This week we have experienced the longest night, and also the coldest day – so far.
We awoke to a fantastic white shimmering frost. All the paddocks were bright white for a couple of hours until the sun light reached them and burnt it all off. The sun rises at such a shallow angle in winter, it takes a long time for the sunlight to get higher in the sky, and then cast its bright energy onto the fields.
We have been making work for the first firing of the new wood kiln. This job was one of many put on hold while we made work for the ‘Pop-Up’ Open Studio weekend. Now that this is safely behind us, and with a little bit of liquidity to keep us afloat. We can concentrate on making the work for the wood firing.
I started last week by chopping wood and making clay. Now we are enjoying the fruits of that labour. I started with making the largest pieces, as these will take the longest time to dry, especially in mid-winter.
These big platters and dishes are 400 mm. dia. Janine has started by making some press moulded square dinner plates. These are an order that has flowed on from the Open Studio sale last Xmas.
I have also managed to get a couple of half-days in the veggie garden, so it is starting to look loved again.
The garden always looks so much better when there are a few rows of carefully weeded and tended seedlings and sprouting seeds coming up. I just made it, getting these leeks, onions and garlic in before it is too late. It is really too late for a good garlic crop, but this is the 3rd planting, so we will be OK. I also put in broad beans, peas and transplanted seedlings of Brassicas that I managed to sow 6 weeks ago. Everything is a bit ‘just-in-time’, but it will do to get us through this tough time of transition from Bushfire residue chaos into New, comfortable and productive post-fire life.
We have been enjoying a few very nice meals recently. Janine cooked 2 big spinach and cheese pies to feed all our helpers over the long weekend pot sale. But at the last minute a couple of our friends, Warren and Trudie, caught Covid and couldn’t turn up to give us a hand. Luckily our other friends Susan and Dave stayed on for an extra day to help us out. Because we had fewer people here, there was an excess of pre-cooked food, like two spinach and 3 cheeses pies, a lovely dish of mussels in rose wine and home made tomato passata, flavoured with a liberal sprinkling of chillis.
Janine and I were eating spinach and cheese pie for days. I tried reheating and serving it in a few different ways. One favourite was serving a slice with a home made tomato passata sauce bottled in the past summer, this was served with slices of chorizo, olives and capers. That was my favourite combination, combined with side of a small amount of sautéed mushrooms in garlic and olive oil.
This last few weeks has seen us making pots, but also getting into some serious repairs and maintenance.
I was outside digging over the ‘cottage garden’ preparing the soil for sowing seeds of a spring/summer flower garden show of colour. I know that now is the time to plant out seeds for spring in this flower garden, as in the veggie garden, where we go almost everyday to harvest food for dinner, do a little bit of weeding and plant out successive sowings of vegetable seeds. I see that the red ‘Flanders’ poppies are germinating in the freshly dug soil where I have recently planted garlic cloves. Poppies decide when the time is right to germinate, but they will only germinate in freshly turned soil. So now is the time to dig over the cottage garden site.
I whipper snipped all the old foliage into mulch, raked it all up and onto the compost, or used it as mulch in other places in the yard.
I took what I thought was the easy alternative of using the cultivator. Not so! I only got 1/4 of the way round and the fuel line blocked up. This machine is a little beauty. I bought it 45 years ago, second hand for $50. It has just gone and gone and gone on working. I only use it a few times a year, but it is so much quicker and easier than hand digging with a garden fork if there is a lot to do. I tweaked the old rubber fuel line and it just snapped clean off in my hand, trailing petrol straight down onto the soil until the small petrol tank was emptied. I walked to the shed and got a pair of pliers to remove the stub end of the fuel line. It was very brittle as its quite old. I have replaced the fuel line a couple of times over the 45 years that I have owned it. The remaining length of line is too short to re-join for a temporary fix, so its another long walk to get some more fresh fuel line from the maintenance shed. With repairs completed, another walk to the fuel shed to get some more petrol and I’m back in business, just a half hour later.
I love this old cultivator. It’s just like me. Out of date and long past its use-by date, but it just seems to be able to keep on going, and going. So solid, reliable and old fashioned. Not very complicated. A good worker. I’m happy to spend time maintaining it to keep it working. It’s a pleasure to be able to own and use such a lovely old Australian made, solid machine that works so simply and so well.
I completed what I set out to do with no more interruptions. Luckily, I had all the parts that I needed on hand, so the job was started and finished on the same day. It’s not always so.
