Monday, April 30, 2012

Preserving Day

by Cressida Hall

Although I grew up in the country I don’t have any childhood memories of my mother bottling fruit, making jam or pickling vegetables.  My family have been universally blessed with black thumbs so we never had a surfeit of produce that needed preserving.  In my friend Petra’s house it was a different matter altogether.  Magda, her mother, was Czech and an inveterate preserver and grower of fruits.  Indeed she’d converted her double suburban Canberra lot into a most prolific orchard where she grew several varieties of plums, along with cherries, nectarines, peaches, apricots, pears, apples and crab apples.  She was a crazy good gardener so there was always a lot of fruit to preserve.  Her stove-top Fowler’s Vacola set was probably her most used kitchen utensil, followed closely by the baking tray on which she made two fruit strudels every second day.  Somehow (perhaps driven by my gluttony) we’d end up at Petra’s house each day after school where we’d eat strudel and hot chips, not together, as our after school snack.  Heaven.

Along with snacks Petra’s house was also my designated go-to place in case of nuclear disaster.  For in her kitchen Magda had a giant, dark cupboard literally groaning under the weight of hundreds of ancient bottles of preserved fruit.  She was also a keen adopter of wild cats so I figured that I’d have protein, fruit and a handy source of fur in case of total world annihilation.  Nuclear Armageddon aside I’d always admired Magda’s prodigious skill at preserving, and how she used these gems to ensure that she always had something delicious to offer visitors, even of the ravening teenage kind.  

And so, nostalgic for someone else’s family, I decided to attend one of the Fruit and Nut Tree Network’s seasonal preserving classes taught by Anne Elliott.  There were five of us in the class – myself, Kat, Suzanne, Marta who’d come all the way from Bathurst and Antonio who was visiting from South Australia.  Marta who must be as talented a gardener as Petra’s mother brought with her home grown figs, lemons, persimmons and medlars while Anne had provided huge bowls of kiwi fruit and pears for preserving.  I’d never seen a medlar before and concerned to get the spelling right was amused to find the following dictionary description of them:
A small tree of the rose family, the fruit of which resembles a crab apple and is not edible until the early stages of decay.
I guess we now know what Marta meant when she called them a ‘particular taste’.


And so the preserving began.  We all peeled and chopped fruit, put rubber seals onto sterilized preserving bottles, and attempted, remarkably unsuccessfully, to arrange the fruit in beautiful patterns in the preserving jars.  Jars filled, syrup poured in, air bubbles removed, lids clipped on and seals checked by the heart-in-mouth method of turning the jar upside down, our first batch of fruit was ready for an hour in the electric vacola set.  And we were ready for some of Anne’s scones, jams and pickles.  Repast over we started furiously on the pears.  

A mere two hours after arriving we’d preserved five bottles of kiwi fruit and six of pears, perhaps not my fruit of choice for a strudel but if you’ve any stone fruits languishing in a cupboard here’s a rough approximation of Magda’s hunger busting strudel.

Strudel Recipe
1. a tray holds two strudels so you should always make two.
2. take filo pastry and brush each layer with a small amount of melted butter, sprinkle every second layer with some sugar and chopped nuts
3. when you think the pasty is thick enough put some preserved fruit along the longest side of the pastry leaving a fruit free section at each end.  Don’t use too much fruit, this is not a fat strudel.
4. roll the fruit up in the filo ensuring that the edge of the pastry is underneath the strudel.  Don’t worry about folding over the short ends leaving them open allows some of the preserved fruit’s juice to escape onto the baking pan where it will caramelise beautifully (this is Magda’s method, not mine!)
5. place on baking tray and sprinkle with sugar.
6. repeat all of above – remember two strudels are better than one
7. bake until done.  If you leave it in the kitchen on the tray over the next two days it will not only disappear but the pastry will ‘wilt’ delightfully


Saturday, April 28, 2012

Postcard from the USA

Lots happening here on the east coast of the USA. It's Spring.

Strawberries are flowering in New York City. See the patch in the community where I've been staying on Staten Island. There are berry plants on trellises behind them. The community has several houses and the fences are pulled down between them. They have chickens, vegetables and herb plots as well as fruit trees.

Here, in rural Virginia where I'm staying right now, you can see lots and lots of strawberry plants in front of the solar panels on the Twin Oaks community farm. This area of gardens is flanked by rows of grapes, not caught in the photo. Each day we enjoy crab apple jelly and apple sauce, pumpkin jam and other delicious preserves made last year.

The top of the Twin Oaks' old barn will be used to dry fruit later in summer. You can just see the empty drying racks leaning through the central door. The community makes hammocks, tofu and other soy products. The community cuts and dries timber and does some carpentry for their own use.
Back in NYC citrus plants have been pulled out from their winter basement protection to sit in the unseasonably warm weather these last couple of months. You'll notice the hot house window being constructed behind.

