Fruits of the Earth

Cooler weather for a few days seemed to herald a change in the season. As one who loves summer, I hope it was only a temporary aberration but it must have been the first hint of autumn which made me think of food.

The damson plum tree is laden and I can’t even give the fruit away. In the past I have satisfied my harvest festival urge (which passes very quickly) by indulging in damson gin but I decided last time that I preferred the gin without the year steeping the damsons. Not being pudding eaters, we don’t go in for fruit crumbles and plum duffs so the damsons may just go to waste. I notice that Mark had a similar response to wastefulness and there is a supermarket bag full of them sitting on the shed floor. He tells me he plans to use them for wine but I predict they will sit there until they start to rot and then they will go to the compost heap.

I did however harvest the cape gooseberries this year. These are entirely self sown and it is the first season I have found a crop worth harvesting. I wasn’t sure what to do with them (along with not being pudding eaters, we don’t do stewed fruit either) so I fell back on a skill long in abeyance and made a couple of pots of jam. I was raised in a family that was big on preserving. In the days before deep freezes and with a big household, the target was 365 large Agee jars of assorted bottled fruit along with multitudinous jars of jam and pickle. When newly married I continued this practice. In fact I continued it for some years until I realised that none of us actually liked bottled plums or stewed apple. I gave up making jam when we moved back into the orbit of Mark’s mother. She was the jam maker extraordinaire and it was she who introduced me to cape gooseberry jam. Her fruit salad jams were the very best (a mix of about 4 assorted fruits) but the cape gooseberry ran a close second. My jams never measured up so I gave up even trying. I am not sure that my two paltry jars last week measured up either, but they did at least set, even if I seem to be the only one who eats it.

I have always assumed the cape gooseberry came from South Africa – based entirely on the use of the word Cape which usually refers to the Cape of Good Hope around the southern tip of that continent. Hence one gets the Cape Daisy and the Cape Tulip. I was wrong. The cape gooseberry is in fact Physalis peruviana, so it hails from Peru in another continent entirely. As it is a member of the solanum family (like tomatoes and potatoes), it seems obvious once you know. If you have children around, the cape gooseberry is worth having in the garden as the fruit are delicious when ripe – little golden orbs encased in a papery sheath. Very cute. The plant is straggly and of no ornamental value, so it is one you just let seed down in an untamed area.

And I have gone back to a trick in the kitchen which I used to use but which seems little known, using another South American fruit. For tenderising tough meat, it is hard to beat the babacco, or its cousins in the paw paw family. I quite understand that these are not growing in everybody’s garden, although the babacco was quite widely available about 20 years ago, along with pepinos, as the new fashion fruit from South America. Mark’s father gathered up quite a few and did a bit of hybridising between them before he decided that the fruit was not all it was cracked up to be and he preferred a good crisp apple. The trees linger on in the garden here as curiosities but we rarely do anything with the fruit (although they are a good filler in fruit salads).

Most people know that kiwifruit have an enzyme which tenderises meat. But, believe me, whatever is in the babacco or paw paw eclipses kiwifuit. If you marinade meat in its juice, much more than 20 minutes will reduce it to a meat slurry. But as a quick tenderiser for cheaper cuts of steak, it will render blade steak to melt in the mouth for stir fries or kebabs and I imagine it would even make good old gravy beef tender enough for the barbecue if it is cut into smaller pieces. If you have the fruit around, it is worth a try. Just don’t forget that you have it steeping and leave it in the fridge unless you want to make a soup.

And while loosely on a food train of thought, the castanospermum austale or “Black Bean” is in flower. Few of you will know this tree although some of you may recognise “castanea” as a chestnut. So the castanospermum is commonly referred to as the Moreton Bay chestnut on account of its large seeds. To my embarrassment, I had always thought these were edible (and indeed we sold a few plants once with a description which includes a reference to edible seeds) and it was only this morning that I looked it up and found that in fact the seeds and sawdust are toxic. Until now I have assumed that the reason we did not harvest the seed was that it would require an extension ladder. As we are on the climatic fringe of where this tree will grow (it hails from tropical Queensland) it is not overly prolific in flowering but the large bright orange pea flowers are striking. The pea flowers are a good indicator that this tree belongs in the family of legumes (as a number of Australian trees do) along with peas and beans.

There is apparently research going on in to the potential use of the castanospermum seeds in the development of drugs to fight cancer and Aids. So if you are one of the dozen or so people who bought a plant from us a decade ago with a mistaken understanding about the edible nature of the seeds, take heart. You may get poisoned but you are unlikely to die of cancer or Aids.