Ten great food hobbies to see you through winter

Writer, broadcaster and music critic Clem Bastow with her home-made jam.
Writer, broadcaster and music critic Clem Bastow with her home-made jam. Photo: Arsineh Houspian

Fancy recreating ancient Roman feasts, whittling soup spoons or growing your own gourmet fungi? Here are 10 hobbies to get you started this autumn.

I'll never forget, as a five-year-old, watching an old woman digging for herbs by the side of a road in Germany. My parents and I were visiting family – my mother is German – and we had taken a break from endless kaffee und kuchen to go walking in the forest. The woman – who looked suspiciously witchy to me – was using her walking stick to dig out the roots of some green-leafed plant. My mum explained that she was likely going to drop the herbs into a bottle of alcohol in order to brew a digestive – a sort of homemade Jaegermeister. I found the whole thing intriguing and insisted we buy a walking stick just like the lady's (despite a borrowed shovel being more practical) and search for our own herbs. I can't remember ever tasting the resulting liquor but my imagination was forever caught. And this is just how food hobbies start. They are culinary curiosities that can quickly turn into obsession. Here are 10 food hobbies to get you started this winter.

Make your own wild yeast cider

You'll need: apples (preferably acid or tannin-heavy), a ratchet press, glass demijohns, bottles, caps, bottle capper.

Oyster and shiitake mushrooms are the easiest to grow.
Oyster and shiitake mushrooms are the easiest to grow. Photo: Marita Smith

Attica restaurant sommelier Banjo Harris Plane first tried brewing cider in 2012 with Rippon Lea's head gardener Justin Buckley and wine writer Max Allen. Their inaugural batch went pretty well, says Harris Plane. "It was dry, savoury, had a little bit of tannin; it was pretty serious [though] – not a quaffing cider." Once picked, the apples ripened a few weeks in the cool Rippon Lea cellar, then they were crushed, pressed and poured into glass demijohns with a little fresh juice to aid fermentation, which took about two weeks. Then they siphoned it off into bottles, capped them and they were done. Harris Plane moved to Daylesford last year, inheriting an apple tree in his back garden. Although he's not sure of the variety, he's planning to make a home brew again. "For us it was more about the process itself," says Harris Plane of his first foray with friends. "We drank most of it but I won't say it was the most delicious cider ever. It's like anything – you're proud of what you make. I really enjoyed it."

Preserving whole fruit

You'll need: seasonal fruit, such as pears, vinegar, sugar, spices, jars

What to do with all that beautiful fruit? Kate Walsh, 39, has been a passionate home cook since she was a child. After living in Brooklyn, New York for four years working as the communications director for Slow Food USA and on small organic farms she came back to Australia and founded Real Food Projects, which runs classes, events and dinners connecting food producers with eaters. Preserving fruit is one of her favourite hobbies. All you have to do is make a simple vinegar-laced sugar syrup, place some peeled and cored pears into a warm sterilised jar, add the warm syrup with some spices and seal. The preserved fruit can last in a dark place for six months to a year. "My advice is to give it a go," say Walsh. "Don't worry if you make a mistake because it's probably not going to be an expensive mistake. You can always repurpose your fruit for something else. Don't be afraid, just get stuck into it."

Carve your own spoon.
Carve your own spoon. 

Grow your own gourmet mushrooms

You'll need: substrate material (sawdust, wood chips, straw), mushroom spore, two five-litre food-grade plastic buckets, your bathroom

Since starting Milkwood Permaculture in 2007, co-founder Nick Ritar says their courses in backyard sustainability and real food production have been growing but the gourmet mushroom cultivation ones are always sell-outs. The easiest varieties to start with, says Rittar, are oyster and shiitake mushrooms. For the former, you'll need to sterilise your wood chips by submerging in water heated to at least 60C. Once drained and cooled to room temperature, they go in a bucket with at least five 10 millimetre holes drilled in it. Add a handful of spore ($50 will get you between one and two kilograms), place the bucket in a second bucket (without holes) and press the lid on. After about three weeks in a dark, stable temperature the spawn should be ready to fruit. Remove the internal bucket, place in a humid place (like your bathroom) and wait for your funky  – and delicious – mushroom sculpture to blossom. This takes about three weeks. "And you should get about three or four flushes off it, too," says Ritar.       

