Les Cook, aged 99, is remarkable - I called him a marvel. He still mows his lawns, front and back, spends one and a half hours a day picking raspberries in January, he marches on April 25 and makes Anzac biscuits annually and, one year, he added cheese and red pepper to the recipe and no sugar and says they were not popular.
Born in Great Britain, Les came to Australia on the S.S. Baradine in 1925, aged two. The family lived on a dairy farm in Gippsland until he was 14. Les was in the AIF military for seven years, with the Australian Army in World War II, in the Middle East. He recalls Kokoda and Milne Bay from WWII and did liaison work with 10 tracking stations as principal executive officer with NASA for a decade. He came to Canberra in 1964 where he also worked with the Bureau of Mineral Resources.
Meeting Les was felicitous. Being interested in architecture, I have read Tony Trobe's Design Matters column in the Sunday Canberra Times for a decade. His column on December 19, 2021, about Swinger Hill concluded by saying he was hanging up his boots. Never having met Tony, I sent an email of thanks for the articles. He replied to say his interior designer read my column, in fact his wife Deb Cook. She told me her father was a keen grower of everything edible.
We three met in Les' garden in Garran and were joined by CT photographer, Elesa. Les explained to her, a newish gardener, how to pinch out the laterals on tomato plants. He is growing rows of the vigorous Grosse Lisse variety and has a wall of the cherry Tom Thumb variety growing three metres over the fence. However, while Les' beans, in a seed frame, all came up, the plants died and he thinks there was no cross-fertilisation. Meanwhile, Elesa has a fine crop of beans this season - the mysteries of gardening.
After harvesting 40 cobs of sweetcorn he gave them all away. For three years he has been growing Chinese cabbages, wombok, which have a sweet, mild flavour and crunchy texture.
This season they are well netted from white butterflies and snails but Les says grubs, which live in the ground, still manage to make holes in the leaves.
In retirement, Les did jobs around homes and gardens for a few people, including former editor of The Canberra Times, the late Ian Mathews and his wife Joyce, who also lived in Garran. From their garden Les received a grafted cutting from a damson plum and that tree is a great producer in his garden.
He bottles the fruit and added some to his homemade Christmas cake and pudding. Dozens of jars and bottles of preserves are stored in the garage.
A large fig tree in the garden is laden with fruit and Deb kindly climbed under the netting to show us the crop. From last season, Les has preserved 50 bottles of figs and he eats two spoonfuls on oatmeal every morning. Breakfast is his favourite meal of the day. Les also makes fig and ginger jam and I was given a teaspoon to taste from a large jar in the fridge - lip-licking.
Friends have been the recipients of root cuttings from the fig tree so it has progeny all over Canberra. One young tree on a side fence is also laden with fruit but another, beside it, has almost none. I suggested it might be "a boy, a male tree" and Les replied with a twinkle in his eye, "well it only takes one ram for all those sheep".
When Deb was a nurse she was given a recipe for tomato relish which she has been making for 40 years. She gave me a jar to try and has shared the recipe (to which she adds extra curry powder).
Cut tomatoes into walnut-sized pieces, add onions and sprinkle with salt. Leave overnight.
Drain the liquid in the morning and discard. Boil mixture for five minutes with sugar and enough vinegar to just come to the top of the tomatoes (but not enough to cover them). Add other ingredients and boil for about one hour or until mixture thickens. Bottle and seal while hot.
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