We borrowed Sandy Lockwood’s small pug mill over Xmas and January, as she wasn’t using it over the break and was happy to lend it to us. My wrists weren’t up to wedging another quarter tonne of clay again, so It worked out very well for us both, because after we had finished pugging the new batch of clay and also working through all our stored up re-cycled and bagged turnings and throwing slip. I pulled the pug mill to bits and cleaned it right out. I even saw that the chassis was getting a bit rusted in places, so I cleaned it back, rust converted it and painted it black again. Good as new when we returned it. This pug mill has never been in such good condition since it was built.
That batch of clay is now all used up, so we need to be getting on with getting another pug mill working.
In the old pottery, before the fire, we had two 4” or 100mm dia. Venco vacuum pug mills. One for white clay and one for dark clay. I also had a 3” or a 75mm dia. stainless steel pug mill just for porcelain clay and finally we had a very small 2” or 50mm dia. stainless steel pug for small batches of test bodies and recycling of turnings. That was such a good position to be in. Luxury really. It took me over 40 years to get to that position.
At the beginning of the year, we were given a pug mill from our friend Toni Warburton. It hadn’t been used for a long time. Perhaps 20 or more years? It had been stored in her back shed for time out of mind and was full of dried out clay. That’s not such a problem. What was a problem, was that it had never been taken apart. so all the bolts holding the 2 halves of the pug mill barrel together were rusted and swollen up in their sockets. They couldn’t be removed or even rotated. I could have snapped off the heads trying to get them loose, but then the shattered off ends would have made them very difficult to drill out accurately. So I decided to just drill them all out straight from scratch. A very long and difficult job.
Drilling out all 8 of the bolts took some time. They were all 90mm long, so I started off with a 3mm pilot hole, then increasing from 5 to 7, and then 9mm drill bits, until the bolt was completely hollowed out and could be removed.
I was wondering if I would get away with it, but I didn’t snap off any drill bits, especially the first 3mm drill bit. That would have certainly put an end to it.
Once I got the barrel apart, I could clean out the dry clay and start to clean it up. The pug mill had previously been used to prepare dark iron bearing terracotta clay. However, I want to use it for white stoneware, so It had to be cleaned out very well. scrupulously well. I made a thorough job of it, starting out with a paint scraper and generally progressing from hand held wire brush, through to a circular wire brush in an electric drill and finishing off with an angle grinder for the most stubborn bits.
I set about removing every trace of terracotta from both the barrel castings and the stainless steel blades and shaft. They cleaned up pretty well. I ground the barrel back to bare metal and gave it a good coat of etch primer to seal it. This wont last in the places of heaviest wear, like in front of the shredding screens and in the reduction cone of the barrel, but elsewhere it will help minimise the ‘salt’ corrosion caused by the alkalis in the clay reacting with the bare aluminium metal under very wet and humid conditions. The barrel is cast out of marine aluminium, but eventually it still corrodes. In the last pottery, I replaced the oldest barrel that I had on my oldest ’70’s ‘Venco’ pug mill in 1984. It was starting to get corrosion patches breaking through the barrel after 35 years! I kept sealing them with ‘LockTite’ ‘wick-in’ each time I took it to bits and serviced it. The Locktite seeps into the crevices and then ‘gels’ to seal off the void. Very cleaver. If this barrel lasts that long, it wont be my problem! Someone else will have to deal with it.
Toni had christened this pub mill ‘Pugsly’, so that is its name now and forever. However, I gave Pugsly a bit of a spruce-up and a new coat of paint.
Bright and cheerful and ready for work. I mounted the vac pump underneath to keep them both close coupled and easy to move around on the one solid castor unit.
This will be our old, but new, porcelain pug mill.
Last year our good friend Jane Sawyer offered us her old Venco pug. She had bought it 2nd hand in the 90’s. She offered it to us as she wasn’t using it anymore. She has another one at ’SlowClay’. This pugmill had stopped working at some stage and was surplus to her needs. We had tried to get it trucked up to Sydney, but no taxi truck company wanted to take on the job of delivering it to the trucking depot for transfer to Sydney. The only quotes I could get were approaching upwards of $1,000. Way too much! So at the start of April. Janine and I made a lightning trip down to Melbourne to collect it. We drove down in the ute, as it has a crane on the back, built for lifting such heavy gear as this. We had 3 days with Jane and took a day of rest to walk into and around Melbourne. The 10 hour drive each way was a bit boring. We changed drivers every 2 hours. It has been a very long time since I drove to Melbourne. The road is all dual carriage way now and a very comfortable drive. The truck is not particularly fuel efficient, so the 20 hour drive cost us $300 in petrol. 1/3 the cost of getting it trucked. But at least we now have it! The best part was that we got to spend a few days with Jane. And, It arrived home safely without being damaged in transit!
