Midwinter days – & Nights

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It’s quite frosty these midwinter mornings, now that the rain has cleared. I wander out in the frost to see how the gardening is faring. Especially the small new seedlings and emerging seeds. Everything looks pristine and bright. The frost crystals fringe the leaves and make the foliage look so delicate. My fingers are cold, but I go back and get the camera to take a few images.

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These cold winter days are so appropriate for minestrone. The Lovely picks carrots, cabbage, leeks and celery from the garden and browns an onion in good olive oil. She gas to climb up onto of the kitchen table to reach for another plait of our garlic that is hanging high in the kitchen ceiling curing. We are more or less half way through the garlic year and a bit more than half way through our supply of last years garlic.

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I pick the last of the summers dried beans, still in their pods, shell them and soak them overnight. They make a great start to a wholesome soup base. With the Lady’s magic touch, it all comes together into a warming and nourishing couple of meals.

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We are enjoying all the usual winter greens. The Brassicas are doing well just now in this cold weather. We have broccoli, cabbage, Brussel Sprouts and cauliflowers all on the go. A typical meals just now might be fish with 3 veg, but otherwise it’s just 3 or 4 veg.

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Tonight we have a piece of fish with twice cooked home-grown dutch cream potatoes. Twice cooking starches converts the starch from instantly available high GI starch and sugar, into slowly digested resistant starch, which is very low GI. I Serve this with Brussel sprouts and kale.

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I’ve been trying to find a way to enjoy kale, but it is rather limited in what can be done with it. I persist because kale and all the other older fashioned brassicas. The ones that still have their bitterness still in them, The ones where it hasn’t been bred out yet. These are thought to be very good for you.

Prof. Mark Mattson, of Johns Hopkins University has written a few articles about this. I read one in New Scientist magazine last year. “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. To summarise. The bitter principal in these veggies stimulates your immune system and tones you up.  So, I keep trying to make it more enjoyable. I’ve decided that the best that I can do is to slice the leafy material away from the stem, slice it finely and simmer it in it’s rinse water and a little olive oil with loads of garlic. Then serve with a squeeze of lemon and some fresh ground pepper and a little of my fake salt substitute. It’s almost enjoyable. Once I mixed in some Ethiopian Cabbage and red mustard leaves with the kale. It must have been very good for me, because I could only just eat it. It was so bitter.


The best way that I have settled into wit kale now, is to simmer the peeled leaves as above and mix in 100g of diced feta , before serving with the seasoning and lemon juice. Have no more fear of kale. This is lovely. The feta makes it all the more delicious and balanced. The fat content dramatically improves the balance, mouth feel and taste.


The Solstice Approaches

Here we are almost at the solstice. It’s dark until late in the morning and dark early in the evening. A few months ago, I booked one of my best friends, Warren, to come and help me do a lot of work. Now, the appointed weekend is here and it is pissing down. We can’t change the dates, we are both fully committed in other work for months ahead. We have to do it now – in this weather! We had the flood last week and have almost finished clearing up from that heavy rain and now it is raining again, almost constant drizzle to annoy us while we work.

Warren has come to help me build a wood shed for the kiln wood. We have a small shed for the house wood for the kitchen stove and heater, but the kiln wood is so much bigger and there is a lot of it when we do the weekend workshops. So, we have needed another woodshed for some years now. Last year was terrible for us. So stressful, as it always seemed to rain the week before the firing and we spent the year trying to work with wet wood. Sometimes I could store the wood in the kiln shed/factory. But if I was building a kiln in there at the time as well, there just wasn’t room for both. So, the wood was out in the rain. We tried tarping it, but there was loads of condensation under the tarp in the prolonged wet weather and sometimes it would blow off in the really heavy storms.

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So, we’re building a dedicated shed to store the long lengths of bourry box hob wood. At least that is the plan. The rain comes down in waves, so its jackets on for a while and then we start to steam inside them as we work hard, digging holes and ramming in the poles, lifting beams and climbing ladders, so then it’s jackets off until the rain comes back again. We are cold and damp by the end of the weekend, all our clothes are saturated with either sweat or rain. We finish off the shed by screwing the wall sheets on the outside, while the rain trickles off the new roof down our necks. We just happen to be working directly below the drip line. Who designed this thing?

