The colder months are notable for citrus fruit and this year’s crop of lemons, limes, mandarin, oranges and some weird agrumi throwbacks is abundant and extra juicy, given the plentiful rainfall. I find myself grating citrus peel into more dishes lately: a touch of grated orange peel enhances a dark rye sourdough, while grated lemon peel has become the new parsley- it’s the final sprinkle on many savoury dishes. Lemons have been preserved: that salty acid is a surprising addition to a fishcake mix, while the limes have gone straight into the freezer. It’s odd, but I always associate limes with summer and hot climates, Thai food, Mojito and the beach, and yet they are usually scarce when you need them most. They juice well after a few months in the freezer. Oranges and mandarins are best enjoyed straight up, though both make rather lovely cakes. I also dry the skins near the woodstove as they make very effective fire starters: orange oil is highly combustible as I found out one winter, so care needs to be taken in drying them. This season I’ve made a rather lovely lemon jam, Marmellata di Limoni. It lacked the fussy soaking and slicing of a British marmalade and yet tastes just as good. I also attempted the famous steamed pudding from The Three Chimneys Restaurant in Corbost on the Isle of Skye. It was a terrible flop, and yet the accompanying Drambuie custard was a winner. I inflicted my flop of a pudding on my friends, who gave it a new title, “The Three Jimmys.” After a shot or two of that special liqueur, no one really noticed how bad it was. The chooks enjoyed it the next day.
Which brings me to the Mandarin Almond cake which doubles as a noble winter pudding. It is similar in many ways to that classic and famous cake, the Middle Eastern orange almond cake, but more exotic and interesting. It can also be made more quickly as the mandarins don’t require hours of boiling. This is a recipe to keep, unlike my failed attempt at that famous Isle of Skye marmalade pudding.
Mandarin Almond Cake
300 -350 g mandarins, skin on, cut into quarters, seeds removed
1 3/4 cups caster sugar ( divided into two parts- 1 cup and 3/4 cup)
2 cinnamon sticks
125 g unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups ground almond
1/3 cup cornflour
Preheat oven to 180°C/160°C fan-forced. Grease a 6cm-deep, 20cm (base) round cake pan. Line base and side with baking paper.
Combine mandarin, 1 cup sugar, cinnamon and 13/4 cups cold water in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring, for 5 minutes or until sugar dissolves. Bring to the boil. Gently boil, covered, for 15 minutes or until mandarin skin is tender. Remove mandarin with a slotted spoon. Process mandarin until almost smooth. Cool. Reserve syrup.
Meanwhile, using an electric mixer, beat butter and remaining sugar until pale and creamy. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down the sides as needed. Stir in almond meal, cornflour and mandarin purée. Pour mixture into prepared pan. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean.
Meanwhile, place reserved syrup in a small saucepan. Place over medium heat. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes or until slightly thickened.
Cool cake in pan for 5 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack over a baking tray. Pour half the syrup over cake. Serve cake warm with cream and drizzled with remaining syrup.
It’s tomato time once again and that means passata making month. We grow a wide variety of tomatoes each year, but always reserve two beds for saucing tomatoes, either Roma or San Marzano, both cultivars of egg shaped tomatoes. This year I grew San Marzano from seed, starting in late winter. I planted out 12 seedlings and made sure they were well spaced, at around 35- 40cms apart, which guarantees a bigger crop. They are situated in full sun all day, another factor in considering the siting of your tomatoes. San Marzano and Roma tomatoes store well as their thick skins prevent early rotting or splitting. In the height of the fruiting season we harvest around 5 kilo per day: I’m pleased to see the crops slowing down now dwindling to around one kilo per day.
Dealing with this constant flushing means addressing sauce making in a very different way from the big annual sauce making day favoured by many. I don’t have a cool room or sufficient fridge space to store masses of tomatoes so we make sauce every second or third day. The following approach takes around 10 minutes of preparation, and minimal equipment. The resulting thick sauce captures the taste of summer to use throughout the colder months. The sauce consists of tomatoes only, no basil, herbs or garlic.
