Entries Tagged 'Kitchen Garden' ↓

My veggie garden at the Spring Equinox

I did a post a couple of years ago on my vegetable garden at the Winter Solstice, and thought I might remedy my longstanding blog-neglect with some pretty pictures.

There are two large productive beds in our backyard. When we started renting this house ten years ago, the vegetable beds were just big brick-edged expanses with no internal definition. We’ve tried lots of things over the years, including banked earth beds, simple peg and board edges and fence paling walkways that turned out to be an earwig paradise. You can see that last configuration in the link at the beginning of the post; the boards in the middle of this photo sit where the path lies in the first picture below.

Those methods had been OK, but I was yearning for a more defined feel and better water retention, not to mention being frustrated at continued foot splinters from board paths – I hate wearing shoes in the garden. Finally we’ve got our act into gear. First Owen laid out the beds in the garden at the Western end of the house, edging them with roof tiles bought from the tip shop.

boy path

The little bit of green you can see through the heavy Canberra clay at the bottom left of the path is clover. I chip out everything else that grows on the paths, but clover is such a clever and lovely plant (and so soft and cool underfoot – eventually) that it gets some love. [WRONG! Thanks to Naomi for setting me to rights in the comments. One of the things I love about gardening and cooking is that there is always something to learn. It's oxalis.]

clover

That one is the “boy garden”. Below is the “girl garden” at the Eastern end of the backyard, edged by me over Winter with roof tiles I picked up from the side of the road supplemented with a few purchased extras to finish the central bed with the little fig tree at it’s centre. My friend Katie has already said that those rounded parts look like “saggy old ladies’ boobs” so don’t feel you need to bring that up.

I’m loving myself sick about the paths which I’ve graded down from the external brick edges so the wheelbarrow can get in smoothly. It’s been hugely handy as we’ve barrowed in a trailer load of mushroom compost and half a trailer load of cow manure over the last couple of weekends.

girl garden

I was amazed at how easy it was to make curvy beds with tiles. I did a rough outline with the hose of where I wanted the beds to be, and made sure I had the paths wide enough to turn the wheelbarrow (even if sometimes that means going backwards), but other than that I just started with a mattock, spade and a ho mi and kept going in a continuous line until I was done. I had one tile left when I finished and I felt really very happy I hadn’t spent any time at all trying to calculate how many tiles I’d need. It’s not by any means a perfect job, but it’s completely functional and finished in time for Spring planting and that has to count for something.

The current bane of my existence is the couch grass and other evil plants coming from the neighbours on two sides of this bed. I plan to keep re-digging the couch out of the bed at the near left in the photo as runners are coming through under the boundary brick which is four layers deep. I’ve started planting out the edges between the bed and fence with lemon balm, Jerusalem artichoke and sunflowers to choke out the nasties.

Back in the boy garden, it’s the fourth year for the asparagus, and it’s looking pretty freaking awesome. I found two spears bursting through a few days ago and the next day many more – those little white nubs in the foreground included.

asparagus

The raspberry canes are well settled, seriously well fed and looking great. They’ve started to pop up in the path as you can see at the right of the picture. I don’t know whether it’s worth trying to transplant them back within the bed, so if you’ve done so successfully I would love you to share your expertise.

raspberries

I’ve had trouble trying to work out how we should have pruned them and whether they are Summer or Summer/Autumn fruiting canes – largely because the fruit tends to get gobbled in the garden and rarely makes it into the house. It took me a very long time to work out that was why they seemed less productive than I’d hoped they’d be.

In general the garden is still looking pretty underplanted overall to my eye, but the stalwarts are in place, glorious rainbow chard (and mizuna, parsnip, radish and garlic)

chard

and three waves of broadbeans (the last in the girl bed)

bigger broadbeans

second wave

third wave

The potted things are waking up, too – lemongrass

lemongrass

nettles, and the old bath full of bamboo that shades the concrete slab at the front door

nettles, bamboo

Owy has commandeered the kids’ swing set to grow hops which he’ll use in his homebrew

hops

and, at last, I’ve set up a new nursery area under a shade sail

nursery

You say “tomato” and I say “Imma make passata every week for the next month”

I think that being an even mostly self sufficient household in the suburbs is a pretty mean feat to pull off. Some friends of ours two streets away are about 70% self sufficient in fruit and veg on their ordinary-sized domestic Canberra block, but goddamit, it’s a lot of work. Although it’s true that all veg you grow yourself is going to be a lot better than something you can find in the stupormarket, some things massively over-reward you for the effort you put in. That’s what we try to focus on in our own gardening – things that aren’t easy and cheap to get fresh, and that are particularly delicious when grown organically and harvested when perfectly ripe, like globe artichokes, asparagus, berries, etc.

