Homemade Kitchen Knives

As part of my long-term ambition to live a life as self-reliant as possible, I am continually trying new things that might help achieve that aim. We have built our own house from scratch, making our own windows, french doors, roof trusses and floor boards. We bought and demolished the old Mittagong Railway station, then cleaned all the old sandstock bricks to use to build our house. I even excavated the sand stone footings and carved them into the new window sills for the house. Over the years, we grew trees here, then felled them to make all the kitchen furniture, chairs and tables.

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If you have been reading this blog for any period of time, you will know that we make all our own clay bodies and glazes from stones that we collect locally and then crush and grind them to make all the various mixtures that we use in the pottery. I try not to buy anything that I could do myself. This frugal life style of self-reliance and simplicity has worked out quite well for us. I even had a go at building my own aluminium truck body. It didn’t turn out to be that hard. I welded it together from all the left over off-cuts from building electric kilns. It was a most rewarding well-spent week.

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So this last few weeks leading up to the summer holiday gap between Xmas and New Year,  I decided to have a go at making some kitchen knives. I have quite a few worn out or broken hack law blades from my mechanical power hack saw. These blades are made from excellent quality high Speed steel. This steel is quite exotic, being an iron based carbon steel alloy composed of varying degrees of tungsten, vanadium, cobalt and molybdenum. It is extremely hard and long wearing.

This stuff has such a high degree of embedded energy that I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out after they were worn out and blunt. I have worn my way through  quite a few of these large 350mm blades over the past 40 years. Now I have made use of them. I hate to put anything in the recycling bin until it is really, truly worn out, or broken beyond repair.

I have spent a couple of hours each day working on them, whenever I got bored with what I was supposed to be doing. I cut out and profiled the blades using the angle grinder, ground them to a taper on the bench grinder and this can take at least an hour, if not more, depending on the size. A bench grinder is a very powerful tool. It grinds away the excess metal to create the tapered shape, but leaves significant scratches/scars in the surface. I have found that it is best to use 3 different bench grinders. I just happen to own them for other purposes over the years. I start with the coarsest, this removes the metal fastest, but leaves the surface looking very scratched. I work through medium to fine, each grindstone cuts less, but leaves the surface smoother.

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I them move to the work bench and finish the blades off by honing them on a series of flat stones. I work through a series of grades of grind stones starting with 60# and 200# grit carborundum oil stones. The purpose of these stones is to try to polish off the scratches that are embedded in the steel from the bench grinder, then moving on to 400# and 1000# water stones and finishing on an 8000# grit Japanese synthetic water stone that puts a very fine finish on the blades.

This hand finishing is a labour of love. It takes ages to get a nice even surface and finishing with a very sharp edge without damaging that ultra fine edge. Always keeping it even. This is done entirely freehand without the use of jigs. I wouldn’t like to do this for a living, but it is very good to do it this once, because the reward is to re-purpose something that was once, only a few days ago, just a piece of rubbish. Now they are beautiful hand-made kitchen knives.

The last step is to make a wooden handle for each blade. 30 years ago, when I built my kitchen, I kept the best off-cuts of cedar wood for making pottery tools, which I have been using to make my own tools ever since. This is very nice straight-grained timber. but is useless for anything else, as the pieces are so short. They just happen to be perfect for knife handles though. These small bits of wood also need to be carved and then polished using sand paper to get a nice smooth finish. I prefer working with wood, rather than metal. It’s a gentler and softer process. Cedar also smells very nice.

The handles are finished with olive oil. I could use boiled linseed oil, but as they are kitchen knives, olive oil seemed more appropriate.

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Nothing is ever finished, nothing is perfect and nothing lasts. Although the quality of this steel means that they probably won’t need to revisit the water stones for a year or more. Steel like this can’t be sharpened using a butcher’s ‘steel’ to touch up the fine edge intermittently. This high-speed steel alloy is so hard, that it is harder than the butcher’s ‘steel’. These knives have to be ground on a stone the same way that I sharpen my Japanese knives.

I have tried making a few different sizes and shapes. I don’t know which ones I will prefer to use yet. Maybe non of them will prove to be very good. I may have to go back and make some more. I’m still learning. I do have a few more worn-out hack saw blades left in my cupboard, so it is possible. I could just have been wasting my time this last couple of weeks, but even if they don’t prove to be useful to me or appropriate for purpose, I have really quite enjoyed the process of creating them. I’m pretty certain that a couple of them will be OK, but only using them will tell. Anyway, it beats working for a living. I’ll do anything to avoid getting a job!

