The Firing

I’ve been up since before dawn firing the kiln. I spent all day yesterday packing the pots in and all of the day before that cleaning out the firebox, which is a regular job with a wood fired kiln, chipping the wood ash slag off the fire bricks around the air inlet holes. The blast of air into the hot coals during firing is so intense that it melts the wood ash from the charcoal in the ash pit into a molten flowing lava of ash glaze. It has the ability to stick to the brick work like shit to a blanket. Even though I wash the bricks with alumina powder to try to create a resistant barrier. The fluid stuff finds a way through the wash and into every crack and crevice. I chisel out some new air holes. This time I try a new larger ‘mouse-hole’ cover, so much larger, that all the liquid flow from the edges should be a lot farther from the hole underneath and therefore not block up as readily. It’s worth a try.

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Packing the pots into the kiln is a very slow and precise art that takes a long time to learn and even longer to perfect, if such a thing were possible. Every kiln is different and has its own personality, so I have to ‘learn’ the kiln. It’s a slow process of trial and error and in every firing I try something new, something different or altered. Some slightly different way of packing the pots into the limited space available. You wouldn’t think that there could be too many variations. But the there are. It seems never ending. Then suddenly it all makes some sense and It’s all so clear. I understand!  Then, the very next firing, it’s all different again. Every little thing is important. That damn butter fly in the Amazon rainforest, flapping its wings, is so unpredictable.
I roll out about 600 little balls of clay, called wadding. These are used to support the pots in the kiln on the kiln shelves, so that they won’t stick to the shelf with all the wood ash. I use 5 or 6 on each pot as I pack it into the kiln. They have to be rolled out fresh, so that they are soft and sticky. They have to squash up and settle the pot into place and support it evenly through the firing. There is wadding and there is wadding. Each potter has his or her own recipe. It’s a witch’s brew concoction of what’s available and what’s most desirable against what will look the best after firing. I tend to go for the wadding that will leave the best marks after firing, but still be easy to remove from the sintered and sometimes runny ash glaze deposit. No product is perfect. No research is ever finished.
I’m alway testing out new clay recipes, new local rocks for glazes and different wood to fire the kiln with, then using the resulting ash to glaze the next load of pots. There are so many variables. I can’t seem to help myself from experimenting. There is always something new to try, or an older idea that once worked in an earlier kiln to up-date and try again here and now. We once had a visitor call in, who turned out to be an engineer. He watched me work for a while and asked what I was doing. I explained the series of tests that I was preparing. Trying to find a greater depth and softer surface in my new rock glaze through a series of inter linked line blends. He called in again a year later. I’d forgotten him, but he recalled what I had been doing and asked how the results turned out. I told him that I eventually got the glaze to work beautifully. He asked to see it, but I had to admit that I didn’t have any examples to show him. I’d crushed the failures and sold all the best ones at Watters Gallery. Now I was working on something else.
He was visibly shocked and did a ‘double-take,’ shaking his head. Then asked, After all that work and research,  why aren’t you still using it. I explained that once you understand something really well, it looses its interest. There always has to be some new element of discovery in the work, otherwise it just becomes a job and would risk becoming boring. Anybody could do that in a factory. I want to be engaged all the time.
He Looked me straight in the eye and told me that I was nuts. As an engineer, he spent all his time solving problems, so that the process could then be put into mass production and profits were made through mass production and sales of a predictable product. I was setting my self in a position were I wouldn’t be making any money, constantly researching and prototyping, but never going into production.
I said, That’s right!. I’m not doing this to make money. I’m doing this to enjoy my life. If I can make just enough money to get by, then that is success for me. After the basic needs of life are met, then money’s only use is to buy time. Time away from having to work to earn more money. The vicious circle. Free time is creative time and no one gives it to you, you have to claim it.
I don’t want what most people want. I believe that I’m really lucky not to have the endless search for something to buy that will make my life complete. Instead, I’m happier to make all the things that I need in my life – if I can. I don’t do it well or efficiently. I spread myself too thin. And sometimes the things that I make don’t work all that well. But I can fix them, because I know how they are made.  Importantly, I have a lot of fun and it’s endlessly fulfilling. Besides, the best things in life arn’t things.
So I’m back at the kiln again. I’m firing the kiln this time with all the left over wood from our firing workshops. It’s a hotch-potch mixture of all the wood that I have collected from our block over the past year. I have some pine, some acacia, she-oak, 2 types of local eucalypt, and a very rare and quite strange tree that we call ‘Cherry Ballard’, it’s a slow growing parasitic tree and is related to sandalwood. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exocarpos_cupressiformis
The wood is very dense and close grained I can’t imagine making sandals out of it, but maybe clogs? They’d be very long lasting, but rather heavy. One of these trees died after a long life down near the dam, It must have been 30 years old and only 175mm dia. It grows in small clumps in various places around our land.
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I usually try to fire with just one type of wood in each firing. So as to see just what it does, how it burns. Will the kiln get to temperature easily. What will the ash effects on the pots be like, How much ember will it create and how will I be able to control the ember level without choking off the fire mouth, or alternately, not having enough ember to keep the wood on the hobs burning well. There are so many elements that go into making a firing successful and I have to think about them all, all of the time. Responding to the most obvious and pressing features, while keeping a weather eye on all other potential possibilities. 2nd guessing what is likely to be happening now and what will happen next.
When visitors come to the pottery and want to talk to me while I’m firing, they may think that I’m autistic, aspy, grumpy and dis-interested. It’s not that I can’t talk, or don’t want to talk, but I’m really just trying very hard to concentrate on what the kiln is telling me, so that the firing will turn out well. There is a lot at stake here. A months work and a lot of hopes and dreams. I need space to concentrate.
This firing, like most of my firings, started off the night before with some gentle pre-heating, as there are a number of raw pots in there and I don’t want to blow them up. I start the firing off with grape vine and fruit tree prunings as kindling, with just a few thoughts of the French peasant, Monsieur Massot.
It’s a rather strange firing. It’s a long time since I did a firing like this. Perhaps it’s the odd mix of wood, perhaps it’s the approaching storm brewing on the horizon. Maybe I have made a mistake in the packing, but I don’t think so. I was so meticulous about it all. I try very hard to get the balance right. I actually find it a real challenge. In saying that, I must say that I don’t enjoy it at all. I find it really challenging, because I don’t actually look forward to it. It’s a job that has to be done, and done really well to get to the best outcome. Which is the Xmas-like joy of unpacking all the presents that the kiln holds – when it turns out well, or otherwise, as the case may be.
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This firing is not going at all well. It’s very strange. It just isn’t doing what it normally does. Having worked through all the usual possibilities and not making any definite conclusions. I start to think of all the unlikely things that it could be. I heard that they found a dead cat in the flue hole of the kiln at the Art School. It had crawled in there to die. That wasn’t nice. Had someone not noticed it, although it was hard to miss! Then it would have blocked off a lot of the draught. I believe that the potter Col Levy once had a sheep die in his kiln, in between firings. I was told that he just bricked it up and fired the kiln to cremate it. It was easier to deal with that way. Maybe these stories are apocryphal, may be not. It doesn’t matter. I’m pretty sure that there was nothing dead in my kiln, but still, one can never be too sure. I try a lot of variations in my firing technique, slowly working my way logically through all the possibilities.
Eventually I open the damper to 95% open. I usually only have it half open. I never know if my damper is half open or half closed. It depends so much on my mood. I’ve only had the damper this far open once before in all of the firings of this kiln. It seems to be going slow, almost as if I have to push it up myself, by shear force of my will. It usually goes up so easily. Suddenly there is the biggest clap of thunder I’ve heard in years. Right above our heads. Lightning must have struck very close to us here. Janine just happened to be outside at the time and runs in, white as a sheet. She is in a bit of shock. She is so startled. She was outside stacking some wood and clearing up a bit when it hit. I go outside and look around. There are no smoking dead trees nearby, so it must have been further away.
The sky has turned black, it’s a dark blue/black and has completely closed us in. I have to put the light on. fortunately the power still works, as it is running the digital temperature indicator. It doesn’t really matter too much as I always have a spare battery operated one as well, just in case. Then the rain comes.
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The rain pours down and we get 40 mm in a few hours. We have all our wood indoors and under-cover, so it doesn’t matter that it’s raining. In fact now that the storm has broken, the barometer will rise a little and the kiln should fire better, and it does. We end up firing for 16.5 hours instead of the usual 14. so It’s not too bad. We wait now for the results in a few days time.
We have leather jacket  with our own field mushrooms from the potato patch, in an Asian inspired sauce for dinner.
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The remnants and fish bones are all boiled up to make a stock with some garden vegetables and we have an Italian inspired, Thai flavoured risotto for the next night.
Italian,Thai risotto, interesting!
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 With love from the shockingly lightning fast, lovely, Janine ‘Thor’ King and her fireman

