Melon Season

I picked the first melons of the season the other day—a lovely watermelon and a small cantaloupe (rock melon). The watermelon could have used another couple of days on the vine, but it was sweet and delicious anyway. The cantaloupe was perfectly ripe and fragrant.

In fact, it was the smell that clued me in that the melons were ripening—I couldn’t even see this one amidst the tangle of foliage.

I’ve blogged previously about the smell of melons and the memories it evokes. Along with the odour of tomato and corn plants, it is the essence of summer. More than a seasonal fruit, melon is the season, all rolled into one fragrant ball.

So even though melons don’t start ripening here until it’s almost officially autumn, summer for me lasts as long as the melons do.

The Apricots of Wrath

I should have listened to Fate. 

“Don’t can apricots today!” it told me the other day. “You have no sugar in the house.”

But I looked at the vast quantities of quickly ripening apricots in the kitchen and knew they wouldn’t wait.

I drove to the store to pick up sugar.

Back home, I made my sugar syrup, washed and heated my jars, got my canning water to a boil, and prepared seven kilos of apricots.

All was going well until I was packing the fruit into jars. I kept an ear on my canner, making sure it stayed at a boil while I worked. When the bubbling hiss faded and died, I knew the gas bottle was empty. Not now!

I left off my jar filling and raced outside to switch gas bottles.

Back inside, water, jars, and sugar syrup were cooling, but I finished packing the apricots in and poured sugar syrup over them …

Only to find I was about a cup short of syrup. Gah! I quickly made up a small batch to finish off the jars.

Into the canner went the jars, and I heaved a sigh of relief. It took longer than usual to bring it all back to a boil, but I shrugged it off. It’s always that way for a cold-packed fruit. 

Then a few minutes into the boil, the canner started boiling over—orange, chunky, foamy water spilled onto the stove. Darn! A jar had broken. It’s rare, but after 30 years of use, sometimes the bottom of a jar will pop off during canning.

So for 25 minutes, I fought the sticky water boiling over on the stove. When I finally pulled the jars out, they were all coated in slimy chunks of overcooked apricot from the broken jar, and the stove was an gooey mess.

The six remaining jars all sealed, though, which was good. Pity about the stove. Took forever to clean.

Later, once the water had cooled, I tackled the job of emptying broken glass and gunk from the canner. And the first thing I did was drop the remainder of the slippery broken jar onto the floor, where it smashed to pieces.

Then, just to add insult to injury, when I dumped the chunky sticky canning water onto the compost pile, it somehow funnelled through the pile directly onto my foot. 

Cleaning up the mess took almost as long as the rest of the process, and I questioned whether it was worth it, or if I should have simply thrown away a couple of kilos of fruit and called it a day before I started.

Then my daughter pointed out that we had the makings of six fruit desserts there, ready to pull out on a winter evening. She had a point—we’ll enjoy that fruit, and by winter, I’ll have forgotten the frustration of preserving it.

But, still, I keep thinking I could have sat on the porch with a good book instead …

Seeing is Believing

The Canterbury tree wētā (Hemideina femorata) is endemic to the lowland forests of Canterbury. Like other tree wētā, it is a sizeable insect and an opportunist when it comes to food, eating mostly leaves, but taking advantage of the protein in other insects it encounters.

Here in rural Canterbury, it’s rare to find tree wētā. Old timers talk about how you used to see wētā every time you trimmed the hedge, but in 15 years of trimming, I have seen no wētā. I’ve even put wētā houses (like bird houses, but designed to appeal to wētā) in the hedge, but have never found anything but spiders in them. 

Though I’ve never seen a study of their population changes, anecdotal evidence indicates Canterbury tree wētā numbers have dwindled with the intensification of agriculture and the increased use of chemical pesticides.

I have been fortunate to raise quite a few wētā in captivity, and in doing so, I’ve become familiar with the insects’ strong smell. This smell has been their downfall when faced with introduced mammalian predators—strong enough for even a human’s nose to perceive, it acts as a beacon to hungry rats, and stoats.

But it’s not just in my insect tanks I’ve smelled tree wētā. With some regularity in the early morning I can smell them in the hedge when I pass on my way to feed the chooks.