Clockwise from 12 o’clock – Vietnamese mint, Vietnamese Basil, a flower and common mint.

We grow at least 20 varieties of culinary herbs, and at this time of year we eat something from the garden every day. The asparagus has finished long ago, but the eggplants are just flowering, and there’s rhubarb, sorrel, celery, beetroot, Malabar spinach, gherkins to preserve and chillies. Our Jerusalem artichokes have gone completely beserk and are more than 3 metres tall, twice the maximum height given in my new gardening book.

I planted three heritage varieties of summer squash this year to defeat the “omg I fucking hate zucchini” thing that happens when you are insufficiently vigilant.

But the classic big pay-off Summer crop is of course, tomatoes.

I eat a few cherry tomatoes occasionally out of season, and I eat preserved tomatoes year round, but there is a real tomato gorging going on around here at the moment. The kitchen garden crew made bruschetta for the parent information night at my son’s school last week, and I worked out afterwards there were nine varieties of tomato in the mix (on home-made bread, with a little very good olive oil and salt). People went nuts for it, as you can imagine.

Clockwise from top left: Black Russian, golden grape, tommy toe, green zebra, tigerella, an amazing yellow oxheart variety I don’t know the name of and black krim.

This year I’ve been experimenting with different ways to support growing tomato plants, in a quest to find the One True Method of Tomato Supporting. I made one metre round towers of 100 mm square wire 120cm high, but despite my high hopes they turned out to be pissweak and unable to cope with the weight of the ripening fruit. While picking was easy from the middle of the tube up, the bottom had way too much foliage and there was fruit on the ground which meant slaters and fruit flies and the deep sadness that is homegrown heritage breed tomatoes in the chook food.

I’ve also been experimenting with tomato preserving this year, and so far I have a frozen pureed roasted tomato sauce (with beetroot, carrot, bay, butter, red wine and vinegar), one precious cup-sized jar of tomato paste cooked down from a couple of kilos of San Marzano tomatoes I grew from Digger’s seedlings and most excitingly, several jars of passata.

Last year a lovely friend gave me a manual Italian tomato press, and I am in love with it. If you have to look after an end of Summer school holidays glut from a school garden, the “passatutto” considerably speeds things up. Even things like this:

If I were telling someone how to stock their kitchen, I would tell them to get a tomato press and a potato ricer and not to get a food mill. It is so simple a child can use it.

So if anyone who lives in Canberra would like my food mill, leave a comment.

Things got on a roll, as they do, and last Saturday morning my sister’s lovely elderly Italian neighbours invited us around to see how they did their tomatoes and to do some of our own. I’d read a squillion accounts of “passata days” but was still unsure how exactly to go about it. I knew that seeing it done by experts would be really helpful, and Angelo and Jenny were happy for us to join in.

They are completely delightful people, and the mental passata pieces fell into shape as I worked out what to do with the puree to ensure it was safe and would last the family a year. Put the puree into clean (not sterile) dark glass bottles, leaving a substantial air gap and cap them with crown seals (almost all home brewers will have ths equipment, and if you don’t know a brewer it’s all easy and pretty cheap to track down and use). Pack a large stock pot, Vacola boiler or 44 gallon drum with bottles laid sideways (aha! she says! sideways! that was the missing bit of information ! HOW VERY CUNNING!) with towels tucked here and there so the bottles don’t smash or make irritating jiggly-scrape-y noies. Bring it all slowly to the boil, boil for an hour and don’t remove the bottles until everything is completely cool – that might be the next afternooon.

During this period, lucky people will be taken for a burn in a 94 year old Ceirano, one of two of that model remaining in the world, and the only one in working order.

Some more pictures from the day follow, and even more for the very keen here.

The electric machine is very sexy and cool, but they they cost exponentially more than the $40, entirely satisfactory, manual one. The manual one really comes into its own when you’re processing a couple of kilos of tomatoes each week as they become ripe rather than having a crazed tomato frenzy.

