The orchard, summer’s sweet fulfillment, beckons each morning, before the heat sets in. With the passing of the month, more heavily laden boughs bend with the weight of fruits of the season. Long gone are the peaches, young berries and cherries of early summer: now is the time for slow maturing fruit, apples, pears, quinces, figs and plums. Today the ruby-red fleshed Satsuma plums announced their turn to be picked: not as sweet as the Mariposa plum of early January, but a close relative and a very good keeper.
Picking fruit is a kind way to wake up. I ponder the efficacy of the netting, and the man who meticulously netted, as I reach in to gently press the fruit, testing for perfect ripeness. An abundant season thanks to good spring rain, purple plums press against each other, nudging siblings for space on the bough, beautiful cheeks full of dark juice. As the basket fills, recipes come to mind- sweets of all kinds and savoury concoctions too, jams to put down for rustic winter crostate, spicy Chinese sauces, and poached plums to eat with yoghurt or labne.
I’ve made this tart often, and in the past with pears, apricots and cherries. It’s a seasonal standby. The apricot version is my most popular recipe on this blog. I’ve never had much success with growing apricots and so that version is a rare treat. Commercial apricots are picked too soon and never seem to fully ripen, tasting wooden and sour. This plum version is colourful and not too sweet. When choosing plums, make sure that they are juicy, fully ripe and are red fleshed. I should stress that they are not poached beforehand, but gently pressed into the top of the almond frangipane batter before baking.
Torta di Mandorle e Prugne con Amaretto. Italian Almond and Plum Cake with Amaretto.
125 g softened unsalted butter
150 g castor sugar
50 g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
375 g finely ground almond meal
2 Tablespoons Amaretto liqueur ( brandy works well enough here)
red fleshed plums, such as blood plums, fully ripe, enough to fill the tart
25 g flaked almonds
Preheat oven to 170 FF. Grease a 25 cm loose bottom tin and line with baking paper.
Cream butter and sugar in a stand mixing bowl, then add eggs one at a time and beat for 5 minutes until thick and pale. If the mixture curdles, throw in a little of the measured flour.
Stir in the flour mixed with the baking powder, then fold in the almond meal, followed by the Amaretto. Pour into the prepared tin.
Arrange halved plums over the top and lightly press down so they are partly submerged. Scatter the top with the flaked almonds.
Bake for 45- 50 mins. Cool in tin. Gently un-mould.
In summer, this tart keeps well in a covered box in the fridge. I reheat the slices a little before serving.
There is a season, turn, turn, turn, and right now it’s time to pick bucket loads of plums and deal with them. Most fruits have alternate years of bountifulness, with plum gluts appearing every second year. This year’s pear and apple crops look rather dismal in contrast. There are far too many plums to preserve. Some will be halved and de-stoned, then frozen. Others poached and popped into the freezer, ready for winter puddings such as crumbles, cobblers and charlottes. The first crops matured a few weeks before Christmas. Now the Japanese varieties are at their peak. We planted three different varieties 5 years ago- Formosa, Mariposa and Satsuma; all are sweet, dark-skinned and red fleshed, and all have been carefully netted and kept at picking height. My daughter also handed over most of her crop – 7 kilo to be precise. To date, I have made plum sauce, plum and port topping for a Pavlova, plum Clafoutis, and plum muffins, as well as Baked Plums with Labne, my favourite breakfast dish.
To kick off the Sagre delle Prugne, my plum festival, is this simple Chinese style plum sauce. Wonderful with Har Gow dumplings, or smeared on a big fat sausage, used in a Chinese stir fry, or as a substitute for everyday tomato sauce or ketchup. It went quite nicely with this morning’s potato and spring onion cakes.
Multiply this recipe if you are doing a large batch. My last lot of sauce, based on 5 kilo of plums, required a huge preserving pan, a worthwhile investment.
Chinese plum sauce.
1 kg plums, stoned and halved
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely grated
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Chinese five spice
1/2 teaspoon chilli flakes
Place all ingredients in a large saucepan over high heat. Bring to the boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring, for 30 minutes or until plums collapse.
Use a stick blender to blend until smooth, or put through a moulis, pressing well to extract as much as you can from the last skins. I prefer the texture of the latter method. If you think the sauce needs further thickening and reducing, return to the large saucepan and continue to cook down until slightly thicker.
Pour hot sauce into sterilised bottles. Seal, label and date.