 

Living Well – Frugally

Following on from our beautiful shoulder of lamb a couple of weeks ago. We decide to reduce the load in the fridge and have a leg this week. Two red meat meals in a month – what will become of us?
I decide to do a very slow bake. The leg is quite large and won’t fit in our baking tray. The wood fired kitchen stove only has a small oven. I have to go down to the workshop and bring up the hack saw and shorten the leg. Now it fits. I pour just a little olive oil into the pan and some sliced onions. I brown the leg all over as best I can. It’s lunch time and Janine has only just lit the wood fire in the stove. It is just getting hot enough to brown the leg. Janine prepared it by rubbing some of Geordie’s special seasoning mix well into the skin a few hours ago. I pour a cup of water into the baking tray and cover it well, then slide it into the oven. The oven thermometer, reads just 60 oC as it goes in. That’s not unusual, as we have only just lit the stove. It is going to stay in there well covered for the next 6 hours as the oven temperature slowly rises.
By 6 pm it’s 180oC and I un-cover it and let it finish un-coverd so that it will caramelise somewhat in the dry heat.
When it comes out it is crispy on top and looks succulent and juicy. It smells terrific. We really enjoy the tender, melt-in-our-mouths lean meat.
We have it with some of our new harvest broccoli.

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This head of broccoli, is so big that it exceeds the size of my large chef’s knife blade.

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After the long slow covered baking, the baking pan is a-wash with meaty pan juices. It hasn’t dried out at all and is swimming in marrow bone jelly and cooking fat from the leg, plus some olive oil. I slice the meat and preserve the juices. The next day, we re-heat the pan and pour off the marrow bone jelly and fat through a sieve into a jar. We chill it overnight and scrape off the cloudy opaque white fat. The clarified jelly is there calling out for us to use it in something very special.

 

 

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We took our time getting through all the meat on the leg. We had our first meal hot, as a baked dinner and then a few cold cut lunches. Tonight The Lovely has used the remaining slices to make a luscious ragu. The meat is sliced up fine, with the clarified marrow-bone jelly from the jar added back into the pan and a glass vacuum-preserving jar of summer’s tomato passata, preserved from the summer excess. It cooks down into something special. ‘The Lovely’ adds some green split peas and lets it simmer.

 

 

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You can’t believe that something this simple could be this tasty and wholesome. It’s just so easy, but I suspect that most families don’t bother to do it anymore. Several meals from one roast, and so tasty and flavoursome. There is hardly anything in there, a few slices of cold meat, some clarified marrow-bone jelly, all tawny/claret-red and exploding with flavour. A jar of preserved summer garden tomato purée, and a hand full of dried peas. Wow!
Just a little extra effort to clarify the roasting pan juices and hey presto! It was so worth that little extra effort. She, the Reigning Monarch of Ragu serves it with a couple of small slices of organic rye sour dough.
It’s so good, I have two helpings.

For desert there are preserved plums from the summer served with yoghurt. It’s a pleasure and a thrill to be able to eat our excess summer produce in the cold wet days of winter.

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I’m so fortified that we go right back out there and make some fire bricks to replace the current door bricks on the wood kiln. The door of the kiln has to be bricked up each time that it is fired. There is a bit of effort involved in laying so many bricks each firing. There are about 140 bricks used to brick up the door of the kiln at the moment.

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I have been making my own kiln shelves and props for my kiln since 1974. I made all the firebricks for this kiln by hand about ten years ago and have continued to make all my own firebricks ever since. This current kiln is the second one made from hand crafted bricks on this site. Now I decide to make some new larger format door blocks. This time in a larger block size, 150 x 150 x 230mm, equal to about 3 full bricks in one go. It will make the bricking-up of the kiln door much faster. It’s a lot of work to make fire bricks by hand, but we are not scarred of hard work and I am fully committed to being as self-reliant as possible. This is a simple example of what we do to achieve this self-reliance on a low budget and maintaining a small carbon foot print. These firebricks are not the best in the world, but they are hand-made, cost effective and have very low embedded energy. I try to do so many things, that I end up being not very good at any of them, but it gets things done frugally. I’m determined to live below my means.

Making things like this ourselves saves energy and transport costs, as nearly all firebricks on sale in Australia at the current time come from China. We are also maximising our use of recycling, as the grog and the coffee grounds are both recycled commercial waste. These bricks will be fired in the wood kiln, at the back of the stack, 20 at a time over several firings. They are made on-site from re-cycled, mostly local materials and will be fired using our own self-grown and harvested wood from our own property. All the carbon in these trees has come from the air and when burnt, will go back to the air. No additional carbon will be involved. No trans-global shipping costs bringing in product from China. It’s simple and effective. It just takes energy and commitment. We get our personal energy mostly from the vegetables that we grow in our garden. Finally, the residual ash from the fire box after the firing will be used either to make glazes or used as fertiliser in the garden to help fuel us.

I use coffee grounds and crushed firebrick grog.

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All mixed in the dough mixer

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We make 50 of these large blocks with the help of our dear friend Warren. We originally planned to do some orchard pruning together over the weekend, but the weather has turned quite wet and gusty, so we make bricks instead. We end up getting 6″ or 150mm of rain. It’s just what the trees need just now at this critical time of the year. It couldn’t be better for us and the trees.

We make our fire bricks from more or less equal parts of or own grog, crushed, re-cycled broken fire bricks and kaolin. I also add in a good measure of coffee grounds collected from our friend Cathy’s local cafe espresso machine used ‘shots’ tray. Cathy very kindly kept all of the used shots for me all week, so that I could collect them for my research. The coffee grounds will burn out from the fired bricks and leave little air pockets that will act as insulation. This will make the kiln more fuel-efficient. I collected the coffee grounds some years ago, dried them and stored them away, preserved as dry powder in the kiln shed. What I didn’t use back then to make all the bricks to build the new kiln, are being used now for these new bricks.

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with love from the well preserved Dr. and his fresh and radiantly blooming Ms.

Responding to the Warmth

I have been back in the pottery making pots again. Now that all our winter firing workshops are finished. I have my kiln back to myself. I am throwing more pots for my own firing. As the weather warms up, pots don’t take quite so long to firm up as they were taking a couple of months ago. On a few days it is cold enough to light the pot-belly stove in the pottery. It’s nice in here with the fire going. I respond to its warmth. It’s an old, solid, cast iron thing that we have been using continuously for the past 35 years. I have given it one overhaul about ten years ago as all the joints were creeping apart. The original bolts had long since corroded away and it was more or less held together by the rust and friction. It had never had the correct flue pipe fitted for its size. The original flue outlet was designed for a 100mm. dia pipe, which was woefully too small and it always smoked, as it couldn’t get enough draught going through it to burn the capacity of the wood that it could hold.

