More Mottainai

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mustard Pickles

Because there has been absolutely nothing worth watching on the idiot box for the past week. It was like ground hog day. So I have spent the evenings cooking.I have been using our vegetable excess to make a batch of mustard pickles. I make pickles like this almost every year to use up our excess and preserve it for later.

To preserve the vegetable mix, I first need to make up a pickling vinegar using 1 litre of cider vinegar with 13g of sliced of ginger, 13g of salt, the tip of a tsp of cayenne popper, 3 tspns of whole cloves, 3 tsps of pickling spices, 13g of whole pepper corns, and 1 tsp of mustard seeds. I also add 1/3 cup of sugar.

I boil this for 15 minutes to bring out and meld all of the flavours, then sieve out the spices and keep on ‘mijoteur’, at a very low simmer.

While this is boiling, make up a paste of turmeric powder, mustard powder, etc.

I use half a cup of flour, 2 tsp of powdered mustard, I tablespoon of turmeric powder, tip of a tsp of cayenne pepper, 1 tsp of mustard seed and 1 tsp of curry powder.

I add in some of the pickling vinegar slowly while stirring, bit by bit, until I can work up a smooth paste. Then I mix them both together and bring the mix to the boil for a few minutes.

Drop in the vegetables and stir well to cover them all in spiced vinegar. Keep at a low simmer for 5 mins to amalgamate the flavour into the vegetable pieces and until it thickens.

Spoon into sterile glass jars, and seal. Over the next 10 to 15 minutes, you will hear the metal lids ‘pop’ as the mix cools down and vacuum seals the jars.

Great with cold meats, strong cheddar cheese or just as a side pickle.

You can start to eat it straight away. I do. But it will also keep for a couple of years if you have sterilised the jars properly. 

However mine never gets a chance to wait that long. It’s pretty yummy.

Wood fired baking dishes and duck egg soufflé

This week I have been making baking dishes in 3 different sizes and latté cups for the wood firing kiln. All this is leading up to the Australian Ceramics Assn Open Studios weekend, which also coincides with the Southern Highlands Arts Trail Open Studios weekends, so pencil in the first two weekends of November 5th, 6th and the 12th, 13th. We will be open for visitors on both days of both weekends.

If you can’t make it on any of those 4 days, just give us a call or email us and we can arrange to be open by appointment any time up until Xmas and over the summer.

Janine packed and fired the little portable wood fired kiln with some of her work a couple of days ago. It was the first time that we have fired this portable wood kiln since the fire. This kiln was burnt in the fire, but survived only because I fabricated it out of good quality Stainless steel sheeting. Spot welded together into a monocoque frame. We had to replace a few broken anchors and fit new wheels, find the stainless steel firebox grate, then build a pyrometer system from a broken thermocouple, that I cut the end off, shortened back to clean metal and re-welded back together. This kiln has only 100mm thick walls, so a short thermocouple is ideal.  It was a first experimental firing to test out new settings, kiln shelfs, T/C, glazes and timber fuel. It was only partially successful, but good for a first firing, so many ‘firsts’ in combination. We will fire it again next week to build on what we have learnt.  4 1/2 hours to stoneware in reduction, cone 9, she got a little nice flashing on the exposed clay and nice glaze melt on her ash glaze and pumice glazes. Next time we will try a slightly longer firing, maybe 5 or 5 1/2 hours?

Because she was dedicated to the kiln all day, first packing, then collecting the wood and finally firing, I made her lunch, delivered to the kiln. Home grown smashed avocado on home made rye bread toast. We already own our home, so can afford to eat such luxuries. I put sliced tomato and home made mustard pickles on some and served it with a side salad of home grown lettuce leaves. The other half of the avocado I filled with lemon juice and sprinkling of ground black pepper and served it as an entrée, with a tea spoon for scooping it out.

I got no complaints.

