Stories Food Growers tell


In wintery April weather, we chatted over a prolonged afternoon tea. As well as asking each other’s advice, like Chris wondering about planting chokos, we also shared surplus produce and stories.

Some were proper food-growing tales, like Jenny J’s disaster when two heifers got out of the paddock and into the veggies. Apparently, they walked delicately down the paths, causing minimal damage to the infrastructure, despite their half ton weights, yet in their hunger devastated the veggies all the same. Our White Face who loved to jump never got close to the veggie patch, though several times she visited the neighbour’s steers after achieving a clear round, not even nicking the top bar of the gate.

Talking of clear rounds, the other Jenny is an accomplished equestrian, but it seems riding camels is not the same as riding horses. She took an early tumble on her first camel experience. She hastily remounted, so her host would not see her indignity. How does one hastily mount a camel? They seem such unfriendly creatures, and I thought camel rides required the handler to make the beast sit before inexperienced riders attempted mounting. I guess that’s the difference between a real farmer and an ex-townie, real farmers can make even camels obey!

The White Face heifer I mentioned earlier, Freckles, was not at all obedient the day we tried to load her on the truck. Although our little yards are over 5 feet high, she managed to get her forequarters out in her bid for freedom. We had to stand guard, “persuading” her back, or I am sure she’d somehow have escaped and eaten our veggies.

The prize for the oddest job recounted that afternoon goes to Tim and Joanna, deconstructing their orchid houses. Often harder work than building them in the first place. Their little orchard already produced so many surplus Beurre Bosc pears that after the group took what they wanted there were still more for me to share more widely.

Vietnamese Aubergine


This recipe is deceptively simple and yet delicious (common characteristics of Vietnamese cuisine). Eat on its own with rice for makes a light Vegan meal, or as tasty vegetable dish for larger meals.


2 tsp oil (peanut is authentic)
1 clove garlic (finely chopped)
2 tomatoes
1 tsp lemongrass
1 1/2 Tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp sugar (palm sugar is authentic)
2 small or 1 large aubergine cut into 1cm chunks (the thin Asian ones are authentic, so 2)
1 spring onion (chopped)
1 red chilli (cut finely, scrape off the to make the dish less hot)
pinch turmeric
pinch pepper


Fry the garlic, add tomato and lemongrass, add 2 Tbsp water, stirring. After a couple of minutes add half fish sauce, sugar and aubergine. Add 1 cup water and rest of fish sauce and sugar, add turmeric, pepper and the stalk of the lemongrass (if you are using the real thing). Simmer for about 7 more minutes till the aubergine is cooked, garnish with chilli, spring onions and basil (or other herbs like corriander)

Healthiest Chocolate Treat: Research update and recipe

IMG_1014Phase two of my R & D efforts to produce the world’s healthiest chocolate treat saw the addition of beetroot, almond flour and licorice to reduce the sugar content. The result is not so much a muffin as a hot chocolate mousse, but so delicious it has to be bad for you, yet so healthy it’s criminal.

Hot Chocolate Mousse Recipe

Blitz in food processor:

  • 1 large or 2 small cooked beetroot
  • 1 large or 2 small avocado


  • 1 cup cacao
  • 1/2 cup almond flour
  • 1 tsp licorice extract and 1tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup flour sieved together with 3 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 cup sugar (you may be happy with less, or may need more – you be the judge, cookery is all about frequent tasting 😉
  • 1 cup milk (or milk substitute) add more till a slightly runny batter is produced

By hand mix in:

  • 1/3 cup cacao nibs

Makes enough to fill 12 large muffin cases. Cook at 170c for about half an hour (the time will vary a lot depending on the exact size of the veges etc… so again judgement is needed.

Result hard shelled soft and gooey chocolate mousses to eat with a spoon, decadent and delightful.

Health Warning

When you discover red in the toilet bowl, do NOT panic, you do NOT have ebola, beetroot does this if you eat enough, and you will not stop at just one or two of these treats.

If you want to make these even more decadently delicious, and can stand them being a tiny touch less outrageously healthy sprinkle with icing sugar.

Giving a fig

Fig via Wikimedia

Fig via Wikimedia

Delicate pink, sweetly aromatic and succulent, fresh figs are delightful. In Bible times the good life meant everyone having their own vine and fig tree. We don’t yet have vines, we do have four fig trees, though they’ve yet to produce a crop. Wind tore branches off our best tree, leaving a huge scar and split trunk. What the winds left the birds have eaten. Others in the food growers’ group have fig trees too. The “other Tim” has a row of flourishing trees. The fruit he offered round at April’s meeting was delicious. Naturally the conversation turned to figs.

