Stephanie and The Purple Garlic

purple garlic

When Stephanie joins the kids (from East Fremantle Primary and Singleton Primary schools) in front of the gathered audience at Garden Week, everyone is a little nervous. After all, she is a legend. Her program is responsible for teaching some 35 000 Australian primary school kids how to grow food and cook it. She has earned her reputation through hard work.

She is more silver than silver. She has her large beads. Her expressive eyebrows.

She talks to the audience while the kids around her cook. She knows she can leave them to it. She hovers behind, but not obtrusively. She says she tries not to be bossy. As mothers, we all know how hard that can be. She compliments a child on his knife skills. She shows some others how to cut the rib out of the silver beet, but also has suggestions on how to use it. She crisps up the sage in the butter because it can’t be merely wilted, it needs to crack like dry leaf. I am pleased to think that kids are learning this.

The Singleton Primary students must be as nervous as the East Freo kids are – they wash their silver beet twice. No one would want Stephanie to taste sand or grit in their dish. It’s hard to get the temperature just right on the fancy outdoor kitchen. She says you could call her primitive, but she prefers to see the flame over which she is cooking.

While the zucchini colours she expounds the virtues of local extra virgin olive oil and one of our students tells her of how we made it ourselves last year. We know, first-hand, from our own experience of pressing the fruit, that there is nothing added to the final product. It doesn’t require chemistry or a factory. No emulsifiers. No animal has suffered in the process. Stephanie describes it as as simple as fruit juice.

While the kids rub the toasted bread with the raw garlic, Stephanie tells us how we must avoid the bleached and imported kind. Buy locally grown Australian garlic – purple – not bleached or sprayed to stop it sprouting. Its papery mauve skin like tissue paper – veined like spider webs through ageing skin. Each clove so moist that when it is crushed beneath the blade of a knife, garlic juice wets your palm. Try growing it your school gardens, she says, as borders to the other plants.

Our students pick some edible flowers to decorate the plate and Stephanie says how important it is to serve the food at the table. Zucchini Bruschetta with preserved lemon, goats cheese, garlic and sage. Have a bit of time to admire it for yourself in the kitchen and then take it to the table for everyone else to feast their eyes on. Don’t dish it out in the kitchen. Let it be seen, complimented on and finally enjoyed. She opens her arms out wide to the audience. See what these kids can do…




13 Things the Kitchen Garden teaches kids….

Bloggers do lists. And, although I don’t think thechookhouse fits the mould of most blogs, I am doing a list because it occurred to me that way. Not in the usual way, where an idea seems to drift down like a falling leaf, but in an arrow-fired-at-a-target kind of way. I am doing a list.

Thirteen things the Kitchen Garden teaches Kids

1. to wash their hands before preparing food

2. that produce from the garden comes attached to dirt that doesn’t taste good

3. to work together, or else end up with no meal

4. to clean up after themselves, instead of leaving it for someone else

5. to try new things – like strange tastes and vegetables

6. to use sharp implements and not hurt themselves

7. to have fun while preparing food

8. to create something that is shared

9. that tasting is one of the perks of cooking

10. to create a meal requires time, and work, and commitment, especially if you grow the produce first, but the end result is worth it

11. that making something from scratch has real value

12. to create, even something as simple as a meal, is the one of life’s great pleasures

13. you have permission to get dirty

Once upon…a kitchen

Once upon a kitchen….start of the stormy season. The yard is awash with decaying brown leaves. The verges are all tatty. The already very messy Australian landscape is even more dishevelled. Eucalypts with a bad hair day. Wind has wreaked havoc on the saplings that were valiantly growing beside the house. Its top is knocked off in the 120km/hour winds that has gotten hold of its canopy and whisked it.

I am on at the Stephanie Kitchen Garden at school. Cooking can happen despite the weather. Maybe because of it apple pie sounds the perfect choice. The white board tells us we are cooking melanzane parmigiana, bagno cauda, preserving lemons and finishing up with apple pie. The season is right for preserving lemons. They are given away for free outside neighbour’s houses and in fish shops. So much better than the store-bought kind whose waxy skins cannot be grated and whose flesh does not deliver juice. Atop the bench the fresh ingredients spill from the wicker. Fancy eleven years olds that know that strange purple gourd = eggplant = aubergine = melanzane.

