Autumn:It conjures colours in my mind. Deep reds, brilliant oranges and bright yellow; vivid hillsides or fiery avenues; these are the scenes that await in the South Island during March, April and May. Time to bring out the camera or the paint brushes. How to capture so much splendour?
Fall — the American name — brings a later time to mind. Leaves gently floating, one following the other. Or a windy night, followed by a red-gold and brown crunchy carpet — all the leaves downed at once. This is playtime: children shouting, laughing, scuffing through the leaves and building great heaps to leap into and to toss in the air.
Autumn Down Under
In the Southern Hemisphere everything seems topsy-turvey to those from northern parts. When we have winter — you have summer; we’re in daylight — you’re in night. Ideally, Our houses face north, if they can, because southerly weather in New Zealand comes from Antarctica and it’s COLD.
You might think that being such a small country our climate would be the same throughout, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Living here in Garston we are closer to the South Pole than to the equator, and the weather is quite different to that of New Zealand’s northerly provinces. So are the seasons.
New Zealand native trees are mostly evergreen so their colour comes from beautiful flowers and berries. But our English pioneers missed the trees of home and planted many, many deciduous trees, especially in the South Island where they’ve flourished.
A Stunning Season
So autumn is a beautiful season down here. The awareness that cold weather is on its way causes the deciduous trees to withdraw the green chlorophyll from the leaves back into the branches and trunk where it will wait out the winter, ready to be used come spring. Now it’s time for other pigments in the leaves to shine, and what a glorious show they make.
My Class Loves Painting in Autumn
I’m not a great artist myself, but I love teaching art to my class of 5 – 7 year olds at Garston School. We love the autumn colours around our school. Last week we learned one way of showing reflections with autumn colours.
On our farm, there is a very special apple tree. She grows quietly; standing by herself in a little gully, far from prying eyes. No one knows how she got there, miles from the houses and farm sheds. The creek is dry now, but it wasn’t always so. Maybe an apple rolled downstream, thrown by a careless hand. Perhaps a bird deposited an apple seed there. However it happened, the seed sprouted and this ancient tree grew. She is old in New Zealand apple-tree-years, make no mistake about that.
A Special Apple Tree
But it’s not just the isolation, nor even her age that makes her special, for she is a heritage tree. She may very well be unique — the only one of her kind in the world. How special is that? And her apples are beautiful. Cooking apples like your great-grandmother grew. You can’t buy anything like them in a shop. Raw they are tart on your taste buds, but when you cook them up they’re fluffy, sweet and delicious.
I love this old apple tree, and each year at harvest time I’ve worried about losing her. What if a fire raced unexpectedly down the gully or disease struck? The world is losing its unique plants and animals at an alarming rate. It would be sad if our tree was added to the list. So this year we were delighted when the Guytons arrived unexpectedly on our doorstep.
Robert and Robyn Guyton are passionate permaculturalists and have developed their Riverton property into a food farm which supplies most of their daily needs. Robert and Robyn are also the guiding lights behind the Riverton Environmental Centre and are well known in Southland for their conservation efforts and their enthusiasm about saving heritage apples.
Protecting Our Heritage
On a windy, wet Sunday in early spring, Robert and Robyn came to explore the old orchards around the Garston area. Our son Chris found them at our Woolshed. “These trees are okay,” he told them, waving his hand around the nearby orchard, “but would you like to see the best tree on the farm?” Of course they would! When we drove home from church that Sunday, we came across them all, dripping wet and happily stowing cuttings into their car boot. “What a find!” they chorused.
One of the Guytons’ missions is to train other people up in the art of tree-saving. So they passed the cuttings onto Robyn Shields, a former pupil of theirs, who lives not far from Queenstown. Robyn grafted the cuttings (called scions) onto hardy rootstock and they have grown happily into 6 sturdy little trees. She came up to the farm recently, to photograph the original tree complete with apples, and to collect some of them as samples. She invited me to come and visit her little tree nursery and to see the new little apple trees, so I’m very much looking forward to that.
In the meantime, these lovely apples are ready to harvest and I’ve just picked a big bucket full. Yum.
Autumn on the farm is such a busy season. While the men are busy gathering in the grain, I’m focused on harvesting all the other food that nature is providing. My Autumn Harvest On The Farm series is a celebration of nature’s bounty and the foresight of the farmers who began developing this farm more than 100 years ago.