This morning I spent a few hours touring and weeding at the Living Energy Farm. Alexis showed us around. He loves his fruit and nut plants and has hundreds planted. He runs grafting and other workshops which have proved very popular.

Great to see the activities rolling along in the Blue Mountains!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Delicious Preserving Traditions

This Saturday brings the next highly popular series of preserving workshops hosted by  Blue Mountains Slow Food convivium leader Anne Elliot. Anne’s been an advocate for living locally and enjoying ourselves as we do, in this case by creating a storage fruit that can be eaten all through winter which also looks gorgeous on the shelves. Anne’s passionate about preserving food and a wealth of information and recipes. I asked Anne how long she’d been using Fowler’s Vacola “I have been using this system for around 18 months now, but have fond memories of watching my mother use it to preserve all kinds of surplus , seasonal fruits and vegetables when growing-up in country south-west New South Wales.  My father often visited a lot of the local farms, and the Italian farmers, being always-generous, would give my father boxes of produce.  We had lovely wooden boxes filled with local fruit, for example, stored in our laundry!” 

There are electric and stove top systems with Fowler's.  Anne will be demonstrating use of the electric Fowlers Preserving System, which she loves because “it is so quick and easy for people feeling a bit 'rushed'  - dare I say!”. Bringing these sorts of systems bang up to date is a great way to help a new generation of preservers to get started. These days so much food goes to waste and ends up in landfill. In NSW alone households throw out $2.5 Billion worth of food. Preserving your fruit at home is a great simple way to help prevent so much food going to waste as well as creating sweet treats to be  on hand in your larder or kitchen cupboard to enjoy all year round without having to ship them in from far away.

There are loads of other ways of preserving of course, and different cultures have developed a myriad of preservation techniques for especially loved or nutritionally valued fruits to see them through the winter. These age old traditions including using salt to preserve lemons which the Fruit and Nut Tree Network featured here last year as part of A Kitchen Garden in Every Blue Mountains Home. You can still download full instructions at Slow Food Blue Mountains.  Making relishes and chutneys is another form of preserving, either your harvest or seasonal fruits in the shop when they are in season, in plentiful supply and in therefore in tip top condition for preserving. Anne just recently made another two batches of fantastic "tomato relish, using discarded tomatoes  (doesn't matter if they are a little over-ripe for this.)  This is a GREAT VERY OLD  RECIPE AND SOOOO EASY" she enthuses.
(folks in the lower mountains may consider sharing any remaining tomato bounty with those of us who were less fortunate in the tomato growing season this year - hint! - Kat)

CONNIE'S TOMATO RELISH  (Can always divide this to make smaller quantities)
6kgs tomatoes
1/2 cup salt
2kgs onions
2 kgs sugar
Paste:  4 tablespoons cornflour, 2 tablespoons curry powder, 1 teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ginger (mix with some water to form a watery paste)
3/4 bottle vinegar
Soak chopped  tomatoes and onions overnight in salt.  Drain off liquid.  Add vinegar and sugar.  Boil for 1/2 hour.  Take off stove, add paste, simmer until thick.
Bottle while still warm in sterilised jars.

Coming along to the workshop on Saturday? call and book in 0423 109270 or email - I'll see you there, with my fruit, knife and pinny! 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Fruits of a Food Forest

At the beginning of April, I visited Milkwood's Open Day on their farm out in Mudgee. A glorious whirlwind tour, speed-dating appropriate sustainable technologies including the  now classic rocket stove shower and oh so nearly completed earth bag building with gorgeous natural rendering. A couple of technologies were immediately standout useful for fruit and nut tree growers everywhere. First up a nifty greywater treatment specifically designed for fruit tree establishment.

On this farm work preparing the ground gets started long before before the tree is even planted in giant pits of woodchips, at least a meter square on the intended growing site. Greywater from their ample teaching shed is directed into these pits which over time collect nutrients rich enough to help a young fruit tree get a helping hand later planted in there.  It’s just one example of many small strategies that Nick, Kirsten and their growing team on this farm are making in the day to day practice that ultimately make a big difference to their lives and livelihoods. 

Nestled in a native forest themselves, they’re establishing a food forest filled with fruit trees and bushes along with lots of other herbs and native trees. In this way all the plants and creatures that live in this specially designed ecosystem have particular roles to play to keep it healthy with a minimum amount of work (hurrah) or expensive fertilizers (yay!) and instead all are working to support each other. 

