Heirloom Bean Trial – Part 1.

heirloom shell out beans blue shackamaxon

We’re back from our winter blog-cation with a fresh new site and some great new articles. If you’re like us you’ll be scruffing in your seed tin around now thinking about what to grow this season. Why not try growing some dried beans? I know dried beans have a bit of an image problem, well at least for me they do. Memories of student days, flexing aspiring culinary muscles with the help of the “Bean Booklet” from Real Foods in Andersons Bay. Each of the dozen recipes ended up tasting like wet cardboard and making the whole flat windy. I should have known from the squirrel on the front.

But it turns out that dried beans are by no means restricted to poor students and health food, fiber addicts.  A good chunk of the world relies on beans for their primary protein source and what’s more, they know how to make them taste different. So twenty years on I decided to put the trauma of “Black Eye Bean Bake” and “Lazy Lentils” behind me and give beans a chance.

dried beans after soaking

I’m surprised I haven’t grown dried beans before but without a huge demand for them in my kitchen, I could never justify the space in the garden to grow them. Since those early efforts, my bean cuisine has been sadly limited to a handful of recipes that I can make taste good: hummus, chili con Carne, red lentil curry, mums bean salad and a Cannellini bean dip. I’ll even admit to buying canned beans in dubious brines for some of these.

Once I resolved to grow dried beans, they seemed to pop up everywhere. The United Nations declared 2016 “The Year of the Pulse” to celebrate and promote the consumption of pulses around the globe (http://pulses.org/). I have to say it – I have my finger on the pulse. It turns out beans are good for us and the planet. They are low in fat and high in fiber and protein. Half a cup of lentils will give you the same protein as 2 cups of rice. Pulses make you feel full for longer, releasing energy slowly as your body breaks down the complex carbs rather than the quick energy hit you get from simple carbs in sugars.

Beans also take less energy and water to grow and improve soil health. Because they fix nitrogen from the air into the soil, they require less artificial fertiliser, and they grow well in dry conditions, using half the amount of water required to produce animal proteins. But whether a chickpea pattie tastes as good as one of my lamburgers is a matter of opinion, or perhaps skill.

heirloom bean varieties

Before I got carried away with recipes I had to grow the beans. I set aside two garden beds and with the help of Mark Christensen, Research Director at the Heritage Food Crops Research Trust, I selected 13 dried or “shell out” bean varieties to grow. Mark sent me some of the climbing bean varieties that the Research Trust imported from North America. I added a selection of “good beans” given to me by different folks and a few common bush varieties used for dried beans to round out the trial.

RT, Research Trust, HC, Heathers Collection, EG, Egmont Seeds.

Climbing Beans

  • Persian Climbing Lima (RT)
  • Good Mother Stallard (RT)
  • Indian Hannah (RT)
  • Blue Shackamaxon (RT)
  • Ian’s French Tarbais (HC)
  • Ron’s Factory Bean (HC)
  • Rex & Margie’s Bean (HC)

Bush Beans

  • Red Kidney (EG)
  • Dwarf Haricot (RT)
  • Dwarf Cannelini (RT)
  • Soy Bean (Kiwi #8) (EG)
  • Mexican Pinto (HC)
  • Borlotti Red Rooster (EG)


Beans like a warm soil. Here in Nelson, I sowed them directly into the garden in early November. Don’t be tempted to plant beans too early. If the soil is too cold, they will sit there and rot, or germinate and decide against climbing anywhere then by the time the soil is warm, they’ve exhausted all their energy just surviving, and they give up.

sowing dried beans

Climbing beans need a good frame to run up, and we could devote a whole article to discussing the many and varied bean fence designs. I opted for reinforcing mesh secured with 2m high stakes. Spacing for beans varies but as a guide sow climbing beans around 25 cm apart and bush bean 15 cm apart.

Beans are relatively free of pests and diseases and don’t need a lot of spraying. Just keep an eye out for the usual suspects – aphids, vege bugs and caterpillars. I’ve had years of trouble free bean growing but just because I was doing a trial I got a mystery affliction in my beans. Not long after germination, the leaves of several varieties started yellowing and crinkling and the tips were dying off and refusing to run or bush anywhere. With no obvious knawing or sucking pests, I was at a loss to know the problem. It looked like bean mosaic virus but I never got to the bottom of it. It reduced the yield of the affected varieties, but I still got a harvest. I gave them a spray with an organic seaweed-based formula being trialed to combat the PSA virus and they seemed to pick their toes up.

