Food News


The pomegranate tree is in flower and the sweet peas have been sown, but while Stephanie Alexander enjoyed a pear crop, the parrots enjoyed the crabapples.

By Stephanie Alexander

It was foolish of me to even mention the word "parrot" on these pages last month. Those gloriously plumed and ruthless birds removed every one of my crabapples, about two weeks before they were properly ripe.

I have five trees, so they had a feast. I tried and tried to take a picture of them tearing and munching. In vain. As soon as they heard the slightest creak from the door they were off. They perched in a neighbour's tree until my back was turned and then swooped back again. Some of the fruit was netted, but that proved no deterrent - they just ripped through it.

One of the five crabapple trees is not doing well and I'm wondering whether it has to go.

It was savaged by a combination of strong wind, leaping possum and a period of no water due to a break in the drip irrigation. My gardener has given it a very severe prune and reshape, and I must say the new growth looked promising before the leaves started to fall. I'll give it a year of grace and see what happens.

During the long months of water restrictions in Victoria the drip irrigation happened in the dead of night, so it was difficult to know when there was a blocked connector until one saw the telltale drooping plant or tree. A very sad casualty was my very young persimmon tree. It too has been severely pruned and I've crossed my fingers, but it's not looking good. Now that we have had rain and restrictions have eased I've had the irrigation's timing adjusted so I can see at once if something is amiss.

In February I visited Launceston to celebrate Festivale - an annual weekend of food, wine, music and entertainment - and to mark the first birthday of the Launceston Harvest farmers' market. On Twitter recently there was a half-hearted attempt to denigrate farmers' markets as haunts for the upper classes. While there is probably some truth in this - organic produce is always going to be more expensive than the run-of-the-mill stuff - I found the Tassie market very inclusive. There were families everywhere, loads of simple stalls and the raspberries and strawberries were outstanding. At Festivale, I was one of the people given the difficult task of judging best stall in several categories. It was a great way to make sure I visited almost every stall (another judging couple did all the wine stalls).

During Festivale I also renewed my acquaintance with Nick Haddow, cheesemaker and owner of Bruny Island Cheese Co. and a well-known media personality. We first met when Nick was the original manager of the cheese room at Richmond Hill Cafe & Larder, a business I started in 1996 with Will Studd and others. We had such fun and our cheese room was groundbreaking in more ways than one. Nick insisted we fling water all over the newly tiled floor to maintain humidity for our very expensive, precious cheeses, and possibly it did, but it also seeped through the terracotta tiles and into the floorboards, creating an expensive nightmare. I bet Nick doesn't have a terracotta hexagonal-tiled floor in his cheese room.

As the builder said after the disaster was discovered and repaired, "I was never told that this room should really be considered a swimming pool!" I can laugh now.

I have a large copper urn full of prunings from the magnolia tree: the leaves are so beautiful with their shiny green tops and bronze suede underside. I've stripped the leaves from the lemon verbena and lime verbena, so I can make soothing herbal brews over the next few months. I have harvested my pear crop - six in total. Apparently they are of no interest to the parrots.

During my summer holidays I happened upon a wonderful ceramic cockatoo by Victorian artist Kaye Clancy. It's now hanging in one of the denuded crabapples and is a thing of great charm and beauty. Its cheeky, slightly deranged eyes seem to follow me around and I cannot look at it without smiling.

The pomegranate tree is in flower, and the sprouting broccoli seeds are growing well in the hothouse. It's time for the broad beans to go in, but the bean teepees still have small crops of climbing beans. I shall plant the seeds anyway and let them co-exist until the broad bean plants are about 12cm high. At that point the other beans must give over.

April is the month for cabbage white butterflies. I've mentioned before that I do think those shiny, twirly things help deter them, as do big squares of white cardboard or plastic speared onto stakes.

For the third time the saved sweet pea seeds have been sown. This season we collected the pods without trying to differentiate colours. Last time there were a few surprises, with purple where I had expected pink, so we've just mixed them up and will be delighted with whatever colour appears.

Until next time.