Fat of the Land and Sea Week 2015 is on! Eight city folks living on hunted, foraged, fished and home-grown food only. Altogether too much too write about with too little time to spare, so I’ll be doing well to just update this post with each day’s haul. It will otherwise be done in pictures on the Instagram feed to the right and on Instagram itself @foragersyear. There will also be posts by others on Instagram using the hashtag #FOTLAS2015. Come along for the ride.
It seems like kind of a big thing, in the modern urban workaday world, to live for one whole week only on home-grown and wild food. Outside of that world, it might seem as unremarkable a challenge as going without a fax machine. But the eight of us doing it are mostly desk workers, in small houses and apartments in the city, albeit foragers, fishers, hunters and vegie growers to varying extents in varying amounts of our spare time.
It isn’t intended as some desperate challenge where a reality TV version would find some of us in starving tears. It is intended as a celebration. Kind of like an old-fashioned harvest festival. We have enough up our sleeves in terms of backyard crops, fishing kit including boats and skills, hunting gear, property access and foraging knowledge to suggest that hunger will not be a huge shadow hanging over us. We are doing it because we never have before and because we can, fully aware that this means that we are very fortunate people.
It begins on Sunday 1st of March and ends with a feast on the following Saturday the 7th. At the discretion of each of us on board, we can nominate exceptions. I could call mine the ‘amphora rule’, allowing me olive oil and wine. Another guy is allowing previously foraged condiments; of two caffeine loving blokes who live near each other, one has chosen tea and the other coffee and plan to meet regularly to make each other a cuppa over food swaps; one guy is hedging his bets with flour – quite sensible really, allowing the week to be the fun that it is meant to be with a backup sure to guarantee him a seat at the final feast table of set-aside treats.
It will be busy, ‘hard work’ when added to the fact that we will all be largely keeping up the real jobs, so there will be no blogging at the time. Instead, I have gotten my head around Instagram to try to document the week as it unfolds. Images will come up here (at right of screen) if you aren’t on Instagram. If you are, my pics are @foragersyear. There will also be posts by others on Instagram using the hashtag #FOTLAS2015. Come along for the ride.
Mike H: Spearo, fisher, forager (www.theforagers.com.au and @mostlyfish on IG)
Mike L: Fisher, hunter, grower
Ed: Hunter, forager
Justin: Hunter, forager
Alex: Spearo, fisher, forager
John: Spearo, hunter, fisher, forager, chef (@johnralley on IG)
Andrew: Grower, forager
Oliver (me): Grower, hunter, beekeeper, fisher, forager
Tailor (Pomatomus saltatrix; ‘bluefish’ in many parts of their very wide distribution around the world) aka ‘choppers’ around here for their predatory method of coming in behind their prey and chomping with razor sharp teeth, are a fish that have recently made me feel a little guilty, truth be told. While I am quick to defend the culinary virtues of some fish that some anglers are quick to leave behind as bait or ‘rubbish fish’ (like slimy mackerel, bonito, Australian salmon, leatherjacket and even yellowtail scad), tailor has strangely been the fish I’ve been happiest to bypass.
Soft fleshed fish, to the point of being hard to work with for many recipes, hasn’t suited my idea of sea meat, I suppose. And yet allowed to be just that – tender even with quite careless cooking – it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But perhaps the bigger thing is that tailor fishing has rarely fitted in with my ideal of a day out on the water. They are estuary fish, and in my part of the world that means Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay. Beautiful in their own right, but busy.
Approached from the sea, Sydney is (unbeknownst to most) the world’s most spectacularly walled city. Huge, sheer sandstone cliffs rise up like ramparts no castle will ever match. There is an extraordinary ocean wilderness on one side and one of the busiest modern cities in the southern hemisphere on the other (check out my mate Normy’s paraglider crossing of the heads youtube video for some spectacular imagery). The thing is, I so much love fishing outside the walls that tailor have somehow seemed like second class fare to be taken en route. Kind of like a pastry from a petrol station – hard to resist but eventually unsatisfying.
But with an onshore sou’wester and choppier seas than anticipated on a recent outing keeping us from the open water, bay fishing it was. The vast spectacle of the open Pacific would have been all too likely interrupted by the threat of small boating disaster and the inevitability of seasickness. So, a backdrop of container terminals, airport runways, city skylines and scores of other boats on Botany Bay became the setting of a dedicated harvest of the best return on offer. Tailor.