What you need:
3 kilo of San Marzano tomatoes or similar egg shaped tomatoes
a large heavy based stainless steel stock pot
an old fashioned mouli or passatutto ( metal hand cranked food mill) with larger holed disc.
rectangular plastic storage containers
Weigh the tomatoes and wash them if necessary. Remove ends and half, or quarter if very large. Throw them into the stock pot and cook on high heat for approximately 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure they don’t catch on the base of the pan. Place your mouli over a bowl. Pour the mushy tomatoes into the mouli. Once all the juice has fallen through, turn the mill to extract the remaining pulp. Scrape the thick pulp from beneath the holed plate and add to puree. Discard the skins and other left overs in the mouli. Return pulp to the stock pot and cook on medium heat for around 30- 40 minutes to reduce and thicken. When cool, place into plastic storage containers. Label with date and freeze.
Yield. 3 kilos will yield around 1.5 litres or so of thick passata/two tubs of 750 mls.
My mouli is one of my most useful tools. It’s easy to clean, easy to store and fast to use. It’s the perfect implement when you want a certain texture to your food. Sometimes they turn up in opportunity shops so if you see one, grab it. They come with two or three interchangeable discs.
Interesting Uses for passata.
I deliberately leave my passata plain so that it can be used in a variety of cuisines. Once defrosted, I cook half with some garlic in olive oil, dried oregano and a little tomato paste to use in the week’s supply of Italian dishes such as pizza, pasta, eggplant parmigiana, or Italian soups such as Pasta e Ceci or Minestrone. The remaining un flavoured passata is added to Indian or Chinese dishes. Last night I made a quick Indian sauce using passata with added garlic, some homemade tomato kasundi, and cream. This was used to sauce some lentil balls and became a quick version of Malai Kofta. It was a huge success, and consequently I now must make this year’s batch of Kasundi, which also uses another kilo of plain tomato thick passata. A few spoons of passata can be added to a stir fry along with soy or oyster sauce. Passata enriched with onion, garlic, chilli and smoked pimento is an excellent sauce for baked beans. And when tomatoes are sad and woody in winter, enliven them with a tub of passata to make a brunch shakshuka.
As often is the case, my February kitchen post will look a little like a tour of the orchard, as this month is most fructiferous. This abundance is due to a few factors: the orchard is now mature and is producing far more fruit than we can ever use, the garden has finally developed its own microclimate, and most importantly, we have experienced an unusually high rainfall in our locale, the second highest in our 40 years of record keeping. The birds are not so interested in the fruit crops- ripe nectarines have fallen to the ground: no cockatoo or parrot gives them a second glance. The rabbits, the most destructive creatures during years of drought, are not interested in ring barking, and the grass is still green in the paddocks. We now have 64 fruit trees, which includes two nut trees and 10 olive trees. Much of that fruit travels through my kitchen between January and April. Some is left on an outside table for friends and family to help themselves. This season is a rarity, and in these times of the pandemic, where we go in and out of lockdown (another one was announced today in Melbourne), this glut is a blessing. I sometimes feel like Anna Frith, as she roams through orchards of unpicked fruit in that extraordinary novel, Year of Wonders, set in 1665 during the plague in Eyam, England. ¹
Apples ripen in waves, with heritage apples producing in different months. I was mulling over the word ‘heritage’ this morning as I stood in the early morning rain taking photos of my Rome Beauty apples. Has ‘heritage’ become the new wank word of the fruit and vegetable kingdom, just as artisan, bespoke and atelier became overused in the last decade? I’ve become a little suspicious of the word ‘curate’ too, overused as it is in the shallow lands of the advertiser. But here I am with lots of old style apples, so I guess the word ‘heritage’ may stay.
The pears are nearly ready to pick with only two varieties coming in- the Beurre bosc (a great keeper) and Clapps (a poor keeper). The latter will be be used the moment it’s picked, in pear clafoutis, pear and almond torta ( my handy recipe here), or gently poached in saffron and wine.
The tomato glut is easier to handle. Three kilos will make a wonderful rich soup ( my recipe here) and another kilo or so lands in a gazpacho. After that, they are sauced, or eaten on toast. I’m happy to have too many.
I feel like a child again when I enter the dark world of the quince tree, the heavy hidden fruit inviting me to dream, not so much of the kitchen but of Renaissance painters of fruit.But it’s not their turn yet….
