As Mitch McCrae puts it, they were the best of times and the worst of times. When the Black Saturday bushfires of February 7, 2009 ravaged across Victoria, destroying more than 400,000 hectares of bushland and thousands of homes, claiming 170 lives and devastating the towns of Marysville and Narbethong, his family business, the Buxton Trout Farm, was among the casualties.
“With the fish ponds on one side of the house and the Steavenson River, which feeds those ponds, on the other, we believed we were in a good position to defend ourselves against the fire,” Mitch explains. “It proved correct thanks to our firefighting efforts and those of friends who came to take shelter at the farm. The pumps that aerate the ponds kept working up until the fire actually came through and we lost power so we were able to keep wetting the house down until the last minute. Finally we took refuge indoors, put towels under the doors and just waited it out. Amazingly we survived.”
The next day, however, they began to count the cost. Australia’s first commercial trout farm, which had been going strong for more than 50 years was a smouldering shadow of its once picture-postcard self. Sheds, fences and mechanical equipment were gone and then there was the very pressing matter of 40 tonnes ( with an estimated value of more that $500,000) of dead fish, including brood stock for the coming years.
“Before the fires we were shipping our fish all over the countryside,” Mitch explains. “But as we rebuilt, we came to the realisation that we have a very fine product. Our ponds are gravity fed from the river, which carries the purest water down from the melting snow from Lake Mountain, and we decided this was something to celebrate. So now we focus on Melbourne only, and the restaurant trade. Our focus is quality rather than quantity and it’s working well for us.”
The wood-fired smoker, which Mitch describes as “the espresso of smokehouses” also swung back into action and Buxton’s smoked trout and trout pate are back on the market.
Another by-product of the farm, salmon caviar, also leapt to national attention, when Buxton’s fish eggs starred on an episode of MasterChef Australia in 2011. During a short period in winter when the eggs are fully ripe they are gently hand-milked from the fish, cleaned, separated and brined for the distinctive taste and extraordinary popping mouth sensation that sends foodies into swoons.
This story was originally published in the June / July 2014 issue of Australian Country magazine. Subscribe to the magazine here.
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Words Kirsty McKenzie
Photography Ken Brass