Quince … the chameleon of the fruit world.

There are so many different fruits out there that are just waiting to be tried. We always eat in season foods here on our farm and Autumn is harvest time! It’s full steam ahead here with plenty of different fruits coming into the kitchen. For us, nothing is better that fresh quince with vanilla ice-cream! Yum!

Quince is a pome fruit. This means it is closely related to the likes of pears and apples. It is used extensively as a dwarfing rootstock for pears and can be seem on roadsides growing wild.

Quince are an interesting fruit as it feels rock hard even when ripe, but undergoes the most amazing transformation once cooked correctly. It has a furry outer coating which rubs off easily once the fruit is ripened on the tree.

To tell if a quince is ready to pick, you need to take note of its colour and texture. It will changed from green to yellow over the course of around one week (each variety is slightly different, but you get the idea). Then, when you gently rub the fuzzy coating and it comes away in your hand … its quince time!

Here is a yummy bowl of freshly poached quince and vanilla ice-cream!

Quince with vanilla ice-cream.
Quince with vanilla ice-cream, drizzled with quince syrup.

Poaching Quince

Here are some simple instructional images on how to poach quinces to use at home.

Quince - whole
Pick your quince and bring them into the kitchen. Make sure when you pick them to be gentle. They may feel rock hard, but they bruise VERY easily.
Quince - peeled
Peel the skin off all your quince. Quince flesh oxidises (goes brown) very quickly once cut. There is no need to worry about that though.
Quince - quartered
Quarter and core your quince, then place them in a large pot. Add enough water so that the quince start to float and then stir half a cup of sugar per kilo of quince.
Quince - colour change
Bring slowly to the boil. Keep boiling for anywhere between two to three hours. The quinces will stat to change colour when nearing completion.
Quince - cooked
Quince is cooked when a fork or skewer can be easily inserted in to the flesh. Leave it to stand and soak up some of the syrup. The quince can be stored in the fridge in an airtight container for a few days. The syrup can be bottled and stored as per a normal preserve. Enjoy!

Warre Bee keeping

A little over a year ago, we got together with a group of friends and constructed our first Warre Bee Hive. It was an interesting exercise in communication with Electrical Engineers, IT specialists, Project Managers and noisy children thrown in for fun. It was an awesome day where some creating swear words were unearthed and curious children learnt how to apply wood glue without sticking things to themselves.

Last night, we got a message from a friend saying that they had a swarm in their front garden … Awesome! was our first reaction. “Can we come over and collect it?” was our second.

With a maniacal giggle upon hearing “Yeah sure, come on over.”, we started prepping our hive.

Wild bee swarm, swarming in Christmas Bush shrub.
Wild bee swarm, swarming in Christmas Bush shrub.

We pulled apart all our boxes and re-waxed our frames, re-stuffed the mattress and checked that all the potential wasp entrances were secured.

Packing the mattress of a Warre Bee Hive using saw dust.
Packing the mattress of a Warre Bee Hive using saw dust.

We were finalising the net we were going to drape over the Christmas Bush, when we got the sad news that the swarm had moved on. 😦

Oh well … till the next time we get informed about a swarm. But since we had the hive apart, we decided to give it a nice new coat of paint. At least it will weather a few more seasons now.

Warre bee hive drying after applying new coat of paint.
Warre bee hive drying after applying new coat of paint. And yes, the kids thought that blue frames would make all the difference to bees looking for a new home – because decor is important! LOL!

Got a swarm you want to re-home? Let us know and we should be able to help if we are nearby.

Figs and memories

Very few things excite us more than the harvest of fruit from our trees. Most people don’t realise the amount of care and attention a tree needs before it can bear fruit … let alone fruit of sufficient quality that can be sold to market!

Most trees require years of growth before they fruit. Apples, pears, peaches … all take 3 years or more to produce fruit. But then some, like the humble fig, can start producing from as young as 2 years of age.