Heirloom Beans

The Varieties

  • Of the climbing beans, the Persian Lima was the most vigorous, disease resistant and prolific and was still flowering well into winter. The flat pods looked more like mangetout and I doubted whether they would make a good dried bean.
  • Good Mother Stallard came highly recommended by Mark and it proved as robust and abundant as its homely name suggested. The beans looked remarkably like Borlotti.
  • I grew the large white French bean, Tarbais a few years ago but the remaining seed I had didn’t germinate, and I’m annoyed at myself for losing this one.
  • Factory Beans were green, stringless beans grown for the canning factory in Motueka, but the fat white seeds suggested they might make a nice dried bean.
  • The same goes for the bean that Rex and Margie from Maerawhiti gave my Dad, the plump, stripey, coffee colored seeds looked delicious.
  • Blue Shackamaxon I wanted to grow just for the name, but it proved to be a good late harvest bean with pods full of black, glossy seeds.
  • The Indian Hannah climbing bean is an ancient mix of varieties traditionally grown together by the Lenape/Delaware Indian Nation.
  • Of the bush beans the Dwarf Haricot and Cannelini had a poor strike, and the Soy Beans produced a very small crop, but the Red Kidney, Borlotti Red Rooster, and Mexican Pinto all produced well.

In next week’s blog, I’ll share the results of the all-important taste test, together with how to harvest and store dried beans and some more bean cuisine – stay tuned.

White Peach Iced Tea Cordial

homemade peach iced tea-01

Bottled fruit is handy. For a quick fruit pudding, fruit flavoured yogurt or jazzing up the muesli, a jar of bottled fruit makes a great homemade fast food. But the average family, if there is such a thing, doesn’t eat their weight in bottled fruit each year like they used to. Tastes change, the world is no longer black and white and we are spoilt for choice on the food front. Breakfast has moved on from weet bix or kornies and dessert is no longer crumble or custard. My own house is no exception, so although I still do a few jars of bottled fruit each summer, I also scan around for new ways to use the fruit coming in from our orchard.

As well as dehydrating fruit, in recent summers I’ve been experimenting with fruit cordials. Some of you might remember last summer’s Women’s Institute Plum Cordial which went down very well.  This summer I’ve made another version of this with lemons which is even better and I’ve used the bounty from a little white fleshed peach tree to make this White Peach Iced Tea Cordial which is just gorgeous.white peach iced tea recipe

I’ve always liked the idea of making my own drinks for flavour, health and economy. I don’t know if anyone else has noticed the rise in “healthy” drinks on the market in recent years. Drinks marketed as natural, refreshing, energy rich, organic, vitamin enriched, fruits of the sun in a bottle etc.  As we’ve demonised mainstream fizzy soda drinks, these so-called health beverages have jumped up to take their place – but look again folks. Don’t be fooled by the green wrapping – some of these drinks have the same sugar content as the ones they are supposed to replace.  I bet you’d be surprised to know that Phoenix Apple & Feijoa has the same sugar content per 100mls that a can of Coke has. Same goes for a bottle of All Good Blood Orange.  Who knew?

heirloom white peach

Peach Iced Tea is another favourite with my niece and a 500ml bottle of this contains 7 teaspoons of sugar, not as much as Coke, but still more than the recommended total daily allowance for an adult. So my recipe for homemade White Peach Iced Tea cordial delivers a lovely peachy drink with a lot less sugar.  If you made it at kid strength 1:5 (strong) you’d still be getting 40% less sugar and a pleasant adult strength mix of 1:10 is 80% less sugar than the peach iced tea you will get from the supermarket.  I’ve put a shot of it into my water bottle today and it is really lovely.

RECIPE – makes approx 3 liters of cordial concentrate

  • Put 3kg peaches in a large heavy bottomed pan and cover with water.
  • Add the zest of 4 lemons.
  • Cook the peaches and zest on a medium heat until they are completely mushy.
  • Strain the peaches overnight through cotton cheesecloth.
  • For every 1 LTR. of juice add 500 grams of sugar
  • Add
    • juice of 4 lemons
    • 35 grams of powdered citric acid
    • 200 mls strong black tea
  • Bring to the boil
  • Cool and bottle in clean screw top bottles
  • Store in the refrigerator
  • You can also freeze in plastic containers and thaw as required.

Saving Tomato Seeds & Kicking Sauce

saving tomato seed

The late summer harvest from the garden is starting to pile into the kitchen and now is a great time to save some seeds from the pick of your tomato crop.  This season I grew a load of new varieties that folks have given me over the past couple of seasons, varieties that all came highly recommended and got duly tucked away in my seed tin to grow “one day”.

It turns out that they came highly recommended for good reason.  Now I am at the harvest end of the season I can see exactly why those who gifted me the seeds were so impressed by these tomatoes. Each has something different to offer and I will be saving the seeds, growing them again and sharing them with fellow gardeners.

This year’s tomato hall of fame includes:

  • Pauls Crinkly – a whopping big meaty tomato from Paul and it is crinkly.
  • Romano’s Capri – an Italian heirloom called Capri that has been grown by the Romano family in Nelson since the 1920’s. Superb flavour and very fleshy.
  • Bobs Low Acid Beauty – from Bob who makes the cider presses – very similar to and may well be Capri but bigger.
  • Oak Canning Factory – from a chap who’s name I sadly can’t remember – his Dad used to grow these in Papakura in the 60s for the Oak Canning Factory – a fascinating bush tomato that grows on the ground like a nest and is chokka with round red toms – very disease resistant and compact
  • Bruce Leopold’s Jersey Island – from Bruce who said it was prolific and he was right – smaller tomatoes in perfect trusses of up to 16 fruit from tip to toe of the plant.