This image by Jane Sawyer.
Once home I started to get the pug mill to bits to clean it out. It had also been used for terracotta, so a lot of cleaning was needed. The motor still made a noise when switched on, but instantly went into overload, shut down and stopped humming. It appeared that either the gear box was broken, jammed or a bearing was seized. The only way to find out was to strip it all down to basics. This was easier said than done.
The bottom half of the barrel had seized bolts. I snapped off one of them trying to get it loose, so decided to drill out the other. Once the barrel was off, I tried to remove the collar connecting the gearbox to the barrel. This is where the problem lay. Once I got the bolts out the collar and shaft could only rotate together when I switched on the motor. I eventually got the shaft away from the gearbox, but the collar was very firmly jammed onto the shaft.
I spent a week heating, quenching, oiling, and tapping, several times a day. Whenever I went past. I eventually put the collar in the vice and hit the shaft with a sledge hammer. Gently at first, using a hardwood block to cushion the blow. Nothing happened, so I hit it harder, still nothing. Then I hit it really hard and split the wooden block! But there was possibly a little bit of movement – but only possibly. Was I imagining it? Another hard wood block, and another blow from the sledge hammer saw it definitely move 1 mm.! I dosed it quite liberally with RP7 and left it over night. Several days and 3 hard wood blocks later, the shaft was free.
I discovered that the grease cap on the collar was blocked, so the collar was badly corroded and had swollen up and jammed onto the shaft. The lubricating tube was so badly blocked I couldn’t clear it out. I decided that it was easier to drill out a new greasing tube through the collar to be able to lubricate the shaft into the future.
I welded up a new steel pug mill table/trolley on castors, so that I can move the very heavy pug mill around in the future. I made an under carriage to carry the vacuum pump together with the pug, so that I don’t have to move the vacuum pump separately. This will be our new/old white stoneware pug mill. I’m still waiting to get my hands on another 4” Venco vacuum pug mill for the buff/brown stoneware wood fire clay body. It’ll happen. I just need to be patient.
Bit by bit, slowly, slowly. We are getting everything back to where we were before the fire.
There is a huge sense of satisfaction in being able to take other peoples unused and non-functional pieces of equipment and bring them back into productive use for very little money, by more or less only using my own labour, ingenuity and time. I’ve never done this kind of thing before, so it’s all new to me. I’m just making it up as I go along. There isn’t anything in life that teaches you how to disassemble a pugmill with a seized shaft. I’m lucky. It all worked out well.
It’s an honour and a privilege to own and use these personal links and connections to my friends. There is so much embedded energy in these machines, it’s important to keep them going and avoid waste. it is a delight to see them working properly and being productive again.
We are so lucky to have such Generous, helpful and supportive friends.
Nothing is perfect, nothing is ever finished and nothing lasts.
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.
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.
Two weeks ago I got into the garden and cleared out a lot of veggies that had gone to seed and even more weeds that had slowly crept in during the time I was otherwise distracted by the more pressing jobs of bushfire recovery and re-building. I’m back now and making more time for the garden. It’s only taken two years, but we managed to keep the vegetable garden going all that time, sort of limping along, but being productive in a minimal way. There are still 3 of the 4 beds that need the same severe clearing out, thorough weeding, composting and restarting with fresh seeds.The new bed is now starting to turn green with the newly emerging shoots of basil, chilli, sweet corn, radish, beetroot, carrots and cabbages.
The weather couldn’t be more perfect just now. It might be the beginning of summer, but it hasn’t become too hot yet to plant out some more summer veggies.It is also time to think ahead and consider that autumn is just a few months away. If we want to get some good cauliflowers, Brussel Sprouts and cabbages going. Now is the time to think about it.
When we first came here in 1976 there was a hardware shop in the nearby village of Thirlmere. It had been there since before the war. It was run by the elderly Middleton Bros. Their business was started by their father a generation before them, who had originally taken a horse and dray from farm to farm, orchard to orchard. Selling hardware and iron mongery items door to door, Eventually building up a clientele sufficient to start a shop front in the village.