We grow four varieties of fig here; Black Genova, White Genova, White Adriatic … and a special fig from our grandparents farm in Sicily. These little trees (for some of them are only in their second season) have come into their own with the awesome weather we have been having this year. Figs produce two harvest each year: One in February and then another in April. This year the harvest is shaping up to be brilliant.

As children, we couldn’t wait for the figs to ripen and be ready to eat … many times being told off for squeezing the fruit too hard and bruising it. But our little monkeys are now doing the same thing we did … and why? Because they are simply copying us … every morning, when we go out to check the ripeness of the fruit. We know which ones to gently touch to determine if it is ready today or if it needs to wait until tomorrow … because a day can make a huge difference in flavour! It is humbling teaching our children the the correct technique and they learn so fast!

So here’s a shout out to all the amazing people who had the courage to leave their homes overseas, brought their culture with them and truly believed that they were doing the best for their families. For us, the humble fig represents that move; bring on the fig jam, dried figs and fig cookies this season.

Fig bowl

Hawk Moths can be huge in a good year

There are some seriously strange insets in our world, and when they get to the size of this SPHINGIDAE Coequosa australasiae, they can inspire awe or dread. This is a species of Hawk Moth whose caterpillars feed on select species of Eucalypts. Here, we occasionally find them crawling up a tree after they have finished pupating and are on the hunt for a mate.

Hawk moth

This female was rescued from one of our cats. Her wings were scratched up so she has not been able to fly away. This year, we have had plenty of rainfall and the Eucalypts have had a huge growth spurt. Given such a great diet, we believe this is why this female is as large as she is. We measured her wingspan at an astonishing 13.8cm! Normally, they measure around 12cm.

After a couple of days rest, this huge girl was released in the early evening to climb up the tree she was found under. Hopefully next season there will be some of her offspring in the trees above us!

 

What seeds work best?

Growing something from a seed always gives us a sense of achievement. It’s amazing how something so tiny can hold enough information in it to grow something unique. Related plant species all have seeds that look identical. Ever looked at a cauliflower seed, cabbage seed and kohl rabi seed next to each other? They look identical!

When planting anything from seed, there are several factors involved to ensure you get the best results. Here is a short rundown of what we look at in our seeds to get the best results…

1) Fresh is best

Seeds have a shelf life. As they age, they dry out. Some seeds have a harder outer coating and can survive for years or even decades before successfully germinating, while others can only survive until the next growing season.

Because each plant is different, to ensure you have the best germination rate, have the freshest seeds possible. There is nothing wrong with older seed, as long as you realise that you may need to plant more seeds than normal to ensure that enough plants germinate.

2) Open pollinated

When plants flower, they pollinate each other. There are different ways that plants can be pollinated; by wind, insects (not just bees either), self-pollinated or manually.

Open-pollinated essentially means that pollination has occurred naturally and not been interveened with by us well-meaning humans. There are some risks with open-pollination though, namely the fact that related plants may actually contribute pollen to other plants and thus produce a cross breed. Anyone who normally saves seed, needs to ensure that there are no similar plants in the vicinity that will proceed a cross breed.

Some large seed companies purposefully produce cross breeds in their seeds. Corn is the easiest example to find in any seed catalogue. Any seed packet with an “F1” or “F2” label on it means that the seed was produced from a cross breeding of two varieties. If the resulting plant is then left to seed, the seed produced will NOT grow to be exactly like its parent. This means that the seed is not “True to Type”

3) True to Type

This essentially means that the seed will grow to be like its parent. Having cross-pollinated seed is a fun way of having surprises. But if you want to grow something specific, it is a nightmare.

If you are purchasing open-pollinated seeds that are marketed as true to type, the producers have probably gone to extreme lengths to ensure that this is true. Looking at corn again, it is a wind pollinated plant. This means that to have open pollinated corn, you must be confident that there is no corn growing within 1-2km radius. We are lucky enough to be able to do this, which is a bonus!

4) Locally Sourced

A plant that has successfully produced seed in your local area is more likely to produce very hardy offspring that are well suited to your conditions. It may not seem like a significant concern, but it can make a load of difference.

