Winter has been a good time to let the garden rest and get on with lots of knitting for the shop. However it’s starting to warm up and Spring isn’t far away. Priorities are about to change!
Over the past year I’ve been cleaning up the block next door, or “the paddock” as it’s more commonly referred to. I have just over half an acre of land that the Convent sits on and also own the quarter acre next door which has just been a rough block up until now. I’ve had it cleared of the old scrub and last week fencing and gates went up, so now it’s time to start doing some work.
The land is pretty rough – shale and clay, so I’ll be taking my time building up the soil and planting gradually. So far I’ve started at one end – lots of cardboard getting put down and mulch going on top. Given it’s pruning time, lots of light pruning and leaves are making their way to the other side of the galvanised fence. First cab off the rank is potatoes. Last year I had huge success with some substantial “no dig” beds of potatoes layered with straw mulch and a sprinkling of Dynamic Lifter. This year I have the advantage of horse poo courtesy of Poppy the horse down the road.
Either end of the block will be some pretties – I have roses on order that should be OK. Some of the block has some rockery work in place that should work well for the rose and perennial beds but the balance of the paddock will mainly be produce. Some bordering for veggie beds will take place shortly.
The photos look pretty bleak and colourless – it’s been a very dry Winter with harsh frosts – this will green up in no time with better weather and a little TLC. Anyway, this will keep me going for quite some time.
I have two beautiful Elderflower bushes – both very different in appearance but both vigorous and prolific. The plainer green one that suckers all over the place is about three years old and flowers madly a little later in Summer. At the moment there are no signs of flowers developing but lots of green bushy growth cropping up all over the place. The second is less than two years old, has stunning variegated leaves and a far more architectural growth habit. It’s flowering like crazy right now and last year, unlike it’s older relative, also developed elderberries.
The previous Summer, the flowers were put to use in Elderflower Champagne, which was a huge success. I recently timidly opened one of the many bottles stashed in my cellar to see if they were still bubbly and was delighted to find it even better than before! Maturing with age like some of us.
This time around I’m trying Elderflower Syrup (same as Elderflower Cordial). I’ve used this Jamie Oliver recipe that sounded interesting with the addition of honey – but it’s so simple with just Elderflowers (lots), sugar, honey, lemons and water. The first batch was doubled so I have plenty and am looking forward to using it as a cordial, fruit syrup and maybe even in some elderflower sorbet, not to mention as a cocktail with some Prosecco!
Next up some more Elderflower champagne – it’s such a treat to sit in the evening next to my new fishpond with an icy glass of this drink and just chill with the dogs.
It’s a wonderful time in the garden for reaping the benefits of all the planted veg. But as gardeners know all too well, when it grows, there’s always more than you need. So recently I’ve been working on how best to store and use this bounty best throughout the year.
I always grow lots of cherry tomatoes, which are easier for me – they seem to have less problems and are more resilient. Whilst wonderful in salads and even just picked and eaten on the spot in the garden, I always end up with so many. This year I tried making pasta sauce – which was hard work with all the tough little skins. But the result was excellent with a tasty sauce. So I’m now back to my standard of semi-dried tomatoes in olive oil. I just wash, dry and cut the tomatoes in half, toss in olive oil with salt flakes, freshly ground black pepper and choice of fresh herbs – usually basil, oregano or parsley, and bake slowly in the oven, turning a few times until significantly reduced and much drier. They are then packed into sterilised glass jars and topped with olive oil. Great to add to pasta, casseroles or an antipasto plate. I was fortunate to be given some big tomatoes as well which have been turned into a luscious pasta sauce, with the addition or oregano and white wine. Maybe next year I will be a little bolder with growing the serious big tomatoes myself.
I have heaps of herbs and herb butter makes the enjoyment last throughout the year, so I’m preparing herb butter logs with tarragon, basil, parsley and chives that sit happily in the freezer until required. I think I might use the glut of tarragon in some tarragon vinegar as well. I’m still working out the best uses for lovage and sorrel… whilst the mint and lemon verbena are making great teas. I think I’ll experiment with trying out some iced tea with them as well.
My big experiment has been Elderflower Champagne (there are a few good recipes on the net) – sounded too good not to try and I have two big elderberry bushes. So far I have 10 litres (the batch makes 5 litres) and will shortly add another batch whilst the Elder is still flowering. It takes some weeks to mature (?) so I hope it turns out. I really don’t want 15 litres of undrinkable stuff but it’s been fun and seems to be bubbling and fermenting happily at present. Although I feel like I’m running some sort of moonshine operation! If it works, I might have some sample tastings for the Kandos Gardens Fair.
I don’t have enough Elderberries to do anything with them yet, but I’m hoping to collect rosehips and put them to some use.
Anyway, for now it’s lots of experimenting and fun. It’s rewarding to be able to reap the rewards from the garden and have them last throughout the year.
Mudgee is well known for it’s great wine and local produce which also means it has some great cafes and restaurants. One I’ve been wanting to try for a while is The Zin House. I’ve sampled some of the Kim Curry (the chef)’s food before at Lowe’s Cellar Door horizontal tasting this year as part of the Mudgee Food and Wine Festival, but haven’t eaten in the restaurant.
