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.
I never sent my thank you letters to all who donated so generously after the Black Saturday Bushfires. This is a sign of ill breeding, I know, but the task seemed overwhelming at the time. For the first year I had difficulty concentrating on defined tasks, looking for addresses, remembering phone numbers, handwriting, and finding things. I was always distracted, anxious, tired, alarmed or annoyed. Burnt out.
And so my thank you letters are rather late. Ten years late in fact, but I have chosen to write the letters today, February 7, 2019. The list will be rather long, dear reader, and so you may want to stop reading here. I remember every gift, donation offer of kindness, and all the faces of every volunteer I met in the weeks and months that followed the Black Saturday bushfires. These memories are very clear. It’s never too late to express my enormous gratitude to the Australian people who volunteered and donated money or gifts during that time. It was a tidal wave of kindness, to which I owe my recovery. If I have forgotten you by name, forgive me.
People Making a Difference.
Most of the large gifts and monetary donations were distributed in a coordinated and egalitarian way. The large donations collected through Red Cross were distributed through government agencies: the amounts varied, according to loss, and were apportioned in parcels over a 12 month period. A significant amount of this fund was set aside for whole community recovery such as town infrastructure, small grants to artists, film makers, workshop providers and so on. Those who lost their homes were appointed a case manager to assist in negotiating the applications for these funds, other services and information: they eased the pathway through the mire of administrative and bureaucratic nightmare facing those who lost everything. I never formally thanked our case worker, Linda Fabb, though I did along the way I am sure. Linda visited and rang us often to see how we were travelling. She stayed with us until we finally re-settled one year later. She visited armed with information, tick sheets for grant applications, forms to fill in, and discreetly checked on our psychological well-being as well. She was on our wavelength, we got on well. Not all survivors were so lucky with their appointed case managers. After we found our new house, Linda visited twice with boxes full of little plants made from cuttings. These were made and donated by her mother. Through these random gifts of kindness, I also learnt how to strike cuttings in recycled plastic containers just like Mrs Fabb senior. I have one garden in your honour. Now I strike, grow and give away plants. Thanks Linda.
Not long after the fire, a wonderful association emerged, thanks to Catherine Lance of St Andrews North. As Cathy’s house survived the fire, she decided to establish a regular morning tea venue for other women in St Andrews who were affected. 65 houses were destroyed overnight on February 7, 2009, and others lost shedding, crops, and outbuildings. We went by the title of “Ladies of the Black Belt”, a geographical reference to the area burnt in St Andrews North but also with visual and psychological connotations too. St Andrews North was black and treeless, as was the outlook of those affected. After the first get together, it became necessary for Cathy to limit the membership of the group to those within a defined boundary to protect the vulnerabilities of its members. We grew as a community over a two-year period and shared enormous friendship and a common bond. Cathy’s neighbour, Barb Barbetta, also offered her house for similar get togethers, morning teas and shed nights. The shed nights started as bloke nights but were soon converted to family nights. Tony Barbetta’s shed became our local town hall, complete with its own clock. These gatherings also defined us as a community, albeit a traumatised one. Cathy Lance was also a font of information along the way, with reminders of grants, events, warnings, funerals, and organised a fine Christmas party catered by Maree and Rodney Adams, restauranteurs at Latrobe University. She also connected us to a caring group of folk in Inverloch, who hosted us for a fine luncheon and then kindly donated home-made little Christmas puddings and cakes for the Black Belt Ladies’ first post fire Christmas. Thank you friends from Inverloch. Through this umbrella, we also enjoyed several women’s’ getaways to Phillip Island, offering us a chance to chat in a completely different environment. To balance this, men’s getaways ( otherwise known as fishing trips) were funded and organised, mostly through Helen Legg. Thanks Cathy and David Lance.
Helen Legg and all the friendly volunteers at the Hurstbridge Bushfire Relief Centre, Fiona, Jane, June, Annie and so many others. I’ve written previously about the extraordinary efforts of Helen here .Volunteers also go through enormous trauma during times of national disaster and I am aware that Helen’s team was emotionally exhausted after a long two-year stint. Thank you for making such a difference.
Thanks to the owners of the building which became the Hurstbridge Centre, in main road Hurstbridge, who donated the property for a lengthy period.
All the volunteers at the Hurstbridge Church Hall, the St Andrews Bushfire centre, Diamond Creek Sporting Stadium, the Whittlesea Bushfire Centre on the showgrounds, and the Clayton Warehouse Bushfire centre. We came to collect wonderful new and second-hand goods from your vast emporiums which only functioned because of your time so freely given. Thank you.
