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…

Quick delicious cookies

IMG_8820Here’s a basic, quick but delicious cookie dough.

  • 110g butter, ideally at room temperature (Vegans use margarine)
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract (yes, that is 1.5 tsp don’t stint the vanilla if like me you make these with nuts, of course if you use chocolate chips you could substitute almond essence)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Zap in food processor till well mixed, then add:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour

Briefly mix (very briefly in the machine or a bit more vigorously if by hand 😉 Then mix these in by hand, or use other “extras” (choc chips, other nuts, crystalised ginger…)

  • 1 cup wallnuts chopped

Roll into small balls and squash them on a lined baking sheet, they won’t rise or spread much in cooking. Bake at 170C for c.15 mins turning the sheet at half-time.

Be patient, though they are delicious warm and crumbly they are almost better when (nearly) cool. Since this is a quick recipe it only makes a few, to eat at one sitting. So you had better not copy me and be home alone whe you bake them, I said they were quick, easy and delicious, I did not say they were healthy 😉

Clotted cream and scones for a real Devon Cream Tea

Of course, though clotted cream is delicious on its own, on biscuits (especially slightly soft ginger nuts) or with just about anything sweet or semi-sweet you care to name, the absolute best way to eat it is as a Devonshire Cream Tea. No! Any Kiwis reading this who believe a Devon Cream Tea can be approximated using whipped cream, thickened cream or some other Ersatz product – forget it! It can’t for a Devonshire Cream Tea (or even its rival and near approximation a Cornish Cream Tea) you must have proper clotted cream. (Even the stuff they sell in tins and jars that comes from factories is a mere approximation to the real thing.

Here’s how you make a quick modern version. (The real thing is made in big enamel basins over a water bath, using fresh raw cream.)

Making clotted cream

  • Take a bottle of “Fresh Cream” from the supermarket.
  • Pour it into an oven proof bowl or casserole that will allow the quantity you have to fill it 3-6cms deep
  • Put it in the oven at 80C (or if you are not sure of your thermostat maybe 70C for longer)
  • Be patient
  • …be very patient
  • Gradually the delicious “clots” will form as a skin on the cream
  • When you can be patient no longer (or after 8 hours or so) scoop off the clotted cream into a serving bowl

Nb. don’t worry if some ordinary cream is mixed with the clots the variability of texture and taste is part of the joy (part that mass-produced cream, in these days of standardised homogenised industrial dairying, cannot really deliver).

Once it’s cool (be patient again!) eat with jam (traditionally strawberry, but your favorite is probably OK) on scones.
[PS the comment below asking about clotted cream icecreams prompts me to add this note: If you are careful in scooping off only the skin you will end up with a very hard homogeneous product like commercial clotted cream. The ideal is to scoop up some of the runny cream as well each time, giving a good approximation of the texture of real farmhouse cream 🙂 and the extra benefit of both greater spreadability and a slightly more economical product!]
There is considerable debate between those who put the jam on top of the cream as decoration, and those (perhaps because they value lower calories over taste, heretics!) who use the cream as decoration – provided there are approximately equal loads of cream and jam (in this ecumenical and tolerant age) either can be permitted 😉
If you don’t have a good recipe for scones, and I had no need of one before I discovered the secret of making clotted cream 🙂 here’s one adapted from Allyson Gofton.
sconesScone recipe
2 cups flour
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
50 grams butter (or if you must margarine)
¾-1 cup goats whey or milk (ideally slightly soured – I remember my granny saving “off” milk for making her famous scones)
  • Heat the oven to 230C
  • Put the flour, baking powder and salt into the food processor, zap briefly to mix and airate.
  • Add the butter and zap till it becomes crumbs.
  • Make a well in the centre, pour in the whey or milk (start with 2/4 cup
  • Mix quickly with spatula to make a soft dough.If you need to add a little more liquid.
  • On a floured surface roll to 2-4cms thick (depending how big you like your scones).  Do not flatten be gentle!
  • Cut into 5cm rounds (or squares) and put on a greased baking tray. Left over whey or Brush with milk to glaze.
  • Bake at 230ºC for 10-15 minutes until cooked, turning the tray round at half-time.
  • Cool on a rack till you can comfortably eat them. They can be crisped and warmed if you make them ahead of time.

Rice and curry

Rice and curry, Sri Lanka’s maximum taste, minimum animal products staple.(Wikipedia apparently photographed by “Me”)

While I’ve been here in Sri Lanka by a crude meal count I have not managed to be a “Repentant Carnivore”. In fact even including breakfasts I have only eaten one Vegan meal – breakfast on Sunday I made for myself, Marmite in hot water and some bananas 😉

Every other meal included meat, fish or eggs. Even today, a Buddhist holiday when Sri Lankans eat no meat, meals included fish or eggs.

And yet… Rice and curry (perhaps the Sri Lankan staple) is mainly rice, with some veges and a curry sauce with a small piece of fish or chicken or an egg. Biriyani similarly managed loads of flavour from rice with spices veges and fruit with a small piece of meat. Modern Western meals are stuffed with meat, cheese, eggs, fish… and see the carbs and veges as secondary, Fish and Chips rather than Rice and Curry.

We need to rethink how we cook. Work out ways to do more with less (at least less of those high demand animal protein rich products). Our ancestors did it, a “real” Cornish Pasty had half the meat a modern one does, and was just as filling and probably better for us…