Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Peepers, their pasta and future

Around about the time these tackers were little, I fell off the blog, much to the consternation of my regular readers (sorry, Mum). 

The threesome formerly known as The Peepers, on account of the fact that they, erm, peeped. For a long time we couldn't tell them apart,  so individual names were pretty useless.

So the internet missed out on hearing about the rambunctious youth of the Peepers. In summary: they grew in stature and wisdom, discovered where the earwigs live, developed an enthusiasm for sow-thistles, ate what I thought was the chook-proof society garlic down to its bulby bottom, befriended Great Aunt Agatha (our seniorest chook), and gradually, somewhere around their thirty-fifth week, started laying eggs, which has only increased their enthusiasm for things they think they can eat.

They are now resplendent young persons in full-fledged chookhood.

Albert the Light Sussex, with Mama Esme:

And Victoria the Coronation Sussex, looking winsome:

And Marigold, the other Coronation Sussex, in between Albert (left) and one of me mum's flock (right) on holidays in the electro-netted fox-proofed paradise-pastures of Bright:

These chooks are the loveliest of birds. They gallop up to us, in a sort of undulating wobble-run, and test out our clothing for tastiness. They're a threesome of equals (I'm sure there's some Latin-based collective noun for the equality of three chickens: triumgallate?). They are also producing a lot of eggs, one each, most days. The senior hens, Esme and Shirley Australorp, and their Welsummer henpanion, Cecily, are producing an additional one to three eggs per day. Agatha remains steadfastly non-ovulatory, as she has been since we stole the cache of nine eggs she was hiding under some garden junk in November 2011. The situation, in short: we've gotta lotta eggs, after not having a lotta eggs for a couple of months (E & S were moulting, C, A, V & M were too young).

A lot of eggs is a good problem to have, really, and we're not lacking for ways to eat them (if we were, we'd give them to neighbours and/or boil them and feed them back to the chooks), but of course I know that this situation is temporary. At least one, probably more, of the hen posse will go broody in late Spring and stop laying. I doubt we'll lack for eggs, but our current ridiculous abundance will surely have to give sooner or later.

Eggs aren't preservable in many forms that I'm prepared to work with. My new go-to exception, though, is ye old egg pasta. I mix one egg with one cup of flour (and some nettle purée, in this case), and end up with enough fettucine for a two person dinner.

Nettle-egg fettuccine with nettle pesto, broccoli, pine-nuts, and, um, that famous Italian staple, smoked tofu (as you do).

Once the pasta's dry, which happens over-night with the aid of my trusty clothes-horse pasta drying rack, I figure any bacteria sitting around have no way of surviving (because bacteria notoriously require moisture, right? Right?). And so - voila - or viola!, as we like to say in the string section - present egg abundance is turned into future egg-pasta abundance, in what I choose to believe is a completely sanitary and non-salmonella-poisoning system of excellence. Thank you, the Peepers.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Stink City

I've been in Sydney with my darling sister and her youngker the last two weeks, having abandoned Tim in Lalorland where he's kept Harriet and Bea Cat in the comfortable lapitude to which they've become accustomed.

I moved from Sydney to Melbo eight years ago, in February 2007. At the time I'd been appalled that despite Melbourne's being 900km closer to the Antarctic, its temperature that Summer was regularly 12ºC hotter than Sydney's. "At least it's not humid," people would say as north-west winds sucked at their eyeballs, and I was all like "Bah! Of course it's not humid! You've been in life-endangering drought for the last ten years. There hasn't been a cloud over this city for eighteen months." (Finally Autumn kicked in and everything was lovely, and then – some years later, after the apocalyptic fires of 2009 – the drought broke and everything was even lovelier.) 

But hanging in Synny for two weeks in February, the subtropicalliest month of Sydney's calendar, has made clear to me how much I've come round to the whole Mediterranean climate thingo that Melb's got going on. Because sweat behind the knees, actual puddles gathering in the crook of my arm, really not my thing.

The rainy warm wet warm rainy not-too-warm rainy clime makes for lush green rampant life. And it also makes for rampant abundant glorious multiple-generations-in-one-season fruit fly. Which is perhaps why Sydney is not full of backyard fruit while Melbers is.

