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March

Looking back over my January and February columns I have to confess that anticipating what will happen in a garden is fraught with traps. What looked like becoming bumper crops were stopped in their tracks by unseasonably cold, wet weather in Victoria followed by days of high humidity in early to mid-summer. Compared with the previous year the garden has been slow to produce and I am not the only vegetable gardener complaining about sulky, slow growth.

The roses all have black spot. I have trimmed away the diseased leaves and am pleased that the new growth looks healthy.

Although the miniature fruit trees are having an "off" year, the crabapples are laden and already a glorious colour. The ornamental grapevine leaves are also just starting to colour. Long gone is the time to use new and tender leaves as wrappers, but I still pick them to line the cheese platter. I was just about to harvest two pepino fruit but a possum got there first, leaving me just the stems still attached to the bush.

Although the peach harvest was disappointing I did make some vin de pêche using 60 of the new leaves picked in late December infused with a bottle of white wine, with 100 grams of sugar and half a cup of brandy added a week later. My vin  de pêche has now matured and will be served in a slim tumbler with some crushed ice. It has the scent of bitter almonds.

Best to add either a slice of fresh peach or a teaspoon of peach liqueur to the glass.

My French tarragon has become rampant. Funny how once I would have described it as a delicate herb and tricky to grow. Mine has decided it likes its position and has spread thickly. I have had plenty of chicken-with-tarragon dishes, and flathead tails poached with tarragon are also a winning combination. I have stuffed two half-litre sterilised bottles with tarragon sprigs and filled the bottles with good-quality white wine vinegar. In a couple of months my tarragon vinegar will be the base of a rich sauce béarnaise, an indulgent but stunning accompaniment to a fillet of beef. My misshapen and elderly lemon tree is once again laden. I think I will freeze some of the juice as there is a limit to how much marmalade and preserved lemon I can use, and everyone I offer lemons to seems to have their own tree.

Planning for the cooler months and even for far-off spring means getting some seeds started in my hothouse. Look at the website adloheat.com.au for good small hothouses.

I will start seeds of broccoli, leeks and small cabbages, and lots and lots of carrots.

I am enjoying my very first almond harvest - only four handfuls but they were delicious. Not a sign of a cockatoo in my suburb. I missed the moment for the immature nuts which was probably around November. At that time they can be thinly sliced, both soft husk and inner nut, and served as a delicacy with a piece of Roquefort cheese, or, as I had once upon a time, many years ago, slivered over a perfect poached peach.

My friend Tony Tan came to help me harvest my first ever crop of galangal. In a 60cm pot I have about a dozen rhizomes. The leaves can be used to flavour rice, Tony says, or as a wrapper for fish. Galangal was a mystery to me and I watched fascinated as this master of Asian flavours made me a very special sambal that I have called Tony's magic sambal. He chopped two parts trimmed galangal with one part hot chilli, one part red shallot and two cloves of garlic and added one tablespoon of soaked dried shrimp. Ten minutes later, all was fried in vegetable oil with final additions of palm sugar, fish sauce and juice from a lemon. It made an exciting and unusual dressing for one of my rouge de Marmande tomatoes.

Galangal is just one of the crops featured in Tropical Cuisine, a wonderful new book by Clare Richards. (She says galangal can be trimmed and frozen.) Stunningly illustrated, the book has an index of fruits and vegetables familiar to those living in sub-tropical and tropical Australia, comprehensive notes on selection, preparation and storage, and a selection of recipes using each ingredient. I wrote a short foreword, saying that this book fills a niche in the cookbook market and each page breathes authenticity and experience. To purchase a copy ($59.95, hbk), visit www.tropicalcuisine.com.

Speaking of the tropics, like many others not directly affected by the dreadful floods and Cyclone Yasi, I look on with horror at the tragic devastation and know that my only inconveniences will be having less stone fruit and paying a lot more for bananas. My heart goes out to all who have lost homes and crops, and I can barely comprehend the effort and resolve that will be needed for the rebuilding. Many of the school vegetable gardens that are part of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation program have been washed away and precious seedlings waiting to be planted in the new school year have gone. But, like many resolute Queenslanders, the staff tell us they are ready and willing to start again.

After anticipating crops that failed to eventuate in our strange summer, I am not going to prophesy this time. I am going to enjoy the soft days of autumn, sitting under the shade of my grapevine, perhaps sipping a glass of vin de pêche.

Until next time.

PHOTOGRAPHY ARMELLE HABIB

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

MORE INFO

For information on Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Garden Foundation and schools program, visit the Kitchen Garden Foundation website.

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