Afloat in a Sea of Generosity. Black Saturday Bushfire Donations, 2009-19

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.

Volunteers

  • 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.
    Sunny Cross (right) and daughter, Rachael Morgan( left). Angels cleaning up the toxic mess. They spent four days on this unrewarding task, and in my daughters words,  ‘we were looking for something.’

    One of those wet yourself laughing moments. Sunshine Cross in full protective gear, takes a ride on my burnt bout exercise bike.
  • 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.

    One of those chooks, photo courtesy Melbourne Museum. There were hundreds of chooks knitted. I also made two: mine were quite ugly.
  • 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.

Temporary Accommodation

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.

    Our little stone cottage at Tess’s place
  • 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.

    Noah and Bonny
  • 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.
  • Transport donated by Nationwide trucks . Donated caravan 70s caravan from Anglesea. Organisation of this gift through volunteer time, donated by Helen Legg.

    The same caravan today. Renovated and roadworthy, but retaining original 70s vibe. At the Mornington Peninsula by the sea. The gift that keeps on giving.

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.

  • Red Cross
  • Salvation Army ( the Salvos )
  • Holden Car Company
  • St Vincent de Paul (Vinnies)
  • RSPCA
  • The Country Women’s Association
  • Small Business grant to buy computer equipment
  • Library, new book donation
  • Musical instrument grant from Resound

Personal Gifts.

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.

Anonymous star quilt. 2009 bushfire donation.

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.

Donated by Resound music.

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.

Cooking Siciliano and the Oregano Festival

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.

Dried oregano from last week’s pick.

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.

Today’s pick, ready to hang.

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.

Dried oregano, bagged for the ‘export’ market and oregano salt,

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.

Pan fried flathead, dusted in seasoned riceflour, cooked in EV olive oil, dressed in salmoriglio.

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.

Flathead alla Siciliano.

Salmoriglio

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.

Gamberi e Zucchini alla Griglia con Salmoriglio.

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.

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How Does Your Garlic Grow

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.

Early picked garlic, late October, not fully formed. Use like a spring onion, including the stem.

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.

Early November. These  garlic bulbs are beginning to show ridges under their outer purple casings. Still a bit small.

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.

Planting Out

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.

Garlic bulbils

Harvesting

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.

Garlic hangs to dry, pretty bulbils continue to form. Bulbils are not seed but can be used in the same way as cloves. They will take two to three years to mature into big 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.

Ready to plait or store.

Storing

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.

One bunch on display in the kitchen. Because they are hanging in full light, they’ll probably need using before next April. Well stored garlic should last much longer.

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.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3249897/

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.

Another Green Recipe from a Militant Gardener

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?

Pasta della settimana

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.

Simply pink. A few stray small garlic before cleaning. I’ll use this lot while young and ‘green’.

Notes.

  • 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.

 

In My Kitchen, December 2018

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.

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.

Churning out the loaves. Some with happy smiles and crispy ears, others with a snarl.
Looking a lot like Tam O’Shanters, the most delicious bread ever, the fig and fennel festive 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.

Pierre de Ronsard

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.

https://angry-chef.com/blog/the-modern-chef-s-guide-to-being-angry

And a few links to my December IMK posts from past years. Same same but different?

https://almostitalian.blog/2017/12/06/in-my-kitchen-december-2017/

https://almostitalian.blog/2016/12/02/in-my-indian-kitchen-december-2016/

https://almostitalian.blog/2015/12/01/in-my-kitchen-december-2015/

Spring Gardening and Green Recipes

‘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.

Silverbeet and haloumi cheese fritters in the making.

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
  • 2 eggs
  • 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.

Smashed fava beans, haloumi, mint and lemon.

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
  • mint
  • lemon wedges

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.

Broad beans getting gently smashed, leaving a few whole.

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.

My girls grazing in a large grassy orchard. They love our leftovers and hang around along the fence line waiting for their daily greens. The eggs taste sensational. Greens and eggs go well together.
Last of the broadies and broccolini Calabrese which keeps on giving.

In My Kitchen, March 2018

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.

Sleeping Buddha and tomatoes

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?

Odd tomato varieties

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.

Jonathon apples- our earliest variety. More varieties to come. Lace produce bag in foreground made by Celia: thank you lovely friend.
Marcella Hazan’s apple and rum cake. One kilo of Jonathon apples dispatched.

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.

Zucchini Bhaji and mild mango chutney.
Fettuccine with grilled zucchini and pesto.

I am still being challenged by the cucumber plague and now give most of them away. Come and help yourselves.

Cucumbers, Hazlenuts, Buerre Bosc Pears.

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.

Too nice to cook.
Buerre Bosc pears are great keepers.

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.

In My Kitchen, December 2017

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.

Last week’s loaves. I need a new slashing tools. Everything is blunt.

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.

Hand crocheted edging by Alberto’s grandmother.

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.

Hand over the pick stuff.

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.

 

Rod’s Place. Gardening with a Magician.

