Simple Pleasures

I feel as though I've been existing in an eerie state of limbo for the past couple of weeks. The hype and excitement of a big family Christmas has passed and now I find myself at a bit of a loss. There's plenty to be done on the farm, of course, but a dragging cold and minor complications with my pregnancy have frustratingly forced me inside. I suppose I could be researching my next novel but in the still summer heat motivation has left me and instead my mind is clouded (perhaps rightly so) by the impending arrival of our first born. In any case, it's going to be a dull couple of months if I keep this attitude up so it's time to snap out of it. I think New Year's resolutions are a great place to start.

We've had very satisfying feedback about our weekly veggie boxes. One recipient said they have reinvigorated her love of cooking. She was getting so bored cooking the same things and now she's forced to mix it up with a new delivery of fresh seasonal veggies each week. 

We've had very satisfying feedback about our weekly veggie boxes. One recipient said they have reinvigorated her love of cooking. She was getting so bored cooking the same things and now she's forced to mix it up with a new delivery of fresh seasonal veggies each week. 

As I age I find each year slips more and more seamlessly into the next. Making resolutions helps remind me where my passions lie and what I want to achieve instead of carrying over last year's bad habits. They also serve to remind us that even as we age we are still in control of our destinies. 

I spent last weekend cleaning up this gorgeous Italian red variety of garlic. We harvested it back in November and I've only just had a chance to prepare it for storage. Our stores will hopefully last us through the autumn and winter even after we use some for replanting in April.

I spent last weekend cleaning up this gorgeous Italian red variety of garlic. We harvested it back in November and I've only just had a chance to prepare it for storage. Our stores will hopefully last us through the autumn and winter even after we use some for replanting in April.

With a baby on the way I find it pointless to set myself overly ambitious goals. Let's face it, I'm probably not going to be fluent in Italian by the end of the year, but I can be a loving, patient and kind mother and I can appreciate the simple things that bring me pleasure every day: going on walks in my local area to clear my mind and refill my creativity stores, helping Oliver harvest and prepare the weekly veggie boxes for our clients, sharing healthy meals cooked from scratch with homemade ingredients. In the end I do believe it doesn't take much to be happy. It all comes down to the attitude we adopt to our situation. This year I choose to be grateful for the many good things already in my life rather than always longing for something more.

Our chickens know how to enjoy the simple things in life. Food, water and a good old dust bath is all they need to be happy.

Happy New Year my friends and thank you for reading. To receive email updates when a new post is published please add your details here.  Love food? Love reading? My book Yes, Chef! is currently discounted online through Booktopia. Read and extract here.

Reflections on farm life (inc. festive summer salad recipes)

Any day now the zucchini will be in full flight. Each dark green sprawling plant near as tall as my waist and covered in an armour of spikes. Oliver's arms are littered with scratches the likes I've not seen since the last time we foraged for wild blackberries. The fruit is prolific and if we happen to miss one beneath the canopy of leaves the size of elephant ears it will have grown too big to sell by the next time we harvest, often only a day or two later. Chefs prefer their zucchini on the smaller side and I don't blame them - they're sweeter and the flavour and texture can't be compared with powdery larger fruit full of water.

We pick the female flowers with the fruit where possible and have enjoyed stuffing them with breadcrumbs, anchovies, Parmesan, thyme and an egg to bind them before frying them in a light batter. Sometimes, on an early morning harvest, we discover an unsuspecting bee has been carried away in the vegetable crate, still enjoying its taste of pollen. It usually finds its way free before it makes it into the back of our delivery van. 

Stuffed zucchini flowers make a great appetiser and are not as fussy to prepare as you might think. Baby golf ball carrots and celtuce make lovely sides.

Stuffed zucchini flowers make a great appetiser and are not as fussy to prepare as you might think. Baby golf ball carrots and celtuce make lovely sides.

This season we're growing a variety of heirloom and more standard zucchini and squash, although we've foregone the Tromboncino variety we grew last year. This variety grows long and curling at one end and bulbous at the other. Our Italian farmer friends say that if you leave them long enough on the vine they transform into pumpkins - so it's not just fairy-tale carriages at the stroke of midnight! We experimented with one large Tromboncino last year and it did turn pumpkin-like. Sadly for us we just don't have the conditions for good pumpkin growing and ours lacked the sweet intensity and deep burnt orange of a good pumpkin.

Grilling young zucchini and squash on the BBQ is a quick and easy way to achieve a healthy warm salad. We've added red onions and drizzled with olive oil. 

Grilling young zucchini and squash on the BBQ is a quick and easy way to achieve a healthy warm salad. We've added red onions and drizzled with olive oil. 

Learning curves seem more pronounced when you live and work in conjunction with nature. When growing on a small scale it's not possible to rule over Mother Nature. We must work with her in order to understand and make the most of our situation: the soil, temperature, rainfall and length of seasons not to mention pests and native wildlife. We won't undertake a full assessment of what's worked and what hasn't until the close of autumn when we truly wind down for winter, but the few days we take off over Christmas will give us pause to reflect.

I feel it may be too early for me to wax lyrical on the benefits of getting back to basics and living closer to nature but even in these early days I can appreciate there are many. A quiet mind, a healthy body. I've learnt the importance of being organised and preserving food in the abundant times so we can enjoy them during the leaner months. It will give me such pleasure to open the freezer in winter and find raspberries or rhubarb to add to my porridge or broad beans for a pasta dish when there is little else green growing.

Perhaps patience is something gardening and cooking from scratch has also taught me this year, along with the ability to appreciate good things when they come to me. My lavender hedge may only flower for a few weeks a year but when it does I'm mesmerised by the beauty of the deep purple haze, the calming scent buoyed on the breeze. It's worth the wait. It's not always an easy life but the satisfaction gained from growing or making something yourself far outweighs the convenience of buying it off a shelf.

One new discovery that's delighted us this season is the herb Salad Burnet. Its pretty fern-like leaves have the most refreshing cucumber scent. A few sprigs would be delightful in a gin and tonic and adding it to salads creates the added bonus of filling your kitchen with this fresh scent. It's not easy to find in shops but would grow easily in a small raised bed or planter box if you want to give it a try. Harvesting couldn't be simpler. Just trim the stalks with scissors and watch them grow back again. The green of the salad burnet and mint combined with ruby red pomegranate seeds make my couscous salad below rather festive too! If you can't find any in your local markets and decide not to grow it then you can always replace the burnet with parsley.

This year's delightful discovery - Salad Burnet

This year's delightful discovery - Salad Burnet

Couscous and pomegranate festive salad

Serves 4 as a side

Ingredients:
1 cup couscous
1 cup boiling water
1/2 pomegranate, seeds removed
1 small Lebanese cucumber, diced
1 cup roughly chopped fresh mint leaves
1 cup roughly chopped salad burnet leaves or flat leaf parsley
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup roughly chopped hazelnuts, toasted
2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
pinch or two of salt to season

Method:
Place couscous in a large bowl and add boiling water. Set aside until all the water is absorbed. Once absorbed, use a fork to fluff the grains and separate them before setting aside to cool. Now is a good time to toast your hazelnuts and sesame seeds if you haven't done so already as they will also need to cool.

