We harvested our first few tomatoes on Friday, 4th December. That is so early for us, reflecting on our more than 40 years of history here.
This variety is all folded wrinkly and is called Rouge de Marmande. It’s one of several different varieties that I planted this season. There a many more on the way just turning colour now. I’m really looking forward to cooking up some of our summer garden ‘passata’ or ‘sugo’ sauce.
The thing that I really enjoy most at this early stage of the season, is just brushing past the tomato bushes while weeding or watering and getting that distinctive smell, that the leaves give off when touched. That’s the promise of summer. My mouth is watering at the thought of it.
Now that the new crop of zucchinis is starting to produce in earnest, we are able to pick half a dozen small, day old, or even just hours old, flowers with small fruit attached every morning. So we are enjoying the experience of stuffed zucchinis every second day.
Of course we don’t have to pick them so young, but there are so many in this very fertile early period, that we don’t want them to get any bigger, or we won’t be able to eat them all.
We have 7 plants. That’s too many, but when you plant the seeds, you just don’t know how many are going to germinate, and then of those how many will survive the onslaught of the snails and slugs, to grow to maturity and fertility. This year every plant seems to have grown well, with a few others lagging behind as late germinators which are still coming up.
I’ll have to do a cull. But in the mean time, we have plenty of zucchinis to stuff for lunches or light suppers.
These flowers were picked later in the day and have been fertilised, so the flowers have closed up, and if left on the plant the flower will drop off as the fruit grows.
On the other hand, these flowers were picked first thing in the morning and are still wide open. In this form they are much easier to fill with the cheesy stuffing.
So what’s in the stuffing? I like to mix cottage cheese or ricotta with any or all of the following; chopped garlic, chopped olives, chopped up dried tomatoes, preserved artichoke hearts, split and diced into smaller bits, capers, a diced chilli and perhaps even some finely diced chorizo. I also sometimes add sage or thyme leaves, even preserved capsicum section. What ever you have in the fridge or pantry. Give it a good stir and spoon it into the flowers. Squeeze them closed onto the stuffing and place in a wide pan with a little olive oil and a dash of white wine. cover and steam them for 6 minutes.
This results in the zucchinis being just cooked, sort of firm snappy fresh, but heated through. The filling will have cooked together into an homogenous mass inside the flower, which will have wilted completely. I don’t use salt. There is quite enough in the preserved veggies, but a grind of pepper is nice.
You know when summer is about to arrive when the zucchinis are coming on. They are the first of the plantings that we made in the garden mid way through September to start to produce. Zucchinis are the first summer veggies to produce fruit. The tomatoes are still small and green. The capsicums still haven’t flowered yet, nor have the aubergines. But the nights are getting shorter and the days hotter. I just brushed past the tomatoes plants yesterday, and the aroma of tomato foliage was so strong and promising. I can hardly wait.
I can eat these every other day for a week, but them I hit the wall and I don’t want to see another zucchini for a while. That’s when it’s time to slice them longways and BBQ them. Then there is always cut into rounds and steamed with a few sprigs of mint. Or grated and mixed with a little grated potato and an egg to make zucchini fritters.
By the end of summer, we’ll be sick of them and hanging out for some Brussels sprouts! you know that it’s autumn when we start to think about zucchini bread and zucchini cake! Just to use them up!
It’s not quite a week since I wrote that we picked the first youngberries of the season. Now, 6 days later we are in full harvest mode. This morning we picked 4 kilos of berries, we also picked 250 grams of blue berries and half a dozen strawberries.
Up until today we have been keeping up with the harvest. Eating them as we go in morning fruit salad. Then Janine made a sorbet/icecream sort of thing with just fruit and fresh cream, whipped up by hand intermittently every hour or so through the day as she took the batch out of the freezer as it stiffened. It made a pretty delicious dessert after dinner.
We have been up since early to do the watering and picking before the heat of the day set in. We are expecting 30oC today, so will spend the middle part of the day inside and out of the sun.
I also picked half a dozen hours old zucchinis with their flowers still attached. I will stuff these with cottage cheese and olives for lunch. This is our simple seasonal cuisine.
My inside work will be trying to finish off the big 4 metre x 2 metre arched window for the gallery space in the new pottery building. I’ve been plodding away on it for a couple of weeks now. It’s slow work as TIG welding aluminium creates a lot of heat in the metal frame, and aluminium expands and contracts a lot, which can lead to warping. Usually I would clamp a smaller job down onto a heavy steel-plate bench. but this window is so large, its bigger than my welding bench. so I have to be patient and allow it to cool down and shrink back to size between welding sessions. Hence the slow progress.
