In season

November 25

In now: The first honey gold mangos will arrive this week from Katherine and Mataranka in the Northern Territory. These are my favourite of all the mangoes so it’s great news that the this season’s harvest is expected to be up a third on last year’s disappointing haul. Mangoes are always best bought by the tray, unmangled by shopper’s squeezing fingers.

At its best: In medieval Belgium a gift of cherries offered the same kind of invitation that might be made now with lacy lingerie. Now that they are so tasty should we bring back the cherry as carnal currency?

Best buy: Pick your own nectarines and peaches this weekend [29 and 30 November] at the Silm family’s Cedar Creek Orchard in Thirlmere. Bookings required, 4681 8457.

In the vegie patch: Pick off and bin brown lower leaves of tomato plants.

What else:

  • still plenty of broad beans around
  • mulberries, blackberries and boysenberries are treats
  • purple asparagus is available for a minute
  • cucumbers are a bargain
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praying mantis eating fly
Gardens

Gardening by numbers

In 1596 John Gerard published a catalogue of all the plants growing in his garden. It was the first plant catalogue ever, of either a private or public garden, and it listed a very impressive 1039 plants. Clearly not your average 16th century backyard. In fact, Gerard was a barber-surgeon with a good knowledge of healing herbs, and a skilled gardener. Something of a social climber, he also had the right contacts to get access to many of the exciting new plants arriving in Elizabethan England from all around the world. (One advantage of being so well-connected was that he was the first person in England to eat potatoes he’d grown himself. He declared them at least the equal of sweet potatoes.) The catalogue was advance publicity for his big book, The Herball.  Here’s Gerard on the  frontispiece, holding a flowering stem of potato. Continue reading

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In season

November 18

In now: Ripe honeydew has a waxy, cream-coloured skin and juicy flesh. It is sweetest at room temperature.

At its best: The mysterious mushroom increases its growth in response to barometric pressure, even in a climate-controlled shed. Salute the weirdness in salads and grills.

Best buy: The white and yellow-fleshed peaches grown on the NSW north coast and around the Hawkesbury are coming good.

In the vegie patch: The soft fresh leaves of kaffir lime are delicious finely shredded and scattered over anything Thai. Adults only – infuse leaves in vodka for a week. Discard leaves, experiment with a Christmas cocktail.

What else:

  • keep an eye out for Bel Oro melons which arrive in November
  • last chance for artichoke preservers
  • the Northern Territory mangoes are at their peak
  • look for Sydney-grown big sweet camerosa strawberries

 

 

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Lilac
Plants I love

Falling in love with the wrong plant

Any successful gardener will tell you that the easiest way to a great garden is to grow whatever loves the conditions you can provide. Grow shade seekers in the shade, don’t plant bog-lovers in sand, and stay clear of cold-climate lovelies if you live in most parts of Sydney. It’s so simple and so sensible. Yet how few of us fail to fall victim to some kind of plant envy!

For Japanese chef Hideo Dekura, the soft spot is fresh wasabi. The plant loves to grow in the fresh-running cold water and rich soil of Japanese snow-fed mountain streams.

wasabi

Not so easy to replicate in Chatswood, but Dekura has given it a go. More than once. An early attempt involved growing the wasabi root in a cool room in a refurbished fish tank that could move the water over the roots. The plant died; Dekura suspects the problem was that the water wasn’t fresh. I suspect it was more than that. Other Sydney-based wasabi aficionados have confessed that they water their potted specimens with ice cubes. Again, this seems to be a short-lived success, but if you’d like to try, Diggers has plants on offer. Its cultural notes are brief but encouraging – grow in cool, dense shade with constantly moist soil. Dekura is following the advice and so far his potted wasabi is going well.

Food is not the only passion. Perfume lovers buy brown boronia in spring to enjoy its much-vaunted scent, and then compost it, knowing it can’t easily be grown in a garden. I can’t resist the buy-then-watch-die drama of the brilliant blue West Australian Lechenaultia biloba. And then there’s the glory of the peony.

peony

Mickey Robertson, who gardens at Glenmore House in Camden, can’t say no to glimpses of Britain. Her bluebells finished on a westerly-blowing morning last month, just a fortnight after they bloomed. Growing them is a doomed endeavour: she planted two bulbs to start with and some 20 years later there are only a dozen, but there are sentimental reasons behind her crusade for a spring sea of bluebells. “My husband picked me a bunch of bluebells in a glade in Scotland and I fell in love with him so I have to grow them. I know I shouldn’t, but it’s only a tiny pocket.”

