Blue gums line the gravel road that winds past our dusty little farmhouse. Look out to the west. Once you could see for miles, but not any more. Now your gaze stops at the towering gums.
Why are they still there, blocking my view?
Eucalyptus trees, as blue gums are more properly called, are a hardy bunch with more than a few annoying features.
You couldn’t call them pretty trees. Their bark peels like last week’s sunburnt skin littering the lawn with long brown stripes. Branches sprout every which way and their dull green leaves hang limply from every twig.
Running a farm is an all-encompassing affair. It’s your livelihood and your life. So when you start having kids, lambing time becomes a family affair.
Our children were immersed in the farming lifestyle from their earliest days, and never more so than in Spring. During this busy season, our motto has always been “all hands on deck.”
When the kids were small, tiny lambs were their main delight. Because of the intensive way we lambed back then, there were always spare lambs in the pen waiting for new mothers. They were fed four times a day, and the kids quickly learned all the tricks of the trade, from mixing up multiple batches of milk to persuading a reluctant lamb to drink.
There’s no doubt that James McNamee is a man of many missions. To us, he’s the mover and shaker behind our farm’s fledgeling hop business. At work, he’s a team leader who inspires loyalty and commitment. In fact, one of James’ biggest strengths lies in team building.
James may have physically left Garston many years ago, but it’s a place still dear to his heart. So it was with some delight — and perhaps trepidation — that in September he let his separate worlds collide. That turned out to be a win for all.
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, both 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. For years, no matter how carefully I stored them or what ripening tricks I tried, many pears ended up going bad before they’re ripe enough to eat.
But I’m ever hopeful and this year I’m trying a new trick. I read some helpful pear hints in “This NZ Life” and they shed some light on my past pear problems.
Apparently, pears ripen from the inside out, so that even if a pear feels rock hard on the outside it may well be ripening on the inside. So the best thing to do is to chill the pears as soon as you pick them, then bring out a few to finish ripening as you need them.
Pears are a-cooking for the future.
Fortunately, if these new ripening ideas still don’t work, 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.
Soft 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 successfully. I can’t wait to serve them up for dessert tonight.
But most pears 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 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.
Your Turn To Talk
Are you a forager who enjoys finding food in the wild?
Or are you, like me, lucky enough to have an orchard nearby, or random trees growing in the backyard?
Maybe you have hints or recipes to share.
Let’s start a fruitful conversation in the comments.
2018 is a bumper year for mushrooms on the farm. Every morning for a fortnight or more there have been 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 for long. A day or two is the most you can hope for.
Our forebears dried them, but I like to cook the mushrooms in butter and wine then freeze them in cute little pottles. Then it’s easy to slip their tasty goodness into winter soups and casseroles.
In the Kitchen
But the best way to eat mushrooms is straight from the paddock. We love mushroom omelettes and mushroom sauce with a juicy steak. Yum!
But my favourite meal is mushroom risotto.
And over the years I’ve managed to perfect a slightly unconventional method for cooking a crowd-pleasing risotto.
I don’t claim to be a chef but honestly, I can’t follow a recipe to save my life. I’m far more likely to check out the basics and tweak the rest depending on the ingredients I have on hand.
And just to complicate matters, “deconstructed” is my go-to style.
When you’re raising four children, each of whom dislikes a different commonly-used ingredient, the only thing to do is give lots of choices.
Between them, my kids hated onions, cooked tomatoes, pineapples and mushrooms. As a result, I tend to cook things separately and let 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 3 Secrets To Creating A Great Risotto
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 the 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 from 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.