Nothing is perfect.

I decided to take it to bits and overhaul it, by sealing a lot of the joints with a clay paste and reassembling it with new stainless steel bolts. I also increased the flue pipe size from 100 mm. to 125 mm. I make an adaptor out of some stainless steel sheet off-cut that I have that seems to be just about the right size – because I can. It’s taken me 20 years to get around to it and now in just 3 hours, it’s working just as it should, if the designers had bothered to build it and test it, to see if it worked OK, then re-designed it with the correct flue outlet. Now it works a whole lot better. Nothing is ever finished and nothing is ever perfect.

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I can hear out the window that Mrs Grey Thrush is calling her mate. A beautiful chirping worble/whissle. She calls and she calls. She waits and then starts again. I walk outside to see her on a nearby branch. Her song is so lovely. Eventually her mate appears and they fly off together, in a twisting, swerving, swooping flight. So closely mimicking each other. Maybe it’s a mating ritual? It’s that time of year, spring is approaching. Maybe they are responding to the warmth?
There is a lot of activity around the bird bath. I made a leaf shape, shallow, ribbed bird bath. It is sited on a brick pillar in among some small trees and shrubs out in the garden, viewable from the kitchen window. We tried several places. This is the best place that we have tried so far. Nothing is perfect.
 
I can see that there is a distinct pecking order in the way that birds organise their bathing. The bigger birds simply push in and force out the smaller lighter birds. Size is everything, or so it seems. ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’. In nature you just take what you can, if you can. If you can’t defend your stake, then you loose it. We don’t feed the birds. I don’t think that it is good for them. We have created a rich and varied environment here. The animals have to make their own living as best they can. We have an enormous number of birds living here or passing through on a regular basis, so we must be doing something right.
Like life really.
 
Once the larger birds have moved off, all the smaller birds come back in to the bird bath again. I see that red banded finches and eastern spine bills have no problem sharing together, or robins and wrens. There are a flock of little blue wrens, all young males I suppose. They swarm across the lawn and through the low shrubs and undergrowth, then swing around and come back again. They hang around most of the day, flitting in and out of sight. There must be 15 or 20 of them. Not a Jenny in sight today.
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Over at the site of the burning pile that we lit up last week. There are a huge mass of red banded finches. They are busy all around and everywhere. For safety reasons, our burning pile is a long way from our house, over in a clearing in the bush. There are so many birds over here in the thicket of bush all around the site. I see them working over the pile of ashes. They always seem to be in around here. They are interested in the ashes. I can’t seem to see what they are eating, if anything, but they are always here. Is it the warmth? Or maybe they are after some salt from the ash? I really don’t know! Maybe they are just responding to the warmth. We all do.
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The embers and ash have now cooled down and the little birds swam over the site looking for whatever it is that they look for. Masses of them dart in and out of the low undergrowth and shrubs into the clearing and out again. I always find it amusing and amazing. Always so rewarding! I love the fact that they are here in numbers these days. When we came here  to this barren block 38 years ago, there weren’t any to be seen. We have planted thousands of bushes and shrubs over the years. We have stopped the clearing and let the bush grow back in places. There is so much more suitable habitat here now.  Build it, and they will come!
The finches keep a certain distance, but don’t seem to mind me being in their place I don’t scare them or threaten them. I love them being here. I respond to them with warmth – they, in turn, ignore me. Nothing is perfect.
 
I test the ash pile to see that it is cool enough to collect. I shovel the whitest and fluffiest ash on the top of the pile into a plastic garbage bin for use as glaze material. I get about 20 kgs in there. Next I shovel up the heavier darker ash into a wheel barrow to use as fertiliser. I manage to get 3 of these wheel barrows-full from the pile. Possibly 80 to 100 kgs in all. That’s a lot of ash! It’s a good general fertiliser for vegetables, fruit trees and shrubs. There is still a lot more ash there. Abundance! I have enough for the time being. The rest, as it goes down, is mixed with roasted top-soil, dirt and some stones. Although no good for glazes, it will still be useful if I need some more for fertiliser, but it is unlikely to remain there, as it will easily blow away if we have strong winds, or wash away if we have some heavy rain. Nothing lasts.
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I spread it around the garden and orchards, all around the drip line of the trees. Wood ash contains potassium and calcium amongst other things. Potassium is very good at this time of year to stimulate flowering and fruit set in fruit trees. The ash also has some unburnt charcoal, this is also very good for the soil. There are even some burnt bones in the ash pile, from old marrow-bone stock residues that I threw onto the pile, because bones attract rats to the compost and the worms don’t eat them.  So burning the used bones is the best solution. If we don’t have a burning pile ready to go. I dispose of them in the firebox of the kitchen stove or sometimes in the kiln. Burnt bone is a slow release form of calcium phosphate. So in this instance we have the major plant nutrients. Potassium, Calcium and Phosphate. All we need is some nitrogen and we get this from chicken pooh.
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As well as fertilising, we have been pruning and cleaning up around the garden and orchards. There is always too much to do, but we just do what we can. I have only just finished pruning the almond trees a few weeks ago and now they are out in blossom. Janine makes some very nice little almond biscuits. She has almost run out of almonds, so she substitutes half of the recipe with hazel nut meal. These tiny biscuits are delicious. Crisp and crunchy on the out side, while remaining soft and chewy on the inside.
 
Almond biscuits recipe;
150g sugar
1 egg
225 g ground almonds
2 teaspoons of lemon zest
vanilla paste to taste – less than 1/2 a teaspoon.
1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon – generous, maybe up to half. To your taste.
 
It’s probably better and easier if you take the butter out of the fridge in the morning that you plan to cook. It’s easier to use if its softer, but you already know that I’m sure.
Roll the mixture into little balls and cook them on a buttered tray at 180oC for 15 to 20 mins. Don’t over cook, or they get too hard and loose their charm.
They are so nice, coming warm and crunchy from the oven. I respond to the sweetness and the warmth.
 
So That’s the recipe, but on this occasion, the lady with the zest for life uses twice as much zest, because she likes it that way. She adds 2 eggs and uses half hazelnut meal/half almond meal, because that is what she has.
These little melt-in-the-mouth moments are just as yummy, if not better, so it just goes to show that the recipe is only a starting point and a guide. It’s not a must do, it’s just an idea, an idea that is worth thinking about. The rest is all experimentation. Like life.
They are so delicious – nothing lasts!
 
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I thank her and she gives me a hug.
I respond to the warmth
 
Warm regards from his zesty Ms. and her fertile Mr.

 

Don’t get to know the farm animals too well – Geordie’s Choice

 
(Don’t read this letter if you’re vegan)
 
This months red meat meal is lamb.
 
As part of his work as a chef, our son Geordie, has to go out to farms and collect produce for the restaurant. Last week it was out to the farm where the biggest black truffle in Australia was dig up. The farmer didn’t need a truffle dog to find it. It was so big that he saw it bulging up out of the ground. It took him an hour and a half to expose it and dig it out very carefully. It is the largest truffle ever found Australia, weighing in a 1.2 + kgs. The world record for the biggest truffle is for one found in France weighing in at a whopping 1.3 kg.
So we still have a hundred grams to go!
 
Recently, Geordie was out at the farm where they source their organic lamb and got to make friends with the very carefully reared little animals. He took a shine to one in particular and asked how much it would be. They agreed a price and the next day after lunch, the abattoir van called in at the restaurant with the weeks supply as well as Geordie’s Choice.
 