What I really noticed, apart from the smell of properly ripe tomatoes and the extreme comfiness of the backseat of a WW1 era touring car, is that there is a kind of learning that no amount of book-learnin’ will get you. You have to watch, and talk, and muck in and ask questions and then you’ll start to work out what’s going on.

Goings on around here

Although this blog has been horribly neglected since I started working more in July, my garden has been getting some attention. It’s a bit wild at the moment, need to pull out a few things and start planting more. The asparagus has gone to fern, but it’s giving us a big basket of greens each day and artichokes, broad beans, fennel and a very, very large variety of herbs.

I used Summer savoury and majoram in this terrine of ox tongue and pork that I made for my meat guy’s family. There was lots of brandy and mace, and sauteed garlic stems picked about 1 minute before they hit the chopping board. The pistachios I had wanted to put in were old and tasteless (not from the Co-op) so I used biodynamic almonds (from the Co-op). I think the skins left a little bitterness, but other than that I would say that this is pretty much one of the most delicious things I have ever made.

Here’s Jethro at the gate to one of the main veggie beds. Behind him to the left is my gardening bench, a clawfoot bath and a barbecue. There’s another big bed on the other side of the yard.

This one has lots of rainbow chard and some celery,

raspberries that are starting to fruit,

mizuna, lots of lettuces and some garlic hardening of before we pick it.

There’s also rhubarb, beetroot, kale, Jerusalem artichokes, peas and sunflowers.

Owy’s hops are doing well this year. The old fridge behind them has some Black Russian and Green Zebra tomatoes with chives and basil.

In the other bed a pear tree shades the herbs, so they stay really soft and delicious. Lots of varieties of Sage, as it’s my eldest son’s name and he demands we buy every variety we see. Pineapple sage has the best flowers, but not yet.

And there are a lot of artichokes, all from one original heirloom plant from Diggers, divided and divided and divided:

We have so much mint it’s a little bit frightening, and horseradish carried home from Tammi’s house in March after the Eat.Drink.Blog conference. In the gap next to the fence I’ve started growing Jerusalem artichokes to choke out the nasty wandering ornamental thing coming through from the neighbour’s garden. We’ll build up the J-chokes there and gradually take them out of the main part of the garden. It doesn’t matter if it takes a long time.

‘Mum, you overgrew them!’: Dr Sister Outlaw’s bountiful home harvest

It’s been a lovely summer and autumn of eating in my vege patch. Every day since November I have been harvesting herbs, rambling for raspberries, slurping shockingly sweet strawberries and, when the alliteration got too much, unearthing spuds from mulch, snapping leaves of kale and silver beet and devouring zucchinis. The only disappointment of the season was the tomatoes, which resented the foot of rain we got in one weekend in January and sulked throughout the extended warm dry period we enjoyed until yesterday. I’m not bothered. That wet summer and long autumn made growing everything else easy. I still have strawberries!

strawberries

Easy is good, because I am not diligent in the garden (or many other places, if you really want to know). I am prone to fits and starts and sometimes ignore things. I’m not always cooking so I don’t get to things in time. In the garden, this forgetfulness can have spectacular results.

These Hollow Crown parsnips looked so pretty in the vege patch that I was loth to dig them up, but maybe I shoulda done it sooner, because they got a bit … large (that’s a full size 1940s sink they are sitting on). Notice the rather ladylike limbs on the top one? I did wonder if these were really mandrakes (or ladydrakes), but luckily they did not scream when cooked. Parsnips get a bad rap, as this story about Don Burke ripping Donna Hay a new one for daring to promote them reveals. He is wrong. Parsnips are delicious. Which doesn’t explain why I ignored them so comprehensively they grew legs.

But then my marrows got into a similar state, as you can see with this cucumber, modelled by my lovely assistant Aaron, who adores cucumbers but is not sure about this one.

I’ve blogged about the advantages of overgrown zucchinis before, but I love baby beets and slender parsnips, roasted with brown sugar and balsamic, so there’s really no accounting for letting things go to this extent.

