The Wisdom of the Contadini. Spring Garden Diary

An old Italian proverb advises,” Quando i mandorli fioriscono, le donne impazziscono“- when the almond tree blooms, women go crazy. I can safely say that I missed this arboricultural, aphrodisiacal or psychotic event a few weeks ago. The almonds already have fruit! Mr Tranquillo is looking for a later flowering variety to extend the season.

My productive organic orto reminds me of the wisdom contained in old Italian proverbs, based on the experience of centuries of vegetable growing by the Italian contadini, the rural peasants, who depended on a productive home garden for crops to be eaten fresh, stored, pickled or dried. Given that this class of farmer was often at the mercy of the landowner, working under the mezzadria, the traditional share cropping system, a productive ‘home’ patch would have been essential to their survival.

Earrly zucchini plantings- another round wll be planted in late December
Early zucchini planting- another round will be planted in late December.

With each turn around the garden, I can hear the vecchi, the old folk, reciting advice in the form of rhymes, the oral history of food and planting.  I have selected a few gems to go with this season’s verdant bounty.

Masses of herbs
Masses of herbs for salsa and pesto
  • Chi pianta le fave senza concime, le raccoglie senza baccello – Those who plant broadbeans without fertiliser, picks them without pods.
Waiting for the first Fave Beans
Waiting for the first fave beans.
  • Chi ha un buon orto, ha un buon porco. Those who have a good vegetable garden, have a good pig. We find this to be the case with chooks also: they love wild rocket and silverbeet.
    The girls are excited when the big gates are opened. Springtime meeans more eggs.
    Let me out…stamp, stamp, stamp.
  • Un piatto di lattuga l’insonnia mette in fuga.  A plate of lettuce chases away insomnia.

    cos and radicchio
    cos and radicchio
  • L’insalata vuole il sale da un sapiente, l’aceto da un avaro, l’olio da un prodigo, vuol essere mescolata da un matto e mangiata da un affamato.  A salad wants salt from a wise man, vinegar from a miser and oil from a squanderer, mixed by a madman and eaten by the hungry.
  • Wild rocket pops up anywhere in the garden: enough for us and the chooks.
    Wild rocket pops up anywhere in the garden: enough for us and the chooks.
  • Lattuga romanella ripulisce la budella. Cos lettuce cleans the gut.

    Abundant Cos lettuce seedlings from saved seed
    Abundant Cos lettuce seedlings from saved seed

Simple dishes star this season, the cucina povera of the Italian contadini: 

  • freshly made egg pasta with sage leaves browned in butter
  • frittata stuffed with herbs and wild greens, with ricotta saltata
  • orecchiette with turnip tops, garlic and anchovies
  • green salads wisely dressed
  • pies and tarts with silverbeet, dill, spring onions and mint, along with fetta
  • silver beet dolmades
  • salsa verde to dress fish or dill and walnut pesto to dress hard-boiled eggs
  • risotto with cavolo nero or radicchio
Radiccho grows everywhere, as well as in the path!
Radiccho grows everywhere, as well as in the path!

It’s all very green with the odd touch of bitter crimson. The planting of the summer fruiting vegetables has begun.

The most versatile vegetable, the humble silver beet.
The most versatile vegetable, the humble silver beet.

Julie’s Spring garden in the North Island of New Zealand is always inspiring, especially given her brilliant photography. Find her at frogpondfarm

I am also linking in with Lizzie’s Garden Share Collective this month.

Soap Box Saturday: Change

Notice the rooftops of these apartment buildings in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China. They are covered in solar hot water units.

Kunming rooftops.
Kunming rooftops.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the ways in which the Chinese are embracing change: in fact, Kunming’s initiatives in the solar industry field made a huge impact on me. It removed all those stereotypical views one might hold about China, overcrowding and pollution. They are working on change at a rapid rate.

Australia is a land of plentiful sunshine whose political leaders are backward in accepting change. This happens at the Federal, State and local government level. All have their heads in the sand, even those who purport to be Green. Our local councils could be leaders in change, by insisting that all new inner city developments and apartment blocks include solar features.