In a large serving bowl, combine couscous, cucumber, mint, salad burnet or parsley with hazelnuts and sesame seeds. Remove pomegranate seeds over the bowl to catch any juice then add the olive oil and salt to taste. Gently toss to combine and serve. Enjoy!

All the best for a safe and happy holiday season. Thank you again for reading and for all your support this year. To receive email updates when a new post is published please add your details here. My book Yes, Chef! would make a fab Kris Kringle gift or stocking filler for the foodie or romantic comedy lover in your life. Available from all good bookstores and currently discounted online through Booktopia. Read and extract here.

The raspberries' triumphant return (inc. summer pudding recipe)

There are those who say the best berries are the ones you steal. I suppose there is a certain thrill to standing technically on council land while your hands and arms are scratched to shreds by thorns in an effort to collect your booty before the person who owns the other side of the fence catches and abuses you. Yet, having never grown any fruit at all until about two years ago, I'm inclined to disagree and say the best berries are the ones you grow yourself. Many of you will know by now that our aim is to turn our property into an edible paradise. We're aware good things take time. For example, we don't expect our avocado tree to fruit for some years to come, which is why I was surprised by how quickly our berries have fruited. We inherited some raspberry canes with the property but transplanted them two Februarys ago and planted loganberries, boysenberries, tayberries and purple raspberries to join them. Now, around only a year and a half later, we're harvesting kilos of fruit every two days.

I'm fiercely protective of my precious raspberry crop, my only experience of them (until recently) being the hideously expensive and tiny packages you buy in the supermarket. I even refuse to make jam out of them because they taste so luscious fresh. Oliver is much more laissez-faire when it comes to berries. He grew up picking wild blackberries in the pine forests around Canberra, before they began spraying them, and was privy to a fine berry patch in his own family garden. I balk when he says he'd like to sell them. We've begun trialling a handful of weekly veggie boxes and this week he wants to include a punnet of raspberries. I'm appalled. I even try to guilt trip him. 'What about your unborn child,' I say, 'doesn't he deserve to keep such precious gems to himself? They're rich in vitamin C, you know!' I relent when Oliver points out that our baby (or rather his mother) has already consumed 1.6kg of berries in the last few days. Ahem. I suppose I must learn to share. It doesn't take long. This morning while picking I find I no longer resent the recipients of our veggie boxes. In fact, it's a pleasure to share the delights our garden has produced.

Berries trellised against the back fence of a Farnham Common home in Buckinghamshire, England. Spied on our last visit. This system looks neat but it doesn't allow fruit to grow on the other side. Berries should ideally be planted north/south in acidic soil.

Berries trellised against the back fence of a Farnham Common home in Buckinghamshire, England. Spied on our last visit. This system looks neat but it doesn't allow fruit to grow on the other side. Berries should ideally be planted north/south in acidic soil.

Breakfast is taken to the next level in early summer as I layer granola with vanilla yoghurt, almonds, raspberries and coconut. A ritual I look forward to sharing with my children some day.

Breakfast is taken to the next level in early summer as I layer granola with vanilla yoghurt, almonds, raspberries and coconut. A ritual I look forward to sharing with my children some day.

There are a few ways to cope with an abundance of berries; stuff your face until you can't stand the sight of them, freeze them, turn them into jam or jelly or make summer pudding out of them. Despite all my years living in England I never tried this British dessert until the other night. It's not the most handsome looking dessert (or perhaps my plating up skills leave a bit to be desired) but the taste more than makes up for anything it lacks in the looks department. Like most of the recipes on this blog it's super easy to make but with this one you will need a little patience while the juices soak overnight. Traditionally made with redcurrants, loganberries and raspberries you can really use whichever berries you like. You can use frozen berries, but I wouldn't use all frozen fruit as there won't be sufficient juice to soak the bread and create the gorgeous crimson colour. I'm told the redcurrants add a lovely piquancy to the dish which is why I've added them to the recipe. Sadly ours are within easy reach of our chooks and so none were left when I came to harvest them.

Charlotte eyeing off our unripe redcurrants, ready to pounce as soon as they redden. 

Charlotte eyeing off our unripe redcurrants, ready to pounce as soon as they redden. 

Summer Pudding
Ingredients:
1 loaf thinly sliced bread, preferably slightly stale as this will help the juices soak into the bread more easily
1/2 cup water
125 g sugar
125 g redcurrants
125 g loganberries, or other berry of your choice
375 g raspberries

Method:
Place water and sugar into a large saucepan. Cover and simmer until sugar has dissolved. If you're using frozen fruit, add it now and allow to thaw. Add fresh fruit and give it a good stir. Cover and allow fruit to come to the boil. Remove from heat as soon as fruit has come to the boil, you don't want it to reduce in size too much or lose its texture. Strain berries through a fine sieve catching the juices in a bowl underneath. You want as much juice to strain out as possible. Allow the fruit to cool completely. 

Meanwhile, line the bottom and sides of a deep bowl with white bread (crusts removed). You want the lining to be as tight a fit as possible to prevent juices spilling out the gaps rather than seeping through the bread. Keep aside about three slices for the lid.

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Spoon drained berries into your bread lined bowl. Level fruit and then pour over a little of the reserved juice so that the filling looks wet but is not swimming in liquid. Cover with remaining bread, ensuring again a tight fit. This will form the base of your pudding once turned out. Cover the pudding with two layers of foil then press in a side plate or saucer that fits inside the rim of the bowl. Weight the saucer with tinned goods and refrigerate pudding overnight or even for up to two days.

To serve, remove tins, foil and saucer or side plate. Cover with a generous serving plate and invert carefully. You may need to delicately pry the side of the pudding with a knife but it shouldn't take much for it to slide out of the bowl and onto the plate. Top with additional fresh berries if you wish. Spoon over some of the extra juice and offer the rest to your family or guests to pour over ice cream or cream once cut. Enjoy! 

Adding fresh fruit to the top before serving will cover the seams in the bread. 

Adding fresh fruit to the top before serving will cover the seams in the bread. 

Check out that deep crimson colour. Lovely!

Check out that deep crimson colour. Lovely!

Thank you for reading. To receive email updates when a new post is published please add your details here. My book Yes, Chef! would make a fab Kris Kringle gift or stocking filler for the foodie or romantic comedy lover in your life. Available from all good bookstores and currently discounted online through Booktopia. Read and extract here.

Recipe: Christmas is coming no-bake cherry cheesecake

I enjoy Christmas as much as the next person but I find myself positively dismayed whenever I see shortcrust mince pies and Christmas puddings appear on supermarket shelves in early October. There's a perverse commercialism to it that rubs me the wrong way. Some may argue the point for planning early for the big day. For me it just feels like we're wishing our lives away. If there's one thing that gets me truly excited about the upcoming holiday season it's the addition of cherries and mangoes to the shelves of my local fruit shop. One of my strongest memories of childhood Christmases is eating nothing more than a whole mango and a few slices of left-over leg ham for breakfast on Boxing Day morning. And cherries, well, cherries are one of life's great edible pleasures regardless of the day. In fact, I'm devouring a bowl as I write this.