The catch was mostly taken not long after dawn broke, between 6 and 7 in the morning. They are savagely ravenous hunters. We (2 of us) trolled small lures until one of us had a hit, then as they retrieved the fish, the other cast small silver lures in the direction of the action, usually hooking up. When that dried up, we moved on to another troll and repeated, diving birds generally leading the way. We stopped well short of a bag limit, figuring we were missing out on other options that never came through, only to come back to find them (and the Australian salmon chasing the same baitfish) a lot more picky about lures in the full light of day.
Most fisherman tend to favour pan-fried or battered and deep-fried tailor – but a lot of fishermen tend to prefer almost all fish that way. Served with beer. Other fishers’ favourites include smoking and the cheeky recipe offering of “use as bait to catch a snapper [Pagrus auratus]; then cook the snapper”. Whole baked fish seems the best idea to me though. For one thing, and who hasn’t over-cooked firmer non-oily fish like flathead, you are unlikely to get it wrong and dry it out. Tailor are indeed soft and they do indeed taste a bit oily and fishy. Some find baking mutes the slightly strong taste. You can still catch that flavour and use it well by catching it in pan juices and then a sauce. A sorrel sauce (like here), or in any case something with both lemon and herbs (parsley, basil, mint) to balance the strong tailor taste, but using less oil than most recipes may advise and perhaps a bit more salt. Or in my case, pie gravy – this time a variation below on a recently posted recipe (here) – because I am currently a little bit obsessed with the delights of fish pies.
Recipe: Tailor and mussel pie
Lay four tailor out, just overlapping in a baking dish. Drizzle with oil and salt, giving it a rub if you are inclined (don’t worry too much about adding any other flavours because they come later). Cook for 30 mins at 200C; skin should be crinkly but not burnt and the flesh should pull easily from the bone. Let it cool and deflesh; keep the skin with the meat. Pour the pan juices and the fish frames into a pot with a big bunch of herbs (any or all of (in my personal choice of priority) kaffir lime leaf, lemon myrtle, Thai basil, parsley, thyme, bay leaf, sage, rosemary, Vietnamese mint, lemongrass, dill, sweet or perennial basil, mint, fennel, marjoram, oregano, celery and/or lovage). The amount of herbs should be pretty huge, to the extent that it would be silly expensive if they were all shop bought, so it will probably hinge to a great extent upon what you can lay your hands on. Add a cup or so of water and lay 1kg of mussels on top (NZ greenlips, pretty affordable as far as seafood goes, a good sustainable option and a great contributor of both meat and stock flavour – always buy them frozen (outside of NZ) because they all leave the country this way, so why compromise freshness with ‘thawed for your convenience’). Steam the mussels (in the shell ideally) and stop before they start to lose any plumpness. Allow it to cool enough to pick out the mussel meat. Strain the stock and put enough of in a jar to shake with, and disperse, 3 Tblsp flour. Sauté a diced onion and then some crushed garlic in the pot with a generous chunk of butter and when it is golden/translucent, put everything back in with it (with a tsp of smoked paprika if you like) and stir, stir, stir. Sprinkle extra flour if too runny or add milk if too thick, all the time stirring. Hopefully the mix can take ten minutes of this so the flour gets a decent cooking. The tailor will be broken down into a fishy gloop with the nuggets of mussel suspended in it. Add a cup (or otherwise to taste) of grated cheddar cheese, stir in and pour the lot in a baking dish that works as a pie dish. Allow it to cool before covering with puff or other pie pastry and bake until the pastry is right.
As much as one may like the idea of treading a fairly harmonious path in a life that seeks to engage with other plants and animals, any vegetable grower is typically involved in some spiteful battle or other with insects throughout the year. Not all of them, but certainly a loathed few. At the moment, it being summer in Sydney, my most recent nemeses have been Queensland fruit fly (Bactrocera tryoni). They have put an end to my tomato crop (Solanum lycopersicum).
This year, there will be no big canning session filling jars of passata and no big colourful salads of tomato chunks strewn with basil leaves and light salty white cheese. Fruit fly has hit my two big frames of tomatoes hard and I have cut them down (even the cherry tomatoes). For the big toms, it was an ambitious idea from the outset, with neither pesticide nor organic control (I just can’t go for the poison of the former or the expense and effort of the latter) or dumb luck to aid me.