He has done this sort of thing before. Earlier in the year it was a piglet. Since he started at this he has honed his skills. I remember he told me that the first time that he had to butcher an animal. It took him 2 hrs to break it down, section it and have it all prepared and shrink-wrapped ready for the fridge and freezer. He’s a chef, not a butcher.
This time, with more practice and better skills, he has it all in the cling-film in 20 mins. We get a call asking if we have room in our fridge/freezer. We do and he is here shortly after with his cargo. All neatly sectioned and wrapped as leg, shoulder, tender loin, spare ribs, excess bones and trimmings, etc.
 
The first thing that I do is to make a stock with all the excess bones, and trimmings. I use carrots and celery from the garden, plus a couple of parsnips and some spinach and mustard greens. At this time of year there is a lot less choice in the garden, so we use what we have. This is the life that we have chosen. Our winter mirepoix is augmented with sprigs of sage, sweet marjoram and thyme, all from our herb garden. Then two whole knobs of our own home grown, cleaned, plaited and hung garlic, cut cross-wise to expose the full flavour and tossed in whole, a star anise and a whole bottle of our own new vintage light red wine. I roast the bones for an hour in the oven, while I boil the mirepoix on the hot plate. I add the bones to the veggie mix and let the lot simmer together for another hour more on the wood stove.
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The whole lot is left to cool overnight before I skim off the fat, remove the bones and then sieve out the herbs and vegetables. I re-heat the resulting stock the next night when we light the wood fired kitchen stove again.
I reduce the stock down from many litres down to just one. An intense concoction of garden produce flavours and hand tended, organic and carefully raised lamb, marrow-bone jelly and home made, organic shiraz red wine. I can’t think of anything else that could be much more rewarding. Eating form our own garden, cooking what we have at the time. A constantly changing menu closely tied to the season and our own hard work in the garden and orchards.
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The next day we have a wonderful, long-term friend call in. We discuss our common interests in ceramics. He teaches me many things, as he always does. He is a wonderful mentor. I learn to be a little more accepting and more forgiving with each visit. I still have a lot to learn, but I’m trying. He is amazingly patient. A good friend and very caring, I admire him immensely.
 
I cook him a risotto of home-grown mushrooms and garden-produce for lunch. We go together down to the Pantry Field and pick some big, luscious, dark, field mushrooms. I send him home with a bag-full of them, but we save a few for the risotto. We also have some exotic fungi from the local market. They all go in together. Janine comes home from her outing and the three of us greedily consume it.  It works out well and we enjoy it together. A rich full flavour, de-glazed with a slosh of our wine, moderated with some of our home made marrowbone jelly stock form Geordie’s lamb.
 
Risotto Recipe;
I have the choice of arborio and carnaroli rice. The arborio is open, so I use that.
I brown an onion in some local EV olive oil until softened. Stir in a cup-full of the rice and flip it around until properly coated in the oil. Then deglaze with a big ‘slosh’ of local Sauvignon Blanc, add in the sliced mushrooms and finely diced veggies. At this point I’d usually have another pan of stock boiling close by, but on this occasion, I only have just 1 litre of concentrated stock from Geordies lamb bones, so I add it in and as it firms up, I add a little more white wine. The whole lot is consistently stirred and simmered while we talk, until the rice is done.
It has a smooth flowing texture, a lovely red/brown colour, and a warm, fulfilling place in the soul for some human interaction. We really enjoy it.
IMG_4119So that was nice. Possibly better than I had any idea that I knew of. Life is made of such unexpected exchanges.
I am so lucky. I don’t know how lucky I am. I never know quite what is going on in my life, until it is a long time after the event. I seem to only know what has happened to me in retrospect.
 
We decide to have a shoulder of Geordie’s new lamb for dinner. It’s organic and it couldn’t be fresher. Rested for a couple of days. We get it out of the fridge and prepare it. We collect a few sprigs of fresh rosemary from the cuttings that we grew from bushes that John Meredith had growing in his herb garden in the 70’s. He got his rosemary cuttings from his mother’s garden in Holbrook, back in the 50’s, and from there, they came to us, via his weekender here in the village. These sprigs of rosemary have a direct family tree that goes back into medieval times, or so it seems. The Meredith family tree goes all the way back to the Kings of Wales.
 
These woody herbaceous bushes that we grew from the cuttings that were given to us by Merro back in the seventies were propagated out into the series of bushes that we still have growing today.
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I climb up onto a kitchen chair and then make my way up onto the kitchen table and hook down one of the last plaits of garlic, still hanging up there from last October. There are only 4 plaits left, two at each end of the roof truss. We usually run out about now just a few months short of the full year. We had a good crop last year, so we will have enough to make it through the last 2 months. The garlic that is left hanging  up there is a little bit tired. It has started to shoot and is somewhat dry and withered, but it still tastes like garlic when cooked, only just not as strong as it was.
 
We planted this years crop of a few hundred cloves, back in March, they are doing well and should be ready to lift in October or November when they start to die down.
 
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I brown the shoulder in good local olive oil on the stove top. The Queen of Yorkshire pudding has lit the stove early, so as to get a good hot oven. She intends to cook a Yorkshire pudding with the juices from the roast and she will need a very hot oven at the end for that, so as to get it just right. We toss in some quartered onions and some of our freshly dug King Edward potatoes. The roasting pan then goes into the oven. We cook it long and slow, with the heat gently increasing as we go, so that the lamb finishes with a nice caramelised taste and the oven is hot, ready for the Yorkshire pudding to go straight in.
Yorkshire pudding, for those who don’t know, is a kind of savoury pancake that is cooked after a roast, in the same pan, using the pan juices. There is just enough time to cook it quickly while the roast rests before carving. I know some families that serve it as an entrée with gravy before the roast, but we have always had it on the plate with the meat and vegetables.
 
recipe;
2 table spoons full of plain flour
1/2 a cup of milk
2 eggs
This mixture, although quite simple, has to be made up at least an hour or so before it’s needed, so that all the ingredients have time to get to know each other well. An occasional whisking with a fork every now and then when passing also helps. Prepare the mix when you prepare the meat.
 
Remove the roast from the baking pan and drain all the juices to one end. Spoon off what fat you can from the top of the liquid. Put the pan back on top of the stove and get it cracking hot. Pour in the Yorkshire pudding mix so that it fills the pan with a thin layer. Place it back in the oven for a few minutes at full heat. It should come out all risen and fluffy with a golden crust. It looks great as it comes out of the oven, but soon collapses as it is cut up into sections and placed on the plates. It’s very fashionable these days to cook individual small Yorkshire puddings in a cake tray. Traditionally, Yorkshire pudding was a cheap way to fill a family up while getting the most out of a slim allowance of meat for the week.
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When the meat has been in the oven for half its time, we add the potatoes, I go out and pick the Brussels sprouts and broccoli. They are as fresh as they can be, I rinse them and have them ready in the saucepan. When the roast comes out of the oven, the pudding goes in. The greens go on the hot plate with a little boiling water from the kettle. I steam the greens.
 
We enjoy our roast lamb as it falls from the bone and melts in our collective mouths, with Yorkshire pudding, fresh picked home grown Brussels sprouts and broccoli. These are hot, but still slightly firm straight off the stove top and onto the plates last thing, with our own roasted potatoes, crispy outside, but smooth and soft inside. It’s a very special treat to dine for, that we seem to be able to have quite often — sans  the lamb.
 
