Photos Honey Atkinson Interview Karen Locke
Who JENNI GOUGH, A Forager's Heart, NEW SOUTH WALES
Our recent road-trip around the ACT was made particularly spectacular thanks to one very special lady. Jenni Gough is a cook, caterer, events organiser and passionate supporter of all things regional and seasonal. Not only did she act as an expert guide to Canberra, she also invited us along to sample the tastes and delights of one of her 'on location' events during our visit.
And so we found ourselves, fortuitously, staying in Jenni's childhood home, being waited on hand and foot by the world's greatest hosts, and attending a farm lunch at nearby Brightside Produce, catered by Jenni and friends. It was a glorious day spent under the trees, sipping on cold glasses of Jenni's homemade rhubarb and rosemary cordial, and feasting on fresh, local produce.
We decided we couldn't keep Canberra's best-kept secret to ourselves any longer, so we're thrilled to introduce her here to you all...
Q. Tell us about the Canberra food scene and why you love living in Australia's capital.
Canberra has taken a while to crawl out from underneath its public servant shell. There was a time that favoured high prices and not much to write home about. Home was where culinary and social action happened, particularly for younger people. About five years ago things started to shift - coffee got good, the wine region got stronger and new, innovative growers, chef and cooks came to the party. And now, as local produce gets better, tourism booms and the taste for something more cosmopolitan develops, exciting things are happening. My two favourite places to be are currently Bar Rochford and Barrio - delicious food, solid service and beautiful spaces.
As the profile of this place develops, I’d like to see better networks between growers and chefs. This is something I’m working on as a cook and connector. I know local and seasonal food tastes better but it also means stronger communities and increased sustainability for a planned city who set out to be that way from the get-go. I’d also like to see more female chefs and cooks on board the Canberra bandwagon.
Q Hands-down our all-time favourite place to stay during our road trips has been your childhood home in Captain's Flat. You and your mum deserve the 'best host' awards several times over! Can you tell us a bit about Captain's Flat and what it was like growing up there?
You two are the sweetest! It was such a tremendous pleasure to host you! Captains Flat is a funny old place - its history runs deep with a gold mining tale of boom to bust and back again.
The township boomed from the early 1880s to 1899 and then activity was rekindled by railway access from 1939 for a another 23 years. With the mine came infrastructure - a town hall/cinema, pubs, clubs, a hospital, shops and two pools. As I grew up these monuments to a town once prosperous fashioned in me a love for the uncanny and a curiosity into history and culture. I like how we could proclaim we once had the longest bar in the southern hemisphere with a population of 400, that there were unusual spaces for people to carve out interesting lives and that because of our geographical isolation the town fostered real community spirit.
The mine closed permanently in the 1960s and with it the houses were dismantled and sold for a pittance until some of the old folk stepped in and saved this special little place. As a person who holds great concerns and sadness over what mining has done and continues to do, it’s odd to think that the history of mining shaped my life.
My parent’s moved to Captains Flat to a home they could afford and a place where they could raise their kids the “free-range” way. They bought a tiny miners cottage that they extended over the years, and we raised poultry, goats, dogs, cats and built a funky garden. Growing up here was living the mantra “it takes a village to raise a child”. Our home was always open to many, for a simple cup of tea to big bustling parties stretched out onto the lawn. The connections here were born out of necessity and have survived through shared values.
Captains Flat may no longer have an operational shop or petrol station and be known for the one time it flooded so hard they caught fish from the bowling green but it is a home and I’m so proud to call it my foundation.
Q. You have many gifts, but I think your superpower is that you're an incredible 'connector'. You have a knack for making friends and acquaintances, and your insatiable curiosity makes you a fantastic listener and absorber of information. Can you teach us how to be more like you? Seriously though, how did you become so good at connecting people?
Thank you! I’m not quite sure where I learnt this but I’ve known since my teenage years that irrespective of your age or appearance you want the same things as I do and that is a place from which we can connect. In all of us there is a desire for adventure, human connection, creative expression and wonder. This has shaped my interactions with others and built in me a need to help others achieve these desires. Whether it be in a personal or professional capacity, I want people to feel supported, in good company, to learn and value a range of skills and be excited about what might happen just around the corner.
This curiosity and capacity for connection is something I’m using to help build a more integrated food system in Canberra. I want other cooks and chefs to know who grows the best tomatoes, farmers to find a market, for people to find others they can forage blackberries with or learn to carve a great wooden spoon and encourage people not to live with fear but rather to know that changing this system is a collective work.
