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Kitchen Garden: 'You should see my eggplants'

In winter last year, Thea O'Loughlin of Macquarie (Kitchen Garden July 25) gave me extra baby lettuce seedlings on our visit. I shared them with Dario Campagna who works at my most frequented cafe in Deakin and has mutual home growing interests. For a month he cut a few leaves of the on-grown lettuce every night.

Last week Dario said, "You should see my eggplants". Two years ago, Dario purchased an apartment in a new complex in Phillip. He came to Canberra from Rome in 2007 and first lived with his uncle and aunt in Weston, then in a flat in Civic where he started growing vegies on a balcony.

On the north-facing, first floor balcony in Phillip he arranged nine water saver troughs purchased from Bunnings and they are filled with edibles. At the start of summer his zucchini flowers were stuffed with anchovies and bocconcini (small soft balls of mozzarella cheese), dipped in pastella (a flour and water batter) then deep fried. Zucchinis are Dario's favourite vegetable and he especially likes them gratinated with parmesan and breadcrumbs.

Currently there are chillies, spring onions/chives from Dario's uncle, strawberries from Bunnings, a second round of lettuce which, this time, is cos and a second batch of rocket because it is added to all salads and served with parmesan, olive oil and salt with meat, particularly steak. In Rome, Dario worked for a butcher where horsemeat was very popular, particularly for carpaccio. It is very red and rich in iron and recommended for people with anaemia.

With home-grown English spinach, Dario blanches and tosses it in a frypan with garlic and lemon on top. Sally, Dario's partner, loves it. A horseradish plant came from Sally's uncle in Queanbeyan.

The oval, black, shiny eggplants, bought as seedlings from Bunnings, are grilled in the oven or Dario follows his mother's recipe for eggplant parmigiana. Cut big slices of eggplant, salt them lightly and leave for an hour, wash them, pat dry, line an oven tray then add tomato salsa, basil and mozzarella between layers of eggplant until you have about five layers and top with breadcrumbs and bake.

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Until our recent day of gales, Dario had three cucumber plants growing up frames but two snapped off in the wind. The remaining plant is thriving with flowers and fruit and the cucumbers dangle at head height.

When he was growing up Dario's mum grew flowers and his dad grew vegies. His father is a truffle hunter in Carpineto Romano in the region of Lazio, about 60 kilometres south-east of Rome. He has four truffle hunter dogs including a white, fluffy Lacotto and a Brighton. He sells truffles to restaurants and contributed to the winter Festival of the Truffle which is held each year in February.

The rural area is surrounded by forest. Dario lived there for 10 years and went into the forest with his father to collect the prized nero (black) truffles of winter, the moscato truffles of autumn and the scorzone (white) truffles of summer which have less value. They would come home with porcini mushrooms and truffles to accompany the fettucine freshly made by his mother to eat for breakfast.

Dario's mother is from Sicily and his grandmother lived there so one of Dario's best cookbooks is Sicilian Seafood Cooking (2011) by Marisa Raniolo Wilkins. He loves octopus and a recipe in the book is a favourite which he serves with celery, lemon peel and olives marinated in orange. His seafood comes from the Narooma Seafood Direct stall at Southside Farmers Markets on Sundays.

In his kitchen is a bottle of red wine, the Rosso Puglia IGT Appassimento purchased at Plonk at Fyshwick Markets. On his stove is a two-cup Bialetti Moka Express coffee maker. You can almost taste the meal and accompaniments that go with Dario's home-grown produce.

The Buzz

The Beekeepers Association of the ACT is holding its 2018 field day at Jerrabomberra Wetlands training apiary at 2 Dairy Road Fyshwick, this Sunday March 17 from 10am-3pm. You can watch honey harvesting and taste the region's unique honey varieties and there will be bee-friendly plants for sale. Gold coin donation at the gate.

Pollination

Recently I visited Calyx at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney for the first time and the theme is Pollination, open 10am-4pm daily, entry free. A six-metre high wall of plants spanning 50 metres showcases colourful plants which attract bees. In separate beds are plantings to show that bees, described as friends to Australian farmers, pollinate kiwifruit, potatoes, cranberries, eggplants, chillies and tomatoes. On Fridays and weekends, visitors can book high tea in the Calyx from 1.30pm.