The Birds have eaten all the Mulberries

During the week between the two Open Studio Weekends, I ventured out to check out the mulberries. The crop wasn’t good, but there were quite a few coming on. Possibly ready to pick in a week or so once they ripened up a bit more.

After the last weekend sale, when I found some time to get to the orchard again, I realised that the birds had eaten all the mulberries. ALL THE MULBERRIES!

Recently, we have had quite a good number of wattle birds, Dollar birds, Frier birds and the constant regiment of endemic bower birds

There were just a very few immature pale hard berries left. So no mulberry tarts this year.

Instead, I decided to make a youngberry tart, using last years Youngberries that I preserved and bottled on the 4th of December ‘21.

It’s a lovely tart. It isn’t quite so good as when I use fresh berries, as fresh berries retain a lot more texture and structure to the substance of the tart.

This years berries aren’t ready yet, but the pantry has a few bottles of last years berries that have survived the hungry gap. Principally because we are trying to cut down on our sugar intake.

I don’t add any sugar to the preserved youngberries. They are sweet enough, and every little bit of sugar adds up. But they are wonderful, so rich, so lively with that special mix of acid and sweetness. I love them. They are so special, really unique to this time of year. I really look forward to their season. They follow the mulberries and preempt the cherries.

I couldn’t net the mulberries, the tree is too old and too big, so they are all gone, but I can net the youngberries, as they grow on canes at ground level. 

I blind-bake the pastry first to cook it through and then add the fruit, and bake it again to set the fruit.

As soon as we could find the time, we were out in the garden and netted the youngberries. Safe for this season now.

The chickens come out to see the new Tesla Battery. Perhaps they want to know what it is like to be a battery hen? They don’t appear to be very impressed. Battery hens! What’s all the fuss about?

In the garden, we have picked the last globe artichokes. They are a bit past ‘best’, so need to be cut in half and have the ‘choke’ taken out.

I cut them and trim them down to the essential core of flavour and drop them in lemon juice acidulated water, eventually to make a pasta sauce out of them with our home-made tomato passata sauce from last summer and some little zucchinis and broad beans from the spring garden.

I stuff the zucchini flowers with broad beans, olives, cheese and some chopped gherkins. Not my filling of choice, but I am committed to use what we have in the garden and live with the seasons. We have a lot of broad beans at the moment, and

the last of the winters cauliflowers.

We eat the cauliflower raw with just a little bit of mayonnaise. It makes a lovely entrée.

A week in the vegetable garden and one last firing

Over the past week, since the first Open Studio weekend, I have managed to do a bit of catching up in the veggie garden, mostly watering and weeding.

I pulled out half of the ‘Flanders’ Poppies. They are really beautiful. I love them to bits, such a great explosion of bright colour. They self sow every year and fill every space where I don’t weed them out. I need the space now to plant out more summer vegetables, so out they go. Well, half of them. I still want to keep the rest as long as possible.

The French beans are all up and doing well. I have no idea where I found the time to plant these during the hectic work load that we had up to the opening of the studio sales?

Half the poppies are gone to the compost heap to make space.

In their place there are now sweet basil, tomatoes and spinach, Further back, there are cucumbers and pumpkins.

I took a little bit of time out from gardening and weeding this week to glaze the last of the bisqued pots and get a stoneware firing done in the bigger electric kiln, fired entirely on solar energy from our new PV panels and battery. The results are good, just a few more lovely pots to refill the gaps in the gallery shelves from last weeks sales.

We are open this weekend each day from 10 till 4 – ish. on Saturday and Sunday , and also for the rest of the summer by appointment. Please ring or email first to make sure that we will be home.

Do Us a Fava

This time last year I wrote ‘Give Peas a Chance’. This spring it’s all about broad beans.

Peas and beans are the same family of plants, legumiosae.

Broad beans are also called Fava beans and have a long history of cultivation. My ‘Oxford book of food plants’ tells me that it is one of the most ancient of all cultivated vegetables, and traces have been found among Iron age relics. Fava beans have been found in Egyptian tombs, so we have been eating them for a long time.

