Thursday, March 27, 2008

Winemaking 2008 - the update

It’s time for an update on the 2008 wine vintage, and, unfortunately, the news isn’t good…

This is our third year of winemaking. Our first attempt was with Chambourcin grapes bought from a neighbour, and the resulting wine was pretty good. Our second attempt used our own shiraz grapes, and the result again, was pretty good. We were offering our wine to friends and family who all told us they thought the wine was very drinkable, and I don’t think they were just being polite. We even got a “Highly Commended” award at a local amateur winemaking show. So our confidence in tackling our third vintage was up.

I’ve already blogged about the diabolical weather conditions in the weeks leading up to grape picking. 9 inches of rain in 24 hours sums it up. We were experienced enough to know that weather is everything, and the condition of the grapes depended on it.

Anyway, we picked the grapes which looked okay. Some were a bit squashed. None, miraculously, had split (perhaps because temperatures were pretty mild).

Crushing went well. We reckon we have about 200 litres of grape juice. Five days later we pressed the juice, the process where you separate the fermenting grape juice from the skins. This is where our problems started.

The merlot looks fine. The shiraz, however, is a light mauve colour, not the deep burgundy it should be. It tastes fine, but the colour is a bit offputting, to say the least.

Action Man tried to rescue the situation by putting the juice back on the skins for a little longer, and re-pressing, but this doesn’t seem to have had much effect.

This is where lack of experience shows up. Winemaking professionals would probably be able to predict this problem and deal with it before it becomes a problem, whereas us bumbling amateurs try to put a bandaid on afterwards.

Not sure what we are going to do with the wine. It’s in its secondary fermentation for the next few months, so we can just forget about it for a while. If it is still light mauve by the time it comes to bottling, I’m not sure we’ll bother. I suppose it depends on how the taste comes up.

I’ll tell you what though, it is episodes like this that cement the respect I have for anyone who tries to make a living from the land. Our little 5 acres gives us enough of a window into the heartbreak these folk must deal with all the time. Our heroes should be all those farmers and primary producers dealing with everything that the weather, disease, pestilence and sheer bad luck throw at them. Their resilience is truly courageous.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Tomatoes among the thorns

I’ve already bemoaned the Great Fruit Fly Invasion of 2008 and the havoc it wreaked on our garden this year, especially on the tomatoes.

Well, I have to admit it wasn’t a total disaster. One of the unexpected habits of tomatoes, especially cherry tomatoes, is to self-seed all over the place. I suspect they grow from tomato seeds that have survived the digestive tract of our chickens, and then hide in the chicken manure which we shovel around the garden. For some reason, they particularly seem to enjoy the company of roses. And, wouldn’t you know it, the fruit fly has left them totally alone, unlike their carefully chosen, planted and tended relatives in the bona fide vegie patch. Perche?

Above is a very healthy tomato bush enjoying the hospitality of my shrub roses. It's very hard to discern where the rose bush finishes and the where the tomato starts.It hasn’t been prolific, but yields a good handful of small tomatoes every couple of days, with absolutely no human help at all ever. No effort at all vegie gardening, you have to love that. The most effort I contribute is to pluck them from the bush and convey them straight to my mouth as I wander around the garden.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Vegetable garden

So far my posts have only mentioned happenings in the orchard. There is a very good reason for this.. the state of our vegie garden has in recent months been dire.

As you know, I hate summer, and one of the main reasons I hate summer is weeds. Weeds everywhere. Sometimes I feel as if I could weed 24/7 and still not make any headway. Needless to say, the vegie garden is the part of my garden worst affected. The sheer volume of weeds in summer is enough to make me throw up my hands in surrender, so I do. Or at least, I plant the veg, then give it a wide berth, leaving the vegetables to the mercy of the weeds.

Yeah, I know that if I mulch, the weeds will supposedly not occur. Guess what? The weeds grow through the mulch. And because I have an aversion to spraying (I try to be organic as much as possible) my only choice is to pull up the weeds by hand. Which I hate with passion.

