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’.
We never ate quince at home when I was a child, nor did my mother make jam from quince, but I do remember tasting it when I was very young. That unusual sweet tang was firmly embedded in my food memory, like a little chip of sensual data, by my Aunt Edna. She was an excellent cook and often made quince jelly, one of the many jams that appeared at her banquet sized afternoon tea of scones and cakes. I didn’t understand the taste then, but I loved it. Now, I might describe it as ambrosial, ancient, and enticing.
Years later, at the age of thirty to be precise, we moved to the country and I rediscovered that refined sweet flavour of Persia, Aphrodite and roses. The annual gathering of quinces from Norma’s orchard involved roaring down a rutted and overgrown dirt track in her old Subaru, with Poppy the dog on board, to the old fairyland quince grove beside the banks of the Diamond Creek. It was well hidden from human and bird predators. The trunks were grey and lime with lichen, the neglected trees gnarled and contorted, but they still cropped yearly. They were planted by the creek banks in the 1890s when the area around St Andrews was largely a fruit-growing district. That secret quince grove disappeared in the devastating bushfires of 2009.
In the old days, the orchards bordering the Diamond Creek relied on its regular flow through this valley from its source in the Kinglake hills to the north. Records were maintained by orchardists up until the 1960s. As land holders turned away from agriculture, records of the Diamond Creek’s flow became impressionistic, but most locals will tell you that the volume has decreased significantly over the last 25 years, and in summer, the creek invariably dries up. Coincidentally, Coca Cola/ Amatil began buying up most of the underground water in the aquifer at Kinglake from the 1990s onwards, effectively dehydrating the communities further downstream. Kinglake water is bought for a song and is used to bottle Mount Franklin water. Thoughtless consumers drink pure water from plastic bottles, when they have a very good source of it in their own tap, while a beautiful local creek, a tributary of the Yarra, is left with an irregular flow, not to mention the ramifications for wild life, further desiccation of the bush, increase in bushfire hazard and the problem of plastic.
Returning to the glories of quince, I am happy to see that quinces are now widely available in markets, appearing from April onwards. My 5-year-old Smyrna quince tree produces well, but wild birds and summer water shortage makes for a small harvest. I make a few batches of poached quinces each season, which last quite well under poaching liquid in the fridge. I take out slices to make various cakes and desserts, then boil up the poaching syrup, reducing it to a jelly glaze to use as a sauce or jam.
The Original Recipe
250 g butter, at room temperature
1 ¼ cups caster sugar
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon rind
½ cup almond meal
¼ cup flaked almonds
2 ¼ cups self-raising flour, sifted
2 large pre- poached quinces, drained and cut into slices, liquid reserved.
Preheat oven to 180°C or 160°C fan forced. Grease base and sides of a 22 cm springform pan and line with baking paper.
Use an electric mixer with a paddle attachment to beat butter, sugar and lemon rind in a bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Stir in almond meal and flaked almonds. Then stir in milk and flour, alternating. Spoon 2/3 of batter into prepared pan. Top with half of quince. Top with remaining batter. Top with remaining quince. Bake for 1 hr 20 mins or until a skewer inserted in centre comes out clean. Stand in pan for 5 mins, then remove sides of pan. You may need to cover the cake with tinfoil after an hour if the top is already brown.
Serve cake warm or at room temperature with cream and reduced, thickened quince syrup or more simply with sifted icing sugar.
The Adapted Recipe. I didn’t like the sound of flaked almonds inside the batter but I still wanted a strong almond taste. I changed the ratio of almond meal to flour and removed the flaked almonds altogether. My version used 1 cup of almond meal to 1 and 3/4 cups of SR flour and a scant teaspoon of baking powder. Try either version. Maybe add a little slurp of Amaretto or a drop of almond essence. I also glazed the cake with some of the reduced hot syrup.
On the first day of every month Celia, from Fig Jam and Lime Cordial, hosts a blogging event, In My Kitchen. This is a remarkable event for many reasons. In My Kitchen has provided a platform for many like-minded folk to connect. Through Celia, I have acquired my first sourdough starter, as have so many others, and learnt more about frugality, common sense and urban connectivity. I have also found some very dear friends. Are they virtual friends? I think not. Thanks Celia.
As I consider this month’s winter post, the rain continues to alternately pour or drizzle and all I can think of are Cornish Pasties. My theme for this month is not yet self-evident, especially as the kitchen is in a shambles, the light is too low and a little photo shoot may involve searching for props and lights. Rather than start the clean up, I ponder a suitable pastry for said pasties through the posts of Sandra, the best cook in Melbourne and Debi of Sheffield, Britain, who is passionate about pastry, when she’s not researching antiquity or intriguing books.These little deviations into the land of procrastination are far much more pleasurable than reading the online bad news
But back to my kitchen. The disarray in the kitchen usually results from too many ambitious projects occurring simultaneously. Yesterday I made some wonderful dark rich stock as I was yearning for a bowl of Soupe L’oignon. As I don’t eat meat, a suitable vegetable stock required the pre- roasting of vegetables, mushrooms and some other tricks. It worked well.
