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Archive for September, 2012

Blacklip abalone (Haliotis rubra) shell, a jewel of the sea

If I were to choose one foraged food over all others, without hesitation it would be abalone (Haliotis spp.; blacklip abalone (H. rubra) where I come from). If I had to pay for it, I might not say the same. Not just because it is very expensive, but because of how much the joy of abalone is a whole package: The focused, exploratory snorkelling in the precious clear water; the thrill of finding one after what can be a long time of uncertain searching; the trip home, salty and satisfied; the preparation and cooking, knowing that it is the one wild food that after a lot of practice I really think I have gotten right. And of course, the eating.

Going in for abalone, Port Arthur, Tasmania (at one of Australia’s only World Heritage archaeological sites where somewhat shamefully as an Australian archaeologist I did this instead of going inside).

A common view for abalone foraging taken on the last trip – coming back empty-handed would still have been a win

A conspicuous blacklip abalone; I couldn’t say what the most inconspicuous ones look like because I’m sure I’ll never find them

As of March this year, the NSW Department of Primary Industries, who manage our fisheries (or mismanage it in the case of abalone), reopened a limited abalone fishery in the area between Newcastle and Wollongong where it has been banned for many years. On weekends and public holidays (with a license) you can now take 2 abalone with a minimum size of 11.7cm.

If you are comfortable swimming in sometimes rough open water and free-diving down to serious depth into kelp fringed crevices, then you seriously ought to give it a go (within the legal limits of course). If not, but you are a comfortable snorkeler at shallow depths in calm water offshore you should still keep your eyes peeled, because you never know your luck – and the further your get from Sydney southwards to Tasmania, and the more remote the shore, the better your luck is likely to be.

Focused on the job on my last outing, I looked up to see a four foot shark two feet from my face. Turned out to be a Port Jackson shark (Heterodontus portusjacksoni; which compares to the common idea of a shark as a muzzled toothless spaniel does to a wolf). Although utterly harmless, any sinuous huge fish will scare a least a little shit at least a little out of you when it takes you by surprise that close up. I collected myself for a go at some photos, and soon came across another similarly harmless blindshark a few minutes later.

Port Jackson shark (Heterodontus portusjacksoni)

Blindshark (Brachaelurus waddi); another harmless shark of the same trip

Although a part of me would like to dissuade you from adding any pressure to this struggling resource with such talk of sharks, I must confess the truth that with some common sense, it is probably safer than venturing into traffic, and perhaps I should even encourage you into the water. Because another part of me thinks that more educated politically active abalone foragers is actually what the resource needs; to help take it back from being slayed by increasingly absentee commercial quota-holders, their part-time black marketeering and their lucrative export market. The whole focus of the industry and the DPI is commercial to the worst extent of venality, and gives us a government department that actually takes pride in the fact that they have boosted commercial potential by actively forcing recreational and subsistence foragers out of the water.

A few years ago, the DPI commissioned a study into the closure around Sydney. It recommended that the recreational take should be re-opened with a bag limit of 5 and that a commercial take should never again be allowed between Newcastle and Wollongong. The DPI response was to ignore it. In fact the latest external report I have read took its first task as a review of the past decade or so of reports, found that the one consistent thing with all of them was that the DPI ignored the recommendations and just did what the industry asked of them instead, and then explicitly questioned why they were being commissioned to write anything at all.

Rant over, back to the foraging.

My last abalone dive, as the photos hopefully suggest, was more than anything else a beautiful stretch in the water; early summer conditions on shore but with the clarity of winter water down below (whilst still perfectly comfortable in a decent wetsuit). I came home with just one legal (>11.7cm, on a weekend) abalone. The rest of it is below in pictures.

First up, the abalone must be more than 11.7cm at its longest (note the picture has an old 11.5cm gauge, so I was only in by less than a cm)

Ignore any advice that says you can pry and ‘pop’ the meat from the shell; it may work for big abalone like Californian red abalone (Haliotis rufescens) or New Zealand paua (Haliotis iris), but a modest NSW blacklip comes out best with a sharp flexible blade slid in on the flat (closest in the photo) side of the shell, cleanly slicing the meat from the shell.

With the black fringes trimmed and scrubbed away, the remaining meat should be sliced into three layered cuts. The first (and best) is the narrower top piece that was connected to the shell.

Two more, broader but thinner cuts are split from the remaining lower part. There is an obvious groove where the black fringe resists trimming that you can follow with the blade. The piece facing up in the photo is the base with the lower slimy ‘sole’ shaved off; this is the toughest piece but can still either be tenderised or have its almost crunchy hardness enjoyed.

A dressed abalone, my way; while there is no orthodoxy to it, with the tenderising techniques below, I would back it against either of the common alternatives of thin slices or slow cooking.