Capri Tomato

I’ve learnt the hard way that when someone gives you some seed, get all the info you can about it then and there. It is often the only time you will have with this person and a valuable chance to find out the story behind the treasure they’re giving you.  Write it down so you can pass it on with the seed when you share it.

Oak Canning Factory Tomato

Tomato seeds are easy to save. Make sure you’re saving seed from an open-pollinated heirloom variety, not a modern hybrid as these won’t grow true from seed. Hybrids are crosses between different varieties and generally have F1 or similar after the name on the seed packet.  Heirlooms are not created by crossing varieties and therefore, they will grow true from saved seed.

Tomato flowers generally don’t cross-pollinate with other varieties so it usually doesn’t matter if you’re growing a lot of different varieties close together. If you want to be extra careful you don’t get a natural hybrid (ie. a bee cross-pollinating between two different varieties) put a piece of cotton muslin loosely over a bunch of unopened flowers and secure it with a rubber band. When the flowers open, give them a bit of a shake to move the pollen around each day inside the cloth and then wait to see you have fruit forming. This will guarantee pure seeds to save.

Jersey Island Tomatoes

To save the tomato seeds squeeze them out onto a saucer, separate most of the pulp and scrape the seeds into a jar with 1/2 a cup of water in it. Sit the jar somewhere warm out of the sun for a few days until a film starts to form on the top.  This film shows the seeds have started to ferment. Fermenting your seeds isn’t essential but it gets rid of the gel coating on the seed which can stop germination. These fermented seeds are cleaner, store better and grow better so it is worth a little faffing around.

Pour the water off carefully and add fresh water. Swish it around and pour it off again. The good seeds will sink and any you pour off any bad seeds and pulp. Keep doing this until you have clean seeds then dry them carefully on paper towels and when they’re completely dry store them in sealed containers in the fridge. Don’t forget to label the seeds during the different stages of saving them so you know who is who.  Tony Romano who gave me the Capri seeds said he stores his seed in the fridge and has been able to germinate seeds that are over 20 years old.

chilli tomato sauce

Making the tomato sauce is a bit of an annual ritual in my kitchen. The ingredients list is long and so is the cooking time so you kind of make a day of it.  Once a year in late summer when I’ve had enough tomatoes on toast, I start collecting up the tomatoes for this sauce that will last all year. This isn’t fancy passata tomato sauce for all those lovely Italian pizza, pasta, polenta dishes. This is old school, dip your sav in, tomato sauce.  So old school I won’t even call it ketchup. This recipe has evolved over a few years into its current form and is universally loved by everyone who tries it – everyone who loves food with a bit of a kick that is – it is a bit fiery.  If you’re making it for kids or prefer a milder version, leave out or halve, the chili, mace, ginger, smoked paprika, garlic, mustard and black pepper.


  • 6kg of really ripe tomatoes
  • 4 red peppers de-seeded and roughly chopped
  • 6 medium white onions roughly chopped
  • 3 cups wine vinegar (red or white)
  • 2 cups raw sugar
  • 3 tablespoons non-iodised salt
  • 3 fresh red chilies or 1 tablespoon dried chili flakes
  • 1 whole bulb of garlic peeled and chopped
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons ground mustard powder
  • 1 tablespoon ground allspice
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons celery seeds
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon mace
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • zest of one lemon

