January is Stone Fruit season in Southern Australia. First the cherries are ready for Christmas then plums ripen, then peaches and finally apricots and nectarines. At this time of the year the Head Gardener would be busy ensuring that fruit was sent up to the kitchen for turning into jam and preserves just before ripening. This highlights that good communication between the kitchen and garden was important to ensure that the cook got a heads-up from the Head Gardener as fruit began to ripen. It would certainly make the Cooks life easier to get on well with the Head Gardener.
As choice as the peaches but delivered in a fair quantity were dark red Morello cherries. Harry had picked these from two fan-trained trees spread against the north wall of the garden. Old recipes spoke of having the stalk half cut, but Harry followed his training, delivering them to the kitchen minus any stalk at all. It was a gentlemanly gesture that gardeners of the past always made to housekeepers who preserved Morellos, for leaving the ‘strings’ on the tree and removing just the cherries saved the housekeeper’s fingers from being soiled.
The Victorian Kitchen 1989
Keeping the garden watered daily would be the other major task as rainfall begins to decline and temperatures rise as we head into February.
Picking delicate fruit like peaches would have been an important task for the Head Gardener. They are really difficult to pick without bruising once they are ripe.
Peaches and nectarines, once they gave off that certain ‘translucence’ Harry associated with ripeness, were cupped in the hand and given a slight twist. Coming away from the stalk easily they were turned over and placed on padded trays.
The Victorian Kitchen Garden 1987
I tried to remember this advice as I picked peaches for tonight’s dessert. If you use your finger tips like I tend to do you end up with big bruises on your peaches; you really do need to cup them carefully.
As today the 26th of January is Australia Day we are have a fancy dinner to celebrate our day off work. My contribution to the spread is dessert. I’m going to make a Victorian peach dessert that is a big favourite in my family – Peach Melba.
Peach Melba was invented in 1892 by the french chef Escoffier in celebration of the Australian Soprano Dame Nellie Melba’s performance of Lohengrin at Covent Garden in London. Melba was born in Melbourne Australia and is probably our only international Victorian era celebrity (here is a link to Melba singing Sempre Libera which I recommend you listen too while simmering peaches – she sounds a little like she is being boiled herself!).
Escoffier’s original receipe for Peach Melba is really easy to make. Peach halves are boiled in water for about 2 minutes, one peach per person.
Once the peaches are removed from the water it is easy to slip off their skins and remove the stone. They are then drained, sprinkled with caster sugar and left to cool.
Make raspberry sauce by pushing a cup full of raspberries through a fine sieve to remove their seeds. Add caster sugar to sweeten the raspberry puree to taste.
To serve place scoops of vanilla ice cream in a dish, add two peach halves and then pour over raspberry puree.
In order to make this an authentic Escoffier dish you need to serve this in individually carved ice swans but this has never happened in my household. Escoffier recommends serving in a silver dish if your swan carver is on holiday.
There are heaps of versions of this recipe on the internet and most of them boil the peaches in sugar syrup. This is OK if you like sweet peaches. I prefer Escoffier’s original recipe because I like the tart peaches with the sweet ice cream and tart-ish raspberry.
It must be possible to make this dessert look really elegant but I find mine always looks like a train smash! This is not up to Victorian standard but still tastes extremely yummy.
A Buttonhole for Australia Day
On the 26th of January 1888 all the colonies of Australia celebrated ‘Anniversary Day’ for the very first time. This date marked the 100th anniversary of the First Fleet arriving at Sydney Cove and the beginning of colonial Australia. In 1888 the colony of Victoria (the State where I live) was only 50 years old. The separate colonies of Australia did not come together as a federation until 1 January 1901 only 21 days before the end of Victoria’s reign.
In modern Australia we celebrate (possibly too strong a word) Australia Day with a national public holiday, a day off work and a barbeque. It is a Nationalists festival that we have become somewhat embarrassed about as our indigenous country men and women refer to the day as ‘Invasion Day’. Back in 1888 colonialism was still cool, Victoria was on her throne and all was right with the World.
I decided this morning that in order to capture some of that 1888 gusto we would have buttonholes to wear at dinner tonight and that the appropriate buttonholes for today would be made of only Australian native plants.
Slim pickings in the garden so we have two identical buttonholes for the Master and Mistress. They are made from Pittosporum and Plectranthus leaves which both last very well out of water. The small white flowers are Lemon- scented Teatree which smells delicious. The purple berries are the fruits from the Flax Lilly which I think would look really nice as a hair decoration; these berries are edible and a great favourite of our chickens.
The final word goes to Melba our diva long before Kylie singing an appropriately smultzy and patriotic “No place like home“. Happy Anniversary Day folks!