Ezekiel mentions them in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 4:9) as Pythagoras (570BC) does also, he hated them. Pliny the Elder also talks about them saying that they are as good for the soil as manure. One of the earliest realisations of nitrogen fixing properties of legumes? He recommended ploughing them back in as a green manure crop.

Eating raw fava beans can be highly toxic to some individuals – even fatal! About 30 million people world wide suffer from a disease called Favism. They suffer a specific genetic trait where they are deficient in a gene that produces an enzyme called D6PD. Just inhaling the pollen without actually eating the raw beans, cause the rupturing of red blood cells. However cooking them neutralises the G6PD enzyme and other toxins that are present in the raw beans.

Thousands of years of careful plant selection by farmers have reduced the levels of the more harmful toxins, so todays crops are less toxic. I love eating them raw out in the garden as I work, just as I can’t resist shelling a few peas while im walking past them.

Apparently, there is a genetic recessive disorder known as ‘Glucose-6-Phosphate Dehydronase Deficiency’ that causes favism, and it is the result of an evolutionary development in some humans for resistance to some types of malaria. Which may be why it is most commonly prevalent in people from countries where this disease is endemic?

Maybe Pythagorus suffered from this disorder, such was his distaste for them. There is an account of Pythagoras being pursued by his enemies, who were out to kill him. He had the chance to run through a crop of broad beans to escape, but instead decided to turn and face his attackers and was slain. Bad bean!

Maybe his attackers were the first fauvists?  🙂

I love to eat them raw straight from the pod with a glass of chilled dry white wine while I prepare dinner. The season is so short that I can’t help getting stuck in and enjoying every last little bit of them while they last. This year I planted two types, ‘Windsor short pod’ and ‘Early long pod’. The flavour doesn’t vary much. I try and plant at least two different varieties of vegetables each season just in case one of them isn’t suited the vagaries and challenges of the climate.Who can tell if we are about to get huge deluges of rain or a hotter, dryer spring 4 months in advance? Right at the moment I’ve planted out 6 different varieties of tomatoes for the same reason. Some will do better than others. I’m just maximising my chances of getting some sort of crop in return for all my efforts.

Tonight we had tiny 3rd pick shoots of broccoli, sauteed in a little olive oil with ginger and garlic, served with a dash of fish sauce and lemon juice, along with pan fried flat head fish fillets dusted in a little semolina to crisp up the skin. But the star of the meal for me were the broad beans quickly stir fried just until they were warmed through, but not really cooked. If the skin starts to break open, then they are over cooked. I dress them with a pinch of our dried, powdered chilli. A tbsn full of last seasons dried sweet basil and a grind of black pepper. This is my absolute favourite way to eat them – after raw in the garden or course. I used to cook them in butter, but with my advancing years and rising cholesterol levels, these days I use EV olive oil.

Fish and two veg, quick and simple, couldn’t be better.

New Solar PV and Battery

This week we installed another 10.5 kW of solar PV on the roof of the big shed. This roof is 16 metres long and faces due north at an angle of 22 degrees. Pretty much perfect for good solar PV generation.

We already have 6kW of existing PV on the garage roof , installed soon after the fire to get us started again.

While we were at it we also decided to add a 2nd Tesla PowerWall battery, as we were offered it at a very good price.

This extra capacity now allows us to fire the new(2nd hand) bigger electric kiln off our own stored and active solar PV.

As time and finances allow, we are slowly and steadily moving to extricate ourselves from the fossil fuel economy. From now on we can do all our firing on either our own solar electricity or wood from our own little bit of burnt out native forest.

4 wood kiln firings in 4 weeks

We have been hard at it in the pottery preparing for the Arts Trail – Open Studios and the TACA Open Studios weekends coming up very soon. It starts next weekend.
We have just managed to squeeze in one last wood kiln firing. But this will be the last for some time. Mainly because I’ve just about run out of dry glazed pots, but also, because from now on the weather will be getting too hot for safe wood firing over the summer.

This firing seemed to go very well, just 11 1/2 hours to cone 10 down, not quite so hot on the top back shelf with cone 8 over, but cone 10 just starting to bend. Probably cone 9, close enough.
I changed to pack again this firing just see if I can get a better understanding of how this kiln responds to subtle changes of setting. Life is endless learning.