Solar Power in Kunming
Solar Power in Kunming

In the photo below, the dedicated motorbike and bike lane is sectioned off from the other traffic. I wandered down these wide boulevards and was not aware of the any motorbike noise or pollution: I then observed that they were all electric.

Orderly traffic in the centre of the city: electrric bikes, buses
Orderly traffic in the centre of the city: electric bikes, buses

 Worth quoting from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kunming#Solar_energy

In July 2008, Kunming began to implement a program to transform the city’s solar energy industry into a US$8.8 billion industrial base in China by 2013. Kunming receives an annual average sunshine of more than 2,400 hours. Each 1 kW PV system has the potential to generate 1500 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year from solar energy.

The government plans to put in place policies (low-interest loans, tax exemption and other concessions or subsidies) and a fund to encourage private sector participation in the city’s solar energy-based infrastructure development. The fund, which will be included in the municipal government’s annual budget, will particularly finance LED for public lighting, solar projects, and the propagation of energy saving projects.

As of 2007, the Kunming Economic Committee listed about 130 solar energy enterprises in the city. Of these, 118 enterprises produce solar lamps and solar water heaters, with a combined total production value of about US$43.8 million, and 10 enterprises are engaged in solar photovoltaic cells manufacturing, with a total production value of about US$51.2 million.

Pasta con Capesante. Scallop Season.

Sea scallops, besides being a delicious seasonal treat, come loaded with myth and metaphor, from the fertility symbol of antiquity (the shell symbolising the protective and nurturing principle, and inwardly, the “life-force slumbering within the Earth”, an emblem of the vulva) to the modern-day adoption of the scallop shell for less romantic purposes, such as the Shell Petroleum company.

The most endearing connection is the scallop’s association with St James/ Santiago/St Jacques. Those who have walked part, or all the camino, arriving in Santiago di Compostela in Galicia, will be familiar with the cockle shell carried on the end of their bastone or walking stick, to arrive at the Cathedral in Santiago for a blessing or mass. The scallop shell is the most ubiquitous tourist memento from Santiago di Compostela and probably has been since medieval times.

Santiago in his shell covered hat.
Santiago in his shell covered hat.

For the pre-Christian Celt, the scallop shell resembled the setting sun, which was the focus of Celtic rituals in Galicia. The camino route was a Celtic death journey westwards towards the setting sun, terminating at the Finisterra, the end of the world, on the Costa da Morte.

This all makes lots of sense really but then how did St James, Santiago, St Jacques, become associated with sea scallops?

More scallop onamentation on Saint James.
More scallop ornamentation on Saint James.

The association can most likely be traced to the legend that the apostle once rescued a knight covered in scallops. An alternative version of the legend holds that while St. James’ remains were being transported to Galicia in Spain, the horse of a knight fell into the water, and emerged covered in the shells.

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The Italians have three names for the tasty scallop, the most common being capesante, deriving from medieval times when priests used the shell to pour holy water onto the heads of those receiving baptism. The alternate names, conchiglia di San Giacomo (like the French coquilles Saint Jacques)  and conchiglia del pellegrino simply meaning St James’ shell or the shell of the pilgrim.

The English derivation of scallop comes from the French, escalope, meaning ‘shell’, not so historically romantic.

Scallop statues of Santiago di Compostella.
Scallop statues of Santiago di Compostela.

Scallop season begins here in late July (mid winter) in the Bass Straight central district, around the cold and pristine waters off the east Coast of Victoria. The quota has increased this season, indicating that stocks are healthy, and usually runs till early December. Scallops from Lakes Entrance are in a class of their own, especially if you can get them as soon as they arrive in the fisherman’s co-op.

One of my favourite scallop dishes combines them with a super fine pasta such as capellini or tagliatelline egg pasta, with the scallops finely sliced and tossed with lots of garlic sauce and a hint of chilli.

capellini con capsante

Tagliatellini con Capesante. Fine egg pasta with scallops.

Ingredients for Two

  • 200 g thin egg pasta (tagliatelline)
  • 2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • two pinches dried chilli flakes
  • your best olive oil, a generous glug
  • 250 gr scallops, cleaned, sliced.
  • dry white wine, around 1/4 glass.
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • finely chopped handful of Italian parsley.

