After the fire – one year on

The summer solstice has passed in a very different way from this time last year. Last year we were in a prolonged draught and then on the 21st the catastrophic fire that ended our year. This year has been wetter and everything is starting to look green. We spent the first 6 months of the year cleaning up burnt buildings, garden and dead blackened trees and stumps.

I’m really glad that the cleaning up part is over now, it was so depressing working with blackened, charcoal covered stuff every day. I eventually developed an allergy to the black sooty charcoal dust. Anyway, I’m really glad that that part is over with. Since mid year, we have been more constructively involved in the rebuilding. We moved the orchard over winter to the front of the land along the road. We built a fire resistant fence along the street frontage, all 110 metres of it. It is almost finished, just 3 metres to go. We built a stone retaining wall where the orchard was and levelled the site in preparation for the new pottery shed. Then things slowed down.

We paid for the new tin shed on the first of July with an expected 5 week delay while the steel components were to be manufactured in the factory in Campbelltown. 5 weeks turned in to 5 months and we are just having the builders here now this last couple of weeks. They told us that they would be finished, with the job at Lock-up stage by Xmas, and so it came to pass. They finished the last roof yesterday evening and took off. The only thing that they left behind was a pile of off-cuts of rusty old gal roofing, 3 huge bags of plastic wrapping and a bill for $28,000 for the work. Oh! and about 2,000 dropped tek screws in and around the job site!

This has to rate as one of the best Xmas presents that I have ever had!

The next job is to dig all the trenches around the shed for the down pipes to carry the rain water collected off the roof, down into the 2 huge 120,000 litre water tanks that haven’t had any water flowing into them for the past year.

The garden is still feeding us with loads of zucchinis, tomatoes, cucumbers, the first of the hot chillis and the last of the broccoli. We have finished all the young berries and logan berries. but the blue berries are in full swing. We have harvested almost 10 kgs so far this summer and we are only just past half way in the season.

We are eating a lot of grilled zucchinis, steamed zucchinis, zucchini fritters and stuffed zucchini flowers at the moment. I will insist on eating with the seasons!

Zucchini flowers stuffed with seasoned, low fat, cottage cheese .
Zucchini flowers with Zucchini, with Zucchini, with cucumber in garlic and yoghurt dressing

Wishing everyone a relaxed, quiet, cover safe, non-commercial seasonal break.

Berry Tart – Eating with the Seasons

It’s been so wet this last week that the builders have given up and left. There is more rain forecast right up until Xmas, so It looks like there is nothing to be done except wait. I’m getting used to that. It doesn’t look like we will have a new pottery building until next year now.

In the mean time, the berry crop continues to ripen, although it will be coming to an end soon. During the rain, I am mostly spending my time inside, I have reprinted my ‘Laid Back Wood Firing’ and ‘5 Stones’ books, as I have completely sold out. Damned Xmas Shoppers! 🙂

Yesterday I spent a little bit of time in the kitchen baking. I tried making a berry tart using our current crop of Youngberries and Loganberries. They are a bit more juicy than the Mulberries that I have been using so far this season, so the recipe had to be adjusted to allow for the extra moisture in the berries.

It has come out pretty well, but I think that I need just one more try to make sure that it is as good as I can make it. I was thinking that I might dust it with a bit of powdered icing sugar, but it smelt and looked so appetising and delicious, that we ate some of it straight away, then the rest later. We just managed to save a small amount to give to our neighbours when they called in for a visit.

The blueberry crop is well under way now, so the next baking adventure is a blueberry tart.

We have so many blueberries coming ripe just now, Janine harvests a bowl full each day at the moment. This recipe for fruit tart is very old and I have used it for a long time to make prune and almond tart, but it also works really well with sweetened and spiced lightly stewed pear slices.

So using todays blueberry crop I made a blueberry and almond tart.

400g of blueberries, soaked in a little brandy + 1 egg + 35 g of almond flour + 55 g of sugar.

After soaking the fruit for half an hour, drain off the brandy, mix it into 200g of mascarpone and add the almond, egg and sugar, then mix well.

Blind bake a pastry base , add half of the berries, pour over the almond mix, then pour the rest of the berries on top.

