The romance of compost

I was recently told that as far as aspects of horticulture went, compost wasn’t particularly romantic. But if you are what you eat, then essentially you are eating compost!

Ok, so I joke, but if there is a desire to grow quality produce for great cuisine, then a good compost is essential. To produce amazing food, you may require a good chef, but it starts with a horticultural medium so many struggle to get right.IMG_20150504_125028-EFFECTS

Here at the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school, although the quality of dishes is diverse as well as divine, compost is something they have struggled to get right within the Mediterranean climate.

Unlike in the UK, the dry heat has resulted in difficulty retaining moisture in the compost heap and prevented successful breakdown.

IMG_20150506_124622Ratios of brown to green materials are important too, although getting the right balance has been tricky. Lots of our compost comes from fruit and vegetables scraps from the kitchen along with prunings from the garden; but with no amenity lawns, sometimes getting the right mix to kickstart active breakdown can be a struggle.

Also the concept of composting seems quite new to Sicily, so I set a few rules to control what went into compost bins. I didn’t want any cooked food, meat or fish, anything that had been dressed in a sauce or any bread, as this would dramatically reduce the likelihood of vermin and other unwanted factorsIMG_20150504_125101. I also wanted to limit the amount of citrus, as the increase in acidity can deter worms; a vital ingredient in the decomposition procedure!

I built up the compost in layers, alternating between a thin layer of chipped woody material, followed by a layer (around twice to three times as thick) of chopped up soft material, such as weeds and kitchen waste.

Material was cut or chipped to encourage a more active breakdown (large surface area for a smaller piece) and prevent twiggy debris or firmer stems from just sitting in the heap.

IMG_20150430_120627Now for the secret; adding 5 or 6 pieces of chopped Opuntia leaf (prickly pear), (the more fleshy younger one year old leaves are best for this), scattering them after each pairing oflayers (after the dry base) for example, dry layer- soft- dry- Opuntia– soft- dry- Opuntia) and repeating the process around 6 times will fill one of the small bays.

Using the Opuntia helps release moisture into the heap at a controlled rate, thereby not needing to continually water the heap. Too much water too fast may lead to excessive anaerobic conditions and a smelly compost!

The prepared heap is then covered with a plastic sheet and turned in and out of the bay every 12-15 days. During the turning process, any material which had not broken down sufficiently (as things break down at different rates) was removed to start a new heap. After 2 turns, this compost was hot, sufficiently broken down and ready to use (once cooled!) Odd bits were removed and some compost was sieved to achieve the desired end result.

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So with a bit of love and care, I’ve achieved compost in 30 days, from scraps to success… who said romance was dead!

 

Flowering of Mesembyanthemum crystallinum

Ice ice baby!

Today the ice plant, (Mesembryanthemum crytallinum) sent out its first flowers. It is usually grown for its glistening water vesicles, which are large epidermal cells on the stems and leaves. I love the delicate touch of the flowers myself so its great to see them up close! Oh and as an added bonus, a widely unknown fact is that this is edible, so one to add to your list!

Beekeeping with Carlo

I was fortunate enough to be around when Carlo came to visit Case Vecchie early one afternoon. He stayed for lunch as we barbequed fish that he has brought with him. This was amazing, a new way to cook fish that I had not experienced before- a little more info can be found on the Anna Tasca Lanza tumblr feed here: http://annatascalanza.tumblr.com/post/117159266366/its-barbecue-season-carlo-amodeo-beekeeper-and 

An even more exiting visit then followed- a trip to see the Sicilian black bees in a apiary of hives a short drive away within the Regaleali estate.

It has been said that you can do bee checks on the Sicilian black bee without a bee suit as they can be so docile, but there were also a mix of other honey bees and some had hybridised- creating an angry little creature, so suits were essential!

As I recently wrote about in ‘You better bee-lieve it’ the black bee is something pretty unique and it was great to finally meet Carlo in person and watch him work and assist where I could!

