If you are interested in organic gardening, sustainable architecture, sourdough bread, wood fired baking and/or good living - please read today’s post. It’s one of my favourite so far on the blog and I am so proud to bring you all the story of Wendy and Kim Muffet and Girragirra Green Living.
Just five minutes out of the Central Western NSW town of Forbes, Wendy and Kim have created a completely sustainable home, retreat and garden completely in keeping with the Wiradjuri, meaning of their property’s name; roughly translated, Girragirra means "be well, be happy, be merry."
The 50-acre organic farm incorporates a food garden, self-contained luxury accommodation, a home for Wendy and Kim, their beloved wood-fired oven and a billabong of crystal clear water that doubles as the family’s swimming pool during Forbes’ hot summers.
The building was designed by award-winning sustainability architect Tone Wheeler and is pretty much exactly the kind of house I’d love to live in one day. The design is intuitive, inspiring, completely energy efficient and the interior spaces are a delight to be in. Sigh.
In addition to the retreat that they manage, Wendy and Kim have also discovered a bit of a love affair with baking bread and cooking in their wood fired oven. Please read the below e-interview for with them more on how and why the Muffat’s like this and be inspired, like I am, to work towards doing the same. And because Wendy is such a generous, clever cook, she’s also given us her recipe for roasted tomato and garlic jam (see below) which we had for lunch on sourdough with goat’s cheese on the day I visited. The perfect way to use up all those early Autumn tomatoes hanging around at the moment.
Can you give me an introduction to Girragirra Retreat? What are you working towards here?
The Retreat is part of an evolving business called Girragirra Green Living. We are working towards a community based, truly sustainable, passion-driven lifestyle centered on our just completed sustainable house, evolving food garden and regenerating 50-acre river farm. The Retreat, a luxury two bedroom self contained apartment overlooking a billabong of the Lachlan River enables guests to experience the ease and comfort of living in a house built around sustainable principles and also the joy of "growing your own" if they are so inclined - or just to chill out in a beautiful space after a day spent travelling or working in the amazing central west of NSW
How long have you been here?
We purchased Girragirra in 2009 and began working on both the land health and designing the house soon after. We moved into the not quite finished house on Christmas eve 2012 - just because! Our focus then moved to completing the Retreat which we opened 12 months ago and beginning the garden, like every garden, a forever project
Can you describe the property and the house? Tell us about it's eco-values?
Girragirra the property, is a pretty little organic accredited river farm holistically managed to deliver a beautiful, profitable, productive and biodiverse landscape.
Tone Wheeler - a multi award winning architect with a passion for sustainability designed the house and retreat to last a very long time, delivering maximum comfort, low maintenance and minimal environmental impact. Solar passive design principles ensure the house is naturally warm in winter and cool in summer. A 10KW solar array produces way more energy than we use and solar hydronic hot water / underfloor heating is a big energy saver. Cross flow ventilation, loads of insulation and double glazing deliver year 'round thermal comfort. A "big lid" collects around 200,000L of pure rain water for our tanks making the house and retreat totally self-sufficient for water. All black and grey water is treated and recycled onsite.
A massive old River Red Gum found felled nearby was milled onsite by our friend Justin and Kim, and gives the house heart as beautiful doors, tables, bench tops, window sills and stools. The iron cladding came off an old factory - screw holes and all! (our architect reckons it looks like a young house with acne :). Very old timbers we salvaged from derelict local woolsheds form the carport screens, courtyard doors and luggage racks. Paints and other surface finishes were chosen for sustainable production methods and non toxic properties as well as good looks. Keeping it local with Bernie the builder, Justin the cabinet maker, our other fabulous tradies and building material suppliers was important. Rubbish from the build was recycled - much of it onsite.
The garden surrounding the retreat was designed on permaculture principles and is delivering a health giving, beautiful, food forest and garden for our family, friends and guests to enjoy as it grows and develops.
Above photo shows part of a work by artist Rosie Wingrove Johnston.
What were you and Kim doing before moving to Forbes?
Kim and I are Ag Science graduates and fourth generation farmers. Before moving to Girragirra which is only 4km from the Forbes CBD we had the privilege of farming 1800 hectares 60 kilometres south west of Forbes.
