Sophie Hansen: Local is Lovely

In 2001, Sophie Hansen landed her dream job. At the time, working as a features editor for a food magazine, she found herself interviewing a man who was visiting Australia from Italy on behalf of Slow Food International.

“I’ve always been interested in provenance and understanding where my food comes from,” she says. Inspired, she “glibly” made the man an offer to work on the English website, one which he accepted. Hansen promptly quit her job and set off for the other side of the world, to the headquarters of Slow Food International in the Piedmontese town of Bra in northwestern Italy.

Hansen’s initial three-month unpaid internship turned into a three-year sojourn in Italy that changed the way she thought about food. She found herself in the enviable position of covering assignments like “interviewing shepherds milking their animals on the side of mountains and then making it into cheese straight away,” she recalls. “I was very lucky to have that opportunity.”

Italian cooking is so good, she learned, because it is simple and seasonal. “Everyone talks about Italian cooks being so wonderful, and they are, but my friends’ mothers had only quite small repertoires in a way. They’ll have four main courses they do in winter, and four pastas and four desserts, and they nail it because they’ve done it over and over. They’re not cooking a curry one night and a stir-fry the next.”

A decade later, Hansen is living a life in tune with the seasons. She lives on a venison farm in the shadow of Mount Canobolas near the New South Wales town of Orange with her husband Tim and their two children. She writes a blog called Local Is Lovely where she shares recipes and the stories of farmers and producers. In 2014 she published a cookbook of the same name, filled with simple recipes celebrating fresh, seasonal produce.

We spoke with Hansen at the close of one of the coldest winters Orange had shivered through in 50 years, one that had seen at least three snowfalls blanket the region.

Describe the changing of the seasons on your farm in Orange…
All the buds are just about to pop open. It was a long winter. It’s been a good one, really nice and wet, and with the El Nino it’s going to be a long dry summer. We’ve had lots of beautiful snow, which has been great, and it has left the ground really moist. The last few days we’ve had some sunshine so you can really see the grass starting to grow again, and we’re finally getting some action in the paddocks. Orange, like a lot of areas, has four very distinct seasons, and we get very cold winters. We’re all hanging out for some sunshine.

Do you have a favourite time of year on the farm?
Every season’s great until you’re sick of it! But I love autumn. Summers can get a bit dry, and there’s that nice cool change [in autumn]. In Orange autumn is the best time for someone interested in food because we’ve got beautiful quinces, apples, pears and berries, saffron milk cap mushrooms, andlots of nuts too.  Then there’s colours –  we’ve got a lot of beautiful deciduous trees in Orange. Autumn is a really pretty time of year.

Did you grow up on the land?
No, I grew up in Sydney. I had a background in food magazines. I did journalism at uni, and then went into print journalism. I had a few years over in Italy working for the Slow Food movement’s editorial house, then I came back and I got invited to a food media lunch for this deer farm to promote venison. I went and I met Tim, and then three months later we were engaged, and I was living on the farm. It all happened quite quickly. I never expected to live in the country to be honest, but I really do love it. Orange is a great town.

What does a typical day look like for you?
They’re all really different. We do monthly lunches at our farm. We’ve got a farm kitchen and we do a farm tour and a three course set meal. Tomorrow we’ve got a lunch, so I’m going home to hit the kitchen and start prepping for that. I’ll be cooking all day today and serving all day tomorrow. Next week we’re doing some deer work, so I’ll be helping Tim get the animals into the yards. I’m also working on some food photography and styling workshops at the moment. I feel like I’ve got, like everybody, quite a few balls in the air, but most of it revolves around cooking.

Where did you learn to cook?
I would never call myself a chef, I’m completely self taught. Through most of my twenties I was writing about food, and really my three years in Italy was where I learnt to cook the way I do, which is really simply. I just want my food to be seasonal, tasty and simple. If you’ve got good base ingredients and you’re cooking with the seasons then you can’t go wrong. I really love River Café, that idea of good simple ingredients and simple techniques. I taught myself but I think being around lots of good producers and lots of great cooks, and interviewing lots of different people, [I’ve learned by] osmosis too. My food is very simple. It’s not at all fancy.

