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Stephanie Alexander’s garden has kept her busy this month – shelling almonds, picking climbing beans and competing with possums for her Jonathan apples.
Armelle Habib

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

There has been such an abundance of produce in recent months. My tomatoes have yielded litres and litres of roasted tomato sauce, and for weeks I’ve been enjoying a tomato bruschetta or salad most days. Melbourne’s extraordinary late heatwave encouraged more fruit on the eggplant bushes and prolific crops of chillies, and I found it difficult to keep up with picking the climbing beans before they turned into overgrown specimens. In fact, some did, and I think I’ll experiment with them as shelling beans.

I also have a proper crop of shelling beans drying on a hessian bag. The yellow papery pods contain small beige beans with coffee-coloured markings. I was given seeds of these by Lina Siciliano of Rose Creek farm. They’re known as madamola in Sicilian dialect. Lina picks them and freezes them and either uses them for wintry bean dishes or saves them to replant in the spring. I’ll use them to make a minestrone once the weather cools down.

I needed to research something other than ratatouille to use my glut of green capsicum. As autumn settled in it was not very likely my crop would do much more colouring, but even though the flesh was still green these capsicum had soaked up so much sunshine they were sweet rather than bitter. With the skin scorched on the barbecue and lifted off, capsicum are also more digestible. The fleshier the peppers are, the better they will be.

Roasted peeled green capsicum have so much character they’d be good paired with something with a powerful flavour, such as grilled octopus or grilled chorizo. I cast my mind back to memories of a lunch cooked in a cazuela by a Spanish friend. It started with sections of green capsicum, olive oil and a handful of whole home-grown garlic cloves. After about half an hour, with a bit of gentle shaking now and then, the capsicum and garlic were soft and caramelised, and the capsicum skins just slid off at the first touch of a fork. My friend added a jointed chicken, but without the chicken this combination would make an excellent bruschetta.

I turned to Paula Wolfert’s book Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, and loosely followed her suggestion for a warm salad: a salad based on home-grown, roasted peeled green capsicum mixed with crushed garlic and chopped very ripe tomatoes and seasoned with preserved lemon flesh, cumin, olive oil, salt and pepper. I left it for half an hour to allow the olive oil to mingle with all the other flavours. It was absolutely superb, and the slivers of preserved lemon added the special touch.

I’m still using segments of preserved lemon from a batch I made and stored in a two-litre plastic bucket two years ago: this should give comfort to those who worry about the longevity of their preserves. My preserved lemons have long since ceased to be yellow. They’re bronze and set solid in a jelly of their own salty juices. I have to prise a piece from the mass, and the preserved peel is very, very fragile, like very old fabric: the flavour, though, is unbelievable.

Elsewhere in the garden my six Tolley’s upright olive trees are in place, and I hovered over them during the heatwave, heaving buckets of water over them and sending positive messages that they could survive it. So far so good. This year my small espaliered Jonathan apple tree produced three fruit. The possums tried the first two, but I ate the third and it was crisp and tart and delicious. My pears would never win any beauty prizes. The skins were rough and shapes bumpy, and there were just six of them. But peeled and sliced and accompanied by some shavings of good parmesan they were a treat.

I’ve gathered my almonds and shelled them. My study overlooks the sunny front garden, and I watched one day as a stranger stood for five minutes picking the almonds from my tree. I couldn’t bear the embarrassment of accosting him, but it did make me decide to harvest the remaining crop the next morning.

I’m starting to plan the presentations I will make in Ireland later this month. I’ve been invited to speak at the Taste Council of Ireland’s summer school at Ballymaloe in Cork. Although the Taste Council is mostly concerned with promoting food education in the secondary sector, they’re interested in the experience I’ve had in developing the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, which provides fun education to primary schoolchildren on food and gardening.

The Australian Health Services Research Institute at the University of Wollongong recently released the national evaluation report it conducted on the Kitchen Garden Foundation. The report found that the foundation was making a real difference to children, families and school communities participating in the program. (The full report is available on the Kitchen Garden website.)

When I travel to Ireland it will be early spring, such a beautiful time to be in Europe. I’ll have a few days in Paris afterwards, and will make sure that amongst the eating and drinking there’ll be walking in several parks to appreciate the season. I’ll return to Melbourne to see the last of the falling of the leaves.

Until then.

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