Self-reliance in dry times

As the drought deepens and the climate crisis escalates unchecked, with our politicians heads firmly buried deep in the sand. Crisis, What crisis? We muddle on in our independent, self-reliant, way. With the dam water very low. Actually, extremely low. We are saving what water we have in it for use in the coming weeks with the imminent arrival of the massive bush fire that is ravaging a lot of Eastern New South Wales.

The fire closest to us has burned over 112,000 hectares, or half a million acres, in the last two weeks. It is now just 17 km for our Village. When the next hot, dry, North Westerly wind blows in it will bring it here. Currently, the wind is in our favour and mostly blowing from the west. Inevitably to will swing around at some point. Then our time will come to deal with it Nothing can put out a fire of this scale – only good heavy prolonged rain. That is unlikely in the next month or two. So we just sit and wait.

We have tested all the roof and wall mounted sprinkler systems on the house, pottery, barn and kiln shed. I have even set up temporary, ground mounted, sprinklers on hoses in front of the wood shed and Railway Station building. We have done everything that we can, so now we wait.

The sun is orange because there is so much smoke and fall out from the sky of charred leaves and fine ash, it slowly blankets every thing. The car is covered in fine dust. All the roofs are dusty. Today I had to wash the solar panels 3 times, with mop and squeegee and 3 changes of water in the bucket, in order to get the water to run almost clear. The output from the system jumped up almost 500 watts straight away as I was washing the panels. Not just because they were cleaner, but the washing would have cooled them and made them more efficient.

We have scaled back our summer vegetable garden to just about half its usual size to reduce our water usage and we are only watering the younger and most dependant fruit tress that are one and two years old. All the older trees with deeper and more established root systems are having to fend for themselves. Several garden plants and a couple of older native trees have just keeled over and snuffed it. The times they are a changing. We will emerge from this very dry period with a different garden. When the rains come, it will probably flood. We have been told to expect more extremes in the weather. We will find out which plants can cope with draught and flood.

We have been doleing out our drinking water from the water tanks to keep the blue berries and young berries alive and producing, as well as the early peaches. That will be the sum total of our fruit for this summer. It’s all we can manage to support. Other trees that are not being watered, like the quince trees, have shed all their small partially formed fruit in an effort to save them selves. Ditto, the apples and pears. All four of our fig trees appear to have died, dropped all their leaves, turned brown and lost any sign of green tips at the dried out buds. I spoke to our neighbour at the shopping centre yesterday, and she told me that her parents are buying two truck loads of water each week to keep their garden alive. That’s hundreds of dollars worth of water being trucked in. We have never had to buy water in the past 43 years of our life here. We are frugal and we have planned well in advance. I guess that we will have to learn to live without figs. A small price to ask. But I can’t help but think, which trees are next?

In the mean time we have peaches, youngberries and blue berries to pick and preserve. This last basket full of the early peaches smell divine, fresh off the tree and so warm and fragrant. They are such a treasure, we eat most of them raw for breakfast and deserts, but we also vacuum seal some of them for later.

Todays job was to pick the berries. Both Young and blue. This will be the last pick of young berries, the canes started producing on the 24th of November. A whole month earlier than when they were first planted in 1977. We remove the netting and let the chooks in to clean up. The birds will get all the other higher odds and ends. We roll up the net and dismantle the hoop frames. Stored away till this time next year.

This last pick is about 700 g, making a rather small harvest this year, but exceptional, given the difficult conditions. We harvested about 5 to 6 kilos altogether. We have youngberry ice-cream in the freezer and 5 jars of vacuum sealed fruit in the pantry. It’s a pleasing reward for our efforts.

Janine whips berry puree into our local, pure, Picton dairy cream to make ice-cream. Nothing could be more natural and flavoursome. This has to be the most delicious way to get plaque build up in your arteries. At least there are no colours, preservatives, chemicals or artificial substances in there. Not too much sugar either.

The blue berries haven’t looked back since we potted them and moved them into the netted vegetable garden as a border. This keeps the birds off and makes sure that they get a bit of water every time we water the veggies. They reward us with their fruit. 3 kgs so far this summer and the season has only just begun. The will continue fruiting for a couple of months, into February, as we have chosen early, medium and late varieties.

Blue berries ripen over time, with only just a few ripe blue ones every so often spread out over all the little bunches. They are quite time consuming to pick. But which fruit isn’t? We have to pluck each individual berry from its neighbour in the tight little clusters. Today we manage 700g in half an hour with both of us at it. I have no idea how they produce these things commercially for just a few dollars per punnet. Slave labour?

