There’s always more to do in a garden, the commitment is ongoing, but the work keeps me sane in these dark times. Once I cross the threshold, which is a rather unromantic industrial looking tall gate, I find peace, timelessness and a belief in something greater than my own existence, a space beyond the worries of the world. I suppose you could call it hope, as vegetable gardening is about the future, a belief that through careful nurturing, the earth will be productive and plants will provide more food, that the bees and insects will continue to play their role, that seed will become flower, and flower fruit, then seed once more.
When I walk through the orto, I enter a trance like state, while still unconsciously doing what needs to be done. A little weeding here and there, gently transplanting self – sown lettuces to better spots, coaxing a pumpkin vine to take a different route, or watching the white butterfly moths as they rise from the brassica beds in the morning sun, and all this under a vast sky, wrapped in total silence and the aura of our planet, until a kookaburra laughs from the gum trees beyond, kookoook kaakaa, breaking the spell. It’s meditation and an antidote to these times, but it’s also fragile, so fragile. I close the gate behind me and return to the kitchen, the other centre of life for me. Nature and nurture.
Autumn is the busiest time of the year in the garden and consequently so it is in my kitchen. The tomatoes are still producing, but slowing down now. Their life cycle began in late July, when I germinated the seed in our north facing windows. It has been a long journey and now the seed is being selected from the best plants to preserve for seeding later this year. Every year I plant around 15 San Marzano tomatoes. Their fruit, an egg shaped thick skinned tomato, is kept strictly for saucing. To date we’ve made passata from around 21 kilos of fruit. This year one plant surprised me. We had a few spare plants leftover and so I shoved one in the citrus grove, adding a spade full of compost and some sugar cane mulch. It has grown into a sprawling ground bush of around two metres square. To date, I’ve picked 96 tomatoes from it, and there are still heaps more green tomatoes ripening. It will survive for another month.
The peppers and capsicums are all turning red, finally, which means it’s preserving time in the kitchen. Traditional Italian recipes use the old techniques of sott’olio and sott’aceto, under oil and under vinegar, or sun drying and salt curing. I’ve been inspired by the recipes found in Preserving the Italian Way, by Pietro Demaio. I first read about this specialist cookbook in the April edition of Gourmet Traveller and during an insanely annoying 3 am insomniac moment, I purchased a copy. It arrived promptly and I’ve used two recipes to date. The book includes chapters on preserving vegetables in oil and vinegar, then moves on to chapters on funghi, olives, herbs, syrups, bread, fish, cheese, cured meats, wine and liqueurs. Other than the meat chapter, I will get great use out of this book. It’s a gem. Today I bottled a jar of long red chillies under vinegar, and made the delicious sounding Involtini di Peperoni, little rolled capsicum strips stuffed with anchovy, capers and chilli preserved under oil. Both these preserves are now hidden in a dark spot for a month or so to cure. I often wonder why I do this when big jars of preserves such as peppers, cucumbers, capsicums and so on are cheap to buy from shops such as Bas Foods, Terra Madre, Harvest and Psarakos, to name a few of my favourite places. The cost of white wine vinegar has increased dramatically over the last two years, (ordinary white vinegar isn’t recommended for preserving) and using good olive oil, as recommended by Pietro, does not come cheaply. I guess the proof will be in the eating. The produce is organic and the process is hand crafted rather than industrial.
This year’s fruits were disappointing. Only the apples were prolific as well as the figs, which are finally ripening. Most of the other fruits lost their flowers during an extremely destructive storm last Spring, affecting power supplies and bringing down trees across the State. One of my favourite apple concoctions comes from a cookbook by Lorenza de’Medici.1 I’ve written about this lovely dessert before, but it’s worth re- visiting the recipe, as I do every Autumn. If you grow the fruit, your only expense is the butter for the pastry and a slug of Marsala, for the lovely fruit mixture, if not also for you. If you can’t be fussed (that almost sounds like a slip of the tongue) making the pastry, the fruit mixture makes an excellent crumble.
Charlotte di frutta.
For the Short pastry.
- 350 g plain flour
- 2 egg yolks
- 125 g sugar
- 225 g butter
- pinch of salt
For the filling
- 1 orange
- 300 g blood plums
- 1 kg apples
- 225 g sugar
- grated peel of 1 lemon
- 2 Tbsp Marsala
- 3 cloves
- Prepare the short crust pastry. Place the dry ingredients in the food processor, add the butter, process, then the egg yolks, until mixed and formed into a ball. ( you can do this by hand if you prefer). Roll or press into a flat slab, wrap in cling wrap and let rest in the fridge for an hour or so.
- Meanwhile, make the filling. Grate the orange peel and reserve. Peel the orange, removing any pith, and divide into segments. Peel the plums and apples and cut into pieces. Cook the fruit together with the sugar, lemon and orange peel, Marsala, cloves and vanilla pod for 20 minutes, uncovered, over low heat.
- Butter and flour a 25 cm springform pan. Roll out two-thirds of the pastry to line the base and sides of the pan. Fill with the cooled cooked fruit and cover with the remaining pastry, rolled out thinly. Cook in a preheated oven at 180 degrees c /350 f for 45 minutes. Let cool before removing from the pan. Dust with icing sugar,and serve at room temperature with cream Serves 8-10.
Not far from my garden, the sprawling chook house is another spot where I can lose myself totally. I do like our eggs so much. Some of our lovely lunches consist of a herb omelette and a garden salad. As most of my larger chooks are now in semi- retirement, living out their remaining years in relative chook luxury, with an orchard to run in, spare greens from our garden, and a tree to perch in, some decisions need to be made about the blokes. There are too many roosters so two must go. Discussing the methods of dispatch is akin to the opening scenes of Macbeth, ‘If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly’. Gone are the days when some locals would happily take young roosters to eat, or the Cambodians would bid a dollar or two for a fancy rooster, especially the black skinned silkies, at the Mernda poultry auction. That old market site is now a new sprawling suburb. Last week we visited a nearby hatchery in the Yarra Valley and bought 6 female day old chickens- don’t ask what happens to the newly hatched roosters. And don’t ask what the free range egg farmers do with their laying hens after 18 months when they become less productive. It’s a mean old world.
Happy easter Holidays dear Readers. And thanks to Sherry who hosts this monthly In My Kitchen series. My kitchen and garden come as a total package so you can excuse the divergence from the main theme.