Perhaps it’s time to change the rule: plant what loves your conditions in most of your garden, and plant what you love where you can enjoy, however briefly, whatever it offers. Robertson routinely kills another must-grow British classic, lady’s mantle, Alchemilla mollis. “I have just got a new one and have it in a pot.” The ladies mantle won’t survive the summer, but if, before its death, droplets of rain pool and glitter on the leaves, and the plant offers up its froth of feathery flowers, “it will give me inordinate joy”, she says. What else is gardening for!

alchemilla mollis

 

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In season

November 11

In now: After harvest garlic is air-dried to cure it and allow for longer storage. Some growers are selling fresh, juicy, uncured heads now. Buy to use fresh.

Hard to find: Lemons are always in short supply at this time, and imported fruit from the US fills the gap. Savvy growers will have frozen some juice from their own harvest.

Best buy: Mangoes are late this year, but tray prices are finally encouraging.

In the vegie patch: Sweet corn germination can be patchy so sow two seeds to a hole. In case of double success, remove the weaker twin.

What else:

  • try a firm nectarine. It will crunch like an apple and though the juice won’t run down your chin, it still tastes good
  • bad weather has been affecting banana prices; but they are coming good now
  • keep an eye out for raspberries from Victoria
  • Victorian growers save their strawberries for Melbourne Cup celebrations, but once the race is run the fruit starts coming north
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Other people's gardens

Peter Gilmore’s garden

I was hoping that Peter Gilmore would offer to whip me up something for lunch. Just something simple, like this plate of peas:

Peter Gilmore

After all, how often do you get to be in garden (and kitchen) of one of the world’s great chefs!  Sadly, no lunch, but plenty of high quality snacking in the garden. And, as you’d expect the snacks on offer weren’t as straightforward as a cherry tomato ripe on the vine. First – silver sorrel.

Silver sorrel, Rumex scutatus

This is the silver-leafed form of true French sorrel, which is also called buckler-leaf sorrel, Rumex scutatus.  The pretty little heart-shaped leaves are blue-green with cloudy grey markings and they taste like sour green apples.

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Next, the creamy-lemon petals of a daylily called ‘Joan Senior’, which are sweet, with the faint onion bite of a leek. Par-cel, a hybrid of parsley and celery, tastes like the pale inner leaves of celery heart, but look like ruffled bright green parsley.

Par-cel

Unlike most gardeners, Gilmore, whose restaurant Quay, has been part of S. Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants for five years in a row, doesn’t grow food for the family. Instead, his four 10-metre long raised beds are experiments in flavour, texture and beauty. “I grow different things every season, things I haven’t tried before,” he says. “There’s so much to explore. This gives me a huge platform to surprise people.”  Here are the beds, the spring plantings just coming up, and the highly divided kale going to flower for future seed.

Peter Gilmore's garden

It was the humble pea that entwined Gilmore in a love of gardening. He writes in his new book, Organum (Murdoch, $100) about the awe of watching the seed develop and the revelation that all parts of the plant were edible at all stages of its development. (See dish above – hot buttered peas with fried pea blossoms, fresh bean, pea and carrot flowers and sprigs of agretti, which, following the current trend, is called Garden peas, cultured butter, sea salt, crisp pea blossom. )“Vegetable beds took over the garden,” he says. “I bought the kids a trampoline as compensation, but then I planted around and under that too.”

The goal of the garden is delicious novelties, which ironically enough are not new at all, just unknown. This season he has high hopes for an heirloom melon from Rajasthan. If it works out, he’ll pass his experience and seeds on to his growers, Tim and Elizabeth Johnstone, who’ll grow it for a season to get to know it, save the seed, then grow it the following year for use in the Quay kitchen.

The sources for his vegetative exploration are seed merchants: Diggers, Cornucopia and Eden here in Australia; Gourmet and Kitazawa in the US; Seedaholic in Ireland; and others, all stored in plastic containers in a cupboard in the kitchen.

Seed packets

Gilmore eschews seed-raising beds, preferring to sow direct into beds prepared with his own compost. Plants are mulched with lucerne, which feeds the soil as it breaks down, and the beds are rested for a month at the end of winter and refreshed with occasional cow manure.

Peter Gilmore

The garden also has space for an orchard, planted into hollow water pipes to mitigate against the very steep slope and poor soil. There are figs, pomegranate, Seville orange, West Indian lime, a purple-fleshed peach, apricots, a Cox’s orange pippin, and right down the bottom, a white mulberry. We pluck the ripe dangling fruit. It’s sweet and fragrant and has the surprise and elegance to score a role in a Peter Gilmore dish. ‘How good is that!’ he says with quiet satisfaction.

White mulberry. Morus alba

I’ll just have to get to Quay to see how they become lunch!

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