I’m going to start with the most important thing a garden requires- compost. Without a consistent approach to compost making, your garden will not thrive. So let’s head down into the heart of darkness.Look inside this bin. Some mornings it sends up little smoke signals as I open the lid. We have five bins in permanent production. I have just emptied two mature lots onto the Spring beds. The other three are in various stages of breaking down.
When we built our vegetable patches five years ago, we had no natural topsoil at all. Our beds have been built up over the years with good compost. After every growing season, they need topping up and refreshing. I learnt how to make better compost from Wendy Mathers of the Food Farm, through workshops run by our local Council. Before I attended Wendy’s workshop, my compost approach was not based on correct layering and so the results were patchy. I have heard a lot of nonsense over the years about mythological practices and debates about what constitutes good composting technique. Correct layering, using everyday found matter, is the answer. I follow this recipe and am enjoying great results, with a bin maturing every three months or so, full of lovely fresh black soil alive with pink earthworms. Here’s the recipe:
Compost Recipe – developed by Ross & Wendy Mather, Food Farm, St Andrews, Victoria
The base ingredient is one bucket of green matter, that is, vegetable scraps, or fresh grass/weeds then add to this one item from nitrogen column and any two items from carbon column.
1 bucket manure 1 bucket straw
2 cups pelletised manure 1 bucket paper
1 cup blood and bone 1 bucket dry leaves
1 bucket Lucerne 1 bucket sugarcane mulch
Too much carbon slows decomposition, and too much nitrogen smells. If you have vinegar flies, add more carbon and check your ratios.
In late Autumn, I have an abundant supply of crunchy oak leaves providing the carbon matter. In summer, I save newspapers and shred them on site. Newspaper ink is vegetable based. You tear along the grain so that it shreds easily. I use cow and chook manure as I keep these animals, but the list provides alternatives for suburban gardeners. Weeds can be used so long as they are drowned thoroughly first to destroy any seed.
Wandering around the Spring vegetable patch after some welcome rain, my photo lens and I discover the close up beauty of new life. Seeds sprout and develop quickly, young grapes form on vines, last month’s quince flowers are now miniature fruits, the pears and apples are in flower and fruit, and the nectarines already colourful.
Each photo suggests a task. The little lettuce seeds need thinning and transplanting. I often wrap up a few clumps then make transportable containers using wet newspaper. Seedlings were once sold this way from nurseries.
The strawberries are happy but I need to ‘acquire’ the materials for a walk in cloche. I am always on the look out for stuff in tip shops but thick poly piping is well sought after. We have stolen three veggie patch beds for raspberries and strawberries. Now we are short of room for summer vegetable crops. The children love to pick berries and eat them on site, as do the birds. The boysenberries have gone crazy and need containing. More freezer space is required!
The zucchini plants are well on the way and I should see the start of the plague next week. Traditionally in Melbourne, zucchini begin to fruit one week after Melbourne Cup Day. Melbourne Cup Day ( the first Tuesday of November) is used as a marker for all sorts of gardening activities. Some say that tomatoes must be planted from Cup day onwards. I plant mine much earlier, in the ridiculous hope that I might have tomatoes by Christmas.
In the surprise bed, one dedicated to out of date seed, the Cucurbit family seeds all germinated ( all were five years out of date) as well as the borlotti beans. These little squash need thinning out and sharing.
Winter crops are now going to seed and I save the best specimen of each vegetable for seed collecting. The only problem is that these giants take up valuable space. The importance of home seed collecting is that you end up with a variety, after some years, that is most adapted to your particular microclimate, as well as preserving the strongest of the species. Darwin at work! These seeds are swapped and given away. Sometimes, like all things, new genes are introduced. The red lettuce below was found years ago in a mesclun lettuce seed mix. I have saved this one to provide summer colour contrast to a lettuce bowl.
The grapes will be prolific this year: netting takes place in a month or so. This year I plan to preserve some vine leaves for dolmade making, and the method can be found on Debi’s site here. I must be selective about this as the leaves shade the grapes from the vicious summer sun.
The young nectarines are already bird attractors. Those hungry birds, mostly Eastern Rosellas, Crimson Rosellas, white Cockatoos, Corellas, and King Parrots, will attack young, hard fruit for fun; just testing, they say. The nets will come out soon, a big task to cover around 30 fruit trees in production. Even olive trees need netting.
The artichokes are late this year, probably because I transplanted them last Autumn. I love their grey -green foliage and will use these small ones shaved in a pasta dish this week
The broad beans continue to grace our garden and plates. Other currently harvested crops include radicchio, rugola, and lettuce.
This post forms part of Garden Share Collective a monthly round up of food growing bloggers. If you lived next door, we could share seed and seasons of plenty.