She didn’t grow up in the country but there’s something about rural life that keeps drawing Mim Ward back. The talented cook hosted a farewell of sorts in her beautiful Spalding home before setting off on her next outback adventure with husband Bruce Ross.
Country fare: a Mid North dinner party with Mim Ward
Oppy the kelpie cross waits eagerly on the verandah of his country homestead, a friendly welcoming party as guests begin to arrive down the long, dirt driveway.
The sun is setting on this beautiful Spalding property, north of the Clare Valley, and Mim Ward has raced home from work to put the finishing touches on tonight’s dinner party fare.
Mim, who is the regional tourism manager for Clare Valley and the Southern Flinders Ranges, has lived in Spalding for the past 10 years since she and husband Bruce Ross bought the local general store.
However, they recently sold that business and Mim will soon pack up and join Bruce in Coober Pedy where he has already taken up his next role – driving thousands of kilometres each week doing the mail run from Coober Pedy to William Creek and Oodnadatta.
“We do seem to love a country adventure,” says Mim, as she spoons out the marinade on tonight’s main course, chicken marbella, from Ottolenghi’s Simple cookbook.
There is a chorus of “hellos” as guests let themselves in through the front door, walking straight down the hallway, country style, to join the party in the kitchen.
Gradually, with glasses of bubbles in hand, everyone begins to move out to the old-school side verandah, its corrugated iron and fly screen walls enough protection on this unusually warm autumnal evening.
In the distance, the sounds of a farmer working his header machine drift in, as hungry guests begin to tuck into the hummus, salsa and pita bread starter.
Mim’s sister Alice Colgrave has driven from Adelaide for tonight’s gathering, as has Mim’s long-time school friend Lib Boylan. Most of the other guests are country locals, including Mim’s neighbour Fiona McSporran, who runs a nearby farm, and wine writer Nick Ryan who lives 20 minutes up the road. Other guests include Mim’s good friend Ange Ruddenklau, who runs Ruddenklau Wines and went to school with Alice, and Mim’s brother in-law Steven Richter and his partner Anthea Pavy, who have made the trek from Crystal Brook.
It’s clear that Mim is relaxed when it comes to cooking for big numbers. That may have something to do with the fact that she has worked in or owned country pubs across South Australia and Victoria for the past 30 years, often thrust into the kitchen at short notice if a chef didn’t turn up.
While she initially trained as a nurse after leaving school, Mim says she was always drawn to hospitality and worked part-time at the Norwood Hotel in the 1980s where she became good mates with Jane Fargher. Jane and her husband Ross went on to run The Prairie Hotel in Parachilna in the Flinders Ranges and invited Mim to work there in the early 1990s.
“When I first went to The Prairie, I used to have to cook the breakfasts, which was pretty funny because I hated eggs,” Mim says. “I’d be dry retching as I cooked. Luckily, I’m over that phobia now.
“They did have chefs, but sometimes you’d be needed to step in and that was the most stressful thing in the world. People would come in and say, ‘Can I have the pasta carbonara?’, and I didn’t even know what it was. I used to have to ring Jane.
“It was hell and that’s what I’ve always said about commercial kitchens – they can be very stressful environments, so I take my hat off to anyone who works in one. But they always had great chefs at The Prairie.
“I went back there a lot over the years and every time you’d learn something different from each chef, you’d learn how to do a feral mixed grill and burgers, all those basic pub meals. I also learnt how to do scones.”
Mim went on to study tourism and business management at TAFE in her early 30s, where she was able to combine her formal and practical skills during her many stints back at The Prairie.
It was there in 1997 she first met Bruce who was working on catering for Opera in the Outback. Then he and Mim both ended up working on The Great Outback Cattle Drive in 2002 and they have been together ever since.
Part of the attraction, no doubt, has been that both Mim and Bruce are drawn to outback life and relish the challenge of giving it a go in regional and, at times, isolated locations.
In 2004, the couple’s first foray into country pubs was running the Redesdale Hotel in Victoria, where Mim, again, was often called upon to work in the kitchen, honing her pub grub repertoire.
“I would just wing it,” she says. “I never wanted to be a chef but because we’ve had our own hotels, I had to teach myself how to run a kitchen, so I could do it in the event we didn’t have a chef.
“I remember one guy from another local restaurant came in and ended up sending his meal back because it was raw, which was fair. It was a rack of lamb that wasn’t cooked properly.”
Growing up, Mim admits she had no interest in cooking and, amazingly, as one of 12 children, she managed to avoid it.
She says that’s because she was a middle child – her older sisters would help their mum Joan in the kitchen, then younger sister Alice showed an interest in cooking – meaning Mim was rarely called upon.
Due to the large numbers, the Ward family would have two sittings for dinner each night – the younger six children would eat in the kitchen at the family’s long wooden table, while the older six would dine in the formal dining room with their father, Kevin.
“I was in the younger group and it was a lot more fun in the kitchen, so we tried to stay in there as long as we could,” Mim says. “While we were eating, mum would be plating up for the second sitting in the dining room.
