Jo rang on Saturday, excited about the new, to her, Orange Grove Market. For as long as I can remember my best friend has lived in the elegantly ruined parts of Sydney's east, places with history and peeling walls and faded art deco hallways, but also junkies and kleptomaniacs and noisy backpackers a-hoy. She recently moved to the other side of town and she's out there exploring but also, I think, mourning a little for the familiar. An unpretentious local farmer's market was a moment of joy, a seemingly small thing, but one that made her want to pick up the phone to enthuse long-distance. "The veg just looks like it should", she said, "like it grew in the soil, if you know what I mean".
I do, and am thrilled to welcome a(nother) convert to the tribe.
Among the chief reasons to grow food yourself is that very sense of it having once been alive, a quicker transition from garden to fork than Jo, and indeed most of us, has become accustomed to. Fresh food is highly addictive and growing it yourself, when and if you have the space to do so, is the next logical step.
All very hip, right, and okay for those with garden space, but there really is a bit more than that going on. Satisfying the parts of myself that like to feel useful, the parts that need quiet, need time spent outdoors, where things take their merry time and do not, on any account, especially mine, hurry. I like that.
For a long time I had a fantasy of sorts, born of watching an early (very) episode of The Food Lover's Guide to Australia. A herb farm run by a wonderful woman in Capertee, a town lodged somewhere between Oberon and Mudgee. Laura made a salad I remember vividly, one with evening primrose leaves and avocado, chervil and toasted sunflower seeds and, no doubt, more goodness besides. It wasn't simply that the evening primrose leaves seemed so exotic, or that either Maeve O'Mara or Joanna Savill, for I cannot recall which of the two, was so absolutely stunned by the flavour of the evening primrose, it was that she saw this simple, fresh-picked daily meal as a kind of medicine. She was one of the most interesting food people I've ever come across, naming her farm after a valley in her beloved northern Lebanon, and investing the kind of energy into her herbs that I longed to possess.
Scrawled across the then current journal is a note that reads I now know what it is I want to be: a herb farmer.
For a while that thought got packed away because there wasn't a chance in hell, there and then, that it could happen. Instead, our potted herbs became my babies, a source of great pleasure to tend. They were moved from house to house, a travelling garden that longed to expand into something more diverse, more permanent. Just a pause, with a lot of learning and daydreaming to while away the time.
Last year, things began to fall into place. I suppose what I'm saying is that daydreaming can pay off, for it's well within the realm of possibility that, over the next few years, I'll be able to do (and be) just that and the way that makes my heart feel is very, very good.
I rang Jo back that afternoon with six curvaceous bulbs of fennel under the other arm. "What will you do with them?", she asked. Well.
One was sliced super-thin and tossed with champagne vinegar, though cider vinegar is just as good, and drizzled with a real throat-catcher of an extra virgin olive oil. I wolfed the whole thing down, a hunk of bread chasing the dressing around the plate for lunch. Three more went in to a favourite dish of braised fennel not unlike this version, and the other two went into this rather incredible pie.
fennel and walnut pie
For 2. Adapted, if memory serves me right, from Leith's Vegetarian Bible.
First, get the oven on to 180 C.
Thinly slice 2 fat bulbs of fennel. Slice them any way you like, so long as they are sliced very, very thin. Here you can add other thinly sliced vegetables too. Leek is good, so is a little potato, maybe some pumpkin, maybe just fennel. Play is what I'm saying. Fry them gently in a little olive oil with a good pinch of salt for about 10 minutes, watching they do not colour too much. Normally I like to push fennel to a caramel edge of golden brown, the best way to highlight its sweetness, but here I think it needs a gentler touch. Toward the end of cooking time add chopped garlic (if it's not in season, a pinch of powdered is fine), a heaped teaspoon of fennel seeds and a level teaspoon of paprika and the zest of either an orange or a lemon. Take the pan off the heat. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding a tiny drizzle of honey if you like. (I like.)
Whisk together 1 egg, 1/2 cup of plain yoghurt and 1/3 cup milk (non-dairy works a treat) to make a custard. Chop a palmful of fennel greens and some parsley and add, stirring well. Lots of pepper and mix again.
Arrange the cooked fennel in the base of a small baking dish, pour the custard over and add a couple of tablespoons of chopped walnuts.
Unfurl a packet of filo pastry on the bench and place a clean tea towel on top. You'll probably need about half the pack, so I hesitate to give an exact quantity. It's all about the size of your dish, you see. Brush sheets liberally with melted butter (or oil, or a mixture of both) and crumple to arrange over the top, ensuring the dish is completely covered.
Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes. I don't think it's too much to suggest that a salad of raw fennel a la above would go astray on the side. If I'd had one left, it's exactly what I'd have done.