Thursday, November 20, 2014

Spring harvest & summer adventures

Before we kick-off with the new growing season (sneak peek: first seeds and seedlings are in the ground!), I wanted to wrap up our experiences from the past year, so here's a little flashback with what we've been up to last spring and summer!

What can you expect following winter gardening? Spring harvest obviously! Still, a busy harvest time in April and May was a new sensation for this Northern European.

A typical view during harvest time, in April (!)

Since Malta experiences mild winters, followed by warm springs and (at times scorching) hot summers, it makes sense that instead of the growing sequence of the higher latitudes, where we have to wait for episodes of frost to pass, here in the Mediterranean it is the availability of water that ultimately dictates the best growing season. Therefore, the months between September and May lend themselves best for vegetable growing, unless you have a good irrigation system in place.

Chris’ fathers fields have been in their family for generations, and in terms of farming technology and design, not much has changed over time. The land is split up in small plots by the archetypal Maltese rubble walls, intricately made by carefully fitting and placing stones on top of each other so they form a solid, durable wall, without any cement or other binding material. Watering the plants is also done in an old-fashioned way: by hauling up buckets of water from the well. Although this has proven to be beneficial to our biceps, you can imagine that to keep up with the water requirements of vegetables during Southern European summer, this requires too much hard work, and too much water. The water level in the well dropped significantly after winter and spring, and after the start of the dry summer season, will not be replenished until autumn. 

Hauling water from the well

We planted most of our vegetables between November and January, to benefit from some natural rainfall in addition to our weekly manual irrigation when we visited the fields. And with success! The feeling of eating your own produce, of knowing how it was grown, of remembering the way the fields looked just 2 or 3 months before when you were planting tiny seeds, is simply amazing. Although it is basic biology, I still found myself in awe at the way in which those seeds developed into fully grown plants, bearing edible, and delicious, fruits. 

Spring harvest

We ended up with more beetroot, spinach, broad beans, peas, potatoes, onions and garlic than we could possibly eat up! Therefore, we had to think of how to save, process and store all the produce. We have quite a big freezer, which offered a solution for at least part of the produce. We blanched, cooled and dried spinach leaves, as well as the leaves of beetroot (which are perfectly edible, and a nice change from spinach) before packing them tightly in boxes and bags, trying to squeeze out as much air as possible to avoid freezer burn. The beans and peas were very voluminous, so we peeled mounds of them to take them out of their pods and transfer them to bags in the freezer. Initially we blanched them, cooled them and dried them before transferring them to the freezer, but this is a very cumbersome process and since we expect to eat them within a year, is not really necessary (or so I've been told). 

Peas (piżelli) in their pods

Spinach (spinaċi)

For the beetroot I had another idea in store. Recently I came across some mason jars (Weck jars), as well as an article on fermentation. I decided to try it out using the beetroot. The first batch I made just with sliced beetroot (uncooked, but peeled) packed in a jar with filtered water, bay leaves from our own bay tree on the roof, fennel seeds, garlic and salt. Having read that the smaller the pieces, the easier the fermentation, I prepared another batch by grating beetroot and some cabbage, and seasoning them in a similar way. Both methods worked out fine, although the sliced beetroot was more crunchy and raw than the properly fermented grated batch. After about a month of fermentation in a kitchen cupboard I transferred the jars to the fridge, to halt the fermentation process and keep the contents well preserved for several more months.

Sliced beetroot (pitravi), awaiting fermentation

With seasoning: bay leaf (rand), fennel seeds, garlic and salt

Pickled onions, in vinegar with rosemary

Chris' sister gave us a juicer for Christmas last year, and it turns out beetroot also lends itself very well for juices! Oranges are also in season in spring, and beetroot-orange juice became my favourite juice over these past months. The recipe is something along these lines: juice 4 or 5 beets (scrubbed clean), a knob of fresh ginger, together with about 6 oranges, and a lemon if you wish. The combination of the sweet, earthy beet with the fresh, tangy citrus and ginger is perfect. The only downside is the blood red stains that magically appear everywhere during the preparation and consumption of this juice :) 

It was with a bit of a heavy heart that we pulled out the last veggies from the fields where we spent so many of our weekends this winter, but we had some exciting plans for summer and already started planning for the next growing season.

Summer adventures

Even though we were not growing any vegetables in summer, we still harvested and processed two other crops later in the year. 

First in line were the capers (kappar). The caper bush can be found all around the Maltese Islands (and all around the Mediterranean for that matter) and seems to prefer the most impossible growing places: they are particularly abundant on the high stone fortifications that line the Grand Harbour, where we live. There are however also some shrubs to be found in our fields, and it is there that we harvested our capers. Harvesting is simple: just pinch off the capers from the stem. Back home we washed them and put them in jars with water and a spoon of salt. Then we placed this mix on the roof for about 2 weeks, to allow the capers to ferment. After discarding the bad capers we rinsed the capers and transferred them to clean glass jars, and added vinegar to preserve them. 