It’s Geordie’s birthday coming up soon. We arrange for a few very close friends to go out to dinner. Just the 6 of us, we go to a very special multiple starred restaurant in Sydney, He has chosen it for his own party. He once worked here doing cooking demos. We have various drinks at the bar, while we wait for the seating in the restaurant proper to open. I’m the designated driver, so only water for me,
We eventually go in and are seated. The staff are attentive and helpful. This restaurant is full, even on a Wednesday evening. The prices are expensive in my opinion. Perhaps over-rated for what is on offer. $25 for a small plate of entrée. It seems a bit much to me.  But I can’t deny that the place is full, mid week. However , it is the most expensive suburb in Sydney, full of millionaires. So the prices are all-right for them.
 
The waitress starts to tell us about the specials on the menu tonight. She lists off the dishes one at a time. She starts with the restaurant’s famous lamb dish. The signature dish of the house, slow roasted and served with your choice of side dishes, like steamed vegetables.
I don’t want to sound too much like a toffee-nosed twat, but we had that exact meal last night!
I bet that they don’t do Yorkshire pudding as a special side dish.
 
with love from the Queen of the hot oven and her Yorkshire Man.

Annabelle Sloujetté, the Dream Weaver

 

Annabelle comes to visit.
She calls in every now and then. Usually at short notice, often unexpectedly. She is buxom and gorgeous and fills the room with her personality. Always bearing gifts of focussed thoughtfulness and appropriate application. Not expensive, often hand made, and by her own fair hand at that. A beautiful creative spirit. She lets herself in. She has her own key.
We awake in the morning to find her car in the garden. She emerges late for breakfast. She arrived quite late. It was a long drive here from where-ever she has been previously. She sits down at the kitchen table and starts to tell me her meaningful dreams. How they inspire her art works and keep her endlessly entertained. She has learned over her lifetime to be able to control her dreams and make them conform to her desires and deepest wishes. I ask her how she does this, but she doesn’t know. It’s something that she can just do. It happens, just like shit happens, only in this case, in the reverse sort of way, and a much better outcome. It’s a great skill to have and she really enjoys exercising it.
It has inspired her latest series of drawings. She’s putting together a show, this time of drawings, so different from the last one of welded, re-cycled metal junk sculptures. She starts to tell me all about the drawings in detail, but stops. Gets up and loads the stove top espresso machine and then starts to tell me more. This is interrupted by her trip to the loo, but she is right back and picks up mid sentence where she was with her pet black cat sitting on her windowsill and wanting to come in or out, whichever she isn’t at the time, while her lover caresses her and adores her. There is a ‘bleeped-out,’ deleted-scene here as the coffee machine hisses and gurgles to its orgasmic conclusion and she ends her tale of fulfilment with a sigh.
Bringing the percolator over to the kitchen table, she places it down and continues. It’s a long story of her younger life on the high seas circumnavigating the Pacific in a small hand made sailing boat. After she ran away from home, over summering in Rarotonga to avoid the hurricane season. The Cook Island girls are the best hula dancers in the world apparently. With special gifts of hip rotation at high speed, mesmerising and hypnotic, if not erotic.
There is a brief interlude where the story of the wild Pacific is intertwined with her other life with a publican in an Irish pub two decades apart. The smell of burning peat and the thick black velvety Guinness and Porter, so ideally matched to the cool damp weather and an entire village of characters that flow in and out of this period of her life. The tale so involved and convoluted, that it images the wild growth of the jungle on the Pacific Island where she slept on the beach and lived for a season on fruits and by beach-fishing, where drift wood was burnt instead of peat.
There is a rapid segue into Sydney in the seventies after leaving her post with the Embassy on that hot humid archipelago with all the stuffed-up Expats and their prim and proper wives who’s only conversation was their children and what they would do when they got back to Canberra. How she loved the native children and how they laughed all the time and how everyone in the villages walked just sooo slowly. There was always plenty of time for everything, no one had any money and everyone ‘made-do’. And keeping the wild Pacific Island theme of head hunting and being sought out and ‘head-hunted’ herself by a big advertising firm in the city, which wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. All internal turmoil and not pacific at all. But it brought her obliquely into the world of fine art, and then craftsmanship, where she settled after jumping ship in New Zealand and learned pottery making in Nelson. A beautiful time in her life where everyone was on the same page and working together in a big loosely bonded creative community. There she also learnt spinning and weaving and as she spins her tale I’m woven into the filigree of her life’s fabric.
She swears that we met, when I taught her ceramics at the National Art School in Sydney where I worked for 25 years, or was it at Mackie college, where I briefly taught trainee art teachers, but I never taught an Annabelle Sloujetté that I’m aware of, there was a girl of Dutch heritage whose parents came out after the war and settled here, but I can still remember who that was and it wasn’t Annabelle. Is Sloujetté a Dutch name? Perhaps  Belgian? She knows an awful lot about good chocolate and how to work and cook with it.
However, there is something very familiar about that huge flowing mane of thick black locks, lightly tinted with henna. I’m trying to place her in my memory of over 2,000 student that flowed through the place during my time there. I was only casual, working one day a week, teaching ceramic technology. Not all the students came to my classes regularly. Mine was the least popular subject in an Art School where everyone came to be fabulously creative, and to express themselves artistically. I was asked to teach technology and set on a Friday afternoon, when the students returned from a long lunch at the pub. Not every student paid full attention. Some preferring to sit up the back and play air guitar instead of concentrating on the maths and physics of ceramic chemistry. I think that I only got the job, because nobody else wanted to teach it in that time slot.
Annabelle continues her living dream. She put herself through Art School by calling on her old skills and pulling beers in a pub, but this time without the smell of peat, just sticky nylon carpet, stale hops and cigarette smoke. She starts to tell me about the guy who lived upstairs and who was seriously weird and suddenly there are feral Greenies, Black Cats, White Witches, Blues musicians down at the cross-roads at midnight. He said that he would teach her music, but she wouldn’t have a bar of him, he was far too crotchety. His bass nature scared her, but then there’s a brief mention of a fling with a guitar maker during her time in California on the eastern leg of her Pacific odyssey and how she once met Neil Young at a party up laurel Canyon, He was funny, quite dry, and very cryptic. Then she’s off to Haight Ashbury, but doesn’t find any love there. She completely misses Woodstock because she doesn’t believe that it will be any good, and then regrets it, but not for too long.
Always a restless spirit, her story moves on to Swinging London and the Emergence of the School of the Masters of Wine, her admin duties and all the left-over tastings that she got to take home. It was the only way to keep warm in that little, expensive and very cramped bed-sit through the winter. Never seeing the sun, working indoors all day under fluoros and leaving for work and returning from it in the dark. Of being SAD and longing for something more than just a wage packet and a place to sleep. There always had to be some art. That’s what has always kept her going.
She pauses and looks around for the coffee. Apparently it’s still too hot. I’m trying to focus and maintain my attention, but I’m concerned about the coffee, I get up to fetch her a cup, which she refuses, and I miss the bit about the drawing teacher at the Slade School of Art and something that happened there, which is a pity as I really was interested. But there is no going back and her story moves on to the south of France, sunshine and Vineyards,  the vendange, so much work to be had everywhere at this time, the money is very poor, but the food is fantastic.
She wants to be involved in the wine making but has no skills, she gets to see the plunging of the cap and the big old basket press at work. She works hard and they like her. The old man asks to see her hands, he can see straight away that she is a hard worker. Without much of the language, she understands that they will keep her on. Her new job is to help spread the spent ‘must’ from the early white grapes back onto the vines. The hillside is steep and the stony ground makes for difficult foot holds. She collapses into bed at the end of each day.
