Category Archives: Abbie’s column

Abbie’s newspaper columns

From cob to cracker

Indian corn or flint corn

Really, I wanted to show the photo of Mark’s pretty corn cobs. This is commonly called Indian corn or flint corn. It is maize, not sweetcorn so not suitable for eating as corn on the cob. Modern sweetcorn is a very different crop after a great deal of selection to get strains with very high sugar content – so much so that I often find them too sweet.  I think Mark just grew the Indian corn out of curiosity the first time. This year he put in a bigger row of it because we used all the previous crop and he is looking for grain crops that we can grow, harvest and use here.

I only have a photo of dead pheasant. We found two which had been hit on the road but he counted more than that in the patch.

He was loving the presence of the growing population of beautiful pheasants in his cropping area across the road until he realised they had quietly consumed about a third of the Indian corn. We are still delighted to have a local population of exotic-looking pheasants but he hastily harvested the remaining cobs.

Curiously, when I dehusk the dried cobs, the remaining core also shows colour variation. Red kernels usually mean a red or purple cob.

Kernels, maize flour and the handy old coffee grinder I kept in case it was needed again one day

What do we do with the corn? Home made corn crackers! I first tried grinding the kernels in the food processor and it had to work hard to achieve a fairly coarse result. I worried the meal may crack tooth fillings. Then I remembered the old electric coffee grinder I put away in a top cupboard when we upgraded to a burr grinder for coffee beans. It does an excellent job. The texture is not completely consistent and I don’t think I can manage the process to get polenta meal out of it, but it is fine for crackers. I have stopped buying corn chips and taco shells. My thin crackers make a more than acceptable substitute, though I would be lying if I said they tasted the same. I have learned that the kernels need grinding immediately before they are used because the flour goes mouldy really quickly.

I doubt that many readers have a crop of maize or Indian corn sitting around waiting to be used, but just in case, I offer you my recipe which I adapted from a great recipe I was given for making seedy crackers.

About 1 ¾ cups of fresh ground maize flour

¾ cup of spelt flour

2 tbsp chia seeds

1 tsp salt

1/3 cup olive oil

½ cup water

Mix and then roll out thinly on baking paper with another sheet of paper on top. Sprinkle the top with coarse salt flakes and grated parmesan cheese or similar (I used grana padano because that was what I had) and cut the sheet of cracker into suitable sized squares but leave it as a sheet.

Bake in a medium low oven (about 130 on fanbake) until it is golden brown and crisp (about 30 mins but keep an eye on it).

That is it. From grinding the corn to getting crispy, tasty crackers out of the oven takes about 40 minutes. We ate them this evening with chilli beans (homegrown, of course) and will continue to eat them during the week as a snack, with or without toppings.

Rolled and ready for baking 

The finished crackers

Started at last – a perennial meadow

Not a blank canvas – closer to a wasteland with potential

Sometimes a garden can catch you unawares. At least, that is the case in a large garden. It is probably harder to avert your eyes from messy areas in a small garden. So it was that I found myself in the Iolanthe garden this week, thinning both the Daphne bholua forest that had formed (there is a plant that can seed and sucker alarmingly if you turn your back on it) and the sugar cane patch.

The original plant of Iolanthe is the dominant feature on one side 

Iolanthe has only opened her first two blooms this year but here is a view I prepared earlier

I paced out the Iolanthe garden and it is somewhere over 500 square metres so it is not a small space, though it is in a prime position and has a mix of shade and sun. It lost its way some years ago. In Mark’s father’s time, it was his vegetable garden but as the original plant of Iolanthe grew ever larger, the shade increased. I admit to having done a major effort on it back in the early 1990s, attempting to turn it into a stylish potager. In self defence, it was the fashion at the time and I was following Rosemary Verey’s example. I divided the space into rectangular areas defined by square, concrete pavers and planted rather a lot of twee buxus hedges. Of course, anybody with experience can tell you that little buxus hedges are not actually compatible with growing plants like vegetables that require friable soils to be dug over every season. Their root systems encroach ever more on the surrounding areas.

