Mustard Pickles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wood fired baking dishes and duck egg soufflé

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

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

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

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

I got no complaints.

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

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

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

Young People Today!

I had to go to the service station yesterday. 

I needed to put some more petrol in my car. 

Because I only go to the petrol station once every 3 or 4 months to put a small amount of petrol in the plug-in electric hybrid car. I always forget where the switch is, to open the petrol cap cover.

In our old petrol powered car, I used to go the garage and get petrol almost every week, so I knew where the lever was. It was on the floor next to the drivers seat.

Now, because this car is so different — all electric everything. I have to remember to look for the special button to do the job.

Previously, I was only putting $20 in to last 3 months, but with the recent outbreak of war in Ukraine, the petrol company has been forced into ‘Putin’ the price up. 

I put $30 in this time. I’ll see how long it lasts. This is only the 3rd time I’ve been to the petrol station this year. It remains a quaint and unusual event for me.

This electric car is beautiful to drive. So silent, but with heaps of torque. All you hear is some faint tyre noise, depending on the road surface. On the newer, smooth road surfaces, it is silent.

I’m pleased to be able to drive home and plug it in to the solar panels for a re-charge. If the sun isn’t shining, we still plug it in, and charge it off our Tesla battery. In this way we can use yesterdays stored-up sunshine.

I’m very pleased to say that even during winter, with shorter days and a lot of rain so far this year, we are still over 95% self powered. We can run our house, charge our car, plus run the pottery and even fire the small electric kiln on our 6 kW of solar PV. 

So far this year, we have paid just $75 for electricity from the grid, and this was our first power bill in 16 years since we installed the first 3 kW of PV panels. This bill was largely due to the fact that the feed-in tariff has been reduced to just 7 cents per kW/hr this year, while the cost of green electricity has increased. The feed-in tariff won’t be going up any time soon, if ever. So we have to cut our cloth accordingly. Up until recently, we were getting 20 cents per kW/hr for our electricity, and getting the best part of $1,000 per year in rebates.

However, because I have been doing a lot of regular firings in our electric kiln, we have therefore used a lot more electricity than we normally would. This is becauseI have been working on my Show at the Sturt Gallery. It has taken a lot of research and testing to get this new body of work completed. I haven’t made pots like this before. I haven’t decorated my work with brushwork like this before, I haven’t used most of these clay bodies before and I haven’t fired this wood kiln before. Almost everything is new and therefore un-tried. It was a lot of work to get it all together in time, involving a massive amount of glaze and body testing and test firings. Hence the large power bill. So this is why it is so rewarding to realise that we were able to cover over 95% of it with our own self-generated power.

All this testing also has another more important purpose. I need to make the specially commissioned work as my part of The Willoughby Bequest for The PowerHouse Museum. My original idea all went up in the flames, so I have had to find a new approach, and this new work is my way into that place.

The show at Sturt gallery has been well received. It’s been open for a week now and they have sold 17 out of the 23 pieces. So that is a very good result and I’m very happy with that. I’m very happy with the work and I think that it stands up well. It expresses both my angst and trauma, but also the terrible beauty and energy of intense fire.

We have passed the shortest day, but the weather is still getting colder, as it does. There always seems to be a bit of a lag from the shortest day to the depth of winter. The reverse is also true for the longest day and the hottest weather. So it is now time to do the winter pruning of all the grape vines and deciduous fruit trees.

This was always such a big job in the past with all our stone fruit trees being over 40 years old. They had grown quite massive. Now, post fire, and all new dwarf fruit trees planted in the new orchard, it will not be such a big job, as the trees are still quite small and should remain that way. No more ladder work for pruning.

The first, earliest, peach tree has suddenly broken into flower. This is a strong reminder that I need to get on with it, stop lazing around, and get all that pruning done.

All this cold weather, frosty nights and chilly mornings has inclined me to make a few curries. They are a good comfort food, warming and filling, without being too bad for you. Veggie curries are great, I have been trying to use mostly what we have growing in the garden, which at this time of year must include broccoli, cabbage and even a few Brussel sprouts. I even managed to used most of our own spices.

This Asian influenced meal had the last 9 small tomatoes from the garden, our garlic, chilli, lime leaves, curry leaves, coriander and the last two small capsicums. All from the garden. I had bought a few pieces of fresh ginger, galangal and turmeric from the green grocer because we cant grow these plants in our garden here, even in summer. We had 3 curries over the week. Each one was slightly different, from Thai to Indian. Curry seems to be more warming than other meals.

