I have relatives coming to stay and I really like them. We don’t see them often enough. So to celebrate their stay with us. I try and make an effort. Something different for change!
Janine and I have just enjoyed our first house concert of the year.
As the days get shorter and the evenings cooler, we are lighting the wood fired kitchen stove most nights now. This old stove, that I have lovingly maintained and repaired for the past 40 or so years, cooks our food, heats our hot water, through its bronze firebox boiler, which is connected to our kitchen hot water system. It also heats the kitchen and us while we work, cook and eat.
In the hottest couple of months of summer, we cook on the gas stove and rely on the solar hot water panels to heat the hot water. We have had to cover the solar panels with wire mesh, as we had a pine cone drop onto one of them shattering the tempered glass.
It may seem strange that we have our solar panels on the ground. I have a good reason. We have a full copper hot water system, with a copper hotter tank, a bronze boiler in the stove and copper solar panels, all connected in series, so that either or both heat sources can heat the tank depending on the weather and time of year. I used all silver soldered copper piping to connect the system, so there isn’t a separate heat exchanger needed in the system to eliminate electrolysis. A full copper system has no electrolysis issues. Eliminating the heat exchanger makes the system much more efficient. I designed the system so that the solar panels are on the ground, so that the hot water will rise up into the tank by natural thermo-siphon. No pump is need in the system to circulate the hot water to the tank. (as is necessary when the panels are on the roof.) This is another added efficiency and saving on energy. By designing systems like this and others in our hand-made home, we have managed to reduce our energy usage in our home to 1.7 kW/hrs per day for the house alone. If we add in charging the electric car and firing the electric kiln from the solar system, then our total usage rises up to 5.7 kW/hrs per day.
When we add in our kiln and car, Janine and I still use only half of what a ‘normal’ single occupant household uses. Or just one-third of a ‘normal’ 2 person household. We are quite pleased with this outcome.
We are harvesting the last of the grape harvest. It’s been a long vintage this year, stretching over 8 weeks. We have been making dark grape juice out of most of the vintage. However, with these last few baskets full of rich dark red sugary deliciousness, we decide to make ‘Summer Wine’. We first came across this wonderful stuff in France, then Germany, followed by Switzerland and finally in northern Italy. As the season developed and the grapes ripened. We had to have the experience introduced to us by our hosts in Germany at that time. We stopped the car on the side of the road to buy vegetables and fruit from a farmers road-side stall. Our friend asked if we had tried ‘Niue Wine’ or ‘summer wine’? We hadn’t, so we did and it was a bit of a revelation.
We have been making our version of concentrated red grape juice for a few decades and always look forward to it. We manage to bottle 20 or so litres each year for us throughout the year. We pasteurise it so that it will keep and not ferment. Then sealed in sterilised glass bottles. It works well. But this was an eye opener.
We don’t make wine from our red grapes, because it is too much work for the reward. Good quality wine is cheap in Australia, why bother, but good organic red grape juice is extremely expensive. So thesis where we put our effort. What we experienced in Europe that autumn was just like our red grape juice, but very slightly fermented, possibly for just a few days. The outcome was a sweet grape juice with all the fruit flavour, but also enhanced with a little sourness and tingley, cabin dioxide induced spritzig. I might hazard a guess that it was fermented to about 2% or so of alcohol. It was a light, really refreshing and satisfying draft.
We have since started to make a small batch of summer wine each year. It has to be drunk within a few days of the fermentation starting, while it still has plenty of sugars left in solution. We asked about the roadside wines that we saw and were told that it will only be available for a few days from each stall. Once the barrel is emptied, then that’s it. find the next farmer’s stall.
They might possibly use the wild natural yeast bloom on the grape skins, but this can be very variable. Because we don’t know what we art doing, and don’t have parents and grandparents on hand with generations of local knowledge about such home based, home-grown, organic production. We decide to pastures the juice as usual and then add a known wine makers yeast to get a more-or-less predictable and reliable outcome.
We wash and de-stem the grapes to make the juicing process easier. Either way it is a lot of work. This is just the way that we have got used to doing it over the years. After sterilizing by briefly simmering the juice, we let it cool over night and then add the yeast. , somewhere between 16 and 24 degrees C. We let it sit for a day to allow the ferment to get going and then bottle it. We start to drink it from the 2nd day. After the third day, or when we feel it has reached a good point in the sugar/acid balance, we bottle it and keep it in the fridge to stall any further fermentation. it keeps for a week like this. and then it all gone. If you try this at home, don’t screw the caps on. LEAVE THEM LOOSE.