Thanks Sherry for indulging me in my fruit fantasies, The fruits do get cooked in my kitchen but my photos of them hanging about in their wondrous world, waiting to be picked, looked a lot more interesting than my plates of food. Go to Sherry’s Pickings for more kitcheny thingsthis month.
Put away your trumpet, there’ll be no fanfare for the dawning of Spring. In Melbourne, the month of September is changeable, windy and unpredictable. Sunny days are often preceded by blistering cold. Gale force winds rip through the hills, bringing down branches from bare winter trees while the ‘darling buds’, the blossom on fruit trees, bravely hang on. There’s nothing especially attractive or romantic about Spring: the arrival of Primaverais invariably disappointing. Early Spring is like a moody teenager: all that white and pink confetti blossom helps to create a sense of hope and promise, yet the new season is accompanied by immaturity and mood swings. It’s a season on hormones. I’ve often returned to Melbourne in late September to be disheartened by the cold and windy weather.
This year I experienced my first Melbourne winter for 10 years and was surprised by the vibrant colour in the garden and the calm weather throughout late July and August. It isn’t surprising to learn that the Wurundjeri – Melbourne’s indigenous people who have lived around what is now Melbourne for thousands of years- have a calendar consisting of 6 seasons. The period from late July to the end of August is a distinct season in the indigenous calendar: it’s the time of nesting and first flowers. This year, this pre-spring season has been remarkably clement, sunny and still, with many joyous picnic kind of days.
” The division of the year into four seasons comes from Northern Europe, and does not fit Melbourne. We still think of winter as an unfavourable season for plants, when northern European trees drop their leaves and become dormant, but for our native plants, especially the small tuberous herbs, winter is a season of growth. At this time the bush is green, and the temperatures are rarely low enough to stop growth. The unfavourable season is high summer, when water is scarce, and much of the ground flora becomes brown and dies off. “¹
In the last two weeks of winter, I’ve observed new seasonal birds in the garden, attracted by the early pink/mauve flowering Echium. New Holland Honeyeaters, Eastern Spine Bills and Wattle birds have feasted on this large bush while on still days, hundreds of bees have had their turn. Once the honey eaters arrive, a seasonal indicator of sorts, I start sowing seeds, knowing that the sun’s angle will be perfect for germination inside my north facing window.
Native wattle trees have been in flower for weeks, with different species taking turns to paint the distant landscape with bright yellow patches of mini pom poms. The blue green leaves of the eucalypt drape and sway gracefully from tall healthy trees. They are in their prime in late winter. The native purple flowering creeper, hardenbergia violacia spent winter snaking its way along a fence while the mauve flowers on the tips of the silver leafed Teucrum Fruticans hedge have enjoyed this pre-spring season. Some non- native plants have also thrived in late winter, especially the euphorbia, a startling lime green show off, while the jonquils and daffodils, now spent, are a late winter pop up. One lone flag iris emerged under a pear tree. The citrus trees fruit in this little wedge of time between winter and spring- Navel, Washington and Blood orange fruits brightened the season. Now that Spring has arrived, they’ve finished their fruiting cycle, with energy directed to leaf and flower.
The late winter vegetable patch has supplied us with bitter salad leaves, chard, kale, turnips, green onions, leeks, broccoli, fennel and parsley. Spring will push these plants sky high: it’s now a race to eat as many of these liver cleansing greens as we can before they bolt to seed.
Picked greens for a Pizza di Verdure Pugliese.
This year’s pandemic and subsequent isolation forced me to regard winter with new eyes: I can honestly say, it wasn’t so bad. And now, let’s see what this season throws at us. Life has become as unpredictable as Spring.
¹ There are many diagrams and charts illustrating aboriginal seasons, each one varying from place to place. The diagram above best illustrates Melbourne’s seasons. Diagram and quotation from http://www.herringisland.org/seasons1.htm
Time now marches through life like a merciless drill sergeant, or dawdles behind like a whining child depending on how you now find yourself. Days have lost meaning, a weekend for workers fast becoming a redundant notion, as time turns into a series of statistics- the day’s death rate, the increased spread of the covid 19 virus, the daily rise in numbers, the shape of the curve, the waffle and contradictory chatter on the airways clouding all sense and reason. Dear Italia and the people of Lombardy, their statistic is about to become ours. Easter holidays, no longer holy, as longed for days of family gathering will pass without much fanfare. No chocolate eggs, don’t risk the shops. Hot cross buns? Make your own, you have the time now if not the will. Use the ingredients on hand in your pantry. The old Venetian ‘quarantina‘ makes more sense as a measurement of time: forty days, not a fortnight, but perhaps much longer if you’re still living in the land of days and weekends, still congregating at the beach, the river or renting weekend houses, shopping for fun not necessity, still in denial, joining another queue with strangers. Wake up Australia. The time is now.