The guys from Hurstbridge, friends of Helen Legg, who came up to our burnt landscape and helped clear the mess, and Sunny Cross who helped clear the toxic stuff on the block. Of course, my immediate family also attended working bees on and off for months. There were many others, too many to mention all by name.
Terese, a local landscape gardener and teacher, who designed a garden for me, provided a colour coded plant list and helped me begin my new garden once I resettled. My love of gardens developed further thanks to your inspiration.
Louise Ferguson, of Ferguson winery in the Yarra Valley, who voluntarily gave a series of simple cooking lessons to groups of women in the months after the bushfires. We loved going out together and eating your samples. I still make your toasted muesli.
Chris, an amazing teacher of mosaics, who freely volunteered her time to organise workshops in the old St Andrews School. She ran these workshops for years after 2009, such was her dedication. You can visit the amazing mosaic bench chair, a masterpiece of history, coordinated by Chris and completed by the bushfire affected in the area. Those who lost their homes added small fragments of old plates and vases to the work. The chair is near the St Andrews hall on the market site. I attended a few sessions but found my artistic skills were sadly lacking after the fire.
Jenny Cox, whose name became synonymous with the Knitted Chook for a few months. Jenny and her crafting friends began knitting colourful and exotic knitted chooks ( hens) after the bushfires. These were entered into a grand final competition and comedy night, hosted by Denise Scott. The funds raised from that event were used to gift knitting baskets and hand spun wool to the women who had lost their homes ( and their knitting supplies). This hilarious event, along with the chooks themselves, lightened the mood along the way. It also helped forge a bond between the two burnt communities of St Andrews and Strathewen. Giving comedy, a craft outlet and joy. Thanks Jenny.
A big thank you to all the bands who played at SOUND RELIEF, a huge benefit concert held in the MCG, Melbourne. The highlights included Midnight Oil, Hunters and Collectors, Jett, Kings of Leon, Paul Kelly, and many more. There was a similar benefit concert held in Sydney with a different lineup of bands. The funds raised from this event were huge and were added to the Red Cross funds for equitable distribution.
Sunny and I at the Sound relief concert
Sound Relief, the crowds gather
Sound releif 2009
sound relief benefit concert 2009
Sound relief 2009, Peter Garrett, Beds are Burning.
Some people have commented over the years on my resilience. I don’t think I’m resilient, just very fortunate. In the early days after the fire, all sorts of offers of short-term accommodation became available. I could have stayed in the city, but felt it important to be near my tortured land, my burnt out home, my community, and to own my recovery in the place that I had always lived and loved for the previous thirty years. Community and support came through being among those who had experienced the same catastrophe. During those early months, I found new neighbours and rejoined with others with whom I had lost contact.
Within three days of the bushfire, a large and comfortable caravan arrived in the front yard of my daughter’s house in Hurstbridge. We stayed there for a while, and the van was left there for months for when we needed it along the way. Thanks Rachel Brown and Jason.
Tess Baldessin offered us a little cottage on her bushblock. It was simple, beautifully crafted and quite monastic. It came with its own bathroom but no kitchen. Her partner Lloyd soon installed a little gas stove which enabled us to cook simple meals there. My friends, Diane and Brian Gilkes, stayed in another nearby cottage. Together we became a little commune and stayed for three months. Thanks Tess and Lloyd.
As winter approached, we needed a warmer environment and were delighted to be offered a house in St Andrews to care for, along with an aging cat, Bonnie, while the owners were travelling. Thanks dear friends, Helen Hewitt and Chris Warner. Since then, our friendship has grown, and Chris and Stuart now share a regular music practice together, a sort of musical men’s shed for two.
We were also given a large, 1970s unroadworthy caravan, donated by a woman from Anglesea. The caravan was moved by tilt tray truck to St Andrews, the 160 kilometre journey courtesy of Nationwide, who donated their trucks, drivers and time to move old unwanted caravans to bushfire sites around Victoria. The caravan adoption movement was coordinated by Helen Legg at Hurstbridge Bushfire Relief Centre ( a year later, she also coordinated the distribution of loaned shipping containers). Our Caravan of Courage provided shelter on our burnt out block for 9 months. It was a place to escape the howling winds, which were horrific due to the absence of trees and bush, nature’s windbreaks. After we sold our block, my son-in-law, Kyle Bradley, renovated the van at his own cost: it’s now roadworthy and spends a few months at the beach, providing retro accommodation for my children and grandchildren. Another tiny van was also donated: this was gutted inside and served as a lock up shed for our disposable safety gear, overalls, tools, buckets and so on. We called it the Kebab van. Thanks Matt O’Connor.