I have three lads to corral. A bit like dogs with storm phobia, they are feeling the barometric pressure fall, and are all fidgety. But perhaps they are just eleven year old boys needing to stay on the hop. One has braces, another lanky and thin, and the last with a crew cut, except for the rat’s tail strand of hair that tickles the back of his neck. Wash and dry the lemons. Cut them to their bases in quarters but not all the way through. Fill their centres with salt. Pound the coriander seeds in a mortar and pestle. Rat’s tail wants to taste everything despite it just being salt, or coriander, or lemon juice. I tell him all the salt he is consuming is not good for him. He continues grinding it into the cupped palm of his hand and tasting it with the tip of his tongue, like a horse on a salt lick. Delicious, he says. Braces measures the quarter cup of honey and places it on the bench. He is keen to do everything. He will not miss out on life. Rat’s tail picks up the honey-laden cup, with goo spilling down its sides and then drops it on the floor. Meanwhile Lanky is squeezing the lemon juice we need. Braces is quick to get a cloth. The honey is wiped up. Don’t tread in it, I warn. I notice the largeness and puffiness of their sneakers, their feet already the size of men. Rat’s tail is still busy testing and tasting everything. He wants to know if he can eat the cinnamon quill. The large jar is stuffed full of the lemons and salt, coriander, cinnamon, honey, juice and water and set in a large stock pot to bring to the boil. They must fill the pot and then lift it out of the sink together. Rat’s tail keeps testing the temperature of the water with his finger. He is a real poker and prodder. A finger in the pie of life. The type to open the oven door too early. The type to discover something new because of his curiosity. He could also be the type to jump into a murky pool, not knowing its depth or what lay at the bottom. Lanky is the one to do most of the cleaning up. When the other two have skedaddled, he is still at the sink, scrubber in hand.

Meanwhile the eggplant has been sliced and crumbed and the homemade tomato sauce spooned over it and then the grated cheese is placed on top. It is under the grill. Another group is covering the wedges of apple with cinnamon and sugar to make the filling for the pie. The pastry has been rolled and cut. Another group has dissolved the anchovies in the warm olive oil, previously crushed and pressed at school. They have steamed the cauliflower and potatoes and cut the other vegetables into dipping sticks that will be plunged into the sauce.

We will eat at the long table under cover on the stage of the assembly area. The weather is not allowing us to eat at our usual table in the sun. Kids who have previously thought they don’t like eggplant or anchovies are finding it not as bad as they thought. But Rat’s tail still holds his nose while he consumes his melanzane, just incase. But finishes it, he does. Of course there has never been a kid who does not like apple pie fresh from the oven. Has anyone ever had an allergy to sugar?

At the end of the day, as the storm front approaches, again the wind picks up. Jasper and his mate give out notices to take home to parents, saying the school could be closed tomorrow, if the storm results in building damage or loss of power. There is general excitement and joy at the prospect of this. Literally leaping. On twitter the storm is brewing fear. Someone retweets that the university is evacuating at five. I think I will move my car from its position under the widow maker. In our cottage, over a hundred years old, we feel very protected from the elements. Knowing it has stood so long gives us great confidence in its strength. It has hundreds of years ahead of it, if it is to become like the homes of the Europeans. In Spain we once lived in a 600 year old house on a street barely wide enough to drive a car. The walls were constantly being plastered over so they grew thicker and thicker. Damp made the plaster periodically fall away and crumble, but there was always more whitewash to be found. So in my Fremantle house I feel safe from the storm. My limestone walls move not an inch. I hear the rain on the tin. The dog positions himself bang in front of the gas heater; legs splayed heater-hog style. I hear the wind outside and see it across the oval whipping up the trees. Once upon…a storm.


Crushing and Pressing

It is nearing the end of Autumn and the weather should be turning cold but it is Fremantle, Western Australia. The sun does not disappoint. We need the rain. We will have to wait. So in the mean time…

Lee has been out collecting olives. With the help of children and parents, the orchard at Booyeembarra has been raked. These trees are only a few years old. To think they can live for centuries, even thousands of years. Their trunks will become gnarled, their branches thick. For now they are mere babies, but already they are bountiful. Despite the sandy soil or perhaps because of it. The branches have been rattled and the olives have been collected in large, colourful plastic tubs. Kilos and kilos of them. Aubergine purple. Firm fleshed. Tips of green.

In the schoolyard they will be soaked in a large wheelbarrow filled with water. Children will sort the sticks and leaves from the olive fruit and, washed clean, they are poured into the crusher.