His business grew over the years and expanded eventually taking over the three or four shops next to it, until it occupied a considerable slice of the main road shop-fronts. The Middletons eventually sold everything from hardware and building materials through fencing wire and agricultural supplies like fertiliser and chook feed, bales of hay to galvanised water-tanks, household items and small electrical goods. They even had a haberdashery dept. and a tiny supermarket.
On our first visit there we bought a large galvanised laundry tub there as well as a pepper grinder and even ordered our first galvanised water-tank for the old School plus all the plumbing fittings that were required to go along with it. I picked up a hardwood adze handle/shaft which was still priced in pounds, shillings and pence.
The conversation went something like this;
“This says that it costs one pound, two and six. How much do you want for it now?
Mr Middleton smiled kindly and said, “Let me see now. One pound, two and six That would convert as $2.25″
“But this is 10 years later!” I replied.
“That’s OK, $2.25 will do”
We walked through to the haberdashery dept, and Janine asked the lady, in her 60′s then, who had worked there all her life, woman and girl, if she stocked circular section, leather drive belts for foot operated treadle sowing machines. As Janine thought that if anywhere would have one it might just be here. The lady politely replied. “What size would that be, large or small, stapled or bonded?” She had several in stock to suit the various machines that had been on the market over the years!
Mr Middleton stocked real charred-hide blood and bone fertiliser with the blackened fragments of hide, hair and bone chips all in there, direct from the abattoir in those days!
We bought seeds from the gardening dept. and I remember well that he gave me the following advice. That we should plant out the brassica seeds on Boxing Day and trans-plant them on Empire Day!!!! – which is now Australia Day.
So loosely, this translates as germinate brassica seeds on the summer solstice, around the 26th of December and transplant the seedlings once they have their second set of leaves, a month later on the 26th of January.
This was very good advice and I have followed it ever since with good results.
The Middleton brothers were kindly souls, always polite and attentive. They wore aprons over their suits and ties. Card dealers eye shades over their foreheads and sleeves held back from their cuffs with silver, metal, expandable, spring-loaded, sleeve retainers. For want of a proper name. I don’t know what these items of apparel are really called.
They seemed to have fashioned themselves on old-fashioned, out-back, western, casino croupiers. An odd, but somehow comforting, look after a while, when we got to know how helpful, friendly and attentive they were, it just became normal.
I really miss them!
Of course things have changed, the weather is getting warmer, the summers longer and the winters shorter. Fewer frosts and less severe. Added to that, there has been a lot of effort put into breeding new varieties of vegetables to remove their bitterness. Plants like aubergines used to have to be salted to remove some of the bitterness. This hasn’t been the case for a long time. The new varieties are quite sweet. In the case of Brussel sprouts. when I was younger, they were quite bitter. These days that bitterness has more or less been bread out and I don’t believe that it’s a good thing.
The bitterness in vegetables had some health giving benefits. The older heritage varieties of brassicas. The ones that still have their bitterness still in them, The ones where it hasn’t been bred out yet. These are thought to be very good for you.
Prof. Mark Mattson, of Johns Hopkins University has written a few articles about this. I read one in New Scientist magazine a while ago. “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. To summarise. The bitter principal in these veggies stimulates your immune system and tones you up. The Brassicas have several bitter phytonutrients that are produced by the plant to make them unappetising to predators – like us, as well as caterpillars. Sulforaphane is one such protective phytonutrient that gives them the particular sulphur smell. It has anti-cancer functions and is an antioxidant. Sounds pretty good to me. But yes, they are bitter.I steam them briefly, then stir fry them in olive oil, garlic and herbs. It works for me.
The new stone fruit orchard has really hit its straps now and we are eating strawberries peaches, nectarines and blue berries. Mostly as fruit salad in the mornings, but also as fruit tarts that I cook for morning teas and deserts.
I have managed to get about 10 uses out of the crumpled sheet of baking paper that I use for blind baking the pastry casings with baking beans. I flatten it and put it aside for later use. I think that it will out last the berry season. I’ll shout myself a new piece of paper new season. Waste not, want not.
Between Xmas and New Year, we had a massive thunder storm with severe hail between 20mm and 30mm dia.. It was so big and it came down so hard and fast that it filled up the nylon roof netting over the orchard and veggie garden. Being too big to fall through, it just piled up and got caught there in mid air, causing the netting to be weighed down and sag into circular hammock shapes. Fortunately, because if we hadn’t netted the garden and orchard, there would have been nothing left of the plants and fruit trees.
