Food News


In Stephanie Alexander’s winter garden the oakleaf is self-seeding, the rhubarb thriving, broad beans are flowering and the cumquats are ripe for the marmalade pot.

By Stephanie Alexander

In Stephanie Alexander's winter garden the oakleaf is self-seeding, the rhubarb thriving, broad beans are flowering and the cumquats are ripe for the marmalade pot.

It is still wintry here in Melbourne, but before I reflect on that, allow me a few moments of nostalgia regarding my recent trip to Ireland and on to Paris.

Everywhere I went in Ireland I was told what a severe winter they had endured and how the springtime was six weeks late. Darina Allen of Ballymaloe Cooking School told me that it was usual at this time of year for the beautiful country-house hotel to be fully draped in purple wisteria.

For their first-ever Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine, the hotel walls had just a few early buds peeping through. Never mind, there were many other sights to admire - startlingly green sloping fields, snowy geese paddling in the stream, and in the walled kitchen garden the tulips were magnificent. The fruit trees were in blossom and I saw my first-ever sea kale grown under terracotta cloches. Tasting like something between a leek and an asparagus, this rare vegetable (known locally as strand cabbage) has a very short season - just a few weeks in spring. It was delicious, and I had it buttered on toast for my first supper when I was struggling with jet lag. The weather was perfect for maximum enjoyment of the superb oatmeal porridge served with dark-brown demerara sugar and cream at breakfast.

After a few stimulating days of lectures, dinners, and demonstrations it was on to Paris for a week. It was still chilly in the mornings, but by the afternoon the sun shone and the café terraces were full. The chestnut trees were in bloom, there were bunches of lilac and lily of the valley in the florists' buckets. The fruit and vegetable shops and market stalls were all displaying fat white asparagus, morel mushrooms and the first magnificent wild strawberries.

I was with my friend Janni Kyritsis, who knows Paris very well. We shared some great meals and shopped and cooked a four-course banquet in the apartment I shared with my cousin and his wife.

It can be frustrating to be surrounded by outstanding produce but to have no opportunity to cook any of it. Of course, we had to choose white asparagus as a first course, which we served with a tarragon beurre blanc.

Back home and in my own garden the brassicas are the star plants. The broad beans are flowering, and within a week or so I hope to have the first pods. I planted two new rhubarb plants. Both are thriving and the stems are cherry-red. I'm following my own advice as written in The Kitchen Garden Companion: "Don't harvest more than 50 per cent of the plant while it is young: this will allow it to develop a strong crown." Next week I think I'll risk one stalk from each plant because I love stewed rhubarb with my breakfast muesli.

I still have fresh salad from the garden each evening, and my favourite oakleaf variety has once again self-seeded, so small frilly seedlings are coming up in surprising places. For the past few weeks I've been able to buy containers of lamb's lettuce, a winter favourite of mine, from my local grocer. It goes especially well with a sharp dressing made with a small amount of Dijon mustard whisked with a few drops of red wine vinegar and a good slosh of extra-virgin olive oil.

And while we're on the subject of salad, I have to mention the extraordinary salad platters presented to me and 40 other guests at a lunch hosted by Mansfield State School, 15 kilometres from Brisbane. I posted a picture on my Facebook page of these immensely proud young kitchen gardeners. Mansfield was one of five schools I visited last month. At Wellington Point State School, also near Brisbane, I was introduced to delicious kale crisps dusted with paprika, which the students loved.

At Cairns West the local member of parliament, Gavin King, was so impressed with the Kitchen Garden Program that he assured me he would be promoting it to every primary school in the Cairns region. We hope that he succeeds.

Winter weather has inspired me to cook both trotters and oxtail, on different occasions. I slow-cooked each of them for hours - the trotters with young turnips, the oxtail with carrots, and tomorrow I'll slowly simmer some ham hocks and cabbage together. The traditional vegetable to marry with ham hocks is collard greens, which I grew last year but forgot to germinate for this season. The collard greens were interesting but the plant was enormous. In my limited space it will remain a curiosity - great to try for a season, but in future I'll be happy to grow kale and silverbeet. The ham hocks are cooked until the meat is falling from the bone, and the southern US recipe I'm using suggests serving the dish with a pork chop. Instead I'm going to grill pork sausages on the barbecue until they're really crisp. I like the idea of a bowl of thick soupy broth, mellow greens and chunks of ham with a sausage almost bursting from its crisp skin.

The lemon tree is full of fruit, as is the cumquat. It must be marmalade time again.

Until next time.