, Tasmania.

His love of food was ignited when he was travelling around Australia in his early 20s and ended up WWOOFing on a farm in Tasmania. WWOOF is a worldwide program in which travellers receive accommodation on farms in return for four to six hours' work a day (wwoof.com.au).

Paul West and Fearnley-Whittingstall.
Paul West and Fearnley-Whittingstall. 

''I was living with this man, a retired French carpenter, and there was something about the way he lived his life in a place literally called Paradise, in northern Tasmania, that made me realise how good food is,'' West says. ''This guy had a house he built himself, he had an acre's worth of vegetable garden, a massive orchard, chickens and cows. We'd bake bread in the morning and have breakfast and squeeze juices from the orchard and have long lunches outside in the garden. I was like, 'This is living' and I knew then that this was how I wanted to live.''

He travelled more, worked in community gardens in the Newcastle area and ended up taking a job as a dishwasher for a mate who was a head chef.

''I soon hassled him for a job as an apprentice and got one when I was 23. I then found better and better kitchens to work in until I ended up working in Bistro Vue down in Melbourne, the bistro aspect of Shannon Bennett's Vue de Monde. That was the high-tide mark of my fine-dining career.''

It was around that time that West began to rethink his food philosophy.

''People are looking more for truth in their food. Fine dining is about trickery. You put on a performance and charge an exorbitant amount. Now people are looking for good ingredients, cooked simply and honestly, good soul food, shared with good friends and good wine; that's what it's all about.''

Fearnley-Whittingstall says Australia was an obvious choice for the first international arm of the River Cottage empire.

''The sheer scale of this country and the variety of climates you've got is incredible,'' he told Foxtel magazine.

''It seems to me almost self-evident that a country this big with a relatively small population should have the potential to be very close to self-sustaining in terms of food production.

''I don't see why that shouldn't be a national ambition for Australians.''

West agrees Australia is a natural place for River Cottage.

''There are so many people living that lifestyle or aspiring to live that lifestyle that it was a logical choice, I think, to come here.''

But at the same time, he says, it is crucial that the show finds its own space.

''There are so many subtle cultural and geographical differences between here and Britain, there's definitely a place for an Australian version of it. ''Without going all, River Cottage Ozstraaaaylia and bunging on a really bad accent, there's so much about this place that lends itself to the concept. And so many ways we can give it an Australian focus.''

West says it feels as though they've been blessed landing where they are in Central Tilba.

''Standing where I'm standing now, on the front verandah of the cottage, on a clear-blue winter's day, looking out over the rolling hills, it's pretty obvious why we're here.

''But to convey that to you, we've discovered the epicentre of a really nice area of production. The whole south coast is a quietly achieving food-production region. It's not big, there's not a lot of commercial growers, but a lot of people who have come to find a different lifestyle and are living it.''

Galloway says the local community has been very supportive. ''They've embraced it, they are very proud of the area,'' he says. ''In a way they're a big part of the show. There's a real documentary aspect to the whole thing. Paul lives there, he's been there since March, and he really has to become part of the local community. We feature people who've helped him with all manner of things, whether it be tapping the local spring, fencing, or learning how to make pumpkin scones.''

Filming is still under way, and by the end West will have been on the farm for four months.

''We wanted to leave it long enough so things could actually grow,'' Galloway says. ''You should see the vegetable garden now - it's full of amazing leafy greens and winter vegetables.''

Galloway won't be drawn on whether there are plans to expand the Australian empire. In Britain, the River Cottage brand not only encompasses the television series but a cooking school and restaurants and cafes.

''There's potential for it, absolutely,'' he says. ''But that's probably for others to deal with. I'm just making the show. But I'm pretty sure that's in their minds for down the track.''

One of the reasons the property fit the bill was its potential. ''The old dairy is quite a substantial building, you could put kitchens in it; the silos could be converted into boutique accommodation, a couple of the locals have done that already. All this helped us make the decision to land here.''

West says he'd love to stay on the farm if there's a second series and he says it's been a privilege meeting the local producers.

''These are people who walk the walk, people focused on niches of production, fourth-generation poultry breeders, pig farmers, people who grow organic seedlings. Getting to share meals with them, that was a privilege. Working as a chef, you cook a lot of meals but you don't get to eat a lot of meals. Talking to them about their passions, they're truly inspirational people.''

West continues the interview on the farm's verandah - you can hear the wind, picture the green fields … the phone goes static and almost falls out …

''Digger, Digger,'' he yells, ''Sorry, the bloody dog has just run off.'' He can see the dogs from the neighbouring farm up on the hill … and the line drops out. A farmer's work is never done.

River Cottage Australia premieres on the LifeStyle channel on June 27 at 8.30pm. River Cottage has set up a forum on its site for the Australian show: rivercottage.net/forum/debate/river-cottage-australia/

Karen Hardy is a staff feature writer.