Organisations and Charities
While thousands of Australians donated money to the main fund-raising body, Red Cross, many other organisations and charities collected funds and directed them to those displaced by bushfire. The Salvos distributed shopping vouchers for the IGA supermarket and Kmart, Sussan and Sportsgirl. Vinnies offered vouchers for petrol and the local hardware chain, Mitre 10. The Holden Car company gave us a new car, free of charge to use for one year which included servicing. The Country Women’s Association provided a farming grant which we used to buy a ride on mower, ( thanks once again Cathy Lance for coordinating this) while the RSPCA provided an animal focused grant. We used this to re-establish a chook house and run, along with 6 chickens. ( 50 or so of my chickens perished during the bushfire ) An organisation emerged for the replacement of musical instruments: a rep from Resound personally delivered a beautiful new electric guitar to Mr T, who lost 9 collector guitars in the fire. For guitar aficionados, it’s an ESP LTD EC-1000 with Seymour Duncan pickups. There was also library grant replacing some of my books, including an academic Italian dictionary, gardening books and classic novels.
Salvation Army ( the Salvos )
Holden Car Company
St Vincent de Paul (Vinnies)
The Country Women’s Association
Small Business grant to buy computer equipment
Library, new book donation
Musical instrument grant from Resound
The personal gifts of money and/or items were many. My immediate family, my parents and siblings were all very generous. My niece Louise replaced my Stephanie Alexander book, her friend sent over a bowl made by Leon Saper, local potter, a platter came from a lady in Cockatoo ( Jan?). There were gifts of books and a book voucher. Beautiful hand-made quilts were distributed by key women within the community. When my grand children were little, they could pick one to cuddle each night when they stayed with us. These quilts are our heirlooms and will be handed down to them one day.
Made by the Wednesday Quilters
Quilt no 58, The Fabric Palette, Gladstone Qld and Friends, sponsored by Irene Dudley
Those who sleep under a quilt sleep under a blanket of love. We send ours, June Hazell, Narrawong Patches and Craft, May 2009
Some quilts were numbered. This beautiful quilt, no 41, was sponsored by Ursula Thornton and quilted by C.J Quilting. The Fabric Palette, Gladstone, Queensland and friends.
Cot sized quilt with heart designs,
Companies donated linen- new sheets and pillow cases, often remainders in odd colours which are still in use 10 years later, tea towels and a doona. These company gifts came through the Bushfire relief centres in Diamond Creek and Whittlesea. Enormously valuable in the first month was the donation of safety protection gear, full suits and masks, as well as wheelbarrows, spades and tools. A brand new generator arrived from another company. New socks and underwear came from another.
And then came the second-hand things, as Australia cleared out their cupboards and donated goods, useful clothing, and toys, a national KonMari moment in history. We wore these clothes with pride. I remember one evening when Mr T went off to work in an odd assortment of second-hand clothes. He thought he looked pretty dapper. Some of his work colleagues thought he looked more elegant in his new attire, a step up from his pre-fire dress sense. Often when I look at our 2009 photos, I am a little amused at my clothing style back then. Skirts, boots, and odd colours, a sort of aging hippy op shop couture. We obtained second-hand towels with plenty of wear still left in them as well as pots and pans, cutlery, an old Kenwood mixer, crockery, books, you name it – we made use of all your wonderful donations.
Thank you to all Australians who responded so generously and with an open heart in 2009. Your money, gifts and clothing found a new home and was valued and appreciated, both big and small. I know I have forgotten a few people. Remind me if you can. And, dear friends and readers, if you recognise anyone in this post, please pass on my personal thanks.
About Donating. If every working adult in Australia put at least $50 aside each year, imagine what a difference we could make during times of natural disaster, either here in Australia or abroad. If 1 million people give $10 tomorrow to a reliable charity, $10 million would become available to distribute aid to those suffering from the floods in Queensland right now. Multiply this by 5 causes per year, and you have a good recipe for giving, and for changing people’s lives. Other ways to give during disaster: volunteering your time and expertise, assisting in clean ups, donating food parcels or meals to neighbours, sending your unwanted goods to charities that arise during these times.