Bake at 190 oC for 45 mins

This is self-reliance, living and eating with the seasons.

First Peaches of the Summer

We are only 10 days into summer and we already have both our first tomatoes and now our first peaches. We’ve been picking zucchinis and cucumbers for weeks already. Nothing quite like the flavours, tastes and aromas of the summer garden. Although this all sounds idyllic, it’s possible because of the worlds unabated consumption of carbon based energy. With global heating racing away, unabated like it is and coupled with an embarrassing total lack of political will here in Australia. We also have to accept the changing weather patterns associated with all this heat, like catastrophic bush fires and massive storms. From someone who has lived through a catastrophic fire event. I can clearly say that I’d rather not have to experience it again and the early tomatoes are not worth it.

Back in the garden, the pumpkins that I planted on the 12th of September are now 3 months old and taking over the bottom of the garden.

From this to…
to this!
They are setting a nice crop.

Strangely, we are just harvesting our citrus crop now almost half a year out of seasonal sync. We should be picking them in the winter. Everything has been dislocated by the extreme weather and the catastrophic fire event. All the citrus got burnt, some very badly, such that we lost half of the trees facing the pottery as it burnt. The citrus grove was planted next to, and on the north side of the pottery, using the building to protect the trees from the worst of the winter’s southerly winds. Sheilded in this way and facing the north winter sun, they were in a bit of a sun trap and it suited them very well. We had good crops.

After the fire we watered them well for the first few weeks, whenever we could find the time during the clean-up. Sometimes this meant in the dark before dinner at 9.00pm. The result was that they all re-shot leaves, some only on half the tree that wasn’t so badly burnt. They went on to flower again as if it was a new year, but totally out of sync. We got the strange out of season crop and they then flowered again out of sync, such that we are now harvesting again in summer and not winter.

The entire right hand side of this tree was so badly burnt that it has remained completely dead and needs pruning off. I’m hoping that the tree will eventually put out new shoots on the right hand side and balance itself up.

Apart from the strangeness of it all. They are probably suffering from PTCD. Post Traumatic Citrus Disorder! Also, when the fruit is ready, it isn’t the usual colour. For instance, the tangelos are pale yellow like lemons instead of bright orange. While the lemonades are green like limes instead of yellow. Strange times. I assume that they will slowly revert to the normal seasonal flowering and fruiting regime over time?

All the peach trees were burnt in the stone fruit orchard, but just before the fire. I had lifted two of the smaller trees that were doing very badly in the draught, as I couldn’t keep enough water up to them. I put one of them into a big plastic tub that was hanging around and the other into a large synthetic plastic fibre plant bag that someone had given us. I placed them in the veggie garden where I could water them better, just to see if they would survive. They had recovered well and are now ready to plant out again, but because they had flowered and set fruit, we thought it better to let the fruit ripen and plant them out next winter when they will be dormant.

The out come is that we have a dozen small peaches ripening. Amazing!

The out come is that we have a dozen small peaches ripening. Amazing! And so unexpected. Janine also picked the first apricot off one of the newly planted stone fruit orchard trees. Where the trees were doing well and growing strongly, I left one piece of fruit on each tree that I thought could cope with a ripening fruit and still grow well. That applied to one apricot, one almond and two apple trees. I just couldn’t resist the temptation of seeing and tasting the new fruit varieties.

The pottery shed is slowly progressing. Today the builders are putting the roof on the pottery studio. That is really good to see. It was ready to roof yesterday, but it was windy and slightly foggy and damp, making it too slippery and too difficult to roll out the silver roofing insulation in the wind. Today is calm and overcast but not wet, so it’s all go on the roof. I can hardly wait to get inside and see how the light is in there. We now have two roofs on. the kiln room and the creative studio.

I spent a long time working out how to get the best light, at the lowest cost, but not interfering with the structural strength, allowing for enough metal strap ‘X’ bracing, covered with corrugated sheeting to provide sufficient structural wind resistance strength. I’m no engineer, but the shed company’s computer program allowed me to input different options, increasing the glass area until the ‘Computer says No!’

Edna the Chook, came in to check out the new studio too.