Method

  • Cook the pasta in ample salted boiling water, according to packet instructions.
  • Meanwhile, add olive oil to a large frying pan. When it is hot, quickly stir around the scallop slices. Don’t cook for more than one minute.
  • Add garlic and chilli flakes, toss about, then add the wine, then finely ground black pepper. Toss again. If the pasta isn’t ready, remove the scallop sauce from the heat.
  • Drain the pasta well. Add to the frying pan, folding through with the scallop sauce. Add the parsley then serve in heated bowls.
    tagliatelline con capesante
    tagliatelline con capesante

    This song goes so nicely with scallop season and memories of Santiago de Compostela. Chove en Santiago by Luar na Lubre. When I first heard this song echoing down a rainy lane in Santiago de Compostela, I cried. Sung in Galician, with strong Celtic threads, it still overwhelms me.

Taste from Heaven

I haven’t adjusted to the cold of Melbourne’s Spring weather. Spring is so overrated: there isn’t much difference between the first month of Spring and Winter, except for the presence of daffodils. Unlike Wordsworth, daffodils don’t make me feel gay or jocund, nor do I have time to lie on the couch “in vacant or in pensive mood” thinking about them!  A bunch or two of nodding yellow flowers improves the decor, but hardly makes up for the perennial grey of sky that seeps into the dark recesses of the psyche.

To counter this dullness of season and mood, I’m mentally returning to Thailand to complete some unfinished business. Let me introduce Nan, the proprietor of Taste from Heaven restaurant, in Chiang Mai.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Nan, of Taste of Heaven, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Nan owned a Thai restaurant in the Gold Coast, Australia for many years before returning to her home town to open Taste  from Heaven some years ago. She is a gracious front of house, keeping a careful eye on the flow of customers, engaging pleasantly with them, as well as being involved in the daily running of the restaurant. I returned to Nan’s “Heaven” at least 7 times whilst in Chiang Mai. To be truthful, I really didn’t want to go anywhere else.

If you are in need of sunshine, warmth or a metaphorical daffodil, these lovely dishes might offer consolation.

Grilled mushoom skewers, great with a Chang Beer
Grilled mushroom skewers, marinated with coconut oil, Indian curry powder, turmeric powder,milk and coconut milk served with peanut sauce. 85 Baht

We tried so many dishes from the menu and usually ordered far too much. The size of the dishes at ‘Heaven’ are larger than the usual Thai offerings. Often as a starter, to go with a chilled beer, we ordered Grilled Mushrooms with Peanut sauce. I never asked Nan about the mushroom species but they were large and ‘meaty’. The deep-fried Angel mushrooms   (below) were also rather ‘moreish’.

Deep Fried Mushrooms in a seasoned sesame seed tempura batter served with sweet chilli sauce. 75 Baht
Angel mushrooms deep-fried in a seasoned sesame seed tempura batter served with sweet chilli sauce. 75 Baht

We usually shared two or three mains after one entrée, along with rice. At ‘Heaven’ you choose between steamed jasmine rice, in white, brown or black. They are all good. Below, I have featured a few of the sensational dishes we tried. More can be found on my post here.

sirr frieed eggplant with garrlic, tofu, spring onons, chilli soya bean sauce and seet basil leaves. 75 Baht
Stir fried eggplant with garlic, tofu, spring onions, chilli soya bean sauce and sweet basil leaves. 75 Baht
Mushroom Larb- chopped angel mushroom, stemp mushroom with special sauce, mint, red onion, chilli powder, chopped tofu, roasted rice and lime juice.
Mushroom Larb- chopped angel mushroom, stemp mushroom with special sauce, mint, red onion, chilli powder, chopped tofu, roasted rice and lime juice.
Pad Se-Ew noodle, with garlic, textured soy protein,carrot, cauliflower and Chinese broccoli. 75baht.
Pad Se-Ew noodle, with garlic, textured soy protein,carrot, cauliflower and Chinese broccoli. 75baht.
Massaman curry, complete with deep exotic middle eastern flavous.
Massaman curry, potato, textured soy protein, root vegetables complete with deep exotic Indian flavours, such as whole cardamom pods.
Thai Green curry. Hmmmmm.
Thai green curry. Mmmmm.
Thai style eggplant salad, with tofu, oniion, chili, garlic topped with mint and served with boiled egg.
Thai style eggplant salad, with tofu, onion, chili, garlic topped with mint and served with boiled egg.