As the latest sowings of seeds germinate and appear, its a reminder of the perpetual cycle of life and renewal. A new beginning for the new year.
Besides fruit, almost every other meal must involve zucchinis, squash or sweet corn. The tomatoes are not quite ready yet, but are so close. Once they start to come on, then we will enter the phase of summer dining where every other meal will be some form of ratatouille 🙂
We have been busy – always busy, but we have managed to organise a few impromptu get-together parties with our neighbours, the ‘creatives’ of Balmoral Village. We have all been fire-affected in some way, some more than others, but we have survived and we are looking forward. We organised these dinners to ‘catch-up’, share news and ideas, but mostly to take some time out to celebrate each others company. We cleared out the big central room in the new pottery because it has beautiful light and plenty of space. We can fit 10 at the big glazing bench, 11 or even 12 at a pinch. It’s been very enjoyable to share time and food in this way. Although just as much work preparing and then washing up and cleaning, then setting everything back in its place, as it is building the space.
This week I booked the electric car in for its third service. It been amazing driving around these past 3 years on sunshine. It’s a plug-in hybrid, so it does have a petrol engine in there as well as the battery and electric motor. We can do all our local running around entirely on sunshine, but every now and then we go a little farther afield and we come home on petrol. When the battery is fully charged and the fuel tank is full, it has a range of over 1100 kms. However since that first fill 3 years ago, we have not filled the tank since, as it took us the best part of half a year to use the fuel up. It’s not good to store petrol for so long. It can go gummy, or ‘off’. Since then we have only put $20 in the car every 3 months or so, even that is a bit long, but it seems mean to pull into the service station and only put $5 in each month. We seem to have settled into some sort of routine of going to the petrol station quarterly.
We charge the car and our Tesla battery from our solar panels on the shed roof. We produce a maximum of 5.3 kW of electricity on the best sunny days, but much less in overcast and rainy weather. However, this size of Solar PV installation is enough to charge our car, run our house and pottery, even fire the electric kiln, AND we still have some excess to sell to the grid on an average day. These days, we earn over $1000 per year, (it used to be double that) while living, driving and firing our kiln for free. We went solar in 2007. We haven’t paid an electricity bill since. The system has well and truely paid itself off over that time. Interestingly, as more and more people connect SolarPV to the grid, the price that the utility pays us for our power has progressively gone down. Years ago, we used to get 60c or 70c kWh. Over the past 4 years the price that we get has dropped from 21 cents per kW/hr, down to 19, then 17 and now 10 cents. I can see it being 7 or even 5c next year. It’s great that more and more people are going solar. If not fully, like we have, but every little bit helps get more coal power and its pollution out of the system.We didn’t go solar to make money, but it has turned out that we have. We went solar to try and minimise our reliance on the fossil fuel economy. That has certainly worked out very well. Our power bill tells the story.
We consume less than 1 kWh per day on average over the year. We have spent our life here honing our self-reliant skills to consume everything minimally. Our 0.91kWh is about 1.5% of the ‘average’ 2 person household, yet we live in a very old house, (128 years old) not a new solar passive one, and don’t ‘want’ for anything. It can be done.
The utility charges us about $1 per day to be connected to the grid. Their ‘access’ charge. This has been steadily increasing over the years, while the feed-in tariff has been gradually dropping. At the moment we pay $1 a day to be connected to earn $3 per day. I can see a time when this balance reverses. I guess that’s when we start to think about the 2nd battery and disconnect from the grid. I’ve read that this is called the death spiral of the electricity industry, but I can’t see it happening, as it takes a lot of effort and planning to live a life of minimal consumption like we do.
All this rain has the garden growing very well. I’ve been putting in a lot of effort in the veggie patch recently. It’s looking more loved now and providing us with all our green food. The warmer weather combined with the rain has the grass growing it’s head off. Janine and I spent half a day each yesterday mowing to keep it under control. We haven’t had to mow this much for years. All the greenery is very soothing on the eyes. All in all, the COVID plague aside, it’s looking like a pretty rosy year ahead.
Now that the pressure is off for taking part in the Open Studio events, we can relax a little. We were lucky. We managed to get sufficient glazed work finished to put on a reasonable show.The next big job is to re-build our wood fried kiln, so that I can make the work for the PowerHouse Willoughby Bequest commission. As we are in need a bit of a rest after two years of constant work and anxiety about finances, materials, parts, Local Council regs, electricians and final inspections. It’s good to have this time before Xmas to do a lot less.