Maybe it’s all that chilli?

On Sunday I was up before dawn and drove up to the North side of Sydney, a few hours drive away. Up to Oxford Falls. A place where I used to live. I grew up and went to school there. I used to live at number 41 Oxford Falls Road. This time I went to the far opposite end of that long road to collect some old and rusted galvanised iron roofing so that I can rebuild my wood fired kiln’s wood shed and finally create a new and hopefully permanent home for the rebuilt big hydraulic wood splitter.

It was a really lovely sky at dawn with the horizon turning from grey to pink for those precious few minutes. 

I had been given a tin roof off an old chicken farm shed. I was told about it a couple of years ago, when we were casting about looking for old re-cycled roofing iron to use as cladding on our new pottery shed. I wanted to use all old, grey, weathered and slightly rusty re-cycled gal sheeting on this new building to make it look more in keeping with all the other old buildings on our site. Our home is the Old School building from 1893 and we also have the old railway station built in 1881. I managed to save both of these buildings from the fire. We wanted to keep the heritage look and feel of the place and a brand new shiny corrugated iron pottery shed would stand out like dogs balls, I managed to find just enough old, weathered roofing to complete the job while I was still waiting for the roof to be taken off the Chicken shed in Oxford Falls.

That roof was finally replaced this year. Too late for me to use in the new pottery, but just in time for me to use to re-build the dedicated wood shed for all the large billets of timber that are required to be split, stacked and dried for use in the wood fired kiln. I’m quite fond of the old heritage buildings and their ‘settled-into-the-environment’ look, so it is appropriate for me to build the new wood shed out of old and slightly rusted stuff.

When I drove into Oxford Falls Road, the road I grew up on, but where I left to find my own way in life in 1972. I found some old memories flooding back. I remembered that we used to walk down the road a few miles to get to the creek at the bottom of the hill and go yabbying. A yabby is a fresh water crayfish. This time, instead of turning to go up the hill to where my parents old house was. I turned the opposite way and crossed over the ford just above the falls and went West.

I hadn’t been here since I was in my teens and used to drive the family truck down here with my grand father, to collect chicken manure from his friends egg farm. My Granddad was a very committed organic gardener, health food devotee, and a strict vegetarian. He brought my mother up that way, and she me. In fact, my grand parents lived behind our house. The two houses back to back, on different streets but with a common back yard joining them. This back yard was huge, as land sizes were very generous in those post (WW II), war days. That shared back yard was dedicated in the most part to a huge vegetable garden and a few fruit trees. And, of course two massive compost heaps.

It was a regular chore to go with granddad and shovel chicken manure from the deep litter floor of the chook sheds when there was a change over of birds and the various sheds were empty for a short while. We had to take it in turns either holding the bag open or digging the manure and wood shaving mixture into the hessian bags, then lugging them out and up onto the truck. I shared this job with my older brother for a few years until he eventually left home and I was old enough the get my drivers licence and took over the driving. Old man Rigby, who owned the farm and my granddad were great friends. They were about the same age and shared the same interest in ‘health foods’, as they were called back then. Old Mr Rigby baked his own bread. As did my grand mother and she taught my mum. She then taught me. I still make most of our bread, as well as grow my own organic vegetables. Family traditions are passed down in this way. Give me the boy till he is 7!

Well, you can image my surprise, when I turned into the driveway of the site to collect the old roofing iron to find that it all seemed strangely familiar. I recognised the old shed with the hand split stone walls. It all came flooding back. I’ve been here before. Almost everything is different now, but the old shed is the same, just more dilapidated, but I remember that Old Mr Rigby lived in there. The first room served as his kitchen and his office, it’s now the pottery studio. The remaining bigger part of the old shed was his machinery shed. It’s now got one of my wood  fired kiln designs in there. Who could possibly imagine that !

I remember sitting in that room waiting while Mr Rigby and my Grand Father chatted on about compost and other organic gardening stuff. I was bored. I wanted to get going, so that I could go to the beach. I didn’t take sufficient interest in their healthy organic gardening and wholemeal bread baking chat. My Granddad was probably thinking…

Young People today!

Turning 70 and Turning Pots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both started off badly!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now to get them fired successfully…

Flashing, Fowlers and Food preserving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kiln Progress and late summer orchard deserts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They didn’t last long either.