The recipe below for no-bake cherry cheesecake is one of my Mum's specialties. You never really forget how good it is, with its sweet biscuit base, creamy centre and cherries scattered throughout the centre and laid generously on top, but each time she makes it I'm reminded just what a crowd pleaser it is - perfect for a big family celebration over the holidays. Mum visited us recently to help out both on the farm and with my nesting preparations (yes, they've already begun even though the baby is not due until March). As one of eight children, I guess hard work is ingrained in her psyche. We were so impressed by her dedication and swift efficiency to everything we asked of her, whether it be weeding the veggie patch or picking peas or sorting out our over-stuffed storage room. Now that she's returned home Oliver and I often look at each other and ask 'Where's Frannie?' when a large order comes through and we need help trying up bunches of rhubarb or harvesting silverbeet. Of course, I couldn't let her leave without passing on this recipe. There appears to be a lot of elements but overall it's a pretty no-nonsense, quick way to an impressive dessert.

No-bake Cherry Cheesecake

Biscuit Base
250 g digestive biscuits (the remainder of the packet goes nicely with cups of tea)
125 g butter, melted

Blitz biscuits in a food processor or smash them good with a rolling pin until you reach the consistency of fine bread crumbs. Add melted butter until combined. Press biscuit mixture along the base and sides of a 23cm springform tin. Mum uses the base of a water glass to pat down the mixture ensuring even distribution. Cover and place in the fridge for 30 minutes or until firm. 

Cream Cheese Filling
500 g full fat cream cheese (this may seem like a lot but we're going for full deep-dish action here - the more cheesecake the better)
1/2 cup caster sugar (you can add more if you like but I prefer to let the creamy cheese flavour shine through)
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
juice of 1/2 lemon
300 ml thickened cream
1 1/2 teaspoon Gelatin
1 Tablespoon warm water

Beat cream cheese and sugar with an electric mixer until smooth and creamy. Once combined, fold in vanilla essence and lemon juice. Set aside and wash and dry beaters. Place beaters, cream and a bowl in the fridge and once cold whip all 300 ml of cream until it thickens or soft peaks form (placing everything in the fridge first will help it thicken faster). Fold into cream cheese mixture. Mix gelatine in the warm water until dissolved. Add to mixture and combine thoroughly. 

Cherry Topping
415 g tin black cherries (of course you can use fresh but I've added the tin amount so you can make this recipe all year round. The juice from the tin makes a lovely glaze and wouldn't be easy to replicate with fresh)
1 Tablespoon brandy
1 Tablespoon arrowroot powder

Strain cherries, retaining the juice, and place aside. Over a low heat, warm the juice from the tin. In a separate bowl combine brandy and arrowroot powder until a smooth paste is formed. Add to cherry juice and stir until mixture thickens.

Assembly
Slice all the cherries in half. Don't waste too much time on this, no one's judging your knife skills. Pour half the cream cheese mixture into the biscuit base tin and smooth out. Scatter about half the tin of cherries on top then add the remaining cream cheese mixture making sure the layer of cherries in the middle is completely covered. Smooth out again for an even surface. I asked Mum why we couldn't just mix through half the cherries with the cream cheese mixture but she advised against it as the juice from the crushed fruit will stain the mixture. Basically, doing it her way will result in a more impressive finish once you slice and serve your cheesecake. Add the remaining halved cherries until they basically cover the surface. Stir cherry syrup then pour over the top covering the entire cheesecake. Refrigerate overnight or for as long as you can stand to wait (at least 3 hours). Enjoy simply as it is. No need for extra cream or ice cream. 

Speaking of Christmas, my book Yes, Chef! would make a fab Kris Kringle gift or stocking filler and is now available from all good bookstores or online through Booktopia. Read an extract here.

Thank you for reading. To receive email updates when a new post is published please add your details here.  

The few cherries we have on our young trees are still a way off ripening. I'm looking forward to a luscious crop in years to come.

The few cherries we have on our young trees are still a way off ripening. I'm looking forward to a luscious crop in years to come.




Late spring on Ramarro Farm

I used to wake to the sounds of jackhammers and diggers excavating the foundations for the apartment complex next door. Now I wake to birdsong. Ludicrously early birdsong. Lately I've noticed the kookaburras are up first, laughing at those of us wasting the glorious morning with our eyes closed. A tweeting orchestra of smaller birds follows. It's how we know spring has returned to the farm - the early morning wake up calls. It's difficult to believe spring is already coming to a close. I keep thinking it's still September. The baby magpies have left the nest and now spend their days following mum and dad and learning the skills to survive on this patch: how to find food, how to defend their territory by terrorising our chickens, that sort of thing. I've become familiar with the babies' hungry whine. It was irritating at first but now I take a deep breath and realise nature may be trying to teach me a lesson in patience. You see, Oliver and I are growing something new on the farm - something with a gestation period of nine months.

A cluster of cells has been forming inside me since mid June. Come mid March Mother Nature will have transformed that tiny cluster into our first child.  By then tomato season will be in full swing. On the weekend we planted the first of what will amount to around three hundred and fifty heirloom tomato plants. That's a lot of picking. I'm trying not to think how we'll cope when I can no longer fit between the rows! This year Oliver has mounded the soil up along each row to encourage strong root systems. They remind me of hilled up potatoes which I guess is not all that surprising since Oliver says they are in the same family. 

Hard to believe in a few months the tomatoes will be taller than me.

Hard to believe in a few months the tomatoes will be taller than me.

The larger veggie patch is the most productive it's ever been and sales to the restaurants have been strong. Being springtime we're harvesting lots of greens like kale, lettuce, silver beet, collards and mizuna. But Osaka purple mustard, red Russian kale and rhubarb add colour to our deliveries and plates. The addition of ten cubic metres of specially formulated compost has done wonders to the patch. A real lesson in what can be achieved when you look after the soil and give back to the earth.

The colours in the veggie patch at the moment are wonderful even if our rows are not always straight.

The colours in the veggie patch at the moment are wonderful even if our rows are not always straight.

Perhaps the most exciting event this week (aside from seeing our baby boy swallow and wave his arms on an ultrasound) was the arrival of thirty eight olive trees. Our love of Mediterranean food means we consume a good deal of olive oil (healthy fats, you know). It will take at least three years if not longer before we have enough olives to press even a small amount of oil. I don't mind. Fresh, green, homegrown oil will be worth the wait. The trees are young but their silver under leaf reminds me olives are near immortal. On our last trip to Italy we saw two-hundred-year-old trees potted up for sale by the roadside and that's nothing compared with the thousand-year-old groves in Tuscany. Even if we never move these trees will still be standing long after we're gone, long after our son has hopefully lived a full and happy life. 

The beginnings of an olive grove.

The beginnings of an olive grove.

