One of the reasons for my poor potato crop last season was explained to me by the potato man at the farmers' market recently. He says winter is too cold for sowing seed potatoes in our southern climate and I should have waited until early spring. So this year September is the month, and in my new canvas grow-bag, which is a metre deep, I am starting my crop of Dutch cream potatoes.
I am ridiculously proud of harvesting my own cauliflower. My first ever! How magical they are. For months it seems they produce nothing but huge and handsome green leaves, and then one day right down in the heart of the curled leaves there is a glint of white that grows and grows. I sautéed a third of this handsome head in extra-virgin olive oil with some finely sliced garlic and added a mix of anchovy and parsley at the end. It was so good. [Editor's note: check out our cauliflower recipes slideshow for more ideas]
While the cauliflower and broccoli plants were still small I "planted" large squares of white cardboard skewered on sticks. I am convinced that this simple tactic protected both brassicas from being attacked by white cabbage moths. Apparently the moths are territorial and believe the plants are already being visited when they see the white blur.
I try not to get too discouraged about failures and about pests. But I was pretty annoyed on my return home from overseas to find that my germinated carrot crop that I had expected to be growing strongly had been neatly nipped to the ground. What to blame was the question. The vegetable box is netted and I could see no sign of a slug or a snail. And then this morning there was a flurry of movement in that same box and there was a pigeon - inside the netting and having a good dig for a juicy worm (no carrots left)! I was astonished and hastened to shoo it out and fasten the loosened net more securely.
Seeing the pigeon reminded me of my tour of the magnificent vegetable gardens at the Ballymaloe Cookery School at Shanagarry in county Cork, Ireland, where I was a few weeks ago now. I was shown around by Tim Allen, son of the founder of this amazing hotel and cookery school empire, Myrtle Allen. Tim is married to Darina, who is the current doyenne of the school.
Tim is one of a team of nine or 10 people who manage or work in the extensive vegetable gardens. The peas have to be grown in a greenhouse, otherwise pigeons eat them all, he said. And when I queried the vast quantities of each crop being grown, Tim said there is no concern about excess and they are not interested in on-selling. It's all for the benefit of cooking school students and for the guests at the hotel so that every vegetable and herb that is cooked comes straight from the garden. Students are encouraged to explore the gardens and to learn as much as they can about how their food is being grown. Tim says he found a Danish student in the greenhouse scoffing raw peas and she admitted they were a childhood treat that she had not been able to experience at home for many years.
Every egg comes from the hens that range freely over the lawns. Much of the beef and all of the cream and milk come from the animals on the farm. Students at the cookery school produce their own butter and they learn to make cheese. And of course they learn to bake the absolutely stunning white and brown soda bread that accompanies every meal.
The gardens are mind-blowing in their health and extent. There were rows and rows of superb green salads, some grown under cover, some outside. The early tomatoes were supported by strings hung from high supports to keep plants upright as they grew. There were onion beds, and squash and cabbages, and peas and beans, and broad beans - everything, in fact, that one would expect to see in a late spring or early summer garden. Bunches and bunches of garlic were drying inside one of the greenhouses. There were raspberries and strawberries and currants in profusion. In some of the outside beds I was intrigued to see plants swathed in sheets of soft fabric - this was the "fleece" I had read about in English gardening books. Not at all what I had imagined. It is so soft that the growing plants can easily push it up as they grow, protected from frost, snow and pests.
Without having set out on my holiday to meet organic farmers, everywhere I went, I did so. And what an interesting entrepreneurial lot they were, dedicated and committed and all expressing concerns about the future for the next generation if more respect is not given to the land that produces all that we eat.
Until next time.
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY STEPHANIE ALEXANDER
This article is from the September 2011 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.