January

It's stone fruit time of the year. If ever there was a reason to celebrate eating seasonally it is the parade of peach and nectarine varieties that carries us through December, right through January and well into February. My own small trees (one peach and two nectarines) are absolutely laden. Because the bunches were crammed so tightly I have removed more than a third of the crop. As I write, the fruit is still ripening. I have resorted to bird netting draped over stakes planted away from the branches to avoid tangling with the leaves, and I hope to enjoy most of the fruit myself. The birds will no doubt turn their attention to the strawberries instead.

I have volunteered to give a class on how to maximise this wonderful harvest of summer fruit to some of our kitchen specialists in the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden schools. I am setting myself a challenge to collect at least 30 recipes, all of which can be achieved from start to finish in less than 30 minutes, making them suitable for use in the kitchen classes.

My own peaches are yellow and freestone. I also love white peaches, and have fond memories of the luscious white nectarines that my Aunt Molly grew. Last season I bought some of the flat doughnut white peaches that I had hitherto seen only in China. They are quite delicious.

My gardener has organised strips of sharp little tacks to be glued onto guttering and the tops of the paling fence, and for the first time in several years all the new shoots of my climbing roses are intact. I think this strategy has finally foiled the possums.

It may be a bit old-fashioned but I love fruit salads. Sliced nectarines and sliced peeled peaches sprinkled with a little sugar, doused with a glass of dessert wine and serve chilled in a glass bowl, all the better to admire the glowing pinks and golds. I suppose you could add cream, but it does make the sublime juice a bit murky. Or build a great trifle using wine-sprinkled sponge fingers, proper egg custard and plenty of chopped poached peaches or nectarines. Some families insist on a softly set jelly over the fruit. I like this idea. An excellent final layer is a simple syllabub, made by whipping cream and folding it very gently into wine-soaked lemon zest. There's a recipe in my book The Cook's Companion.

Peaches and nectarines are also delicious sliced into summer salads, especially if there is something like turkey breast or smoked chicken or ham as the protein. And a grilled duck breast served with roasted peaches is a lovely combination: the sharpness and acidity of the fruit is so very good with the rich meat. Also try tossing a panful of peaches, nectarines and plums with a little sugar, adding a few knobs of butter and baking them in a covered dish in the oven. Hard to beat.

January is also the month for raspberries. How can I decide which is my favourite: a peach or a raspberry? Alone or together?

The combination of peaches and raspberries is well-known in the classic pĂȘche Melba, created for Dame Nellie Melba by chef Auguste Escoffier at the Savoy Hotel in the early 1890s to celebrate her performance in the opera Lohengrin. Supposedly the original version was peaches topped with spun sugar on a bed of vanilla ice-cream presented between the wings of a swan carved from ice. A later version married the now familiar vanilla ice-cream, poached peach and raspberry sauce. A delectable combination.

I have no space for raspberry canes (although I do have a solitary gooseberry cane still to fruit), but I buy up large quantities of raspberries at the farmers' market. Later in the month I will be holidaying by the seaside and there are at least two pick-your-own berry farms nearby. It will be a good excursion and it will entertain the children, at least for a while.

Elsewhere in my garden, the almonds are still wearing their green coats. Almost every plant put on phenomenal growth this spring, not just because we have had generous rainfall but because with the sad departure of the enormous Manchurian pear tree the plants have never seen so much light and sunshine. The small squash are prolific but do not take up as much space as zucchini bushes. Space will always be an issue. I am trying a miniature watermelon and a small pumpkin. The label on the pumpkin assures me that it will grow no more than 50 centimetres wide so it is in a 60-centimetre pot. We shall see. I do not expect results for another couple of months.

My capsicum and eggplant are both full of fruit and I am eating huge quantities of salads as many of the lettuces tend to bolt after several hot days. The last few radicchio were too tough for salad, but they were wonderful coarsely torn and braised for 10 minutes with extra-virgin olive oil and a crushed clove of my very own and very small garlic crop.

As usual I am growing too many tomatoes. It is still too soon to report on my "Unknown" variety although it is growing very strongly alongside black Krim, rouge de Marmande and Amish paste. I shall have to report in February.

Until next time.

PHOTOGRAPHY ARMELLE HABIB

This article was published in the January 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.





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