She has been sleeping on the ground next to her scooter, wrapped in a make-do swag, but now they warm to her and let her sleep in the old tobacco curing shed, it has no walls, but there is straw and it is much better than being outside, as the weather is starting to turn now.
She gets to see the conversion of the red ‘pomace’ into cheap spirit brandy by soaking the red spent must skins in water, adding beet sugar and re-fermenting the resulting liqueur into alcohol and then distilling it into spirit. This old farm doesn’t have its own still, so the 2nd ferment of the ‘must’ is sent away for the distillation. When it comes back as spirit, it’s stored in two huge old wine barrels. Strictly for family use – no tax to pay here. These peasants are canny and frugal. She finishes up washing, rinsing and filling the new wine into the red/brown wine-stained wooden barrels.
She loved France, there was glorious food, handsome men and a stint in a ‘very good’ restaurant where she learnt so much, not as a cook, but as a kitchen hand. Always with an eye to improve herself and make the best of any situation, she observes everything and makes careful notes when she gets back to her little Gité where she over-winters.
From wine to food and her time Cheffing back in London, in that little restaurant where they tried so hard, but her partner drank all the profits. She explains her method of making the best soufflé in the world and now it’s time for me to get out my notebook, but there isn’t time. This international woman of mystery reappears in an artists squat in a densely urbanised city, a living space crammed with little romantic lane-ways, medieval in their narrowness, stuffed with small bars, artists studios, brothels and pimps. Everyone is making some sort living here doing what they can do. She doesn’t intend to stay long but falls in love with a certain man and this place, where everyone speaks with a lisp, just like the King. There is live music every night and dancing. She finds out that he is already married and isn’t interested in any kind of commitment and neither is she, so she’s gone.
She’s with another artist now, a tough macho guy, but he’s a hollow man. He mistreats her and he is floored for his inappropriate behaviour. She walks out on him after having held a knife to his throat and seeing all the colour drain from his face, his swarthy complexion turns absolutely white and beads of sweat start to form on his brow. He sees the anger burning in her eyes, and he knows she means it. She sees the terror in his eyes, and knows that he now really knows her, and that she does mean it. It’s a fair exchange, she’s satisfied, but he wont get another chance. She slams the door on him and dumps all his stuff out the window into the street. This is one woman not to be messed with, but she knows that he has friends and that this is his city, so she’s moving on. Fully tanked with life skills now, she knows her way around and this time, it’s time to go, NOW!
While day-labouring on a farm, she finds an old antique BMW tourer in the barn and buys  it from the farmer. He doesn’t want to sell it, not to her or anyone, but she wins him over with her soufflé, or so she says. Then sets off overland to return to the Lucky Country, but the bike gets re-stolen in Italy and so she swaps to a big old Lambretta tourer, which she rides across into the middle East. She sleeps on the steps of the synagogue and wakes with a heavy Dew on her.
“I don’t believe that for a minute”….
but she doesn’t stop. She knows that she has got a laugh out of me, and that’s all that counts. I fell for it.
She smokes hashish with the border guards crossing into Afghanistan and bribes her way through Pakistan and into India by trading the last of her instant coffee and razor blades. She does things that she’s not proud of, but makes do as means must.
She always wanted to go to Tibet, but never managed to make the detour. “There’ll be another time”, but there wasn’t.
The story then slithers into The Territory and venomous snakes, cane toads, lay lines and her aunty’s secret woman’s business that I can’t know about, but it doesn’t matter, because I don’t need to know. I’m momentarily mesmerised by her aboriginal connections. Her work with them as a teacher, and how she learnt as much as she taught. Her love of their art and the strong linear motifs in their dot paintings. There is a reference to the similarities of tying ropes on the boat and the tying of fish hooks for beach fishing. The convoluted loops of this story morph into a story of Maori fish hooks and how they were traditionally tied without a hole in the bone. This story of knots and how to tie them is so amazing that I can hardly follow it. When the first white settlers arrived on the scene, The Maori learned to steal the galvanized steel staples out of the fence posts and use these as fish hooks! So adaptive and clever. She tells me of the woven fibre fish traps she saw while working in New Guinea, so simple and effective. She reels me in with a tale of cooking fresh fish on the beach over an open fire, skewered on sticks and later baking the bigger ones packed in potters clay in among the fading coals and ash.
I’m starting to think that her coffee will be way too cold if she doesn’t pour it soon. But I’m reluctant to try and slide a word in edgewise into her flowing narrative, in case it breaks the spell. I’m enjoying this torrent of language and the associated images of a rich, full life. When I look, I think that I can see some Maori influence in her amazing long black hair, so thick, dense and rich with a beautiful sheen. But Sloujetté isn’t any Maori name that I’m aware of. I think it’s Dutch? There hasn’t been any mention of a Mr Sloujetté in the story so far. I’m wondering if she really is of Pacific or Maori decent? If she has any secret hidden ‘tatoos’? But I’m too scarred to ask her to ‘Show us yer tats!’.
She just might!
She has perfected the art of removing her bra while sitting at table without adjusting any of her other clothing. She unclips it at the back and removes each shoulder strap from under her tea shirt, one at a time, while still talking, and without mentioning what she is in fact doing. Slowly, effortlessly, without drawing any attention to herself. Suddenly, the under-garment is in her lap and she sighs in relief as her marvellous breasts fall free. Later, she flips around to make a point and I have to duck, lest I loose an eye from one of those free swinging nipples under her T shirt, bouncing around like a sack full of puppies.
There was a brief episode in a Buddhist retreat and a quiet reflective mood comes over her. She reflects on her love of drawing and the inner calm of mindfulness and its relationship to good draftsmanship. There are deep connections to be followed through with, but she digresses with a few bars of her life with a jazz and blues musician and the few bars that they frequented together in their time. Drunken nights and lost days. Blue notes and a miss-placed G string.
Her story then remembers a summer of lovemaking in an apple orchard. The season is heading into summer and the giving is easy. She kneels to please him, But one swallow doesn’t make a summer. She’s living with the orchardists son in a little batch up-back. The orchardist’s bee-keeping neighbour went on to conquer the tallest summit and got a step named after him, while the tall orchardist father stayed home, because he couldn’t leave the farm, his ageing parents or even raise enough money to make the trip. Her very tall orchardist, so tall that he didn’t use a ladder to pick the fruit, most of the time, loves her for loving him and wants her to stay, She recalls all the hard work and the sore muscles, long soaking baths in a big wooden tub out in the field with an amazing view down over the valley. A wood fired, cast iron stove, fired on the prunings and apple cobblers after dinner with Edmonds agar custard. She stayed on after the summer for the harvest, but couldn’t stand the cold and cut free before the winter pruning, she leaves and follows the sun. Later, she eventually ends up walking to base camp as a right of passage. Maybe she could have gone further if the times had been different, but that was then and those were the times.
As her story rises to its conclusion, she decides that the coffee is now just the right temperature and picks up the espresso machine, flips the lid open and drinks the straight short black directly from the percolator. Then, satisfied that I’ve taken it all in, she wanders back to bed to catch up on her sleep. “To sleep, perchance to dream, and there’s the rub, for in that sleep, what dreams may come?”
When I return from work, she is gone. The spell is broken and the only reminder of her ever having been here are the scorch marks on our lawn, where she did a bit of circle work with her ute before leaving.
It’s amazing how one visitor can fill your week.
Fond regards from the ever so boring ‘stay at home Steve’

13 Years of Hard Work Up in Smoke

Winter Delights.