Recreate an ancient feast

You'll need: some weird ingredients, a reasonable command of Latin, adventurous eaters

Joost Bakker's fermented rice.
Joost Bakker's fermented rice. Photo: Luis Ascui

Historical food. It's a fascination we've seen in Heston Blumenthal's 2013 tome Historic Heston and popular television programs such as Eat Like a King and The Supersizers Go…. But who would actually do it at home? Enter retired British doctor turned winemaker, John Eason. "There has been an explosion of interest in exotic cookery in recent decades," he says from his home on the slopes of Mount Terrible in north-east Victoria, "but the unusual and surprisingly tasty cuisine of the Greeks and Romans has yet to attract public notice." That's because it's actually pretty tricky to do. First, you need to translate the ancient recipes, which often feature ingredients that are either extinct (silphium, a herb), hardtocome by (try ordering dormice at the butcher and see how you go) or, as Eason says, "to us, frankly disgusting" (stuffed sow's uterus, anyone?).

On top of all that the often badly written recipes rarely give measurements or quantities, requiring lengthy experimentation. Nevertheless, in March Eason welcomed the public for a Melbourne Food and Wine Festival Roman feast, reportedly with great success.

Pickled vegetables

You'll need: a jar, good quality vinegar, sugar, spices, seasonal vegetables such as beetroot

Alex Elliott-Howery from the Cornersmith Picklery.
Alex Elliott-Howery from the Cornersmith Picklery. Photo: Jacky Ghossein JGZ

Pickled vegetables are so hot right now. Alex Elliott-Howery, 35, of Marrickville's Cornersmith cafe, used to shut on Mondays to spend the day pickling. Supplies depleted so quickly she decided to open "the Picklery" down the road – a space dedicated to making and teaching people traditional home food crafts. Pickling, she says, is great for preserving excess produce and reducing waste. For example, take raw beetroots: peel, slice to the size you like; place into a (sterilised) jar, add a few spices (remember, these will develop intensity over time, so not too much) and cover with a brine made by combining white wine vinegar (four cups) with water (two cups) and one cup of sugar, plus salt to taste.  But really, you can use any seasonal vegetables, says Elliott-Howery. She recommends sterilising your jars by giving them a hot, soapy wash, followed by a rinse and then putting them in the oven at about 110C for 15 minutes. And don't forget to boil the lids. "You don't need to be scared of preserving. It's an old food craft that people have been doing in their homes for so long."  If you want the pickles to last in the cupboard for a year to two you need to process them. That means submerge the full, sealed jar in a bath of water, boil for 10 minutes, then remove. Otherwise you'll need to keep the pickles in the fridge.

Carve your own wooden soup spoons

You'll need: a hatchet, a sharp carving knife, a curved "spoon knife", one freshly cut timber log, YouTube, plenty of time

Pickles made by Holly Davis.
Pickles made by Holly Davis. Photo: Supplied

Since Brendon Eisner received a knife in January for his 44th birthday he's carved about 20 spoons on the 20-hectare farm he shares with his young family near Daylesford. "I'm pretty addicted to it at the moment," says Eisner, who recently started sharing images of his creations on Instagram (see @dayorganics), "but most people, you'll find that get into it, end up spending a lot of their spare time doing it."

The key is to start with a fresh piece of timber, which ensures the wood is softer to carve and less likely to splinter. Split it in half, draw centre lines for symmetry, mark out your shape and then use a hatchet to remove excess wood. Then it's a case of carving the wood and carefully working with the grain, he says. "The wood draws you in because you don't have complete control over it. It's very different to woodworking in a traditional 21st century sense."

Check out spoonfest.co.uk for more on the hobby.