Yet this neglect has had benign – nay, wonderful – results. OK, if you ever saw a parsnip the size and shape of the ones above in a shop, you would never buy it, and neither you should. It would be tough, woody of heart and bitter of taste, because it would have endured long periods in transit and storage. But when taken straight from the earth (with a giant fork and a lot of grunting), even massive parsnips are sweet, juicy and yielding. I casseroled some with a jointed chook, a cup of white wine, preserved lemon and a bit of sage and tarragon and the result was a sauce that looked like I’d added a cup of cream to it. I nearly died of pleasure eating it. I also made them into a vegan soup with vege stock and white wine – they smelled apple sweet. 

Same goes for the beetroot, which were so overgrown they stood up out of the ground but united heaven and earth when cooked into a soup with coriander and served with a dollop of tart yoghurt. But again, you wouldn’t buy beetroot like that in a shop. You’d surmise it would be past its peak of perfection, but you would be wrong.

It’s made me think a lot about how aesthetic notions of shop-ready produce lead to waste. What do the farmers do with the produce that does not meet Coles-Woollies specifications because it is too big, too small or looks like mandrake? I suppose some goes to canneries, but precious little would be returned to the earth via compost.

Growing to order can also afflict home gardeners, to their cost. If we only eat when vegetables reach a defined size, we miss the early tenderness of baby vegetables and shorten the eating season. If you cut the head off a cabbage or silverbeet or lettuce you kill it, but if you harvest outside leaves as you need them it will bear for months and months - over the course of a year a bunch of kale will become a palm tree. Peas and beans produce longer if harvested constantly, so it makes even more sense to pick early and often. If you leave things in the ground there is always something to salvage when you are hungry. And although most gardening books would tell you beetroots and parsnips take a lot of space, the fact is I’ve gotten almost six months of eating from stuffing a couple of dozen plants into a square metre of garden, and have not tired of either food. You see, even the instructions on seed packets guide you to producing shop-ready vegetables.

My slack gardening habits have led me to an epiphany. It’s time to break free from supermarket values. Don’t follow the directions on the seed packet but overplant and eat as you thin – the plants left over will fatten in the extra space and be there when you want them. Eat the leaf the caterpillar has chomped on, grow the artichokes to see their beauty, let the beets and parsnips stay in the ground until you are good and ready for them and save your harvesting energy for turning summer peaches into bellinis or racing the autumn frosts to tuck the tender things into the really deep freeze.

Planning, Applying, Building, Sustaining – how to grow a Stephanie Alexander Foundation Kitchen Garden

My son’s school (as I have mentioned quite a few times already) is the Demonstration School for the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation program in the ACT. The program is now being rolled out across Australia, funded by the Federal Departement of Health and Ageing. There’s a demonstration school in each State or territory, which gets established first, gets extra funding and then has a role encouraging and guiding more local schools to particpate.

The motto of the Program is “Growing, Harvesting, Preparing, Sharing”. But before you get to that point, you have to do all the stuff in that post header up there. It’s an absolutely massive undertaking; one I don’t think I really understood at the time, 18 months ago, when a bunch of kindergarten parents got the Principal on board, whipped up an application and crossed our fingers. The $100,000 that a Demonstration School is awarded sounds like a substantial amount of money, doesn’t it? $40,000 is for staff costs for the part time kitchen and garden specialist teachers for the first two years the program runs. Which leaves $60,000 to build a kitchen with 4 workstations, an covered outdoor area and a productive organic veggie garden. Then you have to find the money to pay the ongoing staff costs.

There’s lots of great information on the foundation site about why you’d want to participate in the program, the program goals, and the benefits for schools, children and communities. But this post is about what it’s like for community and parent volunteers trying to get this off the ground. It’s strictly my personal account and unconnected to the school, the foundation or anyone else.

————-

We found out our application was successful in December 2008, and we had a meeting during the Summer holidays inviting lots of community groups and members. We got off to a good start by dividing up the tasks into a few main areas, with a co-ordinator for each -

  • Project Management
  • Kitchen
  • Garden
  • Marketing/Information
  • School and community connections
  • Donations and Sponsorship

As the need was identified, we added Volunteers and Equity as separate areas.

I originally started off in the Marketing/Information role. I did a bunch of useful stuff like setting up a wiki and and a blog and trying to attract some community attention by writing an article for the The Canberra Times‘ Food & Wine section.

