What Bella baked next: a lot of love from a lonely kitchen

Isabella Britton is a go-getter. She’s a 21 year old cattle station cook in remote western Queensland. She also studies an agribusiness degree full time.

While her Facebook page What Bella Baked Next may appear to be a food blog, the page is about connecting with people from the kitchen at Alderley Station, north of Boulia.

“I wanted to show people what I was up to in rural Australia because some people, city people, don’t understand what I get up to everyday,” she said.

“I want to share with them and show them. I’m passionate about living this way. You can’t beat the lifestyle, the experiences, the work ethic. Everything changes when you come out here.”

She juggles her fulltime online studies while cooking for about a dozen hungry mouths, spending three hours each afternoon doing her university work.

She’s lucky. The internet access on the remote station is reliable, allowing her to access the University of New England’s curriculum, lectures and tutorials online without any problems. This is not the case for many, many people in regional Australia.

Keen to enter the live export industry upon completion of her three-year degree, Bella is majoring in marketing and management.

“I want to help negotiate trade [deals]. It fascinates me when agents come and they’re on the phone constantly negotiating deals. I’d love to be involved in that,” she said.

Bella admits the Alderley Station kitchen can be a lonely place when the station hands are out in the heat and the dust.

“They come in for dinner after a long day and they’re telling stories about what happened and sharing a yarn,” she said.

“Those fellas work very hard, I know they do, and I just want them to come home at the end of the day and say, ‘Thanks for doing that for me, Bella’.

“They’re very polite and I’m grateful for that because it helps me stay motivated.”

What Bella Baked Next is fast becoming an online hub for sharing recipe and kitchen tips.

“It’s great to be able to connect with these people who have been doing it a lot longer than I have,” she said.

Bella credits her mother and grandmothers for her interest in cooking, calling them “fantastic cooks”.

She believed putting love into her food made her a good a cook.

“I imagine that if I was eating it, I would want someone to respect the food and what I was about to eat,” she said.

Station hand Martin Bolton chuckled as he said he could taste the love.

“She does well keeping all of us happy. It’s the best feed I’ve ever had,” he said.

“She puts a lot of time and effort into everything. She puts a lot of heart into her food.”

I tasted that love for the bush and her station team when I ate dinner with them all. Bella’s lasagna went down a treat. The ringers went back for seconds, washed their own plates, and said “thanks for that, Bella. It was yum”.

Station cook Bella

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Life on a remote cattle station: my visit to Alderley Station

Working on a cattle station is high on my bucket list. I’m just not sure what I could offer to a station manager though. I’d love to be a station cook. But I can’t cook …

Looking after 15,000 cattle is a big job. On Alderley Station in remote western Queensland, a team of station hands joins the bosses for breakfast even before the birds have started stirring.

I dropped in on my way to Darwin and was welcomed with an offer of beer and bed.

The sound of a diesel generator that powers the station’s few houses and workshops breaks the early morning silence — a sign that the boss is awake and the workers should be too.

The generator chews through about 1200 litres of diesel a month. It’s turned off overnight, leaving the property with no power. When I got up to pee in the middle of the night I was thankful for my trusty torch.

It was 6am when I joined the team for breakfast. The station’s owners, Frank and Radha Blacket are my age. They dine with their team which isn’t that common. Often cattle station managers and bosses tend to do their own thing. But this couple is very hands on and accessible.

The work for the day was dished out at breakfast. Some of the team will spend the day putting in a cattle grid and servicing the motorbikes, while a few ringers will join the boss mustering. About 1000 cows and calves needed to be brought into the yards. It will take most of the day.

The Blackets own three properties in the Boulia region in western Queensland, totalling more than half a million hectares.

The number of cattle is forever fluctuating, with stock being bought and sold all the time.

“We run Charbray cattle because they’re versatile. They can go to live export and they can go to the southern, domestic market as well,” Mr Blacket said.

Prices dictate where the cattle are sold. The Blackets’ biggest market recently has been the live export trade.

“They’ve needed a lot of cattle and we’ve been able to supply them,” Mr Blacket said. “Sometimes they want emergency loads so we can supply them pretty quick.”

Mrs Blacket does not only spend time in the station office crunching numbers and doing deals. Like her husband, she is hands-on, often behind the wheel of a road train, trucking her cattle to market.

“We’re in a good position to be able to go to whichever market is paying the premium at the time,” she said.

Despite Alderley Station being closer to Townsville Port than Darwin, the Blackets’ cattle are exported to Indonesia from Darwin. That’s a 1,850km on a truck from the property at Boulia to Darwin Port.

The rowdy ringers.

Meal times on Alderley Station can be a fun, loud affair. The station cook, Bella, is a 21 year old studying an agribusiness degree via distance ed. She’s one hell of a cook and the ten station hands are big fans of her work. (A blog about Bella is coming.)

Most of the ringers (station hands) are young guys who love the lifestyle and sense of family at the station. They’re a rowdy mob – sitting together laughing, spinning yarns, teasing and even flirting with the guest who’s twice their age!

Dillon Fox, from Boonah in Queensland, is a carpenter by trade. Keen for a change, he joined his brother on Alderley Station five months ago and has not been fazed by the long working days on the property.

“It’s a good lifestyle. You don’t really notice it as work,” he said. “We’ll have a few days when the work slows down, go to a campdraft or something.”

Martin Bolton is helping Dillon put up a new fence. Once working in property development earthworks, he has recently taken a new career path.

“Out here we get a go at everything — cattle, welding, tyre fitting. You’ve got to be an all-rounder here,” said Marty. “It’s good to learn different things.”

Away from the wind and the hot sun, Ethan Tindale relaxes with a beer after dinner. Originally a Townsville lad, he is happy living and working in western Queensland.

“The people, the community — it’s like being a big family,” he said.

“You know everyone in town and once you get accepted here it’s a really comfortable place to live.”