tomato chilli sauce


  • Prepare your bottles. I save up glass bottles with nice wide lids for my sauce. Only save bottles with metal or cork lids. Plastic lids tend to melt when you sterilize them with boiling water.  You’ll want around 5-6 liters worth of bottles ready – if you like a thicker sauce you’ll only need around 4 liters worth of bottles.  Just add up the mls of each bottle on the calculator as you clean them. Clean the bottles in warm soapy water, rinse in clean water, drain and put them in a meat dish ready to go into the oven to be sterilized.  Wash the lids in the same way and put them in a pot of water to be boiled.
  • Wash and roughly chop the tomatoes, removing the green hard bits at the stalk, and put them in a large (8-10ltr) heavy bottomed stainless steel pot
  • In a food processor whiz together the garlic, chilies, onions and red peppers until they form a chunky salsa (that’s a consistency, not a dance)
  • Grind the spices if you’re using whole spices.
  • Add the red pepper mixture and all other ingredients to the tomatoes and cook it over a low heat until the tomatoes break down, stirring often with a heavy wooden spoon so it doesn’t stick on the bottom.
  • After 3 hours of gentle simmering and occasional stirring, run the whole mixture through a mouli using the middle sized plate – you don’t want it too smooth.  If you don’t have a mouli you can put a sieve over a pot and push the sauce through with the wooden spoon but do think about getting a mouli – they make short work of jobs like this and you can usually pick one up in a second-hand store.
  • You can turn the oven on now to 70°C to sterilize your bottles and put the lids in a pot of water to boil on the stove. Turn it off once it has boiled.
  • Return the sauce to the pot, increase the heat and stir it more often until it is as thick as you want it.  This is when it can burn so do perch next to the pot.   To test if it is thick enough, put a spoonful on a clean plate and push your finger through it. If it leaves a line it is getting thick enough, if lots of liquid still runs around the plate it has a way to go.  As a rule, I’ve found reducing the strained sauce by a further third is about right – or a further 2 hours cooking time.  Be patient – no-one likes a runny sauce. The sauce also changes to a deeper red as it thickens.  If you bottle it when it is too thin it is not the end of the world – you can redo it – you just need to wash the bottles again.
  • When you’re happy with the thickness, get the lids on the boil again, remove sauce from the heat, take the bottles out of the oven, drain the water from the lids and without mucking around fill the bottles through a funnel to within 2cm of the top. Screw the lids on each bottle as  you go – wipe the necks with a kitchen towel before you put the lids on if they have sauce on them.   Doing this quickly while bottles, sauce and lids are all still hot is important – use some oven gloves or cloths so you don’t burn yourself on the bottles.
  • Sit the bottles on a wooden chopping board to cool, they can crack if you bang them down on a ceramic benchtop – label them then store in a cool, dark pantry for use throughout the year.  The sugar and vinegar are preservatives so you don’t need to keep it in the fridge.

heirloom tomato seeds


Growing and Harvesting Figs

Italian Black Fig

When I moved to Nelson a decade ago I didn’t know my fig from my finger, figuratively speaking. They were in the same category as prunes with notions of purgative medicinal properties that didn’t flick my switch at all. Little did I know I’d soon be growing and enthusing about both of them.

My fig education began on a late summer field trip to the magical Mariri garden of George Christofski. I probably only spent an hour trailing along behind George with the other visitors, but my eyes were opened forever to the wonders of figs. George had over 50 fig trees and generously plucked fruit for us to taste as we toured the property. Succulent, sun-ripened figs were a revelation and an absolute opposite to the dried brown gritty discs I had previously known.


The good news is that figs do well in frost-free parts of the country with warm summers. Years that we enjoy a long hot summer produce the best crops, as the main harvest for most varieties is in those mellow late summer months. Some varieties also produce an early harvest in December and January, known as a breba crop, which grows from small green fruit that have wintered over on the tree. These first figs don’t usually have the same succulent flavour as the late summer ones but they also tend to be impressively large. I like to use them for a savoury fig and red onion jam that is perfect with blue cheese.

bird protection on figs

The bad news is that birds love figs and over the years I’ve employed various strategies to get that perfect tree-ripened fig. Netting your complete tree is best, but easier said than done if it is a large one. In the past, I have made little hankies of fine mesh and tied them over each fruit. This season I used latex gloves with the fingers cut out for ventilation, but I like Sheryn Clothier’s idea of using little zip-lock bags over each fruit with a few holes in them. Bags would make it easier to see which ones are ripe, and I’ll be trying it next season.

Adriatic Figs-01

There are many varieties of fig tree on the market and you are best to find ones growing well in your area before selecting a variety to plant.  Here are some general pointers on three of the main families:

  • As a rule, the purple skinned figs with the red flesh known as Malta types do well in warmer climates. They have smaller fruit, ripen mid to late season and some will continue ripening after you pick them. Their flavour is spicy and sweet and they also dry very well.
  • The Sugar Fig varieties are squat with green to brown skin and yellow to pink flesh. They produce an early crop, do well in cooler climates and are very sweet and luscious.
  • Adriatic Fig varieties are green skinned with cherry red flesh. The fruit is longer and firmer than Sugar Figs. They ripen later and have magnificent flavour when fully ripe. They need a long summer to reach full ripeness.

Since that first visit to George’s figs, I’ve planted two of his favourite varieties, his Macedonian Fig and his Black Italian (photo top). Both are doing well and the Black Italian is in the warmest most sheltered spot I could find for it. Also, a Prestons Prolific which lives up to its name and has an impressive early crop and an existing large tree which I think is an Adriatic variety and I have practised fig pruning strategies on it.

Prestons Prolific Fig

Fig trees can become large but they take pruning very well provided you follow a few key rules:

  • Do major pruning late winter before the sap is flowing and paint all large cuts with anti-fungal pruning paint.
  • If you are trying to reduce and reinvigorate an old overgrown tree only remove a third of the old wood each winter until you have the tree back in shape.
  • Main crop fruit is borne on current season’s growth for most varieties, so annual pruning ensures vigour and continual new fruiting growth coming on.
  • You can either shorten branches back to a node where it will heal or you can remove branches entirely at the base of the tree to encourage new shoots, a bit like berries.
  • The later approach does keep the tree low and able to be netted more easily and it is becoming more popular to trellis or espalier these multi-stem figs.
  • If you already have a single trunk and you’re just shortening branches to encourage new growth try and keep the canopy open by thinning complete branches and removing excessive side shoots. Don’t snip off all the end buds as this is where the fruit forms!