You can tenderise abalone one or all of three ways: Slow cooking (not discussed, but see here if you like); merciless beating (below); or (photo above) soaking for a day or so in milk. The milk soaking is quite new to me, can work amazingly, and when it doesn’t can be supplemented with a beating anyway.

The ideal with beating abalone with a tenderiser is that it should be as close to hammered into a paste as can be done leaving it one piece for pan frying – it firms up again when cooked.

Pan frying should be hot and quick; 30 seconds each side in butter, in a pan so hot that the minute involved leaves the butter perilously close to burnt.

In the entirely recreational extent of my abalone diving, off Sydney, the NSW South Coast, Tasmania and New Zealand, even allowing that it is one my very favourite foods in the world, the greatest joy I get from it is that of simply doing my foraging in the sea. If I could have only one, the snorkelling or the abalone, I would forgo the latter. The point being that if you were to take encouragement for anything out of this, it should simply be to go snorkelling. Perhaps get a waterproof camera (mine is a pretty simple Olympus Tough) and hunt harmless shark images; perhaps just revel in the fact that you have plunged from a teeming city into one of the world’s most beautiful natural places. One way or another, you are likely to come home with delicacies. It turns out that there is no single crown jewel, there are many, and you are likely to adore at least one of them.

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In Britain, if you want to have an allotment of common land to grow vegetables, theoretically you can have one. There is a long history of legislation that comes out of very old commoners rights (and to some extent compensation for their loss with large scale enclosure of land in the 18th and 19th Centuries) and the ‘Dig for Victory’ response to the food crisis of the Second World War. I had one once, a plot of absolute Thames River waterfront in Oxford where I could sit drinking cider and trapping crayfish while the spuds and onions grew.

Osney allotments in Oxford, a few down from my old one – they flood most years but come with crayfishing and a view (© Derek Harper)

In Australia, while we also have some strong and culturally diverse traditions of home-grown veg, it has tended to centre on an assumption that you can come up with the land yourself amid all of our space, most likely in your own garden. But that doesn’t work so well for a lot of us in the cities now, jammed into apartments or houses whose extensions have taken up all but a paved courtyard. This space issue, combined with forceful trends about how we value food, its freshness, origins and ancillary impacts, has come together to do a lot of the fuelling of the recent rise of community gardens. You might call it a ‘movement’, but that implies a direction away from the mainstream, whereas what is happening with vegie growing these days is precisely the opposite. Community gardens are ‘in’; while perhaps not the ‘new black’, they are certainly a far more fashionable shade of green.

Randwick Community Organic Garden

At the community garden where I am a member, the interest in membership, the time it takes waiting for a plot to become available, and the conditions of use for retaining one have been subject to consistent and continuing growth. Around the corner from me, a community plot started up a couple of years ago that was initially something of a ‘guerrilla garden’ in that some perfectly civil and upstanding members of the local community appropriated some Council land without permission. It then became something of a Council darling – something they could get behind with little effort but with positive effect. The common impression is that had they been asked, Council would have said no if only because of bureaucracy and liability-phobia. But with it appearing almost overnight, the same local government inertia would have made opposing it the path of most resistance.

Clovelly Verge Garden

In Sydney’s Inner West, traditionally our more alternative area, community gardens big and small have been founded and continue to grow. There also, as described by Kirsten at Milkwood, a street in Dulwich Hill has gotten together and done a lot to communally take over the verge for vegies. Back in the East, a North Bondi community verge garden has become the best known of all because it is run (and regularly televised) by  Costa Georgiadis, host of ABC’s Gardening Australia.

Costa’s Verge Garden

Costa’s Verge Garden

…and down the road from Costa’s

… and around the corner

It is some very public gardening, and that seems like unmitigated good, right? I would say so, mixing things up in the continuum between public and private, between communal and exclusive. But it is important that we are clear about what sits where. The land ownership, the idea and much of the aesthetic value is public, but the gardening and its produce is necessarily private. Food production is inevitably a calculation of return versus effort. It is owned; it might be by a community, an individual or a corporation, but it is owned.

Sitting somewhere in that continuum up in Randwick, Barrett House tends a vegetable garden on the verge that actively invites people to forage from it. But notably it is explicitly a trial, calling on anyone who might take them up on the offer to only do so cursorily. And notably, these public fruits are coming from a community body, such that we shouldn’t ignore the real start and end of investment and return. Were you to pop along to Costa’s verge and knock off a head of broccoli, let’s not pretend that anyone involved would not view it as theft. These aren’t lemons over the back fence we are talking about, they are vegies, carefully tended crops, the fruits of labour.