It’s the middle of winter and it’s time for pruning. I spend the morning pruning the dozen or so almond trees and then go on to prune the shiraz grape vines, as they are close together. These young almond trees are just coming into their 13th year now, we have other, older almonds that are 38 years old as well, but they are in another part of the garden, in with the original stone fruit orchard and are quite established.
Once you get into it, it’s an easy, mindless job. The sun is warm on my back, as there is no wind this morning. It’s a nice job, so much better than cleaning out the kiln firebox. My only difficulty is when I’m working around the trees and have to prune into the sun, which is low in the sky and makes me squint with it’s brightness. If this is the only thing that I can find to whinge about, then I am a happy man.
While I’m at it, I can’t help but recall Peter Mayle’s fictional neighbour ‘Massot” who he encounters while ‘Massot’ is pruning his vineyard. He has been pushing a wheel barrow along the rows depositing all the prunings into the wheel barrow. There is a small fire glowing in the bottom of the metal barrow and as each new collection of cuttings is deposited, it is ignited from the coals and ashes of the previous vine. As it is described, I can visualise that it’s a beautiful system of ancient ancestry. It removes the dead wood from the vineyard. It doesn’t require any cartage. It sterilizes the woody plant material that might otherwise spread infected material from vine to vine and as there is a hole in the bottom of the barrow, all the ash from the fire is slowly drained out along the rows of vines as soluble fertilizer for when it rains. A pretty perfect system. Beautiful in it’s simplicity. I’ve thought about burning my prunings in one of our metal barrows. Sending 13 years of hard work up in smoke.

Mayle takes great pleasure in humiliating his hard-working peasant neighbour for his earthy roots by pointing out that he has seen small bundles of vine cuttings for sale in posh English department stores, sold as kindling – selling for 10 Euros per bundle. Massot looks back along the long rows of vine trellises and can visualise hundreds of Euros of kindling gone up in smoke. It’s meant to be funny, but maybe it can be read in a different way. Perhaps it illustrates that Mayle feels inferior to the local French man in his natural environment. Mayle can’t see the beauty of the system, only the money and we know that the peasant isn’t getting the money, he has a life deeply embedded in the terroir. Mayle will never be part of this environment, never really comfortable, never naturalised into it, always the expat, his clean hands will always tell that he is from somewhere else.

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I bundle my prunings, not for sale, but for kindling in our own fire place. Often used to start the kiln. I like the symmetry of the closed loop. Use what you’ve got. The prunings have to be removed from the orchard and vineyard. The best way to deal with the issues of disease is the burn them, but rather than burn them for no beneficial outcome, using them to start the kiln is a positive use, appropriate for a post-modern peasant-potter.

I water the big potato patch down in the Pantry Field and find that they are still growing wonderfully well, as are the field mushrooms in among them. The tall tree cover has worked wonderfully well to keep the frost off. I wasn’t fully aware up until now just how warm it was down there in that secluded little clearing. I collect a dozen big mushrooms for dinner from in amongst the spuds. We’ll have mushroom soup tonight. A few bunches of herbs and an onion browned in olive oil till soft, then the diced mushroom added and sautéed, some marrowbone and garden mirepoix stock added in and all left to simmer down and reduce, lastly a little flour and oil Roux to thicken it up a little, some pepper, a lovely warming and filling garden delight on a winters night.

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We have a huge pile of stumps, old logs too big for the chain saw and too heavy for the tractor to move around, These massive sections of pine tree trunk were given to us to burn in the kiln by my friend’s Mother, when a hundred year old pine snapped off in a severe storm, crashing down in her garden narrowly missing her house. The tree was 1.8 metres across and each section weighed more than a tonne. It was delivered by bobcat and tip truck, 20 tonnes of it over three trips. I cut up what I could manage by myself, the section up to 1.2 metres, but some of the larger base sections were just too big. Now, after 3 or 4 years, the white ants and wood rot have set in, so I have to deal with it. I get the bobcat back and get what’s left pushed up into a pile. We add some nasty weeds that we don’t want to seed around the garden and woody garden waste too thick for the shredder, but too small for hob wood. It’s all piled up on the spare block, where we stock pile our kiln wood.
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As the weather is clear and fine with no wind, it’s winter and there are no fire bans, we decide to burn off all this otherwise difficult to deal with herbage. In the evening we light it and it goes up like a Guy Fawkes’ night celebration. We have the long fire hoses ready and the high pressure fire pump going. It’s a good chance to give it a run and check that everything is in working order, ready for the summer.
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We crack a bottle of home-brew beer, congratulate ourselves for a long day of hard work and watch it burn, The flare of light tinder is all over in half an hour, but the massive stumps and log sections remain glowing and smouldering into and through the night. Janine is up at 1.00 am to check it and I’m out there again at 6am.
In the early morning light there are three separate collections of smouldering lumps. I get the tractor out and push them all together, back into one big pile and they burst back into flames and continue to burn throughout the day. I hate to waste wood like this, but without the machinery to deal with such big lumps, there doesn’t seem to be any other option for me. I can’t afford to pay the bob cat driver to come and work here regularly, while I work my way through the pile, I don’t want to have a massive termite nest on my door step and now that it has spent a few years in the weather, what’s left of this spongy pine has all gone quite ‘manky’, and lost most of it’s calorific value. A fire seems to be the best way.

We spend all of the next day tending and supervising the fire. Cleaning up a lot of small rubbish, rotten wood and weeds. Someone has to stay with it all of the time, just to be safe. There might be some good ash to be collected, if there isn’t any wind or rain before it all cools down, so that I can get to it.
I cook tofu in sesame oil for lunch with garden vegetables, broccolini and coriander. A little bit of fish sauce makes it sing.

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Day 3 of our fire sees very little left of the pile. Just one big block that started off as a 1.8 x 1.8 metre stump, weighing several tonnes, is now mostly gone. We have to drag in other pieces of wood to keep it alight. It’s a chance to clean up the back block and the little lane that wanders through the centre of our land. This pretty little wandering bushy lane was once the main east west road through the village. It was never legally gazetted, but just used by the locals as the shortest route between A and B. There were 3 attempt to make an access path through to the east ridge and 2 of them went through our place. They were both abandoned because the land there is so low-lying and boggy in wet weather. Parts of the lane were paved with stones to try to overcome this, but never satisfactorily. Eventually a legally gazetted road was built in the right place, but it meant a lot of very expensive earthworks.
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Our small lane is almost completely over grown now. We’ve seen to that by blocking it off at both ends to stop weekend 4 wheel drivers winching their way through our land without asking on long weekends. It’s a very pretty place to go now, and as it isn’t used anymore, except by us to get to the back of our land to collect firewood, it has soon become over-grown. I decide to take the tractor down there, mow it and clean out all the dead wood, and while I’m at it, I cut up a few dead trees that have fallen down along the track and up on the dam bank of the ‘Max Lake’ out biggest dam, The one that we had built in order to collect and store water for irrigating our vineyard.

Janine has a stroke of genius in getting onto the hot smoldering coals and hot ashes to poke at the fire and shift logs with her rake without melting her shoes. She places thick sheets of stringybark bark down on the ashes first then steps onto them to do the work. She then retrieves them before they burst into flames. I have ruined one pair of old boots by working in the hot ashes and melting the soles.
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As it’s Friday and the end of the week, we celebrate by not eating any mushrooms. We have lightly fried tofu again with more garden greens.

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So that’s what ‘s been happening this week with the hot-footed, self-reliant Guy and Girl Fawkes, who are lighting the blue touch-paper and standing back to wait and see what happens.

With fond regards from his Naked Flame and her Rake

Go Slow, Look fast

 

The Pots from our own firing a week or so ago have all been cleaned and sorted out now in the spare-time that we can find between weekend workshops and work in the garden and orchards. We forwent the leisurely mushroom, egg and bacon brunch and got stuck into cleaning pots early instead. There’ll always be time for that leisure day sometime in the future – when I find myself bored and with nothing to do!
Janine got some really nice little cups with dramatic carbon sequestration and loads of natural ash deposit all over the fire-face. The clay body flashed red and the carbon inclusion is dark charcoal grey and black. A really lovely dramatic result for her.  I think that they are stunning little gems.
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She has used one of her older North coast, wild beach, pumice glaze. It varies from batch to batch, just as ‘wild’ glazes should. Varying from pale green celadon-like, through darker bottle greens into this transparent ‘honey’ brown on this occasion.
It’s a complex function of the natural variations of the materials, where they are collected and how they are processed, but also what they are blended with and in what proportions, plus the firing and the wood. I love this unknowable and unpredictable quality, so have absolutely no intension of trying to regulate or control this wild beach girl.
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I love the way these little cups have flashed to a lovely warm red and yet picked up so much grey carbon during the firing, making for such a great contrast.

