The Strange Pleasure of Self-imposed over-work

This last week I finally got around to replacing our very old roof on the Old School classroom. 129 years old in fact.

I have had it on my ‘to-do’ list for some years now, but I have always been too busy.

However, as I have been getting older and less virile, I realised that I needed to get on with it without too much delay.

We were getting a few drips in during heavy weather, but not too bad. Just enough to warn me that this needed to be treated as a priority.

Then the fire came and I suddenly realised that the roof was the weakest part of my bush fire protection. 

The old iron sheeting was coming loose from its screws and gaps were appearing in-between the over laps of the joints. This was also adding to the rusting and leaking.

Since the fire, I have been so completely focussed on re-building and getting back to my proper work of making beautiful things, that I had to ignore the pressing need to replace the roof.

Then the floods. We had more and larger leaks in the lounge room during the recent torrential rain events, so the roof had to be dealt with.

I had asked my friend Andy, who is a very skilful builder, to give me hand to replace the roof, as I wasn’t at all confident to be up on the 6 metre scaffold and then onto the 30 degree pitch of the roof.

Just a few months before the fire I had single handedly replaced the north face of the old pottery roof over 2 days, replacing the roofing batons and the insulation as well.

But that was then. I have lost a bit of confidence up on roofs and ladders since then with all that I have been through. It’s shaken my self confidence. I think that the experience of the fire has aged me.

Particularly the episode of climbing into the big pine tree up 7 or 8 metres to chain saw off the burning branches over hanging the house during the fire.

I haven’t been the same man since. It took something out of me that day and I haven’t been able to recover it.

Anyway, Andy said that he would help me out, but not during the summer, when it would be too hot for roof work, so last week was the time. He had a few days free. 

I had ordered all the materials a few weeks beforehand, and I also asked my neighbour Larry to give us a hand, as it is good to have someone on the ground to pass things up when the ladder is 6 metres up and down. Over the years I have had Larry over here occasionally. I taught him to Mig weld and on several occasions he has brought sheet metal jobs over here for me to cut up in the guillotine and bend in the pan break etc. We have developed a barter system of swapping labour on jobs that we can’t do alone.

Over 3 days from Monday to Wednesday, we built the scaffolding, stripped the old roof in sections, insulated the ceiling with more insuwool batts, Checked the old roofing timbers and structural joints. Which turned out to be amazingly sound and better quality than any modern-day, fresh hardwood available for sale locally. I was really thrilled. It was such a solid build.

I had expected to have to replace the batons at least. We improved the structure by bolting the timber roof batons onto the rafters as a safety precaution, as those 129 year old nails were starting to look a little rusty.

We ceiled the roof cavity with ‘anticon’ sheeting and fibreglass insulation, to bring the structure up to the current ‘BAL40’ Australian Standard bushfire fire-proofing. 

Then fixed new single length gal iron roof sheeting back onto the roof. By doing it in sections, the whole roof was never exposed all in one go. This was a precaution against any possible sudden change in the weather.

We were lucky. It didn’t really rain very much and the days were not too hot or too windy, so we finished most of the job in 3 days. 

There is still a lot more to do, but this was the most pressing and difficult part.

After climbing the 6m ladder 20 to 30 times a day carrying up all the materials and tools etc. My thigh muscles were screaming from over use, and it didn’t get any easier by day 3, but then we had Thursday off, as Andy had another appointment, so on the Friday as we did the flashing, the front ladder was so much lower to get onto the front verandah. That meant less ladder climbing, so my legs and knees were coping much better.

I fell into bed each night with a sense of relief, but also a hovering feeling of extreme tiredness bordering on exhaustion. All self inflicted and well earned. 

The trade-off for this minor pain is that I now have a roof that doesn’t leak in heavy rain, but most importantly, a roof that is better designed to survive the next catastrophic bush fire.

That’s a relief! I’m really too old for all this kind of ladder and roof work, but it just needs to be done.

The new roof has cost me about $5,000 in materials. I’m pretty sure that it would have cost me 4 times that much if I had got a roofing company to do it. Self-reliance has its strange pleasures.

The next job is to fire proof the timber end gables and under the eves to stop ember attack. 

But first I need a good rest. I have some big porcelain bowls in the damp cupboard that need turning. A change is as good as a holiday I’m told.

Turning 70 and Turning Pots

I turned 70 last week. So, on the spur of the moment, I decided to invite all the local creatives from around the village, plus Len and Warren and their partners, who have been so incredibly helpful and supportive over the past two and bit years since the fire.

I was born on the cusp of Pisces and Aries. Not that I hold any interest in, or find any significance in this sort of thing, but it gave me a handle to organise a menu focussed around fish and goat.

I made an amuse of slow braised onion jam, served on narrow flaky pastry fingers, with a single anchovy laid across the top. That was a pretty nice start. I got this recipe from Simon Hopkinson and have had a couple of goes at it. I like his gentle approach to cooking. He has written two books, ‘How to cook roast chicken’ and ‘The good cook’. I liked them both and have tried recipes from both of them at various times.

