Our Growers and Suppliers: more local characters

There are still hundreds of growers in the Sydney Basin, growing anything from tomatoes to eggplant, lemons and grapefruit, stone fruit and apples, leek and lettuce. They are important to our biodiversity so we don't rely exclusively on the large growers who often have a narrow seed stock aimed at satisfying the supermarkets' needs for uniform produce that looks good and has a long shelf life (never mind the flavour).

They are also important to the health of Sydney: they counter-balance residential developments, and act as the city's lungs. John Fairley from the Country Valley dairy in Picton wants to help preserve semi-rural lifestyle in the Sydney basin and help give city-dwellers access to the people that produce their milk, cheese, fruit and vegetables. If it wasn't for people like John - and the hundreds of small growers scattered around the Sydney basin - Sydney could easily end up like Los Angeles: a megapolis of 15 million people spending a lot of time in traffic, and never seeing a cow or broccoli field. And that would be a sad day.

We feature a number of the growers from whom we buy regularly, so you get to know them and appreciate the hard work that goes into working the land, come hail, rain or shine.

Raymond Camilleri, Freemans Reach

Freemans Reach is a fertile stretch of land north of Richmond and west of Wilberforce, on the northern banks of the Hawkesbury River which secures water access for many growers in this area.

The Camilleris hail from Malta originally, like so many growers still active in the Sydney basin. Raymond and his 2 brothers grow broccoli, corn, capsicum, pumpkin, cauliflowers, eggplant, zucchini, beetroot and silverbeet on about 80 acres of land. He uses either no chemicals (none on his corn, eggplant, pumpkin and silverbeet) or only minimal spraying (broccoli and capsicum, early in the season).

Growing vegetables can be a family affair, and when there is a lot of produce ready for picking, the whole family chips in. We buy a good chunk of whatever Raymond grows because of his quality and freshness is second to none, notwithstanding the occasional grub in the corn. We call it: free protein…! The freshness simply comes from the short supply line: you typically receive Raymond's produce within 48 hours of picking. The only way to get it fresher is grow it yourself.

The Kim family, Wallacia and Kemps Creek

Both Kim and his wife were teachers in Cambodia in the 1970s when Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge came to power and sent Cambodia back to year zero. They were sent to the country side to become farmers and spent time in a 're-education camp' before escaping to Vietnam and Hong Kong where they spent time in a refugee camp. In the early 1980s they were resettled in Australia, and ' unable to go back to teaching (OK, their English wasn't quite up to scratch) ' they fell back on the next thing they'd learned courtesy of Pol Pot: growing vegetables!

They bought a little plot in Wallacia at the foothills of the Blue Mountains, and started growing snow peas and cherry tomatoes, both of them wonderfully sweet. They expanded to Kemps Creek, and now - 20 years later - are selling their produce (including zucchini and rhubarb) in Flemington's growers market. They have been joined by their son (Kim Jnr) and daughter Laks, and have become one of our favourite growers.

Perhaps one day, we'll write up their full story.

The Saad family, Wilberforce

A small conglomerate of farming uncles and cousins, that's the Saad family. They were farmers in Lebanon and when things got too hot, they continued in Wilberforce where it was also hot but of a different kind, and they grow mainly broccoli and potatoes, but also corn, cauliflower and assorted vegetables. Emile is currently the lucky one who takes the produce to market, and at the same time can try out some of the new things they grow. Like the Nicola potato: with its deep-yellow flesh and creamy flavour ' ideal for mashing and baking ' it gives Dutch cream a good run for its money. Back at the ranch, it's Gerard who manages the sowing, weeding, harvesting and packing.

The Sciberras family, somewhere between Richmond and Windsor

John and his 2 sons Chris and Ryan grow a variety of crops like wombok, silverbeet, beetroot, leek, basil and chicory, but also take other growers' produce to market. They specialise in Chinese vegetables, herbs, spinach, cabbage ' in fact, pretty well any leafy vegetable. The Sciberras originally came from Malta. At the time when the wholesaler and produce markets were still operating out of Haymarket, many growers came originally from Malta - as well as Italy, Greece and occasionally Holland (although most of these ended up in ...flowers surprise surprise). Over the years, the mix has shifted to include Lebanese, as well as Chinese and other Asian growers who grow much of the city's supply of buk choi and other Chinese vegetables at the market gardens near Botany Bay.

