Bottles in line

Viveka Simpson — A Pear in the Hand

Posted on February 8, 2015

Viveka Simpson on turning the edible rancid and the rancid drinkable.

In our house, things that traditionally would be understood to have gone ‘off’ — jars that pop when you open them, things that fizz when they shouldn’t — are no longer thrown out. In fact, this is considered their ideal state, and is actively sought after. Good, wholesome foodstuffs are encouraged to putrefy, to seethe and to fester into bolder versions of themselves. Bags of tomatoes hang fetid in our kitchen, a clear liquid dribbling forth and down into a bucket for days. Cabbage turns from green to purple — hissing slightly when disturbed. Moulds are categorised as either good or bad. I knew of beneficent moulds of course — I’ve had all my jabs and willingly guzzle penicillin when ill — but until now I’ve never gleefully mixed them back into a stewing mass of apples. And when I say ‘gleefully’, I perhaps am taking license. It isn’t me who is gleeful, but my boyfriend Sam. And it is he, not I, who is spearheading this campaign to turn the edible rancid. I remain unconvinced, grappling with this paradigm shift, as I step over buckets and jars and negotiate my way through beakers, flasks and pH strips, just to get to the sink.

This new found love for all things fermented did not happen in a bubble. Sam has a history of diving head on into whatever it is he is doing with a vim and vigour that is matched by few. And now that we sleep with homebrew bubbling away next to the bed (Sam assures me this is necessary as our bedroom is the warmest room in the house) I can pinpoint the first step in this slippery journey to a houseboat on Dal Lake in Srinigar, India, only one year ago. Sam had travelled ahead of me and I arrived in Kashmir ill and disconcerted, with the keen sense of life’s transience that a menacing military presence can inspire. I was then to discover that, in the week since I had seen him, Sam had become obsessed with juice. Obsessed. He talked to me about juice. He showed me photos of juice bottle labels. We ate apples. He bought more juice. He tried to instigate talks with our hosts about juice. I was confused, and put this obsession down to altitude, or stress, or the simmering war taking place around us. I was wrong. Sam, all of a sudden, just really loved juice. And so, during our trip through India’s north, across to the east coast and back, Sam kept on talking about juice. In Darjeeling, this obsession was becoming the compass point to which Sam was tethering his future, and he enrolled in a fermenting and brewing course back in Australia. Fermenting and brewing? That’s not juice. Ah, but is not cider just fermented juice? It was a crystalizing moment, cementing Sam’s path and beginning the story of Sam Pendergast: Brewer and Cider maker.

On our return from India, we moved from Warrnambool, where Sam had grown up, to Melbourne, so I could teach and Sam could brew. Or wine-make. Or spirit make. He was unsure how to break into what we were discovering was a close-knit industry. Stress levels were heightened, and it seemed that everywhere we looked, someone was launching a new cider, or beer, or — heaven forbid — juice. He continued to complete his course and decided he needed to take matters into his own hands. He signed up for a vintage in South Australia’s Barrosa Valley. There, he spent three months of nights — from 7pm until 7am, dragging hoses, filling vats, dragging more hoses and going slightly crazy. Our fifteen-minute conversations, as I drove home from work and he woke up, became more stilted and less enjoyable as the time ground on. He grew pale and scraggly, but remained ever-devoted to his new found passion. He finally returned, hands cracked and stained purple with wine bilge that would not wash out for weeks. His time in the Barossa Valley imparted a new lexicon, and suddenly Sam could talk about sulphur dioxide levels, yeast pitching and deoxygenation with authority. More excitingly, people listened, and Sam secured himself a job back in Melbourne with Victoria’s only large-scale distillery. He was in! He’d cracked the industry and was now part of the small but vibrant brewing and fermenting community in Victoria.