Its a beautiful and rewarding thing to share this wholesome activity together. We are managing to eat them all fresh for breakfast and desserts so far, but there comes a time when the novelty wears off and we start to freeze some for later. Janine has experimented and learnt to make a beautiful blueberry sauce with a little brandy and cream. We force our selves to eat it 🙂

Banana fritters with berry ice-cream as a second course for breakfast after the berry fruit salad. Someones got to do it!

Last Truffle of the Season

It’s so wonderful to be home again. I love being away somewhere exotic, learning something new and having experiences that lead me to make synaptic connections that I hope will lead to new ideas.

I really like to be back in my own kitchen too. I was very happy eating steamed and stir fried vegetables with offal every meal while in China. I cook a lot of steamed and stir fried veggies my self. I do tend to go a bit light on the intestines though, most, if not all of the time. Actually totally all of the time.

I’m back just in time to get the last truffle of the season. It was harvested while I was in China. My son Geordie kept it for me while I was away. He had it in his fridge for a week, safely stashed in a sealed container with 4 eggs on a bed of rice.

The weather has warmed up a lot this last week. I’m pretty sure that the last frost has gone. We have planted out a lot of summer veggies in the open in the garden. If I had been at home, I would have got some early seedlings planted out under my portable shrink-wrapped closhes a few weeks earlier.

We shared the truffle with Geordie, half each. It is a real beauty, so aromatic! A wonderfull, deep, earthy, sensuous, almost hormonal fragrance.

We decided to make scrambled eggs with shaved truffle and some garden fresh asparagus. Perfect!

I steamed the asparagus for a couple of minutes, quckiy drained and sautéed in a bit of butter with course ground salt and fresh ground pepper. Pretty yummy by itself, but totally excellent in combination with the truffled eggs.

I served it with a few shavings of piquant pecorino for balance.

I’m so glad to be back in the kitchen! The truffle was so big that we were able to get another meal out of it and have a repeat the next day for lunch. This time with a small glass of very fragrant and complex, wooded chardonnay.

It’s a hard life. But someone has to live it. I quite like being retired!

Making the Most of Winter

It’s another blowy, blustering cool day, with a wind that is bringing down a few branches. Luckily, it was quite still yesterday evening, so we decided to burn off our pile of garden, orchard and vineyard prunings. We manage to assemble quite a pile of these prunings during the autumn pruning period. We pile them up to dry out for a couple of months and then burn off the pile at the end of winter, just before the spring fire bans come into force. In the past we have waited for a cool damp night after rain, but it just hasn’t rained at all for months, so the pile just sat there. 
Last night was forecast to be damp with the possibility of a slight shower. That was good enough, After dinner we went down to the burn pile site, next to the Pantryfield garden and lit it up. It was a very slow quiet burn that took 3 hours to get through all the sticks, twigs and branches. By 11 pm it was just a pile of white ash and a few glowing embers. It’s a good feeling to get the fire hazard out of the way before summer, otherwise it would have to sit there for another 8 months. Fortunately it started to rain ever so gently later in the night, just half a mm. in the rain gauge this morning, but enough to settle it all down.


 Today a fierce, gusty wind has settled in, so we are back inside, after doing all our jobs, collecting fire wood and stacking it inside ready for tonights fires, watering the small seedlings and cleaning up. Now the sun is fully up, we drove the car down to the high amperage charging station down by the kiln factory. The kiln shed has 3 phase power installed, so we placed the fast charger down there, as there is no electricity in the car port. The kiln shed roof also has 6kW of solar panels on its roof, so direct access to the solar power for charging the car and firing the kiln.
As we’re inside, we decide to deal with kitchen duties. We held our second marmalade making workshop at the weekend, so there are numerous small jars of marmalade to be washed and dried , then labeled and stored away in the pantry. We made 3 batches, each slightly different, but all of them centred on Seville oranges, of which we have a beautiful crop this year. Hard to fathom, as we are currently in a drought. But we have been watering the citrus grove regularly.


Each large boiler, makes between 7 to 10 jars of marmalade, depending on the size of the jars. Our very good friends Toni and Chris turned up and the afternoon eventually wound it’s way into evening and dinner.


The other job on the kitchen list is to make a stock out of the bones left over from a duck that we have in the fridge. I start by browning some onion in olive oil, then garlic and water. Our organic garden garlic is getting close to the end now as the winter peters-out. What we have left is stored, hung up, outside on the back verandah in long plaits. This is starting to sprout now, but it still gives us the good garlic flavour. The new crop of garlic is filling out in the garden, but is still 3 months away from maturity.



