Friday, April 15, 2016

The hose and the skein of autumn

Autumn is that season when we may have the last of our summer vegetables still ripening while the nuts are starting to fall, but, as the days shorten and cool, the first of the new season’s leaves are emerging too. It is a glorious season for the home gardener and one I think a lot of people let slip by, unappreciated.

Life is like a skein of wool; keep it whole and you remain cosy and protected. The more you unravel it, the more you have to deal with the consequences but also the more opportunities it reveals. And so it is with the food garden in autumn!

I find the hurly burly of the spring garden stressful. I never seem to get ahead. Christmas looms, in a flash the grass is as high as an elephant's eye and seeds need to be constantly sown and seedlings tended to ensure a long summer vegetable harvest.

As I stand with the hose this dry autumn day, I am relaxed. Dew makes everything look fresh, flashes of red of the last of the tiny, wild strawberries and regular ones too are dotted about, enticing the gardener to wander further, nibbling here and there as I water. Fully ripe, the deep red, delicious, Chilean guava fruits are so abundant that I put the hose down in order to gorge on them before moving on.

I am careful not to stand on any self-sown chicory plants which colour the paths with their brilliant greens, reds and various markings, all of which are being constantly and gently harvested to add to my salads. Soon, their bitterness will recede with the cold of winter and larger leaves can be picked. Chicories are the beauty queens of the winter garden in Europe but are vastly under-valued here, despite my almost daily exclamations of delight to whoever will listen! I especially love the French “endive” (also called witlof by the English, but which is far superior in France than anywhere else), and the French “chicoree frise” which wear vast bonnets in the fields of France and emerges sweet and crisp but which I love, even without its blanched leaves, if picked young from your own garden.

Glorious chicories, bean jewels, first calendulas, amaranth tassles and the chooks

While I wait for the very last of my bean pods to crisp up, brassicas such as broccoli, purple sprouting broccoli and red cabbages are growing in pots in my greenhouse, ready for transplanting to the resulting nitrogen rich bed. I am not watering these old bean plants now, so I turn the nozzle off and fossick through the dilapidated mass, searching for brown, crisp, dry pods, plump and ripe with dried beans inside. Leaving them to hang there too long results in insects burrowing in and having a feast. I put the half dozen pods in my pocket to add to my inside stash later and pick up the hose again.

Next is my winter greens bed, planted out a few weeks ago and looking fabulous, despite the encroaching shade from the lower angle of the sun and the frosty hollow that it occupies. Winter leaves are thoroughly adaptable to shade, frost and even snow, bouncing back up and throwing off the weight of ice in the hardest and coldest winter weather. The trick is to get them well advanced before mid-May when the short day length, the soft light and cold nights reduce their capacity to grow without big solar panels to capture every second of good light to make growth, not just survive.

This bed was well prepared with compost and deep hay. Consequently, it needs very little watering and I have started picking a few leaves from the lettuce, mizuna and wasabi greens already. I pick and nibble and leave the hose for now. The tomatoes also have needed very little water, with this deep hay method, despite it being warm and terribly dry for months. I have never had so many huge, luscious, delicious tomatoes and the plants are still deep green and healthy in mid-April which is incredible.

I water an unmulched area of kale and coriander and celtuce. Why did I not include this patch in my deep hay experiment? Goodness, I don’t know and now wish I had! It is much easier to plant into a mulched garden than to mulch it later. Oh well, I water it well and move on….

I find it is important to be constantly planting parsley or risk the cook’s nightmare of running out in winter, when it is too late to sow more! This seems to be an excellent year for parsley as not only have I planted consecutive crops but also it has self sown in thick patches which are growing dark green and fabulously; much better than those I planted.

Just about back where I started, I water the walking onions a friend gave me recently, which have now shot out wonderfully and look strong enough to get to a good size before mid May. Lots of fennel are coming up around the edges of the deep hay so I water them too. The Tasmanian purple garlic are in and should emerge soon but I won’t water them until they do.

Walking past the main herb garden I stop to nibble on the flowers of the garlic chives and put some in my pocket too, to add to my salad for lunch. They are crunchy and sweet and very garlicky; almost enough to make my eyes water! While I water them, even though they don’t ask for it, I notice the red-ribbed dock is again coming up from its summer hibernation. In a frosty, winter garden it shines like a beacon to me when I am at the kitchen sink. Even if I never ate it, I would still love it.