The grain is ripe, gleaming gold in the sunlight. Paddocks ripple when a breeze rustles through the tall stems. We’ve been so thankful for our wet fortnight but now we pray the rain will stop. We need dry, windy weather to harvest the grain. Anticipation has been building for days. The combine harvester has been checked and cleaned and the transport truck is on standby. Once the moisture content of the barley kernels drops we’ll be good to go.
A Vital Crop.
Undoubtedly the most important crop to harvest on the farm is the grain. The barley and oats are vital winter feed for our animals.
In the winter it’s too cold for the grass to grow so we feed the sheep grain, hay and baleage (individually wrapped bales of fermented grass). Every spring we sow many acres of seed, and each autumn we harvest the grain to fill our silos and sell to local farmers.
Garston doesn’t have endless crop-filled plains like the US or Australia. In those countries huge combines chug along day and night in a straight line, their drivers almost on autopilot. But our paddocks are small, bounded by wire fences and filled with bumps and hollows. The driver must be alert at all times. He has to watch out for dips or rises in the ground, not to mention the occasional rock. He must always keep the combine even and has to constantly make small adjustments. One of my many brothers-in-law is the driver. He likes to begin harvesting on the outside of the paddock, and moves in ever-decreasing circuits until the last one is done in the middle.
Will the Combine Last the Distance?
Finally a nor’wester springs to life. In Garston this is a hot, dry wind. During the summer drought it sucked every bit of moisture out of the ground and we shook our fists at it; but now we’re smiling, because it will dry out the grain. (We can’t harvest wet grain because it will spoil in the silos.) So now we have but one, fervent wish: that the old combine will not break down.
Twenty years ago, she was a sparkling, brand new Massey Ferguson Harvester. Not the biggest, but perfect for our needs. I still remember the day she drove up, gleaming red and ready for action. Lenny, the proud salesman, followed hard on her heels; delighted to show her off and bask in our excitement. His Scottish accent broadened till we could hardly understand him, as he explained all her wonderful features. We christened her with cups of coffee and cake. Then she rumbled into the paddock and our first-ever trouble-free harvest began.
The MF replaced an ancient harvester which constantly broke down every season. No wonder we were so delighted with our new machine. In her first few years harvesting happened without a hitch. But those days are long gone. Now the old girl is showing her age — as are the farmers. But we can’t afford to replace her, so we start the season, once again, with our fingers crossed.
What Exactly is a Combine Harvester?
A combine harvester combines the actions of cutting, threshing and winnowing the grain— which used to be done with separate implements — into one machine. It’s a complicated beast: full of cutters, wheels, cogs, chains and belts. There’s lots of potential for things to go wrong.
The front has a long blade which cuts the stalks close to the ground. A reel goes round and brings the grain-filled stalks to an augur which then drags it up into the machine. An auger is a metal tube with a giant screw inside. The screw turns and the spirals take the grain up the auger.
Inside it goes into a drum which knocks the grain kernels out. They fall through sieves, and onto an elevator which drops them into a big tank.
The straw, dust, and chaff (husks and smaller grains) then pass over a series of riddles which catch any further grain and send it to the elevator. The rest is blown out the back, to lie in neat rows. It’s a noisy, complicated, fascinating process.
So off we go on the harvest treadmill. Round goes the combine with the transporter truck waiting patiently in a corner of the paddock. When the combine’s tank is full of grain, an orange signal light begins to blink and the truck driver knows to drive alongside. A small auger winds out from the side and all the grain is pumped out into the truck’s enormous bin. This will happen over and over again until the bin is full. Then the truck will head to the silo where it will tip the grain into another auger, which will take it to a hole in the top of the silo. Down it pours, into the dark depths, and the truck trundles back to the paddock ready to receive the next load.
A few rows behind the combine, my nephew is driving his tractor and baler. He’s gathering the straw into big, round bales, which he will sell to a local dairy farmer who winters his cows inside big barns. The straw will make excellent bedding for the cows.
Round And Round We Go.
This cycle goes on and on, broken every now and then by my arrival with a meal. Morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner… even supper if the wind is still blowing and they are harvesting after dark. It’s a much-needed break for the drivers and they stretch their legs gratefully as they chat over coffee and food. But all too soon it’s back to the machines and the harvest grinds on.
