The good life

Martin Field 2006-06-03T01:30:47+00:000000004730200606 Food and Wine

by Martin Field

Sub-urban self-sufficiency
Fans of British TV comedy will fondly remember that BBC classic The Good Life, where a comfortable suburban couple attempted to turn their backyard into a self-sufficient small holding. I was reminded of the show when, after having pizza for dinner one night, Lucy remarked on the home-grown, home-produced ingredients that went into its construction.

The dough was kneaded in the bread making machine and topped with home-made habanera sauce, then we added hand-picked (at Red Hill) pickled pine mushrooms, and then came pickled jalapenos, herbed olives in oil, and a sprinkling of rosemary and oregano and basil – all grown in our garden. Field mushrooms, flour and mozzarella and yeast came from the supermarket and the pizza was cooked in our Pizza Chef pizza machine. We washed it down with home-made cider – made from bought apples and apple juice.

And home-based food production is commonplace among our neighbours in Northcote (around six kilometres from Melbourne’s city centre). Many of them are post WWII immigrants from Italy, Greece and Lebanon and their gardens feature grapevines, olive, lemon, fig, quince and apricot trees. One occasionally sees vegetables growing among the front lawn grass.

As the seasons go by and as our apricots and olives ripen, passers-by frequently stop and offer advice on the best way to use and preserve the harvest. One elderly Lebanese gardener was kind enough to process a year’s supply of our olives for us because, ‘I enjoy doing it.’ He wouldn’t accept anything in return for his effort.

We’ve just bottled this year’s small crop of olives, in a garlic olive oil; the summer apricots are happily embalmed in sugar syrup and there’s a recent bottling of lemoun moukbass* in the cupboard. That will be ready to use in a few weeks.

*Salted lemons sprinkled with sweet paprika and bottled with extra virgin olive oil.

Zorba type winemaking

And around vintage time there is a bustle of home winemaking in the neighbourhood. Local gents trundle large blue fermentation bins on trolleys to their rellos’ houses for communal wine production. ‘Cheap grapes at the market,’ one told me. ‘Cases of red grapes are only ten dollars. I don’t care what the variety is,’ he said. ‘Makes good wine.’

A friend tells me that every vintage he also joins the red grape buyers, ‘They sell ‘em off the back of a truck.’ His vinification technique is to put a large green plastic bin liner bag inside another. Into the inner bag he puts his grapes and then seals both bags. They go onto the kitchen floor and with a glass of last year’s wine in his hand and to the music of Zorba the Greek he treads the grapes into juice with his bare feet. The juice is left on the skins for a week or so and he then drains it into a large oak barrel, ‘My uncle gave me.’

I asked him what yeast he uses, ‘None. It just starts to ferment in the barrel on its own.’ After a few months in the barrel he bottles the wine in cleaned bottles of all shapes and sizes – lemonade, Coke, beer, etc. – and he reckons it turns out really good.

Moonshine grappa?
I suspect that a significant amount of the pressings, left after the wine is made, ends up in small-scale grappa distillation in a few neighbourhood garages. I did see a small five litre still for sale in a shop a while back. ‘Not legal for making spirits,’ said the retailer. ‘Good if you want to make distilled water or eucalyptus oil though,’ he nod, nodded, wink, winked.

In the garden
Now, at the start of winter, the garden’s looking a bit dismal. Admittedly, the lemon tree is over-laden with ripe fruit but the basil has gone to flower, there are only a few chillies left on the bushes, there’s a dinner or two’s worth of silver beet to be picked but the rest is weeds. Time to do a bit of hoeing. If we want to maintain the good life.

“The good life”

  1. GollyG :

    My neighbours are mildly amused by the crop of courgettes and tomatoes in my front yard, but it gets the most sun, so that’s where they have to grow. Home grown veg tastes so much better and is always a welcome gift.