I had filleted a whole snapper the night before for our dinner, so had the fish frame to make stock with. I also bought a salmon head at the fish markets while I was buying all the seafood for the bouillabaisse. These two fish heads and frame made a great start for the stock.

I started the stock with a bouquet garni of fresh garden herbs and onions fried in olive oil. Added the fish heads along with carrots picked freshly from the garden, some very young celery stalks, capsicums and parsley.

As we have a lot of capsicums at the moment, I roasted the excess over the open flame on the cook top, sweated then out in a bag for an hour and when cooled, I pickled them in a little oil and vinegar. Preserved for later.

The fish head stock was cooked out the night before and when cooled, passed through a sieve to make the clear stock for the bouillabaisse style fish soup. This was to be the first course. A bouillabaisse for the Pisces component of the meal. Just before the party. I added the diced octopus, and boiled it for half an hour to make sure that it was tender, then completed the soup with the fish fillets, prawns and mussels in that order, just before serving. 

No one complained and some even returned for a second helping. 

The main course was the baked, boned and butterflied leg of chevon to represent Aries. I had put it on earlier in the day for a slow roast and had it ready for the main course.

I made two versions of this course. One baked with home grown and preserved quinces in a light sugar syrup with sweet aromatic spices like star anise, cloves, and cinnamon.

The other baked with wine to stop it drying out with a rub of aromatic savoury herbs, fried onions and garlic.

The big glazing room in the pottery was converted into our dining room for the night and comfortably seated the 12 of us. 

We didn’t finish till 1 am. so it must have been a good night.

The rest of the week was spent turning porcelain bowls in the pottery and continuing the work of paving along the back of the pottery.

I dug up a line of pavers that we had already laid behind the kiln chimney. I waited until all the pavers were laid, so that I would have all the levels correct and the fall just right.

I removed one single line of tiles, dug down into the gravel substrate and positioned a cheap plastic drainage gutter in the space and then cemented it in. When we have another rain event of biblical intensity, I want the water to flow away from the kiln and be easily removed instead of soaking in.

Now that I almost have a wood fired kiln built, it’s time for me to re-start the stalled research I was doing just before the Black Summer Fires interrupted my work. I have started to make the early tests for my commitment to the PowerHouse Willoughby Bequest. I have been processing some new porcelain bodies from Australian Halloysite, I ball milled them a couple of months ago to allow a bit of time for them to ‘age’. Two months is next to nothing in the broad scheme of things when it comes to single stone porcelains, but every little bit helps. I have also been working with sericite.

Both started off badly!

The halloysite cracked almost instantly as it stiffened up. It is as plastic as wet goats cheese ricotta. Actually, the cheese is much better!

It has so little plasticity that the act of cutting it through with a wire tears it apart underneath. I’ve been working with my local Mittagong halloysite/mica porcelain for almost 20 years now, and its been a difficult relationship. When I do get the pieces off the wheel successfully,  I find that they have a desire to warp in the early stage of the firing. Nothing worthwhile ever comes easily. At least not to me anyway. However, I persist, because when I do get a lovely pot out of the kiln successfully, it is really uplifting and rewarding.

I have also started off badly with the sericite pieces. Any single stone porcelain with such a wide, flat base is going to be problematic, but 100% loss was a bit much as a starter!

I put it down to being out of practice and being distracted, with so much else on my plate. I pugged up this first batch of pots, re-worked the clay and threw it again the next day. The second batch, I cut off with a very fine wire and dried very slowly in the damp cupboard for two weeks. Cutting them off the batt again every 2 or 3 days, to allow them to separate from the base and shrink evenly without too much stress. This has worked. I am amazed how easily this strange stuff sticks itself back together again so easily. I have found that if I use a thicker twisted wire, they stay separated, but almost all of them crack against the line of the cut.

I have tried cutting straight across while the wheel is stationary, and alternatively, cutting off while the wheel is still turning. It has made no difference. They both cracked equally.

I had virtually no trouble with the smaller, narrow footed pieces. and the larger narrow footed bowls.

Now to get them fired successfully…

Waterproofing the leaking pottery windows

We are in our own very small and insignificant flood recovery mode

Now that the rain has eased. I can get out and start to repair the leaks that have become apparent in the pottery.

The tin shed builders were pretty basic, almost sub-prime. We have had so many leaks in this building.

The builders chose to use metal sheeting screws without any rubber seals. This must have saved them $10 bucks! So all the walls leaked in the first rain months ago.

I had to go around the whole building and seal all the screws. I had a few options. Firstly I could go around and take out every screw and replace it with the correct type 17 climaseal screws.

Or, I could go around and take out every one of the 3,000 screws, add a small rubber ‘O’ ring washer, then replace the screw. In the end I took the quicker and cheaper option of going around and siliconing the head of every screw. This turned out to be quicker and cheaper. But it still took me days to go around and seal every one to water proof it.

