Saturday, September 7, 2013

Springtime is Asparagus time

We have a friend in Victoria who works for a large asparagus grower. From August through to December, for the last three years that we lived down there, he'd call us on his way home from work and swing past with a shopping bag bursting with spears. They were all at least 30 cm long, as thick as sausages and still covered in the dirt from which they'd come, just hours before.
 In September 2011, one month before I moved to Tamworth, I was lucky enough to visit the farm, at Koo Wee Rup - head south east from Melbourne and you'll find yourself in the largest asparagus growing area in Australia.

Located 65 km from Melbourne, the Koo Wee Rup and Dalmore area produces a whopping 93% of Australia's asparagus – and a fair chunk of export asparagus, too. I was thrilled to see how black Koo Wee Rup's peat soils are, perfect for the yummy spears.
Asparagus grows from crowns which enthusiastic home gardeners can buy form the nursery. However commercially, growers plant the crown from seed, and it takes four years to get the first saleable crop.

Even on commercial scale asparagus is harvested by hand to protect the fragile spears. 'Cutters' walk along the rows and use a long handled knife to cut just below the soil surface. The spears are then placed on the ground in groups and collected using self-steering pick up machines. These machines are unique to the asparagus industry and allow the operator to bend down and carefully pick up the bunches without damaging the asparagus.

Asparagus spears are highly perishable once harvested so growers move quickly to get the harvest sorted and packed. The farm we visited passes full crates through a cool-water pre-wash to remove any debris, cool the asparagus and provide some moisture to keep spears in tip top condition.

Many commercial growers then sort their asparagus using an impressive computerised grading system. Spears run along the grader belt where they are graded according to length, and much of the white base is sliced off.

They're then bundled and packed by hand, ready to reach our shelves or the export market. The Asian market is a key export destination for the grower I visited. They are able to harvest, pack and airfreight the product all within the same day, with spears arriving at their destination the next morning. Now that's fresh.
Asparagus spears literally grow overnight when conditions are warm and humid – any home gardener with their own patch will know I'm not lying. So paddocks are harvested every day during this time, which means super fresh asparagus for us. Don't forget to check where your asparagus is from - it's not uncommon to find foreign spears from Peru on our shelves. It's definitely worth waiting for the Australian season to kick in (August - December) for Aussie-grown goodness.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Organic milling for daily bread

Artisan bread has been growing in popularity over the last decade and today a good loaf is more than just bread and butter. It’s not unusual to queue at Sydney’s top bakeries for a Saturday morning sourdough and ingredients are as diverse as spelt flour, rye flour, quinoa, herbs and even potato.

Ask any artisan producer, chef or passionate home cook what’s important and many cite quality ingredients. It's no surprise that this also applies to baking. However, what is a surprise to most is that the flour used by many top bakeries on the eastern seaboard is milled right here in the New England North West region - Gunnedah’s Wholegrain Milling Company produces quality stoneground organic flours for wholesalers and artisan bakers including Sydney’s Sonoma and Melbourne's Dench. They also produce smaller packaged products for retail customers under their Demeter Farm Mill label.

Wendy and Harry Neale started the company in 1984 and the business is now managed by their son, Craig. With over fifty silos, seven stone mills and a state-of-the-art roller mill, it’s clear that quality organic grain is big business. Wheat, spelt, oats, rye, buckwheat and more is all processed on site. For Wendy, however, organics was initially about health.

After suffering from food allergies, Wendy looked for remedies beyond standard medicine and began making her own stoneground flour. “I was milling organic grain in our kitchen and I decided there would be others that could benefit,” she said.

Nowadays, a diet free from artificial chemicals, colourings and flavourings is not unusual, however Craig believes Wendy was well ahead of her time.

“When the business started, organics was interpreted as having flowers on the side of your combi van,” laughs Craig. “Organics were not readily accepted. We started with one customer on the first day and grew to seven in the first ten years.” Since then there’s been a surge in demand and the company is experiencing exceptional growth.

For Craig, the business is not just about organics, but also about the unique flours they produce. A shearer by trade, Craig built the specialised stone mills with Harry, using imported European millstones. He lifts a handful of flour to demonstrate the speckled colour, a signature of wholegrain milling.

“We put the wholegrain in and get the flour at the end,” he explains. “We then sift out the bran to get the desired consistency.”

The result is a nutty taste and texture that is revered by artisan bakers. More commercial roller mills will separate the bran and germ from the endosperm. The endosperm is then ground to create white flour and other components are added back in as needed.

Stone milling is clearly the company’s passion; however, 18 months ago, after years of planning, Craig added the roller mill to the business, in order to service a broader range of customers.

“Stoneground flour is for those who are passionate about what they’re doing and the ingredients they’re using. However, there’s also a growing market of people who are aware of chemicals and the associated health effects and they buy organics simply to minimise those effects,” Craig explains.

