Wild River Cooking with Clayton Donovan

Autumn called us out to the mountains. A journey to the source of the mighty Murray River, where it still flows blue and clear.

The Upper Murray Valley is one of the most pristine regions of New South Wales.

The area remains virtually the same as when Banjo Paterson visited Jack Riley in 1890, and was moved to immortalise it in his famous poem “The Man From Snowy River”.

Mist lay heavy in the valley at sunrise but did little to dampen our spirits. We savoured the last drops of steaming encouragement from our coffee cups before taking up the hill. The traverse was steep through frost covered nettles. When the snow capped mountains of Kosciuszko revealed themselves on the horizon, we felt the same call to adventure that led Jack Riley to live out his days here.

The morning was young, and we were on the hunt for deer.

"Food is one of the oldest rituals in the world that can bring people together. Once you have those smells happening - you can’t really go wrong."
Luck favoured us that day. We came back down the hill that afternoon with a bounty of wild venison to share with our good friend & chef Clayton Donovan.

A French-trained, internationally recognised chef, Clayton has travelled the world sharing native Australian foods and cooking techniques. We connected over a shared appreciation for the luxury of wild Sambar venison & the joy of cooking on hot coals. As luck would have it, he had also found himself posted up down the road in Cudgewa supporting a community ravaged by the recent bushfire season.

More than a dozen home were destroyed, thousands of livestock were lost and public facilities including tennis courts and the playground were razed. The local pub became a relief centre. It was a place for the town’s 200 or so residents to get supplies, a meal, and support from each other.

When days of relief support had turned into weeks, Cudgewa local Joshua Collings called on Australia’s only hatted Indigenous chef to help out.“ I said, 'Clay - we need to give the pub guys a break, they’re just so overworked'. So he came and he never left.”

Clayton spent the next two months cooking at the Cudgewa pub and other local venues, helping the community heal through good food and good company.

A wizard with a knife, Clayton made quick work trimming & dressing the backstrap as we chopped wood for the fire.

"The world's greatest steakcooker" had been lent to us by the same landowner who's property we had hunted early that morning. Originally an old blacksmith's forge, he had painstakingly rehabilitated the bearings & cogs so that the hand crank could once again pump hot air into a cauldron of coals just large enough for a cast iron pan to sit on top.

Clayton proceeded to prepare a feast fit for immortals. The wild venison backstraps were rolled in generous amounts of mustard and coated with herbs before being seared in the aptly named "world's greatest steak cooker".

Once rested, they found company amongst foraged pine mushrooms, fresh herbs & vegetables from the garden of a neighbour in Cudgewa.

Twilight had well and truly faded into night by the time we ate our fill. Hazy & satiated, we revelled in the warmth and the comfort of life's essentials - food, fire & friendship.

*This page quotes sections from a March 2020 SBS Article. Link to original article.

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