Janine is spending a few hours each day back in our lovely new and very comfortable pottery studio, making a few orders from the Open Studio weekends, but principally because I have promised to make a bathroom vanity sink for our neighbours new house. As we were fully occupied recovering from our own bush fire ordeal, we couldn’t help them rebuild their house very much. So making them a bathroom basin is my best gesture towards recovery. The basin is too large for our tiny electric kiln, so will need to be bisque fired in the bigger gas kiln. We can’t afford to fire the kiln with just one pot in it, so Janine is making work to fill the kiln and make the firing more economical We are not pushing ourselves, just taking it slowly. A few hours a day is enough. There are so many other jobs that need our attention, just to keep the veggie garden and orchards in good nik and under control. Mowing is the main job these days, as it keeps on raining and getting warmer, so the grass grows quicker.
While Janine enjoys the luxury of the new pottery. I am out in the maintenance shed welding together a pile of pressed metal ‘C’ purlin off-cuts. joining them together to make useful longer lengths. I am joining up to 7 small bits into one 6 metre length that is more useful. I will bolt these ‘recovered’ lengths back to back with some new material to make a composite ‘H’ section. These will make very strong uprights and purlins for the new wood kiln roof.
I don’t particularly like working with steel. It’s heavy, sharp, noisy and dangerous stuff to move around, but it surely does a great job of being strong and resilient These thin beams will span great distances. The specific thing that I love about steel is its ability to be welded back together to make it larger and stronger. I’m told that a 25mm weld can hold over a tonne. That’s strong. And if I accidentally make a mistake and cut a piece of steel too short. Well, if it were a piece of wood, it would be wasted. I would have to use it up in another job where a shorter length was needed. You can’t join timber back together. However in the case of steel. It can be welded back together and the joined pieces can be stronger than the original – if its done properly!So I have saved all the off cuts from the pottery shed frame that the builders threw onto the rubbish pile. I put them aside and Janine later stacked them carefully so that now they can be put to good use making the kiln shed frame and roof. Reuse, recycle, up-cycle waste not want not. etc. I take a great deal of pleasure in being able to forestall waste in this way with this kind of ‘thrifty’ building work. It has been being self reliant like this that has got us to where we are now in life on our small income from our creative endeavours. In the mornings we work in the vegetable garden, clearing out swathes of overgrown weedy stuff that has more or less finished its productive life.
Then when the sun gets up higher, we have lunch and stay inside for the afternoon doing our ‘inside’ jobs until the heat of the day has subsided. Sometimes this heat culminates in a thunderstorm, two days ago we had hail with the thunder storm. This is something like the summer weather that we used to get decades ago. Possibly the last time that we had strong La Nina conditions? If I have to be stuck inside at these times, I spend time making something useful that will improve our lives. Today it was some garden bed edging that I cut and folded out of scrap galvanised sheet steel that had been laying about since the fire. We have decided to shrink the garden beds a little bit to make them narrower. This will result in making the garden paths wider. Once this is completed, we will be able to drive the ride-on mower through the veggie garden and save hours manhandling the whipper snipper around the current narrow paths which is becoming quite tiring work for me these days. Especially as it needs doing almost every week.
Everything that we have done since the fire has been oriented towards making our future life here easier. Building the new pottery on a cement slab floor for the first time, so everything can be on wheels – possibly including us in our dotage! We have chosen all dwarf root stock grafted fruit trees for the new orchard, so no more climbing up step ladders to prune and harvest fruit. We planted these dwarf grafted whip-sticks in August 2020. These trees are now 16 months old and in their second summer. Some of them are doing really well and have set plenty of fruit. So much so that I had to go around a month ago and pick off half of the crop and compost it before it drained the vitality from the young trees. I picked off over 100 small apples, peaches and necturines. I also did a summer pruning of some of the tallest leggy shoots to keep the trees in a sound open vase shape to promote good growth and development in the future.
Even though I thinned out the crop, we were still able to pick about 40 peaches and twenty necturines this last week.
We are also picking loads of blue berries at the moment. Half a kilo every second day. We have to find ways to use them up, as there are too many to eat as fruit salad in the mornings now. We preserve some and I have started to make blue berry tarts now, as the youngberry and logan berry crops are more or less finished. They never make it past Xmas. But this year in particular the constant rain and the hail really ruined the usual large harvest. Who’d be a farmer or an orchardist? Two years on we have worked ourselves into a really good place. It can only get better. The past is the past. We are not looking back. Everything is in place to create some beautiful and meaningful moments in our life.