I have been doing a bit of reading lately about the life of peasants. Mostly in the recent past as you would be hard pressed to find a peasant these days. I call myself a Post Modern Peasant and have a keen interest in living a sustainable life style in this modern and very complex first-world situation.
I am rather interested in the self-reliant nature of the life of peasants. Some of the books that i have read are by Philip Olyer. His best in my opinion is ‘The Generous Earth’. recounting his life among the French peasants in the Dordogne Valley, early last century.
His second book on the subject wasn’t very good, or at least not as good as the first. It struck me that it was all the rejected anecdotes that were edited out of the first volume.
I’m not saying that I didn’t enjoy it, just that the first volume was so much better. I learnt quite a few things about the way the French peasants of that time prepared and preserved food.
Pig Earth on the other hand has a lot less about the growing, preparation and preserving food, but still a reasonable read with some gritty insights into the harsh reality of their lives.
By far the better of these two is Patience Grey’s Auto-biography ‘Honey from the Weed” the story of her life of living with her stone-carving, sculptor-husband in and around the Mediterranean in Spain, Italy and Greece.
They have no money and learn to live with the locals, like the locals, in small, isolated hamlets, way off the beaten track, up in the mountains, close to the marble quarries. Living so close to the local peasantry and quarry workers, in particular to their wives and grandmothers, gains her particular insight into the intimacies of their daily existence.
The writing is a touch clumsy in places and isn’t particularly sequential, more of a series of vignettes strung together under particular headings like cooking with pulses. Here are several recipes all involving dried beans of varying origins, sizes and form, from fresh to dried. This section is followed by a long passage on farting!
I was moved, pun intended, to cook up a meal of our own dried beans from last summer. We grow a lot more beans than we can ever eat fresh off the bush from the garden. We let them all go to seed and dry on the bush or trellis. This years crop are starting to dry off now and will soon be ready to harvest.
This being the case, I thought about the last couple of jars of dried beans in our pantry cupboard from last year. I used half of them and soaked them over night, changing the water every few hours, or when ever I was passing and thought about it. I boiled them for an hour. The time it takes to boil dried beans varies with their age. One year old beans like these take about and hour. fresh picked and dried beans only take 20 to 30 mins.
After 15 mins I changed the water again. Patience Grey recommends boiling with a pinch of salt or bicarbonate of soda for the first 1/4 hour. This then requires the change of water, she also suggests boiling the beans with bi-carb helps loosen the outer skins, such that they can be rubbed off. This she says that this reduces the ‘fartyness’ of the resulting meal.
Our son is a Chef and has worked in some very high-end restaurants with ‘Chef’s Hat’ awards. He also told me this, that when cooking chick peas for example, pre-boil them until you can rub the outer skins off between two tea towels. then replenish with fresh water and finish the cooking. This is worth the effort, because it results in happier customers the next day, or later in the week!
I don’t have customers, so left out the bi-carb and the de-skinning. While the beans are boiling. I make an aromatic oil frying a finely diced onion and some fresh herbs and bay leaves in olive oil, finishing with a few smashed garlic cloves. I add in a small amount of diced, dried, smoked, nitrite-free bacon.
I avoid using ‘ordinary’ bacon where possible as the sodium nitrite that is commonly used is a known carcinogen. I can only find one brand of nitrite free bacon on sale anywhere around here. I’m not recommending this product. I don’t do that. It is just the only one I can find here locally.
Adding a little bit of bacon, speck or porcetta, like this adds heaps of flavour. I don’t use very much. You don’t need to. One slice is enough, it’s only for flavour. Once this is cooked off, I add a couple of spoons of my home-made marrow bone reduced stock to fill out the flavour profile and create a creamy smooth texture. I add the beans in and a cup or two of my home-made tomato sugo concentrated sauce.
The last step is to add a dash of local gold medal winning merlot red wine and let it simmer for a few minutes to meld.
Even though the summer has long passed now, we can still pick the best part of a ratatouille to fill the garden harvest basket.
We have plenty of capsicums just now, so its time to preserve a few as a roasted capsicum salsa. They need to be roasted over an open flame and then left to sweat in a bag for 15 mins. This releases the skins where the bitterness is. The resulting strips of sweet flesh are then de-seeded and coated with an olive oil and vinegar dressing.