I then worked backwards from there, to find the biggest size of standard ‘off-the-shelf’ cheap aluminium windows that would fit the space. No use in paying double to get a custom window made that is only 100mm larger. So I back-tracked down to the best available size. We ended up with 4 windows that are 2.4m. x 1.2m. (8 feet x 4 feet) plus a sliding glass door that is 2.4m x 2.4m.

It will end up darker inside when it is lined and not so oppressively metallic and shiny.

Pottery Shed Progress

The builders have been working here for a couple of weeks now and there is some progress to show for it. Some days they arrive later and other times they leave early, then have to work on Saturday to make up the time lost. Who’d be a builder? Trying to keep everyone happy. They have more than one job on the go to keep fully employed. Today they aren’t here. They told me that they have to go back to finish off a small job that was waiting for a few extra parts.

I asked if they think that they will finish before Xmas and was told emphatically “Yes!” Anyway, time will tell. Things will happen and everything will get done eventually.

I have been working as the builders labourer here and there to help speed things up. I keep well out of their way, but let them know I’m always ready to help where needed.

I spend the beginning of each day getting things sorted for the builders, putting the various parts in place as they are needed. I don’t have to do this. I choose to do it to keep the pace of the build up. If there is something menial to do, then it’s better that I do it, so as to keep them being productive. Then throughout the day I spend my time in the temporary workshop shed restoring doors and building windows, getting them ready for the builders. Sometimes making custom ‘flashing’ from sheet steel on the guillotine and pan break. Then in the afternoon and evening I spend time sorting and cutting old sheets of iron ready for the next day.

Yesterday, I spent part of the day cutting up sheets of tin into small narrow strips to make the little facia on the verandahs. It’s fiddly and time consuming hunting through the piles of off-cuts of tin to find suitably rusty and patinated bits that all match, or are compatible aesthetically and are suitable for the use and then to order them to make a pleasing composition. They just didn’t get it at first, but now It’s working out OK. So far I’m happy with it.

Each day I hunt through the stacks of 2nd hand, corrugated iron looking for just the right ones that all go together with the same or at least compatible surface textures, colours and rusty patches that have developed on their surfaces over their previous life. The builders didn’t understand this at first. It took a few days to get them to tune in on our ‘weird’ artistic aesthetic. I love the ‘wabi-sabi’ nature of old matt grey and slightly rusty iron. The builder couldn’t understand this approach at first. He is used to making car ports and garages that are totally shiny and every line dead straight, with all the screw heads just the right colour to match the ‘colour-bond’ sheeting. I think that he found it quite confronting to be asked to use 2nd hand galvanised iron, with all its rusted patina, dents and quirky character.

To make it even harder for him, I have collected every sheet that I could scrounge, with total disregard to whether or not the different ages of sheeting, with their different variations of corrugated profiles would match. It turns out that something as simple as corrugated iron can come from different eras with different ‘standard’ profiles. So what I have learnt is that there is no ‘standard’, and that the shape changes every so often to suit the manufacturers needs, due to changes in manufacturing machinery and techniques. For instance, the oldest sheeting was rolled sideways and the newer sheeting is rolled lengthways, then there was the change from imperial measure to metric. Older sheeting is thicker and heavier, while the most recent lengths are much thinner, but made from high tensile steel.

It’s an eclectic mix of whatever I could scrounge over the past 6 months. However, with careful selection – given enough time, I have been able to go through all of the dozen piles and sort out the closest matches. I saved the best, most rustic sheets, for the side facing the house that we will see every day and also inside the pottery studio. The worst, and by this I mean the perfect, modern, coloured, ‘colour-bond’ sheeting, was set aside for the front of the building that will eventually be bricked up and covered over, using our left-over sandstock bricks from when we built the house many years ago. In this way the front of the pottery facing the street will have a similar colour and texture as the Old School building. This is an attempt to maintain the visual amenity of the street scape.

In other areas, where I have been forced to use up the mottled variations of ‘colour bond’ sheeting, green, blue, grey and cream. These will eventually be painted over. I secretly hope that I do such a bad job of this, that some of it starts to peel off and flake a bit, just to keep in relationship to some of the other flakey iron buildings on the site.