This is my last post on Black Saturday bushfires. It is meant to be a happy post and a suitable finale to my previous chapters. By reading and commenting, you have assisted me and my family during this difficult anniversary. We thank you.
I can’t imagine a garden without herbs. Or cooking without herbs. Or life without herbs. If I were marooned on a desert island and had just one food request, I would choose fresh herbs. And if then forced to choose only one herb, the answer might well be oregano.
Although a perennial herb, oregano has distinct seasons. It shoots up in Spring, producing tall hard stems with bracts of pale mauve flowers. It’s best to harvest these stems once in full flower and hang to dry. If you’ve ever bought a packet of dried wild Greek or Sicilian oregano, you’ll notice that the flowers are favoured. By harvesting the mature stems, the plant will reinvigorate for summer and beyond. It is alive in winter, but not so productive.
Every time I gather bunches of oregano and string them up, I can almost taste the savoury crunch, salty sea air, pizza, fish, pickled olives, capers and the Mediterranean all rolled into one little sensation. I first tasted this herb in 1968, the year I first ate pizza. A few years later, as a cash strapped student with two infant children, my favourite weekly treat was a bag of oregano laced olives from the little Greek grocery shop on the corner of Canning Street. I am still searching for that same taste, that excitement that transported me away from my childhood diet of bland British/Australian cuisine, and into the firm embrace of Cucina Mediterranea.
When making a simple pizza sauce (with garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and tomatoes, fresh or canned) I invariably choose to add dried oregano. When cooking fish, a simple fillet of flathead, a snapper or a pesce spada alla siciliana ( swordfish), oregano usually stars in the sauce. Its earthy, slightly bitter flavour bonds well salt, garlic and oil. Fresh oregano, olive oil and vinegar is a perfect dressing for a warm potato salad or is the final blessing, along with a squeeze of lemon, on fried saganaki or halloumi.
I often feel enslaved by my food memories, though it’s a pleasant kind of servitude. One other vivid recollection involving oregano is the day I first tasted Salmoriglio, that famous Sicilian sauce and marinade. We were sitting in a little restaurant in Palermo. It was late Spring in the year 2000. The decor spoke of that era- terracotta paving on the floor, Mediterranean tiles on the walls, and colourful Italian made platters and plates. We ordered Pesce Spada, grilled swordfish, dressed with Salmoriglio. It came with oven roasted potatoes and grilled red peppers on the side. To this day, it is the fish sauce of choice.
There are a few variations on the theme of salmoriglio. Some recipes add capers or anchovies. I think the following recipe comes closest to that taste true of Palermo. It can be a sauce or a marinade for vegetables. The sauce is best used straight away or within 24 hours. I made it last night for a sauce to go with pan fried flathead fillets, and today I used the remainder to marinate some zucchini and tiger prawns, which were then grilled.
6 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves, removed from woody stems
2 large cloves garlic
course sea salt flakes to taste
juice of one large lemon
zest of 1/2 lemon
6 tablespoons EV olive oil
1-2 tablespoons hot water
Mash the leaves with a pinch of salt flakes and garlic in a mortar and pestle. Pound well to amalgamate into a rough paste. Add the lemon peel and oil. Continue to pound then add the lemon juice and a little hot water, mixing well to make the sauce creamy. You can gently warm this sauce if you wish. If you make it in a food processor, the sauce will have a dense consistency and will not be so rustic or tasty.
Oregano Salt Recipe.
1/4 cup of dried oregano leaves
2 tablespoons sea salt crystals.
Grind in a coffee or spice grinder and store in a jar. Add to baked vegetables, fresh tomatoes, Greek potatoes.
So what food would you choose on your desert island dear reader? My choice of oregano assumes that I will also have a fishing rod.
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.
The word ‘green’ is associated with more connotations than most other colours, including immaturity, rawness, naivety, pale and sickly looking, envy, and the green environmental and political movement, just to name a few. Perhaps some of these concepts are inadvertently connected? As an offshoot of the green environmental movement, some cooking sites loudly proclaim to be ‘green’, a word that has become synonymous with healthy. A quick perusal of these sites will reveal recipes using all sorts of everyday ingredients that are neither ‘green’ nor healthy. ‘Green’ food, just like that other odd term, superfood, has become another marketing tool. Maybe green is the new lite?