I got a very good control of the ember level with this firing. I’m pleased about that. We have been getting rather too much ember build-up towards the end of the firing in the last few firings, so I opted to open all the mouse holes right from the start. I can’t remember ever doing this before, but it was just right and worked well, kept everything under control. I’m a slow learner, but I get there in the end.
I recon that this wood firing lark is quite good fun. I’ll probably have another go at it 🙂
We’ll see how it has turned out in a couple of days.

We have also lifted the 2nd planting of garlic. This bed of garlic was planted at the same time as the previous batch that had split into individual cloves. This variety has taken a few weeks longer to mature and has stayed as complete bulbs. This bed of garlic has delivered around 50 knobs. The last bed lifted out 45 split knobs. We still have one more double sized bed to go, maybe in a few more weeks? It may have up to 100 plants, but we’ll have to see what matures and lifts and dries successfully. Not all our garlic plants mature to a full supermarket size. We get quite a few small knobs that are a bit tedious to peel, but the flavour is still all there.
We can get through up to 300 knobs of various sizes of garlic in a full year, and that isn’t always quite enough to see us through till next years harvest. This year we ran out of our own home grown organic garlic about a month ago and had to buy 4 or 5 knobs to get us through to a time when we could start to ‘snaffle’ or ‘steal’ a few very early plants from the edges of the first bed.
I love fresh, wet, early, fragrant garlic. I have to have a couple of cloves sliced on my homemade rye bread, with a twist of fresh ground black pepper and a tiny sprinkle of salt. Tonight it’s just not my fingers that smell of garlic. Keep your distance!

The first lifted crop is now all dried, plaited and hung in the kitchen ready for use.

3rd wood kiln firing in 3 weeks

This weekend we fired the wood kiln again. The third firing in 3 weeks. One firing each Weekend. This firing went very well.

I’m starting to get the measure of this new kiln and my endless supply of pre-burnt wood fuel. For the first of these 3 firings, I altered the firebox and made it deeper, which helped. Before the 2nd firing, I changed the flues. For this firing I changed the setting and adjusted the flues slightly. more fine tuning than major change. All these adjustments have come together now and this last firing was even from top to bottom, with cone 10 over on each shelf, as well as the floor.

There is still an issue with the wood. The flame is quite short and although cone 10 was over on the front of the top shelf, we only got cone 9 over at the rear of that same shelf, just 400mm further back.

Still, everything is well melted and looks good. We have plenty of pots fired and ready for the two open Studio Weekends coming up.

It was a very foggy and misty dawn for the firing.

All of our specially developed home made wood firing clay bodies have taken the fire well and are flashing up with good toasty colour.

This is one of Janine’s bowls with her home made cobalt infused pigment brushwork and her ash glaze made from the ash out of our kitchen slow combustion cooker. This bowl has picked up a little bit of carbon inclusion around the rim. Janine doing her bit to remove carbon from the atmosphere permanently and counter global warming.

This is one of my bowls that I decorated by trailing Janine’s opalescent ‘jun’ style ash glaze over tenmoku.We have just harvested the first of our 3 garlic crops. This year I planted two different types of garlic, one breaks up just before it’s ripe and ready to harvest, sending up multiple new green shoots. The other variety continues to grow as normal. I planted these two varieties last year as well and they did the same for me then. Very odd. The cloves are perfect, just separated into individual cloves.

The multiple stem variety is on the left.

We lay it out to dry for a week, then Janine plaits it into bundles and we hang it to dry until we need to use it.

Our Recent Woodfired Kiln Results

Our firing went as well as could be expected. I’m learning more all the time. The back of the kiln was under-fired, but 80% came out OK.

I ‘borrowed’ some of my friend and neighbour Sandy Lockwood’s wood. Sandy fires with wood too and lives only a few kilometres away in the same village.

Sandy buys all her fire wood in, so her stock of wood is totally different from ours. Our on-site burnt forest that has been left standing, but dead, after the catastrophic bush fires of 2019 doesn’t burn the way it used to.