We tend to be a little brutal on the plants that we want to get seeds from. Generally, we grow a crop (usually vegetable, flower or grain crop), and subject it to ideal growth conditions. If a plant is not performing well, it gets culled and the chooks get a feed. Once the seed is starting to set, we then slowly withdraw regular watering from the plant and start to stress the plant a bit. We have found that this technique, while producing fewer seeds than a well tended plant (around 40% of normal) … these seeds will pack a serious punch. Here is a visual example below…

Seedlings - beets Seedlings - brassica

In the seedling trays above, there are two types of seedlings. The first are all beetroot and the second are all broccoli. In the first image, the second row of seedling is far out performing the rest, whereas in the second image, the third and fifth row are outperforming the rest. These rows were grown from seeds that we have produced ourselves and purposefully stressed to local conditions. Need we say more!

What is a dwarf apple?

Apples - Jonathan

Apple trees are pretty amazing. They have been part of the diet of nearly every nation since pre-history. Why? Because they are absolutely delicious … well … the one’s we eat that is.

If you grow an apple tree from seed, you might be disappointed. Firstly, it will take around 8-10 years until it fruits and secondly it will probably taste nothing like the apple it came from. This is because nearly every apple needs to be cross pollinated with the pollen of a completely different variety of apple tree. This is why apple trees you buy are grafted.

There are two parts to a grafted tree: the Rootstock (the part that grows in the ground) and the Scion (the variety you want to grow).

When you want to create another apple tree, lets say a Granny Smith, you need to not only find a scion of Granny Smith to use, but you also need to determine what rootstock you want to graft it to.

The choice of rootstock used will determine a number of factors of the resulting tree. Some f these factors are:

  • Overall tree height
  • Tree vigour (how quickly it grows)
  • Disease tolerance or resistance
  • Drought tolerance
  • … etc.

In Australia, there are a number of rootstocks that are better for the home garden. For example, common rootstock names are MM102, MM106, M26, M27, MM111 and B9. One of the best websites for all things apples is www.orangepippin.com

Courtesy of the rootstock we have chosen for our Super Dwarf Apple Trees (M27), each apple tree will:

  • grow to around 2 metres tall and 1 metre wide
  • mature in 2-3 years rather than 4-5 years
  • grow between 3-5 kg of apples per tree when mature
  • can be planted as close as 1 metre apart to create a hedge
  • can be grown in large containers

The main drawback to using this rootstock is that it has a shallow roots system (which is why its good for pots) so needs lots of regular water and a stake to hold it up.

Creating a new apple tree requires that the grafting be done during the Winter using dormant wood or in Summer using budding techniques (more on these in another post later). Here is a series of images we took during last Winters’ grafting session…

Collect your scion wood and store it

Our scion wood is collected once trees are dormant. That is when all the leaves have naturally dropped form the tree. We collect short lengths of around 20-30cm of pencil thickness. These are bundled, labelled, wrapped in moist paper towel and then refrigerated (in plastic bags) until they are needed.

Scion wood

Store your rootstock correctly

When your order of rootstock arrives, unpack it as soon as possible and put it in a medium that keeps the roots moist but not wet. We use moist wood shavings.

Grafting rootstock

 

Graft, tape and label your trees

There are different ways to create a grafting union. You can use a knife or specialised grafting tool. The following images show a grafting tool which uses an Omega cut. You can see how the rootstock and scion meet almost perfectly.

Grafting notch with tool Graft unionGrafted, tied and labelled

Here are two boxes of trees grafted and ready to be planted out.

Newly grafted trees

So the next time you nibble on an apple, think about all the research that has gone into creating the wonderful fruit you are eating.

Cider Season … It’s here and we’ve started processing!

There are two things we are seriously passionate about … chickens and apples.

Now while I could talk about either topic for hours, today was all about the amazing bounty of fresh Summer apples … and turning those little gems into cider!