During this prolonged rain event we’ve had a lot of rain compared to our normal. At one point we had over 300mm in 2 days. I know that this is nothing compared to what other places have had to deal with, but it is more than our annual rain fall during the drought years. It became apparent that a couple of the windows were not installed correctly, so that water was leaking in around them. The builders must have been very sloppy with the flashing.

Rather than take the shed to bits to find and seal the problem. I decided to put an awning over the problem windows to keep the rain from getting in behind them.

I had to custom cut and fold some fancy flashing to fit the corrugations and keep the water out.

I cut them by hand using old fashioned ‘curved’ tin snips. Once screwed to the wall above the window and sealed with silicon, they look pretty neat. I’m hoping that this will solve the issue?

Paving Tiles and Wood Heater Repairs

We were busy last weekend with a bunch of friends paving the court yard area around the new, almost finished, wood fired kiln.

I still need to finish laying the last of the floor bricks in the chamber, I would have finished this small job a couple of weeks ago, but when the court yard flooded with 70mm of water sloshing around in there. It wasn’t very appealing to be kneeling done and doing the bricklaying. Then all that water was sucked up into the floor bricks like a wick and they became saturated so that any new mortar wouldn’t stick in place. Finally, they have now turned green with algae. I’m sure that they will dry out – eventually!

This severe weather event, although not life or property threatening for us, like it has been for our friends and relatives up on the North Coast. It has been a good warning and trial run for what we can expect in the future as Global Heating increases unchecked. No one in government seems to be taking this seriously, so what can we expect for the future? Well my guess is more of the same, only much worse. We’ve been warned.

So this extreme weather event has been a great warning to us as to what we can expect in the future. I have learned from it and and I’m taking actions now to limit the sort of damage that very heavy rain fall can cause. To start with we have paved the kiln area with a significant fall away from the kiln and out into the open. I have also ordered some more steel batons and some more poly carbonate roofing sheets to wall in half of the courtyard directly behind the kiln. With contour drainage to take the water to the edge of the retaining wall. Although the pottery didn’t flood, it has become obvious that we need to create a dish drain around the front of the building to carry all the excess ground water away from the front of the building, because another event will eventually be worse. 

This is a start

Back at the kiln, I also need to fabricate a stainless steel firebox lid and a stainless steel chimney flame tube incorporating a spark arrester. I planned to have started this job already, and 3 weeks ago, I ordered the Stainless steel sheets and some Stainless steel wire mesh for the spark arrester. The sheeting is here, but the couriers have lost the SS mesh. The supplier won’t replace it until he knows what has happened to the first order. The courier company won’t pay out to replace it until they know what has happened to it. So I’m stuck in a catch 22 situation. I can choose to wait it out until the original order is found and delivered, or buy a second sheet of stainless steel mesh and get on with it, but it’s not cheap stuff, so I’m waiting and continuing to write emails of enquiry.

We had a great weekend with our friends laying the paving tiles. We also met two new people who volunteered and turned up all the way from Newcastle, who will surely become friends now. They were a great addition to the group. The stayed over night with us and we got to know each other over a home grown meal from the garden. I had previously made a big pot of tomato passata from the last of our tomatoes, so we had an easy meal of pasta. Dan and James are environmental campaigners and organisers, so we shared a lot in common. James took this image of Dan, Janine and me standing on the new paving.

Dan, Steve and Janine. image by James Whelan

  

This is all great progress and I’m really happy to see so much getting done.

Janine and I started the levelling and paving earlier in the week. As a trial run, to make sure that everything would work out the way that I planned. As we haven’t done any paving since we built the last pottery shed in 1983, I’d completely forgotten what to do and had to re-educate myself and get my skills back up to date. It’s not rocket science, but does need concentration and quite a bit of back bending work. I decided that at my delicate age, I should not do so much bending and instead get the knee pads on and work down on my knees to keep my back straighter. This worked out much better. But then getting up became a bit of an issue.

Starting the paving, getting our levels sorted out and learning how to space the pavers to allow for all the different sizes to fit together evenly.
the courtyard paving complete

As we are in Autumn now and the weather is getting cooler and the days shorter, we have thought that we may need to light the fires in the kitchen and lounge room soon. The slow combustion heater in the lounge has started to wear through and rust out in the top fire box steel sheet. A crack started to appear at the end of last season, so I made a mental note to repair it once it cooled down, during the off-season, well that time is running out now, so it has to be dealt with as a matter of urgency. I decided to attack the problem by fabricating and new roof for the firebox out of a scrap piece of 2mm thick stainless steel sheet.

The new Stainless steel fire box roof sheet ready to install
The new firebox top bolted in place

Rather than try and weld it in place, which wouldn’t really work very well , as stainless and mild steel have different rates of expansion and contraction. I decided to bolt it in place with stainless steel bolts through over size holes and oversize washers. This should allow for the differences in expansion. The 2mm thick stainless roof should last as long as the 4 mm mild steel walls and whats left of the old top sheet. Time will tell. The stove is about 30 years old, so it has proved it’s worth. I’ll continue to work on it and preserve its life for as long as I can. We bought our slow combustion kitchen cooker over 40 years ago now and it was 2nd hand then. I’ve managed to keep it going all this time with home made adaptations and ingenious improvised repairs. I’m proud of that achievement and I’m hoping to extend it to 50 years if I can.