Did you know that several varieties produce two crops a year? What other fruit tree (except the ubiquitous lemon) can say that? Figs are also remarkably resilient. Our wind battered victim has the makings of a half decent crop, despite its sad state, the birds certainly enjoyed them! One expert even recommends planting in a washing machine drum to restrict the roots and so promote fruiting!

Figs are weird, not fruit at all, but “inverted flowers”! The succulent juicy sweet “flesh” is really the flower – no wonder they have that attractive colour. This strange inside-out flower can’t be pollinated the usual way, but needs a special kind of wasp, which crawls inside the fruit. Wasps were another topic of conversation, everyone saw more than usual last summer. But at our place, the wasps were more interested in devastating our apple crop, than investigating our figs with their inside-out flowers!

Healthiest Chocolate Treat Ever: Current Research

Avocado Chocolate Muffin mix

Avocado Chocolate Muffin mix

For my current research project I am experimenting with substitutions with the aim of producing the healthiest chocolate treat ever.

I am using my standard chocolate muffin recipe as the starting and reference point.

My first step is was radical, I substituted avocado for the fat, milk and egg. Aiming at Vegan as well as healthy. So far results are encouraging the muffins are soft, almost creamy and chocolaty. (Just needing a little salt – hopefully not enough t be unhealthy – to counteract the vegetarian bitterness of the avocado.)

Replacing half the chocolate chips with cocoa nibs also worked well.

Now, what I need next is a sugar substitute. Would honey work do you think? And does Manuka honey retain its health benefits when heated?

For chocolate-lovers only

Perhaps practice makes (if not perfect) them look better...These cookies pack the most intense chocolate punch. They are not for people who think that white stuff is “chocolate”, even people who believe real chocolate can advertise how much milk it contains may balk, but those who love real high cacao solid dark chocolate should love them. They don’t look like much before they are cooked and are even less appealing when baked, but the taste and texture… Try some on a chocolate-lover near you 🙂

They are soft and crumbly, but so chocolatey…

  • 250g shortening (I used a mix of margarine and rice bran oil)
  • 140g sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 50g cacao made up to 300g with plain flour (use less cacao for a milder chocolate hit)
  • 0.5-1tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup chocolate cut into fragments and cacao nibs (again for those who want milder could try all chocolate fragments)

Each time you add an ingredient mix. (The easiest way is straight into the food processor and zap until the last item.)

Make into balls, smaller than golf balls (unless you want giant cookies). Place on baking sheet well apart, squash with two fingers or the base of a tumbler. Cook at 180 C for 12-15mins. They will still feel soft, but will harden on cooling.

They look dreadful (that’s why there are no photos), so you may want to do what we do to make brownies look respectable drench with icing sugar…  personally I leave them nude and hope that will put other people off, sadly Barbara was still happy to scoff half the last batch 🙁

PS Can anyone tell me a source of Fair Trade cacao nibs in NZ – googling suggests they are available in the USA but not here 🙁

The Fence Saga (Part 2)

Our ram, Beau, is a fine looking Arapawa with impressive curly horns. Gentle with humans, loving to be scratched behind the ears or patted. With other animals he’s all aggression. When sheep and cattle are in the same paddock, Beau chases the steers. If they stand still, he goes for a head butt, springing up with all four legs to reach. It’s hilarious, the poor steers don’t know what to make of him, but it’s too likely someone will get hurt. We no longer put steers and sheep together.


Beau when he was very young, he’s twice the size now with fine curly horns – I must get a more recent portrait!

With no steers to intimidate, he takes on fence posts. In his tussle with the new gate post (see last month) he somehow unhooked the stay. The post itself was then easy prey. Battering it into submission, he sprung the latch, the little locking ring is now on the outside. I hadn’t got round to replacing it, but hoped if the steers (who are now there) pushed the latch would just hold firmer.

I forgot that they use tongues to grasp and pull long grass, or given the chance branches from the bush. They’re remarkably dexterous for creatures without fingers. It took a bit of practice, but what else have cattle to do with their time? Bruce unlatched the gate and the steers had free access to two paddocks. So I tied it with baler twine.