I try not to think too much about the future. Taking each day at a time is not easy for someone who loves to plan, but I think it's an important thing to become accustomed to since so much of my time will be out of my hands soon. Step by step. Right now it's time to fess up to being pregnant. That means admitting I'm slower, that I can no longer push heavy wheelbarrow loads of mulch up the hill. I can still achieve most of my tasks: watering, weeding, harvesting, dancing semi-naked by the light of the full moon (just jokes). Although, we have planted by the light of the moon a few times but that had less to do with biodynamic philosophy and more to do with the day running away from us.  

Thank you for reading. To receive email updates when a new post is published please add your details here.  Love food? Love reading? My book Yes, Chef! is now available from all good bookstores and is currently discounted online through Booktopia. Read and extract here.

Backyard chickens: the crazy, the lovely, the practical

It's early evening and the unseasonably warm spring sun continues to blaze proudly down on our little patch of paradise. I sit beneath the shade of an acacia, its delicate grey-green leaves soft and fern-like, while the chickens (my erstwhile companions) guard me from all things itchy. They've discovered a new scratching place beneath the acacia where the soil is rich with decades of leaf mulch. Two backward scratches reveal what seems like a million tiny mites bouncing and flapping about like fish out of water. I call them mites but actually I have no idea what kind of insect they are and have no intentions of getting close enough to find out. Bugs love me. They seem to go out of their way to make me itch and sting and scratch while completely ignoring Oliver. So, I happily keep my distance while "the girls" enjoy their feeding frenzy.

The girls love it when broccoli season is over.

The girls love it when broccoli season is over.

One of the many things to surprise this city-slicker since moving to the country is what lovely pets chickens make. I always thought it would be great to have fresh eggs daily but I never could have imagined what colourful, cute and sometimes crazy personalities they have. Sure, chooks can harbour parasites and diseases we humans can catch, but they're really no more hazardous than keeping a dog or cat. Let's face it, even children bring home hair lice and lurgies. 

Charlotte: top of the pecking order. If looks could kill...

Charlotte: top of the pecking order. If looks could kill...

We have two sets of chickens; a brood of fancy rare-breed chickens and one of straight Isa-browns. The Isa-browns live in the veggie patch in a shed that can be wheeled around between rows. The idea is that not only will the patch reap the benefit of their poo, the chooks also eat the unwanted weeds and grass bit by bit. We thought the Isa-browns would become our worker chickens but in fact they free range just as much as the fancy ones who live in a chook shed of palatial proportions built by Oliver and his mate Andy. 

The little girls or Isa-browns are so damn cute! 

The little girls or Isa-browns are so damn cute! 

The chook shed was one of the first things Oliver built on the farm and as such we've had the fancy girls for close to two years. The Isa-browns are a new addition, just a few months old and still in the lovely stage where they both fear and adore us. There's something very sweet about feeling their warm little bodies rub up against my boots as I top up their food and water and watching them come running when I enter the veggie patch is hilarious, especially if the grass is tall and they have to hitch their tiny legs up like women in long skirts running out of the ocean. Sometimes they'll adopt the weirdest submissive posture when we come near. They squat down with their wings tucked back while their legs pump up and down as though they're literally shaking in their boots. The other day I was weeding dandelions from the blueberry patch. The combined effect of the afternoon heat, my low blood pressure and my head down made me dizzy. I lay down on the grass and within seconds the little chickens had gathered around to see what this crazy lady was doing now. One gently pecked my T-shirt, one stepped up onto my boots, another onto my leg. I rolled my eyes and thought if Oliver came home right now he'd think I'd passed out and was left to suffer the undignified death of being eaten by chickens.

Poor Hedwig (pictured centre) was not long for this world. It's always dangerous introducing new chickens to an established brood. Unfortunately, we didn't understand how ruthless chickens can be in this situation. The other two were either feisty or quick enough to handle Charlotte's constant harassment but Hedwig was just too nice. One day we'd like a whole clutch of the Salmon Faverolle breed. They have such sweet temperaments and feathers on their feet! 

Poor Hedwig (pictured centre) was not long for this world. It's always dangerous introducing new chickens to an established brood. Unfortunately, we didn't understand how ruthless chickens can be in this situation. The other two were either feisty or quick enough to handle Charlotte's constant harassment but Hedwig was just too nice. One day we'd like a whole clutch of the Salmon Faverolle breed. They have such sweet temperaments and feathers on their feet! 

Cute as their fluffy little bottoms are, sometimes the chickens drive me mental. Like when they scratch up the mulch around my lavender walk and I'm forced to rake it back every day. Or when the fancy ones go broody. The Isa-browns have had their natural motherly urges bred out of them. The same cannot be said for our gorgeous Wyandotte, Winnie. Every year, maybe twice a year, she gets it into her head that she wants to raise her unfertilised eggs. She has no idea this is impossible. We don't have a rooster and so no amount of sitting on her eggs is going to make them hatch. We always know when Winnie's broody. She gets this crazy, don't-mess-with-me look in her eyes and pecks us if we try and remove her from the nest. She doesn't realise she's harming herself (by not eating or drinking) for no good reason. It drives me up the wall, mostly because I'm afraid she'll waste away like that. Oliver tells me not to stress. It's just in her nature, he says, and then I feel bad for denying her the right to have babies! I once had a friend who welled up every time she so much as held a child, that's how badly she wanted children. Was I putting Winnie through the same punishment? On the other hand, if we got a rooster and let the hens raise chicks as nature intended, what would we do with all the male chicks?

Winnie in broody mode: glued to the nest, feathers fluffed up and eyes staring. 

Winnie in broody mode: glued to the nest, feathers fluffed up and eyes staring. 

In the end we're forced to lock Winnie away in solitary confinement until she snaps out of her trance. It's usually only for a couple of days and not really a big hassle when you consider what we get in return in the form of beautiful fresh eggs daily. I've never eaten eggs that taste as good as the ones backyard chickens lay, even organic free-range eggs bought from the shops. This is because the eggs gain their flavour from what the chooks eat and a backyard chook gets not only her pellet and grain food but also lots of bugs and weeds when she free ranges on top of the scraps she receives from our kitchen - our girls go especially crazy for cheese, we can get them to go anywhere with a little cheese persuasion. 

Back in the early days we received a manageable three eggs per day. 

Back in the early days we received a manageable three eggs per day. 

The fancy chooks don't lay every day like the Isa-browns do, but even so we now receive between eight and eleven eggs per day. That's a lot for two people. Anybody got any ideas for recipes that use plenty of eggs?

Thank you for reading. To receive email updates when a new post is published please add your details here.  Love food? Love reading? My book Yes, Chef! is now available from all good bookstores and is currently on sale online through Booktopia. Read and extract here.

A yearning for Italy (inc. focaccia recipe)

I'm not Italian. As far as I can trace my ancestors were not Italian. And yet, I long for the place as though it were my homeland. While living in London I met many wonderful Italian people and even lived with three Italian speakers at one point. As such, I've hardly visited Italy as a tourist. I've almost always travelled with Italians or Italian speakers and because of this received a genuine insight into their beautiful culture as opposed to the tourist experience which can often be overshadowed by crowds, inauthentic food and one too many visits to a church. My first trip to Italy was on a long weekend in Rome with an Italian friend from work. We climbed the Spanish steps and it was then, at the top, as I looked over the rooftop gardens beyond and Bernini's fountain below that I decided I would live there one day. Not necessarily Rome (although I'd never say no if given the chance) but Italy.