Having said that, every day on the walk to my nieceling's school, I've been helping myself to a small handful of these ladies:

The lilly-pillies of loveliness! They're a bit Granny-Smithesque in their sweetness/tartness combo, juicy and abundant and apparently fruit-fly free. 

The lilly-pillies are in the Syzygium genus, part of the Myrtaceae family that includes the eucalypts, feijoas, and other fluffy-flowered indigines of the once and former Gondwanaland:

Much fancied by bees.

And there are these, my old friends the bunyas:

The cockatoos have been systematically dismantling the bunya cones, dropping half nibbled nuts for the brush turkeys of Turramurra to tidy up, and dropping the odd un-nibbled nut for me to gather.

Last year's Festival of Eating My Bodyweight in Bunya Nuts got old well before we'd actually eaten our bodyweights in bunya nuts. We gave bunya nuts to beekeepers and bunya nuts to people in pubs and bunya nuts to colleagues, and still we had bunya nuts. This year I've amassed no more than 12 of these little fellows, which I think may be close to the perfect quantity for a person who already lacks not the carbohydrates.

Finally, on the bounties of Sydney's wild life, check out (if you can) these teeny native stingless bees (Tetragonula carbonaria) living in a terracotta drainage pipe not two metres from the entrance to my niece's school. They're fond of the humidity and warmth, obvs., and thrive up north while they won't survive in Melbers.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Victorious Almondo!

Long suffering followers of these annals may recall that last year, on the brink of their first ever major almondification, my two almond trees were devastated by a tribe of brigands. This time round, thanks to a combination of my mother's generosity and my own spendthriftery, I secured a set of A-grade fancy-pants bird-exclusion nets for trees, which have done time on various stone-fruits as various stone-fruits approach peak parrot-attractiveness. And therefore, despite a few days of this –

– we are verily with almonds! Yes indeedio, the unprecedented joy of an almond glut (not that almond + glut makes any kind of sense).

Prunus dulcis "Nonpareil". Barely visible fossilised ammonite for scale (my pleasure).

Only the nuts on the Nonpareil almond are ripe; its friend, the Carmel, is biding its time, which means that what you see in the basket above is a mere half of our first proper almond harvest (insh'allah). The Nonpareil gets the full force of the Western sun, whereas the Carmel catches a patch of afternoon shadow, and it's to this that I attribute the variation in ripening time, although I do note, having consulted the University of California's pamphlet on "Harvesting and Storing Your Home Orchard's Nut Crop" (essential reading, a tour de force), that "depending on variety, almonds are ready for harvest between early August [that would be early February to me] to late September [i.e., March]". So it may be that all Carmels will prove slower than all Nonpareils.

Never having had much to do with almond harvesting before (thanks, cockies), I'm relying fairly heavily on the good almond commentators at the U of California. They advise that harvest "should begin when 95% of the nuts have hulls that have split open to expose the in-shell almond inside", although they also say that you can proceed when only 75% have split, to save your almonds from North American equivalents to the cockatoo, though frankly I don't think that would work with the cockatoos round here.

After harvest, I'm supposed to remove the hulls while watching Barnaby Joyce on last night's recording of Q and A. Gosh he's a weirdo.

And then the nuts in their shells need additional drying to prevent mold. In the midst of this drying process, which I have trusted to my Fowlers' Vacola Dehydrator, I'm meant to unshell a nut periodically and check whether it's dry and brittle. Once they are - dry and brittle - they're good for 8 months at room temperature, and longer if frozen. So, tra la!, almonds!

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Lalor Summer-School for Vegetables, Mid-Term Report

I seem to recall that when I last blogulated, several decades ago, I hinted at certain misdemeanours on the part of Summer: to wit, excessive heat. If I didn't hint at excessive heat, then I was certainly thinking about it, because at the time the edges of the leaves were still crisped from the previous heatwave. The edges of me were still crisped from the previous heatwave. This is despite the fact that I had spent most of the heatwave either chipping away with a spoon at 2 litres of frozen peach pulp or lying on the floor, pretending to do work-related reading, and periodically groaning.

