July

Many readers will already be familiar with the wonderful book Preserving the Italian Way by Pietro Demaio. I was fortunate to meet the author when he ran a workshop for some of the specialists employed in the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden programs in schools across Australia. Demaio is irresistible. Enthusiasm and knowledge ooze from this man. He demonstrated many traditional Italian ways of pickling and preserving foods to inspire us all to make the most of our excess crops.

Like many others, I have pickled my own olives in many different ways over the years. In the southern states boxes of freshly picked olives have been in the markets for several weeks now. In the past I've soaked olives in buckets of water, changing it every day, or I've split each olive, and after the initial soaking and rinsing stage, soaked them again in a flavoured brine, or layered them with salt. I've tried several methods, and Demaio knew them all and validated most of them. But he did communicate the basic method that his family has followed for generations. And it is so simple.

Pietro Demaio's olive sott'olio
For 2 kilos of freshly picked olives (no bruised fruit), you make a simple brine with 5 litres water and 300gm kitchen salt and bring it to the boil. Place the olives in a clean container and pour over the hot brine. Seal and leave for three months. Drain, transfer olives to a clean container (preferably glass), pour over 1 litre of wine vinegar and leave overnight. Drain again and transfer the pickled olives into clean jars. Add garlic, slices of lemon, mint, fennel, whatever you want. Cover with olive oil and leave for one month.

Demaio advises that once the olives are eaten, you should use the remaining oil in cooking. I will report on my olives in four months' time!

Winter is the time for bare-rooted trees and I have been making inquiries of Fleming's Nurseries to select a suitable persimmon tree for my front garden. Persimmons are described as either astringent or non-astringent. An astringent persimmon is edible only when the fruit becomes jelly-like. A truly ripe astringent persimmon must be eaten with a spoon and one scoops into it like one does a soft crème or custard. Yum! Available varieties are dai dai maru, hyakumo, tanenashi and nightingale.

Non-astringent persimmons are flatter in shape and can be eaten as soon as they are picked, when the light-orange flesh is sweet and as crisp as an apple. They will soften if stored at room temperature and may even develop a texture somewhat like the astringent varieties. Available varieties include fuyu and ichikikei jiro. I enjoy these fruits sliced into salads and they combine particularly well with toasted nuts, goat's cheese, and robust winter greens such as radicchio and witlof. Or you can combine them with a smoked trout fillet or poached chicken breast for a more substantial lunch.

It is pruning time and I leave mine to the experts. Maggie and Colin Beer are coming for a visit, and while Maggie and I chat, Colin gets out the ladder and the clippers and tackles  my ornamental grapevine. I assist by cutting the prunings and bundling them to use in my open fireplace. I still have some of last year's prunings, so we will probably grill quail for dinner. Colin enjoys managing the little fire, while I arrange the marinated birds onto one of the heavy iron grills I bought from an Italian hardware store. And we all have a moment reminiscing about our happy days in Tuscany, when so much of our food was grilled over a fire just like this.

Winter is also the optimum time to plant seed potatoes. Last year I used a grow bag and was very disappointed with the yield. In my opinion the bag was simply not deep enough to permit me to build up the soil around the growing plants, and the plants instead trailed out of the bag and across the paving. This year I am going to use the method advocated by Diggers, and which I have seen in operation in several of our school gardens. One drives tall stakes into the ground, creates a nest of straw and compost, adds the cut seed potatoes, one variety to its own nest, and then covers the potatoes with soil and straw before encircling the stakes with chicken wire. As the plants grow, more soil, compost and straw are added so that only the top few leaves are visible. The theory is that this will result in many more potatoes. We shall see.

When I was visiting Coober Pedy Area school (which has one of our more remote Kitchen Garden programs), I was astonished when the garden specialist there told me she had recently pulled up the potato plants, extracted the largest tubers, and then replanted them, expecting they will continue to grow. Maybe everyone in the potato-growing world except me knows you can do this?

PHOTOGRAPHY ARMELLE HABIB

This article is from the July 2011 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.





MORE INFO

For more information on Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Garden Foundation and schools, check out her website.



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