The eggplant salad was my favourite. I remember the first time I tasted this dish in Narathiwat in 1995; the taste has lingered all these years. The key element is the smoked Thai baby eggplant which are then skinned and lightly mashed, retaining their smoky juices which blend so well with the lime juice and herbal elements. I mentioned to Nan that this dish is slowly disappearing from Thai menus, or if it does turn up, it lacks the oomph provided by the smoke, raw garlic and mint.

Heavenly food from Taste from Heaven.
Heavenly food from Taste from Heaven.
Another smiling staff member form Taste From Heaven
Another smiling staff member from Taste From Heaven
  • They also run a cookery school, three hours, for 100o baht pp. Sadly, Nan’s assistant was away for a month and so I missed out. Next time for sure.
  •  At the time of writing, the exchange rate was around 25 Baht to the Australian dollar. Most plates cost around $3-4, with rice at around $1.

Thank you Nan for the delightful food memories.

Taste from Heaven Vegetarian Restaurant

34/1 Ratmakka Road,
T. Prasinhg A. Muang,
Chiang Mai 5020

Open every day from 9am to 10pm
(except Wednesday 9am to 9pm)

http://taste-from-heaven.com/Taste_From_Heaven/Home.html

Home and Away in Monochrome

Women work at a seaweed farm on the coast off Nusa Lembongan, an island off the south east coast of Bali, Indonesia. This monochromatic view has an impressionistic feel, a case of life imitating art.

Nusa Lembongan. Seaweed gatherers.
Nusa Lembongan. Seaweed gatherers.

My daughter loves retro finds. A monochromatic corner of her living room looks like a scene from Madmen.

Rachael's Retro corner.
Rachael’s retro corner.

 

 

 

Kale, Tofu and Salmon Soup. The Cure.

I never jumped on the kale bandwagon when it became the most blogged about vegetable a year or two ago. I avoid foods that are trendy, or should I say, foods that are trending (and when did trend suddenly become a verb?) It’s not because I don’t like kale: I do grow the darker version in my garden, or rather, it grows itself annually, the tall Tuscan Prince of Winter, Cavolo Nero. Now that kale has been outstripped by the dreaded coconut in all its fatty guises, I might safely write about it.

A bouquet of kale.
A bouquet of kale.

My friend Dianne presented me with a large bouquet of beautiful purple tipped kale leaves. We were wandering through her productive veggie patch, considering the nature of gardens in their Spring transitional stage. Her bountiful kale plants, all self-sown, may need to make way for spring potatoes. Some serious food swapping needs to happen down her end of the country lane. In the meantime I am happy to take the excess and swap for Cos lettuce or radicchio seedlings.

Di's self sown winter kale. Photo by Di Gilkes.
Di’s self-sown winter kale. Photo by Di Gilkes.

Our garden tour took place before we drank our way through the wine cellar and agreed that a sleepover was not only wise, but compulsory. We raised our glasses in tribute to our recently departed friend and pondered the meaning of life, all those questions that assume magnitude after a wine or six. Promises were made, and as I recall, a meal was eaten. We are too old and wise to adopt the famous drinker’s adage,”eating’s cheating”. No, maybe not wise.

balance and harmony
Balance and Harmony

But, getting back to that kale, now that the old-fashioned winter green is no longer trending, a healthy Japanese soup, combining kale, miso and tofu seems in order. I might even add a little recuperative salmon to the brew. Perhaps I should call this Penance Soup?

INGREDIENTS, for four.

  • 5 cups water or vegetable stock
  • 2 spring onions, white and light-green parts only, thinly sliced
  • 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
  • 1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
  • 3 tablespoons shiro miso or pale coloured miso
  • 2 teaspoons Japanese soy sauce, such as, Kikkoman
  • 85 gr kale, trimmed and shredded
  • 175 gr silken tofu, drained, cut into small cubes
  • 180 gr piece of salmon fillet, skin removed, cubed
  • reserved chopped spring onion greens for serving

    The Cure
    The Cure

DIRECTIONS

  1. Bring the stock or water to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add spring onions, ginger, and garlic. Reduce heat. Cover, and simmer 10 minutes.