Part of the idea of the wiki was that we could document as we went along, so that we had a resource available for other schools implementing the program. But we were using free software that never really quite worked for some people and it fell into disuse. In my work life, my boss and I have tried (and failed) to get people to blog enough times to not take a lack of engagement personally. Despite the fact that it wasn’t that useful in the end, it does function as an accessible repository for all our application and planning documentation.

Left, the old “community room”, right, the kitchen shot from the dining room, which is three steps up. The door at the far left of the old pic is in the middle of the new pic.

I ended up taking over the Sponsorship role when another person couldn’t continue in it. Unfortunately I wasn’t very effective at all, due to a combination of lack of time, always having a rambunctious three year old with me and having no relevant skills or experience. I’m good at the talking to producers and making connections part of things, but not the more formal (and bigger $) sponsorship stuff. We’ve done some stuff I think is really great, like mostly stocking the kitchen from donations from school families (and scavenging at the tip and op shops). We wanted the kids to see that things didn’t have to be in pristine matching sets, or brand new, that cooking just happened with what you have. Despite some wins like this, I would suggest that where possible, you get volunteers playing to their strengths (and not trying to persuade anyone of anything while a toddler is holding their leg).

From the time we started trying to drum up some enthusiasm in the school, there were some people in the school community who were not pleased that the school was participating in the program and unhappy about the way things had unfolded.

The school’s initial application was rejected for insufficient kitchen and garden space, and the application period was extended. In that fortnight, a new group of parents got involved and wrote the successful application. But because all our kids were in kindy, we didn’t know some important context; for example, that parents had fought hard to create the school’s (excellent) performing arts program and were afraid it would be swallowed by the resource demands of a new, sexy program when the funding for staff ran out after the first two years.

Other threads of discontent centered around a view that there’d been a lack of consultation in the application process (true; but I don’t know how we could have conducted a meaningful consultation in that two weeks) and a concern that the school already struggled to attract enough volunteers to run the Canteen, etc. (For those non-primary parents out there, our school is unusual in having a 5 day a week Canteen; most are part time and some have shut.) Some just couldn’t see the point or relevance of the program and thought the curriculum was already overloaded.

One useful thing we did to address these feelings was co-host with the P&C a meeting inviting people to come and raise their concerns. People who couldn’t attend the meeting were invited to give us a few words on a issue they wanted considered. We made it clear that although our application had been accepted by the Department of Health and Ageing and the Foundation, nothing had been signed off. If there was sufficient opposition, we were prepared to pull the plug. There wasn’t a huge attendance, but we (in fact, mainly the Principal) covered all the matters that were causing concern or distress. It helped clarify for those of us pushing for the program that communication within the school community was vital, and reassured us that there were strategies in place to deal with the problems and difficulties as they arose.

A further event that worked well was a Harvest Festival held in late Autumn last year, inviting the broader community for lunch and a seminar about the four year old revitalisation project of the outdoor areas of the school, and how the kitchen garden continued that work. By this stage we’d got it together to feed everyone when we wanted people to turn up, and it was gratifying to see people tucking into to their frittata, soupe au pistou and home-made breads and observe the excitement building. We started to get some ideas about other ways to use the kitchen as a community resource, such as having the baker of the magnificent bread run a workshop to fundraise, inviting the new-ish Somali families at the school to teach a class, running a session on jam-making with the summer fruit glut and the like.

From a sad piece of failing lawn, to de-cooched green manure, and finally a giant veggie monster growing corn, melons, tomatoes, beans, edible flowers, pumpkins, etc, etc. Our awesome gardener, Rik Allan, tends to use heritage varieties because aside from being open-pollinated, they look cool and pique the kids’ interest.

We were successful in getting an ACT Government grant which meant we could employ the garden specialist to begin developing the garden while the kitchen was being built. It would be very hard to start as the kitchen teacher with no produce, particularly as the focus is on using what the kids have grown. Other grant applications were unsuccesful. Win some, lose some.

Those of us heavily involved have been relentless prosleytisers. The garden is at the front of the school, on a fairly busy road (for Canberra) across from the local shops. The visibility helps – a bunch of kids who’d broken into the garden and snapped a couple of trees one night were scared off by a guy in a flat over the road who roused on them and called the cops. He was visited the next day by our Principal bearing a gift of eggs from the school chickens to thank him. I was painting the kitchen one Saturday afternoon with a couple of others and a family who’d just moved to the area wandered in and asked us if they could look around, and what was going on; they stayed in the garden for about an hour. More than 250 people came through when the garden and kitchen were open as part of the Open Garden scheme.