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To make it worse, by the end of the weekend, with us two tramping about in the rain, all the ground is mushed up into a slippery slide quagmire. We find it hard to keep our balance towards the end. We finally finish in the dark, using the LED focussed torch beam on the battery drills to find the correct places for the last few screws.


It’s lovely to be able to strip off and have a steaming hot shower heated with our own firewood and the wood fired kitchen stove. We change into a clean set of dry clothes. It’s such a luxury, I’m so lucky to live here. I’m suddenly thinking of Syrian refugees transmigrating across Europe from one country to another. displaced by war and nobody wants them. They have no hot showers or warm house. I really am so lucky to be here.  The Lovely has got the fires going and the house is toasty and warm. We enjoy an amazing bowl of Janine’s warming ossobuco and a glass of red wine. We are all ready for an early bed.


The next day it’s the pump house on the dam bank. It has been there keeping the rain off the old electric pump for 40 years now. I built it out of scrap everything on a zero budget in 1976 when we first arrived here with few prospects and no money, with a double mortgage to support. I built that first shed out of scrounged material. It was rough as guts, just designed to last a short while until I could get around to building a ‘proper’ one. It’s finally falling over and the posts have rotted off at ground level and the dry stone wall is slowly pushing it over with the unbalanced weight of the moving stones. We demolish it in a few minutes and find that the eucalupt hard wood timbers from above ground, are still in excellent condition, even though they were salvaged 2nd hand 40 years ago. So is the roofing iron for that matter. It was worn out and rusty, and dumped at the local tip back in 1976, where there was no supervision at the dump. I saw it there abandoned, all bent and rusty looking. It went onto the roof the next week and has been there ever since. It’s still all bent and buggered, but no more rusty than it was and is still OK for re-use.


I check out what we have to work with and everything is in good nik, except the hard wood poles in the ground that have rotted off, broken and are falling over. I get 4 poles that  have been re-cycled from grape-vine trellises. We remake the old shed just as it was, but just a bit higher, using the taller poles. I need to put walls on this little shed, to keep the  rain off the electric pump, but that can wait. I put a plastic tarp over it for now. It may end up lasting another 40 years? Temporary things have a habit of doing that around here.

We discover through necessity, that it is OK to use electric power tools in the rain if you put them inside a plastic bag, with just the chuck sticking out. It works really well.

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The next job is the  verandah on the kiln shed to store the kiln wood when I have both a planned firing weekend and a new kiln job on the go in the kiln shed. There isn’t really room for both very comfortably. So we add an extension to the shed very quickly in just one day using what we have. A lot of 2nd hand timber and roofing iron. The common denominator for all the sheds is new poles in the ground. This time around I’m using ‘green treated’ poles to deter the white ants and the damp soil rot. Almost everything else is recycled. I have even found a bucket of pre-loved roofing screws, that I have salvaged from somewhere. It was so long ago, that I can’t even remember collecting, sorting and cleaning them. But there they are in my salvaged screws and bolts section of the shed, just waiting  to be called on for a second life.


I have no idea how much it would cost to pay to have all this work done. Obviously, quite a lot. Even the cost of materials would be excessive, never mind the labour cost. I’ve made all my own galvanised steel plate ‘triple-grip’ hardware fasteners. I have all the machines in the kiln factory sitting waiting to be used. We knock out a few hundred of these home-made brackets and then get to work framing the sheds. Everything is held together with roofing ‘TEK’ screws and these steel brackets. It makes for a very quick and seriously strong series of joints.

All of the 100mm. x 75mm. (4×3″) hardwood timber used in the roof trusses was salvaged from the old pottery tank stand. It stood out in the weather for over 30 years with a 13,500 litre (3,000 gallon) galvanised water tank on it, until the tank rusted out. Now it has been de-nailed and cleaned up and has found a new lease of life as roof trusses. I’m amazed how good the local hardwood from Mr. Blatch’s Mittagong saw mill was. It just doesn’t rot. I’ve bought hardwood since, obtained from down the coast, that only lasted 4 years out in the weather, before it rotted. It was largely sap wood. Very disappointing. I re-cycle all the large size 2.4m. x 1.2 m. (8′ x 4′) pallets that the stainless steel sheeting used in the kiln factory comes on. I use this wood for all the knee braces inside. It’s a very valuable resource, and much too good to burn.