As I suggested in a recent post on eating greens, I am enjoying taking the word back to its literal meaning, given that I have a vast array of garden greens to choose from. I can honestly say that most of the things I eat are unavailable in restaurants. I prefer to eat my own concoctions more than ever and have no time for flashy, restaurant styling or plating. I’m after big flavour, freshness and ease of production. My garden greens go in soups, pastas, risotti: they top pizzas, go in salads and stir fries, while the herbs flavour bland foods or star in their own right.
Growing our own food and eating with the seasons is a fifty year old habit, though I think we’ve become better at it with age and more time. My green stories are not meant to promote a romanticised view of country life. Far from it. It’s a lifestyle choice which comes with a fair amount of dedication and is not for the armchair tree changer, the naive or the time poor. The picture of country life, at least in the Italian context ( this blog does, after all, rely on a certain Italianità for content and inspiration) pictures a nonna making bread and preserves or a nonno making sausages and eating pecorino and fresh fava beans under an olive tree. There will be home pressed olive oil and maybe an outside fireplace to cook alla brace. This is the stereotypical view of Italian country life, a wonderful food marketing myth. The idyllic notions about cucina povera conveniently ignore the laborious and hard life of the peasant. Italian migration, especially after WW2, took place as a result of desperate poverty in Italy. We can forgive the modern-day Italian blogger who pretends, just a little bit, to be connected to the land and the seasons, writing from the comfort of her own modern apartment or suburban home via a trip to the nearby farmers’ market to check what’s in season. These stories make people feel that their food has authenticity, another marketing tool.
It’s not easy being green. It’s hard work living by the seasons, which involves making vast amounts of compost based on the layering of collected manure, grass clippings, oak leaves, and scraps, as well as saving seed, pruning, netting fruit crops, harvesting gluts of food and giving it away or preserving it, watering, mulching, and ensuring that the fences keep out unwanted pests such as rabbits. The food tastes good because it has been nurtured well.
If you are fortunate enough to have any small patch of land that accompanies your abode, grow herbs that suit your climate, plant some silverbeet (chard) in the flower garden- rainbow chard, with its yellow and red stems looks wonderful. Plant an annual crop of cavolo nero for winter soups. These tall dark green plants look statuesque in a garden bed next to lavender. Why not grow some artichokes in an unused corner of the yard? Their silver leaves are as ornamental as any other exotic plant and they grow like weeds. Pop in a row of radish every fortnight and some soft heading lettuce. Tend to them like children and learn what they need. The old cop-out, having a black thumb, is an excuse for not learning about your own environment or the needs of plants. Agitate to save an old growth forest from logging and learn to grow a few greens at the same time.
The two pastas shown throughout this story both rely on the same base soffritto shown in the picture below.
As the spaghettini cooks in the pot of boiling salted water, chop some soffritto ingredients. I like to use anchovy fillets, garlic and dried chilli. Heat a good glug of EV olive oil in a wide and deep frying pan and add this mixture, stirring about to break up the anchovy. Add some greens to the pan- I like to use broccoli Calabrese, a side shooting broccoli that is even finer than broccolini and cooks in a minute, a few young leaves of cavolo nero and some immature zucchini cut into the same shape as the other greens. Toss these about for a few minutes, then add a ladleful or two of the pasta cooking water. Raise the heat to reduce the liquid a little. Once the pasta is al dente, drain it and add it to the pan of greens. Toss about and season with ground pepper. Serve in big bowls and dress with grated Parmigiano or more good oil, or leave it as is.
No quantities are mentioned in the recipe. It’s entirely up to you and what greens you use. This recipe only works because the greens in question were picked 20 minutes beforehand. Herbs work well. Lettuce, chicory, chard, shaved young artichoke- whatever you can find or forage.
Brocollini Calabrese seeds can be bought from Eden seeds. Sow these directly into the ground in April ( or towards the end of Autumn). I pick side shoots every second day.
Sunny brand anchovies come in 750 gr cans. I buy these at Gervasi supermarket in Brunswick, Melbourne. I haven’t seen them anywhere else in my travels. They are very good and last well, packed under oil.
If you grow too many chillies, dry them out and grind them in a spice grinder for the year. You can then decide on your own level of heat. They last in sealed jars forever.
