Saturday, January 23, 2010

Preserving the Fruits of our foraging

I am a big fan of tv chef and food activist Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. FW's food philosophies are close to my heart - eat locally, grow as much as you can for yourself, (including in his case raising and slaughtering animals for meat -I admire the philosophy, but don't really have the opportunity to put it into practice) and, importantly use the resources of nature to supplement your larder. Inspired by an episode of River Cottage in which he produced an entire meal from foraging, last March Jonathan and I drove around the countryside looking for 'wild food' and came home discouraged with a measly bag of rosehips for our troubles. So when I spotted several trees heavy with plums and apples on the way back from a visit to Sue and Peter Lendon of Yarragon Books last week, I rang Jon and arranged for another foraging trip. Turns out we had been out looking (particularly for apples for cider) too late last year and instead late January - February is the best season on the roadsides. This morning it was up at 5 for the one hour drive to Gippsland around the back roads near Warragul. The rules are simple - no trespassing (sorry Jonathan) and no trying anything we can't confidently identify (at first anyway!). First off were two varieties of small plums growing next to each other. As you can see, the fruit was weighing down the branches, and we literally only had to run our hands down the branch to get handfuls of sweet juicy, yellow-fleshed plums, around 9 kg worth from two trees, and it didn;t even look as if we'd been there!

We also spotted a wild red currant growing nearby among the blackberries - tasted ok, but we decided that it was too much effort for too small return. Queen Anne's Lace is flowering all over the countryside at the moment - it's a relative of the carrot and when you pull up a plant the root certainly smells carrot-y! It's a bit late in the season to use the roots - they need to be picked when young and tender, although Mrs Beeton's says that even then the wild form has an acrid, disagreeable taste. It's been known from ancient times as an aperient and abortifacient. Very pretty but not a harvest for today. Also just starting to colour were the berries of the Hawthorn tree - commonly used as a hedgerow plant along country roads. The berries are known as Haws, and , I am reliably informed by the interweb, can be used in jellies, jams and syrups ( although I note that all the recipes I have found so far have equal quantities of apples and sugar, so suspect that these preserves are Haw in name only).

Next the search was on for apples. Jonathan has made cider a couple of times, but wanted to try it with foraged apples (cheaper and more plentiful). We spotted plenty of trees that were about a fortnight off being ready (as well as a nectarine in the same state - damn!). Finally down a side road we stopped under an enormous tree laden with what looked like a variety of golden delicious apples ready for picking (as well as falling on the ground). Because the tree was so tall, and we hadn't thought to bring a rake or long secateurs, there was a bit of hilarious bashing of branches with sticks and trying to catch the falling fruit so it wouldn't get damaged on the road. The thing about apples (and any fruit) growing wild is they have probably grown from a randomly dropped apple or seed decades ago, and bear little resemblance to what we see in the shops. Cider is best made with different varieties, so after picking a couple of kilos from this tree we kept driving until we found a couple more - red apples which looked like Bramleys and red delicious, around 9kg in total.

So a very 'fruit'-ful day. Tonight we're going to be cooking up our bootie, and I'll blog the results. I soon stopped feeling self-conscious about our exploits, and got a small thrill every time we had a 'find' either for today or to make note of for future foraging expeditions - of which there will be many! I've made a booking for the three of us to do a mushrooming ramble, which will hopefully equip us with the knowledge not to poison ourselves this coming autumn!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Do I stay or do I go?