Out near the front door, the quince is laden with enticing, big, yellow globes, attracting attention from every visitor, to some of whom I give one or two…. if they are drooling! Many artichokes and cardoons are now shooting and growing like the wind. Also by the front door are my saffron bulbs which are in full production of the earthy saffron filaments I adore. Last night I put my own fresh saffron into my tagine dinner. How exciting, even though I only had 9 threads. I did add a pinch of bought saffron but I am sure mine tasted better :-)

There is much more, like the Cape Gooseberry jungle in my greenhouse, with fruits that have not stopped for nearly 2 years, the new goji berry by the fence, the limes ripening on the front verandah, the lemon which I am protecting this winter with a courtyard of hay bales around it, the sweet potato experiment and the tamarillo about to burst out through the top of the greenhouse and I am not sure what to do about it…… and so on and so on.

As I sit here in the dawn at my computer, with the imaginary hose in my hand, it is such a joy to wander vicariously through my garden, unravelling the skein of garden food, friends who have given me plants and life’s images from where I first had vegetable experiences in far off countries. Life is short; get there fast then take it slow. I am there and really enjoying the slow life of autumn in the food garden.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

7 Days and 7 Minutes Rye Bread

It is common for people to focus on the slips and stings of life’s journey but I prefer to ponder the diamonds and jewels collected along the way. One such for me has been a chance encounter about 6 years ago that resulted in what is now my passion for sourdough bread.

I have never eaten a lot of bread and still don’t but I learned what good bread was as a child, when my mother started making organic, wholemeal bread with fresh yeast. Sunday night tea was invariably left-over roast chicken with salad and a slice or two of her excellent bread, with lashings of butter, followed by fruit salad and ice cream. Only on Sundays did we eat in front of the TV because we all loved watching Young Talent Time!

How another 45 years slipped by without me discovering the joys of making sourdough bread is a mystery but I now rarely eat any but my own sourdough breads. I must say, though, that when I visit my 93 year old mother I do still love eating her freshly made, wholemeal, fresh yeast bread.

I run workshops about the sourdough method I use and those workshops have helped support me these last 5 years. In fact, if I could find a way to run more of them, I could happily give up various other parts of my work as I love giving the workshops as much as the participants love receiving them.

I describe my sourdough method as an easy, foolproof way to make nutritious, delicious bread. So it continues to amaze me that so many books are written about sourdough baking, and many of them very complicated, because sourdough is an ancient creation and is incredibly simple and natural. Most books have recipes that add all manner of ingredients to the basic loaf which all sound fabulous but which I find detract from the taste of a truly excellent sourdough flavour.

There is one book I do love: The Handmade Loaf by Dan Lepard. It is the story of Dan’s travels through Europe, Ireland, Scandinavia, Russia and more, recounting the villagers, grain farmers, wine makers, bakers, millers and grandmothers who have made sourdough bread using whatever grew in their climate and was available cheaply, since the dawn of time. It is a treasure of innovation and history and teaches you that fermentation has been harnessed by mankind throughout human history and, really, almost anything will ferment and some of the leftovers from other products (like grape skins from wine making) make exceptionally good bread ingredients.

He does not use exactly my method but the recipes are easily adapted. One of my favourites is a combination of two of Dan’s discoveries, reworked by me to include sprouted, rather than cooked, rye grains as a substantial part of the loaf. I call it “7 days and 7 minutes rye bread” because it takes 7 days from the minute you decide to make it, until you can actually eat it, but it only takes 7 minutes of your time in total!

7 Days and 7 Minutes Rye Bread


Day 1: weigh out 300g of organic rye grains. Put into a bowl, cover well with water and leave overnight.

Day 2: Strain off water. Place the rye grains into a damp calico bag and tie that to a wooden spoon over a deep enough bowl that it hangs without touching the bottom.

Day 3: Fill the bowl with water and let the bag of rye grains soak for 30 minutes. Put the timer on because you don’t want to kill the rye grains by drowning them! Tip the water out and let them hang again.

Day 4: Open the bag. The rye grains will probably be just sprouting. If not then repeat day 3. Once they are just sprouting, remove from the bag, put into a sieve and wash well. Put them back into the bowl and pour over 250ml white wine. Stir and leave all day.

Meanwhile you need to feed the rye sourdough starter twice during this day so you are ready to make the loaf in the evening.

To make the loaf (evening of day 4):

Strain the wine from the rye grains and save both! Beat together 200g starter +the strained wine + water to make up to 150g. Mix in 400g of the rye grains (save the rest, about 1/2 cup, to put in a soup / stew / another loaf of bread).

