Winton is synonymous with eating stolen sheep down by its billabongs but now Ben Casey is offering a fresh fish and heirloom vegetable fine dining experience in the middle of dusty western Queensland.
Not only that but patrons at the North Gregory Hotel, which he manages, can come face to face with a bull shark, if they’re lucky.
Ben has set up a 12 square metre oasis at the back of the pub that houses an ingenious aquaponics ecosystem to supply much of the hotel’s vegetable needs, plus some of the fish dishes on the menu.
Wicking beds, or giant self-watering pots, filled with exotic plants such as black Russian tomatoes and mini Mexican watermelons, are fed their nutrition via two fish tanks filled with barramundi and jade perch.
The latter is better known to western fishing enthusiasts as Barcoo Grunter, which tops Atlantic Salmon in the healthy fish oil stakes.
The ‘tank to table’ eating experience is Ben’s passion.
“Aquaponics is a fantastic way to grow vegetables, in a dry climate that’s isolated, in terms of getting fresh produce,” he said. “We wanted to offer fine cuisine in our restaurant and this gives people greater variety too.”
He says the dwarf yellow beans and heirloom greens and herbs fit with the hotel’s art deco theme as well.
Agri-tourism is what brought Ben from Harrisville in the Fassifern Valley, where he ran a cafe, to western Queensland 15 months ago.
Through the hotel, he’s offering an introduction to the grazing industry both by station tours and through its meals.
“We use locally butchered meat, which runs their own cattle, so for certain meals we can say everything on the plate was produced locally,” he said.
Waste from the 50 jade perch and 30 barramundi in the fish tanks is converted by beneficial bacteria to nutrition then filtered through rocks to the garden beds to feed the plants.
The system uses just 250 litres of water a week, thanks to the recirculation of its water.
According to Ben, the only water loss is through transpiration and evaporation and is better than hydroponics in that users aren’t left with salty water at the end.
“We use 30 per cent less water than a traditional garden,” he said.
It’s saving the hotel an estimated $1000 a week in food purchases too.
Thanks to the nutrition coming to the roots, he can afford to plant more densely than in a normal vege garden.
“It looks empty because we’re using it all the time,” he laughs.
Outside the shrouded greenhouse are 22 tubs containing citrus, banana and pawpaw trees that complement the vegetables.
As for the bull shark? Ben wants to build awareness of the endangered shark populations around the world, so the money that’s made from 20 minute tours of the system, which includes a platter of fresh food, will go towards shark conservation.
It’s certainly a one-of-a-kind experience in the outback.