Sunshine in a bottle

So, the mandarincello is ready.

After a week of steeping the de-pithed skins in vodka, most of the aromatic volatiles in the skins have migrated into the spirit, giving it a lovely sunny yellow colour and a strong aroma of mandarin.

I made a simple sugar syrup with half a cup of castor (superfine) sugar and half a cup of water, heated gently till the sugar was fully dissolved, and then cooled. I strained the spirit back into the bottle it came in, and then poured out about a quarter cup of the mandarincello to make space for the syrup. At this point, it’s still quite harsh-tasting, with a bitter back-note. Some might like it this way, but I prefer a little more fruity sweetness. So I added a tablespoon of the cooled syrup, shook the bottle gently and then tasted. Not bad, but not quite enough. Another tablespoon, and it was nearly there. So I added a final half tablespoon, and it was spot on. Yum! It both tastes and smells like fresh mandarins.

With the remaining syrup, I added the quarter cup of spirit, to give a mandarin-flavoured syrup with a small amount of alcohol in it. I’ll use this warmed, to pour over a cake, or add lots of soda water and ice for a refreshing drink with only a hint of naughtiness.

Look, give this a try. It’s not rocket science. If you have an excess of lemons, oranges or mandarins, use the skins to make yourself a bottle of sunshine, and in the case of oranges and mandarins, roast the fruit in the oven with a little sugar or honey and water to end up with delicious warm fruit to put on your cereal, yoghurt or icecream. If you don’t grow your own, I’d suggest using organic, non-waxed fruit to avoid adding wax or pesticides to your bottle.

Now, where’s my mandarin cake recipe…?

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When life gives you mandarins…

… make mandarincello 🙂

This is not normally something I’d have considered, but I was doing a bit of gentle fruit-one-upmanship on FaceTime with my brother in the UK, who has a substantial temperate fruit and nut orchard, but no tropical fruit. As well as eating them fresh and freezing juice and pulp, we were debating what best to do with the beautiful fruit on my Ponkan mandarin tree. He suggested the mandarin equivalent of limoncello. Bingo! A double reward, the fruit and the skins!

I went to our local bottle-o (off-licence or liquor store for non-Aussies) and asked for the cheapest, nastiest bottle of vodka they had. (Classically, it should be grappa, but that sort of thing is hard to find in rural north Queensland unless you make your own.) After he’d cracked up a little, the bloke behind the counter wanted to know why. Explanations followed, and I could see he was thinking about doing it himself. Spread the joy….

Anyway, one 750cl bottle of vodka later I selected 5 of the largest, most brilliant orange fruit and peeled them carefully. I took a small, sharp knife and scraped as much of the white pith from the back of the peels without pressing too hard as I didn’t want to lose any of the essential oil. The skins went into a large (possibly too large!) spring-top jar, and the vodka went on top. Into a cool, dark place for at least a week.

I couldn’t resist taking a peek yesterday. Look! The vodka is changing colour already as the essential oils in the skin migrate into the spirit. After a week, the colour will be a brilliant orange and the flavour will be intense, but possibly somewhat bitter. I’ll make a simple sugar syrup with white sugar (I don’t want to use brown as it’ll affect the lovely colour) and add as much as the flavour demands. I don’t want sweet, I just want the edge taken off any bitterness to mellow the flavour. And then into a smaller container with a screw top for storage. Possibly the original cheap and nasty bottle, which is quite a pleasing shape.

And in case you were wondering what I did with the fruit originally enclosed by those peels, I roasted them in the oven with a little water and a sprinkling of sugar. They have softened into a delicious tart and tangy sludge which goes beautifully with Greek yoghurt.

I’ll keep you posted on the progress.

Harvest

This year, it’s the turn of our mandarin tree to go bonkers.

Ponkan Mandarin fruit (Citrus reticulata)

It’s not a surprise, really, it’s a variety that’s well known for fruiting in alternate years. Last year, it was the mangoes that cropped spectacularly, but so far they’re showing no sign of flowering. The mandarin tree is smallish and tucked away in the corner, and I hadn’t even noticed flowers on it. A few months ago, I saw a load of dark green marble-sized fruit on it, and briefly thought “woo hoo!” and then promptly forgot about them again, till just a few weeks ago, when the now much larger fruit started to change colour. Usually, we wait till they start to fall of their own accord or the lorikeets start decimating them before we pick the fruit, but so far, there have been only two windfalls and no bird or fruitbat activity, so we decided to get out there and do battle with the green ants for them.

With green ants in the tree (and boy, are they IN the tree!), there’s a technique for picking the fruit without getting bitten a lot. You take a bucket half filled with water, a pair of long handled loppers and a grabby thing (you know what I mean, the doohickey you use for getting things down off high shelves). You grab the fruit with the grabber, cut it off with the loppers and dump it straight in the bucket of water, which drowns any ants silly enough to have come along for the ride. It sounds elaborate, but is a much more pleasurable experience than having the vicious little buggers run off the fruit, up your sleeve and then bite you hard on parts you can’t get at easily. Repeat till the bucket is full of fruit and water. Once in the kitchen, you remove any leaves and stalks, and then toss the water with the ants outside so the insect-eating birds can have a feed.

The fruits are huge for mandarins (my hands are not particularly small), the skins are very loose and easy to peel, and while there are usually half a dozen pips in each one, the flavour and juiciness is so fresh, intense and wonderful that you really don’t care! I’ve been busily looking up recipes for mandarin gelato, I’ll be making my mandarin syrup cake (minus the apricots) the Husband’ll be taking a couple of these to work in his lunchbox each day for a while, and I may freeze some juice and purée for winter consumption.

And that’s only the first crop. We have at least six more to go 🙂

The Debutante

We have a new member of the Garden Bird Social Scene.

