If you’ve dined out in the last few years, there’s a good chance you’ve eaten off a plate from the iconic Bendigo Pottery. As Australia’s oldest working pottery, it has been turning out ceramics since 1858, and although perhaps best known for its brown jugs and pots, there is a whole lot more to the work going on there today. Rod and Sally Thomson have owned the Pottery for 21 years and oversee an ever-expanding creative hub; a factory that is also home to multiple artists’ studios, a museum, gallery, pottery classes, a café, cellar door and providore. The site also boasts a vintage market and events venue and – since 2019 – is home to CLAD, the Pottery’s Centre for Learning and Design. CLAD is dedicated to developing the careers of emerging potters and ceramic artists through mentorship, skills development and a comprehensive network of connections within the art and design industries.
If gastronomy is ‘the art of food’ then it’s fair to say the artform in many ways relies on its canvas – the plate or bowl used to present the meal. Working with restaurants and ceramicists around Australia, Bendigo Pottery has made custom plates specifically to meet the aesthetic needs of chefs such as Josh Niland and the team from Masons of Bendigo. Over 300 restaurants in Australia use dinnerware made at Bendigo Pottery, and these beautiful pieces can be found in many of the country’s top 40 establishments.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s to appreciate what we have locally – what is grown, made and shared in our region. Increasingly, Rod tells me, there is an interest in buying Australian designed and made products, rather than relying on imported goods, with the example of a Melbourne gelati business recently ordering 1000 bowls for a particular special dessert rather than using a product from Europe. The pottery already employs many local people – and this valuable contributor to the region’s manufacturing and creative industry capacity showing no signs of slowing down.
Not only do Rod and Sally do great work to support the local creative community and keep this iconic business going, they are also doing good in other ways. Recently, Bendigo Pottery has teamed up with ceramic artist Ilona Topolcsanyi from Melbourne’s Cone 11 in a collaborative projected called The Good Plate, which focuses on the simple but powerful message of “good clay, good people, good cause”. Ilona created the Good Plate, in partnership with Bendigo Pottery, to create beautiful ceramics – which are 100% Australian made, using clay from nearby Axedale – and which help to support a great cause. A percentage of all profits go to Scarf Community, a not-for-profit social enterprise that supports young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds to gain experience in the hospitality industry.
Rod describes working with Ilona as true collaboration, using plate shapes designed by the Pottery – as well as a new bowl designed for the project – with Ilona’s glazes and vision. Their collaboration enables Ilona to produce Good Plates at scale, making it easier to supply large restaurants with quality Australian-made dinnerware (orders have already been sent to businesses like the Ritz Carlton in Sydney and Perth as well to a business in the USA). The focus on good design, good materials and doing good for young migrant communities gives a whole new layer of meaning to the idea of ‘good food’.
Ilona’s vision is that every meal ‘however casual or ceremonious’ should be worthy of the ‘good plates’ – an idea that fits so well within our city and region of gastronomy. We don’t need to be indulging in fine dining to appreciate the art of great food – there is great food all around us, and great drinks to go with it! Plating up our local produce on Good Plates offers an opportunity for us to reflect on what our local gastronomy is all about, what is ‘of this earth’ both in terms of what is grown, and what can be made out of the clay beneath our feet. This initiative is just another way that creativity and gastronomy intersect in our region and a great example of a local business keen to keep growing, collaborating and innovating.
Words by Anna Knight