In Isolation with Chris Ardley

Location: Melbourne, Australia

At 5:59pm, as Melbourne enters its strictest lockdown yet, I am pottering about in the garden. I’m there to pick a spray of parsley, the garnish to an osso bucco I’ve had simmering for the past few hours. Truth be told, calling the squat paved area behind my house a garden is a lexical generosity. The property, subdivided in the 90s, is mostly house. The outside area, scarcely two metres deep, is mostly courtyard, fringed with low maintenance pencil pines. We have added a few planter boxes and pots, populated with herbs year round and small tomato bushes in spring. A dwarf lemon tree sprouts from one of the larger pots, but the shadows cast by neighbouring houses starve it of enough light to be really productive.

A neighbour’s apricot tree overhangs the fence. Years ago an errant fig seed strove upwards through a crack in the bricks—today it is a modest tree with a daughter nearby, their roots rumpling the paving. These chance fruit trees sustain us through summer; in July, sweeping their dropped leaves is a half finished chore.

Picking the parsley, my mind turns to the same meal, another garden: twenty-five years ago, across the continent in suburban Perth. Barefoot despite the winter chill, I’d been dispatched to the enormous vegetable garden behind our house to harvest herbs for this unfamiliar dish. Seeing the curly leaves finely minced and distributed through the osso bucco brought a palpable thrill. Though my palate was young, I could already recognise the parsley’s flavour, those fresh leafy top notes dancing through meat and polenta, tomato, lemon rind and onion.

Now, as an adult, osso bucco epitomises comfort food for me, with its mirepoix base, soft braised meat and rich gelatinous sauce, thickened by the shot of marrow that took me years to work up the courage to eat. Every other time I’ve made it, the parsley has come in a plastic sleeve from the grocers. Whether through time in transit or growing conditions, the flavour is muted compared with the robust kick I once knew.

At ten years old, I was an eager apprentice in the vegetable garden. Hours before the parsley run I’d also harvested the lemon and onion that were anchoring the dish, delivering them quickly before running back to play. Months before, I had helped pick and pulp the tomatoes, sanitise the jars and cook the passata that formed the bedding for the flour-dusted veal shins. We lived on the then outskirts of suburbia, on a duplex block. The developers hadn’t been able to sell both, so we inherited a great pile of foundation sand and “a back-back yard” that my parents reclaimed, turning it over to all manner of produce. Twin plum trees, quince and lemon dominated the back corner, near a trellis holding up peas, beans and hops. Brassica, potatoes and alliums filled the front corner in winter; tomatoes, basil, corn and zucchini in summer. Our kitchen scraps fed a compost pit at the end of a gravel path flanked by strawberries, cape gooseberries and herbs sitting in pockets throughout.

Seeing the curly leaves finely minced and distributed through the osso bucco brought a palpable thrill.

Seeing in intimate detail food go from dirt to plant to plate instilled in me a love of things growing, a love entwined in rapturous observation: the more I saw the more I wanted to see, of the transmutation of light and shit to colour and flavour. Very few strawberries ever made it to the table, studied for ripeness by three pairs of intent eyes and eaten as soon as they might be palatable. My younger brother and sister tended to pick the fruits too soon, their mouths puckering at the bland astringency. Older and more patient, I was sometimes able to find a berry at the peak of ripeness, crushing it between my teeth and feeling the sun-warmed juices play across my tongue.

My siblings and I were the garden’s pesticide. We spent hours lying in wait armed with butterfly nets, chasing the bounty our parents offered of 50c a head for white cabbage moths, 5c for soft green caterpillars. Snails were gleefully flung to further reaches of the garden for no reward. Slaters, often found rolled up in fruits, were picked out and kept as pets. The transactional lure that drew us to the job planted hooks, drawing us into the love of food we share today. We weren’t always the most effective, but there was little harm done: when cooked, caterpillar corpses turn a bright orange, and are easily picked out of a dish.

The parsley is picked over and stirred into the still warm pot. It’s the only part of this dish I have grown. My lemon tree isn’t bearing, the spring onions couldn’t survive even a modest foraging for garnish, there were only ever enough tomatoes in summer for a salad or two. The store-bought versions I used in their stead are shiny and fleshy, their flavours muted, vegetables in drag. They lack the grit of those I helped grow. Even buying them was a contactless process, flashing my card against the reader after running them through the self checkout. A frictionless transaction, devoid of love.

After we moved away from that house in Perth the people who bought it subdivided it, built a house on the foundation sand, and sold it. I doubt the vegetable garden is still there. Later, I moved across the country, pursuing a doomed romance, and founded the garden in pots, though without the same care and attention I once gave. My tiny buckets of soil seem pathetic in the face of the global, industrialised food system, my tending them mere burlesque.

And yet, when I discreetly slurp the sauce from a wooden spoon, the flavours are harmonised. The seeds sown in me those years ago have borne fruit. It’s not the same as the osso bucco my mother cooked—the parsley I grow is flat leaf after all. But it still sends me rushing back to that first time, when my toes were grimy, when I was scared to suck out the marrow, and I felt my hand in it coming together.

By Chris Ardley