Mushroom Madonna

‘I would like on my tombstone,’ Donna Harper tells me as we settle over coffee, ‘the words A Woman Of Many Interests.’

The ‘trouble’ – such a negative word when she is all positives – with interviewing Donna is that she is so irrepressibly fun and brimming with fascinating stories, all to do with these many interests, that we keep side-tracking wildly. Not that it is mattering at all, because wherever we end up reveals another good story.

Unsurprising really, given that Donna has been telling stories for much of her adult life. Those familiar with her beautifully modulated tones on ABC Radio (there’s another funny story about that too and her father’s comment on the way she sounds) might not be aware of the other hat she dons at farmers markets, where she and her mother sell mushrooms – equally, her farm- ers market customers might not be aware that the previous evening she had been reading the news.

Born in New Zealand, she came out to Australia in the 70s, to grow up on the Central Coast. From there it was to NIDA in Sydney where she obtained an Arts degree in Screenwriting and Acting, and hence to Triple Jay where she started doing the news. She also met and fell in love with the father of her first child, but when the relationship fell apart she headed up to Brisbane. After three years as a single mum she met and fell in love with Hans, her current partner, an antique dealer and French polisher. And had her second child.

So how, I ask, did the mushroom thing come about?

Back in New Zealand, the family farm cultivated raspberries. ‘I always loved having acreage as a kid,’ she tells me. ‘The being aware of good food – I really wanted that for my children, that appreciation of nature and life… We love mushrooms and we used to buy mushroom compost from a friend of ours for our raspberries. Our friend was tired of the business and offered it to mum and me. We thought why not?’

More than mother and daughter, Carole and Donna ‘are also good mates’. Carole, who used to be an economist for Kodak, has al- ways held a passion for farming, gardening and landscaping. They all live together on sprawling acreage up at Nunderi, between Murwillumbah and the coast, and I imagine a ‘Darling Buds of May’ sort of lifestyle, sun- nily chaotic, raspberries instead of straw- berry fields, although perhaps minus the rambling leisure.

They grow a variety of mushrooms – Swiss Browns, portabellos, white buttons – and are currently ‘venturing into the exotics. Nothing like a bit of variety, sweetie,’ Donna tells me. Peat shipped over from Ireland is mixed with compost in Windsor, NSW, before being freighted up to the farm in air-conditioned trucks. ‘We grow the mush- rooms in air-conditioned shipping contain- ers because they don’t like heat or humidity,’ Donna says. ‘We’d love to grow them in caves or tunnels but I’m not sure how the council or our neighbours would feel if we started digging big holes on our farm.’

Donna is passionate about food in general, not just mushrooms. I get the distinct impression she is a superb cook – although how she might find the time baffles me. She is talking about her smoked mushroom pate which sounds fantastic: mushrooms smoked then blended with sour cream, chives, garlic and fetta. She fervently believes that the North Coast should become ‘the food bowl of Eastern Australia. We have rich soils and lots of water to help grow unique and beau- tiful produce. I think authorities must find
a balance between protecting our region’s prime agricultural land and responsible, not greedy, development.’

The Woman of Many Interests hopes one day to get back into screenwriting. But for now – ‘food’s taken over… farmers markets are very important; they’re my passion.’ In fact, yet another of Donna’s many hats is that of Vice-President for the Byron Farmers Market. ‘The great news,’ she winds up, ‘is a lot of people have realised our food value and have formed excellent organisations and are working together to make our re- gion be noticed for its wonderful food and sustainable values.’

About victoria

Author of the gastro-memoir 'Amore&Amaretti: A Tale of Love an Food in Tuscany', I am a Byron Shire-based food and travel writer, food columnist, cooking teacher, recipe editor and chef. Born in Canberra, ACT, I have a BA in languages although am only really passionate about the Italian one, in which I am fluent, having spent four years in Tuscany in my late twenties, and returning reasonably frequently ever since. Despite that, my partner of many years, a wonderful artist, clothes designer and aged carer, is half-Greek!
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