Taste if you dare; the raw olive is unbearably bitter. I bite into an olive. It has soft white flesh with a pale buttery look, but its flavour is acrid and foul. How the ancient civilizations decided something tasting as smooth and fine as olive oil could be extracted from something so utterly rank is a mystery.

From the community enter Pete – he who has an olive oil making machine. He brings it to the school and sets it up on the sun drenched bitumen. He has a bushman’s hat. And a big smile. He instructs the children on the process. He has taken time out of his life to volunteer at the school and, in his giving, he is getting too. Afterwards he says how much he had enjoyed the day, was heartened to see the children so enthralled in learning, and how the experience has made him feel the planet is in good hands. All this; just by being with the kids.

From John Curtin Secondary College two interested teachers have crossed the road to help. Perhaps it is a chance to be away from the pimple-faced teenagers and relax in the easiness of the bright-skinned pre teens. To less grunts. Where boys are still happier in shorts. Girls still content with tied blue ribbons in ponytails. No lip piercings or tongue studded students giving them hell. Here in the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden project they are learning too. In the sun to boot. Everyone is keen to unravel the secret of the olive.

Encircling the old cement troughs the children huddle around to hear how it’s done. The boys are perched on the window ledge peering down into the small vat. They are all eager to see what the small machine can do. They jostle and push to keep their space. They are jammed up close to one another. There is no personal space. It could be a nit field day. First the washed olives will be crushed, seeds and all, by the grinding machine. Like gravel in a mixer. It is noisy. The resultant pulp is given a tasting. Pete encourages everyone to have a try and cheerfully they do. Ohh man. Spitting. Screwed up faces. Gross. Next, the resultant paste must be mixed for forty minutes. This malaxing the paste, allows the small oil droplets to combine to form bigger droplets and is an indispensable phase. Waiting must be learned too. And outside in the sun with your mates, it is not a bad thing to do. Good things take time. Creating requires patience. Next the pulp is pressed, squeezed till its oil is set free. It is a slow process. The children imagine doing it by hand as once it must have been done. In large containers this liquid is then left to settle and to the surface rises the oil. Green and golden. This is scooped off by the spoonful and tipped into the coffee filter paper lined-funnels to collect the first press oil drip by slow drip. Into brown glass bottles the first spoonfuls of oil slowly collect. Maybe at the next kitchen garden the oil they use will be the one they have crushed and pressed today.

Okay so it isn’t fast and it isn’t easy, but it is completely magical. The oil came from the inedible tasting olive collected free from a park down the road and washed only an hour or so before.

Last week’s gardening crew is in the kitchen making the simple pasta that will be eaten for lunch. Today it is Linguine with lemon, basil leaves and Parmesan. They have zested and grated and squeezed. They have been surprised by the deliciousness of a combination of simple, peasant ingredients. It is earthy. It is fresh. Of course olive oil stars here too.

Then again seated at the long table, the sun ever-present, elbows tucked at their sides, more because of the tight confines than the request for good manners, linguine is eaten and olive oil runs down chins…



Tennis lessons

While school age children play tennis the mothers and the small children, too young for instruction, mill around outside the courts under the pergola. They have been brought from day care or preschool from where they have been cooped up. Now they are free and run amok. There are geraniums in bloom ready to have their heads pulled off. Fuchsia pink petals spatter the grass. There are spare tennis balls ready to lob over the cyclone fence and onto the lawn courts that they are not allowed on. The precious flat grass dotted with fuzzy yellow.

The squealing children squeal. A reminder of piglets having their tails chopped off. A pink fairy outfit, over sized with a ribbon tying the shoulder straps together at the back, does nothing to soften the squeal.

The mothers are oblivious to the squeal. Piglets having their eye teeth pulled. It is the type of sound that puts off childless couples and cements their choice never to reproduce.

Two teenage boys arrive early for their lesson and must wait amongst the toddlers and mothers. The boys both wear glasses and are not the athletic type. But they can do tennis. Pimples and all. They have stated to grow upwards but their muscles lack definition. They have custard thighs, creme fraiche arms, cream cake cheeks.Their sneakers are enormous, feet already bigger than their fathers’? They hit some balls against the beige brick wall, feet heavy, no deft touch, till all the balls are lost over the roof of a shed and then they plonk down on a wooden bench seat, face in phone, thumbs working hard.