They have aggressive root systems so don’t plant next to drains, vege gardens or paving.  They will seek out good earth and water from some distance.

Two of my favourite ways of eating fresh figs are with runny honey and yogurt and in a salad with mint and basil leaves. And yes, they do have one of the highest fibre counts of any fruit so they are deserving of their reputation.


Fig Salad


Make Your Own Glacè Cherries

how to make glace cherries

Eight years ago I planted a sour cherry tree, actually, I planted three sour cherry trees, a Richmorency a North Star and a Montmorency. I didn’t plant any sweet cherry trees like normal people – just sour ones. Someone told me they were high in something that was beneficial. They are apparently good for helping you sleep and have strong anti-inflammatory properties.

richmorency sour cherry tree

All I know is that they grew prolifically, cropped heavily early each summer and tasted terrible. A couple of years ago I cut out the Montmorency and North Star because, like all aspiring home orchardists, I planted everything far too close together and after all, these trees were only feeding the birds.

sour cherry

I’m not sure why I kept the one tree, probably because it was a nice shape. Anyway, this summer it had a spectacular crop – just too spectacular to let the birds eat – so for the first time I decided to do something with them. Sour cherries are a culinary fruit. They are prized in North America for cherry pie and cherry jam, but I had something else in mind for them. Sour needs sweet and I wanted to have a crack at the age-old culinary art of glacè fruit.

My sour little fruit needed all the sugar they could get and with a bit of research I established that to glacè is to basically replace all the moisture in the fruit with a sugar syrup. It is a gradual process, undertaken over a series of days. By soaking the fruit in an ever-increasingly strong bath of sugar syrup, you firm and extract the juice from the flesh without losing the flavor, drying or crystallising it. If you do it right you are left with a perfectly preserved plump specimen – a bit like taxidermy for fruit.

homemade glace cherries

This method of preserving dates back centuries and enabled summer fruits to be stored for use at special occasions throughout the year. The technique, also known as candied fruits, was used for lemons, oranges, and even roses as well as cherries.

At this time of year, in particular, the glacè cherry gets a good workout in the kitchen. It is literally the cherry on top and inside our panforte, stollen, cassata, panettone and of course, the traditional Christmas cake. But if you take a look at the ingredients list of your average glacè cherry these days you’ll find an impressive array of preservatives and coloring that take it a fair way away from a piece of fruit steeped in sugar. In fact, I think the glacè cherries I found lurking in my spice cupboard from last Christmas could probably survive a nuclear winter.

In our current anti-sugar food climate glacè fruit is possibly not the most popular subject to be writing about but I’m sure the medicinal values of my sour cherries will balance things out – a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down right?

Glace Cherries Homemade

Now I don’t expect many people to do this at home, but I was so impressed with the results I have to share the method with you. We did a taste test at the end between the store bought ones and the homemade ones and the homemade ones won by a country mile. They were bursting with flavor while the store bought ones tasted like vanilla essence coated in vegetable oil.

Two Tips:

  1. Do a reasonable quantity – you don’t want to go to all that trouble for a small jar of finished glacè cherries.
  2. Try and source sour cherries that are ripe but still firm fleshed. You don’t want over-ripe, or very sweet fruit to start with.

how to make glace cherries

1-kilo cherries

400 g sugar (and more to strengthen the syrup each day)

  • Remove the stalks and wash the cherries in cold water. Remove the stones with a cherry pitter.
  • Put the cherries in a saucepan and pour enough boiling water over to cover them and cook for 2 minutes, just to soften the skins.
  • Drain through a colander, reserving the cooking water and rinse the cherries straight away under cold water in the colander until the fruit has cooled. This stops them softening.
  • Add the sugar to the cooking water and bring it to the boil, stirring so the sugar dissolves.
  • Put the cherries in a large flat pan, pour the sugar mixture over them and leave for 24  hours.

Day 2

  • Drain the cherries, measure the syrup and add 50 g of sugar for every pint of syrup. Heat the syrup to dissolve the sugar. Pour over the fruit in the tray and leave for 24 hours.

Day 3 – 7

  • Repeat Day 2- adding 70 g of sugar for every pint of syrup.

Day 8

  • Drain the cherries, measure the syrup, add 40 g of sugar for every 100 ml of syrup.
  • Bring the syrup to a boil to dissolve the sugar then add the cherries and boil for 2 minutes, return to the tray for 24 hours.