We clad each of these three sheds with recycled galvanised iron that we have been given or scrounged over the years. I never turn down a pile of old roofing iron if it is offered. You never know when you might need it. Today we do need it and we manage to work our way through half of our reserve stack. It’s a great feeling to make very good use of someone else’s cast-offs. Giving them a new useful life, forestalling waste and avoiding earning a lot of extra money to buy these otherwise very expensive building products. I’m so pleased to be able to live this thrifty life of re-imagined waste.

Recycled wood, recycled roofing iron, recycled bolts and screws. It’s a triumph of frugality and re-purposing. I’m very proud of it all. These new old sheds have some of that hard to describe special quality of wabi/sabi. The old, lonely, quiet, rusty, well used, weathered quality of use and nostalgia.

A shiny new, zincalume clad, metal framed, mecano-set-style, farm shed, just wouldn’t do here. It wouldn’t fit in. I love the patina of age of these re-cycled building materials and constructing my sheds so that they have this special ‘weathered’ quality is important to me. They look just right in this setting that we are creating here.

I’m tired now. Actually, I’m a bit wabi/sabi myself – I’m old, well-used, rusted out and weathered, but otherwise very pleased.

Now for a big sleep.

The simple pleasure of a dull job

It’s that time of year again. I need to make some more wadding for packing the kilns. Making wadding isn’t fun. It isn’t even interesting really. If truth be told, it’s a rather dull job. It just has to be done. So, to make it as bearable as possible, I make it up in a monster size batch, so that the pain is all in one go and then there is the relief of knowing that it won’t need to be done again for another year.

Wadding is used to seperate the pots from the kiln shelves and the kiln props from the kiln shelves. It has to be refractory and remain crumbly and friable after being fired to stoneware temperatures, so that it can be removed easily, even allowing for the deposition of the fluxing effect of wood ash during the firing.

I make it up in big batches of 120 to 150 kilos. Every wood-firer has their own ‘secret’ recipe. I don’t have any secrets. They’re all up here on this blog. Some potters use various mixtures of silica and clay, but I don’t want to use fine silica dust anywhere if  I can help it, because of the risks of silicosis. Others use alumina powder and clay, which is very refractory, but expensive and in my opinion it is overkill. There is too much of an embedded energy debt tied up in aluminium and alumina processing. It takes massive quantities of electricity to extract aluminium from bauxite, most of which comes from burning coal, so it is rather unethical to use alumina powder, unless it is absolutely necessary. We use a small amount in shelf wash, but it amounts to just a kilo a year. I can live with that.  The other thing that I really dislike about alumina in wadding is that unless you are particularly careful, you end up putting stark white finger prints on the pots that are being packed after handling the wadding. You really have to wash your hands after every time you touch the stuff.


I have decided to make this batch of wadding out of ‘fat’ sand. Fat sand is also called ‘bush sand’,  ‘brickies sand’ or ‘bush loam’. It’s a coarse quartz sand with a fair amount of clay in it. It also contains some limonite or hydrated iron oxide, so it looks a bit yellowish. I mix this with some powdered kaolin. This is a great use for powdered kaolin. I don’t use a lot of it, but is is very useful for this purpose. I mix it in the ratio of one 25kg bag of kaolin to 4.5 buckets of damp washed sand and one bucket of water. When I can get clean saw dust I also add two buckets of saw dust, but this is getting harder to find these days. The last time I visited the local timber yard, they had been cutting some synthetic wood products that were a rich canary yellow. This stuff looked like it was loaded with resin glue. I thought that it might be particularly toxic if it were burnt in the kiln as wadding. So I didn’t collect any.  So, this batch of wadding is just going to be sand and clay.


Adding saw dust is great for wadding that use on new pots that are once fired, as it can leave an interesting charcoal grey to black shadow mark. It doesn’t work on bisque, only once fired work.

When it is freshly made wadding like this is rather short or non-plastic, being so sandy, but after ageing for a few months it develops quite good plasticity and after a year or so, the last few bags are plastic enough to throw with. Not that you would want to, but I think that it might be possible. I’m down to my last bag of the old batch now and it is very easily worked into coils and small balls. This new batch will have a month or two before I need to use it.


I make it up in a couple of batches in the dough mixer and then bag it up into 15 kg packs and store it away.