So far, I’ve been lucky, and it hasn’t warped much and is still within 1mm of square. That’s pretty good for my low level of skill.
Our new chooks, Edna and Gladys, have been laying an egg a day for us this last week, so tonight we are ejoying a garden frittata with steamed zuchinis. At lunch we enjoyed a garden salad with steamed asparagus.
The best lunch isn’t perfect, The best lunch doesn’t last forever, but the best lunch is never finished.
However, Breakfast is always good, especially when it is fruit salad followed by coffee and mulberry tart.
The mulberries are still holding up against the marauding birds. I guess that this is because there are so few of them that have survived the catastrophic bush fires. We have 2 bower birds and friarbird in the tree fairly constantly, The crop has been very good because of the rains, so There is still some to go around.
I made my 5th attempt at the mulberry tart. I’m getting better at it and faster now with practice.
I’ve abandoned the lattice top, but added ‘lemonade’ lemon juice and zest to the recipe.
I’ve settled into a reliable recipe of
500g de-stemmed mulberries
40g plain flour
A shake of cinnamon powder and a dash of vanilla essence.
Juice and pulp of half a large lemon or all of a small one, plus grated zest, also juice of one small ‘lemonade’ lemon and zest of the skin.
Mix all these together in a mixing bowl. Blind bake the crust, add filling, and bake for 25 mins at 180oC. It seems to be fairly reliable. And delicious!
Serve on a beautiful hand made, ash glazed, wood fired platter.
Zucchinis come on so quickly. I planted all the new summer vegetables together at the one time back on 12th of September, then six weeks later, we had or first pick of new season fruit on the 22nd of Oct.
All the other summer vegetables are still growing a frame work of structure but not even flowering just yet, However, the earliest tomatoes are just starting to flower, but they are still a long way of having edible fruit. Due to Global Heating, in the last few years, we have been able to pick our first few ripe tomatoes just be fore Xmas.
I decided to pick the small fruit with the flowers still on and stuff the flowers with cottage cheese seasoned with a few chopped olives, capers and an anchovie. I fried them in a little olive oil for a minute or 3 and then added a little white wine and put the lid on to steam them for a further couple of minutes. The delicate flowers collapse around the seasoned cheese stuffing, while the fruit remains firm, but heated through. The flavour is very delicate and the texture matches perfectly. Our first of many such meals this season.
If I were Italian, I’d probably batter them and deep fry them, or in Paris they might cook them with a lot more butter. But I’m me, so I don’t use any salt, except that in the olives and anchovie, and I only use olive oil and then only a dash of that. This is meant to be healthy, fresh, organic, nurishing food. But not boring. I’d actually love to be writing about building the pottery, and better still about making and firing pots, but alas, all this rain has put back the builders start date another few weeks. I’m starting to be resigned to the fact that we won’t be making anything meaningful in the pottery till this time next year. Disapointing, but it is what it is.
We enjoyed yesterdays mulberry pie so much that I decided to have another go at it. That first one didn’t last 24 hours. Between desert, breakfast and morning tea, the two of us managed to polish it off.
Just in case your interested, de-stemming takes about 25 minutes per kilo of berries, or part thereof.
Prick the base, before lining with paper and blind baking.
For this pie, I experimented with 100 grams of sugar to 500 grams of fruit. I kept all the other ingredients the same. That’s just 1/5th of the amount of sugar to fruit and it still tasted sweet enough for me.
But maybe that’s just me? Anyway, it’s the ratio that I will use in the future. We had a special guest visiting today, so I had to give it another try for him, for afternoon tea.
In keeping with my philosophy of self reliance, we eat as much as we can from our own property, using whatever there is in the garden. This week the mulberries are on. The season will last a month and the birds will get the bigger share of the crop. We have a bowerbird that survived the fire somehow and a new arrival of a wattle bird. They spend the day in the foliage cackling, croaking, clicking and chirping. It must be beautiful for them in there with such abundance.
When we moved here in 1976, kookaburras were the only birds around. As we slowly developed the place digging dams for water storage, mowing the weeds to create some lawn and planting native shrubs all around the edges. We created a small paradise. Over the following years we had thousands of smaller birds move it to colonise the ‘new’ territory. It made it very hard to harvest any fruit from the newly developing orchard. It sort of proved the old saying ‘If you build it they will come’. The fire cleaned out all the shrub dwelling passerines, as they went to low dense cover to hide. This part of the forest burnt fast and fierce. However, we have started to see some migration of the smaller insect eaters back into the garden from territory farther afield.