In another bowl mix 250g organic, wholemeal rye flour + 1 tsp salt. Stir in the contents of the first bowl. It will be a sticky dough. Rye has very little gluten so there is no need to do 2 risings. Simply grease a small loaf tin and dust it with rye flour. (I use a loaf tin that will fit inside my cast iron pot for easy baking.) Press the dough gently into the tin and make an even top. Cover lightly and leave at room temperature for 15 hours….

Day 5: Heat the cast iron pot for 30 minutes at 240C. Bake the loaf as normal…. 35 minutes with the lid on at 240C then 15 minutes with the lid off at 180C. Remove from the oven but put the lid back on and allow it to cool all day in the pot.

Evening of day 5: Remove it from the pot and the tin. At this point it will be sticky and damp underneath. Don’t worry! I wrap it in a beeswax cloth, but Dan says put the loaf in a lightly oiled, brown paper bag.

Day 6: Do nothing! Do not eat it yet!

Day 7: Ok, now you may have a slice for lunch. If it is still a little damp, wait until day 8. It will be fabulous and you will be starting on the next 7 days and 7 minutes rye bread process.

Now, if we all took 7 days to make our own bread, instead of buying bread, we’d all be healthier and happier! This recipe is dedicated to Jan Howard, who kindly showed me how to make sourdough bread back in 2010 when I first moved to Tasmania and who is originally from San Francisco and told me about Tartine.


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Sam’s Cafe, Tiburon

One fine Monday holiday morning Alex and I took the ferry from San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf to Sam’s Cafe at Tiburon, another place Alex likes to ride to for brunch sometimes.




We stepped ashore after a glorious ferry trip across the bay, past the Golden Gate Bridge, in brilliant sunshine. There were lots of people getting off with their bicycles and plenty more seemed drawn to the various, prominent cafes. I followed Alex past them all, turning left at the main street and in through a door to what looked like a small bar, with no view of the harbour. However, beyond the bar and past the indoor tables we walked, out through another door, along a short bridge to a huge deck, entirely covered with tables and people already enjoying coffee and food aplenty. Since this was the only way to get to this deck, I was amazed that all these people knew it was there! Although, if your yacht was moored at Tiburon, you’d see it alright.



Strangely, there were no umbrellas and no shade of any sort. Luckily, Alex had booked a table and we sat down to look at the menu in the pleasant sunshine.










The menu seemed very unusual and most interesting. I mean, I have never heard of a crab and shrimp omelette, never mind it being served with a choice of potatoes or fruit. I didin’t know what Hangtown meant and what does “Eggs any style” mean??

Then things got even more interesting! Ok, so now there was Korean kimchi with scrambled eggs and rice….. and roasted poblano…. what’s that? Huevos Rancheros, I was lost with that one but black beans seemed an odd thing to put with cheese, salsa and scrambled eggs!


I went with the one I found most unusual, Roasted Poblano and Alex had the crab and shrimp omelette. The coffee was not espresso but drip filter and topped up endlessly. Everything was beautifully and freshly cooked. I was part way through the delicious scrambled eggs with tomatillo salsa folded through and fetta on top, when I discovered a large, roasted, green capsicum underneath. “Ahhhhh” we both said, “that must be what roasted poblano means!”

Alex’s omelette was packed full of crab meat and shrimps; possibly the best omelette ever. My plate had a piece of folded bread….. like a cross between a pancake and a flat bread, which I assumed was for scooping up the thick and saucy black beans. Whatever the strange combinations were all about I don’t know, but it was all thoroughly enjoyable, especially out there on a deck over the water (even though the tide was out), with my fabulous son Alex.











We walked a few streets of Tiburon, a delightful little town, and came upon this artist doing a wonderful job of capturing the character of the place.


We found this incredible spice shop too, where I bought a very solid, very interesting salt and pepper grinder set and a good, southern spice rub, for Hugh.









Monday, March 14, 2016

Fred’s …………. and Sam’s and Moe’s

Commonly in San Francisco, it seems, eateries are named thus and I ate at three of them. The first was Fred’s Coffee Shop. It was my initiation day to the highways of San Francisco with son Alex and daughter-in-law Jing and I was ushered into the front passenger seat to enjoy the views and converse with Alex, the driver. I found conversing calmly, whilst going on the opposite side of the road than I am used to, at 65 miles an hour, on a 5 lane highway, with hundreds of other cars at close proximity, difficult. Moreover, at times there were highways crossing above and below us and there were exits to navigate from time to time, which Alex did expertly, using google maps on his smart phone, safely secured to the windscreen. You see, where I live, things are slower, the traffic is w-a-y less and roads are called highways when they have 2 or even 1 lane!