I'm very pleased to report, however, that Summer has pulled up its socks and been remarkably nice ever since. February may be prove me wrong, but so far this has been the best Summer since 2010-11. We've had a whole fortnight of maximum temperatures in the low 20s and southerly breezes most days and a blanket or two on the bed and snuggly cats and a half-full watertank and yes I do go on about the weather, but it's because heatwaves turn the Harlotian mind to thoughts of imminent apocalypse, and, in the interests of balance, I have to be proportionately relieved by non-heatwaves.

It's been good, gentle weather for keeping veg alive, dry enough that they haven't all keeled over with fungal infections, warm enough that things are ripening in their own good time. 

We've been doing pretty well on the tomato front. The long red fellows are Amish Pastes. The big red in the bottom right-hand corner is a tomato of unknown parentage that turned up one day, the furry things up the back are not tomatoes (hello, interloping peaches), and the little orange guys are from a free packet of Diggers' Club Artisan Tomatoseeds.

I was a bit suspicious of Artisan TomatoesI mean, calling something "Artisan" just isn't very artisanal. Artisanal tomatoes should have names like Wapsipinicon Peach, Jaune Flamme, Schimmeig Weltschmersch, Big Red Rockeater, or Alpaca's Delight - or Amish Paste, for that matter.

But I'm prepared to overlook the flaw in their nomenclature, because they're quite lovely. And prolific. In future I'll have to try to repress the urge to grow magnificent boomba tomatoes and instead stick with the cherries. They ripen so much more quickly and they're so much more bounteous and easy.

As for their fellow nightshades, I've been enjoying my inaugural tomatillo crop. I bought these Green Harvest seeds, never having tasted a tomatillo, and I'm very pleased to find that they're worth bothering with.

The fruit mature inside these lantern-shade pericarps, like Cape gooseberries do.

And then, it seems, they're ripe when the pericarp splits. The fruit are sweet and strangely cheesy-tasting. Word on the street is that they're the basis for Mexican salsa verde (they're green when ripe, hence the verde). Henceforth I will be looking down smugly upon mere tomato-based salsas.

Speaking of smug, and more nightshade action, I seem to have cracked the secret to getting eggplants and capsicums from seed-to-fruit in a single season. Or I've had a lucky fluke anyway. I brought on these seeds in my heated propagation tray inside, and planted them out in late October into a bed covered with about 20cm deep of my artisanal compost, which shall henceforth be known as Artisan Compost. Apart from the minor setback caused by my Artisan Compost spawning a minor forest of volunteer potatoes and mallow (thank you, cold-composting methods), which it took me several weeks to realise I had to sacrifice to the greater solanum, things are going Well.

Camouflaged green capsicum! Sexy milk bottles & plastic flowerpots were deployed as earwig repulsing devices when the seedlings were planted out.

I've been getting a bit of bean action from these Dwarf Violet Queens, but the plants are disappointingly floppy. I may have over-manured the soil they're in (not with my own personal manure in this case, some of you may be pleased to read); whether it's that or that they're just congenitally lazy, I don't think I'll bother with them next year.

 Carrots and parsnips and leeks are pottering along in the excellent Greensmart wicking pots on the front driveway:

The disgustingly bitter radicchio which I didn't realise (a) would need blanching and (b) would taste like some grueling Baltic herbal remedy has gone to flower:

and in the spirit of growing my own root-based coffee substitute,  I am considering yanking it up and doing unto the radicchio (aka chicory) what hath been done unto its friends the dandelions.

Corn, corning away:

 Kale, kaling:

Leek, flowering:

Pumpkin, disappearing over the neighbours' fence, which is probably where its fruit will end up:

 NB: nibbled leaves. A personal contribution from Agatha the Pumpkin-Leaf Improver and Professional Chook.

Jaune et Verte squash, squashing:

That's not quite all. There's a potato patch doing its underground thang (I hope), two sweet-potato plants, one sending vines out on a serious rampage and the other minding its own business, the Egyptian walking onions beginning the formation of their bulbils, sorrel looking green and joyous, silverbeet going frantically to seed, Jerusalem artichokes ensuring flatulence for 2015, and Chinese water celery beginning its inaugural march across the pond into water chestnut territory.