Bella Tuscany. We are lucky enough to have friends that live outside Florence.

Bella Tuscany. We are lucky enough to have friends that live outside Florence.

On returning from that first trip I began Italian language lessons in London and continued them years later when I returned to Melbourne. I can't say I'm fluent - far from it - but I understand a good deal. It's only fear that prevents me from speaking more than I do. You see, I was lucky enough to fall in love with someone who speaks Italian fluently and so I could be speaking it every day with him if only I could overcome the prohibiting block inside my mind that says I must not try something unless I know I'll be good at it. Oliver studied Italian at university but even after three years of study he still attributes his fluency to surrounding himself with Italian speakers, making pizza in a Melbourne pizzeria and befriending Italian workmates while living in London. 

Possibly my favourite region of Italy - Piedmont - where the Slow Food movement originated. More on this picturesque area later. 

Possibly my favourite region of Italy - Piedmont - where the Slow Food movement originated. More on this picturesque area later. 

Although at one point we lived in London at the same time we didn't meet. Which is probably a good thing. I have a much more altruistic view of the world these days. I'm not sure Oliver would have liked the me that was yet to rid herself of the angst and confusion that comes with not knowing what you want to do with your life. Oliver worked for the well known chef, Antonio Carluccio, managing one of his restaurants. His love of Italy grew as did his knowledge of Italian food. It's said the difference between French and Italian cuisine is that French cooking relies heavily on technique whereas Italian food is all about the produce. Fresh produce, sourced locally and cooked simply is the philosophy behind this cuisine beloved the world over. Don't get me wrong, it's possible to eat bad food in Italy, but it's usually in the big cities at a tourist outlet. Do your research and you'll discover some of the most thoughtfully produced food you've ever tasted.

While Oliver has lived in Italy, working on vegetable farms in both Emilia-Romagna and Sardinia, I am yet to realise my dream of calling Italy home. Although, we fantasise about it almost every day so I presume we'll get there one day. For now, we must content ourselves with visits roughly every other year and embracing Italian cooking in our home. Oliver is the bread maker in our house and I just love it when he makes Italian focaccia. It's a cross between bread and pizza and he used to serve it every day at Carluccio's. We usually reserve it for when guests are coming over as it doesn't take hours to prove like sourdough. It's also so more-ish that it usually goes in one sitting which is another reason we don't eat it too often as Oliver adds copious amounts of olive oil and salt - the very reason it is so more-ish. 

Focaccia Recipe

Serves 6-8

Ingredients:
30 g fresh yeast
About 175 ml lukewarm water
500 g baker's flour (00 ideally)
2 Tablespoons olive oil plus quite a bit extra for drizzling
pinch of salt
25 g coarse salt

Method:
Dissolve the yeast in the water. In a bowl, add the flour then the oil, yeast liquid and pinch of salt. Mix together, adding more water if necessary to obtain a very soft, smooth dough. Knead for about 10 minutes, until elastic, then place in a bowl. Cover and leave to rise in a warm place for 1 hour or until doubled in size. Alternatively, you can mix all the ingredients in a food processor and, using the dough accessory, knead the bread for 2 minutes before covering and placing in a warm spot to double in size.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C. Lightly oil a large baking tray. Knock back the dough, then dip your fingertips in olive oil and gently press out the elastic dough until it covers the whole tray. It should be about 2cm high. Brush with olive oil and then make small indentations here and there in the dough with your fingers tips (as shown below).
 

Sprinkle the coarse salt over the top and bake for 25-30 minutes, until a golden-brown crust has formed. As soon as the bread comes out of the oven, drizzle more olive oil on top (see, I told you there was a lot of olive oil involved). Don't skimp on this step. The oil will be absorbed into the bread giving the most wonderful flavour. Allow to cool slightly then cut into strips or squares. You can even slice the focaccia in half and make a sandwich out of the warm bread with your favourite cheese and ham. Enjoy!

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Recipes: Wild about lemons including my favourite lemon yoghurt cake

The end goal for our little patch of paradise is to create a beautiful edible landscape. So, it's almost ironic that the only fruiting tree we inherited was a lemon in desperate need of a haircut. Now that we've pruned it back to a manageable size, though, it produces abundantly. So much so that I occasionally dismay at the sight of overripe fruit rotting on the mulch below. I imagine I'm not alone here. Apparently, there are more lemon trees growing in Australian front and back yards than there are in production. But what do we do with them all? Especially in late winter/early spring when the crop is bigger than ever. 

Meet the lemon tree that never stops giving. 

Meet the lemon tree that never stops giving. 

Perhaps because the lemon tree is so common people have become a little blasé about it. But lemon is a vital flavour is Mediterranean cuisine and in my opinion, deserves a higher station. If you're like me and have a hugely productive tree then it may not bother you if a few go to waste here and there, but if your tree is small and only produces a few fruit every year or you're one of the unfortunates who actually have to buy lemons, then it's worth thinking about getting the most out of them. How many times have you used half a lemon for juice and then watched the other half shrivel and dry up in the fridge? 

Aside from using lemon juice and rind in your cooking there are a few quick and easy things you can do to make sure you never see that shrunken, shrivelled up half lemon again. This morning I juiced a few lemons and filled up some ice cube trays. Each cube is roughly one tablespoon which makes them easy to add to cooking as and when I need them. We'll also use them in the summer to flavour soda water or iced tea.

Lemon juice and zest ready to be frozen.

Lemon juice and zest ready to be frozen.

Once the lemons were juiced I found it wasteful to even compost all that lovely refreshing rind, so I rang a friend who told me she freezes hers in a glass jar. That way when she's baking something that requires lemon zest she simply pulls her jar from the freezer. I used a microplane to zest my rind nice and finely.

The other trick I've discovered along the way is to freeze lemon slices. When summer comes and Gin o'clock rolls around it will be so easy to grab a slice of lemon from the freezer to garnish our G & T's. The best way to do this is to place your lemon slices on a baking tray before putting them in the freezer. Once they're frozen you can then jumble them all into a freezer bag and they won't stick together like they would have done if you tried to freeze them this way in the first place.

Of course, we use our lemons for numerous savoury dishes, but I happen to love the combination of sour tang and teeth shattering sweetness in the following lemon sorbet and lemon yoghurt cake recipes. If you have a favourite recipe that uses lots of lemons please let me know. With a tree the size of ours I'm always on the lookout for them.

Recipe: Lemon Yoghurt Cake

What I love about this recipe is that you basically make the entire mixture using only one bowl and a whisk. I'm not a fan of washing up. 

Ingredients
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 Tablespoon lemon zest
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 cup plain Greek yoghurt
1 3/4 cup caster sugar
2 cups self raising flour

Lemon icing
1 cup icing sugar
2 Tablespoons lemon juice (or to taste, I like it extra tangy but use less if you prefer it sweeter)
1 Tablespoon boiling water
few sprigs thyme leaves for decoration (if you don't have thyme growing in your garden or in a pot on your balcony then you should, but if you don't, I wouldn't bother buying it just for this. You can always replace with finely grated lemon zest).

