Pioneer: Amorelle Dempster, Slow Food advocate and market pioneer with pumpkins in Maitland in May. Picture: Jonathan CarrollAmorelle Dempster grew up in Sri Lanka. Her father was a spice trader. When she was younger, she would go with him, down to the market trading floor to buy spice. Her father would store piles and piles of turmeric and clove, pepper and ginger, cinnamon and cardamom all around the house, and Amorelle would sleep in her bed, right beside these piles of spice.
“The smell was totally intoxicating,” Dempster recalls. “I just loved it.”
She learnt to cook in her mother’s kitchen; smelling and tasting, and sensing the seasons by the freshness of the food around her.
“When the jackfruits or rambutans were ripe, you gorged on them, and we would just indulge ourselves when it was time for mangoes . . .
“I remember when crab season was on, you could hear the crabs before you actually saw them,” Dempster says. “Mud crabs would be harvested from the lagoons around the village. You could hear the click of their pincers hitting against the posts. When you heard this sound you knew that it was crab season.”
Eating fresh food, seasonally, was normal for an adolescent Dempster. It instilled in her a sense of pleasure and place in the food she ate.
Market hands: Dempster and Helen Hughes at the markets last year.
“You looked forward to eating something different . . . and it would be in abundance, because it was in season,” she says.
The Hunter Valley has a rich history of farming and food production, from dairying, beef cattle, lamb and other livestock, poultry, vegetables and other food crops.
The region of Maitland, in particular, has been an important food bowl for the Hunter Valley and beyond for almost 200 years. Until recently, the modern community was cultivated by agriculture, and, thus, on seasonality.
“When I came to , I remember going to the supermarket and being able to buy anything I wanted, anytime of the year, regardless of the season,” Dempster says. “I’d never experienced anything like that before.”
She recalls trying to cook with some of the produce from the supermarket.
“I discovered this, sort of . . . blandness in all this so-called ‘fresh’ food,” she says. “There was no real sense of flavour, because the food had obviously travelled so far from where it was grown.”
In 2012: Dempster promoting slow food ahead of the Newcastle Home Show.
The modern-day industrialised food system enables the supply of relatively cheap food to a large proportion of the world’s population. However, there are significant social, economic, environmental, and health related costs for both city and country communities, which are often obscured within the system and poorly understood. Such a food system creates a detached experience for people with respect to how our food is grown or produced and where it actually comes from. It also places enormous financial pressures onto farmers who are more or less obliged to grow food as cheaply as possible.
Pumpkin RevolutionFor instance, back in March 2016 two Morpeth pumpkin farmers were offered between 20 to 25 cents per pumpkin by the supermarkets. Later, these same supermarkets planned to sell these same pumpkins for up to $3 a kilogram.
“When I heard about this, I was so upset. 25 cents a pumpkin is just outrageous,” Dempster says.
In 2009: Dempster and chef Barry Meikeljohn promoting healthy food.
In fact, it was cheaper for the farmers to plough the 20 tonnes of pumpkins back into the ground, rather than take them to market in Sydney.
“I knew we had to do something,” she says. “So, we had a pop-up pumpkin stall at The Levee in Maitland. So many people came out to buy these pumpkins at a fair price and show their support for their local farmers. It was just wonderful.”
As a chef and the leader of Slow Food Hunter Valley, Amorelle Dempster has been helping to cultivate community by stirring up a local food revolution. After the complete success of the pumpkin pop-up, Dempster and her volunteer crew of Slow Food foodies established the Earth Markets in Maitland, held on the first and third Thursday of each month.
“We wanted to create a space where the community could meet directly with the farmers and food producers and create a sense of joy around food again,” she says. “What has been overwhelming for me is that the community has embraced the markets and taken responsibility for their food by saying, ‘we want to support our farmers, we want locally grown food that’s good, clean and fair’.”
The ongoing success of farmer’s markets, like the Earth Markets in Maitland, demonstrates that there is the potential for a positive future for our local growers and farmers to be able to move away from the big supermarket duopolies via community supported agricultural movements.
Initially inspired by her memories and the seasonal joy of food growing up; the fragrant scent of spice, the pincer clicks of lagoon fresh crabs, the ripe abundance of fleshy mangoes and sweet rambutans, even the simple pleasures found in something as humble as a pumpkin, Dempster is helping to change the way her local community thinks about the importance and provenance of their own locally grown food.
“Food is just essential to who we are,” Dempster says. “There’s so much pleasure to be found in food . . . Such incredible pleasure to be found in tasting something that’s in season and so fresh and delicious. Food that’s completely pure just takes my breath away.”