I love the way the seasons change; from one week to the next, everything can be so different; the light, the smells and sounds. On a Saturday afternoon from my terrace in inner city Melbourne I can hear sport being played on the oval in the local gardens. The loud tap of the cricket ball and the cheering as runs are made tells me that we are approaching summer (cricket is a summer sport for those who don’t know it). The trailing fronds of purple wisteria that lined the laneway by my house have finished and have been replaced by a wall of scented jasmine. In the home I grew up in, the bougainvillea tree was just outside my bedroom window; and I knew we were well into spring when it had sprouted leaves of a brilliant magenta, that grew so quickly my father would have to trim them back before the branches passed the telephone line. In the back yard it was easy to tell what season we were in: the climbing bean stalks were heavy with long green beans; the garlic leaves were turning brown and wilting, so it was time to harvest the bulbs from the earth and it was time to take stock of the peach and plum trees, to see how much fruit they would be giving us later in the summer and how many nets we would need this year to protect them from birds.
I am fortunate to have grown up at a time and in a house where eating seasonally was just the way it was. Every season was different with its own special memories. When mamma would make asparagus risotto, I knew it was Spring because I would look outside the kitchen window and see the peach tree in bloom. Cherries remind me of early summer, around my birthday and a favourite memory is the giant box of cherries that would (and still does) grace the family table after Christmas lunch. After that, cherry season was practically over until next year. I have a memory of going to our friend Silvano’s house at the end of summer, when the leaves on the trees in his garden were starting to fade, to get boxes of grapes with papà for home made wine. These memories and stories of produce are strongly connected to the season in which they are grown. I wouldn’t think of having asparagus risotto in winter, or of eating grapes in spring. There is a loss of connection with the land, the season and for me there is no memory attached to these. And frankly it seems odd, like eating pumpkin in summer or tomatoes in the deepest winter. But times have changed and now you can find oranges from the US in the Australian summer, and Mexican asparagus in autumn.
Eating fresh produce out of season feels wrong for so many reasons: it is bad for the local growers (if we eat cherries all year round, then who gets excited about the local season starting?), it is very expensive and the food miles (and the resultant greenhouse gas emissions) are massive. Fresh produce from other countries doesn’t taste good and it is not as good for you (it was picked too early, long before it was ripe and hasn’t developed all its vitamins and minerals). It has sat in quarantine in some artificially cooled location (which is bad news for the planet) for even longer, then sits on a shelf for a long time losing even more nutrients. And who knows what it has been sprayed with to make it look that good. It is what I call “the McDonald’s effect”, part of the premise of which is to be able to eat the same thing no matter what country you are in, no matter what season it is. You could say the same for fruit and vegetables shipped from one continent to the next; we can eat (inferior) grapes and asparagus all year round, disconnected from the seasons, the land and our local community.
Eating locally and seasonally is very important to me, and because of my father’s garden and mamma’s kitchen, I know what is in season. So take a moment to think before making a purchase. Where did the item you are about to purchase come from? There is usually a label with country of origin on it (and if not, you can ask). Price is a big indicator: if it costs a lot, then there isn’t much of it around (so it is probably not in season and possibly imported). The fruit and vegetables might look colourful and fresh, but if they are imported, they were picked a long time ago. And if you can avoid going to a supermarket (which sells a lot of things but is good at nothing except for convenience) and shop at a market, especially a farmer’s market, you are much more likely to find seasonal local produce. Going to markets is, at least for me, one of life’s great joys.
Today was market day in our house. I love having a free Saturday to shop at the Victoria Market with Mark (who is very good at carrying all the bags). John from Tomato City asked me where I had been (I hadn’t been to the market for months), as he picked out some of his best salad tomatoes and a big bag of late season broad beans. I stopped to say hello to Gus and Carmel at Fruttivendolo, buying green beans, zucchini and baby cucumbers.
When I arrived home, I laid out all the produce on the dining table, a glorious late Spring spread of fruit and vegetables. The broad beans, made it into this salsa; and I washed and blanched the chicory, then stored it in the fridge for use during the week. I ate handfuls of cherries (there is nothing like tasting the first ones of the season, and they were a great price) and made the apricots into a cake. The cake was not without drama; I forgot to put in the ground almonds and only realised it after I had put it in the oven (maybe 3 minutes later). I quickly retrieved it, pulled off the apricot halves, stirred in the almonds (with the batter still in the tin), replaced the apricots and then put it back in the oven. It didn’t turn out to be the prettiest of cakes (hence there is no photo of the cake as a whole) but it tasted great. The ripe apricot halves are soft and juicy, with a slight tartness that I just love and it works so well with the almonds in the cake itself. Apricots remind me of early summer, just before Christmas madness sets in. I couldn’t think of eating them in any other season.
While we are on the subject of eating seasonally and sustainably, I am very excited to be going to Festival 21, a massive grass-roots celebration of food, culture and future run by the Sandro Demaio Foundation. It is being held on 2 February 2019 at the Meatmarket in Melbourne. There is a great lineup of speakers who care about food and our planet including Silvia Colloca, Alice Zavlasky, Sarah Wilson, Sandro Demaio, Damon Gameau, Richard di Natale and so many more, talking about why food is so important, the challenges it presents and the opportunities to overcome them. There will also be workshops and demonstrations (I will be running one on the pleasure of making pasta). The event is FREE but nearly full. So if you are interested, please have a look at the Festival 21 website for more information and to book.
apricot and almond cake
6-8 apricots, washed, dried, halved and stones removed
120g unsalted butter at room temperature
130g raw sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 tsp almond essence
140g plain flour
2 tsps baking powder
40 ml milk
30 ml amaretto (or brandy or extra milk if you do not want to use alcohol)
125g almond meal
Line the base and sides of a 23cm cake tin with a removable base. Preheat the oven to 170C.
Place the chopped butter and sugar in the bowl of your kitchen mixer and mix at medium speed until creamy. Add the eggs and beat until well combined. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Fold half of the dry ingredients into the egg mixture, then add the amaretto/brandy, milk and almond essence. Fold through. Add the rest of the flour, folding that through. Lastly add the almond meal; folding until it is well combined.
Pour the batter into the prepared tin. Now press the apricot halves into the batter so that they almost touch the base of the tin. How many you need will depend on how big they are. Bake for one hour or until a skewer inserted comes out clean and the top is golden. Allow to cook before removing from the tin.
The cake keeps 2-3 days in a sealed container in the fridge.