Method
Preheat oven to 160 degrees. Place the oil, eggs, zest, juice, yoghurt and sugar in a large bowl and whisk to combine. Sift in the flour and stir until smooth. I don't usually bother sifting flour as I'm a little lazy in that respect but in this case the pre-flour mixture was so silky that it felt wrong adding clumps of flour to it. And I was in a generous mood, so what the hey. Anyway, after you've combined the flour and the mixture is looking lovely and smooth and worthy of your sifting efforts, pour it into a 24cm Bundt tin (because they're pretty) and bake for 50 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Allow the cake to stand for 5 minutes in the tin. 

To make the lemon icing, simply mix to combine the sugar, lemon juice and boiling water in a small bowl. Turn the cake out onto a cake stand and spoon over the icing while still warm. This will give you that gorgeous dripping effect. Sprinkle with thyme leaves and allow to set for about 10 minutes before eating. Makes a wonderful afternoon tea treat. 


Recipe: Lemon Sorbet

As spring days go it's going to be a hot one this weekend in Melbourne and if it's going to be hot in Melbourne then I imagine the rest of the country will be pretty darn warm too. Perfect weather for a refreshing cup of lemon sorbet. You need an ice cream maker to make this recipe and if you don't have one you should seriously consider putting it on your Christmas list.

Makes around 1 litre

Ingredients:
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups water
3/4 cup chilled lemon juice
1 small eggwhite, lightly beaten

Method:
Combine sugar and water in a saucepan over a low heat. Stir until the sugar has dissolved. Increase heat and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and refrigerate until needed. Pour sugar syrup, lemon juice and egg white into the ice cream maker bowl. Set ice cream maker to sorbet setting and leave to churn. If your machine doesn't have settings then you will need to allow for around one hour but it's best to check the mixture to make sure you achieve your desired setting. Eat straight away or if you must keep some transfer to a freezer safe container. The sorbet should last around one week.  

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Two years on and what have we achieved? Plenty.

I wouldn't describe Oliver or myself as impatient. We understand good things take time. And yet, it sometimes feels like we've achieved more in the four years since we found each other than we have in our entire lives. There's an energy between us that demands things get done. We want the life we've always dreamt of and aren't afraid to work hard for it. We thrive on each other's passion and approach all things as a team. My success is his and vice versa.

The cottage garden in full flight last summer where once there was nothing more than a few rhubarb plants.

The cottage garden in full flight last summer where once there was nothing more than a few rhubarb plants.

The farm is no different. Never in my wildest dreams did I picture myself as a farmer - watering carrot seedlings, weeding garlic, feeding chickens, spreading compost, who knew! We made the decision together to move away from the city. We wanted more space, less neighbours, more time in the backyard and less time in the local cafes, but a farm wasn't really on the cards. In fact, we placed an offer on a one acre property and fortunately the owner declined it. I imagined us having a large veggie patch purely for our own enjoyment but now I wonder what we would do with ourselves if our offer had been accepted. Judging by the rate we've gone we would have had the entire garden landscaped and productive by now.

Oliver planting the first new addition to our farm - a Meyer lemon tree.

Oliver planting the first new addition to our farm - a Meyer lemon tree.

When we first inspected our property I barely bothered looking at the house, so convinced was I that we weren't going to buy it. There was nothing wrong with the house. It needed modernising but it was structurally sound and certainly livable, it even had potential. What made me so dismissive was the land. There was plenty of it. Five acres cleared and another four of bushland at the rear of the property descending steeply to a narrow but fast flowing creek. The size didn't bother me. I grew up on acreage but was too young to remember the early stages before my parents wrangled their property into a place of order and beauty. This property we were inspecting felt wild, neglected and it completely overwhelmed me. There were weeds in what is now the orchard that grew waist high. I'll never forget Oliver mowing for the first time and almost disappearing amongst the grass and yellow flowering turnip-weeds grown to jurassic proportions. And the junk! Lordy, it was everywhere. Bits of rusting metal and terracotta pots, piles of ply wood, old tractor attachments, wooden palettes, broken glass and plastic, plastic, plastic. The property was once a flower farm and the previous owners had the herculean task of dismantling and removing hooped greenhouses that once covered the entire cleared area. Sadly, this left them little energy for anything else. 

How our property looked then day we inspected it.

How our property looked then day we inspected it.

Oliver finds more rubbish in the weed and bracken covered field.

Oliver finds more rubbish in the weed and bracken covered field.

As I said, I wasn't sold on the place. Luckily, the estate agent agreed to let us wander through the now unoccupied property on our own while he went off to another appointment. We sat quietly for a while on the hood of Oliver's car. Gradually we noticed kookaburras dive for worms and rosellas flock to the naked cherry tree. We listened to magpies warble and watched blue wrens flit from camellia to azalea, from maple to dogwood. We discovered that beneath the layers of overgrown neglect was a rather beautiful formal garden at the front of the house and at the back, of course, was all that space. Oliver explained how rich the volcanic soil was. How pretty much anything would grow in it. And in the end, that was the reason we bought the property - the soil.

A view from the largest veggie patch of the orchard now full of young fruit-bearing trees.

A view from the largest veggie patch of the orchard now full of young fruit-bearing trees.

So, a few months later we became farmers by accident, purely because we had the space. My God, we worked hard in those first few months. The first weekend Oliver and his father sowed tomato seedlings while his mother and I began tidying up and the week after that we planted the citrus orchard. Week by week, through pure grit and determination, we pruned and weeded and moved and tidied, pealing back the layers. We worked so hard our muscles seized and we could barely move at the end of the day. This was bad enough for us in our thirties but I felt especially bad and grateful when hearing our parents groan from the stiffness of overworked limbs. 

Last week we celebrated two years on the farm and we haven't looked back. What began as the result of Oliver's overzealous planting of tomato seedlings has turned into a business. We now supply many of Melbourne's best restaurants with a whole range of produce year-round. We have three areas dedicated to vegetable production, a mixed cropping orchard stands in the field that once housed waist-high weeds. The trees are young but one day we will delight in apples, cherries, peaches, pears, figs, plums and persimmon straight from the tree. We've installed posts and strung wire for a small vineyard and berry trellis. Oliver built a chook-shed of palatial proportions. We've even begun exposing the pretty, formal garden from its layers of wild blackberries and ivy so that now we have a view of the blue Dandenongs. 

What a difference two years makes!

What a difference two years makes!

There's always work to be done and always will be, but somehow we don't see it as work anymore. It's a challenge that provides deep satisfaction, a quieting of the mind and a sense of pride when we look back on all that we've achieved in such a short time. Now, as the late afternoon sun falls on our lemon trees, turning the leaves golden, I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be. Except maybe Italy, but that's another story.