At its best, Mark’s chaotic butterfy garden could look like this – but all too briefly

Mark’s dad was patient with my efforts to pretty up the area but Mark removed most of the buxus in the years that followed. He then relocated the vegetables to a sunnier area on the property and the Iolanthe garden became the holding area for plants that needed to be relocated to other parts of the garden ‘in due course’ and the trial area for growing perennials he was buying in to see how they would perform here. And it became increasingly chaotic. At its best, in summer, it was Mark’s butterfly and bee garden with a riot of unrelated flowers, both self-seeding and planted. At its worst, it was a mess and that was for most of the year. I could no longer ignore it and it needed more than just an annual spruce-up.

This is a massive job and I had already started when I realised what I was doing – making a perennial meadow. We have made a considerable study of meadows and I have written plenty about different meadow styles. In our climate and conditions, we have to maintain some level of weed control at all times so that pretty mix of flowering annuals and field grasses is not a look we can maintain. But finally, I think the threads are coming together and I can plant a perennial meadow that will require only light maintenance and flower for maybe nine months of the year. The influence is very much Nigel Dunnett and some of the plantings I see on Pictorial Meadows. If you want to know more about this, google the work Dunnett has been doing at Trentham Gardens, near Stoke-on-Trent.

Existing citrus trees in this area

We are extending the permanent trees and shrubs. Mark has long talked about establishing an orange grove to give some purpose to the area. There are already about 10 citrus trees there (tangelo, limes, lemon, oranges and mandarins) and another three plants were hanging around the old nursery waiting to be planted. And feijoas. There was one growing and another two waiting for a home. Same with the tea camellia (C. sinensis).  While we are never going to be self sufficient in tea, I have taken to harvesting the big plant each spring and Mark had another two or three waiting to be planted.

Planting beneath the widely-spaced trees and shrubs is the big task but also the most interesting one. The meadow effect. Liberated from the feeling that I must manage the colours carefully and follow certain rules for herbaceous planting, all I am doing is thinking as I go about sustainable combinations planted in loose blocks. I am using the plant material we have to hand but avoiding using the perennials I have already featured heavily in the sunny perennial plantings around the new Court Garden area. In other words, really casual plantings but strong growers, a different plant palette so it doesn’t all look the same. Am I lucky that we can go into planting a fairly large area drawing on plant material we already have around the place or is that good management? Using material we already have does mean we know how it will perform in our conditions and how to manage it.

It was a throwaway comment from Mark that made me think more clearly about what I was doing. “I’ve always thought wind anemones have a place in an orchard,” he said. Yes! I thought. We have two shades of pink Japanese anemones on our roadside that I can raid and this is a place where they can grow in their own space and star in their season.

Elsewhere, we have a variegated agapanthus that I have never found the right place to feature in the garden. I have yellow day lilies I could use with that in one block. It is painting with plants and that is fun. I have already interplanted the purple eucomis with yellow crocosmia and am now interplanting bluebells and a pink alstromeria.

I have more confidence with this venture having ascertained that a small area I replanted two years ago and mulched heavily with fresh bark and leaf chip has stayed weed free. This week, I found that the price of a truckload of up to 6 cubic metres of such mulch material can be delivered here for a mere $100. This seems like a bargain to me. I am waiting for my first load and will mulch heavily. As with everything we do in the garden here, we factor in sustainability and maintenance from the very start.

Our bulb hillside plantings are successful but do not a meadow make

We have always wanted a meadow and have had success with bulb hillsides but have been apprehensive about going full-on into a more extensive area. There is romance in the simplicity of flowery meadows but that does not mean they are simple to create. I am hoping that we now have sufficient experience and knowledge to make it work. It may be the last piece in the assemblage of sunny perennial gardens we have been putting in – all different in style and concept with very little overlap in the plant selection for each area.

I have a lot of work to do before summer to get the meadow planted. I just wish it wasn’t quite so muddy at the moment and that the weather gods would give us a spell of several dry days in a row.

