Every hour or so a gentle breeze would meander up the hill, working it’s way between the manicured rows of grape vines, momentarily bringing relief.
The day was hot, akin to hours cooking over a flaming fry stove. Like a bitter ex-lover the sun had quite the sting, and I regretted choosing solid black in tee-shirt selection earlier that morning, but was thankful remembering my white straw hat. The picking crew comprised mostly of vietnamese labourers, one german police officer on a working holiday, a Japanese student, and an English back-packer, all utilising working visas. I was one of only three locals helping out on the grape pick.
We were picking grapes that make the Chardonnay for a local winery each year. The plump bunches of grapes were beautifully sweet, good enough as a table grape. They were warm from the sun and exploded with initial sweetness, followed by tart and bitterness once chewed into the seeds and skin. I imagined these grapes on a platter with room temperature brie, roasted figs and jamon. Alas, this was a mere daydream occupying my a wandering mind during the monotony of snipping and tossing bunch after bunch of grapes into sticky white buckets. I’d fill a bucket in what felt like a handful of minutes, then I’d move onto a fresh empty one, where the bunches of grapes made hollow thud sound when they hit the bottom of the empty bucket. This rhythmic task had a cadence, at times it seemed endless.
The Vietnamese workers were efficient in every way, they are professional pickers, and I enjoyed working amongst them, frantically trying to keep to their pace, and although I had no idea what they where saying, I quietly laughed with their banter. You would find it difficult not to, the laughter was infectious. I wished for someone apt like Luke Nguyen, with his skill of translating that super fast language in the hope I could make sense of what was at the core of all the jokes. I wished it didn’t involve my over sized cowboy hat, although one of their crew was wearing a large novelty sombrero, obviously from a costume shop, reminiscent of the famous urban sombrero. So large that no sun touched his head, nor his shoulders for that matter, and he smiled at me a lot, maybe he thought we could be extras in a B grade Vietnamese western.
We continued to pick all day, excluding those moments when the crew simply dropped tools and broke for lunch or tea without so much as a mutter. They just walked off, ate some food, smoked a cigarette, and without fanfare returned to work just as they had left. No fuss, simply efficient, quite admirable.
The winery owner drove up and down the rows in a dusty red ATV towing a trailer fitted with a large tub. We’d pour the buckets of freshly picked grapes into the tub, the ATV would then disappear into a storage shed to be unloaded, return towing behind a new empty tub. Tubs and tubs were filled with Chardonnay grapes, all destined to be transported to a nearby town where the wine maker would press them within 24 hours, and the wine making process would commence.
We ended up picking around five tonne that day, which the wine maker seemed impressed by. In the afternoon, with the work completed, the bus loaded up with the vietnamese workers where I gave an awkward wave to a bunch of people I’d worked all day with, had not really spoken to, but was part of a team with. The back-packers shuffled off to their on farm accomodation and I opened the door of my van, greeted by the savage heat of a car interior that had been baking in the sun all day. With the windows quickly downed, I drove over the hills, headed home with a great big smile on my face having just agreed to do it all again the following week.
Yet another experience to add to the list.
Understanding the grapes I picked aren’t really food, instead they’ll make a stunning wine, it was the laborious experience which is adding to my collection of memories, forming a view of the food world. It’s our collective memories and experiences that influence our opinions and views, they define the prescription for glasses of our world view, and I’m fortunate to have had many experiences.
I grew up in the country, on a farm with cows, chickens, home grown food, fishing for trout, eel and crayfish, picking mushrooms, berries and preserving food on hot summer days for winter provisions. This life was relatively free and simple, full of those cliché rural experiences.
In my teen years I was sent to a city boys collage, where I quickly learnt that peer pressure was a thing. I learnt that if you didn’t have the right brand of shoes, the most up to date Sony Walkman, or an expensive skateboard that you where a nothing. Here I leant the perceived value of materialism.
In my twenties I worked corporate, I moved to the outer suburbs and lived amongst the community where many people strived to build wealth, to have an appearance of success, even if it was the suburban version. The new electronic house gadgets, expensive golf equipment, flat screen TVs, new cars, theatre rooms and renovated kitchens. I strived, and I failed, in the process teaching myself a great lesson in how I did NOT want to live.
In my late twenties I left the city, returning to a rural life where I felt more at home. I returned to University studying the field of Natural Resources and for a few years worked on a crew planting thousands of trees, shrubs, grasses and sedges in rehabilitation programs, ran community engagement and education programs on the importance of native vegetation whilst also spraying pesticides to control invasive woody weed species on crown land parcels.
I then secured an office as a pubic servant in state Government. This is where I learnt that it’s not wise to rock the boat when working in public service, in fact just pretend you’re not even in a boat, the boat doesn’t exist, nor does the ocean, but definitely complain about the apparent disappearance of life vests. I also learnt the importance of writing formal reports about the missing boat, the lack of ocean and applying for the funding for oars, but definitely not to be rock any boats or approved floatation devices.
I worked a bunch of other jobs from indie magazine publisher to wedding photographer and a few in between. I worked so much that I stopped looking after myself, got lazy in lifestyle, ate lots of crap food, didn’t exercises, drank excessively to self medicate unhappiness and I smoked like a chimney.
Then I started the hobby of growing food in my backyard, wrote about the journey online, was offered to write a book about it, then another. Toured internationally presenting talks on the experience, returned home having had a more great experiences, meeting a lot of people involved in food, having great discussion, developed a passion for food, its problems, its solutions. Dove into the deep end of research to explore as much as I could about food, how it’s produced and how it impacts on the natural world and human health.
I moved to an old farm house surrounded by industrialised conventional farming and got a first hand look into the realities of how food is produced on a large scale. You couldn’t ask for a more honest insight than living in a paddock surrounded by huge boom spraying tractors and helicopters flying overhead dusting crops with fungicides, pesticides and fertilisers. Learning how the potatoes are grown to make the french fries for Le’ Golden Arches has been a real eye opener, the sheer natural resources required, the water, the oil, it is an appropriate time to use the word phenomenal.
From a more existential experience, I’ve changed destructive yet quite common habitual lifestyle choices, lost weight, reduced medical ailments, and helped out the old mental health department. This has been the most profound of all the experiences, because I can see what CAN BE DONE. I can see past the bullshit of detox diets, dieting companies, green smoothies, processed ‘health food’ rectal pre-biotic trends and much, much more. I spend most of my days talking to people about food, reading about food, asking questions about food, discovering amazing things that most people just won’t see. This doesn’t make me smarter, more intelligent, an expert, nor does it mean my opinion is right or better than anyone else’s. Just like the day picking grapes with international labourers, it’s simply an experience that assists in developing a thought process. It’s about sharing the things I’ve learned, the things I’ve seen, heard and discussed.
It’s been eye opening, and it’s why I’m writing a novel about it.