Berry nice: Dianne McGowan in her kitchen garden at Red Hill with her strawberry guava tree. Photo: Graham Tidy
Dianne McGowan was born and lived her formative years beside the Murray River where her family had a big vegie patch and lots of fruit trees. Her mother went to work when Dianne was 13 so, after school, she took over lighting the wood stove and cooking the evening meals for her siblings. She used an axe to chop lamb cutlets off the bone. Her love of growing, harvesting, making jams and sharing continues so she has started her own food label.
Foraging trips provide some of her produce and she often plants leftover seeds. That has resulted in numerous lillipilli trees planted in pots. Placed in a frost-protected spot in front of her house in Red Hill, they are starting to produce fruit so this will be her first year of making jellies from them. She also has flowers and fruit on strawberry guavas (Psidium littorale) grown from small plants, and jelly made from the guavas has a unique flavour and clarity.
Three Davidson's plums were raised from tiny tube stock and they are fruiting and there is a bunya-bunya grown from a nut that took more than two years to sprout. McGowan has two young apricot trees grown from kernels found in rotting apricots that had fallen from an ancient specimen growing on the boundary line of a neglected farm orchard near Dubbo.
Blue-corn scones, topped with Wyld Palate guava jelly and cream. Photo: Graham Tidy
Blueberries, black, red and white currants, loganberries and raspberries have been planted in the ground and McGowan grows the wild dog rose and picks the hips after the first frost to make jelly, that is strained to remove irritant rosehip hairs and seeds.
She keeps an eye on her preferred foraging patches year-round, and says you have to be observant because authorities have eradication strategies such as spraying for some edibles that others regard as "weeds and pests". When she has to buy fruit, her preference is for farm gate produce that is organic and not waxed. In her own garden, McGowan does not use pesticides.
Eight years ago Melissa Beowulf and McGowan produced preserves called Feral Fruits, a name conceived and designed by Beowulf. She moved to Sydney to complete a masters in art practice and further her portrait-painting career while McGowan completed a doctorate.
Dianne McGowan's blue corn. Photo: Graham Tidy
This time, McGowan is interested in pursuing not just her passion for gardening and cooking but her interest in Southwest cuisine and almost "forgotten fruits" such as blue corn, medlars and elderberries. On a recent trip to an Adelong farm she gathered trays of medlars, persimmons, lemons and oranges.
From prickly pears she makes a cactus honey jelly. Her new label, created by a graphic designer, depicts a lasso circled around a cactus and the name, Wyld Palate, plays with her foraging and preoccupation with unusual edibles.
Years ago McGowan bought corn seeds of mixed colours, blue, red and white, but since then has restricted the plantings to blue seeds only. Having tried, with the help of her son, Niels Beowulf McGowan, to turn the kernels into flour using a selection of domestic tools, even a soy bean grinder, she finally bought a small electric stone mill to turn the starch corn into a flour staple.
The blue corn flour has a nutty taste, is gluten-free, low GI and high fibre. It is the colour of big blue skies in Australia and the American Southwest and is a reminder of her first visit to New Mexico in the 1990s. When you cook with it, the blue corn remains blue. McGowan uses it to make scones, tortillas and blue corn chips, for which she has recipes to share.
The chooks take refuge among the corn stalks on a hot day and try to jump up and peck at the lower cobs. The chooks are great pest exterminators and are efficient at finding spiders under the lips of pots and catching white moths on the wing.
At the Red Hill Butcher Shop, McGowan is selling onion and caraway marmalade, spices, and pear, star anise, cinnamon and orange peel jelly to accompany confit of duck, pork or chicken or to top toast.
On Sunday, June 15, McGowan started selling her products at the Southside Farmers Markets in Phillip and she will continue to be there on Sunday mornings with the jellies, preserves and blue corn flour.