By Franz Scheurer
If you have ever braved the Australian Outback and travelled the bull-dust tracks that pass for roads you wonder how anything can possibly grow in these arid, dusty and searingly hot areas.
Eulo, on the Paroo River, west of Cunnamulla is just such a place. Very dry, very hot, very remote, it is at the junction of traffic going west to Innamincka on the Cooperís Creek and South North traffic travelling from Hungerford to Quilpie. There is no traditional agriculture in this area, the closest some recent efforts at cotton and table-grape growing near Cunnamulla, using the Warrego River for irrigation.
Ian and Nan pikes have worked with dates for more than thirty years and could not help noticing that the edible date palms outlived any other plant on the many abandoned homesteads in this environment. Therefore, twenty years ago they moved to Eulo and started Palm Grove.
What started as a means of survival became an object of passion. These days the Pikes grow dates and figs and pride themselves on not using any chemicals or pesticides. The only reason that they cannot technically be organic is the deficiencies in these arid soils mean they do have to supplement with iron and potassium, although they try to use natural remedies wherever possible.
They send their fresh dates and figs to the markets in Sydney and Melbourne but itís the value-added products that have caught my eye.
Many years ago, a retired New Zealand wine maker passed through the area and together with the Pikes they worked out how to make date wine from the second and third-rate fruit. The most difficult part is to extract the sugar and to do this, water has to be added. The next hurdle is to use a good wine yeast and shield the juice from the incredible abundance and varieties of wild yeasts. Date juice is extremely slow to ferment and as they are not using any clearing agents, slow to settle. It takes a year. They produce a dry, a medium and a sweet wine. All are fermented in stainless steel; however, the medium wine is stored for two months in old American oak and the sweet wine for two months in French oak. No chemicals are used, nor do they add any sulphur, metabisulphite or Vitamin C.
They tell me the wine could fool a few people in a blind tasting and it certainly adds another dimension to North African dishes if used in cooking.
Fresh fruit is also super-dried, skinned and sold as Date Chews, a wonderfully caramelised snack, retaining its natural shape.
There is a 'Date and Chilli' and a 'Date and Ginger' spread and a Date topping, similar to Maple syrup, using the sugar of the skins of the dates.
Then there are the two moisturising creams (one is perfumed, the other not scented) and a foot-cream. The date seeds contain a natural anti-fungal substance and this is extracted, added to a petro-chemical free base, add beeswax, grape seed oil and borax and you have a natural, effective remedy for cracked heels.
The Pikes also grow and sell a yellow variety of figs, apart from the fresh fruit, they dry them, both sliced and whole, and produce fig jam and glace figs. The fruit is never gassed or sprayed and no sulphur is used. One of their most unusual products is a fig preserve, where they ferment the figs in their own juices, over a period of 4 to 5 months, obtaining a very tart-sweet flavour that matches cheese or goatís meat admirably.
All the products (apart from the fresh fruit) are seasonably available via mail order. The cosmetics are available all year round. They take MasterCard, Bankcard and Visa.
For more information, contact
Ian or Nan Pike
Eulo QLD 4491
Tel.: 07 4655 4890