We currently have 2 nascent populations of just a few individuals of superb wrens and fire tails. They are very busy nesting in the 4 remaining established native hypericifolia shrubs in our garden. These small trees were part of a much larger, longer hedge and somehow survived the catastrophe. Which is good for the small birds. I hope that they have a good breeding season and that their numbers recover quickly. We have been having some nice rain lately, so it could be a good summer for them. Back in the noisey mulberry tree, it only takes a few minutes to pick a bowl full of plump, ripe fruit at this stage with so many ripe berries to choose from, but picking isn’t the slow part. What takes time is snipping off the hard little stalks. These stalks are very firm and spoil the mouth feel of the soft, luscious and sweet, juicy fruit. You don’t have to de-stem, but the resultant pie is so much nicer without the annoying little hard stalks getting stuck in your teeth.
I use a recipe that I got off the internet. I like it because it’s so easy. However I have adapted it to suit myself. Most puddings and cake recipes I read seem to me to have way too much sugar in them. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so I halve the quantity of sugar in most recipes, to no noticeable ill effect. Fruit recipes often call for equal parts of sugar and fruit, or half the weight of fruit as sugar. I have reduced this to a 1/4. Then I also add a squeeze of lemon or grated zest to give a little bit of tartness to cut through the bland sweetness.
I’m too lazy to make my own pastry, I’m always busy, so it’s amazing that I can make time to cook anything from scratch. So I buy frozen pastry packs in a dozen sheets at a time and they last half the year. Clearly, I don’t make a lot of pies. It’s not that I’m keen on home made fancy deserts, it’s more to do with the fact that I hate to see waste, and I can’t eat all the fruit raw!
In the early years here , we used to bottle the mulberries and vacuum seal them in ‘Fowler’ jars. but as soon as the youngberries were planted and came in to full production, we forgot about the mulberries, as the youngberries are just so much better in every way. So these days we eat the mulberries for a couple of weeks until the youngberries come on, then we leave the rest of the mulberries to the birds. We have to net the youngberries to keep the birds off, other wise we wouldn’t get hardly any.
Once the mulberries are de-stemmed, I mix 400g of the berries with 100g of sugar in a bowl. Add 3 tablespoons (approx.) of flour, the juice of 1 small or 1/2 of a large lemon, I also add in the pulp off the glass juicer. A squeeze of vanilla essence and a dusting of cinnamon powder.
I pre bake the base @ 180oC for 15 mins filled with a glass jar full of dried, home grown, baking beans that I keep in the pantry for exactly this purpose.
Hint – Put crumpled up, non-waxed, plain lunch wrap paper in the pie first, so that the beans don’t stick to the ‘pricked’ pastry base during cooking. Remove the beans and paper and continue cooking for another 5 mins until golden. If the base lifts up, just press it down again after it cools a bit, don’t burn your fingers. Pour all the ingredients into the pie crust and if you have some left over pastry, lay a few strips over the top as decoration, or you can lay another whole sheet over the top and prick holes in it to let the steam out. Bake @180 for about 15 to 20 mins, or until it looks done.
The smell of this pie when it emerges from the oven fills the room. It is enough to melt the Heart of the Knave and induce him to steal. My mother always said that the way to a mans heart was through his stomach! So, as I live with The King, and don’t want to be ‘beaten full score’, I surrender the tart to my King and we enjoy it en-concorde.
A nice seasonal desert, or afternoon tea. To be savoured and enjoyed in late spring, and then anticipated for the rest of the year.
We are now half way through spring, and have been harvesting broad beans for a couple of weeks now. We start with the early little beans eaten raw to savour that unique broaden flavour that we haven’t tasted for 11 months. Broad beans have a short season, but that makes them all the more special. We pick the small immature bean pods and cook them whole, then as they mature, we pick the larger pods and shell them for the beans inside. They are really delicious at every stage.
We use broad beans in many ways, but they best in my opinion just lightly fried very quickly in olive oil, so that they are just warmed through and sprinkled with dried sweet basil and some cracked pepper. I take them off the heat as soon as the outer shell starts to split open.
I served them with a few fish cakes that Janine made.
We also made a broad bean risotto with Mushrooms, garlic and chilli.
I add the broad beans late in the cooking so that they don’t over cook.
We had a visit from some old friends for lunch. People who hadn’t been here since before the fire, so I cooked a small batch of Flatolli for them. Flatolli is my lazy flat version of Italian Canolli, without the deep-fried pastry tubes, hard boiled in lard. The filling is the same however. Ricotta and/or mascarpone filled with dried fruits soaked in liqueur.
