Growing plants is a birth right for James Viles, owner and chef of Biota, the two-hatted destination diner in Bowral. The nursery of his babyhood was a horticultural one, Camellia Grove Nursery, on Sydney’s North Shore, which his horticulturist mother, Cathy Viles, ran before the family moved to a farm in Scone, and later to Bowral. Viles briefly lost touch with plants when, as chef de cuisine of a five-star hotel in Dubai, he sat in an air-conditioned room and ordered produce from all over the world. Now he’s gardening again, and loving it, as he writes in his new book, ‘Biota’, published by Murdoch.
Edibles are squeezed into the Biota gardens wherever there is space. The terrace and verandah look over a lake edged with dark purple iris to the surprise of a poly tunnel squatting like a giant white grub at the bottom of the lawn. It’s not a particularly photogenic backdrop, but it is central to the Biota project. Seed, ordered from Eden Seeds, Greenpatch, and 4Seasons, and collected from the plants grown in the garden, is raised in the 30m poly tunnel. Some seedlings are used as shoots and sprouts, others go on to populate a small kitchen garden, a fenced-off patch in the chook run, and an assembly of raised beds behind the property’s 15 guest rooms.
“What we grow here and pick from the garden is what makes our plates different,” explains Viles. Vegetables, leaves, flowers, sprouts and fronds have starring roles. A flutter of white dianthus and orange nasturtium petals covers a scoop of homemade fresh cheese, served alongside a curl of Balmain bug. A dessert called Mum’s roses showers poached peach and peach sorbet with frozen rose meringue, rose petals and baby chocolate mint leaves.
Plants are tasted and tested at every stage of their development and are smoked, charred, pickled and fermented in the hunt for delicious. It turns out the very-strong flavoured and rarely eaten herb rue, which is usually grown for its insect repellent properties, adds a great vegetative flavour to a stock; the seed pods of radish are good blanched and chilled; fennel fronds are delicious when crystallised; and Jerusalem artichokes make a tasty ice cream.
Gardeners are used to trial and error, and Viles is not immune. The Jerusalem artichoke patch over-delivered this year and he ended up selling what he couldn’t use to Aria; he lost $200 worth of seed last spring when a late frost taught a costly lesson about sowing too early. But his culinary trials are the lesson for gardeners. Viles’ close attention to the beauty of plants and the range of flavours they offer is an inspiring invitation to food gardeners to look more creatively as what’s growing in the garden. Viles can even turn bug-holed, spent lettuce into something you want to eat more than once! Eat at Biota, or read the book, and you’ll look on the vegetable patch with new eyes.
I’m leading a garden tour of Holland and Belgium next spring with Viking cruises. We’ll enjoy the ease and comfort of a river cruise, (love that unpack once thing!) with plenty of great garden moments at the height of tulip season. It will be just a small group and we’ll have a ball. Read the full itinerary on the brochure here.
Spring blooms with Robin Powell