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

New wood fired kiln takes shape

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


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


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

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


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


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


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



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



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


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


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

 

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

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

A new year, a new beginning

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  🙂

After The Fire – 2 years on

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.

So many small jobs to get done

Work has continued apace this last week or so. I got a little bit of a shock last week when I realised that the earliest nectarine tree in the new orchard had already had the first bud burst. I have been so busy that I hadn’t been spending much time in the new netted stone fruit orchard. I realised that I needed to take a couple of days off working in the pottery to prune all the stone fruit trees in the netted orchard, and then the transplanted almond trees. There is also the cherry orchard too, but it can wait another week, as they won’t have bud burst for another few weeks. 


As soon as I completed the pruning, I moved back into the studio to build the tables for the pottery.  I welded some steel frames on castors and then mounted some huge home-grown and milled pine wooden slabs on top as the bench top.


My very good friend Len, gave me all his power tools that he wasn’t using. A Planer, sander, drill and circular saw. This has made this part of my job so much easier and faster.


I made a wedging table, a low throwing table for the shimpo wheels, a taller table for display in the gallery and a glazing bench. All on steel frames and castors to allow for easy relocation in the future.
Len bought two new Japanese made, Shimpo brand, ‘whisper’, potters wheels for us. I was so moved. That was so amazingly generous! Thank you Len!
Len has done so much for us – along with so many others who have passed on spare equipment. We have been so lucky to have such generous friends. One of my past students from the early seventies who had retired from pot making 15 years ago rang me to say that he had got rid of all his pottery equipment, but he had retained his shimpo potters wheel that he bought in the late 60’s. It is an RK2 version. This was the first major purchase that he had made and confirmed his commitment to a life in ceramics and away from his career in the law.

I had an RK1 Shimpo wheel, 1 x RK2 and and 5 x RK2 ‘super’ Potters wheels in the old pottery, but really only used two of them, as we didn’t really teach any throwing classes. But we probably will in the future. As we have a better space for that kind of teaching now in the new improved space.
Tony, The Barley Broker, had kept his Shimpo, as it was so dear to him – so much attachment, even though he knew that he would never make pots again, he kept it. The Barley Broker rang me last year to say that he had his Shimpo in a shed and wanted to give it to me. He was finally ready to part with it! It was a big deal for him, but he knew me well and knew that I would both use it and value it – look after it. I hadn’t seen a ‘Volvo’ style, ‘burnt-orange’ 60’s, shimpo before in its original paint job. This wheel is over 50 years old and still goes well. I’m honoured, and I will look after it!
We have also been given another old Shimpo that was being de-commissioned by an Art School. It is from the mid 90’s and is over 25 years, it is a ‘Century 21’ ‘metallic traction drive’ version, and still works well.


Len also found Janine a 2nd hand ‘Slatcher’ kick wheel, just like the one that she used to have in the last pottery. I had bought one of these special kick wheels back in 1973. It got burnt in the pottery fire in 1983. I managed to find another one in 1984, and Janine used this wheel for the next 36 years. These hand made kick wheels are extremely rare. Mr. Slatcher didn’t make very many of these wheels, so we are so lucky to find another one.
I have always used the Australian made version of the ‘Leach style’ wooden framed, kick operated, potters treadle wheel. I was gifted another 2nd hand ‘Leach’ style wooden kick wheel recently, It was pretty dried out and desiccated. I cleaned it up, washed all the clay off and sanded the rough, dried wood and oiled it back into life.

The bearing are shot, so I will need to spend a bit of time on it to dismantle it and replace the bearings. The frame is pretty creaky, so i will probably add some metal bracing to the frame to strengthen it. I had done this to the last one that I owned.


We have been so lucky and grateful to receive all this hand-me-down, passed-on, equipment from so many people. We really appreciate all this generosity. This means that we will be able to get back to work soon and later, to offer some weekend throwing classes sometime in the future. If there are sufficient pottery students who want to come and learn here from what we have to offer.
We were also offered some other equipment from our late teachers studio. We were contacted by his widow and were given his old screw press and an old square thread, screw-driven, extruder. They were both worse for wear and needed some attention. I have spent a bit of time in the evenings working on the extruder. It turns out that it is made from an mixture of copper, bronze or brass parts. It’s a beautiful old thing, and an honour to look after it for the next little while. 


It looks fabulous now.
For dinner, we made our own hand made gyoza dumplings, using our own garden produce, carrots, parsnips, onions and a little bit of minced, low-fat, pork.


Thank you to all those people who have helped us get so far.