While I was at it, working on the lounge room heater. I also made a new front door frame seal. Afterwards, we went out into the paddock and spent an hour together with chainsaws cutting bushfire devastated and blackened logs. We cut them to stove lengths and stacked them in the wood shed ready for splitting. This will be about 1/4 to 1/3rd of the fire wood that we will get through the coming winter months.

Our Big Wet

Like everyone else on the East coast of Australia at the moment we are experiencing a lot of rain. 

We are very lucky here to be situated up on top of a line of hills, on a ridge where the water table falls away on both sides. We at very unlikely to get flooded here. So our thoughts go out to all those who have been flooded and lost there homes and property. We’ve been there ourselves, but in a totally different way.

My partner Janine, who is from the North Coast area were the flooding is worst just now, has experienced this kind of flooding in her youth. She points out that at least after a fire everything is left sterilised. After a flood, everything is left putrid and stinking. Although the clean up takes just as long in both cases.

The rain came in horizontally and blew straight into our new kiln shed area through the open Eastern wall. i had to dig a drain to help ease the flow of water back out again.

If this is an insight into the future, then I will probably have to enclose some of this wall with polycarbonate sheeting. To let the light in, but keep the rain out.

Before

I’m somewhat amazed that water managed to build up like this here in the kiln courtyard, as it is elevated up on 1200mm. of crushed blue metal gravel behind the big stone retaining wall. At least it does drain well over night once it actually stops raining.

Our normally dry and sometimes barren back yard is now a small stream, with a creek running through it.

Here the small top dam overflow channel is not able to cope with the deluge and the dam is over flowing across the whole dam wall. 

We have only ever seen this happen a couple of times before in our 46 years here.

We had over 185 mm of rain. We’ve had this much rain before. In fact the recent bush fires were put out finally when we had this same amount of rain 2 years ago.

But last time the rain fell onto, and soaked into, a dry parched landscape. This time it has fallen onto a saturated and sodden catchment and so instantly started flowing off.

We are fine and have plenty of home grown and preserved food in the pantry, and because we have solar power and a battery, we don’t know whether the power went off or not.

These extreme events are exactly what we have been warned will eventuate with the increase global temperatures due to carbon in the atmosphere. But our politicians refuse to do anything about it and those on the right are still denying that it is even happening. A pox on both their houses!

With 1 in 50, and 1 in 100 year weather events happening every other year now, I fear for the future of our kids and grandchildren.

Flashing, Fowlers and Food preserving

This week I finished the chimney and flashed it into the tin roof.  Then took it up 5 more courses clear of the roof. That gives me 3.5 metres of chimney. Just the right amount of chimney volume to create a good draught for the firebox of this small kiln.

I still need to build a flame tube, smoke combustor and spark arrestor, for the top of the chimney.

That will need to be fabricated out of stainless steel and lined in refractory blanket.

The kiln is designed to be a very clean, low smoke emission kiln, but the addition of the flame tube will make it even more so.

We have a glut of tomatoes this last week. The picking got ahead of our ability to consume them, so it was time to make up another big batch of ripe tomato passata.

Starting with onions and garlic, fried in good Australian EV olive oil.

9  litres of tomatoes with the addition of a few capsicums, chillies and basil from the garden then a few whole pepper corns.

Boiled together and then all passed through the mouli sieve and subsequently reduced down to just 5 litres of concentrated garden goodness. I filled 7 x 3/4 litre bottles.

That’ll come in handy over the coming winter months.

I also made a big batch of preserved quinces. Quince has to be my favourite fruit. Coming later in the summer season as they do, after all the thrills of the first peach and first strawberry, the first youngberry etc. They really stand out as the most fragrant and delicious fruit if you give them a bit of time and effort. By them selves, they are not really very edible in the natural raw state, but once cooked with a little sugar and a few spices, they can really shine. I love it when they turn that red/orange colour. The fragrance pervades the whole kitchen and into the rest of the house. Any left over juice is bottled and kept in the fridge as a cordial to be added to water as a summer thirst quencher.

I have made 3 batches so far. I vacuum seal them in Fowlers “Vacola” jars. Every country had their own proprietary company that made food preserving systems in the past.

Our very own version was founded in 1915 and is still going.

Janine and bought all our ‘kit’ of glass jars, metal lids and rubber rings along with the metal boiler from a garage sale near Dural in 1975, where we lived at the time. We have since been given extra jars and another boiler from friends who no longer use them. We now have more bits and pieces than we can ever use. Every few years, we have to buy another packet of rubber rings. They are washable and re-useable, but eventually wear out and don’t seal properly.

This smaller size boiler takes 7 x No3 jars (3” or 75mm. dia) in one go and has served us well for the past 47 years and still has plenty of life left in it. It’ll see us out. 