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Some of these cups are so grey with sequestered carbon, that it makes them look as though they are on a dark clay body. but they’re not. In fact they are only glazed to half way, and the wood ash during the firing has glazed them all over in some places.
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I have some nice rough country kitchen plates, glazed with the fluid blue/cream ash glaze. Some very nice ikebana vases fired in the front of the kiln in the ‘Zone of Death’ for the exhibition in Taiwan and three lovely tea bowls for the exhibition in Singapore. Plus two nice faux shino tea bowls for a group show at Kerrie Lowe Gallery in Sydney. So the pressure is off. I have everything that I need and more. This life of self-reliance and DIY seems to have worked out OK for us. However, it’s a bit late now after almost 40 years together and living here to go back and make any changes. We have committed to this life and it has been good to us.
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The ash glazed plates will mostly go into use in our kitchen, but there will be a few for sale in the pottery and on our ‘Gallery’ menu on the blog, when I get around to it. I threw them with a feeling of being fast and loose so that the throwing marks are quite distinctive. They were actually thrown reasonably slowly, I just wanted them to look ‘fast’. This was to show off the pooling effect of the ash glaze at high temperature. They have turned out well and I’m happy with them. I wrote about making them 6 weeks ago in ‘Give Peas a Chance’, when I was throwing them.
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 There is an inevitable time lag between throwing the wet clay on the potters wheel, drying it to leather hard ready for turning the bases into a smooth shape and creating a ‘foot’ ring, if required by the form, then thoroughly drying them out before bisque firing. The biscuit firing is heated slowly up to 1000oC in the solar powered, electric kiln. Then after slow cooling, the pots are unpacked, fettled and prepared for glazing. The water based glaze mixture is made from sieved wood ash from the kiln and/or kitchen stove firebox, mixed with ground up local stones. In this case the application is quite thick because the glaze runs and pools at high temperature. After the glaze is dry, the pots are packed into the wood fired kiln to be heated up to 1300oC in reduction atmosphere over approximately 20 hours of constant stoking.
It’s amazing that potters will actually come here to work through the night firing the kiln with us and be happy for the experience! Potters?!!
The pieces below were in fact fired in my own firings, squeezed in-between the regular weekly workshop firings.
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These 3 Ikebana vases have come from the kiln looking pretty good. I’m very lucky! They all say wood fired, but they are each different in their own way. The first 2 are made from my washed basalt gravel sediment paste body. Black and mat and exerting a strong influence on the glazes that I apply over them. The 3rd from red flashed stoneware that has picked up a lot of carbon inclusion during the firing.
I made a number of these vases, so I have a few to choose from. I will put these others up in the gallery.
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The tea bowls that I have selected for the exhibition of ‘Chawan’ in Singapore are a mix of shapes and styles.

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 This bowl is of the more open ‘summer’ style of tea bowl.
It is gently undulating with a softness of form and surface, but with superb strength of character. It speaks quietly but looks as if it knows something about a big stick.
It is made from my washed basaltic gravel sediment body paste. It is very unusual. It fires dark charcoal grey to matt jet black. The extraordinarily high iron content makes it quite tricky to fire to high temperatures in reduction without melting it. When it survives, it is amazing. I love it. The body seeps its iron into what ever glaze is covering it and it changes them. In this case the glaze is an ash and rock combination that fires to a mushroom pink colour, with hints of grey and chocolate. Where the wood ash from the flame during firing impinges on the surface, it can bleed into the glaze base and turn it transparent so that the black body underneath is revealed. This bowl was very fortunate in the kiln. It was enhanced beyond what I put in the kiln, through the firing experience and emerged with a range of surface colours from matt pink to perlucent grey through to transparent black. The rim shows a saturated iron chocolate brown, where the glaze has run away from the rim during firing.
The surface exhibits four seasons, dry matt black, clear glossy transparent black, soft satin pearlescent blue/grey and densely matted soft mushroom pink. I love it!

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This bowl although new, looks old.
It has had a tough short life and shows it experiences clearly on its surface. However, it still carries itself with grace and poise, despite its scars and marks of surviving the experience of the firefront. A bit like life.
It has superb strength of character. A strong, beautifully textured foot that illustrates the roughness of the clay beneath, while draping itself in a luxuriously soft, satiny, pink/grey cloak of wood ash and granite glaze, with highlights of runny pale blue opalescent ash glaze.  It’s a closed ‘winter’ bowl and feels wonderful in the hands.

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This ‘winter’ bowl is glazed from my local native ‘bai-tunze’ porcelain stone body, converted to a glaze by the addition of our local limestone deposit and a small amount of ash. The resulting glaze is of the ‘guan’ / ‘celadon’ family of glazes. it is pale blue/turquoise green where it is applied thickly over a pale clay and a more sombre grey where thin. this stoneware body has a small amount of iron present, just enough to colour the clay grey in reduction with a charcoal carbon inclusion where it is exposed directly to the wood fire flame. the ash that has melted over it during firing varies from golden yellow to mat brown and contrasts beautifully against the thicker turquoise glaze on the rim.
It has a quiet contemplative feeling and a subtle restrained beauty.
I’m quite happy with these three different bowls, made from 3 different ground or washed rock bodies and with 2 different wood ashes and ground rock glazes.
This next bowl is a response to some wonderful work exhibited by Toni Warburton, where she re-imagined traditional grey shino with a completely contemporary take that involved making grey shino images, textures and colours at earthenware temperatures. These were ceramic paintings/sculptures that imaged the aesthetics of the old wares. They were exhibited at the Australian Ceramics Assn. exhibition; “The Course of Objects – The Fine Lines of Enquiry”.
I really liked this work very much. I couldn’t have thought in this way. But, once having seen it, it spurred my imagination. I’ve always had a reluctance to try my hand at shino. It’s been so overdone and especially by wood firers, and why not? it’s an amazingly good and ever so attractive glaze surface. But, exactly because everyone is doing it, or has done it, it suffers from over exposure. I don’t want my work to be indistinguishable from everyone else’s.
I really admire the original pieces made in Japan in the Mino area in the last two or three generations by Arakawa and his followers and imitators. If Shino is what happens when you take the local stone and apply it over the local clay, then that might have some area left to be explored here in the Southern Highlands and its surrounds. It won’t be shino, but it will be one of the local aesthetic variations that are possible to conceive of in this place, at this time.
I decided to try my local granites. aplite, porphyry and other acid volcanics and their derivatives, just to see what would happen. I even drove out of my shire to access some acid volcanics next door.
I’m thinking that if I apply this simple formula of ‘use what I have’, then do the best that I can with it. I just might get something interesting.
So this is what I have started to do. I don’t know what I’m doing with shino, I’n a novice, but I know my materials, so something has to happen. Let’s hope it’s good.
This winter bowl was fired in the ‘Zone of Death’ at the front of my kiln firebox. It’s blushing with embarrassment at being so lucky to have survived the ‘zone’ in a first attempt at Faux Shino.
It’s called ” Me No Know Mino”
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I think that there is a bit of potential here.
Watch this space.
This new work will be shown at the Kerrie Lowe Gallery in Newtown in a few weeks time.
Best wishes from the slow moving Faux Peasant and his Wild Beach Girl.