To maintain their organic certification Wholegrain Milling Company purchases only certified organic grain, sourced from all over the eastern states, and they must ensure no chemical contamination occurs throughout milling and delivery. Weevils and rodents can be a problem and, unlike conventional counterparts, organic mills cannot chemically treat the grain to prevent infestation. Instead, the temperature in silos is strictly regulated, grain is moved using sophisticated pneumatic conveying, packaged flour is kept below six degrees at all times and the company manages its own logistics to ensure products are safely delivered.

Ironically, it’s an incredibly complex process to replicate something humans have been doing since 6000 BC – crushing whole grains to produce flour that’s chemical-free. It’s nice to know technology has come full circle.

Organic stoneground flour is available to the retail customer under Wholegrain Milling Company’s Demeter Farm Mill label. Stockists include: Monks Health Emporium, Armidale; Northern Nuts and Treats, Tamworth; Le Pruneau, Tamworth; From the Soil Up, Inverell; Northeys Nature’s Best, Gunnedah. Contact Wholegrain Milling Company for more.

Image courtesy of Sonoma Artisan Sourdough Bakers

This article first appeared in New England Country Living

Copyright Alison Treloar

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Food and wine at Murrurundi

Provedore Simon Johnson, writer and food media veteran Sue Fairlie-Cuninghame and Willow Tree Inn's Graze chef Colin Selwood are set for a day of delicious food and wine at Murrurundi next month.

Author and art dealer, Michael Reid will host the day at his gallery and gardens on Mayne Street and the trio will discuss food, wine, style, of course.
Fairlie-Cuninghame will begin the day discussing food and wine trends with Reid. A talented recipe writer, cook and stylist, Sue Fairlie-Cuninghame became well-known as executive editor at Vogue Entertaining in the early 90s. She has worked as food director InsideOut magazine and as art director and stylist with chef Neil Perry, and her work can often be seen in Gourmet Traveller.
Guests will then hear the philosophy and practice of good food, regardless of whether you're cooking for one or one hundred, from Colin Selwood, before enjoying lunch.
Finally, Johnson will review the importance of quality. As provider of some of Australia's finest imported and home grown quality food, Johnson knows a thing or two about quality, having taken the leap from chef to purveyor of quality foods in the early 90s.
10am, Friday 5th April, 2013
Michael Reid at Murrurundi
Boyd St, Murrurundi
Ph. 02 6546 6767
$120 pp, including morning tea, lunch & wine
Tickets available here.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The simple things

I have been tending to my lone raspberry cane for nearly 12 months now. This has involved less watering and fertilising, and more defending - against Sam, who is not impressed by the aesthetics of a straggly 2ft plant against our ugly, prominent garden shed.

If you've read my previous post about gardening, you'll know I'm not particularly successful in the green thumbs department. So I was incredibly excited to find this single raspberry on Saturday morning. I actually skipped across the yard to tell Sam about it and then we shared it. Half each. I was a little bit self-righteous and very proud when Sam  exclaimed in a surprised manner, "it's good!"

I can tell from the flowers on the cane that I'm unlikely to have enough raspberries to make a dessert, so I plan to eat them as they appear. This morning we got a whole rasberry each. Happy days!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Tamworth Fine Dining

Name a restaurant in Tamworth that is only open on select Monday and Tuesday evenings and offers a three-course fine dining menu for less than $30?

Impossible, you say? Check out my latest article on Tamworth Country Life so I can prove you wrong - in a delicious way, of course.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Perfect picnic food

Flix in the Stix is coming to Tamworth this week and it sounds to me like a great excuse for a picnic. Unfurl your tartan rug and pack your basket with foods that you can share and graze on – cold meats and olives, finger sandwiches and something sweet to finish.

For more picnic food ideas, including some recommendations from Tamworth's Phillippe Kanyaro, of Le Pruneau, and Leisel Mcilrick, of Ruby's Cafe and Gift Store, check out my article over at Tamworth Country Life.

What's your favourit picnic food?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Party Food

Party food, finger food, nibbles - call it what you like, catering for drinks can often be more labour intensive than cooking a three course meal for eight. So when a friend asked me to bring a plate to his wife's surprise 30th birthday party, I was happy to help out.

There are many bakers of mini-quiche in this town, all of them far more accomplished than me, so I had to come up with another idea. Being the recipe junkie I am, I trawled through my clippings and magazines, developed a shortlist and settled on pork larb.

Larb is a minced meat salad, usually served at room temperature. A quick web search suggests it's a traditional dish of Laos, but it's also a feature of Thai cuisine, in both Thailand and here at home. Indeed, much of the "Thai" food we eat in Australia is often a blend of broader South-East Asian Cuisine.

I'm really not sure how traditional my dish was, but it certainly had typical ingredients: chilli, lemongrass, fish sauce, lime juice, mint and coriander. I found the recipe in a back issue of delicious magazine and the same recipe has been published online by delicious uk.

Drinks were on a Friday night, and this was a fantastic post-work party dish, as I could cook the pork the night before and assemble pre-party. The Australian version of the recipe recommends baby cos leaves. I used both cos and iceberg and I found the iceberg more suitable, with less wastage.