And if you're thinking about planting an orchard sized property you'd save a heap of time using this fabulous seed ball maker to get those supportive species going. Dan Pascall Harris now works with this developing food forest, which contains a surprising number of nitrogen fixing wattles. The seeds are collected from local trees so they're better adapted to the local conditions here than ‘natives’ brought in from outside. Using these and other ideas of food forest design, in a few short years of its existence there is already a feeling of liveability in its interior, a sense that this little food forest has already begun project is own personality, and perhaps that is one outward sign of its resilience.

Tomorrow evening Permaculture Blue Mountains presents Nick Ritar from Milkwood Permaculture. Find out more about more about one farm’s experience of learning to live abundantly and respectfully within a native forest.

Creating Abundance in a Native Forest starts at 7:30 start Lawson Bowling Club.  

The Sustainability Talks are part of a series of talks films and workshops run by volunteers, talks are completely Free for PBM members, $5 for non members.

Milkwood Permaculture run inspirational and practical courses helping to create food forests using permaculture strategies, find them at

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Underneath the spreading chestnut trees

After so many weeks of incessant rain, two clear days in a row has become almost unheard of in the mountains. It's a rare day of sunshine then that welcomes my first outing to an Kookootonga chestnut farm. Being from the UK where few chestnuts are safe from squirrels, mice pigeons, pheasants to name but a few, I'm relishing the idea that these trees have no natural 'predators' here, and hoping to find more than an occasional spiky casing still full of nutty treasure. No squirrels here, but plenty of squirrelling, as we find scores of families, bucket in hand visitors by the coach load. Whether from New Zealand Taiwan and Singapore all are chestnut lovers together scouring the grass beneath the trees in search of perfect nuts. Off we go!

There are nuts everywhere, and its easy to get picky about which ones to take. The chestnuts vary in size considerably and some are split out through the shells, a growth pattern resulting from this year's continuous summer downpours. We're cautious of the split nuts at first but soon think its work the effort of trying them out, after all, no need to score them before cooking. While there are heaps of vehicles outside, its easy to walk a solitary path through these lovely spreading trees and its after about half an hour of foraging that we head back into a more populated area to weigh in. An impressive line of families visiting from Blacktown show us how its done as they sweep through the paddock. "Just get the big ones!" I hear a father call to his children, "quickly". This wiggly little line of people draws back through the trees like a line of foam marking the tide receding from shore, only the smallest nuts left in its wake. 

My efforts today bring in about 3 kilos. Back in the kitchen out come small sharp knives, essential for scoring the back before roasting or boiling, so that they don't explode. There are a few different ways to do this, we score a cross covering 2/3 of the flat surface before roasting for a tasty lunchtime treat.

Fresh Chestnuts must be kept in the fridge and don't last long making them a rare seasonal treat, although there are a few ways to preserve this particular harvest including delicious traditional marron glacĂ©. Kookootonga farm at Mt Irvine has a few varieties of chestnuts which extends the season a little; the 'easy peelers' develop a little later and are still available til around April 21st.


We can harvest a wide range of fruits and nuts locally each season.

Local fruit and/or nut gardeners are invited to make additions or suggest modifications to the following work-in-progress compiled by Lizzie Connor.


Across the mountains: loquat, mulberry, rhubarb, strawberry and (in late spring) raspberry

Best in the lower mountains: avocado, jaboticaba, lemonade


Across the mountains: apricot, blueberry, boysenberry, cherry, currant (red, black, white), gooseberry, kumquat, loganberry, loquat, mulberry,nectarine, peach, plum, raspberry, rhubarb, strawberry and (in late summer) almond, apple, fig, hazelnut, passionfruit, pear (incl. nashi), pomegranate, youngberry

Best in lower mountains:lemon (Eureka), lemonade, lime, mandarin, orange, persimmon (non-astringent) and (in late summer) avocado, babaco, macadamia, rockmelon, wampee, watermelon

Best in upper mountains: jostaberry, lemon (Meyer), persimmon (astringent)


Across the mountains: almond, apple, chestnut, feijoa, fig, grape, hazel, kiwi fruit, kumquat, medlar, olive, passionfruit, pear (incl. nashi), plum, quince, raspberry (some), rhubarb, strawberry, strawberry guava, walnut

Best in lower mountains: avocado, babaco, cherimoya, grapefruit, lemon (Eureka), macademia, monstera deliciosa, orange, pine nut, pistachio, rockmelon, tamarillo, walnut, watermelon, white sapote

Best in upper mountains: lemon (Meyer), mandarin (Satsuma)


Across the mountains: apple, hazelnut, kiwi fruit, kumquat, pear (incl. nashi)

Best in lower mountains: grapefruit, lemon (Eureka), orange, tangelo

Best in upper mountains: avocado (Bacon), lemon (Meyer)