Monday, May 23, 2011

Of Japanese Raisins and Wild Asparagus

The pleasure of hitting either of my usual Farmers' Markets (Orange Grove or Addison Road both managed by the same mob  - Organic Food Markets) is to truly immerse myself in seasonality, sustainability and sensory satiation that evokes memory [was that too florid? - too bad].

Like when I find Red Somerset apples from Orange [said to come from only five trees is a location known only to the purveyor] and discover them to be the precise flavour and texture of the apples I ate off the trees in the orchard in Arcadia, Sydney, where I first lived in Australia. [And how strange that in writing those words suddenly for me the connection is made for the first time between the rural village of that name on the outskirts of Sydney in the early 1960's and the mythologised Arcadia, home of Pan, and later idealised as an unspoiled land, both reality and metaphor of what if felt like to live for brief summer in transit between a Burgher Sri Lankan childhood and an Australian adolescence].

But equal, or perhaps more so, is the thrill when something unknown appears at a stall and I am there early enough to not hold up the rest of the purchasers too much as I screech over the find and bombard the stallholder with questions, and greedily grasp for any part of the product that I can pop in my mouth, and eagerly proffer whatever the price just so I can take it home and wonder about it. Like the moment my tongue first tingled to that fizzy sweet impossible coloured powder sold as sherbet in my late primary years in Singleton; the moment when all the unfairness of not-having-been-told-before is sharpest but is instantly overwhelmed by the now of knowing and the future of  indulging. [Yes, yes, I know - pushing it.]

Take last weekend, for example. I always make a visit to the Li Sun stall at Orange Grove for the mushrooms grown in the old railway tunnels at Mittagong in NSW and their forest gathered mushrooms like Slippery Jacks and Saffron Milk Caps in season.Year before last, just once they had Wood Blewitts, and earlier this year they had a bare omelet's worth of Grey Ghosts.This week they had some Fairy Ring and Morels.

But more exciting than these were small white twine tied bunches of something that looked like pale green heads of just budding lavender on thickish grassy stalks. They weren't of course - they were bunches of wild asparagus, Ornithogalum pyrenaicum, also known as Bath asparagus (named for their profusion in said English town), Pyrenees star of Bethlehem or spiked star of Bethlehem (and these at the market were indeed imported from the Pyrenees), a plant unrelated to the asparagus but with ascribed visual and flavour similarities to said delicacy.

Breaking with locavorism (and getting a serious talking to from another stall holder as a result when I enthused about them to him, which almost made me return the Jerusalem artichokes I was buying from him), and breaking the bank (they were not cheap), I bought two bunches. One of my bunches is pictured at left, and you can see many more images here, including one which will show you why it is called star of Bethlehem, for its flower, of course.

Seeking to assure myself that it would be best to treat them as simply as possible I came across the site of Chef Simon site with lovely pics of cooking asperge de boi ou aspergette which, for the lazy, shows their stalks being cut (though they are quite soft and delicious in themselves) and the now foreshortened stems spa-ing for a couple of minutes into boiling salted water.

Of course when it came to actually cook them tonight, I realised how meagre my score or so of heads of wild asparagus would look atop the baked polenta I had chosen for the carbo part of the meal, and couldn't help but elaborate the dish. I ended up with leeks, morels, fairy ring mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and wild asparagus sauteed in olive oil with sage and thyme, a little salt and a grind or two of black pepper. The poor Ornithogalum held their own in this melange, however, the head remaining al dente, with a flavour more toward the greener end of the stems of the Alliaceous family (the one that includes shallots and onions), or what I imagine a young tuberose stem might taste like should I be game enough to chomp down on it, and I mean that to be a compliment, the potential pleasure of the flavour that is.

The other delight was at the stall of Robin and Gertrude Williams of Mangrove Mountain. They are my regular supplier of rhubarb, honey, eggs, and flowers. This week they had also brought down some  - what does one call them branches? bunches? sprays? - of Japanese Raisins (Hovenia dulcis), something the like of which I can honestly say I have never seen.

What looks like a parasitic lump, in the picture at right is a stem sugar store for the now defunct flower and the developing seed (you can't see it on my pic but you can if you check out those here).We ate them fresh at the stall, breaking off a fat little section, nipping off the seeds (saved for planting - they apparently have a 60% rate of success of propagation according to yet another stallholder at the market  - Darcy of Mosswood

The taste in this fresh form, as attested to by the various persons who passed through my house over the weekend and on whom they were pressed, is like apple or pear, very juicy and very sweet with an acid undertone. They don't look or taste like raisins at this stage so I wondered about the name. But two days later, as they have dried a little, they are turning a candy brown and tasting very much like dried fruit. Wikipedia tells me that the Korea Food & Drug Administration approved on December 2008 that extracts of the fruit can protect and help recover the liver from substances such as alcohol. The main chemical for this effect in Hovenia dulcis is Quercetin, which has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. There is also apparently in Korea a dairy product called Kupffers which contains 2,460 mg of Hovenia dulcis extract. I am tempted to drink heaps tonight test this out.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Alcohol Adaptation

This just found in New Scientist May 14 2011 No 2812.

Vertebrates, which as all of you know includes we humans, had evolved genes to metabolise ethanol 360 million years before flowering plants started producing fruit whose fermentation could produce alcohol. Hector Riveros-Rosas of the National Autonomous University of Mexico City [love that name, makes me want places like Sydney Uni to disclose how non-autonomous it is!] had found that the gene for alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) [hmm, and there's an interesting acronym in the context of the known impact of alcohol on attention spans] first shows up in vertebrates around 440 million years ago, which is long before flowering plants evolved and also before conifers began producing berries that can ferment and make alcohol. It had previously been thought that the gene evolved in response to the making possible of alcohol.

Now the weird thing is that this gene seems to have been developed to breakdown hormones in us like dopamine and then got 'hijacked for our bacchanalian pleasures', as the article puts it. But of course there is nothing really being hijacked here given that dopamine is released when we indulge in those other accompaniments to Bacchanals - sex, drugs, food, and in more recent times, rock and roll. All that seems to have happened is that this gene that was already having a great time scoffed a fermenting fruit one day and recognised the potential in it for even more pleasure than it was already getting.

The question remains though, given we humans didn't come along until waaaaaaaaaaaay later, which was the lucky vertebrate that hosted the first ADH gene. Having an accountable attachment to it, I hope it was a distant forbear of the coati.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Having my vitamin C just got a whole lot more interesting.

Mmm mmm. I have been relishing heirloom tomatoes for the last few weeks brought to the local farmers' markets from Orange. They are excellent just bitten into, or if you want to serve them up fancy, all they need is some salt, pepper and a splash of olive oil. In the pickie below 4 varieties ready for the eating, slavering from left to right they are green zebra (a dark green with yellow ribs), black Russian ( a deep browny red), one i was told was called a queen lime but I think is actually a yellow valencia, and oxheart.

Ah, but what makes a tomato an heirloom, you ask. Well, the bottom line is that they have to be open-pollinated, that is, they can't be hybrids. Past that, there are additional interpretations. Some go by the age of the cultivar, with some going for seeds that have to be over 100 years old, others saying 50, and others picking 1945 being the rough date for widespread use of hybrids in industrial agriculture. Others say a true heirloom is a cultivar that has been nurtured, selected, and handed down from one family member over many generations. I got this info from where you can also see pics of the whole fruit and many more varieties.