JANDA BAIK, Feb 7 — If anyone had suggested to singer/songwriter, film score composer and film-maker Pete Teo and his wife Lisa Ngan, an architect, that they would one day leave the city behind to manage and live on a farm, the idea would have been met with a scoff and a shrug.
Lisa’s family had a small farm among the elevated greens of Tanarimba, a gated residential estate in Pahang’s Janda Baik, that was originally conceived to be her father’s “retirement garden.”
With regular visits, the couple found themselves increasingly drawn to the idyllic serenity and before they knew it, were spending more time there than in the city. Theirs was thus not a radical “let’s live off the grid” decision but a gradual transition that happened as organically as the farm. “We’re both very urban... but after a while, we realised we were here almost every weekend,” says Pete.
For the last three years or so, he and Lisa have been managing A Little Farm On The Hill on a 16-acre piece of land, where some 90 varieties of vegetables, herbs and fruits are grown organically.
Soon hock, lampang and kelar fish swim freely in a fish pond fronting the farm. There’s also a colony of stingless kelulut bees. The farm supplies certain greens to some of Kuala Lumpur’s finest restaurants (including Sitka and Dewakan) and to Justlife outlets, under the Enderong Organic Farm label.
Fruits are made into jams and curds that retail by the jar, while the freshest seasonal harvests find their way to a long table gourmet lunch at their Dining Room that can seat up to 20 guests.
Where most farm dining is usually an after-thought or the “why not” that accompanies the running of a farm, for Lisa and Pete, it’s the other way around. “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and hosting dinner parties, and loved the idea of having a farm dining table,” Lisa explains. “Naturally, we took on the farm as well.”
She designed the stilted wooden building around the Dining Room, a picture-perfect set-up of country chic framed by an L-shaped balcony that overlooks the farm. Across from it is the Farm House, a larger dining and event space that can accommodate 60.
Naming chef/restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi as among her influences, Lisa handles the cooking with the help of an assistant while Pete takes care of the smoker, which was specially built to their design and specifications.
They offer three set menus — meat, vegetarian and smoked meat — with prices starting from RM180 per person. There’s a minimum spend of RM2,000 and pre-booking of at least seven days in advance is essential. Guests can ask for a farm tour while they’re there.
Once a month, they host a “Grow Your Own Grub” compost workshop taught by production house owner and urban farming enthusiast Harbir Gill, and there are plans to start cooking classes, where participants can gather produce from the farm and cook together.
The couple also welcome yoga retreats and artistic events, and hope to eventually establish an art residency programme.
If you think that that keeps them busy enough, don’t forget they are also hands-on at the farm, supported by four staff members who had been working there even before the couple took over.
It is quite the departure for both of them, shifting from studio-based work to literally getting their hands dirty in soil. “It wasn’t difficult for me to adapt as I grew up amidst the bucolic surroundings of Tawau, Sabah... it wasn’t uncommon to have snakes slithering through our door,” says Pete. “After moving to the city, I lost that idyllic connection so it’s actually quite cool to go back to that earthy experience.”
Lisa, on the other hand, still enjoys architecture but is happy to not have to deal with the management side of things. “I surprised myself with how much I like it out here. When my sister visited us over the recent holidays, we spent afternoons catching up while weeding, and it was really nice.”
Of course, life on the farm is not always a bed of well-tended vegetables. Organic farms not only require about three times the manpower of a regular farm, but pests are a constant concern as no pesticides are used and other problems crop up regularly too.
With no background in agriculture or any prior farming experience, the couple had to start from the very basic. “I remember asking my good friend Google about the difference between compost and fertiliser!” Pete recalls. There’s a lack of information on tropical farming practices, so they usually look for India- or California-based data and adapt accordingly.
That’s where their creative streaks come into play as they troubleshoot through trial and error, and engineer solutions as they go along. When they first tried growing heirloom tomatoes, for example, they had problems with bacteria in the soil.
Solarising and wrapping it in plastic didn’t work. While driving to get food one day, it occurred to them that a dim sum steamer could be the answer. “We bought a second-hand steamer and it worked like a charm!” says Lisa. “When an idea pans out, it’s very satisfying, in an almost primal way. I get a kick out of it.”
The fact that it took them nearly two years to perfect the technique for the tomatoes, which now grow in a shed covered with netting, makes the taste of success that much sweeter. It’s also a good example of the stark contrast in pace between life in the city and that on the farm.
“You can’t impose a deadline on Nature, it takes as long as it needs to take,” says Lisa, adding that she slips right into the slow rhythm of the farm as soon as she drives past the Tanarimba guardhouse.
For Pete, the city feels more stressful and even sounds different these days. “I never noticed it before but now, I can pick out the low rumble of cars on the roads. Cities typically have mechanical sounds that beat to a certain pulse, whereas in Nature, it’s not fixed.”
While Lisa and Pete still call Kuala Lumpur home and commute to the farm daily, that will soon change as they plan to build a house here.
Guests’ accommodation is also in the works. By next year, they should be ready to welcome staying guests who want the full experience of life at the farm.
“Friends come by just to hang out and that’s what we meant for this place to be. Being close to the city (under an hour’s drive from KL) means we can do things that remote farms can’t, such as having people over for lunch and supplying small amounts of produce to independent restaurants,” says Pete.
Above all, as Lisa puts it, many people say they would love to live on a farm but are not prepared to rough it out. Once they see the modern comforts and amenities in place at A Little Farm On The Hill, however, they feel assured.
That makes it an ideal respite for city folks who want to disconnect from their daily humdrum, even if just for a few hours, and be nourished with a good meal. After all, “we’re urbanites, we know what urbanites want.”
A Little Farm On The Hill is at Lot 161 Tanarimba Janda Baik, Persiaran Enderong, Bukit Tinggi, Bentong, Pahang
Tel +609 233 0194
Email [email protected]
Besides gourmet lunches at the Dining Room, Lisa and Pete plan to do more specific food events to coincide with special occasions or festivals. Upcoming dos include Your Funny Valentine (February 14), Our Amazing Easter Feast (March 27), Farmer’s Lunch Club (April 24) and Happy Mother’s Day (May 8). Bookings can be done online at their website www.alittlefarmonthehill.com, which displays a handy calendar that shows the available dates.
Vivian Chong is a freelance writer-editor who enjoys the occasional escape out of the city. She shares her travel adventures at http://thisbunnyhops.com