The drawbacks to a large majority of us living in urban areas extend beyond traffic and pricey rent – our city-centric existence also means being largely removed from natural food sources, hindering access to fresh produce. For Cornersmith Café co-founder Alex Elliot-Howery (pictured above), her inner-city Sydney life was no excuse to forget the art of foraging.
“I live in an urban area that has a lot of fruit trees and veggie gardens. I noticed that there was a lot of food going to waste – in winter there were mandarins and lemons dropping onto the footpath and in summer, mulberries and figs were rotting on the ground.”
Instead of watching these natural wonders go to waste, Alex would knock on her neighbour’s doors – “like a nutter,” she explains – and ask to raid their trees.
“Then I would go home and teach myself how to make something. If it was a success, I’d drop a jar back to the owner and we’d end up talking about growing food, family recipes and food waste.”
That commitment to gathering gave root to her first café, Marrickville’s Cornersmith Café, which she opened with her partner, James. Then came Cornersmith School (where everything from Christmas baking to pickling can be learnt), a second café in Annandale and now, a new cookbook, detailing the very techniques she so eagerly taught herself. Along with her head chef, Sabine Spindler, Alex collated their favourite recipes and techniques, giving some fun formality to a centuries-old practice of fermentation and produce preservation.
“All traditional preservation methods were a vital kitchen skill to make food last longer,” Alex explains. “If there was an abundant crop or excess vegetables in the garden, they went into jars and crocks and were turned into delicious and nutritious condiments.”
In Alex’s own collection of recipes in the new Cornersmith Salads & Pickles, there’s certainly an abundant crop of great ideas for items you’d be certain were destined for the bin. From veggie scrap bouillon to flavoured vinegars, the cookbook guides readers through all manner of creative rebirthing methods for tired, wilting produce.
“This book is about making vegetables the hero of all your meals… cooking at home and being less reliant on the supermarkets. Reducing your food waste through preserving, sharing meals and traditions. I think we need to stop focusing on food fads and all the things that are good to eat.”
The book isn’t all pickles, though – reflecting the wide variety of favourites Cornersmith cooks up for their customers across their two Sydney venues. There is a clear theme, however, and it’s about more than just delicious condiments.
“We’re not suggesting you spend an entire weekend making 20 jars of chutney, but to make one jar of pickles with the quarter of a cauliflower you’ve got left over in your fridge or to make syrup from pineapples skins or make a kitchen scrap kimchi,” Alex implores. “Eating with the seasons and not throwing food away is the number one change everyone can make. It just takes a little shift in thinking.”
Cornersmith Salads & Pickles by Alex Elliott-Howery and Sabine Spindler, $39.95, Murdoch Books.