And why this particular area? Why Forbes?
With no kids coming home to the farm, we took an opportunity to sell our broad acre property. We love this western country and have deep roots in the Forbes community so really never considered moving elsewhere. We had long planned to buy a small parcel of land on the Lachlan close to town when the time came to scale back and are thriving on the closer connections to community and friends that has eventuated. Our kids - both Sydney based, head west with their partners and friends every chance they get. It's a beautiful place for them to chill out and reconnect with the land and community.
Your obvious commitment to creating a sustainable food garden is impressive, what inspired you to go down this path?
We've always been gardeners and believe gardens with food as the focus can be just as beautiful and inspiring as gardening with ornamentals only. The joy of gardening and creating something beautiful aside, the health benefits of absolutely fresh, organically grown food are well known … and hey, we don't need to go to the gym, a couple of hours weeding and mulching is as good as any work out! We love it when our guests wander around and pick something for dinner from the garden and it's heart warming to see the way kids just naturally engage, racing around playing hide and seek and get soooooo excited about eating whatever they have picked - especially strawberries! We believe that connection to whole food and where it comes from has been lost to a generation or two and hope in some small way that the garden may reignite a passion for growing even a little bit of food, surely a primal instinct, in some of our guests.
Can you tell us about the wood fired oven? Did you build it yourselves?
Once again it's a story of family and community! We had one on our wish list and the excitement of our chef son Dougal coming home for a month and cooking for his home community meant we fast tracked it!
We bought the oven bit as a kit, used left over materials from the build to make the base and worked alongside a local brickie who did the tricky stuff to get the job done.
What advice would you give to readers wanting to build their own?
I think it depends on what they want to do with it, how ‘handy’ they are and funds available. There are all sorts of options out there - Google will dazzle you with choice, ranging from totally DYI supported by workshops (think low cost, low tech, hands on, great for family pizza nights and a bit of baking) through to companies who will arrive on your doorstep and construct an oven that you would let you run a hatted restaurant!
We wanted an oven that would perform somewhere in the middle of those two extremes and was a fit with our wildly enthusiastic but somewhat limited skill set.
What are some of the most memorable meals you've cooked from the garden and in the oven?
Everything we cook in the wood fired oven is tastier - don't know why that's so!
I think maybe the second long lunch Douglas cooked for us here wins the prize as the most memorable. We had about forty people and the menu featured dishes made using local lamb; local truly free range pork; Girragirra eggs, pumpkin, eggplant, fennel, zucchini, tomatoes and herbs from the garden; local stone fruit and of course sourdough - all of which had a turn in the oven and as you know yourself, a goodly dose of love. The feedback from that day has been so heartwarming.
Now, can you tell us a bit about the bread? How did you get started in baking? How did you learn the art of sourdough!?
I began baking sourdough maybe 3 or 4 years ago. We had long wanted to be able to buy and eat more nourishing bread and none was available locally. Our son worked at Sydney restaurant Berta for some time, one Easter he bought their 'starter' home for safe keeping and it was love at first sight! Soon 'Berty', Girragirra's starter was born, and with a lot of patient mentoring on Dougal's part I learnt to bake OK sourdough in our then tiny, often cantankerous little oven.
The wood fired oven changed all that and over the month he was home with us Dougal and Kim together mastered the oven - think lots of getting up at ungodly hours mucking about with the fire and the coals, a bit like bringing home a newborn! Kim now has that mastered although it will be a moving target with the onset of colder weather.
Dougal proved to be quite a stern taskmaster with his Mum, passing on his passion and skillset in the gentle art of baking beautiful, artisanal sourdough which I just LOVE doing. Again an ever evolving process.
We now put a very limited supply into a local Café which is usually pre-sold before it hits the shelf.
What do you think are the key elements to baking a beautiful sourdough loaf?
Sounds corny but a passion for the art, the capacity to give the process the time and attention to detail it needs, organic flour (makes a big difference, not only in my experience but more validly Dougal's) and while it's definitely not essential - the wood fired oven makes a HUGE difference to the quality of the loaf. That said, there are shortcuts that mean everyone, even very busy people can bake good sourdough in their own kitchen if they would like to.