There are plenty of online sites out there that describe the ins-and-outs of making cider. So we won’t do that, rather, lets see how we go about making our cider. Here is a rough summary…

  1. Collect apples
  2. Clean apples
  3. Cut and juice apples
  4. Pasteurise the juice
  5. Clean and dry the vat
  6. Mix in the yeast
  7. Ferment (stage 1)
  8. Siphon and bottle
  9. Ferment (stage 2)
  10. Drink and enjoy!

Collect apples

There are a lot of different aspects you need to consider when choosing apples for cider. For us, we use a juicy fruit which has a nice crisp flavour but not too sweet. We have visited hundreds of feral apple trees and found some favourites. The fruit from this tree is no exception. It is a small tree, standing only 3.5-4m tall with an upright habit, but every year, it is laden with so much fruit that the branches are always bent under the weight of them. The fruit with a red blush was on the outer branches, exposed to sunlight, whereas the green ones were well covered with leaves and did not receive any direct light.

This year, we collected around 30kg from this one tree. Not bad for a freebie!

Clean apples

We always give our apples a good wash before juicing them. We fill a tub with water and add around one cup of vinegar. When we put the apples in, we remove any leaves and ensure that there are no seriously damaged fruit. This little tree has never had any fruit fly or codling moth in all the years we have visited it. We can only dream of having such luck on our new farm! *sigh*

Cut and juice apples

To make sure that there are no wriggling surprises in the apples, we slice them through once. After going through around 10kg of the apples, there was not a single insect larvae found! So we stopped that and just juiced the whole fruit for the last 20kg. We use a regular juicer, which means that there is a foam created on top of the extracted juice due to the aeration produced by the spinning juicing disk. You can use a pressure juicer if you want, and this won’t produce the foam like ours.

 

Some common fruit problems.

Apples, like all fruit, are not always perfect straight from the tree. When fruit growers harvest their own fruit, they have to grade them. The best fruit is sold as fresh edible produce and the rest are either fed to animals or juiced. As we harvested our fruit from a feral tree, the only care taker was Mother Nature … and while She can create some amazing things, Her idea of pretty is not the same as ours. Here are a couple of ailments you might find on feral fruit…

Bird or Fruit Bat Damage

Feral apples are a great food source for wild animals. Even in managed fruit crops, orchard growers need to ensure that their fruit is protected from all sorts of critters and insects alike. In our up-coming orchard, we need to contend with protecting our crop from rabbits, wombats, kangaroos, fruit bats, possums, fruit fly, coddling moth and birds (especially cockatoos) to name the worst offenders. It’s a delicate balance. But fruit that has been attacked by animals is still salvageable for cider as long as the fruit flesh has not been damaged. Simply cut off the affected area and juice away. The following images are examples of bird damage (note the pitting) and  of fruit bat damage (note the smooth scrapped sections) respectively.

Fungus and bruising

Some fungus is only skin deep. This particular fungus is a dry rot. It sets in under specific conditions and creates small indentations in the skin of the affected fruit, covered with a dark scab like substance. Although it looks horrible, this is a purely an aesthetic issue. When you cut through the flesh, only the bruising affects anything below the skin. You can remove these parts of the apple, but as we pasteurise our juice, we leave it on.

Scab and bruising

One the fruit below, you can see a bump with a scabby section on it. This is a form of apple scab, a fungus that again affects the skin of fruit under certain conditions. You can also see bruising under the skin from when we picked the fruit (we were not delicate in the process and had some throwing competitions at some points … great memories but not too good for the fruit!). In the second image, you can see how, on cutting the apple directly through the scab, there is no imperfection in the flesh except the bruising.

 

Pasteurise the juice

Once the juice is in the pot, we move the pot to a stove and bring it to the boil for several minutes. This ensures that the correct temperature is reached to kill off any bacteria from the apples. While you can simply use unpasteurised juice, we are aiming for a consistent flavour. That and the fact that the fruit came from a feral tree on the roadside of a major highway means that we would rather be safe than sorry!

Once the juice has been pasteurised, we skim off the frothy layer and let it cool a bit. The froth will float to the surface and congeal as it cools (apples are high in pectin, which is used as a jam setting agent). Once it has congealed, it is easy to skim off the top with a ladle.