Fish is cheap and plentiful in the fresh markets at present. King George Whiting is a sustainable species. Here they are baked whole in Cartoccio, small parcels using baking paper, with fennel, lemon peel, tomato, garlic, fresh oregano, and olive oil. After 15 to 20 minutes in a moderate oven, they are ready. No waste, no frying. This year the quince tree started out with masses of baby fruit. Despite netting a few branches, the birds removed most of them, knocking them off the branches, then pecking their hard skins and discarding them. These two survived.
As quinces are now abundant in the market and are extremely cheap, my two decorative quince joined some other less attractive specimens in a slow poach. I then stored the pieces under their ruby sweet poaching liquid in a covered box in the fridge. They make guest appearances in different sweets over the winter months and the poaching liquid becomes a glaze or a sauce for many other desserts.
For example, this little baked thing, a cross between a Far Breton Pruneax and a Clafoutis is a moody dark dessert to eat in front of the fire while watching Top of the Lake. Recipe coming!
In my kitchen are a few constant reminders of the cooking tasks ahead. Mr Tranquillo will eat all the oranges and mandarins before I think of a way to use them. The lemons from my mother’s tree will be transformed into lemon curd, lemon delicious pudding and some cordial. Each time I visit, I return with another large bag.
The pumpkins from the garden are loitering on the verandah table, a source of winter comfort food ranging from soups to Risotto alla Zucca. And what’s a winter kitchen without a few crazy kids? It was so lovely to return home from Indonesia and have a monster family dinner. How did we turn into 14? Here are two of them!
I’m going to start with the most important thing a garden requires- compost. Without a consistent approach to compost making, your garden will not thrive. So let’s head down into the heart of darkness.Look inside this bin. Some mornings it sends up little smoke signals as I open the lid. We have five bins in permanent production. I have just emptied two mature lots onto the Spring beds. The other three are in various stages of breaking down.
When we built our vegetable patches five years ago, we had no natural topsoil at all. Our beds have been built up over the years with good compost. After every growing season, they need topping up and refreshing. I learnt how to make better compost from Wendy Mathers of the Food Farm, through workshops run by our local Council. Before I attended Wendy’s workshop, my compost approach was not based on correct layering and so the results were patchy. I have heard a lot of nonsense over the years about mythological practices and debates about what constitutes good composting technique. Correct layering, using everyday found matter, is the answer. I follow this recipe and am enjoying great results, with a bin maturing every three months or so, full of lovely fresh black soil alive with pink earthworms. Here’s the recipe:
Compost Recipe – developed by Ross & Wendy Mather, Food Farm, St Andrews, Victoria
The base ingredient is one bucket of green matter, that is, vegetable scraps, or fresh grass/weeds then add to this one item from nitrogen column and any two items from carbon column.
1 bucket manure 1 bucket straw
2 cups pelletised manure 1 bucket paper
1 cup blood and bone 1 bucket dry leaves
1 bucket Lucerne 1 bucket sugarcane mulch
Too much carbon slows decomposition, and too much nitrogen smells. If you have vinegar flies, add more carbon and check your ratios.
In late Autumn, I have an abundant supply of crunchy oak leaves providing the carbon matter. In summer, I save newspapers and shred them on site. Newspaper ink is vegetable based. You tear along the grain so that it shreds easily. I use cow and chook manure as I keep these animals, but the list provides alternatives for suburban gardeners. Weeds can be used so long as they are drowned thoroughly first to destroy any seed.
Wandering around the Spring vegetable patch after some welcome rain, my photo lens and I discover the close up beauty of new life. Seeds sprout and develop quickly, young grapes form on vines, last month’s quince flowers are now miniature fruits, the pears and apples are in flower and fruit, and the nectarines already colourful.
Each photo suggests a task. The little lettuce seeds need thinning and transplanting. I often wrap up a few clumps then make transportable containers using wet newspaper. Seedlings were once sold this way from nurseries.
The strawberries are happy but I need to ‘acquire’ the materials for a walk in cloche. I am always on the look out for stuff in tip shops but thick poly piping is well sought after. We have stolen three veggie patch beds for raspberries and strawberries. Now we are short of room for summer vegetable crops. The children love to pick berries and eat them on site, as do the birds. The boysenberries have gone crazy and need containing. More freezer space is required!