Steve and Sam Grima, Horsley Park

The Grimas grow a large variety of what they call 'bunch lines'. Uh? Turns out bunch lines are any type of vegies that you bunch together: baby carrots in any colour, baby turnip, radish, colourful Swiss chard, kale, kohlrabi, Tuscan cabbage and a variety of other greens. Many top restaurants buy the more unusual things like the incredibly sweet Baby Turnips or spicy Black Radish from the Grimas.

Mark the Hydroking

Does Mark have a surname? He's not too sure himself, as everyone he's met over the past 20 years has been calling him Mark the Hydroking. His father started growing hydrophonic lettuces at a time when fancy lettuce was used as garnish by butchers. Building on his father's work, Mark has expanded the business so that the size of their 'shed' is now covering about 2 football fields. And he grows every conceivable variety of hydro lettuce, from coral to oak, baby cos and radicchio. John uses minimal chemicals on the lettuce. His primary enemy is snails, so occasionally he will use some snail pellets.

Sam Vassallo

Sam's father runs a specialty herb business, mainly supplying restaurants with living/potted herbs like baby basil, lemon thyme and sage. His son Sam knows a lot of growers across the Sydney basin who are unable to make the trip to Flemington 3 times a week - so he takes their produce and sells it on the growers market. Anything from leek and Dutch carrots to lettuce and fennel.

Angelo and Charlie Vella

So here is another good Maltese name. The Vella's come to Flemington 3 days a week, and the rest of the time they're working their acreage near Freeman Reach. Traditionally Angelo has been growing zucchini, eggplant, cabbages, cauliflower, silverbeet and beetroot, he has recently been experimenting with different varieties of Daikon or Korean radish. His short variety is a little milder compared with the spicier long variety; the former is more accepted by European palettes, whilst the latter is more popular with Koreans. They traditionally pickle Daikon into something that is probably best described as an acquired taste!

Country Valley Dairy, Picton

John Fairley's family has been farming in Picton since the mid-1800's, and his goal is to keep Picton's semi-rural lifestyle intact as much as possible. "We currently operate a dairy farm that runs about 145 head of cattle, which are a Friesian/Jersey cross. The dairy farm itself is on roughly 300 acres, which is situated in a valley about five minutes out of the Picton township".

"Our milk comes straight from our cows to the plant and then out to our customers, with very little transport involved. Milk is a bit like fruit, it bruises easily and the quality can be lowered if it is not treated carefully. Our milk is extremely fresh and therefore the shelf life is longer, up to seventeen days on the label but it actually keeps longer than that. We are constantly monitoring the quality of the feed and health of the cows to ensure that the milk produced is the best you can buy. We believe all these factors will combine to create a product that will make "the difference you can taste", according to John.

For more information, visit www.countryvalley.com.au.

Dora Creek eggs

On the shore of Lake Macquarie, just north of Morisset, lies the hamlet of Dora Creek. It has some 500 locals, plus a few thousand free-range chooks who lay the freshest free-range eggs for the Fresh Start brand. Every now and then, there is much ado about the definition of free-range - and it's true that some free-range chicken farms suffer from serious over-crowding. Not so for the crowd at Dora Creek: in our view, the farm resembles a Club Med holiday park...

And in such a relaxed environment, it's little wonder that these chooks produce the best possible eggs - stress-free, chemical-free and without the use of antibiotics.

Evia Yoghurt from The Yoghurt Company in Marrickville

The Yoghurt Company is a family run dairy company established in Australia 25 years ago. Originating from EVIA, Greece the family brought with them three generations of dairy know-how. Combining traditional methods with a modern twist, the company produces a unique Greek country style yoghurt that has body, texture and deep flavour. And this was recognised by the judges at the 2012 Royal Easter Show when they won Gold in the natural Yoghurt category.

Importantly, they are locals (Myrtle St, Marrickville) which means lower food miles.

Bowan Island Sourdough Bread and Cereal

An Australian owned and run company, Bowan Island Bakery in Drummoyne has been providing Sydney with organic sourdough bread for over 17 years. They have always been at the forefront of organic baking and are regularly ranked in the Top 5 Bakeries in the Sydney Morning Herald's People's Choice Awards, and have featured on several occasions in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Living section.

Their Irish Fruit Bread is legendary, as anyone who has tried it will attest to. When you hold a Fruit Bread in your hands, it feels incredibly dense - more like a lunar rock - and yet it eats incredibly light and delicious. Weird. But wonderful.