It is an old photo but one of my favourites and is the view at one end of what is to be a perennial meadow

A tribute to the mountain – despite its lack of bears

Photographed from the path down to our park – the mountain and the magnolia

It was perhaps the desire to post more photos of our Magnolia campbellii and the mountain that motivated me to write about te mounga.

It remains an active volcano and most of the province is urged to have evacuation plans at the ready. At least we can head north or inland to get away. I am not sure how those around the coast are meant to evacuate should a major eruption occur because either way, their escape routes take them around the base of the mountain – unless they evacuate by sea. In reality, it is more likely to be lahars or ash clouds that are the problem. As you head around the coastal side of the mountain, the remains of lahars are a dominant feature in the landscape.

Photo credit: u/apexcutter on Reddit

Flying in to New Plymouth from the south takes one over the mountain and on a clear day, the sight is breathtaking. It is a near-perfect cone sitting alone, very close to the sea and surrounded by what is called the ring plain – land that is rolling to flat farmland. Lacking my own image, I found this photo on Reddit. That is the Tasman Sea in the upper section. The dark circle around the lower mountain is where the native bush ends – the boundary of the National Park giving way to farm land.

As seen from an Inglewood garden in late spring

It is an extremely accessible mountain which makes it one of the most dangerous in the country because inexperienced people underestimate it and fail to factor in that it has alpine conditions at higher altitudes. The fatality rate is high. In icy conditions, people can slip a long way. Neither Mark nor I have ever climbed it. As Mark says, he loses interest really quickly once above the bush line. Plants, not rocks are his thing. And I am wary of mountains. My brother remains buried in the ice of the Himalayas on the slopes of Mount Makalu.

Whereas Mount Fuji in Japan is widely accepted as being of sacred status, going well beyond just those of the Shinto faith, we are such a secular and residual colonial society that many people struggle with the thought that of course our Mount Taranaki has deep spiritual significance for the original people of the land. When Maori politely requested that people stop standing right on the top point of the pinnacle and, if my memory serves me right, refrain from carrying any bodily functions at the summit, the howls of outrage were loud. For what is the purpose of climbing a mountain if you can not place your footprints on the very highest point? The same people who are appalled at the thought that anybody might vandalise a graveyard and who would never dream of urinating on an altar regard it as a civil liberty that they can do what they wish on the highest point of te mounga.

Mind you, that outrage pales into insignificance compared to the outpouring of anger when the name of the mountain was addressed in 1983. Captain Cook named it Mount Egmont in 1770, after the Earl of Egmont who never came to New Zealand and died before he got to hear of the honour. But of course the mountain had names before that and a long campaign led to the decision that it could be called either Taranaki (the most common of its pre-European names) or Egmont. This might be called hedging bets but to some, this outrage was tantamount to the end of western civilisation. There are even a few older people who insist on continuing to make a stand by calling it Mount Egmont but they are a dying breed. Literally. The name ‘Mount Taranaki’ has taken precedence in official usage and to people beyond the region. To locals, it is simply ‘the mountain’, or ‘te maunga’ (in standardised Maori) or ‘te mounga’ with an o in the local dialect.

While sacred is rarely used as a descriptor and spiritual connection makes some people scoff, there is no doubt in my mind that our mounga is embedded into the very souls of people who are born here or spend time living here. Long before I ever came to Taranaki, I noticed that most people identify where they come from by the nearest town or city. Not Taranaki folks. They commonly declare themselves as coming from Taranaki and that, I think, has more to do with the mountain than the province. It is widely visible throughout the region. In summer, we make small talk about when the very last vestiges of white ice will melt. In autumn, we chart the first snowfalls. Through winter, we note how low the snow is lying and in spring we observe the retreating snow line. If it is blocked from view by cloud (as mountains often are), we can make that the marker of small talk about weather. Every rescue or dramatic event, including avalanches, makes headlines as do the relatively few days that the club skifield is open.

Te mounga just is. It was there before any humans populated this area. It will be there long after we have shuffled off the mortal coils. If that is not a shared spiritual connection that transcends all other social constructs, I am not sure what is.

