Saturday, August 21, 2010

Building A Herb Garden

Small seeds grow into bigger things. In the case of my herb garden, one seed of an idea has taken root, thrown out off-shoots and taken over completely.

All I planned to do was make another bed. The herb garden was looking neglected and all but the toughest herbs had shrivelled away in the heat of last summer, leaving just my stalwart rosemary and lavender bushes, as well as the scented geraniums that seem to thrive here whatever you do to them. Last year I ended up growing my basil and parsley in a pot, which is crazy seeing how much space we have here.

So this new bed was to be slightly raised, with lashings of compost and organic matter added to make a nice cushy home for the pickier herbs – basil, parsley, sage, oregano and so on. My sisters-in-law planned to give me some herbs for my birthday to re-stock the new bed. That was going to be all.

Then I thought of bricking the main path through the garden, basically just a sandy track worn by the dogs running through to chase cars, with some leftover bricks we had stacked in a corner.

That is when things took on their own momentum. Before I knew it, the whole family had taken the idea and run with it. Now one bed was nicely laid out the others needed to be raised to the same level. No point just bricking the one path, we’ll level all of them to be bricked. And what about the area beyond the bed.

We should lay out that at the same time, and round the rain-water tank… so we’d better make a proper retaining wall that side to build up the area around the olive trees, which is at a higher level than the main herb garden.

Our two farm-workers also joined in the enthusiastic makeover and have been working on the paths and beds all week making everything just so, asking me to decide things every step of the way, so my usual vague, see what happens, not quite ever finishing things off modus operandi has been thwarted. Now I have to live up to the garden, which is obviously planning to be finished and beautiful this year, rather than in some dim and distant future.

Seeing how things were taking shape so alarmingly quickly, I felt that I needed to put my own mark on the garden. The scarily straight and perfect motorway outline of the main path, so carefully worked out with string lines and levels, had to have something to slow it down, to keep the energy meandering among the herbs.

So I decided that I would lay the bricks for the path myself, in a herringbone pattern. And that is why I’ve stayed away from my blog for a couple of weeks. Last weekend I was putting in the time and putting in the bricks. Every day in the week while supper was cooking I’d nip out and put in a few more. This morning I reached the house end of the path. The only reason I’m here writing about it now is because the rain started bucketing down.

The only trouble is, our vision has expanded way beyond the leftover bricks in the corner. We’re going to have to go and order another shed-load of bricks to get all these paths paved and my weekends are sorted for the next month or so! But it’s going to look gorgeous. And once it is all planted up, I’ll have a medicine garden on my doorstep. There are already two tea tree plants waiting to go in and some buchu, as my sister in law couldn’t resist buying a few plants even before we got to my birthday.

So my next project is learning about herbs and their medicinal uses, courtesy of Margaret Roberts’ excellent books and hopefully a visit to the herb lady who lives on a farm quite near us.

I'll post some more photos when more paths are finished and the beds are planted up.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Guava Delight

Spring is in the air and yet the guava season continues. Our trees have been prolific this year, but are considerately allowing their fruit to ripen a little at a time now, so that we can get through one basket before we fill the next and stagger back to the house weighed down with golden globes of perfumery.

At one stage I really did think I was going to get sick of guavas before the end of the winter, but they keep luring me back with their fresh fragrance and unique flavour. Hard to remember the time when I first came to South Africa and found the scent overwhelmingly pungent, in my less charitable moments likening it to cats’ pee.

Recently I’ve been working on finding new ways of processing and preserving guavas, so that they will last us year round. My attempt at guava jelly was an abject failure, or at least not the jewel-bright perfumed delicacy that I was hoping for. Plus I was horrified by the wastage involved in making jelly: all that tasty fruit pulp left behind in the jelly bag. So I moved swiftly on without bothering to perfect my jelly-making skills.

I found this suggestion for using guavas instead of the traditional quinces to make a paste, or rather a sweetmeat, in Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book: my absolutely favourite recipe book on fruit of all time, in fact I'd go so far as to say it's the bible of fruit recipes, so I'd hope they use this book in cooking schools online. Reminiscent of Safari dried fruit snacks, these guava squares have a much better texture and of course they are home made, so a whole lot cheaper…. unless you charge your time by the hour that is. The thing about this recipe is that someone needs to stir the pot constantly for about an hour and a half, as the mixture burps and splutters its way to the required thickness. So this is a weekend job, for when you have several willing helpers to take turns at stirring, or at least entertain you with scintillating conversation as you perch on the counter working on your stirring muscles.

The rewards are a house smelling wonderfully of guava jam and a few months’ supply of reasonable healthy sweeties, to sneak into your kids’ lunch boxes or package as loving gifts for home-sick family members overseas who haven’t smelt a ripe guava in ages.

This is only really worth doing when you have a couple of kilos of guavas to process so that you get a goodly stock of sweets from all your hard work stirring, but you can use any amount of fruit as the sugar is put in according to the weight of puree.

We’ve christened the result Guava Delight, as it is just a bit like Turkish Delight only much, much nicer.

Recipe for Guava Fruit Sweets
(adapted from Jane Grigson’s recipe for  Quince Paste)

Guavas – about 2 kg/ 4lbs
Sugar – about 1.5kg

Rinse the guavas and cut into quarters. Put into a heavy based pan with ½ cup of water. Bring to the boil and simmer covered until the fruit is tender, stirring a few times so that it doesn’t catch. Puree through a sieve or food mill/mouli. Rinse out the pan.

Weigh the resulting puree and return it to the pan, with 750g sugar for every 1kg of puree. (1 ½ lbs sugar per 2 lbs puree.) Cook over a low heat until the sugar is dissolved, then raise the heat to medium and cook stirring constantly until the mixture is very thick and is coming away from the sides of the pan. This usually takes us 1 ½ hours and we could probably carry on longer to get it really thick, but we have usually had enough by then! It will splutter and spit as it thickens, so have a glove on your stirring hand to avoid burns from the hot mixture.

Line a baking tray or two with baking parchment and pour the mixture into it to cool. It should be about 1 cm/1/2 inch deep. Smooth it out evenly. Now it needs to cool and dry out a bit in a warming drawer or over a radiator for a day or so. It is ready when it can be cut with a hot knife into squares that retain their shape.

Cut the paste into squares and dip them in sugar then pack into air-tight boxes in layers separated by baking paper. These should keep for months or years as long as they are kept dry.