One of the aims of the check this time round was to assess how the process of removing/ eradicating the other honey bee colony was going. Some non-native Italian bees had inhabited some of the hives and so more black bees were introduced to try and out compete with them, but have ended up hybridising, so Carlo was looking for the queen in these hybrid hives and wanted to remove them. Finding them can be a tricky business however!

Numerous times I thought I had found one, only for him to say it was a very active male. When looking for the queen bee- size isn’t everything. We were looking for a slightly narrower body and shorter wings, though this can be difficult to distinguishing when bees are all crossing over on top of each other. Of course, when he showed us an example in the black bee colony, it was already marked, so a little easier to spot!

One other thing that Carlo mentioned was how after male bees have mated there sexual parts break off, so they only get one chance! Carlo demonstrated by picking his victim and consequently exposed and removing the bees dignity, though it seemed to fly off unaware.

We ended with harvesting a small amount of Asphodelus honey, and had a taste, straight from the hive- a divine, almost clear sugar syrup like nothing else, and the taste of having it fresh will be something my pallet savours for a while to come!

Plant hunting

I’ve just spent the morning on venturing across the hills of the estate searching for plants that we want for developing the garden. I have gained inspiration on my morning walks, seeing various plant combinations from what grows naturally around the estate.

Today’s haul included some Asphodelus aestivus, Acanthus molle, Salvia, Nepeta, and Dittrichia viscose

 

On my trip next month I hope to collect some wild thyme and euphorbia!

Better bee-lieve it- black bee honey

As I have breakfast after an early morning run and core workout I realise I haven’t wrote about the range of honey I am accompanying on either my toast, yoghurt and cereal or savoury loaf- there is a honey to go with anything and it’s all brilliant produce.

I am gauging on the produce by naturaintasca which offer specialise flavoured honey’s from the black bees of Sicily, which harvest on certain plants, examples include hazelnut, loquat and eucalyptus to name a few.

My favourite way to eat honey is on top of some fresh ricotta (made by the local cheese maker Filippo- where the best tasting ricotta is produced) sitting on lightly toasted bread- perfection!

Here’s the story of the Sicilian black bee, as we all know the horticultural importance of bees for humans to survive.

The Sicilian black bee (Apis mellifera siciliana) is very dark in colour, almost black and has populated the island of Sicily for thousands of years but it risked extinction after being abandoned in the 1970s.

As beekeepers tried to keep up with rapidly increasing demand for honey they replaced the traditional wooden ‘bungi’ made from dried giant fennel stalks (Ferula communis) and began importing the Italian honey bee from northern Italy due to the absence of reproducers (black bee queens.)

Carlo Amodeo preserved the last three genetic surviving lines, on a few Sicilian islands (Alicudi, Filicudi and Vulcano) where reproduction of queen bees now takes place as there are no other bee species and it is therefore possible to assure pure reproduction.

The black bee is distinguished from the common Apis mellifica ligustica (the Italian honey bee) not only by its colour but its smaller wings. It is so docile that beekeepers may not need to wear masks or suits when removing honey and tend the hives.

The Sicilian bees are very productive, even at high temperatures (withstanding over 40°C) when other bees stop producing, and can tolerate sudden temperature variations. As a result it is an excellent pollinator for a wide range of plants. Honey is produced from April to July.

The problems with Mandrake and the two minute window

After consuming a meal with the leaves of a plant, thought to be a wild green, but actually turning out to be Mandragora– which grows commonly around Sicily; there would rightly be cause for concern. For those not familiar, it’s a highly poisonous plant and one that should be avoided. I have read from some sources that the leaves are harmless, but I can assure you this is not the case.

Of course, anyone who knows about my appetite for food knows I was probably just digging myself a deeper hole- blissfully unaware of what was to come…

Shortly after eating, fresh water began to taste mouldy; thinking became a little difficult, as did standing and walking. High levels of dizziness and nausea set in, vision became impaired as my pupil grew to larger than my iris and apparently my speech was a little slurred (not that the Sicilians could understand my clear English at the best of times!)

Fortunately I was also with some other English speaking people, although they were also suffering similar symptoms on a lighter scale. We knew we needed help.

