Jackie French: Invest in some home-grown luxury

Jackie French: Invest in some home-grown luxury

This is where I was going to write about what the gardener with a sophisticated palate should grow this year, in order to eat the best of everything. And then I realised, not quite coincidentally, that I was also thinking about cooking/eating a potato cake made with home-grown spuds, tender home grown shallots, winter-sweet home-grown parsley, home laid eggs and olive oil from a farm in mid-NSW.

And I realised that anything home grown is a luxury. That also applies to fresh produce from farmers' markets, farm gate sales and your neighbour's backyard if you look wistfully over the fence or gaze longingly at a last-autumn's pumpkin a friend is cutting up in the hopes they may offer you a chunk (knowing that their pumpkin harvest will be growing soft spots about now and needs to be eaten…)

Your hunch about storing tomatoes at room temperature has been vindicated by science.

Your hunch about storing tomatoes at room temperature has been vindicated by science.Credit:Marina Oliphant

ANY fresh asparagus is better than the stems flown in from Peru tasting of cold storage and far too many food kilometres; beans that taste of cold storage; snow peas that crunch okay but taste of cold storage; carrots that are straight and plump and juicy but … you get the general idea.

Which is not to say that you shouldn't be hunting out seeds of any asparagus labelled "white", "purple", "Colossal" … just-picked asparagus is perfection, and you can't improve on perfection, except, possibly, if it is extra fat or purple or has an extra tender white stem.


And, yes, it is worth planting Buttercrunch lettuce because, even if Buttercrunch are not the most hardy or crisp of lettuces, they are the sweetest and I have fallen in love with them (actually they are pretty hardy as well). It is definitely worthwhile planting Tommy Toe tomatoes and Roma tomatoes and Black Krim or other "black" tomato even if they only give you a fruit or two a week for a few months, because they are ... different. Special. Extraordinary.

If people pay thousands for a bottle of wine then it makes sense to grow a tomato that you eat in small, gentle bites because it is so good, even if the crop is tiny, a bit like Tasmanian pink eye potatoes or purple Congo, both of which give small crops – or they do with us – but fresh from the soil, washed, rubbed with olive oil and baked, are one of the most luscious dishes in the universe, and not one to serve at a dinner party where you might get interested in the conversation and forget to taste a mouthful of the spud.

And, "yes", too, to purple Roman artichokes that will be tender enough to fry whole if you catch them young, and "yes" to growing both intensely flavoured small leafed basil to chop into a fragrant scatter on a pizza or sandwich or pasta, as well as large lettuce leafed basil, for scattering liberally in a salad or making into pesto.

And most certainly, "yes" to shallots, which are not spring onions, and a nuisance to plant, pick, peel, chop and sauté … but a lot more work (and calories) goes into a croissant and to less effect.

In other words: this is the time to start buying seeds for this spring. There are many Australian seed catalogues on the web (it is illegal, and dangerous, to import seeds that may carry disease. Each catalogue will have different tempting offers and, no, the seed quality of some of them may not be as good as others: the seed may be older or not as well stored, so germination may be less or non-existent.

Seeds of rare and delicate melons also tend to come in a packet with a precious six small seeds, and you hope for maybe two of them to shoot. The most unusual varieties of any veg tend to be both the most unreliable and the most expensive.

But expensive is a relative term. That packet of melon seeds will cost less than a take-away coffee and even with only two vines you may get up 20-40 melons, and even two melons would be ample recompense for the money and work. The Buttercrunch lettuce seed, on the other hand, will give possibly 2000 lettuce seedlings which you may break your back trying to plant out before (at last) you harden your heart and say "enough".

But hunt now. Once you have the seeds, you'll be prompted to prepare the vegie bed. Once you have the vegie bed prepared, you'll be ready to plant. And once you plant you will have luxury, the kind you can never buy if the veg has been cold stored, the flavour leached out, leaving just a hint of rot and what your luxury may once have tasted like.

It's not easy to buy luxurious good food. It is ludicrously easy – and relatively cheap – to grow it. And this is the week to begin.

This is the time to:

  • Forget about pruning back the blue, purple, pink and red salvias, even though they need it as the new growth is already coming up so if I don't prune now – which I won't – then this summer the new flowers will bloom among the dead sticks of last year's growth – NEXT year I will prune the salvias in time;
  • Also ignore pruning back the frost-scarred ginger lilies, but as that can be done at any time I don't feel terribly guilty;
  • Treasure a blue gum leaf thickly etched with brown insect trails – it is truly, utterly beautiful and I wish I knew how to preserve it for longer than the few months it will sit on the wooden table;
  • Think this feels like mid-spring, even though it isn't;
  • Remember how good lemons are, even if the limes are in season; and
  • Seriously consider doing research into possum communication, because the big male possum who lives in my study ceiling has just eaten ALL the leaves of my favourite young Hass avocado and the top leaves of the next one – which was a bit of a relief as for a week or two I thought the tree was dying, not just being chomped. But for 40 years no possum here has even nibbled an avocado leaf. Why now? Proximity to home, I expect. Usually it is "live and let live and there's plenty for us all" with possums here, but this must cease. (How do you say that in possum?)

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