Before Aimee went home, Gemma, Aimee and I made our way to The Zin House for their five course menu with matching wines. The Zin House restaurant is situated within the Lowe’s Family wines estate – an ideal setting with rolling Mudgee hills and a wonderful vegetable garden providing supplements for the restaurant.
We weren’t disappointed with the meal which delivered on every course. It was hard to choose a favourite but the Saffron Rag Pasta with garlic, chilli, mushroom and zucchini was mine and has tempted me to drag out the infrequently used pasta machine. My fellow diners praised the Limoncello Cured Trout Gravlax and the Slow Cooked Five Spice Pork Shoulder.
I was inspired by the use of many of the herbs I grow but don’t use. I always have a mound of Sorrel which usually goes to the chooks or compost, but the Cucumber, Fennel Flower and Sorrel Salad will most likely put a stop to that. We had Borage flowers on the house-made herb butter, Mint in the Salsa Verde and Lemon Verbena (which I also grow) in the Honey and Lemon Verbena Ice-cream. Even the Peppermint Tea was a lovely glass teapot housing fresh mint leaves.
The wine was predominantly and unsurprisingly Lowes Wines and well chosen as companions to the dishes. Service was excellent, including the offer of a break between courses with a recommended walk around the vegetable gardens and property in the dusk.
It was one of the better dinners for some time and a great finish to a wonderful Christmas break.
My girls were here for another Convent Christmas -this time a pretty lazy one. No big roast dinners and hours in a hot kitchen on Christmas Day. This year it was seafood and salads – grilled lobster tails, blue swimmer crabs and prawns and the inevitable glazed ham – with salads to let us have lots of easy meals afterwards.
Dessert of course was pavlova and a raspberry ripple ice-cream made with ricotta – just yum and has lasted well.
Hayley left before New Year taking bags of veg garden bounty back with her whilst Aimee and I had an extended break, sampling the local cafes and a few more low key meals at home, including what is becoming one of my favourite pantry/fridge meals – salmon carpaccio. Another low maintenance meal of finely chopped smoked salmon mixed with other finely chopped goodies such as cornichons, caper berries, spanish onion, capsicum, tomato and coriander and served with toasted triangles. A light refreshing dinner or entree anytime.
To start off the year, I made something I haven’t done for ages – a cake! A lovely butter cake with apples in the middle and on top. The apples are lightly stewed in a sugary syrup which is reduced and poured over the warm cake and also used as a sauce. Just yum – I must remember to bake more often.
Anyway, the Christmas break is coming to and end with the family all returning to Sydney and I’ll be back at work shortly. It’s been a quiet time but great to recharge the batteries and here’s hoping for a more positive 2016.
Summer always seems to be bottling time here at the Convent and this year is no different.
One of my favourites is Onion Jam – a simple recipe but packs lots of flavour and treated as a little pot of gold, given two kilos of onions only makes four small jars. I first made this with home-grown onions as I couldn’t bear just to eat the onions after they took so long to grow. Now I make a big batch, I just buy the onions but still love the result.
Another popular standard is this spicy fresh vegetable pickle vinegar by Tom Kerridge, which makes a nice change from pickles or salad. You just place your vegetables in it 60 – 90 minutes before serving for a fresh tasty pickle. Particularly good with a barbecue, steak, pulled pork, corned beef – well, just about anything. Also a good way to use onions, carrots, cauliflower, cabbage, capsicum… Well worth a try. Just keep a bottle or two in the fridge for when the mood captures you.
This year, with the Elderflowers making their presence felt in the garden, I think I’ll try some recipes. This one has caught my attention – Elderflower Champagne. This year I have two Elderflowers – the original standard and a newer variegated one that is going crazy and already has berries. I think this recipe may be a good start at experimenting with these plants.
I also have a healthy batch of Sorrel that I’ve never used so will start investigating recipes for this as well.
It’s been a while coming but now it’s all happened at once. A kindly local put together my amazing but very big and heavy chook tractor that has been sitting in the carport since before Christmas. The next day I arrived home to find four lovely girls settling themselves in.
I have Rosecomb Bantams and they are pretty, friendly little birds. They came running over to me and let me pat them immediately through the wire. The dogs, however, are another story and went totally crazy. Popcorn settled quickly and only spikes interest if the little dogs get the birds to flap. But the little dogs are besotted and going through conditioning of gradual introduction to their new housemates. I was assured that the girls are used to annoying dogs and will cope, but I’d prefer them to have a settled start to their new home. At present, if the dogs annoy them, they go up into their enclosed nesting area for some privacy but one chook, in particular seems quite unperturbed by canines.
For now, I’m just enjoying their company and giving them a few treats to make them feel welcome. Once settled, they can have a dog free run around the yard for an hour or two each day and, of course, the tractor will regularly be moved to other sections of the yard for happy grazing.
It will be an exciting day when I find my first egg.