I assume from the label that it was made in 1969? I don’t know how to read the code. S69/8093. 1969 would probably fit the time line, and they were still numbering them individually.

A time when we still made things here in Australia and those things were made to last!

I recently found this very old Fowlers sterilizer at the local markets for $20. Regrettably it doesn’t have a lid, but it is made from pure copper, so it is worth fixing up. This one is from the first series production. Possibly from 1920’s? This is ever so slightly smaller than the current models, so the current lids don’t fit. I will just have to make one. I have a small sheet of copper off-cut, so I’ll see what I can do when I get some spare time?.

I have never seen another copper boiler like this one. all the old models that I have seen were all galvanised versions. I’m assuming that this one is a very early model. DeLuxe 3080

We were recently given a larger size model from some lovely friends that have stopped preserving. It is a more recent model and has a plastic lid – modern cost cutting in manufacturing?

Model D2 78. There is no serial number issued any more. Possibly from 1978? So by 1978, they had stopped numbering them individually?

I’m really glad that Fowlers are still in business, as although we don’t preserve a lot of food, we still use their system a few times every year in the late summer to can our excess.

It’s so nostalgically old fashioned, but ever so practical. The most important part for me is not the preservation of our excess food from the garden. That is of course important, but there are other methods that we also use. What is so important is that once the energy is applied to the food to sterilize it and vacuum seal it during cooling. It is preserved for many years with absolutely no more energy required to ‘keep’ it. So different from freezing food, where there is a constant need to apply energy to preserve it. 

We only have an ordinary sized, low energy, fridge with a very small freezer compartment on top, so we can’t use it for very much. I keep the freezer space for things like our ‘pesto’-like basil pulp in olive oil, that are not cooked, so are best frozen.

We have been very careful in our selection of appliances over our lifetime to only buy the lowest energy consuming appliances. This fridge uses less than 1kW/hr per day. It’s our biggest energy use in the house. In this way, choosing very low energy hungry appliances, and not too many of them, we can run our house off one and half kW/hrs of solar generated electricity per day. I think that this is an achievement. As the average 2 person household in Australia uses around 17 kW/hrs per day. We are more efficient by a factor of 10!

I should also mention that this figure of 1.6kW/hr per day average, also includes the solar charging of our electric car as well.

My 11th book published

This week I received a box in the mail from Korea. It contained copies of my latest book translated into Korean.

I was such a poor student of English at school. I’m somewhat surprised that I have become a published author of multiple books in 3 languages!

Even my English teacher from High School was surprised, to the extent that when I met him 10 years after leaving school, at a reunion, he didn’t believe me when I told him.

I don’t blame him.

My work building our wood fired kiln continues. This last week I have finished the chamber arches with Janine’s help. 

Adding their second layer of insulation bricks and welding on the steel bracing.

I also started work on the chimney with the help of my good friend Warren on the weekend.

The chimney is almost at the height that I can’t build anymore courses until I cut a hole in the roof to allow it to go through. 

This will involve fabricating some specialised pieces of galvanised sheet metal ‘flashing’, custom fitted to the brick courses just above the tin roof to keep the rain out.

I hope to complete the chimney this week. More ladder work! 

I have declared myself an honorary 59 year old for the past week to allow me to keep climbing ladders 🙂

We have now picked nearly all the apples and I cooked another apple and almond flan tartin for our weekend guests. 

I also made the first batch of baked quinces, as the birds had decided that it was time to start eating them, dropping a lot of them onto the ground with just a few holes pecked into them.

They need to be dealt with pronto, or the damage soon spreads and they go bad quickly. I wouldn’t mind so much if they ate the whole thing, but they just peck a hole into the fruit to get to the seeds inside. If the fruit drops, they just watch it fall and start on another. At least the rabbits eat some of the fallen fruit. Quince fed rabbit sounds pretty good!

I wash the fluff off the skin, then peel and core, chop into 4 pieces for small fruit, or 8 pieces for the larger ones. I simmer them for 20 mins in a sugar syrup of 120 grams of sugar per litre of water. This syrup is less than half strength of the recipe ! Use enough water to cover the volume of fruit. Add a few cloves, star anise, a cinnamon stick, and half a small bottle of maple syrup. Once softened a little, transfer to a large baking dish and bake for 2 hours in a low oven at 160oC until nearly all the liquid has evaporated. Remove the aromatics and bottle in sterile jars while hot from the oven. I think that they are ready when they start to catch just a little on the tips and have turned a beautiful reddy/orange colour.

The fragrance is spectacular and the taste is amazing. Can be eaten just like this, or can be enhanced a little with the addition of some pouring cream, plain yoghurt or ice cream.

I also managed to find just enough zucchini and squash flowers, both male and female to make up the numbers, so that I could make stuffed zucchini flowers for dinner. I wasn’t expecting to find so many suitable flowers this late in the season, so wasn’t prepared with suitable quantities of cottage or other suitable cheeses. Instead I used a tub of left over risotto from the fridge. extended with some boiled lentils and a few olives. It made up the distance.