I pre-baked the little pastry sections with beans to weigh them down, then filled them with a creamy desert filling. Easy! And very yummy.
I also attempted to make a pear, ricotta and almond flan or tart. I pre-simmered the quartered pear sections in a sugar syrup with a cinnamon stick, then placed the finely sliced poached sections on the almond/ricotta filling. This turned out very well indeed.
No one complained!
I’m trying to find ways to be useful and creative while we wait for our eternally slow builders to turn up. After we finalise our plans in June, paid our deposit on the first of August, we originally thought that we would have the building up to ‘lock-up’ stage by the end of September. Three months for a tin shed didn’t seem too unrealistic. But now we learn that the builders are saying end of November, from our current experience with them, we will most likely get to lock-up by mid December or even Xmas.I certainly hope that it is done in this calendar year!It’s a challenge to stay positive. In the meantime Janine and I are working on the gabian wall. I hope to finish that job by the weekend. We had a small group of our ex pottery students – who have become good friends, turn up to help finish the tall metal framework in front of the house and start to fill the gabian enclosure with crushed, recycled, concrete building material.
In a small personal sacrifice, I smashed up the last of our broken terracotta garden pots. It’s somehow comforting to get to find a positive and creative use for all these ‘dead’ terracotta planters. I couldn’t just trash them. So this down-sizeing to rubble, but up-scaleing to art is a suitable solution. Turning this disaster into something positive is a constant challenge. The final terracotta pot to go into the wall was a large cylindrical pot that was a ‘second’ grade reject from the Parliament House project in Canberra that I worked on with Cam Williams back in 1986. This pot was the very first piece made for the parliament and was fired here in Balmoral in our old kiln to test the body, slip and firing technique that we planned to use to do the rest of the job. As 250 pots were commissioned in total, we needed to rent a factory space and set up a very big kiln to get the job done on time. This first pot was the big test. It sat next to the old wood kiln chimney for the past 34 years, As it was broken into several pieces, it no longer had any real value, other than sentimental. It did however represent one year of my creative life. I thought that it was best up-cycled into the last bit of our new wall. Now, I will always know where it is.
We still have two other examples of these big cylindrical pots in our garden, just 2nds with minor cracks that happened during the 2 year project. One is still intact, but the other was smashed by the tree loppers when they were clearing up the mess here in our yard straight after the fire. One of the workers drove into it with the bobcat loader.Janine and I re-constructed it with wire strapping just to preserve it until I have the time to do a full kintsugi repair. It will take a lot of gold!
We also have 1 of the 5 massive, extra-large pots made for the New Parliament House Building out in our garden. There were only 4 of these 1.5 dia x 1.5 metre high monsters ordered for the project. The first one that we fired got a hair line crack, so we had to make another one. I got to keep the ‘spare’ one in the garden.
From black to green, from down to up, from negative to positive, from rubble to art. Nothing lasts, nothing is ever finished, nothing is perfect. I’m grateful to be still alive to be able to re-build a creative and beautiful environment.
We have spent this Easter long weekend digging trenches and laying plastic ‘polypipe’ all around the perimeter of the property. We used to have a complete circumnavigation of the block, but it was largely destroyed in the recent fires. I laid about 1000 metres of polypipe in the 70’s, but having chosen to live here on a very low income, I buried all the pipe by hand using a mattock. I dug and buried about 6 metres every summer morning before breakfast over a few years.
My big mistake was that because the ground was very dry and hard, I only managed to bury the pipe just below the surface, possibly just 100 mm. deep. Over the years with mowing and soil disturbance, erosion, etc. some of the pipe was just visible in places. It wasn’t such a big deal for the first 40 years, it only turned out to be a mistake when the catastrophic fire roared through here.
When the fire came, it was so hot, that it melted the pipe where it was exposed, or even if it was close to the surface. After the fire we found 2 complete melt outs, and 15 leaks in the system. We spent a couple of days with our friends Warren and Trudie helping us, to locate and patch all the holes. Each day driving back into town to buy more joiners, junctions and piping. We were haemorrhaging a thousand dollars a day for the first few days. We knew where the holes were, because whenever I started up the pump, we could see a fountain appear out of the ground. So I would switch off the pump and dig out the wet soggy site, then cut out the damaged section of pipe and install a couple of joiners and a new length of pipe. It worked as a stop gap measure, it got us through a tough spot in the dangerous, hot, dry, summer. But now it has become the time to do the job properly.
