It is the second week of a new school year and we are back in the kitchen garden. The kids shirts are still stunningly white.
It is February weather in Perth. That means hot. Heat wave hot. Four days over forty in a row. No breeze at night. Withering gardens, brown lawns, windscreens that shimmer with heat. Hot bitumen basketball courts. So hot that recess sees kids choose to sit under the shade of an ancient gum rather than run about.
For this first week back in the kitchen there is a review of how to safely use a sharp knife. Claw grip, making a bridge across a vegetable. I must get Lee to show me first before I can instruct the children. I realise I am not a good example. How have I kept all my fingers? That mastered, we push on to halving and de-stoning the nectarines for our tomato and nectarine salad. The nectarines hang onto their hearts like drowning sailors to a life buoy. In the end we macerate a few and think of various creative ways to get the flesh from the sticky stones, all the while remembering to use our knives safely. Some nectarine flesh is consumed in the process. I warn too much stone fruit will find you on the toilet.
We need basil; two students are sent to collect the herb from the blisteringly hot garden. There, cherry tomatoes are soaking in the sun, turning sweet. Salad leaves are wishing for some respite. I imagine the girls returning with their aprons, used like a basket, carrying the pungent leaves. Instead they come back with the prescribed twenty-four leaves, each individually plucked from the stem, in the palm of their hot hands.
Another child, sent to get a herb, comes back with a thumb pinch of the stuff. Yes I think we need more. Lots more. Go again. Yes I know it’s hot.
What is it with the kids and the picking of herbs? Like they are bringing back gold. Sometimes they are sent back three or four times.
Today every dish is about the fresh produce we have in season. We have tarts – puff pastry base topped with sliced figs, caramelised onions and grated cheese. Fig trees grow like weeds around Fremantle. Their gnarly tree trunks burst from limestone walls and rubble cliffs. This is their time – the beginning of the school year, as if designed to give sustenance to a tired child on a hot walk to and from school. The branches arch earthwards, making their fruit accessible to even the shortest of fruit-pickers. The purple, green fruit drop from the trees and are splattered on local footpaths. Soles are sticky with their juice. The white sap from the picked fruit stains your hands brown. If you have a fig nearby you know to break them open and check for bugs before you pop it in your mouth. Broken open, a fig’s flesh quivers like it is a nest of squirming larvae. Its warm, sticky flesh dissolves into sweetness. Figs; fruit of the Gods. But remember Lorikeets and rats feast on them too.
We have a salad of green with the added crunch of parsnip chips grown from our garden. Planted too close together, the roots grew deformed and twisted, and yet they still add a yummy texture and flavour to the salad. And besides, not many kids are partial to parsnips before they’ve tried them this way. In a purple plastic bucket, like the sacrificed tails of piglets, they wait to be sliced and then shallow fried. The humble parsnip turns into something especially delicious.
We eat our lunch under the shade of gum trees. The garden workers have been allowed to spray themselves with the hose since it has been that hot. A bee dying for a sip of water gets the table all riled up. Ravens wait for the food that will surely drop beneath the chairs. The table has been set with its checkered red and white cloth. After a year of kitchen garden there is already tradition and knowing. The children have collected flowers to decorate the table. The parent helpers and head cook are thanked and then we begin. Bon appetito.
Newbie parents are baptised in the ways of the kitchen. The cleaning group students have disappeared at the crucial moment when there are dishes to stack in the dishwasher and mountains of plastic glasses to stack away.
But success in the kitchen garden is measured not by how well we tidy away. ( Although it is appreciated and noticed.) It is about tasting, trying new flavours and making magical discoveries such as fig and feta, tomato and nectarine.