Caper picking

The beautiful caper flower

The capers up close

Preparations for fermentation 

After packing the capers in a jar, just add the brine (water and salt) and put the jar in a sunny spot

And a few weeks later they look like this! We preserve them in vinegar in small jars, to keep and to give away

Our second summer adventure was carob (ħarrub) picking! We invited some friends and turned it into a carob fest: a weekend of carob picking, camping at the fields, carob syrup making and washing it all off with a refreshing swim! To make the carob syrup, we broke about a kilo of carob pods into smaller pieces, and soaked them in a pan with water overnight. The next morning we prepared a fire and let the mixture boil and bubble away for about an hour. Thereafter we removed the pods and pieces, leaving only a carob infusion behind. Then we added a kilo of sugar, some cloves and cinnamon, and let this mixture boil for another hour or so. The resulting syrup is a great addition to cookies and cakes, and is beneficial to alleviate colds or throat aches, so can be used instead of honey in teas and other syrupy drinks.

Happy campers & carob pickers :)

Irene and Nil showing off farmer style 2014

We even had a visitor chameleon (kamaleonte)

Cooking the carob syrup on an improvised fire

The carob syrup, ready and bottled

The reward: a swim in one of the lovely bays of Delimara: il-Kalanka


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Winter gardening

First a short explanation... my blog has been dormant for a while (it needed a good wintersleep!), but I have decided to enter the blogosphere afresh and focus my blogposts on what for me constitutes the Little Arithmetics: small things of real value (to me). 

One of the things I will blog about are my (organic) gardening and vegetable growing experiences in the sunny, dry Mediterranean climate, from the tiny rocky island Malta, which I currently call home. Malta's winters are mild: the temperature rarely dips under 10 degrees Celcius, and although January and February are the rainiest months of the year, the sun shines almost every day. It is the perfect season for long countryside walks and bicycle rides, and also for gardening and vegetable growing! 

At the end of November, beginning of December, we (me and my boyfriend Christian) started planting beetroot, brussels sprouts, spinach and carrots. We planted the seeds in seedtrays that we kept in our closed balcony (a typical feature of Maltese houses) for the first weeks, so the seedlings could sprout in a sunny sheltered environment, without being exposed to the strong North-Western winds (known here as Majjistral) that batter our house at times. After a few weeks we took some of the seedlings up to our roof to see how they would grow in pots, and took another batch to the fields of Christian's father, Joseph, whom we help out at the weekends and where we got a small plot to start growing our own veggies. 

Brussels sprout seedlings in a pot on our roof

In the first weekend of January, we decided to spend the weekend at the fields to help Joseph with planting potatoes, peas (piżelli), chickpeas (ċiċri) and broad beans (ful) and camp under one of the majestic carob trees. 

Joseph preparing a plot of land before planting the potatoes

The family fields...

... are a family business: 
Christian's nephew Andrei and his nannu Joe take a break

While Chris prepares lunch :)

Camping under (or in?) the carob tree (ħarruba)

We were happy to see our seedlings rooting well and growing steadily:  



Since the beginning of January we've spent almost every weekend at the fields, tending to the plants, watering them with water that we manually haul up from the well, and keeping the ħaxix ħazin (bad grass, a.k.a. weeds) at bay. 

Our labour is paying off, because after a few weeks, this is what our veggies have grown up to already:

Peas (piżelli)

Rows and rows of veggies

Broad beans (ful)

Of course not all that glitters is gold. It turns out that we are not the only ones who find our homegrown veggies very tasty: judging by their glittering trails, the entire snail population of Malta is enjoying them. 

Spinach is popular with all, also with the bebbuxu (snails)

We add lime (ġir) - a pretty common resource here, considering about the entire 
Maltese Islands are made up of limestone - around our crops as a deterrent for snails. 

Apart from that, we manually inspect the plants for snails and we sprinkle coffee grounds 
around the plants, which supposedly should also shoo away those slimy bastards

The nearby almond tree is blossoming beautifully, and we're already finding small seedlings sprouting under the tree from almonds that have fallen from the tree. 

Blossoming almond tree (lewż)

Unfortunately, the tree is a bitter almond and its nuts are poisonous. However, we are planning to try and use the growing bitter almond trees as a rootstock for grafting, in order to graft the much more desirable sweet almond onto it. Grafting is a horticultural technique in which tissue from one plant is inserted into another, so that the tissues join together. One plant is selected for its roots and is called the rootstock (in our case this would be the bitter almond) and a cutting from another variety (the sweet almond), called the scion, is grafted onto it. The scion provides the genes for the new plant, which in this case would be a sweet almond. We are going to try it out, and will report back :) 

Farming in the sun, with a view of the Mediterranean sea