The One-Block Feast by Margo True and the staff of Sunset Magazine
Posted Wednesday 03 August 2011on:
I’ve lived in cities all my life. While I spent my childhood in high rise apartment buildings, Mr S was roaming freely on a farm. I cannot garden except to water and I’ve drowned cactus and succulent plants!
The previous owners of our home in Sydney had a flourishing garden bed of garish tropical plants which Mr S dug up and dispose of over several weekends. The roots were deep and stubborn, and we hurriedly replaced them with Japanese maple trees and lilly pilly shrubs.
We returned from my first foray to a nursery with ceramic pots and herb seedlings. We had an abundance of basil but our chilli, cherry tomato and strawberry plants yielded only handful in total. The single chilli was mild, the two strawberries were fragrant and very sweet, and the three cherry tomatoes were juicy and flavoursome. I consider this a failure but at least the plants didn’t wither and die.
I had intended on waking early and baking scones but my plan was foiled by a long dinner and a late movie the night before. Instead, I bought some coconut macaroons and berry biscuits from Dahlia Bakery. With a chewy crust and a moist centre, the coconut macaroon was perfect with a cup of tea.
Although expensive, I have indulged in several bowls of Rainier cherries this summer. The golden orbs have a delicate and refreshing sweetness that contrasts with the richness of the crimson variety.
Shirley arrived with several boxes from Fuji Bakery. The plain white boxes protected an array of freshly baked goods. There was a selection of flaky croissants, including pain au chocolat, almond croissant and croissant café mocha.
On the left is brioche Suisse. Buttery and golden, the brioche dough is studded with chocolate and orange peel, and filled with Grand Marnier chocolate custard.
My favourites were the fruit pastries. Glossy and blowtorched, the fruits were thinly sliced, fanned out symmetrically and baked until soft and translucent.
In her soft and soothing voice, Margo traced the conception of the One-Block Diet to the cookbook. The Sunset magazine office is on five acres of land and the One-Block Diet evolved from exploring how to report on local eating. The challenge was to grow every ingredient on the menu to embody the narrative.
Margo pointed out that the flaw was to plan the menu first and consider the growing second. The intention of the One-Block Diet was to replicate a suburban backyard, to demonstrate to readers that they too can grow food as part of their lifestyle.
The commitment to growing and sourcing every ingredient from their one block garden necessitated research into seasonality and production methods. Pantry staples such as cooking fat, sweetener and seasoning had to be made. The initial idea was to grow corn for oil but the team soon realised the corn to oil ratio was beyond their five hundred square feet, and peanuts grow in a colder climate than California. Olive groves were planted on the Sunset grounds in the ’50s and the team cultivated the single tree that was within the border of the block.
Bees were kept for a sweetener and to pollinate the garden. Chilli and herbs were grown for seasoning. For salt, the team ‘imported’ sea water from ten miles away, and they were gifted a vinegar ‘mother’ to brew their own. The one-block diet philosophy was if it cannot be grown, they will transform locally sourced ingredients by hand. Margo listed salt, vinegar and cheese as easy to make.
Wheat, barley and hops were planted for beer and the team hand-picked six hundred pounds of Syrah at a local winery and crushed the grapes by feet. Wine making was intense physical work for two, three weeks and then the wine was aged for one year.
The staff was divided into teams (Team Chicken, Team Bee, Team Vinegar et cetera) and the menu was the road map. Unfortunately the olive trees were infested with fruit maggots and Team Olive had to ‘import’ olives for grinding and pressing.
It was a delight to hear Margo describe how ingredients were grown and produced. ‘Ground olives look like chopped liver’, ‘pressed olive oil is a bright vibrant green colour’, ‘if vinegar smells like furniture polish, throw it out’ and ’home made vinegar is strong and slightly fizzy, has to be diluted’.
Margo was animated when talking about the Sunset chickens, bees and cow. The entire team took turns to encourage the chickens to lay eggs with chants of ‘lay, lay!’. The free range farm fresh eggs were ‘velvety and voluptuous’, and every egg was different in shape and taste. Margo commented that it takes effort to standardise food for consumers.
The team visited a beekeeper who promised to ‘shift their paradigm’. ‘Humming, vibrating, electrifying’, bees are highly intelligent insects that are loyal, organised and industrious. The team also have a share in a neighbourhood cow, Holly the Jersey, who lives on a farm.
Margo spoke with eloquence and generously shared her passion. She explained how working closely together as a team to produce food has evoked an emotional response, a deep understanding for the ancient and natural rhythm of growing, nurturing, harvesting and eating.
Margo’s eyes sparkled as she declared it ‘profoundly satisfying to know how much of food is alive … it is our place in nature to create a habitat for other living organisms’. There is collective sadness when a chicken dies or a plant shrivels.
Margo has developed an appreciation for artisanal food and is more willing to pay for it now. As an example, the vinaigrette was made with four ingredients and it took one and half years’ of work to make.
Margo and the Sunset team are an inspiration. They were beginners and have documented their projects for readers to cook, grow, or both. Margo wrote with a quiet enthusiasm, a genuine love for her vocation. She happily detailed successes and disasters were narrated with humour. ‘Nature always leads, and a smart cook learns how to dance’ – this is the essence of Margo and the One-Block Feast.
I purchased the book and was gifted a small jar of honey from the Sunset bees. Hand-harvested, each batch has a distinctive smell and taste depending on where the bees have flown for blossoms!
Sincere thanks to Myra for hosting and to Margo for making the time for us at such short notice.