I am often really amazed at the things that I have learned since starting this business, as the most important lessons or bits of knowledge are things that I never anticipated.
One of those things – and I know that I am really giving myself away here, so please forgive me – is the relative scarcity of really good local ingredients. I’m not saying it’s not there, it’s just that it can be vey hard to find and secure an ongoing supply of.
Before I started 99th Monkey I had very little to do with primary food suppliers beyond the occasional visit to farmers markets and some friends and family who are farmers.
So going into this whole thing I was quite naïve. When I decided that I wanted to use local, organic ingredients I blithely assumed that they would be readily available – it would just be a matter of being prepared to pay extra for them. Of course it is not that simple. For one thing, there are a lot of organic products that Australia simply does not produce – cacao (with one small exception), sweeteners such as coconut sugar, and many types of nut (almonds being the one significant exception to that rule).
Luckily for me I managed to find the one organic peanut farmer in Australia and get some nuts from then. Thus I assumed that part of my job was done and I could get on with building an organic Australian peanut butter business. It did not take long – on my second order in fact – for me to learn that even if you have a direct line to the one grower of organic peanuts in the country that is no guarantee they’re going to have enough to supply you with. And so it has been for me for the past three seasons – never having enough of those wonderful peanuts to satisfy the demand of my lovely customers.
While this can all be very challenging, it also has a very rewarding side. Number one is the thrill associated with finding those ingredients that you have wanted so desperately for so long and that you know nobody else is using. Then there are the relationships that I have formed with the people who grow the food that I use, such as the lovely couple down in Gippsland who grow my hazelnuts and the ever-cheerful Eric who grows pistachios just outside of Mildura in north-west Victoria.
And another, simpler pleasure is the simple joy of receiving the first produce of the new season – particularly if it’s bee a good one for the farmer, which means better produce and happier farmers and is always cause to be happy.
It’s that time of year right now and luckily it has been a good year for hazelnuts and the pistachios are looking green and beautiful. I am still waiting to hear a final report from my peanut farmers (though the reports out of East Timor are good), but the last I heard things weren’t looking great, so I have my fingers crossed there – both for their sake and for mine.
Regardless of the outcome of each particular season, one thing this whole experience has impressed upon me is how unpredictable our food supply really is and how much we take it for granted when really we should all be so thankful for the food that we have access to and the people who produce it for us.