Yesterday we had all three kilns firing at once. A bisque in the little electric kiln, a stoneware reduction glaze in the big gas kiln and another stoneware reduction firing going on in the old relocatable mini wood fired kiln. I recovered it from the ashes of the fire. As it was built from a stainless steel monocoque frame with insulation brick lining, it mostly survived the fire, because it was stored out on the verandah and didn’t get too badly burnt. It just needed some cosmetic TLC on the frame and a new set of castor wheels. Lucky!
It was designed and built as a possible dual fuel kiln to be fired with either wood or LP gas from BBQ bottles. However I had never fitted it with burners and only fired it with wood previously. Now is the time to finish fitting it out with burners. I spent a day making shiny new burners and gal steel mountings. I chose to only pack and fire the bottom half of the kiln , as it is designed to be in two sections. A bottom half with the fire box opening and burner holes – which ever is chosen to be used. Then a top half composed of a removable ceramic fibre ring and lid. The ring can be removed and the lid placed on the base section to make a smaller half sized kiln. Which is what I did yesterday. As it was the first test firing of the kiln, I thought it best to go small for a first firing.
After an initial tweaking and tuning, It worked perfectly and fired to stoneware in reduction easily in 2 1/2 hrs. using less than one 9kg bottle of BBQ gas. I had 2 set up ready with a change over switch just in case, but the 2nd bottle wasn’t needed. I also set them up in a tub of water that can be warmed. In this way I can fire them to dead empty without them freezing. But none of this was necessary yesterday.
I’m a bit more confident about our local rock glazes now after 3 rounds of test firings. The hares fur/teadust tenmoku is a little more stable.
Both Janine and I have been investigating the use of colours over tenmoku.
and I have managed to stabilise the local Balmoral dirty feldspathic stone and wood ash opalescent Jun glaze.
Janine has made some slip decorated lidded boxes.
The stone fruit orchard is looking great after a wet start to the spring season and everything is green and luscious.
The almond grove is also very lush and green. All these mature almond trees were burnt and transplanted into this area that was formally a native garden. We have decided to keep the more flammable native bush at a much safer distance from the house now.
The pottery will be open this coming weekend, the 13th and 14th of November as part of the Australian Ceramics Assn. Open Studios weekend that will operate nationally. We will be open in conjunction with Megan Patey in Colo Vale. Megan makes beautiful Majolica and Smoked Arab lustre.
click on the QR code to find your local potter.
Janine and I will be also open on the first two weekends in December and the Southern Highlands Artists Pop-Up Open Studios group.
We will be open on the 4th/5th and in conjunction with Sandy Lockwood, on the 11th/12th of December.
We look forward to being able to show you around the new pottery on one of these 6 days.
We will be following the government recommended COVID19 safety protocols. So please come if you are double vaccinated and have your vaccination certificate. There is our Service NSW, QR code poster on the door for login
We have a covid-safe plan that includes keeping the space very well ventilated and limiting numbers to 4 sq.m. per person.
Please don’t bring dogs, as we have recently had both wood ducks and brown ducks hatching clutches of little ducklings that waddle all around the property with their parents feeding on the lush grass. These are timid wild animals and we have no control over where they wander. So please keep a respectful distance if you are walking around the garden.
With the news last week that the State Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, had resigned under a cloud of corruption allegations and had been called to appear before ICAC, there was some very disturbing cackling noises coming from the chook house. Our two chickens, given to us after the fire by out 2 very thoughtful friends Warren and Trudie, were making a bit of a fuss. These two lovely chooks arrived here from Balmain as tree change chook refugees. We had to wean them off their previous diet of smashed avo on chia sourdough rye and sipping chardonnay! They arrived with names already given, assigned to them by their previous owner. They are Edna and Gladys. We decided to call Gladys Berechickenlian, it seemed funny at the time. Now all of a sudden it isn’t appropriate any more! and Gladys is a bit upset.
So we have re-named her as Gladys ICACkle !
With the longer days and warmer weather creeping in in fits and starts, in-between cooler days and bouts of rain, everything is growing very well.All the seeds that I planted a month ago are now up and starting to grow.
The mulberry tree has set a good crop and the berries are starting to turn red. We will be eating them in about another two weeks.
The young berries are in full flower as well and the blueberry crop is just about ripe. We have already eaten our first few blueberries.