Security is a years supply of wadding.  Now, when I look down on my stash of wadding I get the simple pleasure of knowing that I won’t have to do this job again for another 12 months. It’s a nice feeling!

fond regards from the well wadded potter.


After the flood

The rain has eased off and we can go out and check the damage. We have had 350 mm. of rain in 36 hours. the rain gauge was over-flowing one morning, so we don’t know how much we lost. That has never happened before. We have emptied 350 mm out of it, so perhaps there was another 50 mm that we missed measuring? That’s about 14″ in the old imperial measure. It was certainly a very heavy and prolonged rain storm.


We go out to survey the damage. Not too much thankfully. Just a  few small trees blown over or snapped off. We sprang a few more previously undiagnosed leaks in our 123 year old tin roof, but I can fix those. I always do, I’m used to it. There is a lot of maintenance in owning a hundred+ year old house. I just don’t know where the leaks are going to be in advance. I have to wait for the big storms to be able to find them. So, we sat through the evening with buckets on the floor, dripping and ‘plonking’ away.

Out side everything is still seeping, teeming, running, gushing. Everywhere you look, the ground is so saturated and oozing water. All 4 of our dams are full and overflowing. As I walk around, I make a mental note of all the jobs that will need doing. The kiln shed is a tragic mess. The water has forced itself up and out of the floor in one corner where the shed is cut back into the hill. The new spring has flowed straight through the middle of the  building, washing away all the small items that were left on the floor and making a trail of patterned tidal sand ridges and depressions like you see in the sand beds of creeks.Now a day or two later, everything is starting to turn green with a mossy/lichen sort of growth. The kiln shed has an earth floor with ceramic paving. It’ll take months of dry warm weather to evaporate all this water from the floor. That is once the earth has stopped seeping.


I walk down along the old lane it has been swept, or rinsed, clean of loose brush and other light materials. All swept away. The water from our big dam higher up overflows down along here. It looks really peaceful and beautiful here now after the event. The grass and undergrowth has all been swept over and ‘combed’ by the torrent. there is still a steady stream of water 100 mm. deep flowing down along here. It’s hard to believe that this was once the main East/West artery for the village. It’s particularly beautiful, right here, right now. I’m brought back from the moment into another reality. My feet are wet from standing in the water and it’s cold. I chose to wear sandals for this walk, as I knew that it would be too wet down here for shoes.

All the dams are brimming full and over-flowing. It’s a very nice sight and it only ever happens like this once every decade. We are so lucky to have put in all this ground work and infrastructure over the past 40+ years. If everything all goes to some sort of plan, like it has in the past, we will have water now for at least another year and possibly two.

The dams don’t stay full for long as seepage and evaporation steadily take their toll. That is why we have paid extra money to have all the top soil from the dam sites kept and then returned to the tops of the dam banks instead of the usual practice of burying it under the wall. The top soil allows the native bush to re-seed into the bank and grow up into a sort of wind break, as it is the wind passing over the water surface that causes evaporation. If you can slow down the air movement, evaporation is reduced. This seem to have worked well for us over the years. Our dams are all now enclosed in native bush and not sticking out like scars on the landscape. We are so lucky and I am grateful.




Home Again

We haven’t been home long and we are able to get most of our meals from the garden. We start with a very fresh and crisp green garden salad. IMG_3713

We find that there are a few ripe avocados still on the tree, so we pick one and add it to the salad. It’s a special bonus. We wouldn’t have any left at all due to the birds and possums if it weren’t for Janine getting out there and bagging the last of the fruit before we left.

I manage to find some time to get out into the garden and pull out all the spent corn stalks and dead tomatoes vines. I have a few goes at it over a couple of days and eventually make a bit of a difference. I lime the soil with dolomite. A natural mixture of calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate in about a 50/50 ratio. It sweetens the soil and negates some of the natural buildup of acidity through our use of a wide range of organic composts. We make compost from everything that we have on our place here, including pine needles and gum leaves. Everything that is organic and can rot is composted down to a black/brown peaty compost and used as mulch somewhere on the block. Pine needles and gum leaves tend to be acid, so are good for strawberries and blue berries, but bad for other plants that like a more neutral or alkaline pH.

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We also add a layer of composted chicken manure on top of the freshly exposed, weeded soil, then cover it all with more compost. I try not to dig unless I have to. The worms seem to do that for us, If left to their own devices.