We humans have a poor sense of smell, as mammals go. We rely much more heavily on our sense of sight for identifying things. So for years now, I’ve doubted my nose, because I’ve never seen a wētā on the property or anywhere nearby.

But not long ago, on an evening walk with my husband, we found an adult tree wētā dead on the road.

Yes! I knew my nose couldn’t be deceiving me, though I was never confident enough to declare their presence based on smell alone. Now I am. I may not have seen them in my hedge, but if there are wētā being hit on the road a hundred metres from my house, I am willing to believe my wētā-scented hedge harbours them too.

No Vampires Here!

Mid-winter, when it was time to plant the garlic, I had no idea where we were going to be living at harvest time. 

So I covered all my bases and planted a full complement of garlic at the old house and at the new house.

Last week I harvested the garlic from both properties. As I expected, the garlic at the new house grew poorly in the clay and rock, but it did grow and is perfectly acceptable. The garlic at the old house had a spectacular growing year—nearly every head is large and plump.

So, knowing we struggle to finish off a normal year’s garlic harvest before it sprouts and gets nasty, I made an effort to preserve a few heads. Well, thirty-two heads, to be exact.

First, I filled the dehydrator with thinly sliced garlic and dried 20 heads. I’ve dried garlic before, and we appreciate the ease of tossing a few flakes into the mortar and pestle and grinding them up. Twenty heads of garlic dries down to less than a pint jar full of flakes—uninspiring until you think about how concentrated the garlic flavour is in that jar!

Then I tried something new—I pickled 12 heads. According to the recipe I used, the cloves can be used just like fresh garlic, and when you finish off a jar, the pickling liquid makes a great flavoured vinegar for things like salad dressings. They’re quite pretty in their little jars, and I look forward to trying them long about August when the fresh garlic is sprouting. Again, twelve heads looks like nothing when peeled and packed into jars, but with 32 heads preserved and another three dozen hanging braided in the kitchen, I still have a whole bunch to give away. 

So if you’re looking for vampires, go somewhere else. They’ll be staying far away from my house for a long time.

Cilantro Security

Cilantro (aka coriander) is an acquired taste. When I first had it, I thought it tasted like soap. Now I love it. Which makes this year’s crop all the more welcome, because we’ve been without it for several months.

Cilantro will grow year-round here, although during our dry summers, it bolts quickly. Usually I plant a spring crop and let it bolt and re-seed itself for a fall/winter crop of volunteer plants. Unfortunately, last spring’s crop was badly stunted by aphids and a hot dry spell, and it didn’t set seed. 

So we went all winter without cilantro—a sad state, when winter is the time for chilis and bean dishes that we normally flavour with cilantro.

It’s hot and dry again, but I’ve taken precautions against another cilantro failure. I planted two crops several weeks apart, and I’m watering them well. Hopefully we’ll be back to a continuous cilantro supply this year.

Colourful Carrots

The carrots are just at the thinning stage right now. I’m embarrassed to admit it took years for me to figure out that if I pulled the largest carrots at thinning time, we could eat them, and the ‘runts’ (which I used to pull out) would grow to a fine size.

But I’ve learned, and so at thinning time, we enjoy handfuls of pretty little baby carrots.

I planted six varieties of carrot this year. And despite my talent for over-planting, I’ve never yet grown enough carrots to satisfy the family’s annual consumption. The range of varieties encourages me to plant more, and they make for beautiful kaleidoscope dishes, cheerful with colour. 

Delicious Disaster

Ugly but delicious.

Gooseberries are ripening by the bucketful right now, so when I was planning dessert for a party last Saturday night, I naturally turned to gooseberries for inspiration. 

I made a large batch of gooseberry pie filling and baked up dozens of gooseberry tarts. Unfortunately, the fruit bubbled over, creating a sticky mess that glued the tarts into their pans.

Almost every one broke when I tried to take them out of the pans. One was so crumbled I had to spoon it out …

… right into my mouth. It was a sublime experience. Deliciously sweet and sour with a flaky crust, I thought I’d serve them anyway. I requested a second opinion from my husband and kids, giving them each the most broken tarts. They moaned in pleasure and nodded.