For those who measure time by the slow drip of quince juice from a jelly bag suspended over a chair, making quince jelly is a seasonal and timeless pastime, resulting in the colour of Autumn’s bounty trapped in a jar. If you manage to score a bag of big gnarly quinces from someone this season, wash your hands after collecting the bag, wash the quinces well, and follow the most simple recipe on the internet you can find. There are only two ingredients required- quinces and sugar. I’m assuming that the toilet roll hoarders haven’t bought all the sugar, but then in my mind there’s a warped correlation between the two.
My joy in cooking is directly related to the level of productivity in my vegetable garden and orchard. This year’s summer crops are inspiring, despite the difficult and dangerous weather we’ve experienced this summer in Australia. I can only put this abundance down to a few things- the time spent monitoring the garden, good compost, mulch and water, the latter, in our case, pumped from a dam to a header tank. Each day, it’s simply a matter of combining the day’s pick with some pantry staples to make deeply satisfying meals. The first and most prolific summer vegetable, the zucchini, will come first in my Summer Cookbook, a reverse alphabetical approach. They are a versatile vegetable, lending themselves to slow braising, frittatas, ratatouille, fritters, sweet cakes, pasta sauces, soups, Greek pies, and shapes to be stuffed. This year I’m growing three varieties: Blackjack ( Black beauty), a dark green fleshed fruit, a good keeper, adding colour to soup and fritters, Cocozelle, an Italian heirloom variety, which is striped and long, the flowers more likely to cling to the young fruit, making it a great one for tempura battered zucchini flowers, and the pale green Lebanese zucchini, a good one for braising. I prefer to pick zucchini when very young for most dishes. Medium sized zucchini are set aside for soups and the large ones go straight to the chooks or are dried for seed collection.
My latest simple recipe, Grilled zucchini with Marinated Goat’s cheese, is a great addition to the summer table.
five or more very young zucchini, halved vertically or cut into three lengthwise. Note, if you shave these into thinner strips, they will char to quickly and virtually disappear on the BBQ.
good olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, smashed into a paste
fresh marjoram leaves
Meredith marinated goats cheese or equivalent product
a pinch of sea salt flakes
Light a hooded BBQ and get the temperature above 250 º c. ( you could also use a kitchen iron grill ). Toss the cut zucchini long pieces and toss in a little EV olive oil in a bowl. Add the garlic paste to a separate small bowl of EV olive oil. Using tongs, place the lightly oiled zucchini directly onto the BBQ and close the lid. Raise the lid after a minute or so and turn the zucchini strips. When nicely done on both sides, add to a serving bowl, and toss through some of the garlic paste oil. Add salt and pepper, fresh marjoram leaves and a few hand torn cubes of marinated goats cheese, as much as your conscience allows. Serve alongside other summer dishes.
Looking for more summer zucchini recipes? The links here will take you directly to some of my older recipes on the Z word.
Books and winter go hand in hand. I was planning to stick to library books for inspiration but a few purchases have crept through the door. The cost of a good second hand cookbook is usually less than half the price of a new magazine. Savers second hand store provides most of my cheap finds, while the Book Grocer is a great source of remaindered books.
Many species of fish are at their peak in winter. The snapper were almost jumping at the Preston market last week, along with a winter specialty, a rare item, small gutted cuttlefish. I bought one large snapper carcass to make fish stock to freeze, one snapper to bake, and 1/2 kilo of cuttle fish to freeze. Five fishy meals for $19. I was very happy with this baked snapper recipe from Neil Perry. We devoured young Roger the Snapper with gusto.
