A patch of plenty

Susan Parsons
Fresh in best ... Campbell resident, Michelle McDonald, with her lemon-based foods.
Fresh in best ... Campbell resident, Michelle McDonald, with her lemon-based foods. Photo: Graham Tidy

Michelle McDonald's lemon tarts might be the best in Canberra, a mouthful of perfect shortcrust pastry filled with zesty homemade lemon curd.

The lemons come from the family's seven-year-old Meyer lemon tree that has been very productive this year, the source of lemon cordial, preserved lemons and lemon pudding.

Mark and Michelle McDonald moved into their house in Campbell in 2005.

Michelle McDonald's children, Olivia, 2, Amelia, 6 and Angus, 8, with Tinkerbell the chook and some eggs.    photo.JPG
Michelle McDonald's children, Olivia, 2, Amelia, 6 and Angus, 8, with Tinkerbell the chook and some eggs. photo.JPG Photo: Graham Tidy

The place had been a rental for some time and the garden was full of privet and scrappy plum trees. The couple cleared the block and established vegetable plots along the fences. They planted an apricot tree and a Morello sour cherry.

The eggs in the lemon curd come from a pair of isa brown chooks, Tinkerbell and Princess Layer, named by the McDonald children, Angus, 8, Amelia, 5, and Olivia, 2. During our visit, Tinkerbell sat perfectly with the children under a tepee made from fallen eucalypt branches. Snowpeas are being trained up the tepee.

The chooks recycle kitchen scraps and weeds and the sawdust from the chook house is used as a fertiliser on garden beds.

Michelle McDonald's lemon tarts.
Michelle McDonald's lemon tarts. Photo: Graham Tidy

The family has planted herbs, silverbeet, fennel and lettuce. They grew asparagus from seedlings rather than crowns, and say it requires almost no effort, produces a great crop and the children eat it straight from the garden.

Mark McDonald's parents are keen gardeners who grow lots of edibles. His garden motto is ''no passengers'', by which he means if you grow something it should provide produce in return. The garden has a berry patch with raspberries, blueberries and strawberries. Two apple trees are each grafted with three varieties - three dessert apples and three for cooking.

Possums are a problem in the garden, eating the spring shoots and leaves on the apricot tree, which is intended to shade the chook run in summer, and also the rhubarb, which the possums eat to the ground.


Michelle McDonald grew up in an army family so moved frequently as a child. Her parents transformed the garden of every house they lived in and made sure there was always rhubarb, fresh herbs and a vegetable plot. Her mother, Helen Stevens, chairs Open Gardens for the ACT and country NSW. She is also an excellent cook, her daughter says. Michelle McDonald's sister, Caroline Rogers, made cumquat and vanilla bean marmalade this season, and their grandmother's green tomato pickle recipe is handy at the end of tomato season when the crop stops ripening.

The McDonalds grow heirloom and heritage tomatoes, with ''green zebra'' a favourite for its flavour and because it is less prone than others to insect attack. Their tomatoes are espaliered to avoid fruit flies, which can be a problem.

Michelle McDonald has made individual red, yellow and green tomato sauces using a Jamie Oliver recipe to which she added fennel, onion, carrots and celery.

The family eats only organic or free-range produce and biodynamic beef, bought from the farmers at the Exhibition Park farmer's markets on Saturday mornings.

She also bought a 1.5 kilogram piece of pork belly from the Griffith butcher, and cured it to a recipe she saw on a cooking show, with really good results.

A friend at work has given her his recipe for Canadian bacon cured with maple syrup, which she intends to tackle next.

Michelle McDonald’s lemon tarts

Lemon curd

Makes about 600ml

¾ cup lemon juice and zest from the lemons

4 eggs

¾ cup caster sugar

125g butter, cubed

Juice lemons, taking the zest of all of the lemons you use to make the juice. Set the zest aside. Mix the eggs, sugar and juice together in the top of a double boiler. You can also use a regular saucepan, cooking over a medium to low heat, stirring constantly. Add the cubed butter and stir until the butter has melted and the curd gets to a thickish custard consistency. Strain into a clean jug. Add the zest, mix well and pour into sterilised jars. Seal.

Tart shells

100g cold butter

200g plain flour

1 tbsp sugar

1 egg yolk

2tsp cold water

Place the butter, flour and sugar in a food processor and blitz until combined (or mix by hand). Add the egg yolk and water and blitz again - the mixture should come together in a ball at this point; if not, add a little extra water. Cover in plastic and refrigerate for an hour.

Roll out on a floured board to two to three millimetres thick. Cut into circles. Place in non-stick or greased tart trays. Cook at 180C for 10 to 12 minutes, until golden brown.

Allow to cool then fill generously with lemon curd.

>>  Susan Parsons is a Canberra writer.