After being driven to the doctors (by our Sicilian neighbours), I remember we were told to travel to the local hospital. By now my head was really starting to spin, I was confused, was having uncontrollable full body muscle contractions, palpitations and generally felt like shit.

I would imagine this is what the feeling is like if you chose to mix cocaine with LSD, but having never tried either, I can only assume. Goodness knows why you would want to try either, the experience I had is not one I would wish on anybody!

After arriving at the hospital, I don’t really remember much, I later found out that they had asked if I had been taking drugs. This wasn’t the reason I got into horticulture; medicinal horticulture is definitely an interesting topic, but I didn’t expect to become a subject of it.

After a few tests, I slipped into a coma. It was then I later find out they gave me two minutes to live…

If you were asked the question ‘What could you achieve in two minutes?’ I bet the range of tasks, skills and actions would be varied and may even bring out your personality. But I wonder how many people would say ‘Save a life’

I was once told, ‘Without the appropriate action, you won’t achieve the desired outcome.’ I feel this rings true here. It was at this point that the appropriate action taken by doctors did achieve the outcome. Whether or not they believed that the end result would be achieved, they were not afraid to try and never gave up on me.

The first thing I remember is waking up in a room I’d never seen, not wearing the clothes I’d come in with, my watch had disappeared from my wrist and found myself attached to two heart monitoring machines, a drip and a urinary catheter. My first though- I wasn’t going anywhere today!

Shortly after waking I was told I’d suffered severe plant toxicology which had resulted in blood poisoning. I was handed a two-litre bottle of water with a laxative sachet mixed in and told to consume it within the hour. That was a lot more difficult to do than it sounds, but definitely helped move things along!

Over the course of next 4 days, I was fully detoxed, the machines were removed (although were re attached twice a day for tests), blood and urine tests were done, the catheter was removed and by the end I only had the drip for company.

People who know me will know I’m a bit of a fidget and I like to be active, so it was hard when every time I tried to get up and walk around, I was ushered to sit or lie down- it’s just not my style!

Once the doctors were satisfied with my progress I was discharged, although I still wished to get a medical when back in the UK, mostly for piece of mind, but also I would fully understand what was being said. The language barrier had been a tough one at times and it made me realise, although progress has been slow- my Italian is actually coming on a bit! (although very basic)

I’d like to end on a positive note, I am on the mend and after some tests in the UK, the doctors have given me the all clear. Brain, heart, lungs, stomach, kidneys and liver are all working well and the neurotransmitters and receptors in my body have not been damaged.

The support I have received has been tremendous, all your comments and kind words have been greatly appreciated, and the view from my window (when I was able to get up and look) wasn’t bad- would you agree?

 

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On the hunt for wild fennel

A Sicilian tradition that goes on around this time of year is the harvesting of the wild fennel (Foeniculum vulgaris) which in Italian is Finocchietto selvatico. This can be found growing at the side of the roads as well as high in the hills and is then used to begin making many traditional Sicilian recipes.

 

So the highlight of today was meeting up with Salvatore (a grounds care taker here at Case Vecchie, but also expert forager) and taking a short car journey to a nearby verge which he knew was a hot spot for wild fennel foraging!

Now in March, the wild fennel is poking through and is at it’s sweetest right now- so a prime time for harvesting.

Salvatore’s knowledge of the area and the wild plants that grow here was a great help, and as an expert forager he not only showed us how best to harvest it, but also gave instructions on how best to cook it to produce the finest flavours.

 

From the haul which we brought back, we created a fennel pasta dish with onion raisins and parmesan as well as fennel fritters (Polpettine di finocchietto selvatico) which were divine. The recipe book by Fabrizia ‘Coming Home to Sicily’ is well worth a look at, and I hope to be eating more of these recipes soon.

 

I’ll be out on the hunt again soon for another harvesting session as we can’t get enough of it. We can then create even more amazing food, with the subtle satisfaction of knowing we picked it ourselves!