An image search on line will yield many astounding photographs of our mountain. Some are even untouched by filters and other enhanced editing techniques. There are countless references giving more information but these give a brief, and probably accurate oversight.

The legends: https://taranakimounga.nz/the-project/about-taranaki-mounga/history/

The official history: https://www.linz.govt.nz/regulatory/place-names/tuia-%E2%80%93-encounters-250/mount-taranaki-or-mount-egmont

Climbing advice: https://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-go/taranaki/places/egmont-national-park/things-to-do/tracks/mount-taranaki-summit-track/

Amusingly, I found an article from Wilderness Magazine comparing NZ mountain peaks to more famous international peaks. Of course the comparator for Mount Taranaki is Mount Fuji in Japan.

“Why they’re similar: Are you kidding? Look at them!

Why they’re not: Taranaki seriously lacking bears and a summit post office

This comparison is a no-brainer. The two mountains look almost identical – so much so, that Mt Taranaki was famously used to represent Mt Fuji in the Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai.

They look like cartoon summits – ask a five-year-old to draw a mountain and they will quickly pencil something that looks very much like Fuji or Egmont.

Both have erupted within the last 350 years, both take about four or five hours to climb from where the road ends and both involve steep rocky ascents.

But the fact that they’re relatively straight forward to climb means both are commonly underestimated. The changeable weather makes Taranaki statistically one of the most dangerous mountains in New Zealand. And regular deaths on Mt Fuji have resulted in Japanese authorities urging wannabe peak-baggers to climb only in July and August, when conditions are mildest.”

The Japanese can keep their summit post office but I am now worrying about the distinct lack of bears to spice up a summit attempt on our mounga.

Matrix planting – a skill worth pursuing

The auratum lilies -now dormant – called to me for some attention

Many gardeners will recognise the situation where one heads out to the garden to do something and what initially seemed to be a straightforward task escalates into one that is considerably more major. I shall dig and consolidate the lily bulbs in the avenue garden, I thought to myself. They haven’t been touched for years and are somewhat higgledy piggledy around the place. It escalated. Of course it did.

After more than 20 years…

“I am surprised they are still there, really,” said Mark. “It must be 20 years since I planted them and some of those now are seedlings from the originals.” It is probably more like 25 years since Mark planted the lower beds of the Avenue Gardens. No major work has been carried out in the time since, bar clearing up after the occasional treemageddon. We do a tidy-up from time to time and most years the lilies get staked. Nothing has been fed and not a lot new has been planted, just the occasional removal of a dead plant and plugging the gap if need be. I ended up going over almost every square centimetre of the area and becoming familiar with every plant, not just the lilies.

Remarkably low maintenance in the long term

As the days passed, my awe at the skills Mark used when planting the area grew. Matrix planting. That is what it was at the time – a highly complex planting of a whole range of different material, most of which has stood the test of time and is still there. It is the stability and the compatibility of the plants used that makes it a matrix – a form of sustainable gardening that is worth attempting to come to terms with.

When I did a net search looking for a definition of matrix planting, I found a fair number of recent references attributing it to renowned Dutch designer, Piet Oudolf. Oudolf is a giant in the contemporary international garden scene and he may have popularised matrix planting as a concept but he did not come up with it.

Orchids a-plenty in early October

As I told Mark how much I admired his skills in carrying the original planting 25 years ago in some areas, he just shrugged it off and said, “I was only copying what my father did”. Indeed, we still have areas in the garden that Felix planted from the 1950s onwards that remain stable, interesting, timeless and remarkably low maintenance today. These are mostly in shade and semi shade whereas Oudolf’s contemporary work that I have seen is predominantly in open, sunny conditions.

It is the sustainability and low maintenance with a high level of plant complexity that makes matrix planting so important. Without a high level of plantsmanship, you end up with utility, mass planting of few varieties – the hallmark of many contemporary landscape designers who have to plant clients’ gardens with reliable selections so they can not take risks. And people who pay professionals tend to like the tidiness of uniformity. Without sustainability, you have much higher maintenance requirements. This may not matter much in a small garden but if you are managing a large area with a low budget and low labour input, that stability of plant relationships is critical to keeping it all manageable while maintaining a high level of plant interest.