I'd recommend using free range pork mince for the best flavour and don't skip the toasted rice - it's a fantastic looking garnish, is easy to do and surprisingly delicious. Plus it's a key component of traditional larb dishes.

Happy nibbling.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The gardening caper

I am not a very good gardener. Or maybe gardening is harder than I expected it to be. Probably both.
Sixteen months ago, when we moved from inner-city Melbourne to Tamworth, in the north-west of NSW, I expected to find myself in veggie growing heaven. We would have a no-dig garden and a worm farm, we would grow vast quantities of vegetables to share and we would don Etsy-esque aprons and start pickling when it all got too much.
We hit our first hurdle when it came to the no-dig bed. You see, the area we had set aside was 2.5 x 2.5 metres. That’s a lot of pea straw, newspapers, lucerne, well rotted manure, hydrocell and certified-organic compost – all the ingredients we would need according to Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Companion.
We overcame this and incurred much less expense thanks to a generous donation from Sam’s uncle, who is a lucerne farmer, and a trailer-load of organic 3-in-1 from a local landscape supplier. We set out our railway sleepers, laid newspaper on the ground, covered it with lucerne, topped up with organic 3-in-1 from the Tamworth Landscape Supplies and then mulched with more lucerne. And just to be straight with you, “organic” does not refer to a lack of chemicals; rather, it refers to organic material consisting of a whole lot of manure. It smelt questionable and the plants loved it. So did the dog.
Tamworth gets very hot. By the time the garden bed was set it was a little late to be planting from seed, so we bought some seedlings and watched them grow. Summer was a huge success. We lived off beans, pickled cucumbers and made pesto from one metre high basil. We experienced no pests and generally felt very proud of ourselves. The few seeds we did try to raise - beetroot, capsicum, chilli - didn’t amount to much, but we weren’t perturbed. After all, we were still learning.
Then I got a little enthusiastic with seeds. I shopped at diggers. I bought heirloom leek and beetroot; chives, pak choy and watercress; snow peas and broad beans. I planted them direct or in punnets, depending on the instructions. I waited and nothing happened, save for the odd pak choy.
Still I wasn’t perturbed, there were many reasons. The dog got a few of the punnets. I had watered with a watering can, thus likely washing the seeds away. And I had let the punnets dry out - a seed no-no and my biggest challenge. I began planting everything in punnets, even when the instructions said sow direct. I was rewarded with a few beetroot seedlings but still the punnets dried out.
I tried putting the punnets in the shade of an established plant with no success. Then I tried keeping them in the warm shed, moving them outside when the first shoots appeared. I was rewarded with a couple of sprouting snow peas, only to have them consumed by slugs, snails and caterpillars. Sam got sick of having them in the shed and I forgot to water. Fail.
A few people suggested dedicated seed trays. Instead I put my punnets in a sealed plastic container. Still no luck – I can’t even remember why. I bought a mini-greenhouse but then put it in a position that was too hot. I moved it. I tried watering with a spray bottle so my watering can didn’t wash away the seeds, but I wasn’t vigilant enough. Let’s face it, I have a complete lack of dedication to the watering process and apparently near enough is not good enough.
And then, jackpot! I put plastic containers inside the greenhouse, then I put my punnets in the containers with a little water in the bottom. A few things grew.
And then I went overseas for a month.
Fast forward a month or two, and summer storms have wiped out the greenhouse a couple of times. A few weeks ago I bought some seedlings. I think we’ve come full circle.
Have you got any top seed raising tips? Or maybe you have your own story of gardening heartbreak.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Heirloom Tomato Salad

Three years ago today Sam and I got married. Three weeks before that, Sam’s Aunt Jane and Uncle David gave us this amazing Dinosaur Designs platter. We were incredibly touched, both by the generosity of the gift and by the beauty of the piece. I’d like to think that we will cherish every wedding present and remember who gave it to us (so far, so good), but this one is particularly notable.
I have always thought that this platter deserves a colourful salad, although I’ve not yet been game enough to serve beetroot on it. I pictured a bright red, yellow and green salad of heirloom tomatoes however I haven’t been able to grow any (more on that later) and such delicacies are hard to find in Tamworth.
 Fortunately, all of my tomato salad dreams came true last week, when a family friend and my in-laws offloaded a kilo or so of Digger’s Heirloom collection.  
 Wash all tomatoes before cutting in to rough chunks and placing in a large mixing bowl. Preserve variety by considering each tomato’s shape and by slicing bigger tomatoes into thick horizontal slices. Drizzle generously with extra virgin olive oil – I used Chapman Hill New Norcia – and sprinkle with sea salt flakes. Turn gently in the bowl to ensure an even coverage, adding more oil and salt as you go, then leave for an hour.
Arrange tomatoes on your own beautiful platter, reserving the juice in the bottom of the mixing bowl. Taste the juice, adjust for seasoning and add a splash of red wine vinegar if you would like a sharper flavour, before pouring the juice over the tomatoes. Scatter with basil, pepper and buffalo mozzarella (if you have any – I used feta) and serve at room temperature.