I add water, the bones, a lemon, chillies, the very last of our late season tomatoes that we picked 6 weeks ago when they were still a bit green, as the bushes had been burnt off by the frost, and some pepper. After simmering for an hour, I pass it thorough a sieve to separate the bones and mirepoix from the stock. I add a bottle of ‘fume’ wine and return the clear stock to the stove to reduce. It happens in among all the other jobs, slowly and steadily, filling the kitchen with a warm, delicious fragrance that is so welcoming on a cold windy day.
 Domestic jobs can be really engaging and fulfilling sometimes. This is one of those times.You’ll notice that I don’t write too much about cleaning the grease trap!
Our enigmatic friend Annabelle Sloujé sent me this image that she saw somewhere, after I wrote about making a beef bone stock last week.
Best wishes from Steve who is making the most of winter – while it lasts.

A sudden cold spell

We have just emerged from a sudden cold spell. We were glad to find a few jobs to do inside for a while until the cold winds blew themselves out. Our good friend Annabelle Sloujé lives a little bit farther south of here and a lot higher up, she had a low of -9oC, I’m glad we live here in Camelot where it doesn’t get so cold. My friends in Korea report a range of -35 to + 38oC. They probably think that I’m a wimp for talking about a winters day of -1 oC. They possibly think that -1 is quite warm, in comparison.

However cold or hot it is, we found things to do out of the wind. I shelled nuts and Janine made a cake from the last of last years hazelnuts that she milled into flour. It’s one of those recipes with reduced flour and usually almond meal. The Lovely down loaded it from the internet, but as we didin’t have any almonds left to shell, she used all hazelnut meal instead. All recipes are just a guide. Living where we do, we have learnt to compromise and use what we have rather than drive for an hour to get something specific. We save all our jobs and shopping list for that weekly trip.

Glazed with melted 85% dark chocolate and a few chunks of chopped crystallised ginger. It was just right for cold weather and didn’t last too long.

For my part, I made a beef marrow bone and vegetable stock over a couple of nights, using the free heat from the wood fired kitchen stove after we cooked dinner.

I make stock like this a few times each year, especially during the colder months when the stove is always on. I have come accustomed to always having our own personal, giant, frozen stock cube in the freezer. We don’t own a dedicated freezer, so we only freeze what can’t be preserved by other means like vacuum sealing ‘Vacola’ jars. The special conditions required for safe preserving in vacuum jars is that the food must be boiled in the jar to seal it, so that counts out pesto. Also, it is best if the food is naturally acidic like fruits and vegetables like tomatoes. Meat can be preserved this way, but it is recommended that the vacuum sealing be done twice to make sure that it is perfectly safe. A bit of a bother.

After the cold spell blew itself out, we have had a few glorious cloudless sunny days with no wind. I took the opportunity to move my chair out into the sun and get a little vitamin D and finish decorating my last few pots doing scraffitto, carving into the surface with a sharp tool. This will show the pooling character of my local granite blue celadon style glaze when fired in the reduced solar fired electric kiln.

Spring is almost here

When the poppies arrive, spring is almost here!We still have 2 weeks before spring is officially here, but we have been enjoying a nice steady display of the red Flanders poppies for a few weeks now. The night time frosts are still continuing, but the poppies don’t seem to mind.

They brighten the kitchen breakfast table. The shaft of early morning light illuminates their semi-translucent fragility. They only last such a short time in the vase, but they make us happy while they are here.As it is still winter, we have been enjoying all the varied brassicas that are maturing in the garden. We picked a gigantic cauliflower and had to think up a variety of ways of eating it. Fresh picked, we like it best cut into small florets and dipped in a little mayonnaise and eaten raw. We also add it to stir fry and risottos, but the classic has to be cauliflower au gratin. I have to make it at least once each winter. 
I melt a little bit of butter and add in some flour, for us, that happens to be wholemeal. I make a roux using approximately equal parts of each, but I only cook it to thicken it, I don’t want it to colour up, so I only cook it off on a gentle heat and soon add some milk a little at a time. The first few drops instantly thickens it to a stiff paste. I have to work at dissolving the first few drops of milk into the mucilage, as it is adsorbed, and the mixture loosens, I continue to add the milk slowly while stirring to avoid lumps. I only want a pale sauce for the gratin. I think that it looks most appropriate with the pale cauliflower.