When I talk about a complex planting, I mean different layers and a mix of trees, shrubs, perennials both evergreen and deciduous, bulbs and a smattering of self-seeding plants. In this area, we start at the top with a layer of massive old man pines which are up to 50 metres high. At a lower level, we have rhododendrons (a few, in better lit areas), vireya rhododendrons, cordylines, brugmansia, palms, a few cycads, hydrangeas and the like). At ground level we have trilliums, Paris polyphylla, assorted varieties of bromeliads, Helleborus x sternii, argutifolius and foetidus, orchids (mostly dendrobiums, calanthes, cymbidiums and pleiones), veltheimias, hippeastrums, the aforementioned lilies and a whole lot more. I did say it was a complex planting.  Oh, and lots of clivias in red, orange and yellow. Being in the shade, we don’t get a lot of weeds but the naturally occurring vegetation needs to  be managed and thinned – assorted ferns, macropiper (kawakawa, pepper tree or, botanically, Piper excelsum), native astelias and collospermum, even seedling nikau palms and cordylines.

Lifted, divided and replanted after many years

The surplus from this one small batch amounted to 3 or 4 barrow-loads

I was amazed at how much I could remove without making it look different, just tidier. I lifted entire blocks of bromeliads and reduced them to a shadow of their former selves. After replanting this patch, I removed four laden barrows to dump but it still looks well furnished.

At the end of about three weeks, I decided I had done as much as I intended to. I didn’t need to add much new material at all. That is why I was in awe at Mark’s original plant selections and plantings. And while it was a larger job than I originally envisaged, if that sets it up so that it can be maintained with the lightest of intervention over the next two decades, that is a good outcome.

 

 

Botanical art for beginners in the garden here

copyright T.Forbes 2006 

Do you dream of being able to paint and draw plants and flowers? Mark does and that is how we came to meet Tabatha Forbes. Dr Tabatha Forbes, thank you. She has a PhD in fine arts from Elam Art School at Auckland University.

Tabatha tutors botanical art for beginners. This is a very specific branch of art combining both accurate botanical depiction with the skills and aesthetics of painting and drawing. Mark says that he just wants to be able to paint pretty flower pictures while realising that some level of skill in both close observation and translating that to paper is required to achieve that goal. He is hoping that his time with Tabatha at an August workshop will get him started (again) on drawing and painting.

Rangiora. copyright T.Forbes 2006

Later in November, Tabatha is offering two small-group workshops in our garden during this year’s garden festival. Our garden isn’t open for the festival this year but participants will have the run of the place while here. The first workshop is on the first weekend of the festival – Saturday 2 and Sunday 3 November from 10am -3pm each day. She starts beginners with leaves – observing and drawing in detail on the first day, moving onto acrylic painting on the second day.

The second workshop on the weekend of November 9 and 10 is a follow-up – progressing onto painting berries and fruit, so more colour and added detail.

If you want to know more, Tabatha has a comprehensive website which showcases her own work, her interests and experience and current projects.

The Taranaki Daily News recently published a profile on her here: The soothing art of retreating into nature. 

For more information and bookings, please email Tabatha at drtab72@gmail.com. We will be delighted to meet you should you attend either or both of her workshops here.

Toxic tutu (Coriaria arborea) copyright T.Forbes 2006

When your lawnmower is worth more – a lot more – than your car

Out with the old… 

and in with the new. I see Lloyd left it air-drying after its first wash on Friday. He likes to keep a clean machine.

We bought a new lawnmower. This may not seem particularly momentous, unless you have met Walker mowers. We have been a Walker mower establishment for maybe 30 years now and this is our third new machine. Walkers, you understand, are like the Rolls Royce of lawnmowers – with a price tag to match. As the person who pays the bills, I was less than enthusiastic about the move to this brand of lawnmower but I have come to accept that ours is a life where having a lawnmower that costs more than our car is a perfectly logical position.