There have been regular meetings and working bees and also times when the garden needs to be watered and cared for over the long holidays, or shorter periods when the garden teacher is away.  Like all community based and community building endeavours, you can’t build a school kitchen garden without substantial committments of time, not least from the school’s Principal.  In fact, I’ve left an crucially important thing out … fyrst catche ye Principal; you simply can not do it without their enthusiastic support.

Most people seem to be appreciating what they’re seeing, and I think once kitchen classes start next term and kids go home wanting to make dinner for their family more people will see what we’ve been on about. The kitchen and garden were launched a few weeks ago on 25 March, and there were a couple of hundred people there to celebrate with us; people from the Foundation and the Health Department, CIT (the local trade education body) and the restaurant community, parents and community members.

In her speech at the launch on 25 March, my friend Chris spoke on behalf of the community and touched on how hard the application process had been. The point was picked up by Stephanie Alexander in her speech who said she was glad to hear it said; it’s true and it’s supposed to be hard.  Because pulling it off, and keeping it going are really hard things to do.

But it’s worth it – in her speech, Stephanie Alexander read out a letter from a mother of a child in the program in country Victoria who has become a red hot veggie gardener.  Afterwards, in the kitchen, one of our teachers told her that since the school had become involved in the program, seven children in her class had started veggie gardens at home. That’s an amazing figure; roughly a third of the class.

There’s a report on the launch from the Foundation, and lots more garden pictures at the school’s site.

Our school garden is part of the Open Garden scheme this weekend

If you’re in Canberra, the Majura Primary School is participating in the Open Garden Scheme. Part fund-raiser, part hoping to inspire and part pride at how far we’ve come …

It’s a joint gig with the garden of Barbara Wheeler and Stephen Knight. Stephen is the school’s fantastic caretaker, and Barbara has been instrumental in motivating significant changes in the revitalisation program of the school, a process that preceeded our success in becoming the ACT demonstration School for the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program.

Details are here – it’s a measly $8 for entry to the two gardens (both in Watson), with no charge for people aged under 18. The School will have a little cafe running, and if you want to try some of my cooking go for the banana muffins with cream cheese icing or the little spiced apple teacake muffins. Neither is a low fat option, so enjoy. Year 4 students will be guiding tours of the indigenous plants that form the entrance to the school, and the kitchen garden will be open for tours too. Our awesome Garden Specialist, Rik Allen, will be there to answer any burning questions and talk about the long term plans to establish an organic garden on permaculture principles. There are also climatically appropriate heirloom variety seedlings ready to be planted now.

Here’s a peek at our kitchen, looking down from the dining area to the kitchen itself. It’s beautiful – a large, airy high ceilinged space in the kitchen with a few steps up to a cosy dining area with big sliding doors overlooking a reclaimed driveway that became an Environment Courtyard and is now a fully-fledged school kitchen garden. Our Kitchen Teacher, Fran Stevens, has just been appointed this week, and she’s fantastic. She has a son in Year 1 at the school and has been heavily involved in building the garden. I’m really excited to be one of “Fran’s Army” of volunteers – and if you’re interested leave a comment and I’ll hound you down ;)

and here’s our handsome chookshed, which has several little sections running out from it with different kinds of plants so the chickens can be corralled around to do their Important Chicken Business:

Unfortunately, I’m not able to be there as I’m travelling to Melbourne for the first Australian Food Bloggers’ Conference Eat.Drink.Blog, where I’m presenting on “Why we blog” with Reem of I am obsessed with food and Gill of confessions of a food nazi.

I will, however, be around on Thursday, when (drumroll, please!) Stephanie Alexander makes a flying visit to launch the program at our school. And you’re all invited:

If you come, make sure to find the really tall woman chasing a toddler and wiping the tears of joy from her eyes and say hi.

2010 Australian Women’s History Month celebrates some female pioneers of agricultural food production

Women's History MonthEvery year the Australian Women’s History Forum runs a themed “Women’s History Month” in March. This year’s theme is music to the ears of a pointy-headed food nerd:

Demeter’s daughters: women’s harvest history
The history of food farming in Australia is much more than the record of agricultural production. When the focus is on women, the story starts with Indigenous food harvesting and includes the pioneering cultivation of familiar crops in unfamiliar soil by colonial women.