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Recipe: Back to basics hummus

My love affair with hummus began when I was living in London. My relationship with food was different back then. It was fuel for my body, occasionally a delight for my tastebuds, but I had little desire to prepare it myself. My flatmate and I had a running joke. We could always tell which shelf in the fridge belonged to me because the only items it ever held were hummus and carrots. How things have changed.

One of my first experiences with Middle Eastern food was during a trip to Dubai in my early twenties. A good friend of mine had spent her teenage years there before returning to Europe for university and her parents still lived there. Dubai struck me as a surreal city. I haven't been back since so I have no idea what it's like now but over a decade ago it felt theme-park-like. The Middle Eastern Experience. I was dazzled by the gold souk and my senses came alive on a walk through the spice market but the western luxuries of seven-star hotels and mega shopping malls were never far behind. The only meal I remember from that trip came from a food truck outside the city on a deserted, sandy road. We ordered freshly cooked falafel wraps with tabbouleh and hummus. The pita bread was warm and the falafel were crunchy on the outside yet moist in the centre. It was topped off by a zing of chilli sauce that made my lips tingle. Perfection.

I still consume more than my fair share of hummus. We've been buying the large tubs and the evidence of my addiction is piling up in the Tupperware cupboard. We reuse the tubs for chicken scraps or collecting berries or freezing tomato sugo, but even on the farm there's only so many we need. So, in my continued effort to get back to basics, I decided to make my own. Once again I was surprised by how quick and easy it was to make myself and the best part was I got to adjust the texture and flavour to my liking. It doesn't last as long as processed hummus (which is really no surprise) and I found the cost of a jar of tahini paste meant the recipe was not as economical as buying it but the freshness of flavour is something you can't get off a shelf. Next time I'll try making my own tahini.

Ingredients:
125 g dried chickpeas
135 g tahini paste
2 Tbsp lemon juice
2 garlic cloves, crushed
50 ml ice cold water
salt
olive oil

Method:
Dried chickpeas need to be soaked overnight before use so place them in a large bowl and cover them with at least twice their volume of cold water before leaving them to soak.

The next day, drain the chickpeas and place in a medium saucepan. Cook over a high heat, skimming off any skins and foam that floats to the surface. The chickpeas can take anywhere between 20 and 40 minutes to cook depending on the type. You'll know when they're done because they'll be very tender but not quite mushy. A good test is whether they break up easily when pressed between your thumb and forefinger.

Drain the chickpeas and place in a food processor bowl. Blend until you reach a stiff paste and then add the tahini, garlic, lemon juice and about 1 teaspoon of salt. Once blended through, add the iced water and allow it to mix until you achieve a smooth and creamy paste. At this stage you might prefer to add a bit more salt or lemon juice so taste it now and see. 

Transfer the hummus into a bowl, cover with cling wrap and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes. When ready to serve, drizzle with olive oil. The olive oil is not necessary but I think it adds a lovely gleam to the finished dish. During a recent lunch on the farm with friends we served this hummus with some of Oliver's freshly baked sourdough and it went down a treat but it's also wonderful on warm pita bread.

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Spring on the farm continues to brighten up our lives. The 'prunus elvins' have blossomed for the first time. Aren't they stunning?

Spring on the farm continues to brighten up our lives. The 'prunus elvins' have blossomed for the first time. Aren't they stunning?

Spring planting: time to get your hands in the soil

It occurred to me the other day, in a moment of anticipation so great I began to dance, that daylight savings is only one month away. As lovely as snuggling up by the fire with a glass of red wine while watching the horizontal rain is, it's only as the days grow longer that we realise the beneficial affect living closer to nature has on us. During the winter months we spend our evenings watching the same episode of Friends we've seen three millions times. Our minds are concerned with our day-jobs, errands that need running and bills to be paid. As the days inch taller, first by seconds then by minutes and hours, we're able to have an early dinner and then head out into the garden. Oliver's job is as busy as ever, I'm still working on re-writes for my next novel, the errands still need running, but we don't go to bed worrying about the day to come. Instead, we fall asleep at peace, satisfied with what we've achieved in the twilight hours. 

We planted around three hundred of these radicchio seedlings on the weekend.

We planted around three hundred of these radicchio seedlings on the weekend.

If you're at all interested in growing your own vegetables, as we do, then now is the perfect time to get your hands in the soil to ensure you're eating fresh, flavoursome produce come the summertime. Because we still lead relatively busy lives we've enlisted the help of a contract grower to germinate many of our seedlings and prepare them to a stage where they are ready to plant out into the veggie patch. This week we received a delivery of around three hundred radicchio seedlings and about the same number of collards, San Tropea onions and purple sprouting broccoli. Collards have been a winning crop for us this year. They're a staple of southern U.S. cooking and Belle's Hot Chicken on Gertrude street in Fitzroy have taken pretty much our entire harvest. It's wonderful to be able to pull a strong seedling from the punnet and bury the roots in the soil knowing they're developed enough to stand life outside a greenhouse. It makes our lives a lot easier, although, in saying that, sowing our own seeds for germination is still one of our favourite jobs on the farm. 

Our contract seedling growers spend most of their time growing flowers for the nursery trade.

Our contract seedling growers spend most of their time growing flowers for the nursery trade.

The woman behind the collards - me!

The woman behind the collards - me!

Of course, we sow all our own sow-direct crops such as carrots, turnips and radishes and we're becoming cleverer with space. We planted two rows of broccoli seedlings on the weekend but since they won't be ready to harvest for close to three months, we also planted a row of radishes down the centre of the broccoli as they'll be ready to harvest in only four weeks leaving space for the broccoli to inhabit as it grows. Even though we're very happy with our contract seedling grower we still like to grow some seedlings ourselves. This year we've focused on tomatoes, zucchini and cucumbers. We do all our seed-raising in the dilapidated glasshouses we inherited with the property. They're hail damaged and the wood is rotting but they also provide a fantastic outlook over our property. It's a wonderful place to stand and take in all we've achieved in the two short years we've been here. Since the job of sowing seeds doesn't require much brain-power, it's also a great place to contemplate and plan all the jobs to come.

Tiny radish seeds to be sown directly into the prepared patch.

Tiny radish seeds to be sown directly into the prepared patch.

There's something very relaxing about plunging your hands into light, airy potting mix and filling up punnets; making a small indentation in the soil for a tiny seed to nestle in and then covering them over with more potting mix before giving them all a good watering. Whether you have a large veggie patch or a tiny balcony, now is the time to have a go at growing your own food from seed. The seeds don't need a lot of sun before they germinate but they do need warmth. We've discovered an old framed window left by the previous owner and have covered our punnets with it. It's been a very successful mini greenhouse actually and we've have a fantastic rate of germination. But if you just want to grow a couple of tomato plants in pots on your balcony then you could even cover your punnets with the top half of a milk bottle. It's that simple. In less than two weeks the first leaves will burst through the potting mix and you'll marvel at the amount of energy contained in that one tiny seed. Happy growing.

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Recipe: End of winter blues-blasting double chocolate & pecan brownies

Oh, Spring you tease, you temptress. You lift your hem and reveal your creamy white flesh only to cover yourself as quickly as you flashed us. The weekend before last we were given a hint of what we hoped would continue but only a day or two later we were plunged back into arctic temperatures again. Well, arctic might be a bit of a stretch... you'll get used to my exaggerations. 