Walker is an American brand, an evangelical company which fully integrates its faith with its business. We are Walker fans because these machines are much safer, more stable and manoeuvrable than most ride-on mowers. It is capable of turning in its own space and of mowing steep slopes without tipping. It also gives us the option of mulching or catching and gives a good result on the house lawns as well as coping with our rough road verges, grassy slopes and the variety of terrain across our acreage. That is why we have a fancy-pants lawnmower despite its price tag and ongoing maintenance requirements. We have never seen another mower that is capable of doing what a Walker does.

Over the years, the Walker has brought us much amusement. It comes with a certain amount of merchandising – caps, coffee mugs, pads and the like – and every few months we receive a copy of their magazine, Walker Talk. It appears that we became members of the ‘Walker Family’ when we bought the first mower. Were we in USA, we could even attend annual get-togethers of the Walker Family. We used to get a copy of the Walker calendar and we thought maybe we should submit a photo of Lloyd mowing here to see if we could get him as a Walker pin-up boy. The calendars featured photos of garden and park settings, all with somebody on a Walker mower in the foreground. Lloyd has long hair and a bushy beard so he may have looked more Amish than Bible Belt, even had we dressed him in the mandatory white, long sleeved shirt that all these Walker mower operators appear to wear in the US. We never got around to staging a photo shoot and the calendars stopped coming.

When the bank gave way beneath Mark on the machine (22 years ago)

I did find a photo – as in a print photo from pre-digital era – of Lloyd mowing the lawns on the Walker, wearing a Santa hat. But I need his permission before posting his photograph and he does not work on Sunday. He may, after all, be less than enthusiastic about having a photo of himself wearing a Santa hat sitting on the internet. I give you instead a photo of an upside down mower. Very stable, the Walker may be, but even it can not stay upright when the stream bank caves in. I think Mark was responsible for this mishap 22 years ago, cutting in too close to the bank.

What to do with the old machine? We were not going to get a good trade-in price on it so decided that we would try and sell it privately. The lawnmowing here is entirely Lloyd’s domain so he gave the old machine a final wash and clean and I listed it on two local Facebook buy and sell pages. Overall it was in good nick, well maintained but with very high hours on it so we set a price accordingly at $2900, leaving a little room to negotiate.

Well, who would have thought that an old Walker is so very desirable? They are a specialised machine with exacting maintenance requirements and there are much cheaper ride-ons for home gardeners. It had only been on line for a few minutes when the messages started pouring in. I am not exaggerating when I say that in the three hours that followed, I could have sold six of them at that price. Four were people willing to pay immediately, sight unseen, based on the photos. But we only had one to sell and it had been paid for and left the property within three hours. Yes, it is tempting to think that we set the price too low and we could have got more for it. But we set that price at what we thought it was worth and we are fine with that.

Oh look. We are valued customers.

Lloyd is very happy with his new Walker mower. Mark and I are happy that Lloyd is happy, though we hope this machine may see us out. And then we received this little hamper by courier from the salesman. Apparently, Walker mower owners are more craft beer drinkers than wine drinkers. Mark was most delighted by the two little bags of potato crisps which says something about the lack of such taste treats in our household. I could calculate how many bags of potato chips we could have bought for the price of the mower but then they would no longer be a treat. Mark instead calculated what sort of luxury vehicle we could be driving for the price of our three, brand new Walker mowers.

Tikorangi Notes: a top-knot hedge, magnolia time, soy milk and tofu (because we are multi-faceted gardeners here)

“Just add some googly eyes”, a friend suggested

This hedge in my local town of Waitara makes me smile every time I pass it. I think it is just Cupressus leylandii, often referred to as Leighton’s Green. Was that as high as the owner could reach to trim, do we think? Or did they like the top-knot look which makes me think of Kim Jong-Un? This may remain a mystery. I rather hope it is deliberate.

The Kim Yong-Un of hedge design? 

