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June

I see that many cafés are now advertising that they grow some of their own produce, which is an encouraging sign that more cooks and chefs are becoming interested in working with truly seasonal produce. One of the first to do so was the Observatory Café in Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens. The vegetable garden was started 12 years ago and it is now very well established with mature citrus trees and several beds currently planted with brassicas. In mid-autumn, after a walk around The Tan, I admired a magnificent trained fig tree covering a hot north-facing wall.

The replanted kitchen garden at the Heide Museum of Modern Art has greatly extended its crops for Shannon Bennett's use at Café Vue at Heide. On a recent visit to view the Mirka Mora exhibition, I noticed that there were slender beans in profusion in the garden. I had hoped for a salad of green beans in some form, but maybe the crop was destined for somewhere else?

I attended a very special lunch at Old Parliament House in Canberra hosted by chef Janet Jeffs and featuring produce picked from two of our Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden primary schools, Berrima in NSW and Majura in the ACT. The first course was a stunning platter of antipasti featuring a carpaccio of beetroot, sweet-and-sour pumpkin, freshly picked corn and a salad of baby spinach leaves. Next came a version of Janni Kyritsis's wild weed pie and organically raised rare-breed pork, and, finally, Eve's pudding made from a selection of old apple varieties. Absolutely scrumptious! The children brought tears to many eyes as they unselfconsciously spoke of their enthusiasm for "getting dirty", and how their favourite dishes ranged from pumpkin soup to beetroot and chocolate muffins. This could be the future if we can encourage more parents to urge their local school to aspire to a fully integrated kitchen garden program.

By the time this column appears I will be enjoying some time in England, so I had to do a last circuit of my garden and anticipate what I would find on my return. All of the seeds in the hothouse have germinated and one of my final tasks before leaving was to plant out the broccoli, the spring onions, the purple and yellow peas, and, of course, the garlic. One of my apple-crate gardens was planted last winter with pink and white flowering strawberries. They have been prolific all summer and into autumn, but the decision now is to separate the runners and plant them in a different location. They are now to be an edging plant in the front garden, and, true to their name, will be mulched with straw to protect the establishing plants during the winter. I do hope they enjoy their new location.

Just before I left, our senior project officer delighted me by locating some seeds of collard greens: Georgia collards, in fact. This loose-hearted plant is a member of the kale family and grows as a bouquet of dark leaves with thickish stems. Collards taste cabbage-like and are associated with the cooking of the American Deep South where they are boiled with pork - often pickled pork - and served with the "pot likker". They are also the green preferred in Portugal to make the speciality caldo verde, a soupy stew that combines shredded collards with potatoes and sometimes spicy sausage.

I looked up my vegetable bible Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini by the incomparable Elizabeth Schneider and, as always, received much enlightenment. Collards are sautéed in mustard oil with a bit of broth and chilli in India, and cooked with rice and ginger in Jamaica. I also found a very exotic-sounding recipe for Ethiopian spiced collards with buttermilk curds. I will try this when my collards have grown, but not having an easy source of real buttermilk, I'll substitute labne.

On my return there will not be a great deal that is ready to pick. That old stalwart silverbeet will be available, as will some beet leaves, and chard leaves, and with any luck my very first miniature cauliflowers will be ready to pick. Perhaps there will be some carrot thinnings for a delicate treat. But the climbing snow peas will still be climbing, as will the broad beans, and the leeks will be filling out. I planted a generous quantity of leeks very close together, so I will be able to pull every second one and enjoy it as a youngster, leaving its neighbours to grow fatter.

My gardener and I have spent a delightful hour salivating over a gardening catalogue giving details of the new roses being released. I have room for three new roses and it's so hard to choose. I love them all, or nearly all. The only colour that I cannot warm to is the lilac rose. For some reason it reminds me of the plaster roses one sees in cemeteries. But deep-red, or rose-pink, or apricot, or cream, or sunshine yellow, the choice is bewildering. Whatever I finally choose, every rose must have a scent.

Until next time.

PHOTOGRAPHY ARMELLE HABIB

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

MORE INFO

For more information on Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Garden Foundation and schools, check out her website.

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