No one at the party mentioned how the tarts looked. I’m not sure they sat on the tray long enough for anyone to examine them—one taste and they vanished.

A delicious baking disaster. I’ll definitely have to do it again.

Gooseberry Pie Filling (enough for two full-size pies)

8 cups fresh gooseberries
4 cups sugar
2 Tbsp corn flour (cornstarch)
enough water to prevent sticking (less than 1/4 cup)

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook 1-2 minutes, until berries soften. Crush berries in the pot with a potato masher. Boil about 5 minutes longer until the mixture begins to thicken. 

The pie filling can be baked in a double or a single crust. If you choose a single crust, top with streusel topping:

2/3 cup flour
2/3 cup finely chopped walnuts
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
5 Tbs (80 g) melted butter
Blend all ingredients with a fork until crumbly.

I baked my tiny tarts for 35 minutes at 190ºC (375ºF). A full pie should take 45 – 60 minutes.

Obsessive Gardening Strikes Again

It’s done! I finally finished planting out vegetables this past weekend. At both houses. And though I said I wasn’t going to, I ended up with nearly full gardens on both properties (never mind how I managed to start so many seeds in the first place…). 

Of course, I justified it with the observation that plants won’t grow well in the new garden—neither the weeds nor the vegetables—so it’s not like that garden will be too much work (yeah, right). 

And it would be a shame not to plant in the old garden one last time and reap the harvest from fifteen years of work on that patch of land (even if I won’t get to harvest it all). It was only logical to plant two full gardens, right?

Logical only if you’re a problem gardener like me. Once again, I’ve proven I have no self-control when it comes to plants. I can already hear my justifications for excessive gardening next year … The soil is so bad at the new place, I’ll have to over plant just to get enough vegetables to eat. I’ll just plant green manures and till them in to improve the soil. I don’t know which varieties will do well in the new garden, so I’ll have to plant lots of different ones … I’m sure I’ll come up with plenty of other justifications, too. It’s hopeless, really. If you put me in an apartment on the twenty-third floor, I’d find some way to grow excessive plants.

At least I know I’m not alone. Just look at the number of gardening blogs out there. And the number of people I see in the garden centres loading up their cars with bags of potting mix and potted plants. And in a few months, the multitude of gate sales of excess vegetables. And the number of people who post proud pictures of their first tomatoes or strawberries of the season on social media. There’s a whole community of obsessive gardeners out there. Come on, pick up your hoe, spading fork, or trowel and join us. We’re always partying in the garden, and there’s usually great food afterwards.

Marinated Artichokes

The online recipes for marinated artichoke hearts tend to be for small quantities—enough to make a small jar. So when I decided to make marinated artichoke hearts with eight large artichokes left over from dinner, I took those recipes as a general guide, and made it up as I went.

Into the bowl with the cooked artichokes went equal quantities of cider vinegar and water until the vegetables were mostly covered. Then I added a sprinkling of red pepper flakes, some ground dried garlic (because I had none fresh), and a handful of chopped fresh oregano. I poured olive oil over the whole thing until the artichokes were completely covered by liquid, and then I stirred to mix it all.

The result was a beautiful vat of marinated artichoke hearts so good, they need a fancy dinner party to go with them.

First Fruits

The new property isn’t quite gushing berries like the old, but it’ll get there.

The family spent much of last Sunday gardening at the new property. It had been several weeks since I’d worked in the garden there, and the weeds had been busy. The list of weed species on the property continues to grow, with cleavers and field madder the newest unwelcome volunteers. I found convolvulus too, scrambling along the perimeter fence through a clutch of gorse seedlings. At least the convolvulus will have pretty flowers.

There were nice surprises, too. The artichokes we transplanted are growing well. And nearly all of the cuttings of gooseberry, red currant, black currant, and blackberry have survived and are flowering. The strawberries have done well, too. One of them even offered me a ripe berry—the first fruit of the new property. It wasn’t the best strawberry ever, but it was the flavour of possibilities, the flavour of things to come.