Fast-forward six months to a meeting of the Goulburn Valley Food Co-operative. The Co-op formed after a multinational tomato processing company closed down its operations in Gigarre, Victoria, leaving all workers unemployed literally overnight. Co-op members rallied together and pooled their resources, intent on buying the plant and continuing its operation. Unfortunately, the multinational was unreceptive to such a plan, and former employees were left looking for alternatives. The plant continues to sit fallow and idle, stripped of any working equipment. Although not able to buy the plant, the Co-op members were determined to make or do something that could ensure income for the families. There was the option of building a new plant, yet members put their minds to supporting other local industries — industries that already existed — whilst creating products they could sell. They moved to the ‘virtual factory’ model, where existing infrastructure is used to manufacture a range of goods for different stakeholders. A factory in Griffith was used to produce a pasta sauce and a local family of pasta makers was brought on to make pasta. The Co-op introduced the Riverina Grove Pasta set to Goulburn Valley retailers in 2012. It was at the Melbourne launch of the set — at a friend’s house — that Sam happened upon Dario Paulsoni, and the most exciting chapter of the story begins to be written.

Dario has lived in Kyabram his whole life, and works an orchard of pear and apple trees. His father lives on an adjacent orchard, where Dario grew up. His father, now in his eighties, starts each day with a shot of grappa dropped in a coffee — a concoction he thanks for his ongoing good health. Dario’s father made a good living selling fruit to SPC, and Dario had begun his working life doing the same. However, prices for canning fruit have been declining for a long time, and in late 2013, Dario contacted the Co-op. He had been offered fifty dollars a tonne for his pears, and he decided that, at that price, he would happily donate ten tonnes to the Co-op — if they could use them. It was going to be almost cheaper for him to dump his fruit than to sell it for the price offered.

Sam’s initial suggestion was little more than helpful advice. His thinking was that with the pasta and sauce already being produced, a cider could be a line extension or a one-off. Little did he imagine the groundswell of support that would build around his idea. Just two weeks later, the pears had been crushed, fermented and bottled. Friends were brought in to design labels and write copy and, almost overnight, Co-op Pear Cider was on tap at the Blue Brick in Kyabram. Sam received so much support in fact, that Faire Ferments was born — Sam’s own collaboration with Dario and other Co-op members. The first thing he did was to pay Dario a fair price for his pears. Faire Ferments’ philosophy is based on equity and awareness. Sam wants people to think about the things they consume and to connect with the people that grow them. Almost like the French conception of terrior, Co-op Pear Cider is made from pears that only Dario has grown.

Co-op Pear Cider has been available for a year now, and it has received glowing praise. It is pink and made only from pear juice and yeast. There are no sugars or syrups added. It’s gluten free and preservative free. It tastes divine.

It has been, in equal parts, a complete nightmare. Batches have been dodgy and thrown out. People have complained. Sam is at the mercy of distributors, critics, sales people and supermarket buyers. He is responsible for everything — from product creation to sales. He loses sleep over font sizes and packaging options. Adobe Illustrator has given him ulcers. Bit files have induced sweats. A swarm of worries and concerns of which he was blissfully unawares now lurks about his ankles, tripping him occasionally and giving him a decent bite. Yet, he is content. He is, as is his want, surrounded by juice. And yeast. And fetid plums. And fermenting carrots. An unexpected outcome of the wild foray into this world is that Sam’s eyes are now open to the possibility of fermentation in all its incarnations. I can assure you those incarnations are myriad, and mostly disturbing.

Take the homebrew in our bedroom, for example. In my humble opinion, this is a step too far. Sam makes cider now for a living. He has a warehouse in which he stores thousands of litres of apple and pear cider. He has kegs of it, bottles of it, vats and tubs of it. It is in barrels, it’s being smoked and massaged and who knows what else.

So why do we need a gurgling mass of it next to us as we sleep? Diversification and personal satisfaction are the answers Sam proffers. And this, I believe is fair — to embody and live a vision is the kind of life fulfillment we daily seek. The man is happy. He is currently, and here, I take no license, driving one thousand litres of juice to a warehouse somewhere. As far as I can tell, that is living.

Illustrations by Felix Pilling.

Viveka Simpson studied at the University of Melbourne and Australian National University.

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