Day 9

  • Repeat Day 8

Day 10

  • Heat the syrup gently to release the fruit then drain the cherries from the syrup. Keep the syrup for use in cordials, desserts, cocktails or just drizzle it over ice cream or spoon a little through yogurt.
  • Lay the cherries on a sheet of baking paper and dry them in a warm airy place until they are no longer sticky (change the paper and turn as required) OR if you have a food dehydrator place the cherries on the mesh tray and dry for several hours on the lowest temperature setting, checking them regularly. You don’t want to overdry them or dry them too quickly. If they start wrinkling stop the dehydrator and air dry them.
  • There is probably enough sugar in them to store them in a jar on a cool shelf, but I’ve put my jars in the fridge to be on the safe side.

glace cherries - how to make



The first crop of pine nuts from the edible Christmas tree.

pine nut cracking

It is a bit of a kiwi tradition to cut down a pine tree for Christmas. Wayward roadside seedling pines that have been minding their own business all year suddenly start vanishing. The smell of pine needles does make the house feel like Christmas, unless you are allergic, in which case they make the house feel like one big sneeze. But instead of chucking the tree out after the big day, how about a living pine tree that could go on to produce edible pine nuts for years to come?

There are a number of varieties of pine tree that have edible kernels but Pinus pinea, European stone pine, is the one I’m growing. It has a really tidy little mop top when young and I think it would make a wonderful Christmas tree that you could plant out afterwards rather than throw away.

pine nut conesA year ago I took a wander down to a corner of the property I don’t visit very often. It is a boggy shady spot that we planted out around 6 or 7 years ago. I spotted shiny green pine cones peeping out of the needles of the lone pine nut tree planted in among the natives and other edibles. Pine nut trees take around 6 years before they set their first nuts, so the timing was bang on.

Scooting back inside to look up when I could pick them, I was already concocting visions of homegrown pesto later in the summer when the basil came on. But google told me my hard little green pine cones were 2 years in to a three-year journey to maturity, so I had another year to wait.how to grow pinenuts

Nine or ten years from planting may sound like a long time to wait when you’re thinking about planting edibles, but if you just plant it and forget about it, it’s like getting an unexpected Christmas present when you find them suddenly producing.

So one year on I paid the trees another visit and sure enough the tight green cones had bulked out into lovely large chestnut brown cones that were ready to harvest. I couldn’t have been more chuffed.

Pine nuts trees are as tough as old boots and grow anywhere a Radiata pine tree will grow and they get to the same size too! They don’t need a pollinator so you can get away with having one tree if space is an issue.


growing pine nuts

I dislodged the cones with a pole saw and carried them back to the house to dry in an old soil sieve propped up in the sunny front porch. Apparently you need to harvest them before they open or the nuts will fall out or get eaten. Sure enough, the cones popped open to release the pine nuts after a week or two. When I say released, I mean the cones opened. The pine nuts were still locked away in tight little cases that defied all conventional cracking methods. A pair of pliers and a good movie proved the most effective extraction method.

how to open pinenuts

I think these living Christmas trees are so much better than a plastic Christmas tree, or a live one that you just throw away – and think of the pesto! I will admit that cracking them is a labour of love, but the sappy fresh cones, placed in bowls, will fill the house with the smell of Christmas. And any festive visitors who ask “anything I can help you with?” can be set to work with a pair of pliers.

pine nut cracking

I was surprised at how many nuts the one tree produced from its first harvest. I’ve got another row of pine nut trees that will start producing in another year or two so I might have to come up with a better way of cracking them. Any suggestions?

So before you rush out and get yourself a plastic Christmas tree or a one use radiata job – think about buying a pinenut tree for your living room this Christmas then plant it out and in a decade or so you’ll be picking your own pinenuts too – by then I will have worked out how to crack them for you.

pinenut tree



Festive Fare – 30 Minute Mustard Pickle & Best Ever Spicy Nuts!

spicy nut recipe

Hi, Jess here this week – sharing some festive fare! We like nibbly things here at Country Trading – lets face it, who doesn’t? We’re also big fans of making and receiving homemade gifts. Putting the two together makes for a tasty Christmas! We are all busy at this time of year, so it is nice to have a few things up your sleeve that don’t take long to make, taste great and make great gifts.

I remember a couple of years ago I decided to make mustard pickle to give out at Christmas. Being the good kiwi girl that I am, I reached straight for the Edmonds book. It had me chopping up bags of veggies, making a brine, soaking them overnight and then the next day, bottling them. It took forever and by the time I put it in jars, I was pretty much over it. Also, it was the saltiest thing you have ever tasted so was totally inedible, even for my husband, who loves salt!

30 minute mustard pickle

I mentioned my tale of woe to my Dad (who is an excellent pickle maker) expecting him to be able to give me some ancient wisdom on where I went wrong. Instead, he said “Why didn’t you make MY mustard pickle recipe? It only takes 30 minutes and is really tasty” Why indeed? Perhaps because I didn’t actually HAVE his recipe! Once he gave it to me I was eager to give it a go and true to his word, it is a delicious pickle that is ready to bottle in under 30 mins.

My Dad sometimes makes this to take home to our big family Christmas celebrations and with him having seven sisters who all have partners and kids, that’s a lot of people! We can devour the lot in one sitting – it’s perfect with cheese, crackers and cold meats.