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I pick a cabbage and make our first home made okonomiyaki at home here after our return. The cabbage is a whopper. It has grown well while we have been away. I only use a 1/4 for 4 pancakes. I add in some other vegetables that we have including a grated carrot and a finely sliced red capsicum;. These wouldn’t usually be included in such a dish in Japan, but we aren’t in Japan anymore. We are home and this is what we have. And after all, okonomiyaki actually translates as something like ‘add what you like’. So I do!

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The washing machine decides that it will only do one more wash and then burns out. It stops mid-wash and goes no-more. We have to drain out the water from the unit before we can open the door of the front loader. This machine has done well. Over twenty four years of continuous service. I can thoroughly recommend the ASCO ASEA brand for a quality, reliable, long lasting product. All you have to do is find a brand new and unused model from 20 years ago and you’ll have a good quality machine. God only knows what the current products are like in terms of long lasting quality. Anyway, I’m very pleased with our choice from two and a half decades ago. There is a lot of embodied energy in a thing like this and it really needs to have a long life to justify its existence, otherwise it just becomes more of the same old land fill junk that the big companies want us to cycle through endlessly at great expanse to the planet. Built in obsolescence is a crime against society. So good on you ASCO, for still stocking spare parts for this old model.

I knew that the water pump in the washing machine was wearing out for some time and I ordered a new one a few months ago. It took a couple of months to get here, as it had to come from Sweden. The new pump arrived just before we left on our travels, so we were lucky that it didn’t fail while we were away and cause Annabelle, our house-sitter, any problems. The local agent doesn’t carry spares for 24 year old products. I can understand. I’m pleased to get one at all after all this time.

I set to work to replace it, but like all these jobs, it turns out to be a bigger, longer, more complex job than I imagined. Firstly, the new pump isn’t complete, I have to take some parts off the old one to make it fit. Second, the old parts are quite well settled into place after 24 years in wet, humid conditions and take quite a bit of un-doing. I am forced to retreat from the laundry and go down to the workshop to get my hands on some serious tools. The Swiss army knife isn’t going to cut it on this job on its own.

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I manage to get all the parts swapped over including the fan on the pump motor. I’m amazed that this isn’t included. It’s only a simple plastic part worth just a few cents. it has the be prised off the old shaft and it’s a tight press-fit on the new one. I had to pay $250 for this little pump. I’m amazed that they can’t supply a mounting plate and plastic fan for that money!


The electrical cable is just long enough for the factory technician to fit the pump, while it is up-side-down in the factory, in good light and with the correct tools, and plenty of practice. When I’m working down in a dark corner, on my back, in a confined space, holding a torch in one hand, a pair of pliers in the other and then with my other 2 free hands I am able to manipulate the electrical clips in the correct order, otherwise the last one won’t fit!!!!! I question the logic of this thriftiness. This all has to be accomplished in just 100 x 300 mm. of access space. I’m finding it quite difficult to get both my arms in there at the same time, never mind to be able to see what I’m doing and work accurately.

The last minor annoyance is that the rubber hoses are all crimped on with single-use metal clamps that need to be broken to get them off. Luckily, I keep a lot of different sizes of adjustable hose clamps in stock here for other uses. Fortunately I have 50mm, 35mm and 25mm dia clamps in my tool box. Eventually it’s all done. The only real joy that I can take from this is that I didn’t have to pay a technician another $250 to come out here and do it for me and most importantly, I have forestalled waste by keeping this old appliance going for another few years. So this is self reliance.

While I’m in maintenance mode, I set about rebuilding a Venco potters wheel destined for an aid project in Cambodia. It arrived here completely disassembled and in a few different cardboard boxes of loose parts. it has a reconditioned motor and all new grommets as well as a new rubber drive wheel. Everything reconditioned for a long life ahead.

It takes me an hour or two just to figure out the order in which I must do the job to get it all to work out. I have one false start and then it goes smoothly. If I had taken it apart myself. I would have remembered the sequence, but as it has all been completely disassembled by someone else, I have no memories to call on. I have to work it out using only logic.

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It goes and it works OK, so I am happy with that. This old wheel will now have a new life ahead if it in Cambodia in a village pottery workshop for many years to come. More waste forestalled.