“Poor mum, she was a great provider, but I think she did find it really hard every night thinking, ‘What am I going to cook?’. She would mainly do stews, roasts, curried sausages, it was that really basic Irish cooking and Dad would do a barbecue on Sundays.”
When she moved out of home at age 17, Mim lived in a share house in North Adelaide and luckily many of her friends were foodie types. People such as well-known caterer Paul Fitzgerald, Julie Taddeo, Heather Bryon and Janet Sloan.
“They all ended up caterers, cooks or chefs, and were all interested in food,” Mim says. “So, even if I had a dinner party, they’d offer to lend a hand and then kind of just push you out of the kitchen and finish it off. So, I liked the idea of cooking, I liked the idea of chopping things up and putting it together and then making something out of that, but I didn’t ever have the confidence to do it. It wasn’t really until I went into pubs that I got more confident in the kitchen.
“Even now I’m not overly confident, but I know that I can put flavours together and it’s going to come out half decent.”
Judging by tonight’s guests who are devouring their dinner, the flavours are a lot more than “half decent”. The entree is a particular hit, burrata with chargrilled grapes and basil, another Ottolenghi favourite, followed by the chicken marbella with couscous, a green salad and crusty bread.
“I have a bit of an Ottolenghi crush,” Mim admits.
There is a lovely, cohesive feeling among tonight’s guests, warm friendships formed over many years, across different locations.
These are friendships built on the bonds of country living, where friends and neighbours can rely on each other through the inevitable highs and lows of regional life.
Tonight, talk turns to the worst of times for guest Ange, whose husband Tim Ruddenklau tragically passed away 18 months ago from an aneurysm.
Tim was a much-loved grape grower and winemaker of the region, a loveable larrikin whose death has left a gaping hole in this close-knit community, and among his friends sitting here at the table tonight.
Ange explains that after Tim died, the community embraced her and their children, delivering hot meals, a helping hand and plenty of love and support. It culminated in a huge celebration of Tim’s life – a gathering of more than 650 people at Hughes Park in the Clare Valley, raising a glass in Tim’s honour.
“It was amazing,” Ange says. “Tim would have loved it.”
Tonight’s wine list includes Ruddenklau’s 2019 cabernet sauvignon, “The Lone Kiwi”, named after Tim who hailed from New Zealand – he is very much remembered and honoured tonight with each sip.
Most of tonight’s wines celebrate local labels including the Skillogalee Riesling and the 2017 Wendouree Cabernet Malbec and Hurtle Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir by O’Leary Walker Wines.
Wine expert Nick keeps the glasses topped up as dessert arrives on the table – a deconstructed cheesecake with amaretti and hazelnut crumble (another Ottolenghi recipe), where the star of the show is Mim’s homegrown quinces, poached the day before.
Using the supplies on hand and often “making do” was something Mim and Bruce honed when they ran the William Creek Hotel from 2009 to 2012.
The friendly duo was in many ways the perfect pair to run such an isolated and iconic outback pub, always happy to chat to customers over the bar and keep the country hospitality coming.
“We loved the location as well as the challenge,” Mim says. “I think we were so fortunate to do something like that because it’s something that not a lot of people get the opportunity to do.
“You do put yourself into a situation that can be a bit of an adventure and you really sort of make it up a lot of the time as you go along. I mean, we only got supplies once a fortnight, but we rarely ran out of food. If you did, you’d have to say to someone, ‘Can you just pop into Coober Pedy and pick up this, this and this?’, and that would take them eight hours. Hopping to the corner shop was a full day excursion.”
Mim says there was water in Lake Eyre for the entire time they ran the William Creek pub, meaning tourists came streaming in to see Australia’s largest salt lake, which is almost 650 kilometres north of Adelaide.
“The most meals we did on any one day was about 180 for lunch,” Mim says. “I didn’t do that, we had a chef for that one, thank God. For dinner, if the dining room was full, you’d probably do 50 to 60, and during the main part of the season we would do two sittings. I’m exhausted just talking about it.”
But Mim says she also embraced the isolation and novelty of her William Creek experience.
“Coming from a big family, you know you’d go to bed and there were always three other people in your bedroom, so I actually really enjoyed that isolated feeling, but there were also just so many people that came through,” she says.
“It was the same at The Prairie, you’d meet more people on a daily basis in those places than you ever would do in the city. It was a constant stream of changing faces and you just never knew who was going to walk through the door.”
Tonight, as the lone farmer continues to work his paddock in the distance, guests are preparing to leave, heading out into the crisp Spalding night, with full bellies and happy hearts.
In many ways, tonight has been a farewell dinner for Mim, who must now turn her mind to packing up this house and heading off to her next outback adventure.
“I’ll miss it here,” she says. “But we’ll be back. I’ve got plans to work on the garden and also extend the house and create a big outdoor area out the back.”
Considering the immediate Ward clan, with in-laws, nieces and nephews and great nieces and nephews, now stands at around 100, there’s a high chance Mim might need that bigger entertaining space – plenty of room for more dinner parties and celebrations of life with family and friends in this homely, rustic slice of country life.
This article first appeared in the June 2023 issue of SALIFE magazine.
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