By Melissa Keogh
McLaren Vale foodie Rojina McDonald fell in love with the culinary delights of South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula simply by growing up in the food and wine region.
Adopted from Sri Lanka as a baby, she was raised on an olive grove between McLaren Vale and Willunga, and remembers jumping the neighbour’s fence as a child with her sister to fill their pockets with pistachio nuts.
Now the baking queen and self-publishing entrepreneur has taken her passion for the Fleurieu’s food scene and poured it into her first book, Faces and Food of the Fleurieu.
Launched recently, the coffee table cookbook profiles 80 restaurants, cafés and producers across 29 towns on the Fleurieu, helping to shed light on the region’s gastronomic delights.
Written by local writer Heather Millar and illustrated with photographs by Josie Withers, the book tells the story of each business owner and shares recipes featuring local produce and signature ingredients.
“What makes the Fleurieu is the food and wine, a good quality olive oil, the produce, the vegetables grown throughout the region, and the agricultural industry as a whole,” Rojina says.
Among those featured include The Salopian Inn with its steamed tofu and Asian greens dish, d’Arry’s Verandah with a Yuzu-cured tuna with smashed cucumber, the Willunga Farmer’s Market with lemon, almond and ricotta cake, and Coorong Wild Seafood with a pan-fried Coorong mullet and buttered potato, kale and capers recipe.
Faces and Food of the Fleurieu has received praise from Australian cooking royalty Maggie Beer, local author Heather England and leading winemaker Corrina Wright of Oliver’s Taranga, and is already available in 60 places across the Fleurieu, as well as book stores, visitor information centres and airports.
Rojina came to appreciate the Fleurieu’s food sector as a teenager when she worked weekends at the McLaren Vale Continental Deli and Café (now Mullygrub).
She says customers would line up out the door, waiting for their fix of fresh, regional produce. She remembers the cream blobs formed on top of Alexandrina Milk while making coffee and the smell of the freshly baked bread delivered to the deli by Andy Clappis from Italian restaurant Our Place at Willunga Hill.
“The deli was one of those proper continental delis where everything was local including the bread, cheeses, milks, condiments and preserves, sandwiches, cakes and home-cooked lunches,” Rojina says.
“I worked there for four years and still to this day people say to me, ‘Hey! You’re the girl from the deli!’ and I still recognise their faces too. That really taught me about how important and special regional produce is.”
Rojina then went onto work at a number of other local cafés, restaurants and in retail before hitting hard times and being diagnosed with anxiety.
To reset her mental health and wellbeing, she spent time at home and began baking cupcakes. It started with a batch of 20, then word got out and the orders started pouring in.
“I started baking 20 a week, then 150, then 200 a week out of my little kitchen in McLaren Vale. I was delivering them to my sister’s florist, the hospital and businesses in the main street,” Rojina says.
“I did that for about two years and was dubbed the cupcake queen and awarded the Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award by the McLaren Vale Business Association.
“That’s when I got back into food and it really helped with my anxiety, I think something like that has to happen to push you in the right direction.”
Rojina switched her mindset and adopted the power of positive thinking, becoming inspired by best-selling self-help book The Secret, which she says has changed her life.
Among her personal goals was meeting Maggie Beer, winning a scholarship at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and writing for a food magazine – all of which she would later achieve.
In 2013 she set off for Le Cordon Bleu in London to complete a certificate in basic patisserie and that’s when the idea for a cookbook featuring the Fleurieu’s food producers was born.
“I met all these people from around the world and I was trying to explain to them where I was from. I thought if only there was a coffee table book that showcased the beautiful beaches, the food and the stories of the Fleurieu,” Rojina says.
She kept the book idea in the back of her mind and returned to Australia before life took over and she welcomed her first child, Orion.
In 2016 Rojina had settled into motherhood and was working part-time when she decided it was time to reignite the cookbook idea. So she set about gathering local support, started her own company Soul Publishing and got local food businesses to fill the pages.
A successful crowdfunding campaign earlier this year raised $16,000 to push pre-orders and help cover printing costs.
The 29-year-old says orders for Faces and Food of the Fleurieu have been tumbling in, giving her the confidence to plan for a second edition in early 2019, this time profiling the region’s beer, wine and spirits.
“It will showcase 40 prominent wineries, breweries and distilleries and will tell their stories,” she says.
“Many of McLaren Vale’s wineries have been around for years and handed down through generations. We want to complement these stories with beautiful photography, brewery tips and gin recipes.”
For more information on Faces and Food of the Fleurieu, visit the website.
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