With growing environmental concerns, and diners becoming increasingly conscious of where their food comes from, locally sourced ingredients become ever-more important. But when it comes down to it, does local win over luxury?
Sourcing locally is not a new concept. The slow-food movement started as far back as 1986, creating awareness of traditional cooking and local and regional produce. The locavore movement, on a similar vein, a term coined back in 2005, further promoted local produce, typically that grown within a certain radius of the consumer.
In Bali, many chefs and restaurants have taken to this – at least to some extent. Most menus will tell you how their fruits and vegetables are ‘sourced from the verdant hills of Bedugul’, a richly fertile highland area in central Bali. This is great for Bali; supporting local producers not only helps the economy, it actually helps to improve quality too. And of course reduces the associated carbon footprint of air-flown goods to a local truck journey. Often chefs will share feedback with their suppliers too, keeping standards high.
Not to diminish the efforts of restaurants and chefs, but sourcing fruits and vegetables on a fertile tropical island, with the added history of rich volcanic ash, seems like an obvious choice. When it comes to other produce however, advertising its imported origins somehow becomes a plus, as if to say it’s better because it’s from abroad – especially some countries with high culinary reputations. Do you see the dichotomy?
So, we’ve established that sourcing locally is good for the economy, for the environment and for the people. Though it’s only good for certain products, otherwise imported goods are better and certainly more prestigious. But of course, it’s more complex than this.
On a more positive note, there are restaurants in Bali that are beginning to make choices beyond what are seen as ‘prestigious’ items; there are also producers who are changing people’s perceptions on the quality of locally made and grown food.
One restaurant announced this year that they would no longer be serving any yellowfin or bluefin tuna, on the account that the latter is considered critically endangered (southern bluefin) and the former, whilst considered ‘near threatened’, is now being largely overfished in the Indian Ocean. Reports mention that yellowfin tuna makes up for 42 percent of tuna catches in the Indian Ocean, whilst the recommended portion should be at 20 percent to allow stocks to recover.
Whilst already making the commitment to only serving line-caught fish, this was a big move for Seasalt at Alila Seminyak, a sophisticated beachfront restaurant serving seafood with a Japanese touch.
“Our Yellowfin Tuna Tartare was actually one of our top sellers,” says Chef Vivian Vitalis. “I remember clearly how big the yellowfins I used to order were a few years back, now I’m only getting them at half the size. Look at the bluefin… so hard to come by now. Let’s not repeat that with the yellowfin.”
Asked whether Seasalt’s high clientele were upset that this is more ‘luxury’ tuna option was no longer available, Vivian replied, “Actually, all of our guests have commended the move. The reaction has been nothing but positive. We’ve replaced it with skipjack tuna, which is smaller and the meat a bit fattier, but it’s still very flavourful. These are sourced locally through Bali Sustainable Seafood.”
There are historic associations with certain countries having the best of a certain product. Australia and the US for their beef or New Zealand for their lamb, for example. Wine was for the longest time dominated by the French, who scoffed (as the French sometimes do!) when ‘New World’ wines emerged. That was, until the ‘Judgement of Paris’ in 1976 saw France’s hegemony crumble: six French sommeliers blind-tasted French and Californian wines, ultimately to score their own Bordeaux below that of the Cali-Cabernets. It was the start of a new era, and now New World wines are booming!
You see, even with food, luxury is often about perception. What if someone told you Indonesia made good cheese? You would perhaps raise a questioning eyebrow.
Rosalie Cheese is a food tech company who produce excellent artisanal food products. Their expertise lies in making natural Indonesian cheese (mainly soft) from farm-fresh ingredients (cow and goat milk) without preservatives or colourings. They make their own twists and versions of ‘blue cheese’, peppered cheese, chèvre, feta, halloumi and mozzarella, just to name a few.
“I believe that every region has its own unique characteristic in terms of dairy products. The climate and the flora will impact the flavour of the cheese produced. It’s like coffee –there is no problem wanting to taste other coffee regions,” explains Ayu Linggih, founder of Rosalie Cheese.
With a background in food technology, she could see the potential. The price of imported cheese in Indonesia remains very high, but the demand for cheese only increases. “People thought I was crazy for making cheese in Indonesia. We don’t have cheese making equipment here – I had to be very creative on the things that we use to produce cheese; we had to train our partner farms to handle transporting the fresh milk.” The list of challenges goes on.
She says that surprisingly, it was chefs from two major Indonesian hospitality groups, Ismaya and Potato Head, that were the first to adopt her products. The fact that they were locally-made and affordable was what made the difference. “Both factors play an important role in the chef’s decision. It was at the time “Farm to Table” trends were coming in, so they wanted to source local.”
We asked her if she had any reactions from ‘cheese snobs’. She divulged that one customer said, “I’m French you know and we know our cheese.” However, after savouring her range of cheeses, they changed their tune. “I’m proud to say that most of them are surprised by the taste, texture and the quality of our cheese,” says Ayu.