And now, c'est tout. B+.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

We weed weed wee

Enquiring minds are no doubt wondering what all this talk of weed and wee and we and weed the abovely title portends. It's this, you see, I've been messing about with dandelions, one of the world's most famous diuretics, if for "world" you'll accept Culpepper's Complete Herbal (marrying botany and slightly dangerous medicinal advice since 1653). Old Nick Culpepper begins his reflections on dandelions by noting that the vulgar refer to them as "piss-abeds". This would be a clue: however tempting it may seem, you shouldn't drink your bodyweight in water and then gorge on dandelions unless you're prepared to sleep in a nappy on a plastic sheet. The good news, according to our favourite seventeenth-century herbologist, is that piss-abedding can be therapeutic. The dandelion:
openeth the passages of the urine both in young and old [eek!]; powerfully cleanseth imposthumes and inward ulcers in the urinary passages [double eek!], and by its drying and temperate quality doth afterwards heal them; for which purpose the decoction of the roots or leaves in white wine, or the leaves chopped as pot herbs with a few alisanders, and boiled in their broth, are very effectual.
As it happens, the passages of my urine have been in pretty good fettle of recent years, so I haven't been in dire need of a dandelion and alisander soup. However. Ever since the weather killed my first tea plant (a genuine Camellia sinensis, frizzled by a Melbourne heatwave) and then the chickens killed my second tea plant (not maliciously; it just happened to be where they wanted to excavate), I've gotten crazily enthusiastic about tea alternatives that are within my limited horticultural reach. And that means - besides lemon verbena and peppermint and lemongrass and raspberry leaf - dandelion root. What dandelion root tea lacks in caffeine it more than makes up for in a pleasing ... brownness. (How am I going? Talked you into giving up coffee for dandelions yet?)

The best time to harvest dandelion roots, I've learnt from grim experience, is before they flower (as with any root vegetable, the energy stored in the root gets used up in the flowering). We had a burst of dandelion flowering around September, but the next generation is yet to bloom, so this afternoon, with the soil good and soft from rain, I seized my opportunity to hoik up this fine assembly of rooticles.

You could probably brew with them as is, but I'm inclined to chop them up into 1cm lengths and plonk 'em in the oven for 15 minutes or toast them in a dry fry pan. The toasting seems to caramelise the sugars (starches?) in the root which makes these little niblets rather tasty.

They're ready now for my Dandelion Soy Latte deluxe. It's a thing. Sounds slightly more impressive than wee tea. You just plonk a teaspoonful of these into a tea strainer, steep it in your warmed and frothed liquid of preference, add honey if you like, and Bob's your nuncle.

P.S. more weeds for dinner. The mucilaginous mallow of the Malvaceae family has been springing merrily out of the compost I spread around my vegums. Imho, the best thing to do with a weed in the vegum patch is eat it (cf. nettles). Here, therefore, are some mallow leaves (centre) posing with some Murraya koenigii/curry leaves (left) and some cardamom leaves (rightish, downish) before being plonked into tonight's chickpea ragout. The leaves, stem, flowers, etc of the mallow are all edible, and quite an acceptable cooked green, particularly good in a casserole or something that benefits from a bit of thickening.

P.P.S. Tim wishes it to be known that he has brewed dandelion root ale. And lo it was good.

P.P.P.S. this post brought to you by the word "plonk", which I note I have now used four times.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Honey, I'm home: nectarine thieves, apricottage, and Operation Cyser

Hello blog! Hello 2015! Hello Lalor (from which magnificent outer northern suburb, we - Timnus, Harriet & Bea Cat, a posse of chooks and I - absconded for the hols)! We returned home from our abscondage just in time for 2015's first bout of Melbourne HellWeather, so it was only after we'd thoroughly watered the garden, shaded the bees, wet the worms and set out five million waterbowls for the chickens that we noticed that the entire crop of some 100 or so nectarines we'd left on our frontyard nectarine tree had vamoosed.

