Ten great food hobbies to see you through winter

Oyster and shiitake mushrooms are the easiest to grow. Photo: Marita Smith
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Writer, broadcaster and music critic Clem Bastow with her home-made jam. Photo: Arsineh Houspian


April 14, 2015

Peter Barrett

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.

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.”

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

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

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.

Read the full story online here.

This article first appeared in the Good Food sections of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.