November 24, 2022
Wine & Dine

The breaking of bread

Sitting down to a meal means a coming together of ideas and opinions and, in the case of this special lunch at the Watervale Hotel, cultures.

The breaking of the damper with wattle seed and kangaroo grass seed is a symbol of togetherness.

Watervale is a quaint town in the Clare Valley, complete with primary school, a general store that doubles as the post office and vistas of rolling vine-lined hills that force you to breathe deeply to soak it all in.

Wind back the years and the banks of the creek that runs through the town were traditional birthing grounds for local Ngadjuri women.

Watervale wasn’t a particularly safe place for the Ngadjuri people after European settlement. As with the rest of the country, many died of measles or smallpox, some were poisoned and those who survived were eventually transported to the Point Pearce mission on the Yorke Peninsula.

The women who travelled to the creek to birth their babies were often at risk of contracting disease, or of outright violence from the men of the town. But they had one ally among the Europeans and her name was Esther Greenslade, owner of the Watervale Hotel.

Watervale Hotel co-owner Nicola Palmer with Aunty Angelena Harradine after the momentous occasion breaking bread together.

The Ngadjuri women knew they had a friend in Esther, who was not only the pub’s owner – she took it over entirely when her husband Charles died – but probably the largest fresh produce farmer in the region.

Esther would bake bread for the Ngadjuri women and leave it for them to collect in a large hessian bag to take back to the creek.

The story of Esther has been passed down through the Ngadjuri generations, finally reaching Aunty Angelena Harradine, who is inspired by the love and generosity Esther displayed.

“I was told a story a long time ago about a beautiful woman,” Aunty Angelena says.

Nicola’s menu included kangaroo steak and kangaroo sausages, which she smoked outside in the hotel’s beer garden.

“I heard that Esther was a good woman and she fed our women. It’s that essence that we have to hold onto; we have to hold onto that good stuff.”

It’s with that spirit that Angelena walked into the Watervale Hotel about 18 months ago to connect with the hotel’s current co-owner, Nicola Palmer.

Nicola, who was just recently named the chef of the year at the Restaurant and Catering Awards, vividly remembers the day Angelena walked into her beer garden and her life.

“She walked in and told me she needed to break bread with me and, when she left, I was kind of like ‘What just happened? Is this real?’,” Nicola says.

“Angelena is just the most amazing woman. She said she just wants to celebrate the good stories, not the bad, and there are plenty of them, but she won’t stand in a room with anger or guilt.”

Nicola grew up in the Clare Valley but, looking back on her childhood and adolescence, she remarks on a notable absence of First Nations culture in the area.

“Growing up here, there was never any Aboriginal culture. It’s only recently I’ve wondered why there’s so little of that here.

“I’m incredibly honoured to be learning, in what I see as an authentic way, about their culture and discovering more about the history here.”

Nicola moved to the area when she was six after her parents bought Skillogalee winery and remembers being lured into the kitchen by her mother saying she was the fastest carrot peeler and had to show the staff how to do it.

Angelena and Nicola have spoken a lot about Esther and Angelena’s ancestors. After that first day at the pub, the pair had decided to honour the women by breaking bread together. However, the idea grew a life of its own and turned into today’s lunch with women from around the region and further afield wanting to witness the momentous gesture. The guests today have not only purchased a ticket for themselves, but also one for a Ngadjuri woman.

Driving through the Mid-North, many of the towns’ names hint at the heritage of the Ngadjuri land they sit on. Wirrabara means gum forest and native water. Yarcowie is wide water. Bungaree translates to my country.

While the names remain, there are barely any Ngadjuri people who live on the land, and today is about a first step at re-connection to Country.

“This land is calling out, and it’s calling ‘Ngadjuri come home’,” Angelena says.

Guests brought tea cups filled with untouched soil to combine together, with a view to healing the earth. The smoking ceremony was all about healing the people.

“I feel like Warrick and Nicola have been an opening for us to come back in, into a safe space.”

Everyone sitting in the Watervale Hotel’s beer garden today has come with stories to tell and is intent on listening to those of the other women there. There’s a theme that runs through the crowd and their reasons for being here today – quite simply, they just wanted to show up.

The idea of bread-breaking flourished into a full menu using native and organic ingredients, many of which were sourced from Warrick and Nicola’s own Penobscot Farm.

The organic and biodynamic farm, just up the road, came about by happy accident – just as Nicola and Warrick’s whole Watervale journey did. They’d bought their home and went into the pub for a steak when the owner at the time remarked they should have bought the hotel. By the time the steaks were done, they’d forged a handshake deal to become the new owners.

Smoked kangaroo fillet on a bed of creamed saltbush potatoes.

Then, in the general store, they met the partner of a local biodynamic farmer and their plans grew to include Penobscot.

In their journey to acquaint themselves with Ngadjuri culture, Warrick and Nicola have been researching the local traditional farming practices.

“From what I’m told, the Clare Valleys were an oasis of Ngadjuri country,” Warrick says.

“There was a thick layer of organic soil, held together by native grasses, sitting on clay on limestone.”

With the introduction of sheep and other pests, the native grasses were eliminated and erosion began, destroying the top soils.

“At Penobscot we’re really into regenerative agriculture and there’s so much to learn from the way the Ngadjuri farmed.”

As the guests file in to today’s lunch, several cradle a teacup full of soil in their hands.

They’ve dug into undisturbed soil beneath gum trees and native grasses on their land.

The soil was mixed, ready to go into Penobscot’s Johnson-Su bio reactors, which create a high level of fungal and bacterial content to spread back into the soil.

Plucked from the farm were the first shoots of kangaroo grass, its seeds crushed to make bread. Nicola and Angelena both had a hand at crushing wattle seeds sourced from the top of Ngadjuri country for the bread.

When it comes out, the weight of the moment is on everyone’s faces and in Nicola’s voice. “This has been an amazing experience to learn more about Angelena’s culture and to help bring people together to learn how we might walk together on Ngadjuri land going into the future.”

The bread is officially broken and as the scent of smouldering eucalyptus from the smoking ceremony begins to subside, the first course arrives on the long tables.

The kingfish ceviche is a riff on the regular menu item that comes with a Vietnamese mint sorbet, but today, it’s served with pigface and native river mint sorbet. There’s also a kangaroo and saltbush sausage that has been slowly smoking away on the hotel’s asado-style barbecue.

Watervale Hotel owners Warrick Duthy and Nicola Palmer.

The next course is braised kangaroo tail, smoked kangaroo fillet and a fennel and orange salad with quince vinaigrette. To finish, there’s quandong cake with rosella syrup and wattle seed ice cream.

The day is filled with joyous cultural moments; there’s a moving piece read out by First Nations poet and stolen child Ali Cobby-Eckermann, the beautiful music of Mahala Sultan and a dance performance by the younger Ngadjuri generation.

The positivity and change Aunty Angelena was hopeful of before the event is coming to life before her eyes.

“You wouldn’t sit in a room in stale air all day, would you? You have to open the windows and open the doors,” she says.

The guests said they were at the lunch to show up, listen and learn.

“I think Australia needs to open its doors and windows. I think people need to open their hearts and their minds and that’s what is happening here.

“You have to go backwards to come forward and that’s what trauma is. We sit together at the table in safety, acknowledging each other.

“The bread bag is open, the bread is on the table, let’s break it.”



This article first appeared in the October 2022 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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