  2. Add miso, then stir to dissolve. Add the soy sauce, kale, and salmon. Return to a simmer, and continue cooking gently until kale is tender, about 5 minutes. Add the silken tofu cubes to heat through. Add reserved chopped spring onion greens when serving.

Notes. The salmon can be left out for a simpler vegetarian version. Any tofu may be used but I prefer the silken variety for this soup.

respect and
Respect and Tranquillity.

Farewell to our friend Piers, artist, sailor, adventurer.

Selma’s Sour Cherry, Coconut and Oat Slice.

They assure me that Spring has arrived. The nectarine tree is in full blossom, and there are signs of new energy in the vegetable garden. But I’m not so sure, it still feels quite wintery to me. The fires are going, a big pot of barley soup bubbles on the stove, made just for Noah.

This jam filled oat slice is a sweet winter warmer and made in memory of Selma. It was going to be a loaf of bread, in line with the many sourdough tributes baked in loving memory of Selma, but then I noticed this easy jammy slice, posted last May on her blog. If you didn’t make it back then, I can recommend this slice for ease of preparation, taste, and for the excellent and very clear instructions.

https://selmastable.wordpress.com/2015/05/15/sour-cherry-coconut-and-oat-slice/

My adaptations included substituting blackberry jam for the sour cherry jam, and desiccated coconut for shredded. You could use any jam that needs using up. I can’t wait for the littlies to walk in the door and see how they go.

Selma’s Table. In Loving Memory.

Connected in Chengdu

Steaming baskets, Narrow Lane, Chengdu, China
Bamboo Steamers, Narrow Lane, Chengdu, China

Chengdu, Sichuan Provence, China. Inter- connecting bamboo steaming baskets tempt those wandering by. Narrow and Wide Lanes are two pedestrian only areas in central Chengdu, famous for bars, restaurants and small courtyards.

Steaming baskets, Chengdu, Chna
Steaming baskets, Chengdu, China

 

The Town that Turned Retro

The main thing you will notice when strolling down the main street of the small village of Chiang Khan, Northern Thailand, is that the town has turned retro! The street running parallel to the Mekong River, is lined with teak buildings that have been beautifully restored, and most of these – shops, guest houses, restaurants and tea houses- proudly display an eclectic collection of retro decor. The era is mostly 60s and totally kitsch. Open any of the photos below and delight in retro madness.

The municipality won the year 2010 architectural conservation award from Architect Council of Thailand. Since that year, more than 2000 old teak houses and shops along the main road, Thanon Chai Khong and nearby lanes, have been registered with the municipality’s architectural campaign, with over 600 receiving grants to renovate. This, in the era of the uniform concrete block house, is delightful to see. The young and well-heeled from Bangkok swarm here on the weekends, to stay in ‘original’ old houses with matching decor. The young are embracing Thai architectural history they barely remember, the old teak house, which is now missing from big cities.

Original guesthouse facing onto the Mekong river at Chiang Khan, Thailand.
Original guesthouse facing onto the Mekong river at Chiang Khan, Thailand.

During the day, the town is sleepy, with only a few restaurants and coffee houses open for business. In the late afternoon, the main street transforms into a walking market, although the number of stalls vastly increases on Friday and Saturday nights when the young city folk arrive in mini buses from down south.

The other welcome feature is that the main street and series of  20 or so perpendicular lanes, are devoid of through traffic. Here the bicycle rules and has become the town logo.

You won’t find backpacker travellers here or westernised food, no pancakes or pizzas, and very little spoken English. If you go, take your Thai phrase book. There are a couple of great restaurants in town that do offer a menu in English, the best being Faikam, which does wonderful versions of most Thai favourites. The average cost for a double room, with aircon and bathroom, facing the Mekong River starts at around 600 Baht per night ( AU $24.00).

How to get there. Fly into Loei, with Air Asia, from various big cities in Thailand, then take a mini van from the airport to Chiang Khan. Or, go, as we did, along the Mekong river by car, from Nong Khai to Chiang Khan, one of the great road trips of Asia.

Chiang Khan or Inner city Melbourne?
Chiang Khan or Inner city Melbourne?