Harvesting citrus

I have news rich in fruitful goodness! Today I have been busy harvesting from the citrus orchard which bears a variety of oranges, satsuma, mandarin, blood orange, grapefruit and lemons. I’ve also been looking at plant health and have noticed a variety of scale and mealy bug which we shall treat with organic insecticidal soap and white oil. Let’s hope for an even better crop next year!

A taste of Sicily

I’ve been here for almost a month of a 6 month project working in conjunction with culinary school. It’s been so busy, I’ve only just had time to write!

 

Well.. What a place. I am situated amongst a beautiful landscape and surrounded by an estate over 5 times the size of Hyde Park!

 

So initially you may think that working in the Mediterranean will be all sun and games! Well I’ve arrived in the wet season and there has been a high diversity within weather patterns and have seen all sorts; from lovely bright sun, to high winds, storms and a smuttering of snow!

 

There are various aims within the project. The main one is to strengthen the connection between horticulture, in growing quality produce, with the kitchens, producing fine Sicilian cuisine.

Making others aware of how food is grown with how it will be used is so important here. The Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school is developing on the essence of Sicilian cuisine with the principle of ‘Cook the farm’ a development project I am helping work on which will begin in 2016.*

 

Within the vegetable garden, they are keen to mix in colour, using both edible and ornamental flowers on the site and are interested in developing the use of companion planting techniques.

 

On the ornamental side, herbs are mixed with other low lying ornamentals, which are left to creep and sprawl amongst the shrubs and roses, with the idea of providing ground cover to preserve soil moisture and structure during the dry season.

 

I’ve been busy sorting out a lot of seeds and began sowing a range of crops under glass which require a little more heat than can be provided outside- even in Sicily!! Tomatoes and chilli peppers have been a priority as they are used a lot here, and have sown over 25 varieties- it should make for interesting viewing when they fruit later in the year.

 

Elsewhere, I am just continuing to familiarise myself with the site as I continue to develop on the plant audit as well as a tackling some of the rose pruning!

 

*    To find out more you can visit http://bit.ly/1wdVhbO

 

Autumn at Waterperry gardens

Today I visited Waterperry gardens in Oxford. I met up with Andrew who I had met studying at Wisely. He had previously worked here so was able to give an insiders view of the place!

 

Originally a site for horticultural teaching for ladies in the 1930’s, today the 8 acres of gardens are an ornamental haven for any plant enthusiast and are managed by head gardener Pat Havers.

The garden provides a real mixture of ideas, and gets the creative senses buzzing as you wander, making smooth transitions from areas of herbaceous into open grassland and shrubbery before reaching the orchard and viewing the landscape beyond.

 

There’s something for everyone in this garden, slightly hidden away amongst the winding back roads outside the city of Oxford. A variety of media is used, with complementary planting, creating bespoke areas which could inspire any type of garden. From the use of water or woodland thickets, shrub borders and island beds; rockery or small scale orchard, Waterperry gardens has managed to showcase an example of most aspects of garden design.

 

The garden also takes into account for wildlife and provides strong vistas with the connecting landscape. A particular highlight for me was the vast amount of berries on such a wide variety of plants, from Lonicera and Hypericum, to Viburnum , Ilex, Berberis and Yew (Taxus). Further interest came from hips on roses, developing flowers on Euonymus and the acorns produced on a Quercus x hispanica. I also liked the use of Phytolacca dotted through one section of the shrubbery.

 

It was a great time to visit, with a wide variety of Aster looking stunning in the main herbaceous border. Some of the plant combinations were truly impressive; yet the colour pallet was kept simple, despite the huge range of plants involved. For me that’s what made it work so well, keeping the colour pallet simple and just mixing the tones and hues with a variation in planting.

 

In addition, a recent developing interest in the last few years has been diversity within conifers. It’s so easy to overlook them and assume they all look the same, but Waterperry had a few treats for any conifer fanatics! The cones on Pseudosuga menziesii took my eye and there are some great specimens of Thuja. I’ve also seen a magnificent Thujopsis dolobrata, (not commonly grown in the UK), the largest specimen I have seen to date!