Our international guest and pottery/environmental living intern, Ms Kang from Korea, is about to leave us. We spend our time in the pottery, garden and kitchen. We put in a big day from early morning through till late night, a 14 hour day. There is a lot to get done at this time of year.
We have glazed our pots and packed the kiln previously, so while we wait for the sun to get up in the sky so that we can start the firing. I get up on the roof and wash the solar panels. We live on a dirt road which is quite dusty in dry weather. We recently had a good rain storm and collected 75mm. (3″) of rain, but then we had 150mm. (6″) of wind and dust, This means that I need to wash the PV panels so that we achieve maximum efficiency. At this time of year, the shadow from the trees doesn’t pass off the last of the panels until 10.00am.
By 10.00am the sun is up in the sky and we are generating good energy, it’s a good time to switch on the electric kiln. I wait until the PV panels are generating enough power before I start the firing. I like to start about 10-ish and finish by 5-ish, thus making the most of the sun. The kiln is very powerful and can easily fire straight through to Stoneware 1300oC in 5 hours if needed. Once the kiln gets to 1000oC, I start reduction with 2 small pilot burners running at 5 kpa. I can’t set the pressure any lower than this and expect it to be reliable. This takes the kiln through to 1300 in reduction using just 300 grams of gas. I’m still experimenting with this kiln.
If we want to fire longer, or on cloudy days when there isn’t enough direct sunlight, we have the Tesla battery to fill the gap. We can, if needed, fire the kiln and charge the car as well on the same day. On a good sunny day, we can charge both car and Kiln, fill the battery and still sell a little to the grid. On the off days when we don’t fire or drive the car, we sell everything to the grid. We sell our excess at 20 cents per kW/hr. occasionally when it is cloudy for a few days we buy back power from the grid. We chose a 100% green power contract and pay the premium price of 35 cents per kW/hr for the privilege. However, we are connected to the grid by a net meter, so we only have to pay for power if our imports exceeds our exports in any given month. It never does.
Once the kiln is on, It fires itself in semi-automatic mode. I only need to check it occasionally. Then its back into the garden to continue the harvest of more tomatoes, chilis, capsicums and aubergines. We are at peak tomatoes now, as we dealt with the last of the late-season plums last week. They are all safely vacuumed sealed in their jars, in the pantry, waiting for later in the year.
While I harvest the tomatoes et al, in the vegetable garden, the ladies, Ms’s King & Kang collect hazel nuts and quinces from the orchard. We are all soon very busy in the kitchen, by the time the heat of the day sets in. All the tomatoes need to be washed and sorted. Even though we have set fruit fly traps all around our garden and orchards, we still get some fruit fly stings in the very ripe tomatoes in this late summer season of hot and damp weather. All the tomatoes are cut open, checked for fly strike and then sorted into two separate pans. A big boiler for the good fruit and a small sauce pan for the fly struck fruit. The spoilt tomatoes are all boiled to kill the grubs and then fed to the chickens, with the remaining skins and detritus composted or fed to the worms.
While I’m cooking, Ms Kang is shelling the days pick of hazelnuts. This batch of tomato passata will be cooked with pepper corns, bay leaves and a bottle of good red wine. It looks great and tastes delightfully sweet and sharp, sort of tangy, with just a little bite and lingering heat from a few chilli peppers in the mix.
The quinces are washed, peeled sliced and then boiled with a little sugar, 300g in the big boiler + a couple of litres of water to cover them. I add a stick of cinnamon, a few cloves and two star anise. After they have softened. I transfer them to baking trays, pouring the sweet boiling liqueur over them and add a little bit of Canadian maple syrup into the mix I give them 45 mins at 180 and this reduces the liquer to a sticky gel and turns the fruit to a lovely red colour. I choose to cook them with a minimum of sugar. If I added more sugar, they would turn a deeper/richer shade of claret red. I love that colour, but don’t like the saturated sweetness.
We preserve everything in our antique ‘Fowlers’ Preserving jars. We bought this old boiler and a few boxes of glass jars, 2nd hand at a garage sale over 40 years ago and they are still giving good service. We have only had to replace the rubber rings.
It still surprises me that a basket full of quince fruit can fill the sink when being washed, then fill 2 baking dishes in the cooking and finally be reduced to just 3 jars of concentrated sunlight, colour and flavour after a days work. Two baskets of tomatoes fills two boilers, then makes only 4 jars of passata once it has been reduced on the stove for an few hour.
Such is the business of summer.