30 minute pickle recipe

In Heather’s household, Andrew likes to make a Spicy Nut blend that are always a hit! They are fiery and moreish, keep well in jars and are another great thing to have on hand during the silly season for emergency gifts or emergency snack attacks! You can use any mixture of spices and any mixture of nuts so it can really suit any taste!

In Geraldine’s family, Christmas was most commonly spent outdoors, tramping their way through the silly season. Christmas dinner was usually cooked in the D.O.C hut or on the campfire and she can remember it always being a treat making the packet of powdered Continental cheesecake mix up for Christmas pudding!

Dad’s Mustard Pickle

Preparation Time 15 mins
Cooking time 10 mins
Makes 6-8 Jars.

You can chop the vegetables as finely as you like to take it from something that spreads nicely on sandwiches to practically a vegetable side dish. You can use white or malt vinegar to make it, white will give you a milder flavour and a yellower pickle.


1 Cucumber
1 Small Cauliflower
300g Onions

1T Mustard Powder
1C Sugar
2t Salt
600ml Vinegar
2t Tumeric
1/2t Curry powder
6T Plain Flour.


  1. Chop vegetables into small cubes then place in a large pot with enough water to cover.
  2. Bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes then drain.
  3. Blend the thickener ingredients together then add to the drained vegetables.
  4. Bring back to the boil and simmer for another 5 minutes until thickened
  5. Bottle in Sterilised jars and seal.


Spicy Nuts

This recipe is based around peanuts (which are nice and cheap). The egg white loosens the glucose syrup so it coats the nuts easily.


1T Glucose syrup (tried honey but it burns)
1 egg white (maybe two depending on the size of the eggs)
500g blanched peanuts. (skins would burn)
500g of other mixed nuts to make up to about a kilo in total. Break up brazil nuts into smaller pieces. I usually add a few hazels, cashews, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. The seeds seem to add a nice sweetness.
Spices to taste. Create a hot curry mix or chilli to keep the kids out. A total of around 4 teaspoons (less if using cayenne). You don’t actually need spices at all if you prefer them plain. Our favourite mix is 1 t coriander, 1 t cumin, 1/2 t cayenne, 1 t curry powder.
Salt to taste


  1. Mix the glucose and egg white in a large bowl till slightly frothy.
  2. Add spices and mix.
  3. Add all the nuts and mix till coated well. It’s best to keep adding nuts till the coating stops pooling at the bottom as it works better if there isn’t a lot of liquid left over.
  4. Place baking paper on probably 3 trays. Use a slotted spoon to spread the nuts on the trays thinly, one nut deep, gaps are OK. Sprinkle with some salt if preferred.
  5. Place in an oven at 140°C for up to 30 minutes taking care not to let them change colour. This process is just drying them so I often turn the oven off at 20 minutes and leave them in there till cool. Store in air tight containers and they keep OK for a couple of weeks.

Mutton Dressed up as Ham

air drying macon

camp oven roast

When it comes to festive feasting, I’ll admit mutton is not high on most folks lists of foodie treats. No mutton will take pride of place in the Cuisine Christmas issue. Master Chef won’t set a mutton challenge and you won’t see adverts to “Order your Christmas Mutton Now” in your local butchers this month. In fact outside the pet food aisle, you will be hard pressed to find anywhere selling mutton.

What a crime in a country that is built on a solid foundation of mutton roasts (and gravy). Why has mutton fallen from our tables and into our pet bowls? Ask most New Zealanders about mutton and they will either look at you blankly or tell you that it is tired, old, greasy meat and they’d rather have prawns or a chicken kebab. But you know, if you’d told me beards and homebrew, sorry – craft beer, were cool a couple of years ago, I’d have sent you off for your cardy and slippers. So don’t rule out mutton. It is made of tough stuff (literally).

some of our breeding ewes

For the last decade I’ve kept a small flock of 30 or so sheep and in that time I’ve come to understand and appreciate mutton. In that time, I’ve also become mutton although my husband tells me I’m still a two tooth in his eyes (not lamb then, hey ho).

Lamb is usually slaughtered at around 6 months old or less, whereas mutton has seen at least two summers and is in its third year of life or more before meeting its maker. The meat has had time to develop a rich flavour and texture that is infinitely more interesting than bland lamb. Good mutton is meat with character, from animals in the prime of their life. I can identify with that. Perhaps I’ll get a T-Shirt “Mutton and Proud” or “Mutton Dressed up as Nothing”.

And I’m not alone in my mutton love. Many foodies favour mutton to lamb. In his excellent book “River Cottage Meat”, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall states, “mutton is to lamb what beef is to veal” which sums it up perfectly. In the taste stakes there is no comparison between a 3 year old whether mutton (castrated ram) and new season lamb.

