(Australian Associated Press)
Dressed in our cocktail finery, we watch as Dinty Wilson drives up in a pale blue 1928 A-model Ford truck, then gives us a lesson on how to climb up into the back tray for a quick tour of the gardens at Norfolk Island’s Pitcairn Settlers Village.
There’s a trick to manoeuvring up the steps and into our carriage, and she demonstrates this with a no-nonsense commentary, planting her feet “first left then right, then left and right”, before taking the driver’s seat once we’re all safely aboard.
“The air conditioning will be on high for the whole trip,” she promises as the open-top vehicle’s engine rumbles to life.
Apart from the new paint, the truck remains in original condition, from its wooden-spoked wheels to its chassis, arriving on Norfolk in 1929 for use as a farm vehicle and doubling as the Sunday School bus before becoming the island’s first tour bus.
The truck was owned and driven by Marie Bailey, until her death in 2016 at the age of 89. Bailey was a direct descendant of the Bounty mutineers, whose grandmother Emily Christian arrived from Pitcairn Island as a small child in 1856.
The truck bumps and shudders over the property’s dirt tracks, and branches of overhanging trees brush our heads and shoulders as Wilson drives along, pointing out the various plants used for more than 150 years on this self-sufficient island.
Attempts by the British to establish grain crops after they arrived in 1788 were problematic.
“There were plenty of hungry birds to eat the wheat, sorghum and other grains they planted, and in a sub-tropical climate there was mould; then there was the problem of having grown a year’s supply of food, but how do you store it and transport it?” Wilson says.
A basket of produce in the truck holds various items. The tubers and vegetables are held aloft like some miraculous heaven-sent manna and we’re given a quick run-down on their merits and uses.
Wilson says it was the Pitcairners’ crops of yams, manioc (casava), arrowroot, taro and (the recently-labelled “superfood”) yakon, as well as sweet potato that provided sustenance, and which remain staples today.
“The yam is gluten free and is left in the ground until you need it, so storage wasn’t a problem,” she says.
“Three billion people will eat manioc around the world today and the CSIRO is on target to develop its growth in Africa.
“It was not about haute cuisine; it was about putting food on the table to feed the family.”
The gardens are considerable and Wilson also points out banana trees, the old pecan tree, and peach trees almost stripped bare, with the produce now preserved for the winter.
Ironically, the breadfruit tree, which kept the Pitcairn islanders alive, won’t fruit here, but Wilson planted one anyway because she “felt like it”, while there’s a Norfolk Pine hedge planted by Marie around 30 years ago.
Our “joy ride” is for guests of the Taste Norfolk Island Food Festival’s opening cocktail night at Hilli restaurant and our brief but informative lesson sets the scene for a week of tastings, dining experiences and food-related activities now in its fourth year.
It may not have been haute cuisine back then, and Norfolk remains a place of seasonal produce, but visitors won’t argue with the quality of its fresh fish, local beef and fruits and vegetables, with only garlic, onions, potatoes and ginger imported to keep up with demand.
As we return to the restaurant, chef Cameron Feldman and his partner Justine Chilcott continue to serve plate after plate of delicious canapes.
There are vegetarian nori rolls, fresh trumpeter fish pate, duck pate with cranberry jelly, as well as crab cakes, lamb koftas, duck spring rolls, zucchini corn fritters, and tempura trumpeter with a sweet soy glaze.
If I wasn’t so full, I’d grab one of the free avocadoes sitting in a basket by the front door after a bumper crop this season.
These would sell for $2 to $3 each in Sydney.
I think I’ve found another reason not to go home.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Air New Zealand operates flights from Sydney every Friday and Monday, and from Brisbane every Saturday and Tuesday. Norfolk Island Airlines operates flights every Saturday from Brisbane.
STAYING THERE: A range of accommodation is available. South Pacific Resort’s Superior room with a queen and single bed starts at $160.
PLAYING THERE: Norfolk Island Food Festival which has a range of set events and optional extras, runs late November to early December. See www.norfolkislandfoodfestival.com or www.norfolkisland.com.au for more details.