At last there’s a break in the weather, a cool snap with a little rain. Is it time to rejoice or was that last shower just another drizzle of hope? This summer and autumn have been hot and dry, pleasant weather if you’re by the seaside, but not so kind for those who love their gardens and farms. An omen of what’s to come? To date, we have had around 60 ml of rainfall over the last three months. The tanks and dams are low, the fruit trees are dropping their leaves too early: rabbits crawl up and over fences in search of something green to eat, starting with their favourite snack, the ring- barking of fruit trees before looking for small gaps in the well fenced vegetable patch. The figs look like hard little bullets and have given up the battle.
Midst our paddocks of desiccation, there are some welcome surprises. The quinces are fabulous this year, picked just in time before the birds got desperate. Such an old-fashioned and demanding fruit, I love the way they turn from hard golden knobbly lumps into the most exotic concoctions. How do you describe the flavour and colour of poached quince?
With the sound of the rain on the tin roof, my thoughts turn to food and preserves. Quince jelly, quince syrup, perhaps to use as an exotic base for gin, a torta of ricotta and quince cubes, quince ice cream, the syrup swirled through a softened tub of good vanilla ice cream, perhaps some Spanish membrillo.
Long thin eggplants have been fruiting for months. While not as useful as the fat varieties, they grow more abundantly in our micro-climate.
The Pink Lady apples are the star this year. We grow 13 varieties of apple, and each has its year. The crop has been well protected by netting, though the desperado cockatoos are beginning to notice. Picked and stored in the fridge, they are reasonable keepers.
With the change of season, I hope to return to my usual pattern of posting and cooking. There will be more recipes coming and anecdotes of one kind or another, simple stories about the beauty of life. As the saying goes, ‘I’ll keep you posted’.
From February through to April, my vegetable garden is at its peak: each week brings another tidal wave of fruit and vegetables through the back door and into the kitchen. The years of weeding, nurturing, staking, mulching, seed selecting and composting have paid off. Our vegetable garden is now nine years old and I often think it has a life of its own. Things pop up of their own accord, though I do have a small hand in this, allowing the prime specimens to go to seed. Time means nothing once I cross the threshold of the vegetable garden gate: it’s another world, another time zone, a spiritual place. I often enter with the simple intention of gathering a posey of parsley, then am overcome by something intangible. It is la terra del tempo perso, the land of lost time, but that time is definitely not wasted. The crops and the earth itself have ways of communicating their needs, more so in these challenging years of drought and changing climate.
Sometimes I look at a bed of struggling vegetable plants and I know that by adding a few shovels of well-rotted compost, the plants will thrive within a day or two. Compost is garden gold, especially here in the Shire of Nillumbik, the ‘land of shallow earth’ in indigenous language. I have 5 large bins in various stages of decomposition. The connection between compost and the kitchen is an important one. It is up there with the other daily kitchen tasks of recycling all waste that we generate through our consumption-plastic, glass, aluminium and paper- except that food waste has a much simpler solution. In my kitchen, a tall bucket lives inside a pull- out drawer under the sink. Anything that my chooks don’t fancy goes straight into the compost bin. This includes vegetable peelings and food scraps, fish bones, fruit skins, egg shells, newspaper wrapping, cooking oil, paper towels, tea leaves and spent coffee. Other paper products are added such as dockets and plain envelopes, non inked cardboard containers, and other plain paper packaging. It is one of the most important practices in my kitchen and is an ingrained, lifelong habit. I would feel incredibly guilty if I didn’t use this important resource: it would be akin to throwing away good food or wasting money. And my beloved vegetable garden wouldn’t thrive. Composting is an aerobic process that reduces or prevents the release of methane during the breakdown of organic matter so long as it’s done correctly. To not compost contributes to global warming, not to mention the costly exercise of councils having to take away waste that is a such a valuable resource to the home gardener.
‘Food waste makes up a big chunk of general household rubbish that finds its way to landfill. Not only does sending food waste to landfill cost the economy an estimated $20 billion a year, it produces methane — a potent greenhouse gas — when it rots.’¹
Worm farms also work well, though after killing my worms one very hot year, I haven’t returned to that practice. My recipe for compost making can be found here.
The Roma tomatoes are most fruitful this year, and are wonderful in this Retro Tomato soup. I’ve added a couple of grilled prawns on top for a bit of flash frugal: they ceremoniously sank for the photo.
