January had a very particular kind of feel for me. Lots and lots (and lots!) of hours were spent on the computer editing a cooking and gardening book. In between sections I was often wistfully staring out our back window into the garden, thinking, thinking, thinking …
Have you ever noticed that when you are away from your normal life in one way or another – such as being off on a holiday, or just being so busy that everything else has to be put aside – your mind becomes a crazy hotbed of ideas for the things you want to do when you can get back into it? I’ve never noticed myself having the same level of inspiration, excitement and drive at any other time!
It was quite a happy coincidence that I was working on the book through summer – peak fruit season – and also in our best year ever for fruit in our own backyard. On the computer I was going through fruit, vegetables and herbs one after another, while outside we were having our biggest-yet crop of apricots, which ran into our biggest-yet crop of nectarines, and then the raspberries that we only planted last winter surprised us and started fruiting, followed by a small but steady flow of figs. A long season of fruit is exactly what we were hoping for when we planted new fruit trees and plants, adding to the fig and the cherry plum that already existed when we moved in, but I’m feeling so chuffed and kind of surprised that the plan is actually working out!
I really love having fruit trees, just like I knew I would – and for some strange reason our run of summer fruit has got me wanting more. Does this sound greedy? It probably is, but there is some context to it … You see, our backyard is a long and skinny thing that is half native garden with tall eucalypts down one side – a bit of bush that was planted by previous owners, which we’ve always liked. There is a strip of grass in the middle, and on the other side we’ve put in vegetable beds, citrus trees and an outdoor dining area. I’ve been trying to beautify the native area, going for ‘native cottage garden’, wanting lots of flowers and different shades of foliage underneath the gums. But plant after plant goes in and dies. What people say about gum trees sucking up all the moisture from the soil is finally resonating with me. I love gum trees and I love the bush, but I’m starting to think they’re better planted on nature strips in the suburbs – or at least, they don’t fit in well when you’re aiming for a garden that is beautiful or productive (or both).
While editing I dreamt about all the extra things I would love in our garden, thinking we didn’t have the space … Or did we? More and more I started thinking about those gum trees. Eventually I rather quietly, somewhat ashamedly suggested to my husband that maybe we should chop them down. It felt like such a guilty confession – I shocked myself even thinking it. But I’m feeling sure now – I’ve come to the conclusion that my beautiful native garden is not working. We could take out the gum trees and still keep it native – but frankly, there is a call for more fruit trees from deep down inside. Yes, we have a few already – but we could have a few more! Blueberries and feijoas are high on my list. There is also a persistent calling for a few large globe artichokes …
My brother is good with a chainsaw and has been booked in for March. Yikes! It’s happening. The theme of our entire backyard is soon set to be fruit and vegetables (plus herbs and some flowers and grasses and a few other bits and pieces including small natives thrown in). I’m scared but excited!
Unlike apricots, something is lost when you cook nectarines. Their fragrant, nectar-like flavour gets drowned, literally. Stewed nectarines are still good – but the flavour is not quite as delicious as it is fresh.
So when we realised how much fruit was on our nectarine tree this year, I started to think about drying some. I’ve only tried to dry fruit once before, and it wasn’t a success. I threaded figs onto a string and hung them on the clothesline according to directions I read in the excellent Cook’s Companion by Stephanie Alexander. But after a few days the fruit was droopy, drippy, bug-riddled and unsalvageable. Perhaps my figs were too big? For whatever reason, it didn’t work.
I shelved fruit-drying and thought that maybe I was in need of some kind of dedicated drying contraption. Enter the book I’ve been working on: The Produce Companion by Mandy Sinclair and Meredith Kirton. Meredith’s simple solar fruit-drying technique is brilliant. The nectarines worked so well – intense like a dried apricot, and unlike stewed nectarines, they retain their heady, aromatic nectarineyness! Next year I’d love to do double the quantity.
If you don’t have a nectarine or peach tree, of course you can do this with bought ones. I’d recommend giving it a go if you are someone who loves dried fruit and gets excited by an interesting, easy process like this one.
at least 2 kg nectarines or peaches
a few vitamin C tablets (ascorbic acid) – optional
Wait until the weather forecast is showing a good run of warm to hot sunny days.
Wash the nectarines. Don’t use any that have bad damage or spots of mould on them – but I found that you can use fruit that has small soft spots or tiny bruises, as for me this dried just as well as the fruit that was in perfect condition.
Halve and stone the nectarines. Crush the vitamin C tablets with a mortar and pestle and put in a large bowl. Fill with water. Add the nectarine halves and leave to soak for 10 minutes. (Small patches of nectarine skin may come off in this process, but it isn’t a problem.) The ascorbic acid is supposed to help the dried nectarines retain their flesh colour rather than going brown – although my finished nectarines still ended up mostly brown, so I might try without the tablets next time.
Drain the nectarines upside down on a clean tea towel and then place them flesh-side up on wire racks set on top of trays. Place these trays on a table or a bench seat out in the sunniest, warmest place in your backyard, such as against a wall. Cover the nectarines in muslin to prevent flies and bugs landing on them, and put the legs of the table or seat in little bowls or saucers of water, which will stop ants from crawling up. This really works – don’t let the water accidentally dry out!
Unless you have a sunny and open backyard, you may need to move the table/seat around your yard over the course of the day as the hottest spot shifts. Bring the trays of nectarines in at night, and put them back out again the next day. Keep doing this for about 5 days, depending on the size of the nectarines in the first place. The finished nectarines should be just like dried apricots – without much moisture, but still pliable. Some may dry quicker than others. Put the dried nectarines in a jar as they are finished. I even found that the last few larger nectarines finished drying just on the bench inside, for a day or so.