A journey to New Norcia – and the roll of coffee in post-modern society

Slow Food Perth’s warreners’ lunch at New Norcia on 9 October raised almost $2800 towards the travel costs of 12 Western Australian farmers, chefs and students selected to attend Terra Madre – Slow Food’s fourth world meeting of food communities – in Turin, Italy, 21-25 October 2010. The menu featured wild rabbit from Yealering and free range berkshire pork produced by Spencers Brook farmer Annie Kavanagh, one of the delegates. Graham Baws wrote this article, while Jamie Kronborg explores the sense of real food in a related story, Underground mutton. See our terra madre tag for more Terra Madre stories.

Saturday 9 October 2010 – SLOW Food Perth has run several luncheons at the Benedictine community at New Norcia. The monks there follow the dictum ‘prayer and work’, which is close to the vision of Slow Food: ‘diverse and local’. Whilst the monastery has ceased many of the activities that have sustained it for more than 160 years, it has nevertheless adapted to the changing needs of the community and, in many respects, far better than many other organisations. It is still there.

Slow Food Perth – supported by its volunteers who, like the New Norcia monks, receive no compensation – hosts luncheons to generate funds to support the Slow Food community. This community includes farmers in the Perth hinterland dedicated to the production of artisan foods for the local community and, in turn, they support the activities of Slow Food: all the elements of a virtuous circle.

Today Slow Food Perth has made a luncheon for a combined group of Slow Food members and 32 travellers exploring Western Australian heritage gardens, led by New South Wales-based photographer and writer Trisha Dixon.

Today Conor Keating, chef and a rising star in the West, cooked for 64 guests. She was supported by Carol Gaby, no slouch herself in the catering game; Freddie Kronborg, who is just plain competent, and plays a critical role in the Slow Food team which would be significantly less effective without her contributions; Philippa Baws, who knows just what to do in support of the effort in the kitchen, and is a highly successful fund-raiser in the raffle stakes, a demanding business; Pauline Tresise and Jamie Kronborg, co-leaders of Slow Food Perth, who fit the role perfectly, and are synonymous with the success of the organisation; [Louise Gordon whose persona is Fiori Coffee and who quietly goes about the task of being there with the coffee she and Kamran are famous for – they act as brackets, providing coffee at the beginning and end of proceedings]. On reflection, Louise provided plenty of help in the middle too. Once upon a time, during the day, coffee wasn’t necessary, but we all know that time has long since passed.

On the downside, there are quite a few spring flies at New Norcia warming themselves everywhere on a 34-degree day. But that didn’t perturb today’s event which took place inside St Gertrude’s in what was once the girls’ refectory in the monastery community when it also educated children. It has been a long time since the mother superior reigned over the meals taken in this airy room, but her presence could still be felt. Anyone who experienced a strict schooling could immediately feel the influence of the mistress of ceremonies in the room. The bars on the windows spoke of a time when there was a need to separate the sexes within the grounds of New Norcia. Who did they keep out and who did they keep in?

The Benedictine Order creates order and its practice isn’t to move the monks around. Once they have committed to a monastery, that’s where they stay, often for life. Of course, there is occasionally a need for a move to establish a new community, just as Spanish monks did in New Norcia 164 years ago, but it doesn’t happen often. Unlike many other orders, they are not required to evangelise, their role is to establish a community, and make it work for the long haul. That’s a bit like Slow Food, with its objective of supporting local food producers so that the community they supply can enjoy their produce, and in turn support the local production of what are often endangered foods.

Today the monks at New Norcia produce many foods with which they sustain themselves and food producers in the New Norcia district. How well the aims of the monastery coincide with those of Slow Food. Even though the monastery no longer directly provides education, which it did for very many of those 164 years, it still plays host to schools in Western Australia which take their students to New Norcia to engage in art, musical and spiritual sojourns in the community’s lovely environment.

Slow Food Perth also has a series of programmes dedicated to children, both here and in Africa, seeking to teach them about the source of the foods they eat and the importance of the farming and food.

But Slow Food is about community, too. Whether in the role of volunteer helping with the success of a luncheon, or as a member of Slow Food savouring the beautifully selected and cooked foods which make up a typical menu, it’s all about enjoying the moment, which seemed to be confirmed by the buzz in the dining room. Hopefully, all the diners went away with pleasurable feelings and a little better understanding of importance of community – both that of New Norcia and that of Slow Food – a little reinforcement, and memories of tasty food and exceptional wines.

The party’s over and, in the thick of these events, there is little time for the team that provides the service to enjoy the food, and less so the wine. When the washing up is finished, the glasses are buffed, and the tables wiped over, weary legs just want to get home for a simple dinner and a glass of cool wine. But, there is the little matter of a 140 kilometres drive home to Perth.

On the way to New Norcia we decided not to stop at the Bindoon Bakehaus, but on the way back we all agree that we have earned coffee, not to drink at the new bakery restaurant, but to take with us for the journey home. A little bell rings in my head: ‘Isn’t Slow Food also about community, about being there? Isn’t Slow Food synonymous with time spent around the table, not on the move? Shouldn’t we acknowledge the messages our subconscious mind slips into our conscious one?’ Of course we should. But I didn’t.

So, back into the car, with Carol driving, Conor in the front and Philippa and me in the rear, we turn back on the main road. In the process we drive over a bump in the road designed to slow drivers down, or divert the rain, or something. What effect it had was to propel half of the contents of a fresh, long black coffee in my hand into the air. Gravity quickly dealt with the hot liquid, depositing it onto the seat between my legs. The rear sloping seat did the rest.

Once the pain subsided, which took much longer than I admitted, through gritted teeth, to the audience of three amused females in the car, I had to endure the damp, now a cold damp, and a strong coffee aroma for the remainder of the journey home.

Slow Food stands for a lot that is important today, which only now are we beginning to recognise. There is an urgent need to maintain diversity in foods that we currently enjoy by supporting local producers who themselves have a mission to maintain artisan foods. We also have a responsibility to the wider community to see that they are fed and this can often be achieved by supporting local producers.

Slow Food is the antithesis of fast food. It is important to remember this, and always drink your coffee seated at a stable table.

Graham Baws

PS: Sat-navs have some characteristics in common with the monks in that they both take guidance from the heavens. Ignore their advice at your peril. It might have been the coffee, it affects us all differently: some can’t sleep after just one cup. In my case, drinking it in a moving vehicle gives me a scalding sensation. I thought I could improve our return time by directing the driver home through the Swan Valley. In the event, slow-moving trucks impeded our progress and traffic from the annual Spring in the Valley festival slowed us to a snail’s pace, perhaps a fitting end to a Slow Food event.

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