Sometimes I lay out an array of garden produce and let it talk to me about lunch. Today’s pick included carrots, corn, silverbeet, beans, and zucchini. The lovely Kipfler potatoes come from Hawkes, a farm in the hinterland of the Mornington Peninsula. The rest is from my garden. After removing the corn from the cob, the denuded cobs can be boiled with a little salt and fresh bay leaves for a corn flavoured stock. Just like that hilarious book on pig eating, Everything except the Squeal, I feel the same way about my garden produce and try to use every part of the plant. The chooks hang around the orchard fence waiting for lettuces and other greens that have gone woody in my garden. Only then will they lay good eggs, as their grassy run is now sadly lacking in green grass and shoots.
Another marvellous find this week at Hawkes farm was a 4 kilo bag of just picked strawberries for $5. These are marketed for jam making and are often too ripe to sell. I usually make a big batch of jam but this week’s lot was in perfect condition- just oddly shaped. After hulling, I froze them in one kilo lots. Hawkes farm uses environmentally friendly packaging: this bag is made from corn and is compostable: no plastics or nasties have been used in the manufacture. The bag is now in our compost bin- it will be interesting to see how long it takes to vanish completely. I’m trusting the label which claims it meets Australian certified compostable standards which are more stringent than those of Europe. A nearby business in the village of Hurstbridge, Going Green Solutionssells Compost- a- Pak products in packs of 50 for AU$20. At 40c a pop, I hope I can re-use the bags a few times, especially for freezing bread as well as the annual crop excess.
I love kitchen gadgets that work well and this Nutriblender from Aldi is a gem, especially given its powerful 120 watt motor. The motor churns through the fruits and veggies in under 8 seconds. Breakfast covered, and a great way to use our soft fruits that don’t store so well.
The cucumbers are still prolific this year. A few cucumbers, some half peeled, plus yoghurt, salt, spices, and mint, are thrown into the jar of the new blender, buzzed for a few seconds, then voilà, summer cucumber soup. Just chill it.
This year our fruit tree netting has been very effective in keeping out the birds. To date, we’ve harvested early peaches, three varieties of plums, early varieties of pears and apples and now, the table grapes. The sultana grapes are small and sweet, while the fat purple grapes have an interesting history. A little pot with a cutting was given to me by Vittorio, 8 years ago. A Siciliano who migrated here in the 1960s, Vittorio used to sell seedlings and small plants at a nearby market. This grape cutting was originally taken from a vine that had grown in his village. It probably is an ancient clone but we call it Vittorio after that lovely, generous man.
Finally, returning to the dilemma of recycling, which is central to all our lives, especially in our kitchens, where we now sort and store our daily refuse, our local Council has just advised that our recycling will go to landfill this week, or we can ‘hold it back’ until a solution to the recycling crisis is found. Other shires around Victoria have openly announced that all recycling will now go to landfill. Will this be the tipping point that brings about change in our consumer patterns?
Thanks once again Sherry, of Sherry’s Pickings, for linking our kitchen posts in the monthly series In My Kitchen.
Have you ever noticed the cost of organic garlic? Australian organic garlic retails for around $30 or more a kilo ( €20/US$22). Other non organic garlic is a little less, while in the latter half of the year, the only garlic available commercially comes via Mexico and Argentina, which looks better than the snow-white mesh bags of Chinese bleached ‘garlic’. I would rather go garlic free than eat these nasty lumps of poison. If you love garlic, choose the best. Source seasonal garlic from a farmers’ market. Flavour and economy are two of the main reasons why I grow my own, but I have to admit, I love harvesting garlic and watching the early colours change from deep crimson and purple to pale white striped mauve after they dry. Beautiful bunches of garlic always remind me of French country markets, alchemy, rustic food and good health. Long live garlic.
Growing garlic is time-consuming, which might explain why one head of organic garlic costs around $1.50. I’ll outline the steps here, in laywoman’s terms, for those who may be interested in growing a few. For those without a small patch of earth to dig around in, just enjoy this season’s garlic pics.