We have finished picking all the red cabbages, both the first large cabbage, and then the 2 or 3 heads of secondary cabbages that follow. Now the plants are going to seed, so I don’t want to waste the mini red broccoli-like flower heads. They are picked, washed, blanched in boiling water for 2 mins, then pan fried in sesame oil, with slices of garlic and ginger and served with a little freshly ground black pepper and a squeeze of lemon.

This was just a side dish to Janine’s main event – a duck egg soufflé. 6 duck eggs couldn’t be put to a better use.

Served in one of my wood fired baking dishes. A perfect combination. Thanks to our garden, eat well. We live on a low income by choice, but we enjoy a rich life due to our hard work and creative endeavours.

Firing 3 kilns in one day

This week, we saw our first hatching of baby ducklings appear in the orchard from our resident wood ducks. We seem to have between 5 to 7 permanent residents and up to 25 itinerant blow-in opportunists. I’m always surprised how independent and resilient these tiny little fluffy things are straight out of the egg. They run frantically on their minuscule legs to keep up with their mum as she strolls along nibbling at the lush spring grass. They feed on the grass too, each time she stops to let them sit down and rest their little legs.

We seem to have 13 in this hatching.

I’ve been making pots out of our own blended iron-stained stoneware body on the kick wheel for the wood kiln firing that is coming up and also making porcelain on the shimpo. I’m very happy with my new experimental large format wheel head turnings tray. I was able to turn two dozen porcelain dinner plates straight through without having to empty the turnings from the tray – and it’s still not full! In the past, I used to have to stop after every pot and take the tray apart to empty it ,so that I could go on with the next pot. The Shimpo tray is so tight that I can’t get my fingers in to lift the turnings out without taking the tray to bits and then re-assembling it. Such a pain. But that is all in the past now. These new home made custom trays are so spacious!

While I’m on the subject of potters wheel trays. I threw 40 mugs the other day and because I don’t use much, if hardly any, water when I throw. The wheel tray was still mostly dry at the end of the one hour throwing session.

You can see a damp ring, where the slight excess of throwing water has dampened the tray in a ring around the wheel head. No more than is really necessary.

I learnt to throw like this during my apprenticeship with the Japanese potter, Shiga shigeo. All Japanese potters wheels are set down into the floor, of a raised bench-like structure, and it is customary to sit cross legged, on this raised floor, in front of the wheel at floor level

I had to throw all my pots off-the-hump, on a Shimpo wheel with no tray. As I couldn’t sit cross legged, on the floor, in front of the wheel, for very long without getting cramps.  I had to dangle my legs down beside the wheel, into the enclosure, to be comfortable. I didn’t want my legs to get wet, so I learnt to use virtually no excess water. I’ve become a bit lazy in my old age and let a few drop slip off the wheel head these days. As it doesn’t matter, because I have a large tray to catch everything. Old habits die hard.

The mugs are all handled and on the shelves drying out now and waiting for the next firing.

Yesterday we packed 2 bisques and a stoneware glaze, then pre-heated them for an hour. So today we are firing 3 kilns at once.

Spring is here

Life is a mix of endings and beginnings all mixed and intertwined.

This week I picked the second last cauliflower. We ate it raw with a little mayonaise. Snappy crisp and so fresh. It couldn’t have been fresher, with the garden just a couple of minutes walk away from the house.

These cabbages and cauliflowers are the last signs of winter still clinging on in the garden. This red cabbage will be pickled and storred away for summer salad lunches.

Finely shredded and packed in jars with hot pickling vinegar, it will keep for up to 12 months or even a couple of years. But it never lasts that long. Once I get a taste for it, I can finish off a whole jar in a week.

I ended up picking a second smaller cabbage and making up enough to fill 4 jars.

Spring is here and I have been planting out seedlings in the garden.

I’m hoping that the frosts have finished…We bought a pot of sweet basil a week or so ago and left it out on the back verandah… It all shrivelled up in one night. It was just too early.

Now, a few weeks later on, we have tomatoes, more sweet basil, capsicums, chillies, egg plants, blackjack zucchini and yellow button squash all in and taking off.