SF traffic

On the outskirts of Sausalito we parked the car and I was relieved to be on my feet. I wondered why there was a crowd of people on the footpath in front of Fred’s Coffee Shop and soon discovered that by 10am on a weekend, the place was full and there was a waiting list. Oh lalalala, I was learning fast about life in San Francisco. I noticed, while we stood waiting for an outside table, that I was the oldest person there. Nice; I love being amongst people younger than myself and do get frustrated that where I live this is so often not the case.













After about half an hour we had a table and I quickly chose from the extensive, double sided, breakfast menu….. Swedish pancakes with fried banana, candied walnuts AND berries (the menu said OR) plus a latte.











The latte was HUGE but really excellent, as was the plate of pancakes. Did I eat and drink all that! YES! No wonder Fred’s was the place to be on a Saturday morning. Alex and Jing often ride there on their push bikes and avoid the highways, taking a scenic route through the giant redwood forests.

The whole 2 weeks I was in San Francisco, I did not find as good a coffee as this until I went to Tartine on my last day. One day I even caught the ferry back to Sausalito and walked and walked to get to Fred’s Coffee Shop but I did not realise it closed at 2.30pm and I missed it because I had spent the day wandering the beautiful back streets, beforehand.


At the end of our day, we headed home….. with thousands of other people, at times almost coming to a standstill!


Saturday, March 5, 2016

Cocoa and sugar

I thought I knew a thing or two about good chocolate. I have always been quite a chocolate snob; I will not touch milk chocolate or “white” chocolate, instead opting only for dark, strong chocolate, and none of those highly decorated but tasteless chocolates so many small producers make.
One day in San Francisco Alex and I were walking the streets and needed to find a toilet. We came across a likely looking cafe so decided we’d have a coffee and use the loo, if they had one. I sat at a table, while Alex went and looked for the bathrooms. While I sat there, I read a leaflet on the table and realised we were in a chocolate factory, called Dandelion.
Dandelion Chocolate is a bean-to-bar chocolate factory in the Mission District of San Francisco, just down the road from Tartine, the famous sourdough bakery we had failed to get into because of the queue. The info said “….we roast, crack, sort, winnow, grind, conch, and temper small batches of beans and then mold and package each bar by hand. By sourcing high quality beans and carefully crafting tiny batches, we try to bring out the individual flavors and nuances of each bean.” “Cool, lets see how good they really are!” I said to Alex, thinking I knew about chocolate. So off he went and ordered hot chocolates and a little treat.
Well, there were several hot chocolates to choose from and whichever Alex chose was simply the best I had ever had, by a million miles! For our treat, Alex chose 3 miniature brownies on a card which explained that each was made with the same ingredients, just using chocolate made from different beans. We cut them in halves. I started at one end and Alex at the other. One bite in and we both exclaimed “wow….. incredible!” Then to the middle brownie…. and ohhhh so remarkably different but equally as good. The third brought the same response. I realised that these people knew more about chocolate than I thought possible.

I went over to their display and read about what they do. They take so much care to choose ethically too. (You can find it all on their website). Hugh makes great brownies, fabulous brownies, but clearly the way the chocolate is made and where it comes from makes fabulous brownies into stellar ones so I bought two little bars of chocolate to bring home for Hugh and I to share and compare.
Dandelion bars only have 2 ingredients, cocoa and sugar; nothing else. The bars are both incredible but so different….. and the only difference is the cacao beans. Each night I have one tiny piece. It is all you need as the flavour lingers on and on.

If ever you are in San Francisco, you must go to Dandelion.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Chez Panisse

Here is my assessment of lunch at Chez Panisse Cafe today.... and why I booked to go again tomorrow! Of course the food was great but so it is at lots of places here. What set this way, way apart from anywhere else I have ever eaten was the service. Here's a detailed run down of how a good restaurant can become great, and famous for many years, even without a view or other amazing setting....

The moment I walked through the door I was greeted and shown to a table, the menu slipped onto the table as I wrestled with my bags.

Seated and sorted, a waitress arrived within seconds, with bread and butter, asking if I would like water; still or sparkling. She then brought a jug of it and a glass immediately, without seeing to anything else. I noticed at least 4 waitresses, for just my end of the cafe, which had about 10 tables of 2 - 4 seats. Maybe the same ones served the other end too, but the open plan kitchen was in the centre, so I could not see. Nice idea, divide the diners in half by putting the kitchen between. Makes a more intimate space.

