Paul West takes on Canberra in new River Cottage Australia episode

Natasha Rudra
In this series of River Cottage Australia, Paul West travels to Canberra with his food van.
In this series of River Cottage Australia, Paul West travels to Canberra with his food van. Photo: Nick Wilson

You might better picture Paul West wading across a country stream carrying a stray lamb than roaming about urban chic Braddon. He won us all over with TV series River Cottage Australia, a beautifully shot chronicle of living off the land on the NSW far south coast, but now he's taking on the capital.

In an upcoming episode, West leaves his farm at picturesque Central Tilba and drives his little food caravan to the capital to learn more about urban farming.  It's an homage to some of the capital's most dedicated gardeners and sustainable food heroes. West meets scientist and gardening pioneer Richard Stirzaker in his inner north Canberra home, where Stirzaker introduces him to a system that measures how much water is in the soil beneath your plants. 

Paul West and his dog, Digger.
Paul West and his dog, Digger. 

The next stop is the ANU Food Co-op, where he gets a tour of the food co-op's rooftop garden overlooking Civic, with Karina Bontes Forward, the recent star of Susan Parson's Kitchen Garden column.  West also meets sustainable food legend Janet Jeffs, who takes him to Ingelara Farm, lets him play in her kitchen at the Conservatory Restaurant at the Arboretum. Later, Jeffs cheerfully acts as sous chef when West pulls his food caravan up to the forecourt at The Hamlet, dishing out slow cooked beef and tacos to an appreciative crowd.

Back in Tilba, West is frank with his appraisal - and praise - of the capital. "Of all the Australian cities, it probably suffers from the worst marketing of all the capital cities," he says. "But we found the total opposite - it has a really vibrant food culture, I met some amazing producers and lots of people making it their own."

West is serving up breakfast on the verandah of River Cottage, which is nestled in a cool emerald-green valley just outside Tilba. There are plates of fried eggs with yolks the colour of a rising sun, long rows of crisp bacon and plenty of sourdough toast, liberally smeared with golden handmade butter and jams cooked from berries picked on the farm. Digger, the border collie whom West only half-jokingly describes as the real star of the show. 

He launches into a pin sharp impression of a bored grad who's just moved into their first share apartment in Kingston. "Instead of going, 'Ughhh, here I am, stuck in Canberra, woe is me, I wish I was living in Sydney,' they're going 'Well, here I am and I'm going to make something amazing out of it.'"

Interviewing West whilst at River Cottage is a huge exercise is self control, mainly because Digger's soft black nose appears questingly beside each forkful of bacon, his puppy eyes locked onto the diner's face. "Sometimes he's asleep outside on the grass when people arrive to do a cooking class and you can hear the screaming - 'Digger! Digger! OMG!'" West says later. Sometimes he goes outside to find the entire class taking selfies with Digger.

But back to Canberra. West didn't make it to the EPIC markets ("they're meant to be, believe it or not, EPIC", he says with a laugh, before a whimsical digression into what might happen if they were merely average) but did get to the Eat Local Friday markets at the Australian National Botanic Gardens.  He'd like to go back and check out more of Canberra. "It's a lot going on up there, it's our nearest city and it's good to know there's a vibrant culture there just a stone's throw away from us," he says. 

And he's keen to highlight the fact that the people who actually grow the bulk of Australia's food are increasingly elderly. "So much of our viewing audience doesn't live in the bush. They watch the show because of it's aspirational qualities. In 1901 the average age of the Australian farmer was 21. Now it's 68," he says.

"We're finding instead of regional innovation that there's a lot of urban innovation in terms of food production. People are going, 'We live in the city, this is where we live, where we work, so how do we grow food here?'"

River Cottage Australia screens on Foxtel's Lifestyle Food on Tuesdays at 8.30pm. The Canberra episode is on April 12.