Clean and dry the vat

While the juice is cooling, we clean out the fermenting vat and sterilise it. We are using a 30L vat available from your local brewers shop. We then pour the juice in and wait for it to cool. We supplemented our juice with that from our local orchard, Cedar Creek Orchard, who do amazing apple juice from their trees.

Mix in the yeast

Once the temperature has dropped down, we add the least. We are using a champagne yeast, 10g to the whole vat. This is enough to kick start the fermentation process. Simply add the yeast to the warm juice, stir it through, seal it with a lid and airlock, then let it do its thing for a few weeks.

Ferment (stage 1)

Fermenting is the process of converting the sugars in the juice using microbial activity into either an acid a gas and/or alcohol. There are lots of natural yeasts but we find that using a specific strain is best to ensure you get consistent results. During the fermentation process, the vat will give off lots and lots of gas. We need to monitor the airlock regularly to ensure that there is enough fluid in the S-bend to ensure that no oxygen gets into the vat.

This stage of the fermentation cycle is always good for laughs as, when all is quite in our house, there are random gurgles and bubbles heard from the air lock of the cider vat. We keep the vat in our laundry where the temperature is the most stable and it is well ventilated too. We managed to get a photo of some gas escaping. You can just see it in the image below on the right hand side of the S-bend in the air lock.

Siphon and bottle

(to be updated in late February)

Ferment (stage 2)

(to be updated in March)

Drink and enjoy!

(to be updated in March)

 

 

Creating your own home made sultanas is easier than you think.

As a child, I used to always get confused between the difference of raisins and sultanas. They are essentially made form the same fruit (white grapes) but it is the process that changes the end result.

There is always conjecture around what makes the difference between a raisin and a sultana. The answer really depends on where you come from. I was taught that sultanas are made from seedless grapes and raisins made from non-seedless varieties and take longer to dry out. I’m not going to argue the naming convention differences in this post but I am going to show you how to create these tasty morsels at home, with little more than what you find in your own kitchen.

From the middle of Summer, grapes are abundant and cheep as they are in peak season. This is the best time to buy them. They are sweet and delicious. But we always tend to have a few bunches too many. When this happens, we dry them out. You can use a dehydrator, but with Sydney Summer weather being what it is, we sun dry ours. The method is quite simple…

Tools needed: Grapes (obviously), sharp knife, plate or platter, netted food cover, insect surface spray (optional).

Method:

1) Clean your grapes and let them dry. We fill a small tub or sink then add a splash of vinegar to the water before submerging the grapes for 10 mins. Vinegar acts as a fungicide, killing off those nasty moulds.

2) Pick your grapes off the vine

3) Cut each grape in half. If you are using a seeded variety, you can remove the seeds at this point too.

4) Arrange the grapes fleshy side up on a plate or platter. Ensure that they are closely packed but not stacked on each other. The grapes will shrink when drying to about a third of their original size.

5) Find a sunny position and if you have ants nearby, spray a small area with surface spray. Place the plate/platter on the sprayed surface then put the netted food cover over the plate/platter. The net is to ensure that no insects can access the fruit while drying and the surface spray stops crawling insects from accessing under the netting. Keep an eye on the plate/platter throughout the day and move it if it gets shaded.

On a 35 degree day, it should take about one to one and a half days to dry out the grapes. Longer if it is colder.

You can also use a dehydrator, but why use electricity when the sun can do the work for you!

Enjoy your sultanas!

Cucuzza for lunch?

There are lots of vegetables around that most people have never heard of, let alone see. “Cucuzza” is one of those.

A rarely known vegetable, this one goes by several names; “Cucuzza”, “Kudu” and “New Guinea Bean” are some.

This is an annual gourd which grows in the same manner as a climbing cucumber or pumpkin. It grows to around 2m (6 foot) when mature, but it is best picked when it is around 60cm in length. It tastes similar to a zucchini and can be used in a similar manner.  As this is a Summer vegetable only and we love to make this with pasta.