When to Plant
I usually start planting out cloves during Autumn, from late April to the end of May and do this in stages, thus staggering the final harvest dates. The old adage which advises that garlic must be planted by the shortest day, winter solstice, works as a rough guide, but I am finding that most of these old guides no longer work for me. If you leave your garlic till June 21st, expect a poor crop or none at all. The temperature of the earth is perfect for garlic in the last month of Autumn, providing just enough warmth to get green shoots going before winter. Given that garlic takes around 6-7 months to mature, it makes more sense to harvest them in late November, rather than during the busy December month. Last year I lost one bed of garlic planted in mid June and I can only put this down to the drop in ground temperature and soggy soil. The little cloves rotted and vanished. Of course the timing of planting will vary from region to region. I live in a cool temperate zone. Tap into local knowledge to find the best time to plant in your own area.
Choose your best looking cloves when planting. Keep some fine specimens from your previous harvest and plant these. If you choose little cloves, you will most likely produce little bulbs. The asexual reproduction of garlic means that what you plant is what you harvest, so choose your cloves wisely. It is said that garlic reproduced in this way will eventually lose its vigour, and that one should revert to seed at some point, a process that takes years. I am yet to notice any loss of vigour in the plants at our current farm. Your soil needs to be fertile and friable. Hard clay isn’t suitable as the little bulbs need to expand easily. Push the flatter end of the cloves into the soil: the top or pointy end should be just below the surface. Plant cloves about 10 cm apart, in rows about 40 cm apart. It’s a good idea to mulch lightly over the soil once the green shoots appear. Organic sugar cane mulch works well. Given that your garlic will be in the ground for at least 6 months, you don’t want them having to compete with weeds for moisture and nutrition. If Winter and early Spring is dry, you’ll need to water the crop. Most of my crop was smaller than average this year. This was due to very low rainfall from late Winter to Spring when we were away and unable to water. Smaller bulbs still taste good but are tedious to peel. These little underground gems need watering just like any other plant. Towards harvest time, hold off watering.
Harvesting occurs when the stalks begin to dry out and seed pods form at the top. I usually dig out a few in early November and start eating the immature specimens, the stalk included. By digging them up occasionally, you’ll be able to gauge their development. If you leave them too long, the cloves begin to separate and open like a flower: while still tasty, these don’t store as well as tightly closed garlic bulbs.
After pulling the garlic, clean the bulbs as soon as possible. I use a damp cloth to remove dirt and baked on mud. It’s important to clean them before bunching and hanging as later cleaning is far more tedious and you don’t want to introduce any dampness to a perfectly dried garlic. Hang the garlic under an airy verandah, well protected from rain and harsh northern sun. They may take a few weeks to thoroughly dry and harden. Well cured garlic will store longer.
After drying, the fun begins. Rub away the outer skins and along the stem to reveal the clove shapes. Most of the dark purple papery skin disappears, revealing soft mauve and white underneath. You might like to plait a few if you have grown soft necked garlic. Most of my garlic stems are too hard to bend into plaits so I make a few nice bunches to display in the kitchen. The rest get cut and stored in a dark spot, usually in a close weaved covered basket, or a container that can breathe, or in a hessian sack inside a terracotta pot.
I’ve featured photos of bulbils in my header photo and throughout the post. Bulbils form when a scape is allowed to mature. The scape is the stalk growing out of a garlic bulb. Although it is sometimes called a ‘garlic flower’ it is not really a flower. Like cloves from a bulb, bulbils propagate garlic vegetatively and the bulbs that grow from them are clones of the parent plant. This year we found a mysterious bed full of excellent garlic that I definitely did not plant. I vaguely recall throwing around a few handfuls of bulbils around two years ago. During summer, they produced stems that looked more like chives. They grew under the shade of a rampant pumpkin vine. These chive like bunches developed, untouched, over two years, and turned into my star garlic for the year.
A few notes.
The medicinal properties of garlic are well-known. A short paper on the history of garlic used medicinally can be found in the link below.
But then the Italian contadini always knew this, as these old proverbs corroborate:
L’aglio è la farmacia dei contadini. Garlic is the peasant farmer’s pharmacy.
L’aglio è la spezieria dei contadini. The same as above. A ‘spezieria’ was a workshop – laboratory in ancient times where medicines were prepared by an apothecary. The monasteries were famous for their spezierie.Bulbils broken into little gem like cloves.