We have been nurturing our few acres of eucalypt forest for the past 46 years that we have lived and worked here.  Carefully and very selectively dragging out the dead branches and tree trunks from the bush for use in our kilns and home. Almost everything that we do runs on wood for fuel. We obviously fire the kiln with it, but we also have a slow combustion kitchen stove that cooks our meals, warms the kitchen and also heats the hot water for the house. Then there is the slow combustion heater in the lounge room that we use during the cooler months to keep us warm at night. We also have a slow combustion stove and room heater in the pottery shed.

I get a lot of sowing done repairing my worn-out clothes, sitting front of the lounge room heater during the winter. I wear the clothes out chainsawing, cutting, carting, splitting and stacking all the firewood. It’s a bit of a circular economy. 

We have so much of this dead wood now, I have to find a way to use it creatively. I have another couple of firings scheduled in before the Australian Ceramics Assn, Open studio weekends of the 12th Nov. This overlaps with the Southern Highlands Arts Trail, Open Studio weekends on the first two weekends in Nov. We’ll be open for visitors on all 4 days of those weekends.

I will use these next firings to try out different approaches to solving my dilemma with this wood. If I can’t find a way of burning it successfully in its current form. I will have to change the fire box arrangement. But I’ll try all the easier options first. Side stoking the back chamber will probably work well, but I don’t want to do too much of that until I build an afterburner and flame tube with a spark arrestor on top. I don’t have time to build that until after the open studios in a few weeks.

So the next couple of firings will concentrate on fuel management, then packing and firing technique.

Here are a few of the roasty toasty pots that I left unglazed on the outside to pick up colour, fire flashing and a little wood ash from the one day firing. I used to fire the wood kiln for between 12 to 14 hours, but now with the change in the timber, I need to fire for 17 to 19 hours. Too long for an old guy and his hard working Missus. I was completely trashed the next day.

The colour is lovely and warm and the surfaces are very tactile.

Working with this rough, iron stained stoneware clay has been such a pleasure after the past few months of battling with the ground-up-sericite-stone bodies.

Recent wood kiln firing

In preparation for the up-coming Open Studio Weekends on the first two weekends in November, we have been hard at work making and firing to get everything ready in time.

We are still working on the pottery shed, as it isn’t quite finished yet. So much to do, but it is almost there. We have to stop the building work to concentrate on making pots now.

There are so many little bit and pieces of the building that need to be cleaned up and properly finished. The team of shed builders who erected the frame for us were working very quick and rough and left a lot to be desired in terms of details. I’m still finding out the places where they didn’t finish off the flashing, or didn’t put enough silicon in the joints here and there. But their biggest crime was not using metal screws with rubber seals, so I had to go around the whole building and squeeze silicon rubber over all the external screws to waterproof them. It probably only saved them $10. Such is the state of modern building trades. Fortunately we didn’t buy a high rise home unit with cracks in it, so we couldn’t live in it, but still had to pay the mortgage. That is so unforgivable. With all this rain over the past year, I’m still discovering places that leak or just little annoying drips that need attention. 

The framing crew did at least get the frame level, square and true. I’ll give them that much. The building inspector from the council who came and inspected our job, told us that this was one of the better frames that he had seen. Some were so bad, he had to call the builders back to straighten it up.

Janine and I have done nearly all of our building work over the years as owner builders here for the past 45 years, but this rebuilding job was just beyond us in our ’senior’ years. Especially the scale of it and particularly after working ourselves into the ground with all the clean-up work that we did after the fire. By the time it came to start re-building, we just didn’t have the energy. After the 6 months of cleaning up, we were ready to hand over to a team who supposedly knew what they were doing when it came to erecting a steel fame shed — sort of. They were certainly well practised at making short cuts.

This last weekend we fired the wood kiln. This was our 2nd firing in this new kiln and we are still learning how it works and getting to know its peculiarities and character.

We had Len Smith, Rob Linegan to help and Jan Kesby called in after her workshop at Sturt Pottery to give us a hand, as she was in the neighbourhood.

Lighting the kindling fire with just bark and twigs.

The kiln at full fire, burning logs on the hobs.

Rob and Len doing their bit.

Jan Kesby showing us how it’s done.

We will unpack later in the week after it has cooled down.

Janine putting stones into the rock crusher. Wearing her dust mask and with the exhaust fan pulling any dusty air from the room.