If you can get your hands on one, here is what you can do.

During Summer, we sell ours, so check out our store for details. Here is the product page … Cucuzza, Kudu or New Guinea Bean

 

Cucuzza with Pasta Recipe

Ingredients: One onion, 1 garlic clove, 500mL tomato sauce, one cucuzza, 500g of your favourite pasta and salt/pepper to taste.

Method:
1) Chop and fry your onion in a large pot until soft. While this is cooking, peel then cube the cucuzza.
2) Add the cucuzza to the fried onions and cook for 10 mins. Stirring occasionally so the cucuzza does not stick to the pot.
3) Crush your garlic clove and add it to the onion and cucuzza. Fry for one minute
4) Pour in the tomato sauce and add some salt and pepper to taste. Add as much water as directed for your chosen pasta
5) Bring to the boil. Add your pasta and boil as directed on your packed
6) Turn off and serve with grated hard cheese (our favourite is Pecorino)

Enjoy!

The organic fight against fruit fly and codling moth

There are three little beasties that frighten us as we attempt to grow our produce using biodynamic and organic means, they are the Queensland Fruit Fly, the Mediterranean Fruit Fly and the Coddling Moth.

While a lot of species have been introduced into Australian and find a niche in which to wreak havoc, the Queensland Fruit Fly is one of those native species that have flourished with the introduction of fruit by settlers. And the tricky thing about it and its cousin, the Mediterranean Fruit Fly, they have an annoying ability to infest fruit without you quite realising it.

As for Coddling Moth, these annoying critters not only affect fruit ripening on the tree but also find their way into our pantries. Making short work of poorly stored grains, flours and other dried goods.

I have a healthy respect for these little creatures. They are opportunistic and tough as hell. Keeping them at bay is a constant effort on our part. If you’re not careful, they can overrun your crop in what feels like a matter of days!

An old joke I was told as a child still rings true … “What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?” Why half a worm of course! And this is true. So how do we keep our fruit and veggies clear of these three debilitating insects? By carefully monitoring their activity and infestation.

I will admit, that due to the amazingly wet Summer we have had this year, I was cheering about not having to water too often. I expected our zucchini to suffer some water damage and fungus … but that isn’t too hard to combat as they grow like weeds here! Some fruit swelling was also expected in the tomatoes and cherries, but I did not anticipate the rate at which the Fruit Fly have spread through our crops!

What’s the big deal? You may ask. Fruit Fly and coddling moth larvae eat the flesh of fruit to grow. The adult fly pierces the flesh of the target fruit whereas the adult moth lays an egg (usually on the trunk or branch of a tree) from where the caterpillar crawls to the target fruit. Once the larvae hatch, the decimate the fruit. Turning it into an unusable mess. They have a relatively short growing cycle and are only treatable during the early stages of growth.

Most commercial growers use strong pesticides which require a “withholding” period before fruit consumption. This means that the fruit is not fit to eat within a certain number of days after the chemical has been used. These chemicals are generally absorbed into the flesh of the fruit and kill the young larvae within. It is these chemicals which we avoid … but sometimes I wish to use them.

Other chemicals work on the adults. For fruit fly, there are a number of bait and trap methods available. These are non invasive and do not effect the fruit or require a withholding period. We use these methods in our crops … but this wet season has taught us a valuable lesson … every day that it rains, check and potentially re-apply the baits!

In the early AM, I will be destroying wheelbarrow loads of fruit because we were not diligent enough.  😦  A sad fact I know …. but on the bright side, the chickens will have a great feed!

Here is what the infected fruit look like just off the vine. You can see the discolouration just under the skin showing indications of larvae damage.

Inside, the fruit is a pulpy mess. You can see a couple of the white large in this image.

It’s heartbreaking to have to destroy part of a crop … but if we did not, all our fruit would be affected.

So the fight against fruit fly continues this season. Codling moth is mostly affecting our pears ATM … but we shall see how they fair in the ripening months ahead. Weekly baiting and dusting of our crops continue, but we are now ready for the next rains.