A Handmade Christmas

We have been busy making things for Xmas.

We have been making beer, making porcelain body and making kilns, cooking and sewing. I’d like to claim that I have been making music as well, but I’m so bad at playing my cello that I can’t claim that the noise I make is music, just noise — but with some sort of intent and structure.

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I had a kiln ordered for before Xmas as well as one for after Xmas as well, while the first one was at the galvanisers, waiting to be dipped in molten zinc to permanently rustproof it. I spent the waiting-time, and there is always waiting time at the galvanisers, 3 weeks is usual and longer nearer to Xmas. I spent this time productively making a small re-locatable kiln on castors. This one is for a potter who only has the use of one arm, so everything had to be designed to be flexible and achievable one-handed.  This kiln is designed to use 2 quite small and thin kiln shelves, so that it can be loaded with one hand. The kiln has a ceramic fibre-lined lid, which is light weight and hinged, using an adjustable hinge system, that I built, so that it can be lifted simply up into a safe position and held there with chains, just past the pivot point. As the ceramic fibre on the lid seal compresses the hinge can be adjusted to allow for the change in height, so as to maintain a perfect seal. The gas burners are self-igniting using a piezo-electric ignition system that can be operated along with the thermo-electric safety switch, all with one hand.

I’ve tried to think it all through so that it is as flexible and practical as possible as well as being safe. I have to make sure that it conforms to all of the Australian Standards as well.

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Yesterday, we spent a day washing, cleaning and sterilising 60 of our 30 year old beer bottles. There are some real antiques in this collection. Labels from breweries that you can’t buy any more. The old Coopers long necks were so solid and reliable. It takes longer to clean, sterilise and dry them than it does to fill and cap them. It takes us most of a leisurely day to get it all done and then clean everything up again and put all the gear back in its place. It’s a once a year job.

60 bottles of beer will last us all year, because we also make cider from our apples in the autumn, as well as a small amount of wine from our shiraz grapes. Last year we didn’t get to make any cider, because after the bad bush fires that cleaned up all the forest around here. There was not very much for the birds to eat, so they came here and cleaned up every piece of fruit that wasn’t netted. The apples trees are just too big now in their 38th year to get nets over, so there was no crop, hence  no cider. However, the year before was really good and we made 120 bottles of cider, so we still have plenty in the cellar, enough to last a few years. Once the bottles are crown sealed, the cider will last many years. We have drunk it up to 5 year old with no noticeable deterioration of flavour or head/mouse.

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I try to make a years supply of porcelain clay body in the summer time while the weather is hot and the humidity is low. It is made from ball milled ‘bai-tunze’ porcelain stone in a liquid ‘slip’ form, so it needs to be dried out and firmed up on a drying bed in the sun after milling. These drying conditions have not been present up until now. We have had almost constant rain, thunderstorms and showers every day since I got back. It’s been wonderful for the garden and orchards. Now it is easing off a little I’m hopeful that I can get some porcelain made. I’ve started the process of crushing and ball milling and will store the body as slip to age until I can get it dry. I should have been doing this before today, but there just isn’t enough time in the day to do everything that I want to achieve. As well as make a living.

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A wheel barrow load of porcelain stones in front of the big Jaw crusher

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close-up of the stone fragments. They have the same black mould on the surface as the similar porcelain stone from Arita.

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The small jaw crusher and buckets and sieves.

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The big ball mill that holds 30 kgs of stone grit.

I got an unexpected Xmas gift yesterday. I went for a hearing test, because my doctor thought that I might be loosing some acuity in one ear in my old age. The Lovely often says that I don’t listen, but I think that that is another matter all together. I was concerned, because a life spent working with power tools, angle grinders, rock crushers, ball mills and chainsaws, must surely have taken its toll. Fortunately, the audiologist found that my hearing was normal for someone of my age, not perfect, but OK. I must admit that some times I don’t wear the ear-muffs on every single occasion that I ought to, but I wear them most of the time and the benefits of that cautious behaviour are now paying dividends.

A nice unexpected present.

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We decide to cook one of the last pieces of lamb that our son Geordie bought in the middle of the year. As he is a chef at a very prestigious restaurant with a couple of ‘hats’ rating. He will be cooking Xmas dinner for everyone else today. We will have our Xmas lunch with him tomorrow. This last piece of his lamb is the saddle with the eye fillets. Saving the best till last. This will be this months red meat meal. I simmer it very gently in a bottle of our home made quince cider along with a couple of our sliced onions. Put half a bottle of quince puree in the mix and spread the remaining half bottle of puree over the top of the saddle as a paste. After 1 1/2 hrs I drain it off and add a little of our local EV olive oil. I add a few of our newly lifted new season potatoes, a couple more onions and half a bottle of preserved baked, quartered quinces from last autumn. I bake this combo slowly for another 1 1/2 hrs. It’s a triumph of melt-in-your-mouth flavours. The twice baked quinces are amazing and the quince puree that has covered the lamb has kept it succulent and moist and amazingly flavoursome. We are very lucky people to be able to enjoy what would otherwise be an unaffordable meal. Janine steams some of our diced zucchinis with mint leaves. I go under the floor and into the wine cellar and retrieve a bottle of 1994 Wynns Coonawarra, John Riddoch, Cab sav. At 20 years old, it is amazingly spritely and still just a little bit tannic. It still has plenty of life left in it. I open it when we start cooking and it is very mellow and smooth, rich and complex and by the time the meal is ready, it is well breathed and a very good match. I still have one bottle left in the box. We’ll try it again in another couple of years.

We spend the rest of the day relaxing. Janine reading the letters of John and Sunday Reed, while I get out my cello.

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I am really grateful that we are able to live this indulgent, self-reliant life that we have chosen for ourselves. On this quiet day, when it isn’t possible to do much else, we do what we always do. I check out the garden, pull a few weeds, pick some food for dinner, do a bit of watering of those soft, tender young seedlings, I also unload the ball mill that was running for 16 hours over-night milling 30 kgs of porcelain stone. While The Lovely spends a relaxing morning cutting up some worn out cotton pants and making a couple of pairs of ‘gaiters’, ankle protectors to cover her socks and boot tops while gardening and mowing. Nothing is thrown out until it has been well and truly all used up. Re-used, re-purposed and finally re-cycled. I am also immensely grateful that we are fortunate enough to be living here, where there are no helicopter gunships, no land mines and no civil war. I am aware that we are very fortunate indeed!

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I am grateful.

fond regards from a lucky bloke and his industrious captain of her own of industry