The zucchini plants are well on the way and I should see the start of the plague next week. Traditionally in Melbourne, zucchini begin to fruit one week after Melbourne Cup Day. Melbourne Cup Day ( the first Tuesday of November) is used as a marker for all sorts of gardening activities. Some say that tomatoes must be planted from Cup day onwards. I plant mine much earlier, in the ridiculous hope that I might have tomatoes by Christmas.
In the surprise bed, one dedicated to out of date seed, the Cucurbit family seeds all germinated ( all were five years out of date) as well as the borlotti beans. These little squash need thinning out and sharing.
Winter crops are now going to seed and I save the best specimen of each vegetable for seed collecting. The only problem is that these giants take up valuable space. The importance of home seed collecting is that you end up with a variety, after some years, that is most adapted to your particular microclimate, as well as preserving the strongest of the species. Darwin at work! These seeds are swapped and given away. Sometimes, like all things, new genes are introduced. The red lettuce below was found years ago in a mesclun lettuce seed mix. I have saved this one to provide summer colour contrast to a lettuce bowl.
The grapes will be prolific this year: netting takes place in a month or so. This year I plan to preserve some vine leaves for dolmade making, and the method can be found on Debi’s site here. I must be selective about this as the leaves shade the grapes from the vicious summer sun.
The young nectarines are already bird attractors. Those hungry birds, mostly Eastern Rosellas, Crimson Rosellas, white Cockatoos, Corellas, and King Parrots, will attack young, hard fruit for fun; just testing, they say. The nets will come out soon, a big task to cover around 30 fruit trees in production. Even olive trees need netting.
The artichokes are late this year, probably because I transplanted them last Autumn. I love their grey -green foliage and will use these small ones shaved in a pasta dish this week
The broad beans continue to grace our garden and plates. Other currently harvested crops include radicchio, rugola, and lettuce.
This post forms part of Garden Share Collective a monthly round up of food growing bloggers. If you lived next door, we could share seed and seasons of plenty.
Spring has slowly arrived. September was frosty and windy; only now the fruit trees are beginning to blossom. The ground has been too cold to plant seed, but with a few more hot days and some welcome rain, October will be a busy month. Although the plants won’t notice, an extra hour of light at the end of the day and not the beginning, will be most useful for this gardener.
My tasks include:
sow summer crops keeping rotation in mind.
planting out the tomato seedlings raised by my son in his hothouse.
enriching beds with compost and crumbled cow manure, then mulching.
building shade cloth covered fences on the south and west sides to protect the garden in summer.
remove dead wood from the strawberry patch and add compost then straw. Look for poly pipe to make a cloche for summer protection.
The most vigorous specimen of Cavolo Nero ( black kale) is now flowering for seed collecting, as well as attracting more bees. I have enjoyed tracking its life through these monthly garden posts. When the seed are harvested, probably in summer, I will have plenty to distribute so contact me if you need some.
The overgrown sage bush is in flower, attracting more bees to the garden. When the flowering is finished, I’ll chop it back and make cuttings to pot up. Blue and purple flowers attract bees and other insects, necessary for pollinating summer flowering vegetables. I find that endive lettuce and raddicchio flowers are the best for this purpose.
I have many out of date seed packets. At the end of Last April, I used old seed to plant a random winter crop garden. I am still eating the produce from that sowing. These seeds will be thrown randomly into a compost rich bed this week. Surprise beds are fun.
Harvest includes silverbeet, rugola selvatica, radicchio, beetroot, broad beans ( the early ones), broccoli side shoots, parsley and lettuce. All these make lovely green feasts and are added to pastas, pies, salads and soups.
This post forms part of the garden share collective, a monthly roundup of vegetable gardens around the world managed by Lizzie. It serves two purposes. It allows you to connect to other food growers around the world, but also forms a useful home garden diary where weather events, seasonal change and particular micro-climates are recorded. If you like growing food, check out the others at the collective.
and before you know it, it’s time for another In My Kitchen post. The wonderfully generous Celia kindly hosts this every month. Click here to have a look at other kitchens on Fig Jam and Lime Cordial.
The chooks are back on the lay. Young chef Daisy likes to collect the eggs, but is a little worried that she doesn’t know how to write the numbers on them!
JA and Bren collected these quaint quinces from their tree in Bacchus Marsh. Cotogna in Italian, Coing in French- quince is an ancient fruit that has regained favour in Australia. Will I make Membrillo paste or a heavenly Stephanie Alexander tart?
The chillis in the garden are finally turning red. On one side I have a few dried ones, ready to make Celia’s chilli oil which you can find here.
My favourite bread book, The Italian Baker, by Carol Field, is never far from the kitchen bench. We now use the recipe from this ‘bible’ to make Pizza and Ciabatta. We have pizzas once a week, and Mr Tranquillo enjoys whipping up a batch of dough.
Some found objects from second-hand stores are often floating around the kitchen. I couldn’t resist this silver plated bowl for $7.99.