How to create a self-producing garden

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George Francisco at Roberts Restaurant PHOTO: Roberts Restaurant
George Francisco at Roberts Restaurant PHOTO: Roberts Restaurant

Hearing the words “organic” and “sustainable” to describe ingredients on a restaurant menu is nothing new. It’s about as common as finding pre-loved crates used as furniture in any hip café in Sydney. But there is a big difference between the chefs that are all talk and the ones who can show you the literal fruits of their labour.

George Francisco, the Executive Chef at Tower Estate’s Roberts Restaurant, seems to be leading the pack of foraging chefs. His restaurant, nestled between Tower Lodge, Tower Wines and PepperTree Wines in the Hunter Valley, is home to a beautiful, inspiring garden.

Francisco teamed up with horiculturalist Elisa Fitzpatrick to plant their garden on a 1.5-acre lot of vines less than a year ago. The garden now drives both the Roberts Restaurant menu and adds to the self-sufficiency of the property.

“One of the biggest lessons I have learnt from the gardens is how hard it is to be organic. We have made our own soil and even bring in our own compost from organically fed cows. The garden has become a labour of love but will be the bearer of many fruits for Tower Estate for years to come,” said Francisco.

Francisco and Fitzpatrick began the garden by planting everything ever featured on Francisco’s menus. The result is a lovely patchwork design of different fruits, flowers, herbs and veggies.

The garden is also home to an adorable bunch of chickens that parade up and down the garden fertilizing the soil as they go. Francisco said they are one of the major attractions for children visiting the garden.

The chickens are one of the star attractions at the garden. PHOTO: Alexandra Meyer
The chickens are one of the star attractions at the garden. PHOTO: Alexandra Meyer

The changing seasons have proved a bit of a challenge for Francisco but they also come with benefits. Each season Francisco plants a few new ingredients and creates dishes in which to feature them. At the moment his favourite ingredients include the Rosella and the Wild Hibiscus.

“The flower buds can be made into jams and sorbets and are an amazing product. They jam on their own without adding anything other than a bit of sugar. In addition, zucchini flowers have always been a favourite and are the key ingredient in one of my signature dishes,” he said.

When you sit down to a meal at Roberts with the rustic wooden floors and cosy tables surrounding you it is all too easy to see the love and effort that has gone into the plate. One of Francisco’s signature dishes, the tempura ricotta filled zucchini flowers, is served resting on a bed of the freshest basil pesto sauce. If there was more time you would half expect the waiter to simply walk outside, grab a handful of basil and come back to the table with a mortar and pestle to make the pesto right there. Even without the show it still tastes as if that’s exactly what happened.

Francisco's signature zucchini flowers. PHOTO: Alexandra Meyer
Francisco's signature zucchini flowers. PHOTO: Alexandra Meyer

The zucchini flower dish seems to have all the components-a crisp exterior that gives easily letting the ricotta ooze slowly out over the petals, a slight crunch from the pine nuts within and a hint of sweetness from the currants. What really stands out though is the view out of the corner of your eye- seeing the fresh, earthy zucchini flowers out in the garden and knowing your meal has travelled less than ten steps to end up on your plate.

Even with the stand out ingredients served at Roberts like their free range hens and aged Rangers Valley rib eye the fresh produce steals the show and sets the restaurant apart. Not many places could outshine a tender, melting piece of rib eye with some simple veggies. But when those veggies become a plate of honeyed roasted butternut pumpkin with a crunchy toasted cashew praline shell or a bowl of black pepper blistered green beans served with crisp eschallots it’s a whole different story.

With the success of the garden, Francisco said he has seen a definite change in the success of the restaurant. Taking on Roberts Restaurant, which has always been known for its namesake Robert Molines, was a “questionable decision” but Francisco says the garden has been incredibly beneficial.

“The garden has enabled me to live out a lifelong and career-long dream of setting up a sustainable restaurant. This has started to change people’s perception of the restaurant. More and more we are known for the garden, chickens and bees and less for being the place Robert used to own,” he said.

The natural honey from the beehives. PHOTO: Alexandra Meyer
The natural honey from the beehives. PHOTO: Alexandra Meyer

When asked what’s next on the horizon Francisco’s answer was simple: bees.

“Right now I have one beehive. I plan to get a few more because I am in love with beekeeping. I love those little bees, they work so hard for us and their honey is so delicious and everyone loves it,” he said.

And for any home cooks out there thinking of following the trend or just having some fun in their backyard, Francisco has a few tips.

“It’s all about the soil!! Use organic compost, use organic poo. Get the soil right and everything will thrive. Another secret I think is natural water. We use rainwater and I think that it is better than city/town water,” he said.

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