The rest of the range, especially the rustic Soy & Linseed and Manzillla Olive and Rosemary, is equally delicious - crunchy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside. And all lovingly hand-made.

Pedro's Bakery, Flemington

Here is another unsung local hero: John and his wife Pauline run Pedro's bakery, and really: they do it for love rather than money. John's Italian baguettes and loaves are unlike any other bread we've ever tasted. At 4pm every day, John prepares the dough for the following day's bread. It needs 12 hours of fermenting, so just after midnight, he gives the dough another light kneeding before he shapes them into baguettes and loaves - and then into the stone-paved oven.

Incredibly, they contain nothing artificial: just flour, salt, yeast, water - and a few drops of cold-pressed virgin olive oil. This keeps the bread moist for several days.

Monjay Mezza Dips

MJ Mezza started making dips in 1999. It was their very garlicky garlic dip (60% garlic!) that put them on the map, but their hummous, falafel and chilli dips are equally good. They are conveniently located around the corner from the Harvest Hub packing shed in South Granville, so we're never out of stock.

Curry Masters

This is a classic tale from restaurant chef to manufacturing mogul: back in the early nineties, Suresh Singh ("friends just call me Singh") had an Indian restaurant in Lane Cove 'Nizam's. When customers kept asking for recipes, he eventually decided to make and sell his own curry mixes. In 1993, he sold the restaurant to dedicate himself full-time to the Curry Masters business in Hornsby.

He now has an incredible range of more than 40 curry mixes and chutneys - and we are ranging 13 of the most popular ones.

There is a general notion that the more effort required, the better the result. The opposite is true for Curry Masters: these would have to be the easiest curries you'd ever make, and at the same time they produce restaurant-quality meals. The Butter Chicken in particular is as good as, if not better, than what you'd get in a good Indian restaurant.

One of our younger 13 year old Harvest Hub members who cooks, Jaz, is a bit of a self-confessed Butter Chicken fan and tells us, "Only one local Indian restaurant makes good Butter Chicken but Curry Masters is better and I can make it really easily."

The range includes Butter Chicken, Rogan Josh, Fish Goa, Tandoori Masala, Lamb Korma, Biryani Masala, Mixed Vegetable and Vindaloo. On our request, Singh produces the Butter Chicken with and without colouring (which can produce an allergic reaction for people suffering from asthma). One of the advantages of dealing with smaller suppliers is that they are more flexible and responsive to the needs of specific customers.

Myall Springs Organic meat

Once a month, Matt and Mel Carter from Myall Springs near Gunnedah send their cows (or 'beasts' as Matt calls them) and lamb to the slaughterhouse - and from there to Grange butchers in Richmond where the meat is hung for a week or so, before being cut up and vacuum-packed. Everything is organic including the spices for the sausage meat.

For one week every month, Harvest Hub opens for orders for Myall Springs organic mixed beef or lamb packs. They contain an assortment of cuts including prime cuts, roasts, rump and topside - as well as mince and sausages. The cows and lamb are 100% grass-fed, and because they graze on native grasses - including blue grass, plains and red grass, danthonia (wallaby grass) and silky brown top - and the stock loves them. This is also evident in the meat which tastes fantastic - like meat used to taste before industrial-scale breeding and grain-feeding became the norm.

Apart from tasting good, the livestock has much less impact on the environment and contributes less to greenhouse gases and climate change.

The Coffee Roasters, Alexandria

Back in 1992, Dan & Joanne Fitzsimmons were frustrated that they could not get fresh roasted coffee beans in Sydney. So what do you do? You start your own. And not just any roaster: rather than roasting the beans on a tray - which often results in an uneven roast and a bit of burn - they adopted a novel air-roasting method. Not only does this method produce an even roast at exactly the right temperature, it also removes dust and other impurities that could otherwise spoil the taste.

They went on to win in 2012 a Gold medal at the Hobart Fine Food awards. This is seriously great tasting coffee.

Working from a large warehouse and coffee shop in Alexandria, they roast on demand - and then deliver the coffee within 24 hours anywhere in Sydney.

They blend many varieties from almost every continent - South and Central America, Africa and Asia - including several decaffeinated blends (using the chemical-free Swiss water method), Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance blends.

They use packs with a one-way valve to squeeze any air out of the coffee, which prolongs its shelf life and preserves flavour.

Harvest Hub: great food that doesn't cost the earth