The monthly series, In My Kitchen, has become my record of seasonality. As November’s green crops and broad beans slowly disappear from the garden, making way for December’s zucchini and early tomatoes, so our meals begin to reflect the change in season and the kitchen sings with new excess. The annual garlic crop has been harvested and is hanging out to dry for a month, though a few young specimens have made their way into the kitchen. Organic Australian garlic tastes superb: it takes six months to mature in the garden: it is then gently cleaned, tied and hung for a few weeks to harden, then stripped of its outer casing. Some get plaited but most are stored in a dark spot for the season. This year’s harvest, over 300 bulbs, has been a labour of love, enough to keep the vampires away.
Christmas baking odours permeate my kitchen as dried fruits soak in brandy for a day or a week, followed by the slow baking of fruit cakes, evoking memories of an another time. It’s ironic to be dedicated to the Christmas traditions of the Northern hemisphere when our hot summer season brings such luscious and bountiful fresh fruits to the table. Our loganberries are in full flush, picking a kilo a day is enough at a time. The peaches are about to ripen while the netting of apples, nectarines and pears has come early this year. Meanwhile, the markets are full of mangoes, apricots and cherries. Lighter summer festive desserts based on summer fruits include Pavlova topped with mangoes and tropical fruit, alcohol laced trifles layered with berries and fresh peaches, or berry purée drizzled on anything at all, like yoghurt for breakfast, or vanilla ice cream for supper.
Another day, another kilo of berries.
First of the apricots
The brandy bottle is kept nearby in the kitchen, for cooking purposes only.
Cherries in season. My cherries were all eaten by the birds.
I’ve been expanding my sourdough recipe files lately, churning out new breads each week. Celia’s light rye was a favourite, followed by a heavier and darker rye from Breadtopia. I’ve worked on two fruit breads, a fig and fennel sourdough based on a recipe by Maurizio at the Perfect Loaf, and the other, a more economical raisin and fennel loaf. In between, I make my everyday sourdough loaves, using 20% wholemeal, also based on a recipe by Celia. I love the way my loaves take on individual characteristics when baking. Perfectly imperfect but always so tasty. One day, when my bread making routine didn’t coincide with our needs, I made a yeasted olive and rosemary loaf, based on a recipe by Maggie Beer, a quick 3 hour bread, unlike my slow 24 hour fermented breads. It’s a good standby.
The Every day loaf.
Dark rye, studded with fennel and Anise seed.
Yeasted olive and rosemary bread
Bread making gear
profile of a fig and Fennel sourdough
This lovely bunch of roses arrived to dress my kitchen table a few weeks ago, courtesy of my dear friend Diane, a rose aficionado and dedicated gardener. Pierre de Ronsard is a joy to behold. Your immediate inclination is to sniff a rose, but Pierre De Ronsard is not known for its sweet perfume. Its romance lies in the shape and delicate colour. Each bloom is said to hold 400 petals. I am determined to grow this lovely climber next year. It is named after Pierre de Ronsard, a poet in the court of Mary Queen of Scots and a keen gardener. I love fresh flowers throughout the house: there’s always something to pick and enjoy, even though it may not be as dramatic or gorgeous as Di’s roses. A singular stem of a leek in flower, a bunch of flowering chives or mauve blossomed sage, herbs and weeds also look lovely.
Thanks once again to Sherry for hosting this series. You can read her funny Christmas post at Sherry’s Pickings, read other bloggers entries, or join in yourself.
And finally, I must mention a food related link this month- a thought-provoking article from The Angry Chef.
‘Eat your greens’ was a familiar reproach from the elders around my childhood dinner table, as the boiled beans lay listlessly on the plate at the end of a meal. My father tried to lighten the mood by inventing riddles to encourage or distract the young diners, “Beans were made for queens”, or rhymes about historical events. There was nothing appetising or appealing about cooked greens in the Australian kitchens of the 1950s and 60s. All the culinary devotion was given to the meat, the centre piece of all our meals except on Fridays. The range of greens was fairly limited and included beans, peas, cabbage, brussel sprouts and lettuce, that is, iceberg lettuce. Broccoli, broccoletti, cima di rape, kale, cavolo nero, fennel, asparagus, broad beans, radicchio, bok choy, chinese broccoli, choy sum, wong bok and the vast variety of lettuces came to Australia much later. Silverbeet appeared occasionally, always served under a blanket of bechamel. Parsley was the main herb grown, the curly variety used to decorate scrambled eggs or a casserole, never featuring in its own right as a pesto or in tabouleh. Basil Genovese was still to make itself known and loved, followed by Thai and Greek basil. And then came Japanese herbs and leaves, shiso and mustard greens, mizuna, as well as the wild pungent rocket, rucola selvatica, that pops up everywhere, anise, coriander, lemon grass, the green tops of turnips and radish, the leaves of pumpkins, and the chicory family of greens.