I decided to re-route the new pipeline right around the extreme edges of the land, whereas previously, it had cut around the edges about 20 metres in from our boundary. Now I want to move the pottery up onto the orchard site and move the stone fruit orchard up to the front of our land close to the street. I don’t want to have to move the polypipe again. I need it to be out of the way, but accessible. This time I have dug the trench 300 to 400 mm deep. Not deep enough to have to worry about cutting through the electricity conduits where they criss-cross the block, 600mm. down, but deep enough not to melt in the next fire that will come through here in the coming decade.
Eventually, I got back to the old pipework and joined the old 44 year old imperial agricultural pipe into the new blueline metric piping. There have been 4 different ‘standard’ joints for this poly piping system and 3 different standards in pipe sizes and wall thicknesses over the years. My under-ground water system has elements of all 7 different parts. It’s a hotch-potch. Whenever I dig up a part of the system to add on a spur line, I have to try to match the parts and pipe sizes.
I used to have stock of all these different parts to get me out of trouble in 1inch, 25mm., 2 inch, and 50mm. sizes in both male and female formats. These days I have to drive down to Mittagong to buy each new part for the circumstances at hand. I usually buy one extra spare part to start to replace my parts in stock.
We will be safe for the next 4 years, as it takes 4 years for the leaf litter in the forest to build up to a level that will sustain a bad fire, somewhere from 5 to 10 years on, there will be another very dry, prolonged period, but global warming increases the likelihood that it could be worse than this last time. When the fire comes again we need to be better prepared. This is how we are thinking & planning, and how we are responding to this disaster. I need to make our property defendable in the next very bad fire.
While I was concentrating on digging and laying the 130 metres of new 50mm. dia piping, Dave the concreter turned up to start work on the concrete slab for the new metal framed car port. I thought that would give him a hand, but I soon realised that the best assistance I could give him was to keep out of his way. He has done this all his life and is very quick and efficient. One day to dig out the site and frame it up, the lay the steel rio mesh, and another day to cast the concrete and polish the surface. Straight after Easter, the builder turned up to start erecting the metal frame.
It’s all going so quickly now. We have finished excavating all the beautiful rich dark top soil from the orchard and spreading it on the new top site. We spent a day raking out the roots and stones from the top soil and loading the truck to take them to the burn pile.
I want to get this new orchard site ready for the arrival of the new dwarf fruit trees by June/July. The site has to be completed by then because these new fruit trees are going to be bare-rooted, and will need to be planted pretty quickly. They are already ordered and paid for. I won’t have time to be doing all this prep when they arrive. These little jobs have to be scheduled in all along the way as the opportunity arrises. I couldn’t bare to build the new pottery on top of all that hard earned, self created, beautiful rich top soil. I had to remove it and use it productively.
So now the site is prepared, we still have to lay in the irrigation. One of my new poly pipe spur lines terminates just inside where the orchard fence will be. I am still trying to figure out the cheapest way to build a fence and frame to support the bird netting. This is a work in progress. The next immediate job is to build a stone retaining wall to hold back the lovely deep bed of soil. Actually I need to build 2 stone retaining walls over the next few weeks to prepare for other stages of the new pottery build. The old orchard site that will house the new pottery will need to be levelled, what’s called ‘cut and fill’ and that soil will need to be retained. Whenever I can get around to that.
And the good news is…. Our Hyundai Ioniq electric plug-in hybrid car has returned the performance figures for the first quarter and we have raised our average fuel consumption from 500 km. to the litre of fuel up to 505 kms to the litre. It’s an amazing statistic that I find hard to comprehend, but I have only been to the service station one this year so far, and the fuel tank is still over 3/4 full. Very pleasing!
Lastly, we have been trying to find ways of using up our huge excess of capsicums. First they were roasted by the fire and lost their leaves, then recovered by the heavy rains that followed. Now we are having to deal with this huge harvest. Fortunately, capsicums are a favourite of ours, but everyone has a limit. We use them in every soup, salad, stew, and stock. I have roasted them and pickled them, this week I stuffed them and baked them. Last night I cut them into chunks and used them on kebabs with zucchini slices and some fresh tuna off the fish truck.
Janine made a baked pudding using 2 jars of our preserved berries from the summer.
As the weather has turned cooler now, this warming and very satisfying desert is very welcome and delicious .
I have made some sourdough bread. I rescued the sourdough starter from Geordie. Now that his restaurant has been forced to close. I thought that I might keep the sourdough ferment alive here for the duration.