Rosalie Cheese’s latest creation is ‘Lucie in Bali’, a Camembert style cheese covered in locally-grown Moringa, the superfood. “Who knows maybe one day Europe will want to have Indonesian cheese on their market?” She says optimistically.
Even when a restaurant makes a commitment to source locally, there are definitely limitations.
Jamie Oliver Kitchen in Kuta, for example, has to follow a very strict working ethos set by ‘The Naked Chef’ himself. All of Jamie Oliver’s restaurants around the world are required to follow, ’JOSIE’ (Jamie Oliver Supplier Information Exchange), a system created to ensure that every supplier used by a Jamie Oliver restaurant adheres to his standards. These cover everything from animal welfare, to hygiene of suppliers and the actual nutrition of the product. They are comprehensive to say the least.
In a country like the UK, these standards might be simple, but in Indonesia where the very concept of ‘animal rights’ seems almost foreign, ‘organic’ and ‘free-range’ are a little more difficult. “We need to see documents to support what our suppliers say, we need to see the farm itself whether to see if [the animals] are living in a good place with good food. We even have to send pictures and send them to our HQ,” explains Chef Jovan Koraag, who leads the kitchen over in Kuta.
They need to know details…. “when the chicken is fed, whether it’s fed with natural corn or other seeds. We even need to know the age of a chicken when it is slaughtered,” he continues. The only supplier that meets their standards locally is Bali Buda. Otherwise they have to order from Java.
Chef Jovan wants to supply locally whenever possible; but not if it means sacrificing on quality standards. Importing products isn’t always about prestige, it’s also about finding the best quality – in this case, that quality includes the welfare of animals and the health of diners, not just taste. So that means they can’t go local with everything just yet. “For our prosciutto di parma we could only use one particular brand that has been approved by JOSIE. Though I’ve heard rumours about good quality local sea urchin and fresh truffle being available soon – we’ll see what JOSIE has to say!”
Whilst restaurants do their best to search for the best local standards, there are also those trying to raise them. Bali Highlands Organik (BHO) is one company trying to prove there is a better way.
Started in 2013, BHO presents the highest standards of sustainable, organic, free-range pig farming on the island. Unlike providing local cheese, pork is readily available in Bali, with it being a delicacy often used for ceremonies (suckling pig); restaurants could easily source locally, so essentially BHO was entering a saturated market. But it’s not just about availability.
“The pork quality in Bali has fallen drastically over the past 20 years. From pigs that used to be raised in backyards with healthy food to the current industrial model of antibiotic fed, confined pens, destructive environmental practices and poor quality.” Explains Aaron Fishman, Founder of Bali Highlands Organik.
BHO opened to provide a better income for pig farmers and also better conditions for the pigs themselves — this in turn creates a better product too. BHO’s farm and butchery are found in Karangasem, East Bali, “The main difference is we give the pigs around 100 times the space to live compared to how pigs are raised in Bali.” On average, 30 pigs are given one hectare to roam freely, which is a considerable difference to other pig farms on the island who keep their pigs in concrete pens.
“The next largest difference is that our pigs eat only vegetarian feed and huge amounts of sweet potato vegetables. This makes them much lower in fat and much more flavourful”, Aaron continues. In contrast, whilst not always the case, many local pig farms feed their livestock with leftover food — a practice that saw 1000 pigs dying from African Swine Flu at the start of February 2020.
But keeping such high standards is no easy feat. “Our costs are about double to raise our pigs compared to normal pigs in Bali. This was one of the biggest surprises for us. How much money needed to be invested to raise pigs in a better way.” Despite the difference in costs, BHO stands as evidence that restaurants can find local produce that meet the standards of taste and ethics.
BHO produces everything from deli meats, such as Dry Cured Streaky Bacon and Honey Ham; to sausages made with organic herbs, like their Beef Bratwurst to traditional Balinese urutan. They’ve also innovated to create gourmet products, such as their traditional British black pudding, made with rolled oats, nutmeg, herbs and fresh sweet onion in a natural pork casing.
Clearly producers in Bali are now providing locally made or grown goods of excellent quality; previously underestimated, they have surpassed the expectations of many in the industry.
This certainly makes the decision for restaurants to turn to local much easier. But it is up to them to overcome the (sometimes) perceived value of luxurious imported items. The truth of the matter is that diners are seeing the value of local now, and the new ethics-driven consumer will choose, more and more, dishes that feature produce of the region. Isn’t that a part of travelling? To savour the food of the destination?
Whilst high quality beef or lamb (for example) may still be difficult to come by locally, restaurants should be searching for locally produced items where and when possible, if their standards are met. Further to that, like they do now with their Bedugul-grown vegetables, they should be proud and advertise this on their menus. “We’re serving Pork Cutlets, sourced from Bali Highlands Organik; Chicken Provençal, sourced from Bali Buda; and our Cheese Board features unique, locally-made goods from Rosalie Cheese.”