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March

It has been so good to feast on my own garlic over the summer. Mine was the pink variety and I proudly tied my harvest of just 12 bulbs to dry under the eaves of my shed. And what a difference there is between these crisp, juicy cloves and the dried-out, yellowish cloves of much of the available garlic imported from all manner of places. I will have to find more room in a couple of months to plant an even larger crop ensuring a more prolific harvest the following summer. To augment my crop I bought plenty of local garlic at the farmers' markets.

A few years ago, holidaying in the Basque town of Hondarribia, I was delighted by the local way of cooking fish with very fresh garlic. Each clove was cut lengthwise into thin slices. The whole fish was pan-fried in olive oil over a moderate heat with plenty of the sliced garlic. The hot oil and garlic were spooned over the fish as it cooked and the garlic was not allowed to do more than faintly colour, so the slices were sweet, aromatic and just a little bit crisp. A shower of parsley at the very last minute and the fish was served with its cooking juices: the perfect sauce. This is an excellent way to cook leather­jacket or a  fillet of snapper.

Happily, tomatoes are a success story this year after the dismal crop in 2011. Star performers are rouge de Marmande, black Krim and the astonishing unidentified plant bought as "patio tomato", which, as reported earlier, not only filled one of my vegetable boxes but has continued to tumble almost to the ground bearing several hundred small fruit, each larger and less regular in shape than a cherry tomato. I feared the branches would break but they did not. I have been able to pick a large handful for breakfast every couple of days for weeks now. My "unknown" oxheart seedling, gathered and propagated from a slice of a delicious tomato, fruited but did not produce the oxheart variety I expected.

I have an espaliered Jonathan apple tree which has yielded one solitary apple. On the other hand, my single quince tree is laden. As I mentioned last month I'm going to make several classic apple recipes using quince, always allowing extra time for the fruit to cook. Last year at the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, Cath Claringbold demonstrated a delicious pickle made from pink lady apples, ginger and cider vinegar. I made it using the first of my ripe quince and it was very good (although it took a lot longer to cook). Quince crumble and quince pie have been voted successful. I am now going to make quince Charlotte. Instead of cooking the fruit in a tightly lidded pan on top of the stove (as for apples), I'll cook it in a covered casserole in the oven to reduce the risk of burning, before filling the buttered-bread-lined mould.

The basil bushes have become very straggly. The new season's pesto is safely made and stored. I used the last jar of last season's harvest to make a delicious pesto and caramelised onion tart for a party over summer. Another favourite late-summer tart uses crisp pre-cooked puff pastry and a thin layer of either pesto or goat's cheese overlaid with thickly sliced or halved peeled figs. Drizzle with a little vincotto or balsamic vinegar and bake for 15 minutes in a very hot oven. Serve with slices of jamón or prosciutto and a salad of soft green leaves.

My little peach tree yielded about 60 lovely peaches; the nectarines maybe about the same. (Regular readers may recall that I had to thin all the fruit quite drastically in late spring.) My gardener made me a very simple fruit "cage" using netting on a polypipe frame. The netting is held well away from the trees and can be lifted on its frame for easy inspection and picking of the fruit. The reward has been a magnificent crop with absolutely no bird attack. The peaches were delicious, about two-thirds the size of most peaches in the shops, but soft and flowing with juice. I picked the peaches and nectarines at the first sign of some give and after 24 hours inside they were perfectly ripe.

I changed my mind about growing pumpkins this year and now have two heirloom potimarron plants growing under the lemon tree. I am training the vines upwards until they can be supported by the lowest branches of the lemon tree. It will be a wonderful and rather crazy sight to see orange pumpkins hanging among the lemons. Or so I hope. Hasn't happened yet.

This month sees the publication of my memoir, A Cook's Life, a record of a life lived amid food and friends, referencing many personal and travel experiences. Exploring my own past has been a fascinating and emotional experience, and I hope the book accurately reflects the 40-plus years I have lived and worked in the hospitality sector as well as giving insight into more personal matters.

Until next time.

PHOTOGRAPHY ARMELLE HABIB

This article is from the March 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.

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