Professor Tom Calma AO is Chancellor of the University of Canberra, Adjunct Professor at the University of Queensland, Adjunct Associate Professor at the Australian National University, Professor and Chair of the Poche Indigenous Health Network at the University of Sydney Medical School and National Coordinator, Tackling Indigenous Smoking. He is an Aboriginal elder of the Kungarakan people and a member of the Iwaidja tribal group and was ACT Australian of the Year in 2013. As his wife Heather says, "Tom works more than full time".
At home in Chapman, his passion is gardening. The block is 1200 square metres and the back garden is filled with raised beds of vegetables, including chillies, strawberries that are stolen by the birds, tomatoes, zucchini and three varieties of laden fig trees.
Along the fences, which back onto Mt Arawang, are rows of fruit trees, espaliered and cordoned at 45 degrees for extra space. There are three pear trees, four apples planted two years ago after landscaping work, a double-grafted apricot, a triple-grafted plum, two nectarines, two peaches,a cherry tree and a prune. However, possums reduce the crops.
Tom started gardening in Darwin when very young and, at his primary school near Fannie Bay, there was a plot in which the children were encouraged to garden.
His mother's father, Dutch engineer and agriculturist Edwin Verburg, was a pioneer horticulturist in the Northern Territory. He married Tom's grandmother, Anmilil, a Traditional Owner of Adelaide River and the region 100 kilometres south of Darwin where he established a farm. In the 1920s he had fields of rice and maize, vegetables and tropical fruit where he introduced irrigation and built the first dam with centrifugal pumps. A bridge in the town is named after him.
Tom's father was also interested in horticulture and his first job was growing tobacco in the Darwin Botanical Gardens.
My introduction to the Calmas was through Adrian Van Leest, of Campbell, a grower of family heritage tomatoes and a keen gardener. Heather Calma says that through Adrian, one year Tom grew a variety of potatoes called 'Heather' which had a purple skin. This year, however, their busy life meant Tom missed the potato planting season.
The Chapman greenhouse is crowded with plants and horticultural products. There is a stool and fan for comfort when Tom experiments with his favourite weekend activity, raising plants with Marcotting, or air-layering, a specialty. Tom finds growing capsicums in the greenhouse means he can use them as perennials, though they do not produce fruit in winter. This season he has bell capsicums and long capsicums, bush tomatoes, ginger, pots of chillies and Warrigal spinach. He also raises broccolini, a cross between broccoli and Chinese broccoli, a hybrid developed in 1993.
Heather says Tom grows unusual things sometimes that she doesn't want to eat. One edible, not often seen is Celtuce, an ancient Asian vegetable called "wosun" in China. It has a trunk like celery and leaves like lettuce and Tom purchased it off eBay.
Among rows of Heather's dark foliaged plants in the front garden is Tom's potted Manzanillo olive tree. He salts the ripe (black) olives for 30 days, washes them in fresh water to reduce the salt, dry, then cover in olive oil with chilli, diced limes and homegrown purple hard neck garlic, which makes delicious snacks.
On our visit Tom obligingly dug a root of horseradish, a heavy job as the ground was hard after two 37C days and no rain. He says most recipes for mashing horseradish are similar. He uses this link: simplyrecipes.com/recipes/how_to_prepare_horseradish. The grated plant oxidises and gets very hot so use vinegar to stabilise it.
The couple met at university in 1977 and, for 14 years, lived in Darwin and in Humpty Doo with a large vegie garden. On diplomatic postings to India and Vietnam from 1995 to 2002, it was in India that Heather Calma started cooking and eating eggplants and it is one of her favourite edibles. Tom grows the long, slender Lebanese variety.
When they lived in Darwin, Heather frequented a great Indonesian cafe at lunchtime and loved to eat their chilli bean dish. As they were leaving to move to Canberra, she cheekily asked how to make it and they shared the ingredients and basic method but not the quantities. Over the years she has turned this into a favourite chilli eggplant dish.
Eggplant with Chilli and Coconut milk
Heat oven to 180C.
Cut 10-12 Lebanese eggplants in half longways and microwave until almost cooked.
Place them cut side up in a single layer in a large baking dish.
In a blender, blend:
2 medium brown onions
3 large cloves garlic
2-4 red chillies (according to taste)
3 medium to large tomatoes
3 tbsp fish sauce
2 tsp brown sugar
Heat a dessertspoon of olive oil in a large fry pan. Once warm, add the mixture and cook on medium heat for four minutes, stirring occasionally. The mixture changes from salmon pink colour to a more orange colour when it has cooked enough.
450ml tin coconut milk
2 Kaffir lime leaves, scrunched up to release flavour
1 stalk lemon grass cut in half, bruised and sliced down the middle
Gently bring to low simmer for a few minutes. Pour over the eggplant making sure all the eggplants are covered. Bake in a moderate oven for 30-40 minutes until the liquid has reduced and the dish browned slightly.
Serve with rice and meat or chicken. Also delicious on its own.
Susan Parsons is a Canberra writer.