Janine has been crushing and grinding her beach pumice stones to make her sea-ladon green glaze. Made from just beach pumice and beach cuttle fish carapace ‘shells’.

She has also been making up her ‘Chun’ or ‘Jun’ blue opalescent glaze  that she makes from the ash from the kitchen slow combustion stove.

They both require crushing and then grinding in the ball mills to get the best result. There are so many little steps that go into being a self-reliant artist that most people just couldn’t imagine.

Then there is the splitting and stacking all the wood for firing. Everything takes time. We only have pre-burnt logs to fire with now, as every tree on our block of land was burnt. So we have a few hundred tonnes of standing dead wood to use up for the rest of our lives, but regrettably, since it is already pre-burnt. It has lost a lot of its volatiles, saps, kinos and resins. This means that we have to invent new ways of using it up in the kilns, as it is a bit like firing with charcoal than fresh timber. It still burns, but with a short flame and doesn’t really crackle and roar like it used to pre-fire. One solution I’m trying is to split it finer, where that is possible, but the stringy back that grows around here has a very twisty, gnarly, well integrated grain, that doesn’t easily lend itself to fine free-splitting.

Another option is to re-build the fire box to adapt it better to this charcoal rich environment, larger and with more provision for burning charcoal and ember? That’s a much bigger job, so I’ll try all of the easier options first. Time will tell.

Reading About Peasant Gardening and Cooking

I’ve been reading a few books on French cooking. Not, cordon bleu, or bistonomy, but old peasant recipes for home-grown, self-reliant peasants cooking of the South West of France in the Perigord and Gascon regions.

I’m interested in how people manage their vegetable gardens to keep a steady flow of food coming all through the year. How they preserve their excess and particularly, just how inventive they were at creating wonderful and delicious recipes from some quite un-promising ingrediants.

I was introduced to organic back-yard vegetable gardening by my grandfather and mother. But didn’t take sufficient interest in the details of it all at the time, as I was quite young, and kicking a ball around the yard was more fun.

When Janine and I moved into our first own rental property in 1975. One of the first things that I did was to dig up the back yard, start to plant veggies and build a compost heap. It seemed so natural to me. It was just what you did if you wanted to live cheaply and frugally. Planting vegetables went hand in hand with building the first little kiln, both equally important.

A year or so later, after we were burnt out in the first of 3 bush fires that we have lost potteries to, we bought the Old School building here in Balmoral Village, we started a vegetable garden as soon as we got the key, even before we had the title deeds. Long before we moved in. We would come down on weekends and plant and then water the seedlings, so that there would be food for us when we arrived permanently.

We were lucky to meet and become very close to a couple of the local residents, John Meredith the writer, musician and folklorist, and Dot and Roger Brown, who were the village’s longest residents. Dot’s mother was still alive then, she lived till she was 103 years old. Both of these older residents had extensive vegetable gardens and small household mixed orchards. They were a great inspiration to us and were so supportive in each passing on either chickens or ducks in breeding trios to get us up and running. We set up a pottery throwing room in the front room of the 2 room school classroom. We also cleared the land, fenced off the area for the stone fruit orchard, all in the first few months and had 30 fruit trees planted that first winter.

A few years later Sally Seymour came to visit us from Wales. She and her husband John Seymour wrote books about their life of living off the land in a small scale, self-sufficient way. She was so knowledgeable about everything that we needed to know. She was also a potter. Sally returned a couple of years later and lived here with Janine for a few months, while I was away in Japan studying.

We had already bought and read both of their earlier books before we met Sally. Sally is still alive and living in Wales with her daughter and son-in-law. You can check out how they still live and work creatively and sustainably at their web site. <https://www.pantryfields.com/sally-seymour>

‘The Fat of the Land’ is still in print and available from their website.

I enjoyed reading about Kate Hill’s life and travels on a barge boat in Gascony. I didn’t learn very much that I hadn’t already read elsewhere, or already learnt to cook myself, but it was a good read. 

I picked up this book for $2 in a 2nd hand book shop, an interesting read by an American food writer about his one year sabbatical spent in Gascony learning to cook.