And can you also tell us about your food wraps, the beeswax wraps we saw in the solar dehydrator (below)?
We all know what bad news plastics - especially plastic bags are for our environment. The wraps mean that we can all cover food, wrap sambos etc without using plastic.
You can buy some really gorgeous ones online or as you saw me doing, make your own by grating beeswax onto light weight cotton ( I used calico) and melting it in an oven or in our case the solar dehydrator. I now use them to cover the sourdough as it rests in the fridge overnight instead of covering the bannetons with plastic bags and I think the end result is better - the loaves don't "sweat"
Obviously you both work incredibly hard here, why? Can you describe the satisfaction you get from what you have/are creating here?
We believe that everyone needs a purpose to enable them to live a satisfying life.
After selling our farm we could have settled back and spent our time travelling or whatever but that held no appeal for us - at all. It's actually hard to describe how much pleasure /satisfaction we get from the ongoing business of creating, sharing, enjoying Girragirra Living with our family and community. I guess it boils down to that sense of purpose, a deepening connection with the ecosystems and community which support us and the life long learning that comes along with that? Superficially, it's also a very beautiful place to live!
And what about the retreat? What do you offer your guests here that is so unique to other country B&B's/boutique accommodation offerings?
At the least a luxurious, peaceful, beautiful, self contained space to relax into after a day spent travelling or working. We pop a freshly baked loaf of sourdough on our guests doorstep every morning and supply our own delicious organic free range eggs PLUS housemade preserves and locally roasted coffee along side all the other bits and pieces you'd expect to find in a breakfast hamper.
Most of our guests tell us they wish they had more time to simply kick back on the couch and gaze out the huge picture windows at the antics of the wild life on the billabong or make pizza in the wood fired oven, wander through the food garden and pick and eat whatever it is they discover, to learn more about how the sustainable house works, what makes the permaculture food forest tick or how we manage the farm holistically…..
Because the Retreat is completely self-contained we are finding some guests are now using it as a base to travel out from to experience the western country and still have a bit of luxury to come home to.
What are you looking forward to most with the change of season, what's coming through in your garden that you're looking forward to cooking and sharing at your table?
Cooler weather, the beauty of the autumn foliage, shorter working days and the opportunity that gives for learning, plotting and planning :) and all of the delicious winter veggies like caulis, broccoli, brussell sprouts ( a personal favourite when roasted), winter greens, fruits from our baby fruit trees like quinces and blood oranges and lemons, making delicious curries and braises and slow roasts in the wood fired using the abundant fresh herbs and leaves from the curry plants and pomegranates, baking sourdough and maybe learning to bake a few other treats … the promise of Spring.
Wendy's slow roasted tomato and almond jam
This stuff is amazing with goat's cheese and nice sourdough but also good served with bacon and egg rolls, cheese plates, pretty much anywhere you'd use chutney! Makes about 4 cups.
1 kg slow roasted tomatoes (recipe follows)
250 g cherry tomatoes chopped (I've subbed sundried ones out of the dehydrator and that was probably nicer)
800g white sugar
grated rind 2 lemons
juice 1 1/2 lemons
70 g blanched flaked almonds (I've subbed chopped activated almonds out of the dehydrator here too - tastier and adds crunch)
Place all the ingredients into a large preserving pan and slowly dissolve the sugar over a low heat stirring occasionally. Bring to the boil and cook until setting point, about 20/30 minutes. Don't leave it too long between stirs as it will burn.
Stir in the almonds and remove from heat to cool for 10 minutes before spooning into warm sterilised jars to seal.
Slow roasted tomatoes5kg roma tomatoes, quartered
Salt and pepper
1 cup olive oil
20 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in slithers
1 handful basil leaves
Preheat oven to 150C. Place tomatoes skin-side down on two large roasting trays. Pour over the olive oil and season well with sea salt and pepper. Sprinkle over the garlic and add the basil. Roast for 2-3 hours or until the liquid has reduced to a thick oily residue and you have some nice little singed bits on the tomato edges.
For more information about Girragirra Green Living and to organise a stay for yourself - you really should...please contact Wendy and Kim via their website.