Rohan Anderson of Whole Larder Love smokes pretty much everything.
Rohan Anderson of Whole Larder Love smokes pretty much everything. Photo: kobrien@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Fermenting food

You'll need: a jar, rice or vegetables such as carrots, rainwater, salt, spices

Artist and environmental activist Joost Bakker began making sourdough bread about 15 years ago. More recently his interest in fermentation has spread to rice. Bakker soaks his (biodynamic Rainfed) rice - in water for 24 hours in summer (48 hours in winter), drains it and then cooks as normal, storing the excess in the fridge. Sometimes he uses leftover buttermilk to speed the fermentation process along. Fermentation helps break down phytic acid (particularly present in brown rice), which can strip the body of nutrients such as calcium during digestion. Be careful not to use tap water, though. The naturally occurring enzymes and bacteria need chlorine-free rainwater, filtered water or cooled boiled water to survive. Bakker also makes his own fermented vegetables by chopping cabbage, letting it sit in some salt for 10 minutes, then squeezing the juices out with his hands. The cabbage (plus extras such as dill seed, carrot, ginger or garlic, perhaps) goes into a wide-necked (oven heat-cleaned) glass jar with the juices poured back in so the veg is submerged. A muslin cloth is placed over the top to allow air-borne bacteria in and keep unwanted bugs out. Fermentation takes longer in winter but is usually done in about a week. They last for up to two years on the shelf. "We grow our own food so you can never seem to eat everything that you grow. It's just a great way of making stuff last."

A bosc pear, perfect for preserving.
A bosc pear, perfect for preserving. 

Sourdough crumpets

You'll need: sourdough starter, flour, maple syrup, sea salt, water, crumpet rings, a heavy pan

"I used to watch Doctor Who and toast crumpets on a fork over the fire with my dad," recalls Holly Davis, a whole foods educator who grew up in England but is known for co-founding Sydney's popular Iku wholefood stores. First she takes 50 grams of her sourdough starter (flour and water that contains fermented bacteria) and mixes it with 300 grams of unbleached white or organic spelt flour and 450 to 500 grams of filtered water (tap water won't work). Once it's whisked together she leaves the thick, pancake batter-looking mixture covered in a warm place (about 24-26C) for at least six hours. (Tip: it's ready for the next stage if a teaspoon of the mixture floats on water). Then, take 600 grams of this mix, a teaspoon of good quality sea salt and a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda.Mix together until it is frothy, like cream. Then heat a heavy, flat pan with several stainless steel crumpet rings inside, grease everything with ghee and half-fill rings with the batter. Once the tops bubble and start to look translucent you can flip them over, then remove and freeze in batches for toasting later. "I like to toast them a couple of times at least so they're really nice and crispy and then put lashings of cultured butter and raw honey on."

Competitive jam making

You'll need: Four glass jam jars, 600 grams fruit, 600 grams sugar, a dog-eared Australian Women's Weekly or CWA recipe

Journalist Clem Bastow, 32, entered her first jams on a whim at the Royal Melbourne Show in 2007. After taking out the novice blue ribbon for her raspberry, strawberry and rose petal she was hooked and has entered every year since (except while overseas in 2013), netting more than five first places, plus "plenty" seconds, thirds and highly commendeds. "I'm just such a Royal Show fiend," she says, "it gives me a real kick to see my wares on display at the Show."

You don't have to follow a recipe (look out for old recipe books and magazines in op shops, she advises) but the judges are looking for specific things. Namely, a "firm set", bright colours, taste and an even seed distribution.

Bastow's tips include: let your jam sit for a while and thicken before pouring into pre-warmed jars; use Home Brand white sugar only; test whether your jam is ready by placing a drop on a cold plate – if the jam surface 'wrinkles' it's ready; use a removable seal on your jars so the judges can taste and no gingham – that's up to the judges to award (blue for first, red for second and yellow for third). Lastly, have patience and don't rush, she warns. "I think one thing cooking for competition has taught me is you just really have to slow down."

Smoke your own meats

You'll need: a hot smoker or a cold smoker, firewood

Rohan Anderson started hot smoking the trout he caught using a set-up he bought from a camping store. Each fish took about 15 minutes. "As I got into it more and got into food preservation I built myself a really large log cabin smoke house for cold smoking. Now I smoke everything from jalapenos, to garlic, sausages, cured pork loin, eel, trout – I've done loads of different stuff." You can even smoke cheese and herbs such as rosemary, says Anderson, who distributes organic fruit and veg boxes through his Whole Larder Love website.

Anderson, 39, lives in a farmhouse in the middle of a potato farm with his young family and now tends to smoke in batches, every couple of months (and only in late autumn and winter – in summer it's too dangerous in terms of bush fires). "It's all about the flavour," he says. "Smoked bacon is 20 per cent better than normal cured bacon…it just makes everything better, really. With something like a cold-smoked trout I'll just pull it apart and put it into a salad."

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