All the greens of the world have their moment of glory in my garden and I would be lost without them. Most grow wild now. They are the star of many a dish, or are the inspiration for others. My green garden is most prolific in Spring and now, as I pull out the last of the broad beans, and watch the parsley and silverbeet bolt towards heaven, I’ll share a few simple green recipes.
These silverbeet and haloumi fritters were popular for lunch. They are fast and easy to prepare. I’m tempted to call them gozleme fritters as the taste is similar to the filling of a Turkish gozleme. Some oil softened onion could be a good addition to the mix. I always keep a tub of brined Haloumi in the fridge and find that buying it bulk in a Middle Eastern store is economical. A big tub lasts a year.
Silverbeet and Haloumi Fritters
180g haloumi cheese, coarsely grated
2 cups silverbeet, finely shredded
2 Tablespoons mint, finely shredded
1 lemon, finely zested
1/2 cup plain flour
2 Tablespoons EV olive oil
Grate the haloumi on a box grater ( large hole) into a bowl. Remove the white stalks from the silver beet and finely shred then add to the bowl. (Save the stalks for a soup or gratin). Add the mint, lightly beaten eggs, and flour. Mix well. Heat the oil in a large frying pan. Scoop large tablespoons into the pan, and slightly flatten as you go. Don’t overcrowd the pan. Gently turn to brown both sides and place them on a plate with paper towels to absorb the oil. Serve with a lemon wedge or yoghurt.
The broad beans starred in many a recipe during Spring, but this dish, also using haloumi, was popular.
Smashed Broad Beans with Haloumi, mint and lemon.
up to 1 kilo broad beans
150-200 g haloumi
one garlic clove
sea salt, black pepper
EV olive oil
Shell the beans and cook briefly in a pot of boiling water for 1-2 minutes. Drain and submerge them in cold water to stop the cooking. Remove the skins by popping the green centres out between your thumb and forefinger. (This is an easy but tedious task, and one I hand over to my kitchen hand, Signore Tranquillo, who is an uncomplaining soul.) Smash most of the beans in a mortar and pestle, adding some finely chopped garlic, salt and pepper and a dash of olive oil. Meanwhile fry rectangular pieces of haloumi in hot oil. They don’t take long to turn golden. Prepare the serving dish with salad leaves, then the smashed fava beans, then the fried haloumi and torn mint leaves. Place lemon wedges on the side.
I have a few more wonderful green dishes to share with you dear reader, but am waiting on one of my taste testers to give her final verdict on my latest silverbeet invention. Until then, addio, and happy green cooking and I mean that literally.
Perhaps the title of this post should read ‘In My Kitchen Garden’ as this season’s harvest dominates the show and tell. March sees the tables and benches laden with baskets full of apples, pears, quince, figs, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplants, lettuce, basil, Thai herbs, and an occasional potato. The garden is wild and I can no longer tame all that rampant life without ending up on the table of the osteopath. The time for clearing and seeding will soon announce itself. I can already sense a crispness in the air. Today, the second morning of Autumn, the overnight temperature dropped to a chilly 10ºc: I pull on some warm socks before the day’s heat sets in. A morning cup of tea, followed by a rummage through the seed box is an auspicious start to the new season.
The sleeping Buddha was installed in my kitchen window after I was stung by a European wasp last week. These lovely Roma tomatoes enjoy an extra lazy day in the glazed northern sun. From now on, Buddha will remind me to search for smuggled insect terrorists. Did that wasp stare through the windows and gaze longingly at my produce laden table, then sneak in when the wire door was ajar?
This year we inadvertently grew some rather odd tomato varieties. Some are large and flavoursome but aren’t so prolific. They are grown for show. I bought the seedlings from an Italian man who labelled them simply as ‘red’. It’s rather nice though to completely cover a slice of bread with one large disc of tomato, the jewelled translucent seed and ridged pattern simply blessed with a grind of salt. It must be the perfect breakfast. The Russian tomatoes are lacking in flavour and I won’t bother with these again. They are too big and tend to rot on the vine before ripening. Next year I’ll stick to my favourites, the varieties that are well suited to my micro-climate; Rouge de Marmande, the best of tomato flavours, Roma, or similar egg-shaped tomatoes which are good keepers, Green Zebra and the large acid free yellows which continue fruiting well into late Autumn, a literal pomodoro, along with a few self-sown large cherry varieties.