Peter Graham was a professional writer who lived in France for 40 years. He died recently. He was ‘The Guardian’ newspaper’s food and restaurant critic for 20 years. The book is a list of recipes linked by anecdotes, and has less story line to support it, more in the vein of Patience Gray’s ‘Honey from a weed’. However, I actually preferred the book ‘Extra Virgin’ by Annie Hawes, which is all amusing story and no recipes, but she has humorous descriptions of the local wives preparing food and cooking. All described in a very lighthearted manner.

Jeanne Strang’s book was interesting mix of personal story line and recipe book. I learnt a few things that I have incorporated in to my cooking. On and Off.

None of these books are your typical recipe books. None of them have full page glossy photos of luscious food. You’ll need Jamie Oliver or the English food porn lady for those. These are all black and white, text based books, printed on cheap, pulp, paper by people who love cooking, and living in France. They have all lived and worked in Gascony and collected their anecdotes and recipes over extended periods of time living the life in amongst the locals.

Having digested all that these other books had to offer, I tempered my appetite for goose fat and foie gras, by reading Norman Swan’s latest on how to live a healthy life for longer. 

Basically his recommendation is not to eat all those fatty, rich, calorie loaded foods, instead he recommends to intensionally starve yourself – albeit with moderation. He recommends following the ‘Mediterranean diet’, based on pulses, vegetables, a little lean meat or fish and to avoid preservatives, salt and smoked or saltpetre treated meats. He also says to put in at least one hour of vigorous exercise each day. YES, one hour vigorously, each day! To stimulate metabolism and burn off calories to keep your weight down. 

I think that I might probably be OK, even better off,  to just eat those French cooking books listed above. Paper is fat free, high in ruffage and low in calories, just right. 

Normal would approve.

More Mottainai

There is such a beautiful optimism about spring. The weather is warming up. We even have clear, bright, warm days when we take our jumpers off! My brown work jumper that I wear when I’m welding and/or firing the wood kiln has had a lot of holes burnt into it over the past 15 years. I have been slowly working on it over that time repairing the holes by darning colourful threads over the gaps. It has started to become something more than just an old, repaired, work jumper now, it’s becoming a work of art in itself. I’ve spent this last week of evenings in front of the wood fire fixing it up for another year of hard work. It’s become something more than just a jumper. It’s becoming a treasured item, embodied with effort and work. Not just the work that resulted in all the holes and burn marks, but the extra effort in its recovery and repair. It’s a bit like doing a kintsugi repair on a treasured pot that got broken. I do that too.

I also have a better, but also quite old woollen jumper that I used to keep ‘for best’. ie. for going out in.  I keep it in a plastic bag over the summer months, filled with herbs and lavender, to keep the moths out. But over the years, the little tenacious critters seem to have found their way in every now and then and now this jumper too has a few holes in it. So after I ‘finished’ the brown jumper. I started on the next one. It only has a few small moth holes, so it was a quick ‘two-nighter’ job. Done sitting in front of the wood fire, keeping warm and getting next years woollens up to speed for the next winter, before I put them away for the summer. Back into the fragrant herb lined plastic bag.

This series of repair sessions that began 13 years ago trying to extend the life of a good quality piece of clothing, slowly took on a life of its own. I think that I may have made this old brown jumper a bit too special for welding and firing now. It’s become rather special in its lovingly repaired old age. 

The Japanese have a single word that sums up this concept. Mottainai!

As for the concept of kintsugi that I mentioned above. I have been slowly working my way through a number of special pots that survived the fire. They are all broken, but still rather lovely in their own special broken and shattered way. I have re-built all the broken and missing sections of the bowls using my own home-made epoxy-based filler which I hand-build in small sections,  layer upon layer, grinding back and sanding each layer, then adding on another little section, slowly building the missing section back up to where it once was.

The really beautiful thing about something that you have done yourself, by your own hand, is rather special. These repaired items are more valuable and unique than they were beforehand, not in a financial way, but something more cerebral and emotional. The loving workmanship has transformed them up to another level of complex value. And, in the final analysis, probably also some sort of increase in monetary value, but this is hard to quantify, as such special personal items rarely ever really come onto the commercial market.