Barrett House ‘Forager’s Garden’

Out of all of this, something that interests me a great deal is the fact that everything described above involves the assertion or allocation of some kind of right. And with this it is interesting that a lot of community vegie growing doesn’t really have any particularly sensible framework that we manage those rights in. Usufruct (‘a right of enjoyment enabling a holder to derive profit or benefit from property that either is titled to another person or which is held in common ownership, as long as the property is not damaged or destroyed’ according to Wikipedia), a word I have used before with only a passing attention to accuracy, is something that exists in our legal heritage, although not specifically in our law. I am not suggesting that governments should regulate our rights at different levels of community as entitled usufructuaries (holders of specific rights); but the long term sustainability of the social and political structures of community gardens cannot be secured by simply leaving well enough alone to keep moving forward much as we are somehow doing now. We think that these things are ‘democracies’ but ignore the fact that democracy is not a way of managing things, but a way of creating accountability amongst our managers.

My community garden has actually alienated some public land behind a locked gate beyond which only vetted and paying members can enjoy benefits. In it, although I do spend a lot of time just on the community side of things with that involvement itself being the return, my major food focus is on getting my plot to provide for my family on what is essentially your land. On the other hand, our contribution at the start of the local verge garden always left me uncertain of my entitlement to harvest, so I never did and now just enjoy the fact of its existence as a passer-by. My feeling is that it now works with a small enough group to run quite well. But for me it often turns out that there is too much inequality (and/or inequity) in the passive organisation of many community gardens that wrongly supposes some kind of communalism is at work rather than what is strangely best described as oligarchy. Bunches of left-leaners ironically come together and choose a community structure where laissez-faire free-market governance reigns at the expense of socially equitable returns.

Strangely enough, community gardens are actually privatised public land

At home I tend a small strip of herbs and greens with variable productivity in the common grounds of an apartment block. It is still not exclusively mine, but I certainly know where I stand with it. Personally, and quite reasonably, I prefer to make my investment knowing the conditions attached to the return.

Most recently, two workmates and I had a tiny version of a permablitz. We have made a salad garden, the explicit intention that it will provide lunchtime salad greens (lettuce, rocket, cress, etc), raw veg (radishes, carrots) and fruit (tomatoes, strawberries) for any and all of the ten people in our office (based in an old house and therefore with a garden). The company contributes most costs and as for the other inputs, the opportunity to duck out from some mind-scrambling report-writing to water some seedlings or attend to some weeds is a lot more of a personal return than an investment. I like this, my newest of gardens, the most likely of any that I know to have only winners.

The office salad garden – before

The office salad garden – with a token planting at the start to make it real

The office salad garden 6 weeks in and providing lunches

At our monthly community garden working bee, I would typically spend perhaps a couple of hours tending the communal plot from which I very rarely harvest, really just gardening for the hell of it and the social engagement. I then generally come home with less food than I took there. Instead of communal harvests (an exception here) we have common rights to harvest; the difference being that the former would involve shares divided out and the latter involves shares taken – in the process tending to reward takers over dividers. To be honest, the process has alienated me and I increasingly eschew involvement with the communal vegetable plots in favour of areas where I feel more equitably engaged (or personally engaged, as with the aquaponics). Conveniently enough the oligarchy is benign and this can still work.

Community gardens in Australia are, in my view, in their youth; and as is often the way of youth, they are heady with ambition, socialism, fashion following and limited attention spans. And perhaps most importantly, with that insistence of making its own mistakes to learn from. There is no great need for them to get a haircut, or a real job, or settle down and start worrying about just how much gets brought home after tax. There is a good argument for staying young, having fun and not bothering about efficiency. But youth is also capable of philosophy and organisation; and it is important if community gardens want to have long term sustainability, that rights, responsibilities and entitlements are made clear, or at least structures made to allow for this. As people (or just as animals), we are backed up by a hell of a lot of evolution hard-wiring us to appreciate food returns against effort.

These youthful gardens properly enough think that they are going to change the world; educate their communities, challenge corporate agriculture, set up local food systems and feed a brighter future. But they won’t do it meaningfully unless they do it with long-term sustainability, and they won’t do that unless there is some kind of structured understanding of usufructuary rights and firm efforts to build the returns side of the equation to match investments. Which isn’t to posit a dire prognosis – in the meantime they are social clubs, community hubs, hobby centres, and those are good things. Were I to posit a successful future for community gardens, it would be where the very core of society and its history, inclusive of those with no interest whatsoever in personally growing their own veg, was in majority favour, and laws existed to support (or at least defend) them. As it happens, this is the British allotment system in many ways.

So this I know: Community gardens are a fantastic thing in the fabric of Australia’s big cities, and its most recent history; but the time has come for allotments.

Osney allotments in Oxford, UK

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