This last week also brought a little bit of excitement into our dull, plodding, Post Modern Peasant lives. The State Government Funded green waste clean-up program commenced, for all the dead and damaged trees in people yards that were created by the 2019 Black Summer catastrophic bush fires here in the Southern Highlands.

We had a team of half a dozen blokes here for two days, lopping, topping and chopping dead trees. Some were completely removed and the stumps ground out, but most were pruned back to make safe habitat trees for wild life.

They shortened and made safe 15 trees and took down 3 or 4 smaller ones in the immediate vicinity of our back yard orchards, where we work and mow.

The purpose of the exercise is to get most of the smaller dead branches down out of the canopy so that it is safe to walk around underneath them in our garden. We had already dealt with the most pressing and difficult problem trees in our front garden 2 years ago at our own expense. I wasn’t prepared to survive the fire and then be killed by a falling branch.

It’s only taken 26 months for the State Government to implement this emergency safety solution into place. I wonder how long it takes them when they take their time 🙂

We still have 3 acres, or one and a bit hectares of dead forrest that is continually dropping dead branches. We just don’t go there, and if I have to, I wear a hard hat. 

It’ll be unsafe for the next couple of decades as the dead branches slowly rot and fall. But what can you do? It’ll cost many thousands of dollars to get them all pruned safely.

We’ll just have to live with it.

Kiln Progress and late summer orchard deserts

I have been plodding along on the wood fired kiln reconstruction for the past couple of weeks. It’s a slow job. Each morning cleaning 150 of our used fire bricks in the mornings and then laying them in the afternoon. This weekend I had my friends Warren and Jim come and give me a hand with the arches. I had the arch formwork built and 250 bricks cleaned and ready in advance. I had to weld up a jig to allow me to cut tapered arch bricks on the diamond saw.

I dismantled a couple of shipping pallets that came here with goods on after the fire, during the rebuild. I always save good useful wood for when jobs like this crop up. By carefully dismantling the pallet i got all the wood that i needed to make two arch formers. I also kept all the nails that I took out of the pallet, straightened them and reused them to nail the form work together.

We managed to cut all the bricks and lay the two arches, finishing on Sunday afternoon. My next job for this week is to weld on all the bracing steel angles and brick up the back walls.

I caught another rabbit in the vegetable garden this week, so we had rabbit cooked very slowly with herbs, bacon and onions, finished off with some sour cream. He was delicious, fattened up on our home grown vegetables. A very local meal of vegetables and meat, all from our garden.

The stone fruits have all finished now and the blueberries have just one more pick. but the strawberries continue to produce well and we have started to eat the first of our apples. The hazelnuts are just starting to fall now and will need to be shelled and roasted in the coming week.

Janine shelling hazelnuts
Janine’s homemade strawberry ice-cream
5 jars of bottled blueberries

We have started to make a few batches of tomato passata now that the tomatoes are in full production. We bottled the last few picks of blue berries, as we were just about full up with Janine’s blue berry ice cream, blue berry jelly and blueberry sorbet. She has now turned her attention to strawberry ice cream and jellies.

As it is now February, so we picked the first of our apples. It’s a really good crop off these young trees. I made an apple and almond flan tartin. Its not a tarte tartin, as there is no pastry. I used just one apple that weighed in at 461 grams.

I got the recipe from Ian Parmenter’s book ‘Sheer Bottled Bliss’. Sprinkle a couple of spoons full of sugar onto baking paper in a flan pan, slice the apple and sprinkle with almonds, cover with a mixture of 200g each of butter, sugar and almond meal, 3 eggs and 2 tablespoons of flour. Bake for 40 mins at 190oC. Flip over onto a plate and remove the baking paper. Simple, quick and easy. it has a lovely toffee, caramelised apple and almond flavour. Yum.

To introduce a little bit of difference into our menu of constant blueberry deserts. Janine had dried some of our blueberries, so I made some little tarts. Pre-bake puff pastry squares, when cooled, pop your finger in to crush the centre open, then fill with a mix of fresh and dried blueberries, some sugar and mascarpone. I also added a few currents and glace cherries. I have found that this mix is greatly improved with the addition of a sprinkle of cinamon pawder, a little vanilla paste and a dash each of some rose petal water and orange flower water.

They didn’t last long either.

It’s a tough life attempting self-reliance as a Post Modern Peasant 

New wood fired kiln takes shape

I have been working on the new wood fired pottery kiln now for the past week and a half. Each morning Janine and I start with cleaning bricks and loading them onto the truck for the trip up to the new pottery shed. From there they are wheel barrowed down the alley to the newly covered court yard kiln area.We clean and stack about 150 bricks each time. As we clean the bricks, we sort them into different types and sizes. 


