Feature

The free range cook

Green Lifestyle online

We talk to chef Annabel Langbein, known as The Free Range Cook, about growing up, the reward of growing your own food, and the role of agriculture in today's society.

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Annabel Langbein collecting fresh, local produce.

Credit: Hannie Van Herksml

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Annabel Langbein walking in her beautiful garden in Wanaka, New Zealand.

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Annabel Langbein The Free Range Cook: Simple Pleasures premieres on LifeStyle FOOD on 2 July 2013 at 7:30pm, and the accompanying book is available at www.shop.abc.net.au for $49.99.

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We love Annabel Langbein's beautiful, healthy recipes which take pride in free range and local produce. Author of 19 cookbooks and a host on Foxtel’s LifeStyle FOOD Channel, Annabel talks about the joys of connecting with nature and sharing food.

Why are you drawn to cooking with home-grown produce?
When I was growing up in central Wellington, New Zealand, my dad had a wonderful vegetable garden and used to come home from the office, take off his suit and put his gardening clothes on. His efforts would turn up at the kitchen door all beautifully cleaned and trimmed ready for my mother to use in her cooking. We ate simple meals based around the season’s offerings. I learned that eating this way makes you feel resourceful and connected. You don’t just eat unthinkingly, you start to realise how long things take to grow, and value the rhythm of the seasons.

How does eating home-grown produce impact people’s individual lives?
My mother always instilled in us that everything you eat (or would want to eat) starts off as a seed or a spore and takes weeks, months or sometimes even years before it is ready to harvest for the table, and that you need to honour that by taking a little care to prepare those ingredients and celebrate nature’s amazing bounty by sharing a meal together. No matter how simple our meals are at home, we always light a candle and set the table nicely, so there is always a sense of occasion.

What’s your view on large-scale cropping and agriculture?
That's a really complex political issue! How much time have you got? As the world has more and more people, and becomes increasingly urbanised – an estimated 80 per cent of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2020 – you need systems to feed them: hence industrial agriculture. But in this you get the erosion of the small farm and rural communities and a whole way of life for many people, especially in the US where subsidies around volume come into play. In places like India and China, I find it really depressing. For centuries families have eked out a life on the land and they live with pride and resourcefulness on their small farms. Take that away and what do they have? The chance of life in a slum. I think the emerging trend for vertical urban farming is really interesting and exciting, such as what's seen here.

Your new series The Free Range Cook: Simple Pleasures is being aired on Foxtel’s LifeStyle FOOD Channel. How was filming the series different to other series that you’ve done?
In this series I focus more on the garden at my lakeside cabin in Wanaka, New Zealand, where the series is filmed. It is now not just one big terrace but three large rock-walled vegetable gardens with an evergreen hedge creating garden rooms that are protected from the wind. I share simple recipes as I pick different produce, with a quick flick back into the kitchen to see the method or technique. I do a lot more cooking out on the back of my truck as well, so the idea is you can cook anywhere with just a few simple tools. Plus we travelled a little further afield to meet passionate food producers around the South Island of New Zealand.

What is one thing you hope people take away from seeing your approach to food?
'It’s so simple and looks so yummy – and I can do it.' I really want to empower people in the kitchen by showing them how simple it is to make really great food. You don’t need a fancy kit or a whole lot of money and it’s such a great way to have fun and bring people together.

Why do you think there’s so much interest in food shows on TV?
All around the world people are looking for a way to reconnect with a simpler, less stressful way of life, and for many people cooking is a way of doing that. When you cook you feel connected to nature and the world, your community, family and friends, and other cultures, as well as your own creativity. My TV shows have screened in 84 countries and seem to have struck a chord with viewers interested in issues around sustainability. Most people who watch cooking shows do it quite passively – they don’t actually cook anything afterwards. But I get so much feedback from people telling me that when they watch my show they just want to get out and cook!

Why do you think people often neglect to think about eating well, and how can people with unhealthy eating habits be encouraged to eat better?
I think that the industrial food chain has sold us up the creek with the idea that we are far too busy and too important to cook because we have better things to do with our time. What better way to spend an evening than to spend time pottering in the kitchen and then sharing a meal together? These few moments can be a little oasis of calm and pleasure in your busy day.

Manufacturers tell us their products will make our lives more 'con'-venient so all we have to do is open a packet or a can or reheat something. In this way, not only do you end up eating a lot of empty calories, because processed foods tend to be high in sugar, fat and salt to make them taste good, but you also lose that sense of taking a moment to sit together and share. Eating becomes quite mindless.

I believe the best way to get people to eat better food is to bring them together around the table – so food becomes a social conduit, and a focal point for chatting, discussing ideas and having fun, rather than just vacuous consumption. I try to make it super simple to engage in the idea of cooking fresh, so they get a sense of 'how easy is that' and begin to weave it into their lives. And I try to bring people together to share their knowledge and enthusiasm for food, which is why I’ve recently set up an online forum and recipe sharing community on my website at www.annabel-langbein.com.

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For more information about Annabel Langbein and lots of great recipes and cooking and gardening tips, visit www.annabel-langbein.com.