And the combine breaks down. Again! This time it’s a tiny, innocuous button on the joystick that raises and lowers the front. Oh, so small — it’s been under the driver’s thumb every harvest toggling east, west, north, south, making small adjustments. I didn’t even know it existed until it broke, but apparently it’s essential. And it’s difficult to replace — not to mention expensive!
Farmers are resourceful people — the men repair the button with Blu Tack and Superglue, and carry on. The repair lasts for a few hours, but that blasted button continues to break down. They call in the local engineer… the mechanic… the whizz-kid from down the road… each one makes a temporary repair — and the grain harvest continues until…
The last grain topples into the silo. The engines switch off and peace descends over the farm. Harvest is done for another year. We’d celebrate — if we weren’t all so exhausted. The combine drives back into her shed. Now we’ve got a year to source and repair that pesky button, before we start the process all over again next autumn.
Did you enjoy reading about the grain harvest? If so, you’ll probably like the other posts in this series:
All the stars aligned last weekend and suddenly the hop harvest was underway. The flowers are not supposed to be ready for another ten days, but the weather gods smiled and the hops ripened fast. Fortunately it was Easter and those of us with other jobs were free. The plans I had for a quiet holiday were shelved. The hops had to be picked fast, so the call went out — HELP! And, luckily for us, people responded.
Hops are an interesting crop — and an experimental one for our farm. You see, according to the experts, hops won’t thrive this far south in New Zealand. It’s too cold; too windy; too far down at the bottom of the world. But the experts hadn’t seen the vine Cousin Matt had been quietly nurturing in a sheltered corner of his garden down the road. We knew that one hop plant would grow, but could they grow on a larger scale? We decided to find out.
It didn’t take long to identify the perfect hop-growing-spot on our farm. We call it the “Tree Surrounded Paddock.” Sheltered from the wind in every direction, flat as a pancake, beautiful soil… a southern paradise for hops we felt. And, two years down the track, the hops seem to agree.
Hops seedlings may start out small, but in just a few months they shoot up about three meters. Everyone in the family helped to build the frames needed to support such tall plants.
Hops need plenty of water and fertilizer, so we put in a small automatic watering system. Last year the timer worked perfectly. This year it didn’t. But, with the drought sucking every drop of moisture out of the farm for months, the hops had to get by on short rations, just like the rest of us. They got watered each week, but not on the ideal daily basis
Interestingly, the hops don’t seem to have worried too much. I mean, just look at all the flowers!
To harvest the flowers we cut the vines at the top and bottom, and carted the whole plant to the picking room aka my brother-in-law’s carport. On a large hop farm with a huge volume of flowers, this is all mechanised but we must pick and sort every flower by hand. Again friends and family and even the brewers rallied round and we got the whole crop done in two days. It’s not hard work, but it can be tedious. Fortunately there was lots of good conversation, music and huge home-cooked meals to keep us all going.
Hops are used for making beer. The flowers contain a yellow resin which is used to flavour the beer. Different varieties offer different tastes and a brewer will blend them to get a distinctive flavour in the beer. Normally the flowers would be dried and made into pellets, to be stored and used when needed. But this year our hops are heading straight to Queenstown’s Altitude Brewing, who plan to make a special green-hop brew. Time is of the essence: the flowers must arrive fresh. There is a very short window of opportunity when making this sort of beer.
In New Zealand, and indeed worldwide, there is a burgeoning interest in craft beer. Home brewing is on the rise and micro-breweries seem to be springing up all over the place. More and more people are becoming interested in beer as a drink to savour and appreciate. I think it’s all part of the slow living, back to our roots movement that’s happening all over the world.
Our aim is to support our local micro-breweries by providing them with naturally produced, locally grown hops. Minimal food miles and maximum goodness. Sounds perfect to me. Cheers!
While my farming men are busy bringing in the grain, my own focus is on the bounty given to me by nature and the foresight of our pioneer ancestors.
This week the pears are ready to pick and preserve.
Bounty from the past.
When pioneering families settled their farms here in Garston 120 years ago, the land was devoid of trees. Grass, tussock and rocks were the main features of the narrow, river valley they would come to call home. Mountains lining both sides of the valley kept it freezing in winter and scorching in summer. Food was scarce, and largely home-grown. The top priority was establishing a large vegetable garden beside a small, rough farmhouse. And next on the list was always planting the orchard.