Today I weeded some of the vegie patch, because I had bought vegetable seedlings last weekend and I needed to plant them. Actually, it wasn't too bad. It's autumn now, and while it was warm, the sun didn't fry me quite as much as recently. It was quite meditative, really, then my daughter came up to the patch and chatted to me of inconsequential things while I weeded. No, she didn't help me weed. She hates weeding too. She's just turned 8 years old, and knows what's what.

So,until this morning this was what was growing in the patch besides weeds: pumpkins, rhubarb, basil, parsley, sage, thyme, capsicum, cabbage, broccolini, corn (an animal feed variety, which we grew as an experiment after the seeds were given to Action Man by a farmer. Will feed these to the chooks) and tomatoes. Not bad when I consider how much time I have spent on the vegie garden. To give him his due, Action Man has put the hard yards in the vegie patch lately. He had pulled out some potatoes so I had a large area to plant. I also pulled out a few of the spent tomatoes. Then I weeded. And weeded. Despite all the weeding, there were ever more weeds. I noticed chickweed for the first time this year. Grrr...The bane of winter.

Anyway, this is what went in this morning, ready for winter: silverbeet, cos lettuce, radicchio, bok choy, broccoli, leeks, shallots and fennel. I put a spadeful of compost into each planting hole, and watered with seaweed extract, so the seedlings have had a warm welcome into their new home. Getting all that done was very satisfying. Despite all this planting, too, there is still a sizeable area available to plant, and more tomatoes and the corn can come out soon, so planting possibilities abound. I'm thinking about peas for the first time this year. And it occurs to me that garlic should go in soon.

It is promising rain later this week, so the seedlings will get another dose of loving soon. Ahh..the vegies are in, and all is right with the world....

Thursday, March 20, 2008


When it came to deciding what trees to plant into our orchard, my attitude was, anything goes. A cherry guava was one of those trees that I bought that I had no idea what I was getting. I’d never seen, let alone eaten, a cherry guava. I had no idea what the tree looked like. Nonetheless, I read in the catalogue that cherry guavas are suited to subtropical areas, so I figure, what the heck?

One thing that strikes me is that it is quite an attractive shrub. I could see it in a suburban backyard, no worries. Instead of murraya hedges, you could have cherry guava hedges. You get an ornamental and a fruit tree all at once.

So what do these cherry guavas taste like? Well, they taste a little like strawberries, sweet but a little sour as well. They are about 2-3 cm in diameter and do resemble a cherry, somewhat. To me, they are an acquired taste, and I eat them mainly because I read that these babies are high in Vitamin C too, and that with about 300mg per 100g of fruit, which is about 6 times the Vitamin C content of a citrus fruit.

Well, the cherry guava is now in season, and today I picked a big bowlful. We have far more fruit than we would ever eat, so again, I’ve resorted to preserving the crop by making some guava jelly. [Yes, by the way, I do have a paying job, plus the other job running the home. Jelly making gets accommodated by some creative multitasking].

My Queenslander mother-in-law showed me how to make guava jelly last year, and under her guidance, I had a bit of success. This is my first batch “solo”, using a recipe in Margaret Fulton Encyclopedia. It wasn’t so good. The jelly should set firm, but you should be able to spoon it out of the jar cleanly. My jelly set firm, all right, but it set “sticky” so that it is hard to spoon easily. Then I looked up another recipe, which directs you to use the pith and juice of a lemon or lime.(Margaret’s didn’t) Of course! I need pectin! Why didn’t I suss that with the first recipe? Anyway, I made the second batch using lime rind and juice. Bingo. Perfect guava jelly.

I’m glad I persevered, and tried another recipe. It got me thinking…some people might think that there is something wrong with their own abilities, when in fact, it is the recipe. I find I often override recipe instructions because my intuition tells me that they don’t sound “right”. I find, in particular, that cooking times are underestimated. Why is that? I don’t think it is my oven. Maybe recipe writers want to appeal to the “fast results” instinct, so they recommend short times. Often though, I think they sacrifice flavour.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Grape harvest

Years ago, when Action Man and I were first manacled together, I took him to stay with my Italian relatives in rural north-east Italy. My relatives have some farmland, including grape vines, from which my uncle makes the most stupendously drinkable red wine you can imagine.
We became well acquainted with that wine during our stay, so much so, that by the time we left it had become our joint goal to make our own wine one day, using our own grapes.