It also involves meat producers, dairy and poultry farmers, and market gardeners of Chinese, Italian, Vietnamese and many other nationalities. Demeter, Greek goddess of agriculture, also symbolises women growing food in the Depression and those of the wartime Women’s Land Army; women in wartime ‘victory gardens’ when food was still rationed, those who pioneered viticulture and those whose hand was on the plough of agricultural education and research.

The poster shows a portrait of Lu Moo (‘Granny Lum Loy’) by Sydney artist Karolina Venter. Chinese-born, she arrived in Darwin in 1894 and became a very successful market gardener, so beloved that her funeral in 1980 was “one of the biggest and longest in Darwin’s history” – which given the Territorian’s propensity to party on must have been something to see.

Other featured women include Yvonne Aitken, an agricultural scholar and scientist and the pioneering winemaker Mary Penfold.

There’s a growing list of relevant resources, and a calendar of events searchable by area, and a blog, where they’re seeking community input. They’ve already attracted the interest of the Gooloogong Historical Society who are searching for Women’s Land Army members and their descendants, so if you know someone who dug for victory, they’d love to hear from you.

My only sadness is that they have kept the theme to food production, rather than to other forms of women’s economic activity around food – there’s some very interesting work to be done on the Australian female chefs of the late 1970s and 1980s. (And if anyone’s doing that work, I happen to have a really awesome collection of old food mags and forgotten volumes on the subject …)

In which I go to Wheeo

Dinner outside

There’s something about the sound of that name “Wheeo”, doncha think? It came to mind today, watching my elder son hurtle down the slide at the waterpark – it’s a sound of exhilaration and anticipation, but there’s a delicious thrill of risk to it, too. At least the first time around, you don’t know how cold it’s going to be when all of a sudden you’re immersed.

It can be a little daunting when Twitter comes to life, but like splashing down on a hot day it’s relieving and exciting all at once. I first met Tammi of Tammi Tasting Terroir (and @tammois) when she’d come to Canberra for a conference related to her PhD (yeah, it’s about food). We’d planned to go out for a drink but the combination of my small children and her tight schedule made it too hard. Instead, she came to my house, the morning after the conference had finished.

We share a lot as it turns out. We are Serious Home Cooks, both completely obsessed with food and feeding people, and we both love reading and writing about food. We hit it off, and Tammi and her family recently invited us to spend New Year’s Eve at the country house of their friends Antonia and Mark, a couple of hours drive from here. Owen was in Melbourne with an old friend for NYE itself, but joined us after a couple of days.

Hillview

The house itself was beautiful, the only drawback the sincerely expressed and repeated warnings about brown snakes. I’m not too thingy about snakes as a rule, but that’s because I live in the suburbs and never see any. So the idea of my rather silly 18 kilo toddler being bitten in a place which is out of mobile range, has no landline and is a good hour’s drive away from a hospital made me a big angsty. Fortunately Snake Education 101 from the four larger children seemed effective. The one snake that was spotted (yep, a brown one) was terrified off by Tammi’s husband Stuart’s desperate desire to kill it, by his stashing of sharp threatening spades near the scene of the spotting and by his general air of manly readiness.

clothesline

For fear of brown snakes, no clothes were washed.

I mentioned that the house was beautiful, but it was also full of beautiful things – indigenous and contemporary art, wonderful books, rooms crammed with beautiful Turkish carpets, interesting found things, such as the beautiful bowl of nests which brought Gay Bilson to mind, and linen cupboards stuffed with super-soft old white damask sheets.

bedroom view

From the bedroom we stayed in.

We had a few friends around for a drink before Christmas and my friend Chris (an ex-chef) asked laughingly while she enjoyed a Rhubarb Fizz made by one of the other guests whether my friendships were self-selecting around food. I suppose it’s no stranger than others who share a common interest coming together; probably less so because food is so social. And while it’s true that most of my friends care about food and cooking, to most of them it’s not so deeply embedded as it is with Tammi and me. We could talk about food all day, interrupting that only to read about, make or eat food. And we both left Wheoo with new treasures jotted in our little notebooks – for me in particular, Tammi’s basil and garlic hollandaise which is so good that it has returned hollandaise to my inner list of Things Worth Eating.

