The Gardens of Chiconia 51

And now for something a little bit fruity. Again.

The Ducasse banana is looking a little bleary eyed and weary. We had a heavy rain shower the other night and the next couple of rows of flowers copped a bit of a beating. The green ants are all over the bunch as well, so I guess it’s not really a surprise. However, the bananas that have developed are looking good, as you can see.

I had a bit of a revelation the other day. Beside our front gate there is a tree that was attractive but not terribly interesting apart from its pretty leaves. The tops are dark green and glossy, and the underside is golden-amber and slightly felty-feeling. Pretty, eh? For the four years that we’ve lived in this house, said tree did precisely nothing apart from grown half a metre a year.

This year?  It’s covered in bright green golf-ball sized fruit that look like miniature Granny Smith apples. I cut one open to discover a star shaped pattern of seeds inside, but not much else. It wasn’t till the neighbour hung over the fence and asked if I minded him helping himself to some ripe ‘star apples’ from the branches overhanging his side that I got an insight. The green jobs are unripe. When ripe, the skins go a glossy dark reddish purple, as does the flesh inside. It’s sweet, custard-textured and delicious. Of course, none of the fruit on our side is ripe yet, but I tried a bit from Brian’s side…. Anyway, the thing’s called Chrysophyllum cainito, it originated in the West Indies and now grows in tropical regions around the world. The fruit, bark and leaves are supposed to have health benefits, but personally, I’ll be sticking to the fruit.

Assuming Brian Next Door and the hungry birds leave me any, that is… 

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The Gardens of Chiconia 50

Are you sick of bananas yet?

No? Good, because here’s another update. Can you see now how the stem develops?  Between each of those dark red bracts (the petal things) is a row of flower buds, and the bracts open in sequence. Each flower becomes a baby banana, and as they mature, they start to point upwards and flare away from the bracts, leaving space for the next row down to develop.

I watched this afternoon as a Blue-Faced Honey Eater, a Noisy Friarbird and a Yellow Honey Eater all fought for access to the flowers. I took a look at the stem later on, and I could see why: there’s so much nectar it’s dribbling out of the flowers and onto the bract below – you can see it in the photo above. The flowers are looking a bit battered after their attentions, too. The nectar has also brought the green ants in, attracted by the sugar. When the time comes I shall have to blast the fruit with the hose to prevent getting bitten as I cut a hand of bananas away – those ants are very aggressive and the bite is quite painful. I’ll also need to stop them building one of their huge nests in the flower. I won’t be using any chemicals; water will be enough to discourage them.

I’ll wait and see what interesting thing this thing does next!

The Gardens of Chiconia 49

Baby bananas!

The flower bud has started to open, revealing the first row of tiny bananas with flowers at their flower tips. If we’re going to go all technical about it, the whole caboodle is called an inflorescence and those red petal things are bracts. The whole thing opens up in tiers or ‘hands’, layer by layer, and all the hands hanging from the central stalk are called a ‘stem’. When you consider how many bananas there can be on a stem, it’s no surprise that banana plants often need to be propped upright.

Very soon now, I’ll need to put a bag over the whole flower to protect it from birds, possums and fruit bats.

Banana trees aren’t trees at all, they’re a herbaceous flowering plant, and the trunk is the tightly furled stem of all the leaves. Dwarf varieties grow to about 3m, but the really big boys have been known to reach 7m. They’re related remotely to the ginger family, and grow from a corm in a similar way.

But the most fabulous thing I’ve discovered about bananas is that they’re naturally very slightly radioactive! They contain an isotope called Potassium-40, and the baseline radioactivity of bananas is called the BED or Banana Equivalent Dose, which measures radioactivity compared with the dose received by eating one medium sized banana. So, for example, if you were worried by living in an area where the local rock was granite, also a natural radioactivity emitter, you might be told it was safe because you were receiving only as much radioactivity, or less, than a BED.

It certainly isn’t going to stop me eating these lovelies when they’re ripe.

Here endeth the botany lesson…

The Gardens of Chiconia 48

The banana tree has survived the cool snap. When I say “cool”, we went down to 6°C/43°F…

There’s no sign of cold nipping on the blossom, as you can see. This is how it was last time I showed you.

And this is now. It’s grown tremendously in a short time.

That bud is longer than my hand, it’s solid and sculptural, and with luck, there’ll be a good big hand of fruit. It has already begun to droop down to its final dangling position – I shall have to prop the tree, as the hand will be too heavy for the trunk to support. And of course, there’ll be the traditional bag cover, to keep off possums, fruit bats and birds. (I don’t worry about snakes in this particular tree, it’s too close to the house and where we park the car.) Most farmers use plastic now, but I’m going for cloth in the interests of reducing my plastic use.

The mango blossoms have also survived and have begun to set fruit. I wanted to show you have mangoes start off.

Those tiny round green ‘beads’ in the fading blossom are baby mangoes, and they won’t all survive (or we’d all be waist deep in the fruit). Later in the year, the ones that have held on will develop long stalks and start drooping down as they grow larger and heavier. I’ll keep up with what they’re up to and show you.

It’s going to be a bumper year even if only a fraction make it…

The Gardens of Chiconia 47

All is dry and crispy in the Gardens of Chiconia…

Despite that, fruit trees are producing like there’s no tomorrow. Do they know something we don’t? Stress does that to fruit trees, and after one of the driest years on record, all over Queensland the mango trees are in magnificent bloom, dense and colourful. The flowers are a dusty pink, and it makes the trees really stand out. I have three in the garden, and for the first time, my youngest tree is flowering.

I have a Ducasse (sugar) banana tree in a tub. It started life as a sucker from the tree I planted in the old Gardens of Chiconia at our former home. It has grown until it’s well over 2 metres high, and now look!  That pointy pinkish thing in the middle is a flower bud. It means that one day in the not too distant future, there’ll be a whole hand of sugar bananas dangling down. There’s no chance we’ll be able to eat them all ourselves, so friends and relations will be benefiting too. After that, it’ll be all over for the tree, but as chance would have it, there’s a new sucker coming along beside it 🙂 Bananas today, bananas tomorrow…

Now all we need is a week of rain.

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…?

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.