Other outer walls are just plain weathered grey gal iron look. I have to use whatever I could find. And it all has to be used, as I don’t have the luxury of having too much to choose from. It has turned out that each elevation of the complex of 5 attached sheds has its own unique ‘shed-scape’ character. It has been a little bit of an effort to explain to the builders every day, the importance to me of matching the so-called ‘shit iron’ look that I’m after. ‘Wabi-sabi’ doesn’t translate into the Australian Building code, and isn’t dealt with in the TAFE course in steel shed construction 101!

We have made progress though. The builder said to me yesterday that he thought that it has started to turn out OK. “It doesn’t look as bad as I thought it would. That probably means that you are really happy with it”!

And I am!

First Tomatoes of the Summer

We harvested our first few tomatoes on Friday, 4th December. That is so early for us, reflecting on our more than 40 years of history here.

This variety is all folded wrinkly and is called Rouge de Marmande. It’s one of several different varieties that I planted this season. There a many more on the way just turning colour now. I’m really looking forward to cooking up some of our summer garden ‘passata’ or ‘sugo’ sauce.

The thing that I really enjoy most at this early stage of the season, is just brushing past the tomato bushes while weeding or watering and getting that distinctive smell, that the leaves give off when touched. That’s the promise of summer. My mouth is watering at the thought of it.

The New Pottery Arch Window

I’ve spent the last few weeks working on an arch window for the new pottery workshop. I want to make a window that reflects the existing window in the house opposite to the new pottery. I have a plan to brick up the external west and south walls of the new pottery building, those that face the street and the house. We have a lot of leftover sand stock bricks from when we built the house. We put in a large arched window in the north face of the new kitchen. It worked well and I’m very happy with it. I built that window out of western red cedar. I taught my self to steam wood so that I could bend the sections to make the arch window. I want to reflect this architectural conceit in the new pottery. My idea is to have the 2 windows facing each other.

There is a slight problem with the original idea and that is that a cedar wood window might be quite flammable. I want to try and build this new pottery with a fire resistance rating ‘BAL40’. 50 being the highest possible rating. One way to do this is to make the window frame out of metal. I decided to give it a go using aluminium, as most of the other windows in the pottery will be black aluminium framed. One of the benefits of aluminium is that it can be obtained in extruded forms like hollow sections, ‘T’ sections and angles. It is also very light and not too expensive compared to ‘merbau’ timber. I was able to buy a series of sections that I could weld together to make a complex frame that could be both light and strong – and fire resistant!

The other important issue is that aluminium is tricky to weld, but fortunately I taught myself to weld it years ago when I was building electric potters kilns, as marine aluminium is one of the longest lasting kiln frame materials for electric kilns. So the welding problem was not a problem. The difficult part in welding a big window of this size, 4 metres by 2 metres, is that aluminium expands and contracts a lot with heat, so it can very quickly warp our of shape. I usually clamp aluminium down onto my steel welding bench to keep it straight. However, in this case, the window is bigger than my bench, more than twice as big, so I had to weld it on the floor. This meant that I couldn’t clamp it down. So I have had to weld it intermittently with long gaps to allow the window to cool dawn so that it would remain flat and straight. This is why it has taken me so long, with just two welding sessions each day.

I made a wooden former to shape the arch

In order to bend the hollow section, I needed to make some cuts in the metal so that I could bend it round in an arc. I worked out that the difference between the inner and outer circumferences of a two metre arc was about 80mm. So I made 80 equally spaced cuts into the frame with a hacksaw, these were about 1mm across. It ought to have worked, but it didn’t. It wasn’t enough, the bend was too difficult to make by hand. I decided that I needed to make another cut with a thin blade angle grinder of about 1.5 mm wide. I made this cut just about 6 mm deep. The combination of the two allowed me to bend the arc easily by hand. I then clamped it to a plywood form, so that it would stay put while it expanded and contracted during welding. I welded the cuts back together. The whole section is now just as strong as it was before it was cut.

There are rolling machines that do this sort of thing easily, but I don’t know of any here in the Highlands. Besides, I am happy to do all the work myself in my own way, finding my own solutions. Using what I know and using what i have at hand. This is self reliance.