Melbourne HellWeather MMXV, Bout the First

I planted the nectarine the day after we moved to Lalor, in the rain (sigh), just over four years ago. Pam from up the road popped down to introduce herself and invite me over for tea (nice work, Lalor Welcoming Committee). Someone whose name I've never learnt but who lives in the next street along warned me sternly that if I put a fruit tree in my front garden kids would steal my fruit. Oh no!, I thought, Not the national scourge of fruit-eating children! and then I continued on with my row of alternating apples and stone fruit along the front perimeter, imagining the occasional youngster helping herself to afternoon tea on the way home from school. Had I known that "kids will steal your fruit" would mean "some audacious individual of unspecified age will strip your entire crop", maybe I'd have grown a thistle hedge, sunk a moat and installed a pair of lusty piranhas.  Or maybe not. I have mixed feelings about this fruit theft. I myself am an A-grade salvager of abandoned fruit, for one thing, and if someone thought our under-ripe nectarines were so delicious that she/he/they persisted in denuding the entire tree, then happy Christmas, someone. More to the point, we're lucky it was just fruit we lost. There's some serious loot in our house, just waiting for the burgling. A sack of alpaca fleece, for instance. The complete set of the Season Eight Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic books. Several hundred bottles of variably potable homebrew. A 1940s sewing machine I found abandoned on the verge in Preston and lugged home at great cost to my dorsal muscles only to find that it didn't function. The $0.99 lounge suite from ebay. The coffee table snaffled from hard rubbish. So, nectarines schmectarines.

It has also helped reconcile me to my nectarine loss that we happen to be, right this minute, rather rolling in fruit. We found a wild apple in Bright (as you do) with precociously juicy apples. Who knew apples could ripen in December? Go, you good tree! Accompanied by my trusty nieces-in-crime, K and H, and the Tim-meister, we picked almost 15kg, without making much of a dent in this tree's fructifying.

Back home, the apricot tree was groaning with fruit (safely stowed in the backyard, away from Lalor's Stonefruit Filcher of Doom). Thinking we were in for hail last night, I pulled down half the apricots - 7.5kg as it turns out - and while scoffing the ripest, Fowlers Vacola-ed 11 bottles of apricocks (in the no-not-at-all-bawdy parlance of Mr. W. Shakespeare).

7.5kg of Moor Park apricots. Was pleased to note that Mount Alexander organicky Moor Parks are selling for $10/kg, which means that these kids have already more than paid for their insect/bird exclusion netting. In foreground: remains of my lentil deluxe dinner, eaten outside to maximise benefits of cool change. In background: dwarf peach (fruiting for the first time this year, yay!) and water chestnuts in blue pond thingy.

Eleven jars of apricottery with a dollop of honey per jar, all rustically packed. Ain't winning no CWA awards for handsome fruit-packing anytime soon.

Excess apricots (is there such a thing?) safely preserved, we got down to the serious business of making out first cider of the year.

Which, once the apples are assembled, begins with apple crushing. The apple crusher is a spendy bit of kit that is entirely worth its spendiness (say I, having laboriously crushed the apples in my 2L blender the first year we made cider). Of course, as with all positive spendiness to worthiness ratio calculations, this one assumes regular and passionate use (a fair assumption, as I'll be in the cider-making lark for many years to come, dog willing, and may yet manage to cultivate friends who want to borrow the crusher (or The Crusher, to give this fine article its due Arnie-Schwarzeneggerisation)).

The Crusher in its most fearsome aspect. 

You can't see 'em, but underneath those apples are teeth on wheels. They bite the apples up and spit them out into a bucket below. Then we take the apple spit bits and stuff them into the apple press and press away and out oozes the juice. No photo of this stage, because all hands are either engaged in manipulating the press or covered in bits of apple.

It turned out that while these apples were perfectly juicy and while they tasted (to me) sweet, their sugar content was pretty low, according to our trusty hydrometer. Our juice would have made the light-beer equivalent of cider, which sounded fine to me, but my co-vintner was having none of this namby-pamby barely-fermented, cideresque excuse-for-a-drink, and promptly poured a 600mL jar of our honey into the juice. Voila! Cider turns to cyser, i.e., apple-honey wine (at which point, it behooves me to point out that mead-making, aka, mazing, has all the best vocabulary: mazer, metheglin, pyment, cyser, melomel, hippocras), and its future alcohol content approximately quadruples.

