June in Stephanie Alexander's kitchen garden
Stephanie Alexander admires the rows of chicory, avenues of olive groves and trees heavy with pomegranates at Rose Creek Estate in suburban Melbourne.
Many of my friends have already visited Rose Creek Estate, a family vineyard and farm created with passion and unbelievable hard work by Tony and Lina Siciliano and their children on three hectares of steeply sloping land in suburban East Keilor, less than 30 minutes from the centre of Melbourne.
The Sicilianos have recreated the lifestyle that they knew from their life in Italy, specifically their home town of Varapodio in Calabria. In Italy, land was highly valued and you were obliged to cultivate it and to live on what it produced. The Sicilianos rarely buy a vegetable, and after a wonderful tour of the gardens with Lina and Tony, I’m not surprised. Many Italian and Greek migrants to this country cultivated crops in their back and front gardens, but few would have had access to as much land as the Sicilianos.
The original property was bought 30 years ago, slap bang in the middle of Melbourne suburbia, and when neighbouring land became available Tony bought that too. Lina says the property then was bare save for rocks and weeds. I believe her, though looking around at this verdant landscape it’s difficult to do so. Now there are avenues of vineyards that Tony tends and son Angelo turns into lovely wines. I sipped a glass of the dry rosé at an afternoon tea a week or so later – delicious accompanied by a nut cake.
There are at least seven varieties of figs planted, and avenues of olive trees – the most recent pressing of oil won the champion ribbon at the 2011 Royal Hobart Fine Food Awards. Tony crushes the olives himself using a very small machine he imported from Italy. There’s an extensive two-metre-high poultry run with all manner of hens, roosters, guinea fowl and peacocks, and the vegetable garden is similarly expansive. My visit was in autumn and there were plenty of tomatoes still on the vines. Lina says that last year she picked her last tomato in mid-July!
I was jealous of her many scarlet capsicum; my own have sulked this year and refused to colour. Lina says her bushes are four years old and still producing. Everything was lush and so healthy. Enormous pomegranates, bursting figs, heavy bunches of grapes, a tree laden with cedro – a citrus beloved in Sicily where it is candied, sliced thinly and used to decorate cassata.
The last borlotti and another podding bean were drying on the bushes, giant globular eggplant Lina identified as violetta were as large and round as baseballs. Rows and rows of chicory and broccoli were already in the ground, and the first broad beans were ready to pick. Mine are just starting to grow.
Wherever I looked there was a mix of the familiar and the unknown. Many varieties of tomato or bean or oregano were identified in dialect and would be impossible for others to find. The Sicilianos save their own seeds to keep their preferred varieties growing. They sell their produce at several Melbourne farmers’ markets, including the Collingwood Children’s Farm market and the Slow Food market at the Abbotsford Convent, and most generously open their estate for people to visit. I came away with a basket laden with samples, a recipe for peperonata and another for Lina’s favourite way to cure olives, and with boundless admiration and astonishment at the energy of the family and the output of the estate.
Suitably inspired, I’ve planted chicory under my lemon tree and am interested to see how it fares. I do enjoy these bitter Italian greens, usually softened with olive oil, and maybe mixed with something else. Rosa Mitchell, another fine Italian cook with a love of traditional recipes, has just published a lovely book, Rosa’s Farm, and in it she has a recipe for blanched chicory sautéed with cooked potato in olive oil. Delicious, and as she says, it makes a beautiful frittata.
I’ve had great success with broadcasting mixed lettuce seed in a wine barrel. The baby lettuces have germinated over quite a few weeks and I can go out with a bowl and scissors and cut myself a salad of the most advanced leaves knowing there will be more tomorrow. Having pulled up the summer-flowering petunias, I shall refresh the soil in their pots and broadcast more salad seeds.
It’s time to spray the bare fruit trees with Bordeaux spray, a fungicide. This essential preventitive measure must be finished before there’s any sign of an opening flower bud or a new leaf. I’ve added a doughnut peach to my mini-mini-orchard. This year I’m going to try bagging fruit in addition to protecting it with the net I’ve had constructed on a polypipe frame. The net can be dropped over the miniature trees like a curtain. If only the birds and the possums could understand that I’m willing to share, but I object to a bite being taken out of almost every fruit.
Until next time.
PORTRAIT ARMELLE HABIB
This article is from the June 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.