I tacked the arc onto the square section and it started to look like a window. Once the box sections were assembled, I needed to add the ‘T’ sections on top and an angle section around the edges. These are essentially the glazing bars. The rectangular hollow section is just a supporting frame to resist the wind pressure. These ‘T’ sections needed a little bit of fine cutting and filing to get to fit nicely, but it worked out OK. Clamping everything all the time is essential to keep it all flat and straight during welding.

Its taken many hours of thinking, measuring, cutting, fitting, clamping, tacking, cooling and then welding to get to this stage.

So far I have used over 50 metres of filler rod in all the tacks and box section welds. It’s a slow business, I’m hoping that it will work. each of these little butt-end rods was once a metre long.

In this image, the structure is complete, but it’s not a window yet, however, I started to think that it just might work. There is still a way to go at this stage. I still have to fit the architrave around it and then a fixing fin, but it’s almost there.

The builders finally turned up months late. We paid our deposit on the first of July, straight after the Council passed our DA. They told us that it would take 5 weeks for the kit to be delivered, There was some sort of stuff-up and the kit eventually took 12 weeks to be delivered. That was 2 months ago on the 23rd of September.

The builders have eventually arrived.

On the positive side. All the waiting around gave us the time to work on the yard and the clean-up, the orchard and the garden.

So the beginnings of a frame have appeared. Certainly enough to fit my big arch window in the end wall.

With any luck, we might be at lock-up stage before Xmas?

Seasonal Dining, Stuffed Zucchinis

Now that the new crop of zucchinis is starting to produce in earnest, we are able to pick half a dozen small, day old, or even just hours old, flowers with small fruit attached every morning. So we are enjoying the experience of stuffed zucchinis every second day.

Of course we don’t have to pick them so young, but there are so many in this very fertile early period, that we don’t want them to get any bigger, or we won’t be able to eat them all.

We have 7 plants. That’s too many, but when you plant the seeds, you just don’t know how many are going to germinate, and then of those how many will survive the onslaught of the snails and slugs, to grow to maturity and fertility. This year every plant seems to have grown well, with a few others lagging behind as late germinators which are still coming up.

I’ll have to do a cull. But in the mean time, we have plenty of zucchinis to stuff for lunches or light suppers.

These flowers were picked later in the day and have been fertilised, so the flowers have closed up, and if left on the plant the flower will drop off as the fruit grows.

On the other hand, these flowers were picked first thing in the morning and are still wide open. In this form they are much easier to fill with the cheesy stuffing.

So what’s in the stuffing? I like to mix cottage cheese or ricotta with any or all of the following; chopped garlic, chopped olives, chopped up dried tomatoes, preserved artichoke hearts, split and diced into smaller bits, capers, a diced chilli and perhaps even some finely diced chorizo. I also sometimes add sage or thyme leaves, even preserved capsicum section. What ever you have in the fridge or pantry. Give it a good stir and spoon it into the flowers. Squeeze them closed onto the stuffing and place in a wide pan with a little olive oil and a dash of white wine. cover and steam them for 6 minutes.

This results in the zucchinis being just cooked, sort of firm snappy fresh, but heated through. The filling will have cooked together into an homogenous mass inside the flower, which will have wilted completely. I don’t use salt. There is quite enough in the preserved veggies, but a grind of pepper is nice.

You know when summer is about to arrive when the zucchinis are coming on. They are the first of the plantings that we made in the garden mid way through September to start to produce. Zucchinis are the first summer veggies to produce fruit. The tomatoes are still small and green. The capsicums still haven’t flowered yet, nor have the aubergines. But the nights are getting shorter and the days hotter. I just brushed past the tomatoes plants yesterday, and the aroma of tomato foliage was so strong and promising. I can hardly wait.

I can eat these every other day for a week, but them I hit the wall and I don’t want to see another zucchini for a while. That’s when it’s time to slice them longways and BBQ them. Then there is always cut into rounds and steamed with a few sprigs of mint. Or grated and mixed with a little grated potato and an egg to make zucchini fritters.