 

Vegetable Pasta

In this very hot weather, we don’t feel like eating much. Extreme heat kills apatite, but while we are wilting, the garden is flourishing. Yesterday, in the afternoon, we got a terrific storm and for 15 minutes, we got 15mm of rain. It came down hard and fast. All the gutters over flowed as the rain couldn’t get into the down pipes past the mesh sieves quickly enough. The fierce flow of water washes gum tree leaves off the roof and into the gutters and these end up blocking the sieve. If it rains steadily, the water can get through, but not as fast as this today. I clean the gutters regularly, but it takes too much time the sweep all the roofs, so we put up with the leaves in the gutter sieves. It works most of the time. Anyway all our tanks are full, so we need not worry about this small loss of water.

Now that it is a bit cooler, momentarily, We feel like eating something nice for dinner. I decide to make a vegetable pasta. We have lots of things coming along in the garden besides fruit. Today we have a load of capsicums and tomatoes, so pasta sounds good.

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I brown an onion in olive oil and then add in a small knob of garlic, roughly chopped. What an amazing smell this is. It smells good enough to eat just by itself. next the 4 different types of green peppers. We have round bell capsicums, long thin yellow banana capsicums and two different long tapered green ones. I also finely slice a couple of huge green 7-year beans. They look a bit rough, being coarse and a bit hairy looking, but taste delicious. We eat them whole, raw or cooked, like French beans when they are young, slice them like this when they are full-sized and leave a lot on the vine to dry for use in bean stews over winter. They are a perennial bean, re-shooting from the root in the spring. I can’t say that they last 7 years or not. I think not. But at least half of them seem to come back to life each year. We move the bean tresses every few years anyway to spread the nitrogen-fixing capacity of the beans around the garden. SO I end up replanting a few each year. They grow from seed as an annual crop just like any other bean.

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As all this simmers down into a sauce, I add in some chopped preserved lemons that I made just a couple of months ago, and then de-glaze with a large swig of good red wine. right at the end i throw in the other half of the garlic, so that it remains a firm and retains some pleasant crunch.

I garnish this simple passata sauce with some sage leaves fried in butter. These just take a couple of minutes. We use Australian grown but Japanese style soba noodles. These just need a few minutes to soften in boiling water. I don’t use salt in the water, nor do I cook with salt either. As a result Janine and I both retain our youthful low blood pressure.

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Served with a sprinkle of parmesan and a glass of chilled white wine. it tastes delicious. and it was nearly all from our garden just hours earlier.

I bought in the pasta, olive oil and the parmesan cheese. The rest is all our own work.

Best wishes from the Post Modern Peasants

Summer Solstice Activity

The young berries never make it to Xmas theses days, the summer season is arriving earlier each year with the heat hanging on longer, so we have taken the nets off the berry canes, rolled them up and put them away for another year. Another job in our seasonal timetable ticked off.

We bought a 100 metre x 9 metres roll of netting 25 years ago. It had a 10 year warranty against ultraviolet sunlight damage. We have got two and a half times its life expectancy out of it, principally because we only expose it to sunlight for a 1/4 of the year. So maybe we will get 40 years out of it? It’s still holding up well and isn’t going brittle yet.

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As we eat with the seasons, These days our breakfast fruit salad has turned from Yellow to red. We are picking red berries, red plums, red strawberries and blue berries, with pink peaches from the fridge. The only pale ingredient is a pale banana (that we shamelessly bought from a shop) to soften out the flavour by countering the acidity of the other fruits.

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Such is our summer breakfast variety. All these seasonal changes in our diet must play havoc with our alimentary canal biotic floc. Constantly on the change. The only constant in our diet is the lack of red meat and preserved meats. Almost the only time that we seem to eat red meat is when we are invited out to dinner.

We are not vegetarians, we just choose to eat very little meat. Doing so just might be good for us? I don’t know. Certainly, raising so many cattle and sheep isn’t good for the soil or the planet as a whole system. There are too many affluent people consuming too much. We are trying to tread a little bit lighter on our land. At this time of year, in our society  that worships conspicuous consumption, it all gets pretty gross. Consuming less is our gift to everybody for Xmas.