Each time I visit Rod’s place, located in the heart of the dry Wimmera district, I do so with a heightened sense of anticipation. I always take my camera along and even the offered glass of chilled Pinot Grigio does not distract me from my snap happy tour. His house and garden is a feast for the eyes. Although he claims that nothing much has changed since my previous visit, I can usually spot major revamping. Lets’ take a walk together through his garden.

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Gardening on the verge and the last of the gravel country lane.

One of the major developments is the spill over of Rod’s garden onto the road verge. This began some years ago with a few tough succulents and a rosemary bush or two which thrived in the granulated sand. Since then, he has added some red flowering bottle brush, Callistemon, and a sprawling silver and purple flowering Dusty Miller, some irises and red flowering geranium. Along his fence line are vertical walls of creeping geranium, orange lantana, large agave, and ornate old wire fencing intertwined with rusty bedsteads. Passers by stop in their tracks and gaze in awe. It’s a work of art and enormously inviting in a wild kind of way.

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Part of the front fence

At his end of town, the paths are still rustic, consisting of hard compacted gravel, country paving that suits this rural village. All the town paths used to be so. But sadly ‘progress’ is now just a block away: the local Council is rolling out regimental width white concrete paving. This is happening despite the advice from R.M.I.T’s architectural department, where the students identified that the traditional gravel paving enhanced the visual and historic feel to the town and should be retained. Ugly concrete paving will be another blow to the town. Government grant money, which must be spent, often ignores aesthetics.

Eww
The front entrance.

The narrow walkway to the front door takes you through a dark forest of succulents mixed with three metre high shrubbery. Rod initially planted out his front garden with rescued agave plants, found growing in abandoned ruins in the countryside or at the tip. To attain height, he has added large pots, urns, and statuary: these are usually placed on top of some found tin object to obtain further height. Other plants, such as geraniums, grow a few metres high in their chase to reach light. There are very few purchased plants in Rod’s garden.

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An icon within an icon.

Statues of Buddha feature throughout the garden, but their placements are meant to surprise and amuse. This golden Buddha sits inside a painted corrugated iron tank which is raised onto an old wooden tank platform. The Buddha faces the house, the blue painted tank faces the street. Others can be found about the garden, often in seemingly random positions, on top of fence posts, or inside cages, or lying about, waiting to be painted.

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Dense shrubbery and Buddha head

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Amid the dense planting in the front yard, Rod recently broke through to create a tiny red brick path leading to another small painted niche and shrine.

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New shrine in the front garden

The back yard is now a forest. When Rod arrived here years ago, there was an old apricot tree, a sad-looking 100-year-old grape-vine and an old shed. Now the garden is a wonderland. The ancient vine is a monster, twisting its way around the garden and into the front yard. Other statues peep out from the shrubs. One colourful wooden Torii gate is topped with a terracotta chook sitting on a barbed wire nest. Rows of Chinese warriors, bought years ago from the Reject shop, line up in a tall painted wire cage. A classical statue sits on top of an old truck. Frizzle chooks and roosters run amok in the understory. I nearly stepped on a day old lost chicken.

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Statues, statues but not all in a row.
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Statues with creeping geranium
A Chinese emperor
A Chinese emperor midst the shrubbery out the back.
a cage full of Chinese warriors.
A cage full of Chinese warriors.
old truck with xx
Old painted truck with statue and urns
A head floating in thick creepers
A spooky head floating in thick creepers
chook, barbed wire nest and Torii gate
Chook, barbed wire nest on Japanese Torii gate.

Rod is an artist who is always on the look out for something quirky to add to the mix. He fertilises his garden with sheep manure collected from his brother’s farm and adds thick mulch in summer. He is on town water, but uses this sparingly. The garden thrives due to the microclimate he has created. The garden provides deep shade in summer and protection from frost and wind at other times.

the back yard.
The back yard walk.

I have thousands of photos of Rod’s garden and have chosen these few(!) to demonstrate what can be achieved with found junk, some good quality statues and urns and plant cuttings from the tip.

Coming soon: Rod’s house.

Beguiled by Autumn’s Beauty

Summer is a harsh season in Melbourne and I am pleased when it’s finally over and the softly lit, warm and more mellow Keatsian season commences. This year there have been a few false starts, with cold snaps followed by intense heat waves. I recognise Autumn’s arrival when I begin to feel intensely melancholic and given to reflection. Still days, long shadows, and subdued bird call give rise to a gentler pace. Time to take stock, to shake off the overbearing intensity of summer’s hold, of its stifling grip on nature.

Garden crops mature more slowly, with tomato survivors providing a discreet bowl full each day, even if the ostentatious zucchini refuse to bow to the season. The beans continue their climb towards The Giant above, with a few ripening here and there, the coco rouge and the coco blanc. Late planted leeks now soften with the season: pumpkins peep from under sheltering leaves, as their vines drift through the garden beds, on a course of their own making.

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A Shy Pumpkin

Only a few apples survive the blasting heat as hungry birds find their way through the nets.

Roma Beauty, a heritage apple

A dear friend arrives with a large bag of Beurre Bosc pears, which she carefully protected from the birds. I watch them slowly ripen and dream of French desserts, pears slowly cooked in wine and saffron, a pear clafouti or gallette. Beurre Bosc from Dianne

Oh for a perennial Autumn.