For many years orchards small and large were lovingly tended up and down the valley, but with the advent of sealed roads, speedy cars and modern supermarkets, the orchards have become overgrown and neglected in modern times. All the same, the sturdiest trees persist and each autumn they dot the valley with fragrant fruit for us to pick and be thankful for.
Harvest in the present.
So it is, that this week I’m harvesting the pears. It’s not as easy as you might think.
Sometimes the season is poor and there is scarcely a fruit to be seen, but this year there’s an abundance of pears on every tree. There are also birds, who can savour the best fruit on the highest branches which are impossible for me to reach. Not content with their share, however, they like to invade my territory on the branches below as well. They don’t eat the whole fruit: oh no! They would rather sample, leave a small hole, and move on to try the pear next door as well.
And then, we have the wind. Autumn can be a windy season around here, and this year is no exception. Many of the pears end up on the ground before they are ripe. These windfalls are often the ones I collect. They are easy to reach, and being still quite firm, have not taken any harm from their fall. However, danger lurks below. There’s a wasp nest somewhere around the orchard and the wasps begin feasting long before I arrive. They go for the half-rotten fruit, preferably already holed by the birds. So I tread very carefully under the trees, and restrict my haul to the unripe pears, preferably well away from the busy wasps.
The windfall pears are poles apart from Emerson’s perfect 10 minutes, and unfortunately they are most unlikely to reach that happy state. No matter how carefully I store them or what ripening tricks I try, many end up going bad before they’re ripe enough to eat. But I’m ever hopeful.
Pears are a-cooking for the future.
Fortunately cooking will save the day. Poaching the pears in a sweet and delicious liquid will add flavour and soften the unripe fruit. I don’t have the time, skills (or quite frankly the inclination) to spend hours this week preserving multiple jars of fruit. I’ve tried it before and failed miserably every time. So now I pick a little every day, and while the evening meal is cooking it’s often joined by a pot of pears bubbling gently on the stove. To preserve them, I’ll simply portion the cold pears into containers with the syrup and freeze.
Ripe pears are cooked in a matter of minutes. I don’t trust these to the cooktop: they go into the microwave, with a little maple syrup, a knob of butter, cinnamon, vanilla essence and lemon juice for just a few minutes. They form their own delicious juice and taste exquisite. I’ve just finished cooking up the latest batch that did manage to ripen, (with bad patches removed.) I can’t wait to serve them up for dessert tonight.
But most will not be so ripe, so here’s how I’ll treat the main crop of windfall pears.
Simple Sweet’n’spicy Poached Pears
8-12 unripe or firm pears4-5 tbsp brown sugar or coconut sugar
1-2 tsp ground cinnamon1 lemon
WaterRaisins or sultanas (optional)
What to do:
Cut the pears into quarters, discarding core and stem. There is no need to peel.
Put them into a deep saucepan on the stove (cooktop).
Finely grate the lemon rind.
Juice the lemon. (Use a lemon juicer to get as much as possible.)
Add these to the pot.
Sprinkle sugar and cinnamon into the pot and add water until the pears are almost covered.
Cover and bring to the boil.
Simmer gently until the pears are soft but not falling apart. This could take 20 – 30 minutes, or even longer depending on the size of the pieces and the temperature of the cooking liquid. Slow is best.
Once cooked, add a handful of raisins or sultanas if desired. Leave everything to cool in the pot. The pears will increase in sweetness and the dried fruit will plump up and add more flavour.
I love these pears with maple-walnut ice cream. The walnut flavour goes so well with pears, but really any ice cream would be nice. Sometimes I add an extra topping of chopped, toasted walnuts. Cover the pears and ice cream with spoonfuls of the hot cooking syrup.
To download this recipe as a PDF click the link below.
There’s something deeply satisfying about eating food you’ve gathered and cooked yourself. It hearkens back to our hunter-gatherer roots perhaps? Or maybe nostalgically to what we think of as a simpler time.
What are your thoughts?
Want to read more about harvesting on the farm? Read Part 1 of this series, Mushrooms Galore.
It’s a bumper year for mushrooms on the farm. This morning there were fairy circles in every paddock.
It doesn’t happen every year. Last year — and the two before that — mushrooms were a scarce commodity in Garston. The weather was too cold … too dry … too something else.