Life is one big experiment. This is ours.

The Glorious Weeks of High Summer

We have entered the glorious weeks of high summer, where it’s just too hot to do much physical activity in the middle of the day. Having both had skin cancers removed – fortunately at early stages, we are careful to wear long sleeves and a hat when we are out. We start early in the garden and orchards, as we want to be out of the sun before it gets too hot in the middle of the day. We work until lunch time and then stay inside until the heat has passed in the afternoon, then we get back out there and do some more.

The jobs vary, but they are never-ending. There is always something to be done, often needed in a hurry. The morning starts with picking fruit. We have passed peak young berry and although we are still getting some each day, we are no longer picking kilos a day. At the peak, our biggest day was 3 kg. We will continue to get less and less, picking only every second day now, up until Xmas day, or thereabouts.

We have reached peak blueberry season today with 2 x 200mm. plastic containers of blueberries. We have about 20 plants, some doing well and others not so well. They are high maintenance and very demanding.

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Blueberries won’t do well unless all their demanding criteria are met. They need to grow in a bog of fresh seeping, acid water, or at least watered every second day. They also need to grow in acid conditions, preferably a very well-drained situation. So here, where we are, up on top of this dry, stoney, drought ridden ridge, there is no natural place for them. We have tried them in the ground in a couple of places, even mulching with huge amounts of acidic leaf litter and the addition of a little sulphur powder to the soil, but they are not happy, even though we water them well, I suspect that they are not sufficiently well drained. They are growing, but not too well, hardly putting on any growth. They do flower and set fruit, but only in moderate amounts. They have only grown 700 mm. high in half a dozen years. Our second attempt, also in the ground in the vegetable garden, where we dug in copious quantities of acidic leaf litter and she-oak mulch, they did much the same, they didn’t thrive, but we do get some fruit from them.

Our best effort to date was to plant them in tubs filled only with naturally acidic leaf litter and detritus from the wood pile and from around the wood splitter, this being almost entirely made up of coarse, fibrous woody compost-like material. These 7 plants have grown 1.2 metres in one year and have flowered and set a great crop. They still need to be watered regularly, but boy are they productive. I’m still finding it hard to believe that a plant can grow so well in nothing but tree bark and saw dust! A medium that has no soil in it. It’s certainly well-drained and is naturally acidic. It seems to be just a matter of keeping up the water to them.

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We have just started to pick the first santarosa plums along with the last of the apricots. Now that the apricots are over for us, the net is no longer needed there and we have decided to move this big net off the apricot tree this morning and along with its poly-pipe hoops and have set it up over the second plum-tree. The elephant heart plum.  These plums are still green now, but will be turning red soon, and that red colour always attracts the birds. So far we have managed well with the birds this season.

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Once the poly hoops are set up and the netting transferred, I drag the last of the netting over and manage to trap one luscious Janine and two chooks under the net. Now we can relax a bit. All that is left to do is to move the DAK pots and fruit fly lures across from the other tree. I try and keep at least one fruit fly lure inside every net. I spend $50 each year on fruit fly trap re-fills and a bag of dynamic lifter. Even growing your own fruit isn’t free + the hundreds of hours spent in the maintenance and watering, but this isn’t really work. It’s better described as fun and recreation, otherwise you wouldn’t do it.

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The late peaches are ripening, I suspect that it won’t be long and we will have these on the menu too. The late peaches are luscious, dense, yellow fleshed and so flavorsome. They put the super early white peaches to shame for flavour, but the early peaches are always first, so we are so glad to get them and really appreciate them for their sweetness. We don’t realise how thin the flavour is because we are so looking forward to eating them after 12 months without peaches. Now in the midst of the high summer heat and ever so long days, the solstice is just a few days away, we are getting picky. For instance, we have stopped picking and eating the mulberries, there is always so much more and better fruit at this time of year. We let the birds have most of those, we just take the easy low hanging fruit these days.

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The strawberries are still continuing to produce regular pickings since spring, never too many, but just regular and steady, we have the strawberries mulched with pine needles that Janine sweeps up from under the big pine trees after every storm. We have a constant pile of it down where the truffle trees are growing. We use it for litter in the chook run and in their nesting boxes. After I rake it out of the chook rum every few weeks, along with a load of pooh all mixed in with it, it gets wheel-barrowed to the citrus grove and used for mulch around the trees in there. Nothing is wasted, everything has a use and a re-use.

