The winter garden in a subtropical climate is usually more productive than the summer garden. Summer comes with excess: rain, heat, humidity, and pests. Winters are generally warm, sometimes even at night, but most important, they are reliable. There is a transition period, too, there are summer plantings that linger on, still producing into the cooler months: tomatoes, chillies, capsicum, eggplants.
To my eye, the winter garden is more beautiful than the summer garden. Plants last longer and the garden beds have a more ‘architectural’ quality. The brassicas, the fennel, the spring onions, the leeks and various varieties of lettuce contribute to a garden that is full of diversity, but also has a sense of completeness, as if everything belongs together. In the winter garden brassicas are king. This year we planted five varieties: cavolo nero, sugarloaf cabbages, calabrese broccoli, romanesco and pink Sicilian cauliflowers.
The romanesco is either a broccoli, a cauliflower, or its own thing. I have eaten it in Italy but we had never grown it before. It surprised us by refusing to develop heads until it was as tall as a person. Researching this behaviour, I discovered the story of a woman in California who had grown a romanesco as big as her car. I don’t think this happens in Italy, because there, romanesco are common in the markets. (And anyway, cars are much smaller in Italy.)
It is a function of a garden, including a food garden, to be beautiful, and we develop our food garden with the same care and eye for detail that a chef might devote to plating. In fact, I regard it as a kind of plating: the presentation of food, not for the dining table, but for the kitchen, the presentation of food for the joyous act of harvesting.
Our food gardens are physically dominant, surrounding the house on the same side as the kitchen. Visiting the garden in the morning is the prelude to choosing a menu for the evening. The garden then is something like a market, with food expressly presented to tempt the cook.
There are always gluts. Plants that grow and produce more heavily than expected, or plants that are just bursting with produce all at the same time. I have come to value gluts, they are opportunities to discover recipes that can only be cooked when you have an abundance. Making do with too much is a similar skill to making do with too little. When the abundance really is too much, our local Stop the Rot distributes the excess to those in need.
In the kitchen, there are attempts to replicate the beauty that is found in the garden, particularly to emphasise the natural beauty of the food. A salad of Sicilian cauliflower, olives and capers…
…Chioggia beetroots roasted to an intense red with their blackened roots intact…