All my fire bricks are very old and I have been using all the same bricks over and over for the past 45 years. I was lucky enough to buy several thousand fire bricks for just $100 way back in 1974. I already had a couple of small gas fired kilns and a small wood fried kiln in my parents back yard. I didn’t live there any more, but continued to use my studio in a little garage sized shed below a cliff at my mothers home. I saw an add for fire bricks for sale in the paper. People looked in the newspaper to see adds in those days before screens. I went to see the bricks in the old ‘Mcillraiths  enamelled cast iron bath tub factory in Alexandria. I think that they had merged with ‘Metters’ and were closing down and moving to a new site where they would only enamel pressed metal baths. Those were the days before plastic baths.


The fellow in charge of dismantling the factory had been the manager before closure. He needed to get rid of the four large 5 metre square and 6 metres tall enamelling kilns, as they were just about the last things in the factory to be removed. I looked at them and shook my head, thinking that ere was no way I could shift that many bricks. I had only come on the off chance that there were some small number of bricks that my students at the old East Sydney Tech College (now called the National Art School) could obtain to build their own small kilns after graduation. I told the guy in charge of disposal this, and that the job was way too big for me. He had originally wanted $1 a brick in the add, but there were 20,000 or so of them. He had had no offers and was very keen to get rid of everything, as the factory needed to be empty by the end of the month, the kilns and some old machinery were the only items left in the place.

He sweetened the deal by offering to sell the lot to me for $1,000. I said No, thinking that although that was a very good price, I just couldn’t see how I could do it. Having said no way!  He then offered to dismantle all the kilns and stack them on pallets for me. I continued to say NO!, more in disbelief than anything else. He said, “you drive a hard bargain Son!” OK then, I’ll organise a semi, palletise them, load them all onto the semi here with the fork lift and deliver them to your factory.”I told him that I didn’t have a factory or a fork lift, anyway I don’t need that many bricks. He countered with OK $500! He saw me shaking my head, I couldn’t believe what was happening. He must have been extremely keen to get out of his contractual predicament. I assume that he had already made his money on the sale of all the scrap iron and useful machinery? I was still shaking my head, when he said OK! $100 delivered. I said yes!


They arrived all in one go on a huge semi-trailer truck. The truck was loaded 2 pallets wide and two pallets high. Over twenty pallets of fire bricks. It took 5 friends and me all afternoon just to unload them onto the foot path. The next day my friend Len Smith came over and we hired a brick elevator/conveyor and laid it more or less horizontally up the sloping driveway so that as Len loaded the bricks onto the conveyor at the street, I was at the other end to catch them and ran around stacking them on the ground at the top of the hill. I paved my parents driveway 3 layers deep in fire brick to get them all off the side of the road.    That’s how I ended up with 20,000 fire bricks and could afford to build a 3 chamber climbing kiln in the rented property out at Dural the next year.


As we wheel barrow these very familiar fire bricks that I have handled so many times to the kiln site. I sort and stack them in piles around the kiln into their different uses. House bricks for the foundations, Heavy fire bricks for the fire box and floor, light weight Insulating refractory bricks for the lining of the chambers and finally plain light diatomaceous insulating bricks that are only good for low temperatures, less than 1,000oC, these are only used as the outer skin of the chamber as insulation.
After lunch I mix up a wheel barrow load of clay and sand mortar, then I spend the afternoon laying those bricks. It’s a full day.


The chickens are all over the job keen to see what is going on. They are so inquisitive! They are always pecking at the gravel floor to get grit for their crop.Then they took an interest in the pile of yellow ‘fat’ sand that I’m using for the clay and sand mortar mix.Today they suddenly started to take an interest in the mortar. They decided that it was just what they needed in their diet. They have eaten so much of it over this past week, that their pooh has turned white with all the kaolin. As have their faeces, faces and beaks. They are now truely, sticky beaks.



After 5 days work, I’m now up to the level of the throat arches that divide the fire box from the first chamber, then between the 1st from 2nd chamber. It’s slow going, but my excuse is that I’m an old guy now, about to turn 70 and can’t do all that I used to when I was younger. I didn’t need that catastrophic bush fire in my life at this time, but life is what it is and you have to take it in your stride. Resilience is all about facing up to reality and keeping on going in the face of hardship and set backs. I just turn up everyday and do what I can.



We are eating sweet corn almost every day. When the cobs are so fresh and young, I just eat them raw. They are sweet and juicy.


This time of year, we also have an excess of zucchinis. This week we made zucchini fritters with garden fresh tzatziki.


Grate two medium zucchinis and one small potato. Wring out the juice, and add one egg and a tbspn of flour.
Pan fry in a little olive oil. It’s a great way to use up those pesky zucchinis that got away and are past their best for BBQing or steaming. Just as long as the seeds haven’t become too well developed. If they have, just slice them long ways and scoop out the seeds and use the outer layer of zucchini.

 

Top with a little grated parmesan and serve with garden fresh tzatziki. I slice the cucumber pretty finely, dice up the garlic and crush it to a paste with the side of a broad chefs knife along with a sprinkling of salt. This really liberates the full flavour of the garlic. Mix with thick Greek yogurt and its ready to serve in no time while the fritters are cooking.I love these kinds of immediate, garden-fresh meals. Simple, tasty, very healthy and quick, with very little cleaning up.  