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Looking back at our mornings work, I can see that there is a lot of grass grown up under where the netting has been. I get out the whipper-snipper thing and see to it, then think that I should also do all the paths in the veggie garden while I’m out here and into it. Couch grass never sleeps in this hot weather. I can’t afford to let it get a hold in the garden beds. One thing leads to another. There is no end to jobs. But the sun is right up there now and its almost 12-ish and time to put the mower away and go inside for lunch and then some inside work till it cools off. It’s a good thing that the days are so long right now, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to get it all done.

I get out there again and dig out a nasty patch of couch grass that has got a hold of part of the garden path. I set too with the mattock and dig it out roots and all. It’s hot sweaty work, but very rewarding when you look back after you’ve finished!

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This is a job that won’t need doing again for another year in this spot, but there are still 3 more patches just like it at the other ends of the pathways.

I must have been wicked!

The First Ripe Tomato of the Summer

This is a special occasion for us. To get the first red ripe tomato on the 16th of December!

We have had a ripe tomato before Xmas before, maybe a couple of times in the last 5 years, but usually either just a day or two before Xmas or more likely in the week before New Year.

This is very early for us. I did buy 6 seedlings from the nursery when we returned from Korea in October and planted them out under our temporary closhe to beat the frosts and get them started extra early. See a previous posting;
Back Home in the Garden   Posted on
I have since planted another 20 plants, the most recent as recently as last week. I want to have plenty of fruit for making tomato passata in the summer. We are down to our last 4 jars from last summers harvest left in the pantry now. We’ll just make it through the year. perfect!

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The deliciously sweet tang of vitamin ‘C’

After the early peaches have peaked, it is time for the maxed-out berry season. This week we will pick a couple of kilos of youngberries from our canes each day, some times its 3 kgs in a pick. Janine has developed several recipes for using these deliciously tangy, sweet acidy berries, but there are so many that come into season so quickly, we can’t eat them all fresh from the canes. The best way to cope with the peak is to preserve them in vacuum jars. We use them later to make fruit jelly desert, or a jar of the preserved pulp is used in a berry baked sponge desert in the winter.

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Yesterday we picked just over 3 kgs. The panty is already well stocked, she made red berry juice by heating the berries in a big pan. No added water, just simmered in their own juice, sieved through a kitchen mouli, to remove the seeds, then bottled while still hot. It’ll keep for a year in the pantry.

Another favourite at this time is to use the berry juice to make a fruit/suger syrup for use in icecream. Berry ice cream is a very nice desert. Janine makes this very simply by mixing some berry juice sryup in with a packet of pure cream, then whipping it and freezing it. The mixture needs to be taken out of the freezer twice a day and re-whisked the next day to make it more fluffy. That’s it, cream suger and berries. Couldn’t be more basic, simple and deliciously fruity and tangy, totally natural and no added chemicals. Maybe the sugar and the dairy fat content of this recipe should carry a warning not to over-do it! A very small bowl of this after a nice meal in summer is pretty special.

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Peak Peach

We have reached peak early-peach season now. We are picking more than we can eat for breakfast and desert each day. When we get to this point of the harvest, it’s time to start preserving the excess for later in the year.

We still use the very old-fashioned vacuum preserving jars that we bought 2nd hand in the 1970’s. They are easy to use and keep the food well-preserved for a very long time without any extra energy being applied to keep them. Once heated and sealed, we store them in the pantry for the winter months when there is no fresh fruit from the orchards.

To store them most efficiently, we should segment them to get more into the jar, but preserving them whole retains the stone and the lovely marzipan flavour that comes with that. Marzipan flavour from peach stones and almonds is actually a very weak kind of cyanide. How can anything so poisonous be so delicious? Clearly there isn’t very much of it in there.

Janine poaches them for a few minutes before placing them in the jars and sealing them, followed by a slow-rolling simmer. Hey presto.

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The ‘Vacola’ company hand book  tells us that to get the first quality result necessary to win a prize at the local agricultural show or to take out a first at the CWA meeting. The fruit should never quite be brought to the boil, but kept at 99oC for an hour or so to sterilize it, but not overheat it and cause possible shrinkage  of the beautiful geometric packing order of the fruit!!!

Country women must have had a lot of spare time on their hands?