I think when you’re gifted a connection or you learn a new skill, sharing these with others is just part of the journey. Being generous with your connections is a heartwarming experience and one that is critical to systemic change.
Q. What did you study at University, and how did you come to work in the food industry?
Initially I had wanted to study painting but opted for a degree in Art History and Curatorship at the Australian National University. After taking a gap year to immerse myself in the galleries and adventure of Europe, Morocco and India, I jumped into the degree with great enthusiasm. As a second major I took up Gender, Sexuality and Culture and in the end completed honours in Gender, writing about contraceptive equality. This led me to a job at a local women’s health centre undertaking research and advocacy. From there I worked on migrant and refugee policy, focussing on access and equality and women’s rights. But in 2012 I jumped ship and plunged into WWOOFing through California - an education in itself! Inevitably I wrapped those Santa Ana winds around me and settled on a farm looking out over the Pacific just off Highway 1 on the cusp of Big Sur. I credit this place and the creativity of the community there for kick starting my desire for a different life - something simpler, closer to food sources.
I started A Forager’s Heart in late 2015 as a way to fulfil my creative culinary desires. I enrolled in the Le Cordon Bleu Master of Gastronomic Tourism, went to a Local is Lovely workshop and took up odd jobs catering and doing events while still working in the community sector. With the support and encouragement of family and friends, I made the jump in late 2016. I’m still nutting out this small business existence but I’m enjoying the connections, challenges and wonderful creative freedom it has afforded me. It’s tough at times but I’m acutely aware and thankful for my folks who paved the way for me be educated and to want to do life a little differently. I'm living a wonderful opportunity with a different set of challenges to previous or future generations.
Q. You've done a lot of world travel, do you think this has influenced your views of food and cooking? And what's been your favourite food destination?
100%. Everywhere I’ve gone food has been an anchor to each destination and each day. It’s opened my eyes to different ways of hosting, dining and the sourcing, preparation and serving of food. I’m fortunate to have been able to travel a lot. It might mean that I don’t have many of the other things people my age do - a linear career, a house, a long term relationship or kids, but it means I have a head and heart full of memories. Some of my favourites include: fresh goat cheese and honey sandwiches in a Moroccan desert, salmon caught and cured by a Californian neighbour, making croissants in a Parisian basement with my mum, fresh chapati in Jaipur, a freshly fallen mango from a Cuban forest and my first pastrami and rye in New York…
The food is not the only inspiration - there is artwork which made my eyes well with tears, learning about trade systems in the Palo Colorado canyon, fearing for my life at a date farm by the Salton Sea, hitch hiking across Cuba and finding love in unusual places. All of this was me putting myself out there, being vulnerable, being wild and saving a place in my heart just for me - for adventure, for learning, resilience building, for meeting new people and for savouring each day.
My favourite food destination? It’s a tough one but I think Morocco, Copenhagen and Seattle rank the highest so far!
Q. What are you working on right now and what are you looking forward to this year?
Right now I’m working on ways to focus and better articulate the aims of my small business. It's tough stuff when I have so many interests and am enthusiastic about many things. Running a business with so many different facets (catering, events and consultancy) is both challenging and rewarding. I get to do the things that make my heart sing but I’ve got to self motivate, make my own money and live in the fragile existence of self-driven routines and no paid leave.
There are many topics yearning for the space and time to concentrate on, namely cheese making, ferments and fishing. I’m also keen to highlight the role of women in hospitality and contribute to making this space more equitable.
I’m looking forward to working towards hosting and catering events alongside and targeted at people who share my passion for local, seasonal and sustainable ways of eating. I want people to be proud of this little capital and to revel in the amazing produce at our fingertips. I want people to also experience the simple pleasures of dining together in a world where eating alone is increasing.
Q. And finally, what would you want your final meal to be?
A wedge of raw milk stilton & ashed goats cheese from Neal's Yard Dairy, pickled onions, beet relish, pickled Brightside scapes and these exquisite sea salt wafers I have ever only had once before (the stuff of dreams). Raspberries from Imcah farm and a single chocolate from Stettler. At a dinner once my friend exclaimed after his first sip of wine “this wine has no bad tastes!” That’s the kind of wine I’d like to accompany my little platter - nothing pretentious but something with a great grower's story and arresting in a delicious way to the senses. And of course, fine company with an offbeat sense of humour, on a picnic rug in the wilds!
You can follow along on Jenni's many adventures over on her Instagram account - @aforagersheart