Mara Ripani is living the dream. Not just the fantasy of anyone who is bored with the daily grind of city living, but her own dream – to live her life cooking, growing, sharing and connecting over food.
Mara and her husband Ralf, an environmental engineer, live on 15 acres outside of Daylesford in Blampied with their daughters, 15 year old Ahlia and Artemisia, eight. Their farm is known as Orto, which is the Italian word for vegetable garden. Orto is where Mara’s days are spent cooking, growing, preserving, teaching workshops, hosting volunteer farm stay and bed and breakfast guests, and much more.
Mara’s Sustainability Journey
When she was nine years old, Mara and her family moved to Australia from Italy and settled in Ballarat. Her Italian upbringing formed her conviction to follow a low-impact lifestyle.
‘My Nonna always lived with us and her presence instilled in my sister and I a real sense of the value of things,’ says Mara. ‘It was completely unacceptable to waste resources, whether that be electricity, water or food.’
In the early 1990s Mara moved to Melbourne to study an environment course at RMIT.
‘I was blown away by the idea that I could study the challenges and solutions facing our natural world,’ she says.
Mara spent time WWOOFing during her university holidays and studied a permaculture course with David Holmgren and Su Dennett in Hepburn Springs.
She joined and volunteered with Friends Of The Earth and then one day, on a bike ride, came across CERES Community Environment Park, located on the Merri Creek in East Brunswick (Vic).
‘Going through the gates was like discovering heaven,’ she says. ‘Here was my tribe: cyclists, environmentalists and educators.’ Mara worked at CERES for five years, then joined the environment department at Banyule City Council, as a Cities for Climate Protection officer.
Mara and Ralf bought a house in Melbourne’s northern suburb of Reservoir. A 1950s ex-commission house, it was a modest property purchase within their means. They set to work on their own permaculture garden and opened it up to the public.
‘I love sharing my home with others,’ says Mara. ‘I love sharing the joy of growing food, cooking, preserving, foraging, harvesting and the cultural building that this creates, the stories cultivated, the friendships made.’
Moving To Blampied
The time came when the family wanted to move out of Melbourne and look for more land.
‘I’ve always liked Daylesford as it bridges these two worlds that I love – Australia and Europe,’ says Mara. ‘It has a Swiss- Italian heritage and I could see that in the landscape. Then there is also the permaculture scene. So when we were looking to move to the country, we came here.’
Mara and Ralf purchased land in Blampied, less than a 15-minute drive out of Daylesford. ‘We have beautiful views over Mount Franklin,’ says Mara. ‘It’s on fairly flat ground but with just enough of a slope to put a wetland in. And the road driving in was so nice and our neighbours turned out to be so great.’
As Mara was pregnant with Artemisia at the time, the family held off building a house for three years. Then there was a lot of work to do, bringing their dream property to life. The land had been used to graze cattle and there wasn’t a single tree on it.
Ralf, in collaboration with a local builder, built both the farm stay and their house with light earth. Having just returned from Italy where they’d toured old farms, Mara and Ralf noticed that many had been built in horseshoe shapes, so they opted for this layout as well.
‘We had a neighbour say, “You shouldn’t put the shed so close to your house”, and we explained that the shed has to be close as it’s such a big part of the work we do,’ says Mara.
‘We need to access the shed every day, so we don’t want it on the edge of the property – we want it to be part and parcel of everyday living.’
While they were building, Mara began to imagine her new life. ‘It didn’t take long to realise that instead of opening my home only a couple of times a year to the public as I’d done in Melbourne, I could run more events from my home, with a focus on permaculture and gastronomy.’
Last year, Mara began hosting and running workshops including nature-inspired printing, sourdough bread baking, fermenting, cheese-making, permaculture, natural textile dyeing, preserving and poultry keeping.
The farm stay, Orto One, has been up and running since last year. ‘It gives me an opportunity to share more of our life with others,’ says Mara.
Planning And Planting
Having studied a Masters of Urban Agriculture at Melbourne University, Mara says she is able to apply the principles she learned to her country property.
‘Our first ecology-based project was to construct a wetland and vegetate it with aquatic plants,’ she says. ‘The wetland is well-established and it is a piece of paradise for me.’
There are now native habitat trees along all of the boundaries, and in the paddocks grow oak, chestnut, hazelnut and walnut trees. There are olive trees, native grasses, a range of flowering perennials, a snow gum lane, berries and two fruit orchards across the property.
Orto One kitchen garden is thriving and a second kitchen garden, Orto Two, is in the works.
‘We want to grow as much as we can,’ says Mara. ‘We are growing primarily for us, then our farm stay guests, and then excess is bartered and sometimes sold. We are currently constructing a roof garden above our poultry shed and I will keep planting until our farm is a sea of green.’
Clockwise from top left: Tomato harvest for passata. They make 150 bottles a year; Mara with the strawberry and tomato harvest from the farm; Orecchiette pasta making class in her kitchen with live Italian music by the wonderful Salvatore Rossano; One of her Silver Laced Wyandotte; Every week they bake sourdough for their family, and run sourdough bread baking classes throughout the year. Photos by Mara Ripani
Cooking Up A Storm
Mara comes from a region of Italy called Le Marche.
‘It has a very diverse cuisine because it has access to mountains and sea,’ says Mara. ‘I grew up eating olives stuffed with minced pork, beef, lamb and chicken, then coated in fine breadcrumbs and fried. They are delicious and heaps of work to make!’
With her grandmother and mother being fantastic cooks, Mara was also eager to learn the ways of the kitchen. ‘I grew up surrounded by delicious food, which formed a huge part of my identity,’ she says. Orto’s massive larder has come in handy.
‘It has been so important in everything I do, having that space to be able to preserve food to my heart’s content,’ says Mara. ‘There is a big concrete tunnel that runs underneath the larder to the northeast of the property, and it brings cold air from the outside. This keeps the larder cool most of the year.’
Bringing People Together
While Mara generously shares her skills, she also acknowledges the hard work of the volunteers who give her a hand with the farm’s diverse array of happenings. ‘I love hosting volunteers, they are instrumental,’ says Mara. ‘I’m essentially offering the experience I was looking for when I was WWOOFing in my 20s and was finding it really hard to find places that could share a range of skills with me. I think it’s a lot easier these days, thanks to the internet, to get a sense of the farm before you go there.
‘During this time without the volunteers [due to the coronavirus pandemic], Ralf is helping me more with harvesting, when normally he does more of the building projects. My daughters are being pestered into helping – they spent an hour harvesting tomatoes and peas this afternoon after a lot of me saying, “Come on, please help me!”’
With plans to keep pigs, Ralf will be in charge of the livestock and maintaining the property, while Mara’s focus is on growing, harvesting and preserving food and running the classes. The family looks forward to welcoming volunteers and guests back to Orto as soon as they are able to.