Thursday, 28 May 2009

harvest hurrah!!

I'm up to my elbows in fruit again, at last. Spent today in the hot hot kitchen making araza jam and mango chutney. Batch after batch alternating yellow and a deep pink-orange as recycled jar after jar was filled and sealed. A delicious day. I have a lot to write: one reason for so few posts this month was our trip to Cuba. When I get time enough to sit and think, I'll write.

Friday, 8 May 2009

another great thing about bananas

I am becoming passionate about fungus. I'm busy collecting spores, inoculating beds and researching the incredibly diverse and interesting fungi we have here on the farm and in the botanical garden. We're cooking with various species, making tea from others and thinking about how we can use still others in our reforestation and gardening projects.

There is very little tradition of using or collecting, or cultivating, mushrooms in Costa Rica, but little by little we are piecing together information from the indigenous workers we know. Thus we learned about the 'hongo de banano'.

This is actually Volvariella volvacea, the Paddy Straw mushroom, except here it grows from the stumps of bananas. And it's delicious. Very delicious picked right off the stump and carried straight to the frying pan. The only problem we have at the moment is that there are just not enough for our liking. So I'm collecting spores and inoculating banana fibers and coconut fibers, and growing mycelium on moist corrugated cardboard. I hope to increase these naturally occurring wonders to the point where they are springing from every banana plant and also from some specially prepared beds.


The banana trees are producing after a lull, and I'm very happy to see them. We have several varieties here on the farm, from the praying hands to the thousand fingers to the red to the cuadrado: we have no cavendish bananas. Twenty minutes drive north will take you through acres and acres of dwarf cavendish bananas, lined up in Chiquita and Del Monte plantations. The trees are tied with wire to support them and each heavy racaeme is enclosed in a blue plastic bag impregnated with pesticides. There are two issues facing the monocultured cavendish: nematodes and leaf blight, and there's rising fears that the cavendish will soon succumb like its predecessor, the gross michelle. Monocultures have a bad habit of being short term: once a pest or problem takes hold it can rip through a plantation without anything to stop it. Biodiversity makes sense!!

No-one here buys plantation bananas, even without the label they are easy to spot: no bugs or flies circling them. The cavendish works well for the plantation owners because it is a smaller tree with a high yield and quick too. The banana can be picked very green and ships well. Great in terms of shelf-life and presentation for supermarkets, but it loses a lot in terms of flavour. Cavendish bananas just don't taste as good.

Here on the farm we leave the bananas on the trees for as long as we can, to just days before the fruit bats devour them. We cut the 'trunk' and leaves and pile them around the base where they will gradually melt down into compost. The racaeme we hang until it ripens, sometimes covering it with a gunny sack to keep those bats and 'possums off. We dry a lot of our bananas for later use in trail mixes, granola and cookies, and we share the rest with the dogs who really enjoy them.

We grow cuadrados which are a short, stocky, 4 sided banana which is not as sweet and can be used like a plantain. They contain small round black seeds and are better if they are boiled for 10 minutes or so to soften them. If they are very ripe they don't need to be cooked. I've been making chutney and 'marmalade' and they do really well giving a good banana flavour but maintaining some form and bite.

Banana and Cinnamon 'marmalade'

24oz bananas, chopped (firmer cuadrados are better boiled first)
16oz raw brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon (or to taste)

Heat sugar with a spoonful of water until dissolved, add bananas and cinnamon and simmer for 30 minutes or until a spoon will leave a clear trail on the bottom of the pot while stirring the mix. Can in sterilized glass jars and seal in a hot water bath.

Banana and Lime Chutney

6 cups chopped banana
grated rind from one lime
1 onion, chopped
2 cups raw brown sugar
1 cup cider vinegar (or banana vinegar if you have it!)
2 cloves garlic, or to taste
1/4 cup crystallized ginger
1/2 teaspoon fresh finely chopped hot chili, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon salt
good pinch black pepper
1 teaspoon mustard seeds

First boil sugar and vinegar, then add all other ingredients and simmer uncovered for at least 40 minutes until mixture is thickened and smells divine. Can in hot, steralized glass jars and seal in water bath. Chutney is great with cheese, chips, tortillas, Indian foods, straight out the jar.