One good nudge and his 500Kg could easily snap it, but that would be cheating! He plans to suck his way out. He’s licking the twine and it’s getting thinner. If I don’t get to Farmlands for a new latch they’ll be through again…

Fencing lessons

Even in a very small space there's room for tomatoes, beans, lettuce and more

Behind the chickenproof fence

As an ex-townie it surprised me how many conversations here concern fences. I’m learning about fences though. When I tried to follow potatoes with brassicas for winter, no sooner were my seedlings planted than rabbits (who ignored the poisonous potatoes) ripped them out.

It’s not just rabbits, chooks strip vege patches bare. We thought a “raised” bed would deter them. They had the bed raked clean within hours of my first planting. Two-strand wire didn’t deter them. Now we have chicken wire on stout uniposts, and so far it’s working…

As a townie, I naïvely thought farm fences kept animals in. Deer fencing is tall because deer jump, cattle fences are low but strong because that keeps cattle in… The neighbour’s bull taught us differently. He visited our steers, teaching them to fence-crash. Watching a half-tonne steer clear a gate and charge off into the wild green yonder, you know fences encourage animals to stay home. They cannot make them.

Not the fence I built but a properly rustic one we saw when on holiday down the forgotten world highway

Not the fence I built but a properly rustic one we saw when on holiday down the forgotten world highway

An electric outrigger may stop cattle, but electric doesn’t work with sheep. For a year or so, nine wire with battens seemed enough, our little flock stayed home. Till Harry, our Wiltshire wether, got spooked. We’re not sure how he did it. He jumps well, but he’s a heavy hogget, and he’s pretty big, so could he squeeze between tight wires?

As I’ve learned, I’ve become more ambitious, from touching up fences with electric wires to building my own. A big flat paddock divided in two. Beau, our Arapawa ram, had other ideas. He took a dislike to the gate post. First he dislodged the stay, then the post itself (helped by all that tension on the wires) was easily butted into submission.

Actually it’s no wonder conversations keep turning to fences…

Why Grow Your Own? and Why have a “Food Growers’ Group”?

Even in a very small space there's room for tomatoes, beans, lettuce and more

Even in a very small space there’s room for tomatoes, beans, lettuce and more

Different people grow their own vegetables, or fruit, for different reasons. For some it’s crispness and taste, nothing beats tender garden-fresh salads, “truss tomatoes” from the shop can’t quite capture the vivid fresh smell and taste of ones ripened outside your window. Others like to know they are not eating chemicals, or at least what chemicals they are eating. There’s also the satisfaction of knowing that you are providing for your own basic needs.

Likewise everyone has different ideas of scale. Some start small, a pot or two of lettuces and parsley on the deck, or even window-sill. Others are extremists. A couple of years before “The Good Life”, I dug up the lawns of our small-town quarter-acre, and planted a huge range of veges.

Whatever your reasons, and whatever the scale of your “plot”, sharing ideas, triumphs and failures helps. Back in the 70s, I learned so much and avoided many silly mistakes by listening to the “old guy” across the road who had been growing his own since before the war.

It still helps to chat with others, and since our climate (We reckon it’s 2 degrees cooler than Barkes Corner, where we are. What’s your estimate?) and soil are different from what they have in town, it makes sense to meet others locally. That’s why the “Food Growers Group” that we have been part of for a couple of years now was started. As well as sharing ideas and experience over a cuppa monthly, we get to see other people’s patches, and we often share seedlings as well as failures and successes. It’s a great idea and worth doing elsewhere.

Guilt free baking :)

There are even recipes with pictures for beginners :)

There are even recipes with pictures for beginners 🙂

OK, I’m sorry, this post is not about how to eat loads of fat and sugar yet not lose your youthful slenderness (or indeed any other “first-world problems”) it’s about baking with reduced oppression.

Most trade allows the rich and powerful to oppress the poor and weak. Trade ensures that the rich get richer, and (being impersonal) does not care if the poor get poorer. It is quite clear if you track almost any product grown in the Majority World that the price paid to the producer is peanuts compared to the profit paid to the sales and distribution entrepreneurs (i.e. “middle men/women”), it’s even peanuts compared to the wages paid to factory workers in richer places that convert the product into goods we buy.

FairTrade (and other schemes but they are the best known) seek to redress this balance by ensuring a decent price gets paid to producers.

Now to the “guilt free baking” part 🙂 The Big Fair Bake is a competition that is promoting Fair Trade.  Here’s what to do:

  • If you are a baker – enter.
  • If you eat and enjoy other people’s baking – get them to enter.
  • If you have a blog, website, use Facebook, Google+ etc. – make a link so your ‘friends’ can see.
  • If not – email a few people…