I’m a lazy cook, I don’t have any bread crumbs and I’m not about to start making some, and I certainly won’t ever be buying any ready-mades, so as soon as it comes to a slow, gentle bubbling boil, I add in my steamed cauliflower and I stir in a little grated cheese, with a little more added on top, and the whole lot then goes under the grill.

It’s a lovely warming veggie winter dinner.
We have been in to have dinner at our sons restaurant, Bistro Sociale in Bowral,  <http://www.bistrosociale.com.au>

Always a lovely time, good, interesting food and not too expensive. We almost never eat out in restaurants, but we make an exception for our son. He made a beautiful desert for Janine and our friend Annabelle Sloujé.
A prune creme brûlée with fruits and flowers.


Geordie managed to get me a fresh black French truffle recently. The weather has been so dry here. We are in drought, and this has affected the truffle harvest this year. It turns out that the Southern Highlands is a very good place to grow truffles, but not in a drought. Our own truffle trees have not shown any inclination to produce a truffle as yet, but we live in hope. Maybe in the future, if it ever rains?

We managed to get just one small truffle. Since Ted retired and sold his truffiere, we have been cut off from our supply. Geordie has contacts though! So we had truffled eggs for breakfast. You can’t be mean with a truffle. They may be expensive at $1.40 per gram, but it’s best not to think about the cost and just inhale deeply and enjoy. We made scrambled eggs with a little cream whipped in and some fresh grated pepper, and then grated the whole truffle over the top. No point in rationing it out over several meals, such that you never really get the full flavour experience. Just go for it and enjoy it to the max. You only live once.

We have had absolutely no mushrooms come up in our garden this winter. It is just so dry. There is still just enough time, if it rained in the next couple of weeks, we could get lucky.


After storing the truffle in the fridge for a few days with the eggs and rice. We used the rice to make a risotto for dinner. It’s amazing that when I opened the container and poured the rice into the big pan to roast it a little before adding the wine. There was a very noticeable smell of French truffle wafting up to me. Beautiful! It became a winter vegetable risotto.


I added a bottle of our preserved, concentrated, summer tomato, sugo as well. It really fills out the flavour like no other vegetable can.


We are lighting both the wood fired stove in the kitchen and the fire in the lounge room to keep the place moderately warm at night. As the kitchen stove also heats our hot water tank in the winter, it is a necessity. But most importantly, its carbon neutral, as we collect all our kitchen stove wood fuel off our own land, from our own forrest. However, it’s also a beautiful way to cook.

Winter Citrus and Candied Peel

The citrus crop is now coming into its own. We are harvesting ripe citrus every few days for our breakfast entre.

Because we have so much fruit, I decide to try and preserve some of the citrus in something other than just marmalade or frozen lemon juice ice cubes.
I decide to try and make some citrus candied peel.
I have a couple of different approaches. First I try amd make some finely sliced candied peel.
I peel the bright orange peel from the fruit with a standard veggie peeler. I separate it from the pith off the fruit and then slice it finely with a knife.
I’m using grapefruit, lemonade and tangello peel. Why? Because that is the fruit that we shared for breakfast.
I boil the peel in water for a few minutes, then change the water and repeat to reduce the bitterness.
I change the water about 3 times, then let it simmer gently for quite a few minutes to soften the peel.
I drain of the water and weigh the fruit. Add the same amount of sugar as the weight of the damp fruit.
Then return the water to the sauce pan with the fruit and sugar and simmer for 30 mins.
Once they are softened, I drain off the water and put them on a mesh tray to dry.
After drying in the wood stove oven that is cooling down overnight with the oven door open, dip them in melted dark chocolate and store in the fridge.
Delicious! They are crisp, crunchy, sweet and citrus sour.
The next night, I try repeating the process using whole slices of navel oranges.
These whole slices are boiled in the same way and then candied as above.
These are very nice after drying and dipped in 80% dark chocolate.
They are particularly nice! They don’t last long.
I’ll have to make another batch using 10 oranges next time, so that they can last a few days.
Winter does have it’s advantages.

Winter Marmalade Workshop – Everthing Good Takes Time

Winter brings on the lemons and not just on Monday or Friday!

All the citrus a coming on and although it is very early in the season, we have a load of fruit to get through.

