WITH red Russian kale, rainbow chard and a vibrant kaleidoscope of carrots and chillies, it may come as no surprise that the owners of Bellellen Grampians Organics, Meg and Rod Blake, are as equally colourful characters as their striking range of produce.
The couple’s knowledge, progressive approach and enthusiasm abounds from enlightening customers with information about how to cook or use particular interesting and unusual vegetables to try-before-you-buy sample tastings.
Mr Blake, affectionately known as Blakey, followed family tradition and started out as a conventional broadacre farmer.
However after hearing a radio program on medicinal herbs he became inspired to explore this area as a new venture.
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“Our 55 hectare property Bellellen is 12 kilometres south west of Stawell on the eastern slopes of the Grampians in Victoria,” Mr Blake said.
“By 1997 we were OGA Certified Organic and commercially planted culinary herbs.”
Mrs Blake said as a Mediterranean climate, the location is not a traditional horticultural region.
“However many perennial herbs are well suited to the area as are root crops. With the increased importation of medicinal herbs we subsequently expanded our vegetable plantings of garlic along with onions,” she said.
Continual dry seasons saw further rationalisation of crops and 2006 also saw the Grampians Mt Lubra bushfire pass through the property destroying shedding, drying shed containing crops, irrigation infrastructure and 70 per cent of the fencing.
Stage 4 Water restrictions and the significant setback resulted in serious planning being put in place.
The Blakes compost, grow green manure crops to help improve the impoverished alluvial soil and as the integrity of seeds is essential, saving seeds is practiced at every opportunity.
Alternatively they are purchased from Certified Organic suppliers and cuttings and rhizomes are also used where possible.
Crops include rainbow chard, shallots, herbs, leaf lettuce and Asian greens as well as heritage carrots, beetroot and radishes.
On trend chillies, tomatillos (aka Mexican husk tomatoes) and yacons, an ancient Inca root vegetable that can be eaten raw, cooked or preserved further extend the intriguing range which immediately captivates curious customers.
“We continue to grow mostly heritage vegetables and I love to try out anything I pick up on,,” Mrs Blake said.
“We have been growing tomatillos now for four years and really, other than encouragement from Mamasita Mexican restaurant in Melbourne, it has been a limited clientele until this year.
“By chance I met a Mexican chef who was working casual at Harvest Halls Gap and he has promoted the fact that we grow fresh tomatillos.
“We now have a strong following but sadly it’s a summer crop so we have come to the end of season.”
Mrs Blake also produces a range of value-add products including a tomatillo jalapeños salsa, which contains 98pc estate-grown produce, (the cumin is from Iran) and her Grumpy Granny’s Garlic sauce is a blend of their garlic, cayenne chillies and onions.
“I grew 80 heritage tomatoes and 200 chillies all from our own saved seed last year. Padron pepperss were not overly successful this year, but fans of Spanish food love them,” she said.
Padrón peppers known as Pimientos de Padrón are sweet green peppers that hail from Galicia in NW Spain where they have been grown for hundreds of years.
Packed with flavour and vitamins, these versatile peppers can be simply fried in oil until the skin begins to blister and eaten with a sprinkling of salt, stuffed with cheese and chopped chorizo or wrapped in jamon – however, be aware occasionally you may strike a rogue hot one.
“This year I only grew about ten chilli varieties. I managed Trinidad Scorpion and Carolina Reaper, though seriously there is no market for them, just curiosity,” Mrs Blake said.
“We did a few ghosts, lots of cayenne, three colours of habenero, Scotchmans bonnet, jalapeno, padron, serrano and we tried new varieties for us – Thai red, aji lemoni, poblano and Amarillo for the first time.”
The Blakes grow a fair bit of garlic, some of which they smoke and also process to add to other ingredients with smoked salt for their grinders and refill range. New to their range is smoked jalapeno salt.
“We still dry, flake and grind chillies, grow, dry harvest herbs and process Mediterranean herbs, some culinary, some medicinal including a nice crop of Echinacea purpurea,” Mrs Blake said.
As the awareness of the food industry and healthy growing practices are increasingly under the microscope, knowledge by consumers of Certified Organic grows and interest locally has resulted in the couple supplying a few vegetable boxes on a regular basis.
“We are proud all our products are grown, processed and packaged on farm,” she said.
“Three Melbourne Farmers Markets and two at South Geelong keeps us busy and we really enjoy the interaction with the city folk, knowing so many of the regulars by their first names, and we trade ideas and learn from them also.
“Due to our age, we take lots longer to get things done. One could say it keeps us busy and never bored.
“It’s great to have a reason to get out of bed, mostly early, like 2am Saturday morning to be in Melbourne by 6am.”