January in Stephanie Alexander's kitchen garden
Stephanie Alexander takes the Kitchen Garden Foundation story to Turin, receives princely praise and juggles bountiful summer crops.
It always surprises me how speedily the last weeks of the year collapse like dominoes. I tried hard not to be panicked by too-early carols and bunting, and to avoid crowds, so my Christmas gifts tended to be bought in calm surrounds – sweet-smelling plant nurseries, bookshops early in the morning or at the end of the day, or specialist food stores to get treats for food-loving friends.
I suspect the end of 2012 seemed faster than ever because I had several major events around the Kitchen Garden Foundation to manage. Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse fame and vice-president of Slow Food International, invited me, along with foundation CEO, Ange Barry, to attend a panel on global food education in Turin. Every two years Slow Food hosts Terra Madre in Italy, a sort of global coming-together of many Slow Food representatives to discuss and raise awareness of global food issues.
Alice suggested that the panel variously address six guiding principles of an edible education manifesto. Our topic was public policy. The single factor that made our presentation surprising to many of the standing room-only crowd was the degree to which our work is supported by government, and recognised as an effective preventative health measure. We are very aware of the responsibility this brings and are deeply grateful. Without it the spread of our work would be greatly diminished.
And it was the extent of the program that impressed the Prince of Wales when he visited. Just back from Turin, I was then off to meet the Prince and the Duchess of Cornwall at Kilkenny Primary School, about 20 minutes from Adelaide. What a marvellous invitation. The Prince is well known for his deep interest in organics and sustainability. Kilkenny is an outstanding school and it certainly put its best foot forward. The sun shone, the garden was green and inviting. The Prince and Duchess strolled under an archway of grapevines, toured the vegetable beds, chatted to the young gardeners, admired the compost bins (truly!), then came to the kitchen via the chicken run and extensive orchard. The well-organised year-seven students were ready. They had done quite a bit of preparation, but every student was busy chopping, or stirring, or folding, or filling as the royal couple arrived. The Prince beamed as he complimented us on a wonderful program. On hearing of our level of government support he hinted that maybe I should visit the UK and try the same tactics. (It was a lighthearted aside, but the press pack nearby wondered whether he had invited me to visit Clarence House. He did not.) He pronounced the leek, fennel and broad bean risotto “frightfully good”.
Finally to my own backyard. As I walk around my neighbourhood I admire several gardens displaying banks of sweetly scented gardenias. They seem to grow in these gardens as readily as mine grows nasturtiums. I did not have tomatoes for Christmas, but the first were just a few weeks later. I have so many tomato plants and I hope the season extends for a few months. Last summer I made a big pot of roasted tomato sauce and froze it in smallish batches. It was a fantastic resource.
I found it difficult to tear down the sweet peas that had been so enchanting for weeks but they were finishing and I needed the supports for climbing yellow beans. (I saved the seed, though.) For the past three years I’ve had bumper crops from two different varieties of yellow bean: Kingston Gold and Golden Wax Pole. I love them and have found it nearly impossible to find commercially available yellow bush beans or climbing beans that are tender and sweet. Even home-grown ones toughen after one day in the refrigerator, so it is a ritual for me to boil them within an hour or so of picking and enjoy them drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil. For an extra treat I make a summer salad of the beans mixed with small waxy potatoes, a few anchovies and a shower of freshly chopped parsley.
The capsicum plants from last year have put out plenty of new leaves. I was very doubtful about keeping these bare sticks all through winter and spring, but my gardener was right and I was wrong.
I’ve netted my doughnut peach tree and have high hopes the first crop will ripen without attack. The first yellow peaches and nectarines were delicious. I’ve had more trellising added to my carport and hope I have now excluded another possum corridor. Birds are starting to spy red strawberries in my hanging baskets. I’m growing two varieties of zucchini: a small round one and my favourite ridged Romanesco. They love the heat and respond with ever more fruit. Early in the morning is the time to pick the wide open male flowers. I store them in the fridge wrapped in damp kitchen paper to make a delicious appetiser. I have several recipes for stuffing zucchini flowers in The Kitchen Garden Companion (my favourite includes mortadella sausage), but they don’t have to be stuffed. Twist the petals closed, dip into light batter or simply a whisked egg, then panko crumbs and shallow-fry in olive oil.
By the time you read this you will be planning to welcome 2013. I have a good feeling about this new year. Happy New Year.
PHOTOGRAPHY DAVID FOOTE
This article is from the January 2013 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.