But not this year. A hot, dry January followed by cool mornings and rain in February equals perfect mushroom conditions.
There’s no telling where they’ll spring up. The ground gives no hint. In the evening the paddock looks as it always does; nothing but green grass as far as the eye can see. Next morning it’s dotted with white caps.
Field mushrooms are not like the fungi you buy in the supermarket. Those have been raised on mushroom farms, packaged and cooled. They are firm, and last for days in the fridge.
These mushrooms are far too delicate for that. We pick them fresh, the same morning they appear. By evening they’ll be drying out. Tomorrow will be too late.
Storing Field Mushrooms
There’s no point in trying to keep these mushrooms in the fridge. A day, two at a pinch, is the most you can hope for.
Our forebears dried them, but I’ve got an easier way; I’ll just put them straight into the freezer. I used to cut them up first. Some years I even cooked them in butter and wine, and froze them in cute little pottles to add to winter casseroles and soups.
These days I’m lazy: I have a plastic bag in the freezer. A brief wash (outside only — leave the delicate interior dry) and in they go. The soups and casseroles still taste the same.
In the Kitchen
Of course some we eat fresh. Mushroom omelettes or mushroom sauce with a juicy steak: yum!
Today we had mushroom risotto. This is my favourite way to eat mushrooms, and over the years I’ve managed to perfect this method. Provided I pay proper attention and don’t get distracted by the iPad or a good book, it turns out “delish!” every time.
I don’t claim to be a chef. I can’t follow a recipe. Seriously, I just can’t do it. The basics remain but I’ll tweak the rest every time, depending on the ingredients I have on hand. I specialize in deconstructed; a method born from the sheer frustration of raising four children, each of whom disliked a different commonly used ingredient. Onions, cooked tomatoes, pineapples and mushrooms were among the most frustrating. As a result, I tend to cook things separately and people help themselves to whatever they like best.
So here’s the risotto I made today, with mushrooms and love.
PLEASE NOTE: Some wild mushrooms are very poisonous. You should never pick or eat mushrooms unless you have positively identified them as edible.
Lyn’s Not-Quite-Traditional Mushroom Risotto
1 cup uncooked arborio rice
2-3 cups chopped mushrooms
2-3 cups chicken stock
½ – 1 cup white wine
2 onions, finely chopped
1-2 tsp crushed garlic
1-2 courgettes, chopped
4 rashers bacon, chopped
Garlic salt to taste Pepper to taste
2-3 tbsp olive oil + butter
1-2 handfuls of grated parmesan or tasty cheddar cheese. The parmesan has more bite; the tasty adds to the creamy texture.
The secret to a good risotto is three-fold.
Use the correct rice: Arborio is the best.
Add the liquid hot, and in small amounts, allowing the rice to absorb each cupful before adding the next.
Taste and use your own judgement as to the exact amount of liquid needed. The heat of the cooking surface and exact amount of rice you used will determine how long to cook and how much liquid is needed. This particular batch took 25 minutes to cook.
What to do:
Step #1: Prepare your onions.
Melt the oil and butter in a large, deep pan. Add the onions and garlic and cook gently until they are soft and tender.
Step #2: While that’s cooking, chop mushrooms, measure rice and heat the first ½ cup of stock and wine combined.
Stir the rice into the cooked onion until each grain is coated in oil/butter and is well heated through.
Add the hot stock and stir gently. Cover and simmer.
Step #3: Begin to fry the mushrooms quickly in a separate pan. Field mushrooms can leak far more water than supermarket ones, so it is difficult to prevent them stewing. I tip out the liquid periodically. Set aside in a separate bowl when cooked.
Step #4: While the rice is simmering and the mushrooms frying, heat the second half cup of water+wine. Chop the bacon and courgette.
Continue to add half cups of hot liquid until the rice tastes cooked to you. Don’t let it dry out: risotto is quite a creamy dish. The rice should be soft but not gluggy. Add pepper and salt to taste.
Step #5: When the rice is nearly ready, fry the chopped courgette and bacon in the same pan you used for the mushrooms. Reheat the mushrooms if necessary.
At the last minute, stir grated cheese through the rice.
Ladle spoonfuls of rice into 3 or 4 bowls. Top with the courgette and bacon mixture and, of course, the mushrooms.
To download a PDF of this recipe, click the link below.