The avocado tree seen behind the youngberries is in full bloom, so much so that it has turned from green to yellow with all the flowers obscuring the leaves.Hopefully, there will be a good crop of avocados in the autumn/winter. This tree was badly burnt in the fire and lost all its leaves, completely scorched off. Many of the small branches were killed by the heat. It still has a lot of dead wood that I need to prune off, but it is a long way down on my jobs list. There will be no ‘hungry gap’ this spring. The hungry gap is a time in the year, when long ago, there was a gap in the food production from peasants gardens at the end of winter, when the winter vegetables were mostly consumed, and the spring planting was done, but no eatable food was ready to harvest until the beginning of summer.
We harvested the last of our 3rd or 4th pick of little broccolini shoots last week, and managed to pick the first of the new season large round broccoli heads this week. Excellent timing on my part. And although I’m flat out busy building the pottery and starting to make the first of our new work, testing clay bodies and glazes. I’m proud to say that I have still managed to get into the garden every now and then to do some weeding, watering and planting. Janine goes to the garden every evening to pick what is available and ready for dinner. We have no money, but we eat well and healthily, because we don’t buy most of our food. We grow it.
Our biggest expense each week is protein, ie, fish from the fish truck that comes up from the south coast on Thursdays and Fridays. We go to town and do all our food shopping on one of these days to coincide with the fish truck. We also make up a list of things that we need to get from the other shops like hardware, iron mongers, and plumbers supplies. As I’m building a lot of this building myself and doing 100% of the fitting out, I always have a list of steel, bolts and screws etc. that I need to make all the tables, benches, shelves, racks, stools etc. etc. This last week, I made a dedicated wedging bench to sit against the wall in the pottery. I used one of the massive slabs of pine that we milled a year ago from our own burnt pine trees that we felled. Waste not, want not. This is beautiful timber. I’m really pleased to be able to make my bench form such lovely stuff.
A few months ago a baby rabbit managed to find its way into the netted vegetable garden. I don’t know how it got in, but it did. I first realised that there was a rabbit in the garden when a new batch of germinating seeds and seedlings suddenly disappeared overnight! A few days later, I flushed it out while wartering. I was watering a dense patch of plants when suddenly a rabit scampered out of that patch when the water from the hose hit it. It ran off down the garden and disappeared into another dense patch.I flushed it out again and chased it towards the open gate, but it swerved away at the last moment and hid higher up in another bed.I spent some time running back and forth chasing it about, but it steadfastly refused to run out the door. I eventually gave up when I got puffed out from the running. I thought that maybe we could encourage a friend with a dog to visit us, and then the dog could do the running and chasing.On Sunday we spent the day in the garden. Firstly, I decided to get the whipper snipper mower out and clean up all the garden paths. Once that was done, I continued to mow some of the big clumps of weeds that had grown up in and around other fallow beds.After lunch, I kept on with the mowing, eventually getting the the point that there was only 2 dense patches of plants left. At the top of the garden there is a patch of gooseberries, and at the bottom of the garden, the asparagus patch was still full of weeds, as we hadn’t got around to weeding it yet. Earlier in the morning we had spent some time chasing Bugs Bunny up and down the garden. Both large garden gates were full open, but the rabbit refused to go out through them. We gave up again as it being just too difficult. Back to the mowing. It came to me that if I kept on mowing the big clumps of weeds, then there would be nowhere left for the rabbit to hide. it would have to run out to find new cover.I chased it again. but with no success. He refused to leave. When there was only one clump of weeds left in the asparagus. I could see Peter Rabbit hiding there. Just like Farmer McGregor, I caught him. And dispatched him quickly.
We have carrots, celery, onions, garlic, kale, parsnips, brussel sprouts and capsicums in the garden currently, and he had feasted on them all. In fact he ate everything that wasn’t covered by netting. We had netting within netting trying to keep some small plants and seedlings safe until they were more advanced.As he was fattened up on these veggies, I decided that it was best to cook our Bugs Bunny with exactly those veggies.I made a classic French style ‘Bugs au Vin’ sort of stew, all good, local, low carbon miles, garden produce, including our organically fed Peter Rabbit and half a bottle of good red wine.
I know I’ve been rabbiting on about this, but I hope that you have been Lapin it up. He was quite nice, although a little tough. I could have cooked him a bit longer. My good friend Leonard suggested that I should serve up my ‘Rabbit au Vin’ in a Hares fur bowl 🙂