Over the last few years, I’ve gathered many old baskets which tend to clutter the verandahs during the colder months. They come to life during February and March when they are filled repeatedly. The long kitchen table is covered with baskets full of colour as they await sorting, freezing, cooking, preserving or giving away.
It’s always a challenge to find more uses for zucchini. One way of eating a kilo without noticing is to make Indian Zucchini Bhaji. Grate them, mix with onion slices, then add to a thick and gently spiced Besan and rice flour batter, then deep fry them like fritters. Serve with chutney and yoghurt.
I am still being challenged by the cucumber plague and now give most of them away. Come and help yourselves.
Everyone and his dog has been waiting for the arrival of my figs. That day came yesterday. I have a few hundred slowly ripening and pick a small basketful when perfectly ripe. Green on the outside, but soft and purple within, they are the garden’s gender antonym to the zucchini. At some point I’ll make some fig jam when the harvest becomes overwhelming. Unusual fig recipes are welcomed, dear reader.
My most successful eggplant this year is this magenta striped variety, Melanzana Siciliana or Graffiti eggplant. I have some wild self sown eggplants still to show their true colours.
Thanks once again to Sherry of Sherry’s Pickings for hosting In My Kitchen, a monthly event which encourages many to step back from their regular writing or photographic posting and to take a closer look at the engine room of the house, the kitchen.
I’ve been dithering around in my kitchen since returning from our long trip and am feeling totally uninspired. Where’s the menu and those kitchen fairies who clean up? Returning to an overgrown vegetable patch, and the loss of 13 chooks, courtesy of Mr Fox, has robbed me of fresh ingredients, my backyard larder and the inspiration for most of my meals. When I look back on my December posts from the last four years, I can see energy, seasonal fruits and vegetables, garlic braiding, Italian biscuits, summer fruit cakes and short breads. This year, none of those things have happened -yet.
Making do with what’s available, I made a huge batch of dolmades using leaves from our grape vines. Blanched in boiling water for two minutes then drained, they are ready to rock and roll. Although tedious to stuff 65 little parcels, once made, they become a staple in the fridge for hot summer nights, preserved with oil and lots of lemon juice.
The berry crop is huge this year, especially the boysenberries. They make a sweet addition to home-made yoghurt, something cool and luscious for breakfast. Making the weekly yoghurt is such an easy thing. I’m finding that 1 litre of organic milk creates a firmer and tastier yoghurt than the cheaper milks. Yoghurt is added to tahini and lemon for a quick drizzling sauce for falafel, or as the basis of tzaziki, or whipped through puréed mango for lassis, or served on the side with red lentil dhal and a few stir fried greens.
Another frugal standby is Pasta e Ceci, one of my favourite soups. I ordered it twice while in Italy this year and on both occasions I was disappointed. I put this down to the use of canned chickpeas, which retain a bullet like texture when used whole in these soups, and the lack of depth in the accompanying brodo, which should have hints of rosemary, a touch of chilli and tomato and good olive oil. The old Italo- Australiane, the Italian women migrants who cooked for their families in the 1950s and 60s, brought with them the old contadine ways of turning cheap ingredients into something deeply satisfying through slow cooking, herbs, and knowledge based on tradition. Modern Italian restaurant cooking has lost much of this old knowledge and has turned to economical shortcuts and speedy cooking.
I have resumed bread making. Despite our local and wonderful artisan baker in St Andrews, I can turn out two large loaves for $2 and there’s no need to leave home. It’s a way of life now thanks to Celia.
And in my kitchen are these gorgeous gifts from Alberto’s family in Pavia, Italy. His grandmother edged this tablecloth and napkin set. The work is exquisite. Grazie ad Alberto, Dida, Stefania e Claudio per la vostra meravigliosa ospitalità e amicizia durante il nostro soggiorno a Pavia.
Two litres of Campari jumped off the duty-free shelves on my way back into the land of Oz. I developed a taste for Spritz in Como, but based on Campari, Prosecco and soda, rather than Aperol which is not so pink and a little too sweet. Summertime drinks by the pool? You bring the Prosecco.
Thanks once again Sherry for making In My Kitchen happen so smoothly each month. Go to Sherry’s Pickings for more posts on the kitchen theme: you might even find the C word in some of them.