By the end of summer, we’ll be sick of them and hanging out for some Brussels sprouts! you know that it’s autumn when we start to think about zucchini bread and zucchini cake! Just to use them up!

This is seasonal dining

The Effects of Global Heating

This time last week I wrote about picking the new season youngberries. The crop hast been starting earlier and earlier each year since 1976 when we planted them. It used to be Xmas Day when we could pick just a hand full of just-ripe fruit for our family Xmas meal.

In the last few years, the crop is all over by Xmas Day. We start to pick the berries in mid November now. That’s a 5 to 6 week shift in the crop because of the Global Heating. I was just reading a report on the effects of Global Heating this morning in the Guardian and it appears that many agricultural industries are also experiencing a 6 week shift in crop ripening.

I down loaded this graph from the article;

So it’s not just us and our fruit and vegetables, as this information was generated in McLaren Vale in South Australia.

I have written elsewhere on this blog about the tomato crop coming on weeks earlier than it used to. We now get our first tomatoes before Xmas instead of before new year, which has moved on from our previous earliest tomatoes that used to come on in mid to end of January when we first moved here.

I read elsewhere that a few wine makers such as Henschke and Brown Bros. bought properties in Tasmania more than a decade ago to look for terroir that would still be cool climate growing zones a few decades into the future. They were thinking ahead.

The disastrous effects of advancing Global Heating will be horrific, but in the meantime, getting a few early ripe tomatoes and berries is a tolerable outcome.

Summer approaches, hot days of fruit and fenestration

It’s not quite a week since I wrote that we picked the first youngberries of the season. Now, 6 days later we are in full harvest mode. This morning we picked 4 kilos of berries, we also picked 250 grams of blue berries and half a dozen strawberries.

Up until today we have been keeping up with the harvest. Eating them as we go in morning fruit salad. Then Janine made a sorbet/icecream sort of thing with just fruit and fresh cream, whipped up by hand intermittently every hour or so through the day as she took the batch out of the freezer as it stiffened. It made a pretty delicious dessert after dinner.

We have been up since early to do the watering and picking before the heat of the day set in. We are expecting 30oC today, so will spend the middle part of the day inside and out of the sun.

I also picked half a dozen hours old zucchinis with their flowers still attached. I will stuff these with cottage cheese and olives for lunch. This is our simple seasonal cuisine.

My inside work will be trying to finish off the big 4 metre x 2 metre arched window for the gallery space in the new pottery building. I’ve been plodding away on it for a couple of weeks now. It’s slow work as TIG welding aluminium creates a lot of heat in the metal frame, and aluminium expands and contracts a lot, which can lead to warping. Usually I would clamp a smaller job down onto a heavy steel-plate bench. but this window is so large, its bigger than my welding bench. so I have to be patient and allow it to cool down and shrink back to size between welding sessions. Hence the slow progress.

So far, I’ve been lucky, and it hasn’t warped much and is still within 1mm of square. That’s pretty good for my low level of skill.

Living with the seasons – the first youngberries

We used to say the first ypungberries of the summer, but over the years of global heating progressing apace and nobody in government prepared to admit it or do anything to cut carbon emissions, we are almost certainly heading for a difficult future.

You can’t fix a problem, until you admit that you have one. The carbon industries through their financial leverage on both political parties and continued deceptive advertising have brought us to this critical point and show no signs of letting up.

So now we have to say the first young berries of the season, because it’s nearly all over in the late spring. We only have to put put one net up this year, as all the other fruit trees are either burnt , or badly damaged and cut back very hard to remove the damaged wood, so there will be no cherries or peaches, no apples, pears or plums, no avocados. Just the youngberries. They survived the fire because they were directly behind the house. I am grateful for what I have.

Youngberries are so special, just the right balance of sugar and acid. Unlike the mulberries that we have been feasting on for the past few weeks that have a mild sweetness, but with virtually no acid. They need lemon juice and zest to give them a bit of a kick. See previous recipes.

These berries are so nice, that we will be just eating them fresh off the canes for the first few days, until the crop overwhelms us and then we start to bottle them for later in the winter. We’re pretty lucky to have something so simple and so special fresh from the garden.