Most mornings when Alex Elliott-Howery turns up for work, there will be a few bags and boxes of produce on the doorstep. It’s all part of a neighbourhood network that at first glance, may seem complex but is, in fact, the essence of simplicity. People leave excess fruit and veg grown in their backyards of Sydney’s inner west, then Alex and the team from Cornersmith, the cafe and picklery she runs with her husband, James Grant, and close friend Jaimee Edwards, either serve it up at the cafe or turn it into pickles, jams, chutneys and other preserves. In exchange, the donors receive cups of coffee or a jar of preserves, or sometimes just a nice, warm feeling that their figs, persimmons or lemons are not merely falling to the ground and rotting.
The Cornersmith collective traces its roots back a decade when Alex and James’ children were babies and she was pounding the pavements with the kids in a pram, keeping her brain stimulated and her two children entertained. “Marrickville has a long tradition of Greek, Italian and Vietnamese residents and most of them established backyard gardens,” Alex explains. “As they moved on, people who had no idea what to do with all that produce were taking over and I was struck by the amount of good food that was going to waste as a result. I started knocking on doors and asking if I could help myself and, surprisingly, most people were happy to share.”
While there were no country cooks in Alex’s background — she grew up in an urban environment in a large communal house — lots of food and laughter were shared. She adds that she believes her age (mid-20s) and stage (being responsible for feeding and caring for a family) meant she started looking at food and its production more critically. Suddenly, now that young lives were involved, it mattered whether or not an ingredient was in season and how it had been grown. Manufactured goods also came under scrutiny now that she had her own offspring to inherit the planet. Coincidentally, her friend and fellow young mum, Jaimee, was on the same path and the duo decided to join forces and start their own kitchen revolution.
“Basically, we were trying to understand the whole food system better,” Alex recalls. “If we didn’t like the ethics of how a company did something, we’d try to make it ourselves. We made butter and cheese, pickled everything from fish to cucumbers, made our own ketchup … for a solid two years, we devoted ourselves to making the most of what was fresh and available and, in the process, extending its life and reducing waste.”
This story was originally published in the May 2016 issue of Australian Country. Subscribe to the magazine here.
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Words Kirsty McKenzie
Photography Ken Brass and Alan Benson