In my opinion, there's only one thing to do when the drenching rain and fierce cold keep you inside - bake. The oven warms the kitchen efficiently and the aroma is enough to lift anyone's spirits. Not so long ago I would have ducked to the shops when I fancied a sweet treat. Now, in my effort to get back to basics, I bake them myself. Not only is the process enjoyable and the finished product satisfying, you also know exactly what you're putting into your body. 

These double chocolate and pecan brownies are as good as any I've had from a bakery (if I do say so myself). They're moist while retaining the most amazing texture through the chunks of dark chocolate and the roughly chopped pecans. They're super easy and quick to make too.

Ingredients:
180 g unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup cocoa
1 1/2 cups castor sugar
few drops of vanilla bean extract
4 eggs, lightly beaten
100 g plain flour, sifted (if you can be bothered - I rarely can)
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
100 g dark chocolate, very roughly chopped
100 g pecans, roughly chopped
pinch of salt

Method:
Preheat your oven to 160 degrees C before lining a 20 cm x 30 cm tin with baking paper. The baking paper will keep the whole divine slab together when you're ready to slice into squares. Mix butter and cocoa in a large bowl, then add sugar, vanilla and eggs. Mix in remaining ingredients (told you it was easy) remembering not to chop the pecans and chocolate too finely. This is especially important for the chocolate as you want the chunks to hold their shape while cooking, providing you with a glorious bitter-sweetness as you bite into the brownie. Pour mixture into prepared tin and bake for 20 minutes (this will give you a firm brownie on the outside while retaining a lovely, gooey consistency in the middle).

If you can, allow to cool completely in the tin before cutting into squares. While you may think a warm brownie is a thing to die for, I promise you, you'll get the full flavour and texture desired once the brownies have cooled. Oh, and be prepared to moan out loud when you eat them. It's an unavoidable reaction. 

These jolly daffodils seem to have popped up from nowhere. 

These jolly daffodils seem to have popped up from nowhere. 

As it happens, it's a beautiful day on the farm today, but Oliver and I have been struck down by a stomach virus and are unable to enjoy it - thank you Sod's law. The sun shines through our living-room window mockingly. A grey and drizzly day would suit our moods better and it kills us to be at home and unable to get out into the garden. As such, I'll keep this post brief and tell you all about our spring planting next week.

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Radicchio and collard green seedlings.

Radicchio and collard green seedlings.


Giving back to the earth

Last Monday ten cubic metres of specially formulated compost were delivered to our farm and we spent all weekend distributing it among the vegetable beds. There's a sentence I never would have thought I'd write three years ago. Thoughts like this stop me every now and then as I consider how much my life has changed since meeting Oliver. I was once the quintessential city-girl, loving the London lifestyle of travel, shopping and partying in South Kensington clubs. Oliver has growing in his blood. His father is an environmental scientist and he was brought up in the most incredible edible food garden in Canberra which his parents still tend to diligently. Oliver's very being responds to the seasons whereas I used to barely register their existence (except perhaps to complain about the shortness of winter days in London). It's clear Oliver brings out the best in me, but perhaps this new-found desire to return to a more natural way of life also has something to do with age. I think it's only natural that the older we get the more we begin to search for meaning in our lives. And no matter how wonderful our upbringing was, the desire to provide a better future for our children is strong.

A freshly turned patch of earth holds so many possibilities.

A freshly turned patch of earth holds so many possibilities.

The compost delivery couldn't have arrived on a worse day. This winter has been the wettest in twenty years, or so says our Pilates teacher who is generally considered to be the font of all knowledge regarding our local area. It feels as though it has rained non-stop for two months and the sky was equally as threatening the morning the bulky truck arrived with our delivery of nutrients. We had such high hopes and thought we were organised, but we're learning things don't always go to plan on the farm, sometimes with disheartening results. Put simply, vegetables need nutrients in the soil in order to grow, by consuming them the vegetables supply us with the nutrients we need to remain healthy in return and so it's up to us to replenish the soil to ensure the success of future crops and indeed our own health and wellbeing. It's all about leaving the earth better than we found it for the next cycle and on and on it goes. Industrious farmers that we are, we recently sent a sample of our soil off to a laboratory to be tested and found that while our land was rich in organic matter it was nutrient poor. So, we approached a company that creates compost tailored to the individual requirements of the soil. Genius! We even prepared a special bed close to the driveway and allowed it to go fallow over the winter so the compost could be deposited directly on top ensuring absolutely no nutrients were lost. God laughs at the best laid plans - is that what they say?

Oh, the shame! Oh, the waste! Oh, the mess!

Oh, the shame! Oh, the waste! Oh, the mess!

The truck arrived under a blanket of pregnant clouds and it was as though the driver knew she was doomed even before she began. I explained where we wanted the load dropped and she shook her head ruefully before saying "I just hope I can make it without getting bogged." Superstitious woman that I am I forked a sign behind my back against the jinx but it was no use. As the rain fell in fat drops around me I watched in horror as the huge truck lost control and slipped inexorably towards the delicate herbs and salvias in my cottage garden. The gears clunked and the engine strained as multiple wheels spun, ripping up our grass and angrily spitting red mud at me. I felt for sure the driver would need to call someone to tow her out, but not before nightmare visions crossed my mind of the great truck ploughing into our half-a-century-old cherry tree. Amazingly, the driver made her way back up the driveway in small increments and onto firmer ground. But not before crushing a section of the earthenware pipe that sends our waste water running off to the far side of our property. I don't blame her for this. The deluge of rain over the season has washed away much of the soil protecting the pipe and we hadn't got around to filling it over again. God only knows how we're going to fix it because I don't. Soaked to the bone now and covered in mud I was forced to admit defeat and agree for the compost to be dumped on top of our gravel driveway and then watch as the coming rains drained the powerful nutrients from our pile of good intentions into one of the only parts of our property that we have no intension of using for growing - the drive.

Oliver practising safety-first on the farm with hat, earmuffs, gloves, boots and high-vis T-shirt.

Oliver practising safety-first on the farm with hat, earmuffs, gloves, boots and high-vis T-shirt.

Nevertheless, it's not all doom and gloom on the farm. The weather was spectacular on the weekend and we achieved more in two days than we had in two months - or so it felt. The first hint of spring was all around us in the form of birdsong, blossoms bursting and chickens laying. I peeled off my jumper and drank in the sunshine. We were busy, as we always are, but we made time to stop and watch the first bees settle on our flowering azaleas and breathe the scent of jasmine crawling up the side of our house. In the end I was spared the stinky duty of distributing the compost. Oliver was well organised with his tractor fitted with soil-scoop attachment and instead I weeded the lavender and blueberries and topped up their beds with mulch, smiling all the way at Oliver's enthusiasm for the farm. His passion has become mine and we can't wait to taste the results in next seasons's harvest. 

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The bees are back signalling spring is on the way. We couldn't be happier.

The bees are back signalling spring is on the way. We couldn't be happier.