5 litres of cyser-to-be

But on that I'll have to get back to you in the fulness of time. Five years or so should do the trick.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

That old yarn

I haven't been to an agricultural show for at least a decade, and last time I did I was too old to get excited about showbags, rides on the whizzamagig and foodlike substances on sticks, but, on the other hand, I hadn't yet settled into my early-onset nanna-esque enthusiasm for produce displays and vintage machinery. Thirty-six, it turns out, is the perfect age for enjoying agricultural shows, and the Whittlesea Show today was a delight. I got to witness from afar the latest fairground cuisine (variations on deep-fried fairy-floss). The arts & crafts competition displays were glorious, esp. in the Best Decorated Orange or Potato category, the Fair Isle sock display, the carrot cake competition, and the great Orstrayan backyard dunny division. There were fewer exhibits of baby animals being terrorised by kids than I'd feared, and the weather was on the chilly side of 15ºC (thank you v. much, southerly change), which meant that the handsome, hand-brushed Poll Herefords standing around with no shade or water weren't suffering unduly. And - finally - there was an alpaca display, including a coven of spinsters transforming alpaca fluff into a very respectable yarn.

Which was just what I needed, being myself a struggling novice in the alpaca-yarn spinning department. I made some inroads about a week ago, after watching several bajillion instructional youtube videos on setting up my spinning wheel, carding fleece, making rolags (rolags!), and spinning itself. But even so, this meagre length of yarn -

- was all I could make before I stopped in frustration. The yarn kept breaking, and, uncoordinated at the best of times, I was finding it nigh impossible to pedal with one foot, use both hands to pinch the rolag into something finer and threadlike, not slow my pedalling down so that the wheel started going backwards, deploy my third hand to grab the next rolag and introduce it, scratch behind my ear etc, and remain upright. Hand-foot-eye-machine synchronisation, never my strong suit.

At some point in this dogforsaken initiation into spinning I gave up, grabbed an old ball of  Patons 5-ply and started knitting this bedsock, on which I made tremendous progress at last week's poetry-at-the-pub, with the aid of my trusty book of sock patterns, I Can't Believe I'm Knitting Socks.

If only there were a companion volume, I Can't Believe I'm Spinning Alpaca Fleece.

So, anyway, it was very comforting to speak to the alpaca spinners today and discover a few things: (1) everyone finds spinning hard at first; (2) noone learns to spin from youtube; (3) alpaca wool isn't your optimal beginner's fibre, given its tendency to break, whereas sheep's wool consists of cells that make the wool stick together (or something); and (4) there is such an institution as the Hand Weavers and Spinners Guild of Victoria, headquartered in Melbun, and I could take lessons or join a local group and bludge lessons for free. So I think that's now my plan: I will put the gigantic sack of alpaca fleece back in the cupboard, wait until the new year when the next term of Wednesday evening spinning lessons start, and in the meantime, if I'm stricken down with yarn nerdery, I'll use up some of the commercial wool I've been accumulating over the decades in a flurry of sock manufacturing. I might try treadling my spinning wheel at the same time, just to get my foot in.

Meanwhile, in other news: Spring! The season of empinkification in the front yard.

The season of bees in apple-blossom (except for the apple-blossom that didn't eventuate because the earwigs of doom climbed up the trunks in the night and ate the unopened flower buds ... bloody earwigs).

And t'is the season of Esme Australorp deciding to incubate the next generation of chooklings with her whole soul and self. Esme can't be photographed, because she has planted herself in the darkest farthest corner of the coop and will be enormously disaffected if I open the portal that lets light in on her (whirr, fluff, dinosaur impersonation). We procured for her eight fertilised eggs last Sunday, so that the sitting could produce something other than rotten eggs; she broke two by accident on her first day, settling in, but all's gone well ever since, and she's almost a third of the way through the incubation now with six eggs still intact. She is a model of endurance. The whole incubation involves 21 days of sitting, turning the eggs over now and then so the embryos don't stick to the shell, holding in her poos, her thirst, her hunger, her need to stretch, her desperate need for a dustbath, until that brief moment in the afternoon when it's warm enough to leave the eggs and she can dash out and get a day's worth of living compressed into twenty minutes. Puts my frustrations with the alpaca fleece and the spinning wheel of contrariety right in their place.