What are the advantages of eating seasonally?
The benefits of eating seasonally are huge. The food is better tasting and better for you, and it’s more affordable. Of course peaches are going to be expensive in winter, because they’ve been flown in from God knows where. Kiwi fruits are in season at the moment, and they’ve got a huge amount of vitamin C and goodness in them. Eating seasonally makes sense to me.

How did working with Slow Food change your outlook about food production?
The whole idea of Slow Food is that you’ve got to make eating food and sourcing food an enjoyable experience. We can change people’s attitudes and approaches to the way they buy their food, and how they cook it and share it, by making it enjoyable. I’ve always tried to make my blog a positive place; I don’t get involved in politics and I don’t comment on food miles or anything like that, because I’m not qualified to do so. I just want to inspire people to get cooking. People will do it if it’s enjoyable. They will go to the market, or they will find some beautiful tomatoes in summer, buy some bread and have some friends over to share it. That’s what I really took away from my time there.

What’s the guiding idea behind Local Is Lovely?
I want to make it a really positive, inspiring place to be, and people to open it up and go ‘oh wow, oranges are in season, I’m going to make that really easy orange and almond cake, or I’m going to get out there and find out who’s producing what in my area.’ I started it because we have a deer farm and we sell our meat as our own branded product. We were going to the farmers markets every weekend, and I was meeting all these other farmers there, and we were sharing recipes, and it was really just a way to put all those ideas and stories and recipes together, including ours, because I don’t think anyone wants to read a whole blog about one thing, i.e. venison. It grew from there. Now we’ve taken a year off the markets, so I travel and see other farmers, and talk about our life on the farm, and try to celebrate simple, seasonal food and the people who produce it.

Do you have a vegetable garden?
I try. I’m not great at gardening. I grow herbs, and I can grow kale really well! And I can grow parsley. We’ve got people kilometres away from us who grow the most incredible fresh produce and we do a bit of contra with them, so I feel that I have to stick with my skill set at the moment. I’d love to have more time in the veggie garden, but at the moment I concentrate on herbs, because I use a lot of them, and edible flowers. I outsource to the experts!

So is that where you get most of your fresh produce, from friends?
We’ve also got a great shop in Orange called the Agrestic Grocer – the owners of that shop have their own orchard and veggie garden, and everything is sourced locally. We get weekly veggie boxes from them. There’s also a guy down the road who grows beautiful fresh horseradish. I’m waiting for him now actually, he’s going to drop off some horseradish and potatoes he’s just dug up for us. I do work really hard to try to source out people in the area who are growing interesting, beautiful produce and buy directly from them.

And do you have a flower garden?
I’m a big forager. Our kids go to a country school halfway between town and our farm, and [on the drive] I’m always looking for things to forage. All year round you can find something nice to put on the table. It’s wattle at the moment, and I’ve also seen some old roadside apple trees that have blossoms. I like foraging and finding big bunches that I can shove in buckets – that’s my style. I never buy flowers because I think you can always find something pretty on the side of the road or in the garden. We’ve got lots of jonquils and bulbs that are coming up at the moment as well. Our garden at home is mostly roses, lawn and orchard trees, and that’s how we like it. I like to keep it simple. Most of our time is spent on the farm, not in the garden.

You have your finger in many pies, with your writing and photography and farming and cooking, but do you have a first love?
Cooking. I really love cooking with seasonal produce, and I love sharing it. Sitting at a table with people I love, having a really nice simple meal, and having a nice local wine too.

How would you like to change the world?
I want everybody to think a bit harder about where they’re getting their food from. Cook for your friends, cook for your family – it doesn’t have to be fancy. Make a really simple pasta, and set the table nicely and share it together. People have stopped entertaining [because they] feel there’s pressure to make everything perfect; with all these cooking shows they think it has to be amazing. It doesn’t! Just buy some nice bread and some nice salad and make a pasta, that’s what people want. That’s what I’d like to see, more people sharing their table with their friends.

All images supplied by Sophie Hansen / Local Is Lovely.