The books I took for my holiday reading were Richard Olney’s Simple French Food, Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, and Julian Barnes’ The Pedant in the Kitchen. I didn’t open any of them, as it happened, although Stuart read some of the Olney. Tammi had brought her own stash of books, so I read Lauren Schenone’s The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken and some of Barbara Santich’s Looking for Flavour instead. The owners of the house are also food nerds, and in addition to the supremely well-stocked kitchen, there was a bookcase of food and wine books. Whenever it wasn’t stuffed with food, the table looked like this:

I don’t always cook well with others (sounds like it should be on my school report), particularly in my own kitchen, but Tammi and I quickly settled into a rhythm of each preparing parts of the meal. The exception was my introduction to ravioli making, and there I was very much the student. In the week I’ve been home I’ve broken my pasta machine, bought a new one and read quite a bit of Marcella Hazan.

Despite the thousands of recipes in the house, mostly we both cook improvisationally. One of us would suggest a dish, the other come up with something sympatico to accompany it. Tammi’s described some of the yummies (with pictures) at On Cooking and Feasting, Merrily.

Here were some of the highlights that occurred before my poor little camera died:

Tammi's bread proving

Tammi embraced breadmaking at Wheeo. It meant we could stay in the house and not have to go anywhere and still eat proper bread. WIN

Really Very Large T-Bones

Pasture fed Columbooka T-Bones from my sister-in-law’s farm in Southern NSW. We shall not mention the little incident with the brazier. Stuart made a giant bowl of horseradish sauce so delicious we ate it all. That would have been at least half a cup each, but in our defence it was made with yoghurt rather than cream.

Stuffed tomatoes

Tammi and I share a predisposition to frugality and a hatred of stingyness. The tomatoes were stuffed with crumbs made from one of Tammi’s loaves, herbs from the garden, olive oil and about 18 cloves of minced garlic.

Spuds

We had no cream so Tammi infused some milk with herbs from the garden to make a delicious potato gratin to eat with the pork. Stuart’s home-cured olives were what really made it sing.

Prepared pork

I unrolled a rolled boned forequarter of Wessex Saddleback Pork from Mountain Creek Farm and found some nice things to go with it. I love fennel with pork, so made Owen pull over on the way back from picking him up to join us. If you are going to pick herbs from the roadside, there are a few things to keep in mind – the less traffic the better, wash the spiders off (there were two) and if you’re in an unfamiliar place, check the goddam garden first. There’s no point foraging if it’s there to harvest.

Pork Cooked

We cooked the pork on horseradish leaves from the garden, and they became so deliciously luscious what with the pork fat, lemon, fennel and wine that we ended up slicing them finely to eat with the pork. I brought some horseradish home and planted it, so hopefully there’ll be a lot more of this in the future.

Rhubarb Fizz

There were a great deal more veggies and salads that it may seem here, and considerably more wine, as it happened. This wasn’t wine, however, but the Rhubarb Fizz made by my friend Jem. It was supersweet, but a nip of gin balanced it up nicely.

It struck me thinking about it afterwards that Tammi and I cook together like musicians jamming – confident, mature, communicating with a glance, riffing off each other and then getting to feast too. Neither setting out to impress the other, but to make something that is impressive, something coherent, satisfying and enriching to the people we care about.

Since coming home I’ve finished the Julian Barnes book I took away and neglected (hmmm, in my best Marge Simpson voice. Despite long experience of sophisticated cooking he has remained a bloody kitchen pedant, and I’m no friend of them) and I’ve started the Olney (a proper book, with long complicated sentences).

My favourite food of all to make is a composed salad, a meal on a plate, heavy on the veg. It was the first food I made for Tammi, and I can’t think of a more perfect example of food guided by experience and taste rather than recipes. It is the joy of food that is never the same twice, the ingredients, company, location, mood, season, changing but never losing the heart-joy of placing on the table something that you are hopeful – and confident – will be enjoyed. Richard Olney is speaking here on the subject of such salads, and their endless variation, but I hope that his words are as true of these friendships born in front of the computer screen and cemented at the table –

… One could go on forever, and, in practice, one does.
Richard Olney Simple French Food

Tammi

Tammi in the kitchen.


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