First flowers of the season on Magnolia ‘Lanarth’

I have been so busy looking down at the early snowdrops, Cyclamen coum and the first of the spring narcissi, or looking over in the hopes of the mountain being free from cloud so I can start my seasonal photos of Magnolia campbellii in our park framed against the distant snowy mountain flanks, that I have forgotten to look up. It is not just M. campbellii in flower. ‘Lanarth’ is opening now (technically M. campbellii var mollicomata ‘Lanarth’) and the season for this magnolia is short but spectacular. ‘Lanarth’ came from southernmost China via Cornwall. We have two plants of it growing in the garden. This is the one behind our house and it flowers first because it is a warmer location than the first and larger plant of it down in our park. These early flowers lack the colour intensity that sets it apart from many other magnolias.

Magnolia ‘Vulcan’, the first of the new generation of reds

And ‘Vulcan’ has opened its first flowers. It is still a very special magnolia for us, even though there is now a plethora of red magnolia hybrids on the market. This magnolia from Mark’s father, Felix Jury, was the breakthrough to the new generation of reds.

Magnolia Vulcan, showing some kereru damage to the petals

I didn’t notice the somewhat raggedy petals until I looked at my photos on the computer screen. That is pigeon damage – our native kereru – as opposed to rat or possum damage which looks different. Soon there will be so many blooms open, that the petal-nibbling kereru efforts will not be obvious. We have plenty to share.

With the early blossom opening (mostly Prunus campanulata or Taiwanese cherries), the tui population is increasing rapidly as they return for this favourite feast. We have some tui who stick around all year but scores of others flock in over this period of early spring. “When trees dance” is how Mark describes it.

Mark is drying and winnowing his crop of soy beans 

I wrote about the bean mountain back in 2015 and since then the soy bean harvest has assumed daunting proportions. Mark’s home production of organic soy beans is apparently somewhat unusual. Aficionados tell me that it is now impossible to buy organic soy beans in this country that have not been irradiated as a condition of their importation. I don’t think we have a local soy bean industry. Apparently the soy bean mountain here is more of a valued resource than I had realised.

Soy beans are not my favourite bean to eat whole. I will reach for the kidney beans and fava beans first, or even the borlottis which are also not my favourite. I swapped a few kilos with a local person found on Facebook who makes a variety of different miso pastes which proved delicious. But what to do with the rest? I started making soy milk about a year ago in an attempt to reduce our intake of dairy. We are not so enamoured of soy milk that we use it all the time. I still prefer cow’s milk in tea and coffee but I use the soy milk in many other situations when I would formerly have reached for cow’s milk and I find it more than acceptable in the breakfast muesli and porridge.

The amazing Soyabella!

The recent gift of a Soyabella machine has revolutionised my life. It was a bit tedious and messy making soy milk with the food processor, strainer, muslin cloth and a big preserving pan on the stove. This handy little Chinese machine, not much larger than an electric jug, makes a litre of fresh, hot soy milk in about 15 minutes with close to zero human effort. It is a wonder, my Soyabella. And it has opened up the world of home-made tofu. Why home-made tofu? For us it is both a way of using our home-grown soy beans but also about drastically reducing the plastic that comes into the house. With the arrival of nigari this week, I made the first block of tofu and, between Soyabella and I, the hardest part of was finding the right-shaped weight to fit on top of the tofu block to press it. It was perfect, just like a bought block. Nigari is just a coagulant – mostly magnesium chloride – which separates the soy milk into curds and whey.

A small but perfectly formed block of tofu

It was our trip to China three years ago that really converted us to tofu as a food staple. The crispy tofu was delicious so I searched the net for instructions. It isn’t difficult. Press the block of tofu for an hour or more to squeeze out excess water (I just use an inverted plate on top of it with a weight on that). Slice or dice the tofu and marinade for a few minutes only so it doesn’t take in more liquid. Dust it with cornflour and shallow fry. Voilà! Crispy tofu.

The lily border (currently empty bar Camellia yuhsienensis), backed by a clipped hedge of Camellia Fairy Blush punctuated with shaped Fairy Magnolia White all coming into bloom. Queen palms in the distance.