I first thought I was admitting defeat, but with a kilo of green tomatoes per sacrificed plant, I have found that I am able to take some solace in the idea that, to some extent, I am simply quitting while ahead. Cleaned up, through cutting out the infested fruit or parts thereof, I have at least salvaged the wherewithal for enough green tomato chutney to last a year (and a tomato hot sauce which isn’t too far off a mix of this chutney and previously described recipes for plum ketchup, crab apple jelly, and chilli jam, with a big bunch of extra chillies for good measure).
The lesson learned for next year: Plant early varieties of tomatoes; as early as possible; only small cherries and cherry romas; hope from some ripe ones before new year; and then on the first of January, harvest the lot and make another batch of chutney.
This recipe is a mix of fairly standard green tomato chutney recipes from Australia and New Zealand (and very probably Britain and elsewhere). It is scaled to 1kg of green tomatoes in terms of ingredients to be easily adjusted. The big room for movement is with chillies and garlic – if you like them, you could increase fivefold.
Green tomatoes (g) 1000
Onions (g) 200
Cooking apples (g) 200
Sugar (Demerara / muscovado) (g) 200
Vinegar (malt / cider / wine) (ml) 450
Salt (Tblsp) 1
Sultanas (g) 100
Garlic (cloves) 5
Chillies (hot, medium sized) 2
Ginger (grated fresh) (g) 12
Spice (all spice, turmeric, coriander) (g) 11
Heave it all in a pot and simmer, uncovered and free to reduce, for an hour or two. Ladle into scalded jars. If after getting most of the chutney out, the last couple of jars worth seem a bit runny, pile in a heap of chillies and garlic and keep cooking it down for a darker, fiery version. They say to leave it for a few weeks to meld, but I would call that optional.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is a summer ‘weed’ that is found through much of the world. Central Australian Aboriginal people used to (and a very few occasionally still do) wait for it to seed and pile it up in mounds; after some good dry desert heat, the withered plants can be pulled off to reveal a concentration of the tiny but nutritious seeds below. Throughout northern India and through to the Middle East, it is not just a foraged ‘welcome weed’ (or ‘volunteer plant’), it is even grown as a crop for its leaves (as it once was through a lot of Europe as well). Purslane is said to have the highest omega 3s of any vegetable and is a sure contender for that increasingly tedious epithet of ‘superfood’. This status, as well as being common in Central Mexican cuisine (where it is known as verdolagas) is said to be getting it increasingly on the food list rather than just the weed list in America. But across most of Australia it is simply a plant; one of those green things in the ground; neither worth eradicating nor using. It will be gone by winter after all.
Nonetheless, right now in mid-summer, purslane is doing very well across a good part of Australia. Basically, if you are looking for it, it is everywhere; the challenge is really only to find some growing in soil that you can trust. This particular harvest was essentially a matter of opportunism – which to my mind is utterly fundamental to foraging (in any sense). I was doing a survey in one of the back blocks of one of western Sydney’s old Olympic venues. I had already decided to do a saag for dinner and to stop off at one the small Indian food shops (which abound in much of Sydney’s west) to buy spices
I gather that saag basically means ‘greens’ (in Punjabi, Urdu and/or Hindi), and by inference, in the kitchen, it is a curry thereof. There was also some volunteer native spinach (Tetragonia tetragoniodes) doing so well under the citrus that I needed to cut it back whether for eating or not. Then there was some silverbeet (chard; Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla) that was close to giving up in the summer heat and our sandy soil (in which I would probably be better to intentionally grow purslane at this time of year); and also sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) that is getting by as a welcome enough ‘weed’ in the shade of intentional crops. Amaranth, with each passing week of summer, is also making more of an appearance. But it is the purslane, a genuine north Indian favourite, that is the forage that started the ball rolling.
The recipe is wonderfully simple and suits just about any green you can lay your hands on, foraged, grown or bought.
Start by toasting the whole spices – mine were whole cumin seeds, coriander seeds and a light touch of peppercorns, fenugreek and cardamom seeds which went into the mortar with dried chillies once toasted to fragrant and then joined by powdered turmeric. You can add whatever else blows your hair back among cinnamon, cloves, ginger, fenugreek leaves, etc – only giving whole seeds the toasting though.
