Why chefs love local and seasonal produce


Nick Rose

First published in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 1.1.11

When he first arrived in Coffs Harbour five years ago with his family to open Fiasco’s Restaurant and Bar, Stefano Mazzina found himself in an unfamiliar landscape. Unlike his native Lake Como in Northern Italy (north of Milan, near the Switzerland-Italian border), everything in the food and agricultural business seemed large-scale and anonymous.

Stefano Mazzina, Proprietor of Fiasco Restaurant, Coffs Harbour
Stefano Mazzina, Proprietor of Fiasco Restaurant, Coffs Harbour

This was a big change from Lake Como, where the majority of produce was local, small-scale and specialist to that region, both for the restaurants and for householders. Stefano fondly remembers a strong local cheese-making tradition from his childhood, which is still continuing today:

“Everybody had a couple of cows…and they used to bring their milk into this house where they made cheeses…your repayment for bringing in the milk, was cheese and butter – you never saw money [changing hands]. So this tradition of [local produce], that’s where I’m coming from”, he says.

Stefano also noticed a big difference in the way people related to, and understood, food, when he came to Australia. Unlike in Italy, he says, “there is not the [same] understanding of food [yet], especially in terms of vegetables.”

“People see vegetables in terms of people being meat eaters, or vegetarians, but there is not a fusion of looking at food in general”, he continues. “[For example], some of my chefs here didn’t want to try lentils, but I said, in Italy we eat everything – everything is dictated by the weather, the terrain, and the [culture of the] region. The menus vary with the seasons – they follow the seasons, what’s around – [local produce] is cheaper, it lasts longer, it has a better flavour – it just makes sense.”

He is now working hard to bring this tradition of incorporating local, seasonal produce into his menus at Fiasco. His main supplier, Phil [A & D Fruit and Vegetables] has a good percentage of local produce on his list. “That’s lettuce, mushrooms, strawberries, blueberries, cherry tomatoes, oranges, limes – soon there’s going to be zucchini, green beans, parsley, coriander, basil, – it’s good produce”, says Stefano.

There are many advantages, Stefano says, in having a menu oriented towards local, seasonal produce:

“Having more local produce makes the life a lot easier for a chef, because he’s got more to get inspired by – rather than just buying the same things – there’s no variety [in doing that]. With local produce, you don’t have to have a single menu that runs all year…you can use the seasons, and use the growers’ input, to [craft] the menu and make it more interesting and sustainable.”

In addition, because the produce is fresher, its quality and taste is better. Lower food miles means far less pollution than vegetables from the big central markets. And buying local stimulates the local economy:

“The money stays in town – [and] it comes around. The farmers knows I’m buying from them, and I keep them in business, and maybe one day they’ll come to my restaurant!”

If possible, Stefano would like to encourage more local growers to produce food especially (though not exclusively) for his restaurant. He experimented with this recently, when he provided a local grower with some purple carrot seeds.

With so much dairy in the region, Stefano believes that there is a real lack of value-adding to dairy produce, and especially cheese.

“If I could buy local cheeses, I wouldn’t buy other cheeses. We make ricotta here, from goat’s milk, I know some basic cheese-making techniques…but I’m not a cheese maker, you need an expert for that”, he says.

“In Italy, we used to make a lot of fresh and soft cheeses locally, the blue cheeses – caprini, buffalo mozzarella – [but] you need someone who has the knowledge to do it…”

So here’s a challenge for the Coffs Coast – any budding local cheese-makers out there? And if not, how can we support the establishment of a cheese-making tradition?