Eating lamb is actually a relatively new practice. Until we fell in love with wearing polyester and nylon, no farmer would dream of killing sheep in their infancy and deprive themselves years of good income from the wool of a living animal. But when demand for wool decreased, the quicker the meat could be sold the more profitable it was for the farmer. And so we started eating lamb.

mutton ham

The rise of lamb and demise of mutton matches the rise in the pace of western life and the demise of that balance that we’re now off busy looking for. Downing tools to cook a joint of meat for 5 hours, roast veggies and make gravy became a rarity rather than a ritual and sadly there are few 2-minute mutton recipes. But just like beards and beer, all things come around again and mutton, for a number of reasons, is a meat on the up and up.

An increasing number of us value a bit of slow – be it slow farmed, slow grown, slow aged or slow cooked. Slow food is the new fast food. We also attach a bit more value to “free” these days too – free range, cruelty-free and preservative free. And finally fat is back. Who hasn’t sat next to some paleo/primal fat eating convert recently extolling the virtues of good fats from grass fed meat? (They’d put mutton fat in their coffee given half a chance).

Anyway, mutton ticks all these boxes and author Bob Kennard agrees with me. Bob ran an organic meat business in Wales, together with his wife, for over 20 years. His excellent book, “Much Ado About Mutton” is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the history and development of one of our great meats around the world. I shared some emails with Bob about his book, mutton, and recipes and I got the distinct impression from him that there is a slow but steady revival of interest in mutton in the UK, spearheaded by direct farm sales, traditional butchers, and farmers markets.

mutton ham

One of the things we corresponded about in particular was cured mutton in the form of mutton hams and macon (mutton bacon). Mutton ham was quite common in New Zealand before we had cheap imported pork for cured hams and bacon. I remember mutton ham, cut thick in a sandwich with Mums piccalilli and fresh white bread and butter. Bob mentioned a recipe for macon he had come across in the George Orwell diaries from 1940 which made for interesting reading – seems they didn’t have cheap Danish pork then either.

Not being short of good mutton, I decided to make a mutton ham. At just over 8lbs, my leg of mutton needed just over 3 weeks of curing, allowing for 3 days curing per pound of meat. Once done, I boiled it up like a cooked ham and it was similar to a good pickled pork or piece of beef silver-side. It wasn’t rosy pink because I didn’t use the nitrates – just sugar and salt – but the flavour was excellent and it got the “make again” seal of approval from everyone who ate it. The two photos above show the results and the full recipe is in Bob’s book.  But I wasn’t done yet.

air drying macon

While the mutton ham effort was encouraging, I was more interested in exploring macon. I’ve been curing bacon from belly pork for some years now without the use of nitrates. But it is really hard to find free range pork here and I think you can’t be half ethical about these things. Why make preservative free bacon from factory farmed pork?

Encouraged by Bob and George, I had a crack at macon using the sheep equivalent of pork belly – mutton flaps. While pork belly is revered, mutton flaps are feared and are possibly the most unfashionable part of an already unfashionable animal. But they are just misunderstood and mistreated. A badly cooked mutton flap is like trying to chew roast innertube spread with grease. Well cooked, they will see-off the best pork belly. I love them sliced and basted with mustard and oil then roasted for a crispy snack with a cold beer – I think that was another River Cottage recipe.


I’ve made this a couple of times now and it astounds me how good it tastes and how simple it is. The first time I made it I cured and smoked it and it was gorgeous. The second time I just cured it and it was still very fine,  but if you have a smoker I’d definitely recommend smoking it.

Home Cured Mutton

  • Take a piece of mutton flap. Trim it of any scraggly pieces and pat it dry with paper towels. For the cure mix together soft brown sugar and salt in a ratio of 70% sugar to 30% salt. I use more salt when curing pork bacon but the mutton doesn’t seem to need as much salt.
  • Make enough cure to generously rub into the meat. You don’t need to bury it in cure but you want enough to make sure every part of the meat has a good coating. Rub it on and into all the cut edges thoroughly on all sides.
  • Place the meat in a large clean plastic container with a lid and put it in the fridge. Turn it every day and rub the liquid that accumulates over the meat. If it is a thin piece of meat it will be cured in 2 days. If it is thicker leave it another couple of days. Mutton flaps won’t take longer than 4 days max.
  • Rinse the cure off. Air dry the meat in a cool place for a few hours. I hung mine in our porch on a cool windy night and it was dry the next morning (much to the horror of passing vegetarians who enquired after my husband’s health).
  • Then either hot smoke it for a couple of hours and set it in the fridge before slicing it, or slice it straight away. Slice it to your preference – thick like pancetta or thin like streaky rashers. Bag it and freeze it. Remember there are no nitrate preservatives in my recipe so you don’t want it hanging around at room temperature.

Cook it slowly on a low heat because there is no watery rot to come out of this. If you cook it fast the sugar burns before the meat is cooked. Next on  my mutton bucket list is a longer air-dried mutton ham rather than a boiled one. I’m going to call it prosmiutto! Anyone with me?

macon mutton bacon

Ps. Did you know mutton was known as Colonial Goose in early New Zealand?  So there you go – it was festive fare once. We’re  not having mutton for Christmas this year, but that’s because I’ve got a proper goose which will be a story for another day.