Our citrus grove is now 7 years old and the trees are starting to produce more fruit than we can eat. We could manage it if it were spread out over 12 months, but it’s all coming on in a bit of a rush now. Even though we are in a drought, we did have a surprising down-pour of rain last week that gave us 27mm. Just at the right time to swell out these citrus crops nicely.
The mandarin and cumquat are not really fully ripe yet, but the Seville oranges are almost there, there are just a few ripe fruit on the North facing side of the tree. Everything else is booming. Lemons, lemonades, tangelos, limes, navels and grapefruits. All these are just ripe enough for making marmalade now.
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Janine decided to offer a marmalade making workshop to help us use up this fruit productively. All we ask people to do is turn up with their glass jars, so that they can take home their produce, and something to contribute to a shared lunch. We offer to provide everything else. The fruit, sharp knives, cutting boards, sugar, big copper boilers and a couple of citrus juicers.
Janine spread the word through the local ‘greens’ and the ‘Seed Savers’  + the organic gardeners and the Picton art group. It just so happens that all these contact points are almost exactly the same people! Gentle, creative, thoughtful sensitive caring people have the same interests it seems.
Fortunately for us the Wollondilly Art Group had their monthly meeting postponed a week so that it clashed with our marmalade making workshop. I say fortunately, because we had 8 people and if we had had any more it would have been a bit tight in our little kitchen.
We started by walking down to the citrus grove and picking the fruit. Each person filling one of our wicker baskets with a different fruit.
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We spend the morning peeling, slicing and dicing. Everyone brings along their own individual approach to dissecting the citrus fruit quite finely, some more finely than others. Janine and I have different approaches and we each demonstrate our own way. We also have two vastly different cooking methods and we prepare  batches by both methods.
I get the job of peeling the grapefruits, Seville oranges and eureka lemons, as they have a thick white pith. I have no trouble in being told to ‘pith-off’!
I’m told that the white pith isn’t needed in marmalade. So off it goes, the thin curly ‘peels’ can then be sliced very finely.  To very thinly slice the peel takes a lot longer. But I like it that way,  I don’t mind the time, I’ve set the day aside for this, it’s a pleasant activity and I know that I’ll enjoy the reward. Everything good takes time!
The remaining whole peeled fruit are cut in half and juiced, as we only use the juice, the peel and sugar. We don’t use water, nor do we soak the fruit over night. Just our very own ‘quick and dirty’ whole fruit method.
Once the fruit is on the stove, we settle down for a shared lunch and a chat while our handiwork simmers and fills the kitchen with that devine smell. One by one, as each boiler begins to ’gel’, we fill the glass jars as they come straight from the oven where they are sterilised for 10 minutes at 120oC and cap them off with simmered lids.
Everybody got to take home 2 or 3 jars of different marmalade blends. We made 4 different batches altogether.  I think that everyone enjoyed the day. I notice that no one was in a hurry to leave.
We are left with a dozen jars of different blends for our own pantry. It takes all day, but it’s a really pleasant day, well spent. Everything good takes time.
My car has just sent an email to my phone to up-date me on the progress of our driving. We have had our Hyundai Ionic ‘plug-in’ electric hybrid car for 5 months now. We have driven 5,000 kms so far and nearly all of that has been done on our own solar power. We have driven the 5,000 kms on just $70 worth of petrol. We have filled the petrol tank twice with $50 worth of fuel, but we still are only a third of the way through the 2nd tank full.
The first image that I have downloaded here shows that for the time period of one month, and the mileage that we covered over that time, the car should have generated 26grams of CO2 per kilometre. In actual fact we generated only 2 grams! It seems that the Hyundai software aggregates all the information from all the cars of the same make and model in Australia and rates the usage accordingly.
On this basis, we were rated 1st for the month February
This second image shows that our average litres per kilometre. was 845 km/L. Apparently the expected amount for this car should be closer to 20.
For this month our fuel consumption was 0.64 litres to travel 545 km. The expected fuel consumption should have been much higher, closer to 26 litres. So we are achieving 50 times better than the average.
I’m very pleased with this information, as this is just what I hoped to achieve when I bought this plug-in hybrid car. We have demonstrated that we can drive almost totally on sunshine. However, when we need to go on longer trips, there is no ‘range anxiety’, as we can use the small, fuel-efficient, petrol engine to go up to 1,100 km when both the battery and fuel tank are full.
It’s no accident that we can do this. We have spent all our lives working towards this situation. Making our own livelihood from our own small business, growing our own food, collecting our own water supply, dealing with our own sewage, making our own electricity and storing our excess solar power in our battery, all these choices leading up to this point, so that we can simply plug in our electric car and drive on sunshine.
Everything good takes time.
Best wishes
Steve
Dr. Steve Harrison PhD. MA (Hons)
hotnsticky@ozemail.com.au
blog; tonightmyfingerssmellofgarlic.com
Potter, kiln surgeon, clay doctor, wood butcher and Post Modern Peasant.