Flavours of spring

JUDE GILLIES
Last updated 14:21 26/10/2012
Citrus fruit
ABUNDANT CROPPERS: Homegrown lemons and late-season oranges

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I love long weekends. Even when the weather turns out bad, you can't lose. If the weather's good, you can do all those outdoorsy things you dream of all week at work - and if it's dodgy, you get to stay inside and indulge all your lazy day preferences.

Which is what we mostly did last weekend - cooking, eating, reading and sleeping. Luxury.

Among our kitchen creations was a delicious lemon syrup polenta cake. Overwhelmed by this year's citrus crop and the abundance of beautiful, bright yellow, clean, waxy lemons, I had a hankering for one of those sticky, satisfying cakes that go so well with freshly brewed coffee and a good book on the sofa.

Having time to read instead of toiling in the garden, I brushed up on garden tips and looked up old cookbooks, where I found several recipes for the type of cake I was looking for.

Combining polenta, ground almonds and lemons to make an irresistibly lemony cake, not surprisingly, the recipe has its origins in Sicily. Like so many cultures where hard times have dictated the cuisine, Sicilians developed a taste for using what was cheap and plentiful.

Browsing one of my favourite tales about Sicily, On Persephone's Island by American writer, cook and gardener Mary Taylor Semeti, who married a native Sicilian and wrote about their family farm and city life in Palermo, I was reminded that these three foods are staple ingredients in a Sicilian kitchen.

Despite what our perceptions might be of perennial summer weather in the Mediterranean, Sicily gets plenty of snow on Mt Etna and enough winter chilling to encourage good production of almonds - yet the lowlands are hot enough to grow an abundance of lemons.

Mixed with polenta, that ubiquitous and cheap Italian food found everywhere, like pasta, almonds and lemons would have originally been used to make this affordable, homemade cake.

Adapting the recipes I found, and in the interests of our waistlines and cholesterol counts, I reduced the amount of butter and added the last-minute syrup over the top to moisten and accentuate the lemon flavour of the nutty-textured cake.

But the recipe (and the cake) reminded me how good and satisfying it is to cook with local, seasonal ingredients, preferably from your own garden.

Lemons, like other fruit trees, make the ideal perennial crop. Apart from a bit of feeding and watering, you can pretty much leave them alone to do the job for you and provide an annual edible dividend.

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Which, finally, is what our orange tree has done. Years after friends gave it to us as a transplant, it has redeemed its barren ways to produce a huge crop of sweet, juicy, late-season fruit. But, as things go in the garden, an established lime has given up after the continual wet winter weather - a victim, I suspect by the tell-tale drooping foliage, of the soil-borne phytophthora disease.

Luckily, though, another lime planted a few years ago as a backup is now producing, so we needn't go without, but it's a poignant reminder that trees have a finite life and, to keep ahead, you need to be constantly planning to replant and replace.

Or reinvigorate. That's what we've done with the avocado. A good grafted variety I now forget the name of because it was planted so long ago, the tree had become too tall for us to reach the fruit without risking limb and life, so last summer we gave it a severe cutback to encourage new, more accessible growth.

It's already paid dividends. Vigorous shoots have sprung out of old wood, producing an abundance of blooms on the tips of the new growth. In 18 months, it will hopefully give us more avocados than we know what to do with.

The secret to success when pruning any production tree, though, is knowing how the crop is carried. Avocados and citrus, as well as figs, flower and fruit on the new shoots, so cutting them hard back only encourages more growth of flowers and fruit, whereas almonds need a year for the wood to mature and produce flowers and then nuts.

Now that the orange has decided to get producing, I can prune the tips as I harvest the fruit, to encourage new shoots and flowers that next year will bring another delicious crop.

Then, perhaps, I can invent my own recipe for a sweet, sticky orange syrup cake.

For more inspiration on Sicilian cooking and gardening, Google Mary Taylor Semeti and her many books on life, gardening and cooking at her family farm at Bosco in Sicily.

- Nelson

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