I have also just planted out seeds of the first beds of sweet corn, green Lebanese zucchini and cucumbers. 

It’s been a busy two days getting all the fallow beds weeded out and into the compost, then digging them over to get out some of the more stubborn roots like mint and tarragon.

Half of the garden has been mulched with compost and it is all looking good.

The spinach, lettuce and leek seeds that I put in a few weeks ago are doing well and starting to respond to the warmer, longer days. We even picked the first asparagus.

I spent half a day last week making more pot boards from old bits of flat, wide wood that was laying around. The top of an old dresser, the doors off an old wardrobe, both scrounged from neighbours on the way to the tip. More waste forestalled. Then 4 red stringy bark planks that I have had put away since the 80’s that were destined to be doors on a kitchen dresser that I was building in the pottery. The dressers all gone in the fire, but the 4 wide red planks remain, It’s a good thing that I never got the doors built, so the timber is now some of our new pot-boards. The main thing is that they are straight and flat and clear-grained.

A very big thank you to Len Smith, who gave me all his Makita power tools after the fire, to help me get going again. They have had quite a bit of work during the building phase, but they are being very useful all over again now.

I have been making dinner plates and other flat ware, as well as bigger pieces for the next wood kiln firing. The sericite is still giving me some issues with cracking on the wide flatware.

This brittle, non-plastic, short, ground-up, rock dust porcelain can be a bit temperamental if you don’t dry it very slowly.

I’ve also been making some bigger tankard style mugs for the wood firing. I’m using a blend of clays that I have developed specially for the wood kiln.

This body has a small fraction of iron bearing clay that will respond well to the fire and hopefully give a nice warm toasty blush on the unglazed surface.

We haven’t really done enough research on this yet, but I’m going on what I learnt over many years of testing from before the fire. 

Now everything is different, and all the suppliers of minerals have changed. Everything needs to be re-tested. I was very lucky that my friend John Edye retired and sold me a lot of his dry, powdered glaze and clay materials. They are all names that I recognise, and know how to use and blend to get a good result. These materials are helping us get re-started again while we sort out the new recipes with the new materials.

The good news is that my Show at Sturt Gallery almost sold out! Just one piece remained unsold when I went down to the Gallery this morning to pull the show down. This is my best ever exhibition result. I’m very pleased.

Another pug mill drama happened last week while I was pugging the recent batch of wood firing clay. The old pug mill gearbox or shaft collar appeared to seize up. I cleaned it out and stripped it down. I’m getting pretty quick at this now. I even bought myself a 21mm rachet spanner to speed up the process. The shaft collar was very tight, presumably from corrosion, but that wasn’t the problem. Even with the barrel and shaft removed, the gear box is very noisey and only goes a few turns before the electric motor overloads and cuts out. I have no time to fix this now. It will have to wait until after the November Open Studios Weekends are over. I ended up hand wedging the last of the batch of wood fire clay. Luckily, the wood firing body is based on a plastic kaolin and is soft and easy to knead by hand. I’m too old for this, and my wrists are feeling even older!

The pug mill parts are all cleaned and scrubbed and stacked in the corner until I can get back to it. I’ll need to remove the motor from the gearbox and test them both independently to work out which unit is causing the trouble and needs the work.

I celebrated my triumph of hand wedging the woodfire clay, by cooking a Thai style dinner entirely from fruit and vegetables from the garden. My only purchase was a can of lite coconut milk.

We have loads of leeks at the moment, so made a risotto style veggie meal with a load of leeks and a garden vegetable mirepoix stock.

Between the garden and the pottery, there isn’t any time for much else. We cook what we grow and fire what we throw. I’m trying to keep my life as simple as possible. Minimising my meat and salt intake. Maximising my vegetables and grains, cooking with just the minimum of olive oil, and after all this I could just so easily be hit by some of Elon Musk’s space junk or be run over by a bus.

Nothing is ever finished, nothing is perfect and nothing lasts.