As this column is of course written in advance, I'm anticipating the stirring in the garden that will mean winter will soon be over. Already there are hyacinths in flower, and bulbs are popping up everywhere. Freesias in the lawn, irises at the foot of the bare crab-apple trees, and narcissus in the front borders. In a week or two the almond tree will flower. I saved several substantial branches of lemon verbena before it had its post-autumnal prune. The stripped leaves have dried beautifully and four or five in a mug of boiling water make an aromatic brew.
I have enjoyed the cold months, though, and have cooked suitably warming dishes. Plenty of leek and potato soup - my leeks, purchased potatoes, and a bit of my own celery for extra interest. Another favourite is an Italian-derived soup that uses arborio rice, again with my leeks, with finely chopped fennel and garlic. I add plenty of grated parmesan, but a salted crumbled duck egg or tiny dried fish would be an interesting variation.
The vegetable garden is not yielding very much at the moment. I still have silverbeet and some lovely spinach, and of course the Tuscan kale. My front borders are edged on one side with growing spears of garlic and on the other with more spinach plants. It's impossible to have too much spinach. The artichokes are huge but as yet without a sign of a flower bud. I anticipate plenty of sprouting broccoli and some small cauliflowers soon and shall pick the first broad beans in a few weeks. The beetroot and carrots are growing slowly. The ground needs to warm up before the spring peas will sprint ahead. I am scattering my spent coffee grounds around the smaller spinach seedlings to see if they deter the snails. Picking a fresh lemon from the tree early in the morning and inhaling its fragrance is a special moment.
While anticipating my own harvest, it's an ideal time to appreciate the delights of the farmers' markets nearby. Early this morning (temperature a crisp eight degrees) I pulled on my beanie and set out to enjoy the bounty from other gardens. I came home with a bag of oranges, leaf chicory, tight artichokes, a beautifully crinkled cabbage, purple carrots and a perfect cauliflower. They were so beautiful lolling together on the kitchen bench that I delayed storing them for an hour to properly admire them.
My travels over the past few weeks have included a visit to our most remote school, at Punmu in the Pilbara. The Rawa Community School is more than seven hours by road from Port Hedland. About 50 students attend it and they are enthusiastically embracing the kitchen garden program.
The school has built a woodfired pizza oven, and when I was there the students had dug a fire pit on which corn and potatoes were roasted for our celebratory farewell lunch. There's plenty of artesian water and the newly planted garden was already sprouting beans, cucumbers and pumpkins, and there were substantial crops of garlic and potatoes in the ground. Alongside this were the beginnings of a bush tucker garden, with the local elders advising on seed collection. The pizza lunch was a huge success. The students prepared all the vegetables from fresh food trucked in from Port Hedland (this happens only once a month so the enthusiasm to get their own garden producing is understandable), and they made the dough by hand, rolled and shaped it and had a great time deciding on the toppings. Everyone ate everything.
Next stop was the Flinders Ranges and a quick visit to one of our newest projects at Quorn Area School. The school already has an attractive teaching-kitchen space but the garden construction was just starting. I was impressed to meet a local bobcat operator who was efficiently moving piles of rich soil and red gum sleepers to create the raised beds for the children to plant into.
For a complete contrast I visited the tiny Ungarra Primary School on the Eyre Peninsula. The total student population at the time was 32. Every child participates, from the youngest to the oldest. The school is two years into the program and its garden is extensive and prolific. I toured the fabulous orchard, met the chickens, saw the worm farm and the compost heap, and then went to the kitchen. The class had had a competition to decide on the two best pizzas to make for my visit. The winners were surprising. We had parsnip, carrot and goat's cheese for one, and yabby, oyster and calamari for the other. It was great to see the six- and seven-year-olds cutting up the vegetables, and the eight- and nine-year-olds shelling the freshly boiled yabbies and "removing the poo" as one little girl told me very seriously.
At Melbourne's Collingwood College on Saturday 11 August our experts will be holding classes on "the ideal growing environment" and "composting and no-dig beds", and Longrain's Martin Boetz will be teaching a class on modern Thai cooking. These classes fill quickly, so anyone interested should go to kitchengardenfoundation.org.au for more information and to book.
Until next time.
PHOTOGRAPHY ARMELLE HABIB
This article is from the August 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.