This is just about as close as it gets to self reliance, served on Janine’s hand made plates, straight from the garden and onto the plates within the hour. The only thing that we bought was the parmesan. It keeps well in the fridge for ages and serves as a finishing touch on many meals.

Old Leach Kick Wheel

All this continued wet weather has filled all the dams to over-flowing, as well as all the water tanks. Everything is saturated. the ground is seeping water from every ledge and embankment.


The edge of this dam slopes gently down towards the deep area. I mowed about 2 metres into this flooded riparian zone just a couple of weeks ago. Now its totally under water.It is so wet everywhere.
It’s great weather for ducks. We have now got over a dozen mature wood ducks grazing the lawns every morning. These would have been some of the tiny little hatchlings that we saw a few months ago. They are looking great and very healthy wandering around eating the lush grass growth. They alternate between the dams and the huge expanse of lush grass that we now have. Unfortunately, they don’t eat enough to keep the grass down low enough to save us from having to mow the grass. It’s a full days job every week.If we don’t keep up to it, it can get out of control and then its much harder to mow, as the mower can’t cut through thick, deep, long, wet grass.


Today I finished installing the guttering on the new kiln shed roof. I spent a day making special metal brackets to span the gap of the ‘C’ section purlins, to support the new gutter with the correct fall.I interrupted the former down pipe that took water straight down the wall from the big shed roof. down into the underground piping system that takes it all down to the big concrete water storage tank.  The big shed down pipe now empties onto the kiln shed roof, and then collects with all the water off the kin roof, down the new gutter and back into the old plastic down pipe system. Neat.

The loganberries have finished now, but the Chinese gooseberries have started and the blue berries are in full season, along with the strawberries. So we are having a lot of fruit salads for breakfast and I have a new variation on berry tart. Strawberry, blueberry and gooseberry tart.


On Wednesday we drove for 4 1/2 hours up to Gloucester to pick up an old Leach potters wheel that was given to me by an old friend, Griselda Brown. We knew Griselda back in the 70’s when we both lived on the outskirts of Sydney. Griselda had studied at the old ‘East Sydney Tech’ Art School where Janine and I both studied with Peter Rushforth, Bernie Sahm and Derek Smith, only Griselda had gone through some years earlier than us, in the mid 60’s.Griselda used to visit us out at Dural, where we had built a big 3 chamber wood fired climbing kiln. She had studied with Michael Cardew in Cornwall after finishing her course here and had a love of wood firing, but was not in a position to build her own wood fired kiln herself. We filled that gap. 
When Griselda went to Cornwall, she thought that she would be working in the pottery, but Cardew issued her straight into the kitchen and explained that his wife wasn’t living there and her job was to make his meals and clean the house. She could come to the pottery once all her domestic jobs were done!
Griselda bought one of the early Leach style potters wheels from J. H. Wilson in Canterbury, who built them here under licence from the Leach Pottery in Cornwall. She had this wheel all her life and as she is considerably older than us now. She is retired and the wheel was sitting idle.It has the full copper tray, with drain pipe and overflow spigot, to stop any water going over the wheel head bearing. It’s in very good condition mechanically, but the wood work has suffered recently as it was stored out in the weather for a while.


When I got it home after our marathon 9 hour drive, the next day, I took the wheel head off and cleaned all the turnings and dust out of the top bearing mount. Gave it a blast with compressed air, oiled the bearing and installed a rubber flange over the shaft to stop any more dust getting to the bearing in the future. Then I made a new plastic collar for the copper tray, as the original copper collar is very low to allow for access to the grub screws holding the wheel head on. 



Interestingly, I have never seen an Australian Leach wheel with the wheel head held on with grub screws, needing an Allen key to remove them. This is the fourth different mechanism that I’ve come across used on these wheels over their 25 year history. My first wheel had the wheel head screwed on with a large 1” thread cut into the shaft and head. Then another one had a morse taper and just pressed on, then the third one had a shallow taper and a ’T’ bar pushed through the shaft.
After sanding and a couple of coats of tung oil it looks and works great. I sanded the very rusty wheel head to remove a lot of the pitted rust, and then gave it a coat of rust converter to stabilise the corrosion, and finally a light coat of zinc primer to keep it in good nick. I’ve owned 5 of these wheels over my life and tragically lost them all in the past 3 previous fires. I just can’t be trusted with them!  I tried a few different ways of looking after the cast iron wheel heads over the years, and this is the best. However, the main point is to always wash the wheel head clean and dry it after use. Most potters wouldn’t be so bothered, but I use white clay and porcelain, so I can’t have rust in the tray or on the wheel head.I’ve always had two of these wheels in use, One kept strictly for porcelain, and the other for stoneware. It’s easier this way and saves a lot of time spent in thorough cleaning between clays.I’m really pleased to have the chance to own and use this wheel that belonged to my friend from a long time ago.