There were 5 chefs in white jackets, in the kitchen, calmly and quietly doing their stuff. There were 2 other blokes in black t-shirts, seeing to the dishes and stuff, I think.

After a few minutes of my consulting of the menu, she came back and asked if I had any questions about the menu. I said I was just having entree and dessert and ordered the entree. But, I said I would like a few minutes to enjoy the bread and butter first. No problem. Nothing written but all taken in. My entree arrived a pleasant couple of minutes after I finished the bread.... but first she used a nifty tool to remove all the bread crumbs from the table.

I had mixed chicories, with super thinly sliced radishes, torn croutons, a light anchovy dressing (all my words).... In winter, chicories are not bitter and are so colourful, crunchy and wonderful but no-one I know eats them as much as I do and I had never seen a dish offered that was entirely chicories, so I was keen to have it. I really enjoyed it.

By now the cafe was filling fast but never did I receive less than perfect service and never did I notice her watching to see if I was ready for the next bit. She removed my plate and, without asking, left me for just a couple of minutes to think about dessert. I said I would have the almond cake with meyer lemon creme fraiche and huckleberries, as I have never had huckleberries. She told me about the native berries and that these were grown close by (I don't remember where but she did tell me). I heard her answering other people's questions and she (and all the other waitresses) knew everything about every ingredient; pretty amazing since the menu changes every day.

Being a connoisseur of fine desserts, I was ecstatic with this one; so simple a description but such amazing flavours with the hint of almond essence in the light, soft, delicious cake just so good with the sharpish, delicious, poached huckleberries and the meyer lemon creme fraiche. They even made a good latte, a rare treat in this land of drip filter coffee! (But not as good as The Lotus :-)

I was so impressed I booked again for tomorrow, when I will have a main course.... and maybe another dessert. Today they had clams and shrimps with saffron and other things, cooked in the wood fired oven.... I rather hope it is on the menu tomorrow again.

I paid US$40, including tip and taxes. Sure, I did not choose fancy things and that may seem expensive but with at least 10 people working that small cafe, what I received was a perfect, flawless experience and I can't wait for tomorrow!

ps I would have taken more photos but on the menu, in small print at the bottom, it asked for you to please not use phones or computers whilst there... I have borrowed a laptop to write this as it is so hard on a phone. I don't think I will ever travel again without a laptop, when I so love to write!!

The first decent bread I have come across yet in the USA!
Chicories and radishes in a pretty and delicious salad.

Maybe tomorrow I will skip savoury and have 2 sweet dishes, if they are as good as this :-)

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Reality yoga, Christmas miracles and Enough

A little miracle has occurred between my blueberries and my perennial leeks! I now seem to have a gorgeous, lush patch of red alpine strawberries where, last year, I had a not very exciting patch of regular strawberries. The soft, green leaves are ever so pretty and spreading like a gorgeous carpet all over the hay and, every so often, incy wincy, brilliant, deep red berries dangle enticingly. The soft flesh drops into my fingers at the slightest touch and is transported to taste buds newly initiated to a rich, delicious flavour never before experienced, along with a concentrated, strawberry perfume to the nose, before even a taste is had.


Never can these tiny morsels make it to a shop and can only be experienced by gardeners in the right climate as I must be. How on earth they appeared or transformed I have no idea and I hope they remain happy inhabitants of this patch for a long time. I have left a row of flowering chicories on their north-west side to protect them from wind and too much summer sun.

This all sounds rather dandy but….. they chose a tricky spot to spread so thickly and, since I cannot bear to damage even one leaf, I must bring into practice much yoga in order to stretch to reach each berry, whilst kneeling on one knee, the other leg used to counter-balance the arm that must reach horizontally to a ripe berry the size of  a pea or smaller!

My friend Erika has a garden that makes me sick (with envy). Her strawberries are big and amazing, the patch is a jungle of abundance and I have been the happy recipient of many of her crop. I think my strawberries gave up after over-hearing a conversation about my disgust with mine, compared to Erika’s. Somehow though, a miracle did happen and now I can boast to Erika about my patch.

While I was out there a few moments ago I thought that I would actually prefer mine to hers now because I live here by myself and, by doing daily yoga in the garden, I can farm just enough strawberries to add to my raspberries and other berries for breakfast or dessert. Modern society is all about abundance and striving for more and more. Abundance is fabulous but sometimes it is nice to have almost enough instead of too much.

Life is short; eat dessert first.