It took 10 years until we were able to buy the land to make it possible. One of the first things we did, apart from plant fruit trees, was to plant 100 shiraz and merlot vines for our own personal vineyard. And now, 5 years on the vineyard as you can see above is pretty well established. On Sunday we had our second and biggest, grape harvest.
Last year was our first vintage. We made 80 litres of shiraz, which we were pretty chuffed about.
We have been a little uncertain about this year. Summer 2007/8 has been a very wet, cool season after years of drought. Our vines were full of fruit, but we’ve been pretty nervous about the state of the fruit. After we had 225mm (or 9 inches) of rain in 24 hours a few weeks ago, we thought we’d be lucky to salvage any fruit at all, with thoughts of split fruit and/or fungus ruining the grapes. Luckily, our grapes survived, if not in perfect condition then in good-enough condition.
Then we waited for the sun to improve the sugar content of the grapes, but that didn’t eventuate either. In the end we decided we had to harvest. If the grapes lacked sugar, well then, we’d have to cheat a bit with a bit of sucrose.
In the end, we crushed about 300 litres of juice, for about 300 litres of wine. Such a lot! The ironic thing is that I have cut my wine drinking back recently to about 1-2 drinks a week. It seems we will be giving the stuff away, assuming it is drinkable.
As I write the must is audibly bubbling away in the shed at the back, so fermentation is well underway. There is an unmistakeable winey smell too. We’ll press this weekend. I’ll keep you posted on how our wine goes….

Monday, March 3, 2008


Mint, they say, is one herb you will never get rid of. Once it is in your garden, it’s there forever and grows like a weed.

Well, for a long time, I thought I was an exception to the rule. Mint invariably died whenever I planted it. I would look good for a while, then promptly turn up it’s toes. I felt like a gardening dunce.

That was until this year, when the mint keeps on keeping on, and has sprung up in places where I don’t expect it. Dormant seeds, or plants, I don’t know. I suspect the higher than normal rainfall is something to do with it. I’ve read that mint likes to be well-watered and I’m known for forgetting to water from time to time…

[The converse of my oversupply of mint this year is my undersupply of continental parsley. I’ve always been able to grow fantastic parsley bushes, but this year my parsley is very s-parsley. Hee hee.]

Anyway, the mint’s there, and now I am looking for things to do with it.

One combination I adore is sweet pineapple and mint. It’s up there with tomatoes and basil, to my way of thinking. I was introduced to this combination by my Queenslander mother-in-law, when she took a pineapple and whizzed it in a food processor with mint and sugar, and served it as a sauce over ice cream. Yummo. Another take on this combination was published by delicious magazine in February 2007 where Tobie Puttock gave recipe for pineapple carpaccio with mint and ice cream. He simply slices the pineapple very thinly lengthways, then pounds mint and sugar in a mortar and pestle and sprinkles the paste on top of the pineapple and serves it with good vanilla ice cream.

A few days ago I bought a Queensland pineapple and planned to eat it with mint a la Tobie. I was idly flicking through Belinda Jeffrey’s 100 Favourite Recipes, as you do, when I found an interesting recipe for mint, yogurt and lemon ice cream. It sounded just the ticket to take my favourite pineapple-and-mint combination one step further. Reader, I was not wrong.

Belinda rightly promises that that the ice cream tingles on your tongue, and the combination with the pineapple, (and it has to be a sweet pineapple) is superlative.

One little quibble with the recipe, though. The accompanying photograph shows ice cream which is a pretty shade of pale green. When I made it the ice cream stayed whitish, with flecks of mint that had oxidised into a not-so-pretty dark olive colour. Not nearly as attractive or appetising, so I resorted to the food colour to get that cool jade effect. How did Belinda manage to get her ice cream so green? Is there something she isn't telling us, or is just my luck that my mint is not so attractive. Mmmm….

Just as an aside...I would have to nominate my ice-cream maker as one of my favourite kitchen appliances. I had reservations when I bought it, and worried that it would spend most of it's time in the far reaches of my outer cupboards, but I am happy to say it gets a workout often. It's really easy to use, and I like eating ice cream made with honest ingredients- cream, sugar, eggs - and no spooky hydrogenated, trans-fat and other dubious substances.