Over the summer, the Bush Stone-Curlews retired to their country manor in the wilds of Chiconia. They’d tried raising a family in the hustle and bustle of bird society near the House, which revolved around the feeder, the water dish and the fruit, seeds and bugs so plentifully available in this vicinity. But it had all proved to be Too Much for Lady Evangeline Bush Stone-Curlew’s nerves, and she and Sir Horace decided to rusticate instead.

Left to right: Sir Horace, Lady Evangeline and the Honourable Henrietta Bush Stone-Curlew, setting out for an evening’s festivities

Imagine our surprise, then when the Bush Stone-Curlews emerged from their pastoral seclusion with a young companion. They are clearly intent on launching their elegant daughter, the Honourable Henrietta Bush Stone-Curlew, into polite bird society, and she made her début yesterday, at the evening assembly that follows the Watering. It is widely acknowledge that this time of day is the prime feeding and territorial displaying moment, so wise bird mamas proudly show off their shy, delicate and sleekly-plumed offspring for the approval of Society. We wish the Honourable Henrietta a successful season and a suitably advantageous match at the end of it.

With apologies to Miss Jane Austen…

An ignominious retreat

Small birds are amazingly courageous.

I’ve often seen a crowd of small and not normally fierce garden birds seeing off a larger potential predator. Today, though, I had to applaud. A pair of Peewees (Grallina cyanoleuca) were relentless in seeing off a large juvenile Brown Goshawk (Accipiter fasciatus), who’d wafted down and had taken up a watching post on the neighbour’s fence. He sat there impassively for a while as they swooped closer and closer, yelling noisily all the while, until finally he leapt into the air, clapped his wings hard a few times, and disappeared into the sky to take his hunting exploits elsewhere.

Sorry about the poor focus – I ran in for my camera and fired off a couple of shots but by the time I’d got the thing properly focused he was already away. Brown Goshawks prey on small birds, but will take larger ones if the opportunity arises. They have large, strong yellow legs and talons, a raptor’s tearing beak and mad, staring yellow eyes under heavy eyebrows. You can tell this one is a juvenile because of the heavier brown splashes on the breast feathers. Adults have finer barring on the feathers there. I’m not at all sure I’d want to mess with one myself, so it’s particularly impressive that the Peewees got rid of him.

Routed. And by a pair of noisy clowns!

Prehistoric creatures

No, not dinosaurs, but a distant relative.

I’m talking about Helmeted Friarbirds (Philemon buceroides). They’re strange, gaunt-looking creatures that give the impression they’d be quite happy flying about on webbed membranes instead of feathered wings. They have large, bony skulls which are strongly reminiscent of pterodactyl heads and are very bold, at times flying up to the screen door at the back of the house and hanging from the mesh while they eye the inhabitants of the room.

There’s a pair which is currently making a point of adorning the car with white splotches while they strut across the windscreen or admire themselves in the wing mirrors. While they’re at this artistic endeavour, we’re treated to their raucous, uninhibited song. I don’t quite know why this is suddenly happening after 3 years in this house, but we appear to be greatly favoured! They’re weird, but I like them 🙂

I just wish they’d keep their, um, offerings to themselves…

Flitting (and riding)

I love that word.

It so beautifully describes the butterfly motion of darting from one thing to another. Which is what I’ve been doing the last week or so, only less beautifully and gracefully 🙂

We’ve been spending some fun time with ST motorbike-owners-club friends from south east Queensland, who are passing through Mackay with their caravan and their Honda ST1300 on the back of the ute. Now that’s a sweet setup! Deep envy, to have both their big motorbike and their caravan along! We’ve done a couple of half day rides with them around the local sights, which has reassured me that I can cope and my back won’t fall apart under the strain when our own time comes to do the big ride south for the bike rally later this year in October. No lavish Miz Lizzie caravan comfort on this trip, it’ll be Rolling Thunder towed behind the Scarlett Thunderbolt, and a tent for a few nights.

We had part of the back yard landscaped and a hard surface put down. We can now get Miz Lizzie under cover without the need for 25-point reversing to get her between the posts of the patio roof. Straight in, bish-bosh, no messing about. Bliss! We can use our new turning circle to get the car in and out in similar style. I have a hard, dry surface to stand on when I hang out the laundry instead of being ankle deep in wet grass and green ants. It will not turn back into a swamp the next time we get a serious amount of rain. Oh my word yes, I love that new surface! And the Husband, let’s face it, is not heartbroken about having less grass to cut…

A few days before the work commenced, Sir Horace and Lady Laetitia Bush Stone-Curlew went off somewhere for several days. We rejoiced in a slightly guilty fashion, but it was very pleasant to have quiet nights, unbroken by their harsh screams. We thought they’d moved on, finding the modest bustle of our back yard insufficiently tranquil for raising this year’s family. Regrettably, they have now returned from their vacation and are back in their original spot, glaring at me every time I set foot outside the back door, and in full song at night. Oh well. At least we didn’t drive them off with the landscaping work…

I’ve been doing some secret sewing for a friend who is visiting from the States. As it’s a secret, I won’t be posting photos till she has it, around the end of the month, but it’s fun, pretty and useful, so I hope she likes it. I’m sure if she doesn’t, she won’t feel compelled to tell me so!

And finally, I’ve got the Blue Hour quilt two thirds assembled, just one big seam and the binding to go, so I’ll be able to do my ‘tah-dah’ post for that soon. And yes, start thinking about my own! I haven’t forgotten that I also have the Sea Glass quilt to sandwich and start quilting, but it’s a big job and as usual, I’m procrastinating furiously…

So while there’s been scant news from Chiconia recently, as you can see, I have not been idle!