Yesterday I opened the shop on a day off for a gentleman who rang before Christmas asking if I'd be open on January 5th. I do it regularly, no skin off my nose, and there's always work to be done while they browse. I was so glad I did because I met the loveliest couple who had a wonderful story to tell of how in 1959 while walking in Sherbrooke Forest and talking about marriage, they agreed to make a pilgrimage back to the forest on her 70th birthday on January 5th 2010. She loves cookbooks, so part of her birthday treat was to visit me! Then yesterday afternoon I picked up 20 litres of goats milk from a customer who knew I wanted to make real goats milk cheese. And the day before I dropped off some books to another customer who showed me around her lovely vegetable garden and gave me some excellent tips on looking after the chooks. It's these kinds of people and interactions that really make my business enjoyable- bookselling is not a hugely profitable enterprise so you do really need to love what you do! Which is why I am currently caught on the horns of a dilemma - for the past three months I have been in negotiation (if it can be called that) to renew my lease and I am just about over the whole exercise. In fact I have several times been at the point of throwing up my hands and saying enough - I'll just retreat back to internet and catalogue sales and close the shop. And then I think of how my customers enrich my life ( sadly only a few in the literal sense!!) and how much pleasure the shop brings to regulars and serendipitous drop-ins and I once again ponder - should I stay or should I go?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Fun with leftovers

Christmas is behind us and like most of you, my fridge was stuffed with leftovers for a week or so. My Mum is very inventive with ham and purposely buys a bigger ham than she needs when it's her 'turn' for Christmas lunch so that she can make the family standard of ham and potato pie: Thinly slice a couple of potatoes (I add an onion), layer these with ham, seasoning each layer with salt and pepper and a sprinkling of plain flour. Pour over a cup of cream (Mum uses plain milk, but cream gives a richer sauce) dot with butter and bake in a moderate oven until the potatoes are tender.

My favourite leftover is Panettone. It's great as a festive french toast and also makes a couple of delicious desserts. Raspberry and Panettone bread pudding is dead simple. Cut a couple of thick slices of panettone, and cut out several rounds (one per serving) with a large scone cutter. Put each round into a greased ramekin (or as I do you can bake them in a muffin case in a Texas muffin pan). Beat together a cup of milk, 1/2 tsp of vanilla extract, 1 TBS of caster sugar, 2 eggs and a couple of good dollops of creme fraiche. Top each panettone round with fresh or frozen raspberries, sprinkle with brown sugar and then carefully pour the egg mix over, until the milk is just covering the top of the panettone. I bake these in a water bath in a moderate oven until they're puffed, golden brown and firm to touch. Serve with (preferably homemade) vanilla icecream.

The second panettone dessert was one I created tonight - an apple and blackberry panettone crumble. I stewed 5 sliced Granny Smith apples in a bare amount of water sweetened with a couple of tablespoons of maple syrup. When apples were just tender (I don't like them mushy) I drained them and combined them with 2 cups of frozen blackberries in a casserole dish (The blackberried were foraged from the horse paddocks across the road at the end of last summer - free food!). I topped the fruit with a topping of 2 cupfuls of crumbled panettone, combined with 3 TBS brown sugar, 1/2 cup flour and approx 200gms of melted butter. The mix should be crumbly but moist, don't be afraid to add extra butter if it looks too dry. Sprinkle the mix over the apples and blackberries and bake in a moderate oven until the top is golden brown. You don't need to add any extra water to the fruit as the blackberries will release lots of juice as they cook. I served this tonight with a maple and lime cream - My daughter Hayley has appointed herself official recipe tester and has pronounced this YUM

Friday, January 1, 2010

Welcome to 2010, the girls and their first gift

We've been planning a chook shed for our kitchen garden for a long time - Jonathan and David finished the shed itself in early 2009, but something always delayed installing its residents. Well this morning ( New Year's Day) we brought home 4 Isa Browns from Abundant Layers in Emerald. We got our first egg around an hour later! Much excitement. The chooks have been introduced as much to recycle scraps as for their eggs, which will be a bonus. I'm told Isa's are very reliable layers. The first egg was tiny, but hopefully will increase in size as they mature. They're certainly lovely looking birds, scratch like demons and one is threatening to be an escape artist unless we clip her wings (hence the bird netting for the raspberries is draped all over the chook run.) They're being named after famous Misses and Mrs from the movies and books - so far we have Miss Daisy, Miss Haversham and Mrs Beeton. Happy New Year to everyone out there - hope 2010 brings you some great cookbooks, enjoyable cooking and excellent food