Next, lightly sautee some onions in butter (ghee if you can) or oil and then pile the garlic, spices and chopped greens in and stir on low heat until wilted to a decent tender that should coincide with golden brown onions and garlic that isn’t burning to sticky and/or bitter (10 minutes or so), adding small amounts of liquid if required. I am also inclined to add some precooked chickpeas (kind of like canned ones but tastier because they are slow cooked in stock) – which probably makes it chana saag.
The handy thing with saag, is that with some cubed cheese you have saag paneer (using actual paneer (a style of Indian cheese)) if you have it, otherwise cottage cheese, or queso fresco (or fetta if you give mind to it being salted while paneer isn’t), but in any case not your everyday fatty yellow cheese); with some cubed meat you have saag gosht; and with hard boiled egg you have anda saag. In our house of both vegetarians and ominivores, with saag we can meet our different dietary inclinations with additions at the end rather than with entirely separate dishes. While there is something of an assumption that you would serve it over rice, the addition of the chickpeas or something else to bulk it up makes this optional. A side serve of good chutney (or salsa verde) is a good touch.
Outside Jugiong, just as portrayed in the famous Australian folk tune, a track does actually wind back past an old fashioned shack and joins the road to Gundagai (the four-lane Hume Highway these days). The Murrumbidgee is indeed flowing and what happens to be growing, as matter of interest to me, are wild plums (Prunus domestica).
If you are on country roads along the eastern Australian range or slopes almost anywhere from New South Wales to Tasmania, January is the month for foraging wild plums. Of your common roadside fruit forages, the autumn fruits of blackberries won’t be right for another month or so and the apples perhaps another month after that. Plums are the summer thing. They can be red, yellow or something in between, or even that dark purplish burgundy like bullaces in Britain (often ripening later though). From whence they hail, among the named varieties of orchard-grown fruit, and whether from European or Asian stock, is a mystery to me; but as feral wildings, they have undoubtedly departed somewhat from domestic form. For one thing, they are a lot smaller than you might expect and you might pass them in the car thinking they are some kind of unknown inedible berry rather than the familiar drupe (botanically speaking) of the most common of stone fruits. Their prominence along roadsides suggests an initial origin as pips thrown out of passing car windows. But there are areas, like the road out of Jugiong, where their abundance suggests that they are some generations past being a travellers snack, and almost certainly instead dispersed by birds or even simply just rolling a little further down the hill from mum.
With them, you can of course make a lovely plum jam, which has traditionally been my go-to response. They are pretty much like your shop-bought plum, but smaller and much more blessed with the sharp acidity in the skin which some of us love. But we are kind of full up with jams and jellies and don’t really get through that much of it anyway. So it’s plum sauce. Not the Chinese one that goes with Peking duck, but a more an Australianised British traditional stalwart of days gone by – much like the ditty Along the Road to Gundagai. This one is pretty loyal to Stephanie Alexander’s take on it. A well-tested standard recipe is worth it in this case if only to make sure you get something pourable that isn’t too runny – vary the flavours if you like, but not the solids to liquids ratio. It is a vinegar/sweet/savoury/fruit acid sauce that works as a topping for close to anything. Basically it is all that the ubiquitous tomato sauce/ketchup is, but better.
Per kilo of plums:
1 tsp cloves
2/3 tsp whole allspice (pimento)
2/3 tsp whole peppercorns
1.5 cups brown sugar
2 tsp salt
1tblsp grated ginger
2 cups white wine (or apple cider) vinegar
1 chilli (or lots more, or none)
Stone the plums and crack half the stones (bash with a mallet in a tea towel) and put them in a muslin bag (this give pectin to get things gelling). Tie the spices in a separate muslin bag. Put it all in a non-reactive pot and simmer for half an hour. Remove the bags, giving them a good squeeze and press the rest through a sieve, fine colander or food mill back into the rinsed pot. Simmer for as long as it takes to get the thickness you want (remembering it will thicken when cool and wants to be able to be poured like tomato ketchup). It can then go in either sterilised jars or bottles (depending on thickness).
Although many would like to see such home-made delicacies in lovely glass with some neat finishes like a square of gingham cloth on top secured with a ribbon, we figure this is more an everyday kind of condiment and went for a plastic squeeze bottle (but wouldn’t do that for any stores we planned on keeping on the shelf for long).