Winter Solstice, frosts, patchwork and clay/glaze making

The Winter Solstice has come and gone and the days are going to start getting longer and the nights shorter, but the coldest part of the winter is probably yet to come.

We had a crackerjack frost a few days ago, Everything so shimmering silver/white. This mornings frost was much more mild, with just a light dusting of white in the open spaces, less so under the bare branches of the cherry trees in the Chekov orchard. The winter is really just starting, so there will probably be a few more frosts yet where that came from.

In the evenings, as there is nothing worth any attention on the idiot box. I have started to repair another pair of jeans. 

These jeans are about 4 or 5 years old and the front of the thigh part has worn through. That is the most usual place for wear for me. They were the cheapest brand of jeans. 

I had already replaced the pockets with some excellent, robust, pale yellow, linen cloth that should outlast the original flimsy thin cotton that wore through in just two years. Initially in the pocket where I carry my car keys, but then the other pocket as well, just after that. Then it was the edge of the pocket where the new linen lining meets the blue denim.

I reinforced that edge with some red Japanese silk, It look great when it was fist done, but it isn’t really up to it, and is already starting to wear through, so will also need to be redone in the future.

This time I added a front panel of indigo dyed cotton that I bought in the markets in Kyoto a few years back.

Every time I go to Japan, I keep my eye out for street or temple markets where I can find lengths of indigo dyed, or other interesting old fabrics. These are usually some old piece of clothing that someone has unpicked. The hems and loose threads along the edges where they were stitched together are often still visible. Much of this old cloth was woven on small looms in bolts that were only 13” or 330 mm wide. The clothes were assembled by stitching these long thin strips together, to get a wider fabric.

It is an interesting phenomena that cloth dyed in indigo does not rot easily, nor is it eaten by bugs. It seems to last for ages. It certainly makes good patches for work wear like shirts and jeans.

This pair will be good for another 5 years if I keep up the maintenance. The pair that I’m currently wearing to work in the pottery are over ten years old now and still going OK. They have patches on the thighs and knees, as well as new pockets.

My woollen jumper was new in 2004, or 2006. I can’t quite remember. It has quite a few patches of repair, where I have darned the holes where moths have eaten through it, or sparks from welding spatter, or possibly damage incurred during stoking the wood kiln have made holes in it. They all get mended in what I think is a complimentary colour to make a colour spill pattern. It’s a work in progress, It’s 16 or more years old and still very warm and wearable. I like to make things last. i never want to throw anything out until it is really worn out. Repair and reuse, before finally recycling.

I just took a selfie of my Sunday morning jeans. I never take selfies. This must be the first time I’ve put one up on this blog. I’m dressed up to receive some very good friends for Sunday lunch, so I’ve got my best pair on. I’ve been working on these jeans for many years now. I still work in them, but this morning they are straight from the wash and are lovely and clean and suitable to welcome our close friends in. I wouldn’t wear them to try and pass through customs in. But my friends know and understand me. They won’t be affronted.

Actually, I think that work like this is verging on Art. If not a work of art, then its certainly involves some aspect of creativity. I don’t just slap on ‘iron-on’ patches from a sewing shop. I mix and match the patterns and colours to suit my mood and proclivity. Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Even the arse end has some good work on it. This wear can be attributed to sitting on the wooden saddle-like seat of the ‘Leach’ treadle potters wheel. The slight swivelling/rocking motion of kicking the treadle with one lag seems to cause the butt end to wear out?

This last week we have made new batches of clay bodies to re-stock the clay boxes. I made a batch of the Mittagong halloysite porcelain from the mafia site. 

This weathered stone is pretty well kaolinised, or in this case ‘Halloyositised’. This makes the stone somewhat crumbly and easily crushed, because the mica and felspars are broken down and weathered from igneous stone to clay-like substance, this causes the loss of some of the alkali fluxes. The stone can then becomes slightly clay-like and less stone-like. However, this creates a minor problem, because as the stone becomes more friable and easily crushed. It can’t be put through the jaw crusher, as the increased clay content causes the crusher to clag up and jam. 

There are two options. The first is to calcine the stone in the bisque kiln and then it will become dry and brittle and easily passed through the crushers and ball mill, but this will completely eliminate the plasticity. So I only do this if I intend to make it into a glaze. If I want to make a porcelain body, I need to retain the plasticity, so the way to extract the clay fragment is to soak the sample in water and then stir it up into a liquid slip. This is called ‘blunging’. However, to make it smooth I need to pass it through a fine screen to eliminate all the unweathered stone fragments that are mostly mica, felspar and silica. In this case, I want all these minerals in the finished porcelain body to create the flux to make it melt and become translucent. This problem is solved by then ball milling the grit residue on the screen and then remixing to two together. This is a rather long and tedious job and I used to do this before I got a roller mill.

The best machine for this kind of material is a roller crusher. I actually have one of these, but it was burnt in the fire and I haven’t managed to find the time to rebuild it. It is still sitting on the crusher room floor in pieces waiting for a quiet period when I get bored 🙂  so that I can find the time to repair/rebuild it. Watch this space. Everything gets done eventually.

In the meantime, in the absence of any mechanical assistance. I decided to crush all the material by hand in the large mortar and pestle, before ball milling it all into a fine porcelain clay body. I used to do this when I was at Art School, as a mortar and pestle was the only piece of crushing equipment that I owned at that time. I still hand-crush small samples up to a few hundred grams for initial testing of field samples. It is quicker than cleaning out one of the bigger machines after use. It’s just like all those kitchen gadgets that are supposed to save so much time, but end up taking longer when you factor in the cleaning and drying, and then reassembly time before returning the gadget to the ‘stuff-that-is rarely-used’ cupboard.

Once reduced to a suitable size, it goes into one of the the mills.

After ball milling, I pass the slip through a 100# screen to remove any coarse particles that may have escaped milling. This halloysite porcelain sample has some iron contamination, so appears a little yellowish in the slip form. This slight iron staining helps create a lovely mahogany ‘flashing’ on the surface during wood firing. The Mafia halloysite is quite variable and is prone to severe warping during the early stages of firing when the halloysite tube-like clay crystals break down and re-form as fractured platelet shards. In this unstable state, the pots can warp and/or crack, so I have found it wise to blend it with some of my other porcelain clay or plastic kaolin to help stabilise the body.

In this most recently collected Mittagong halloysite sample, the site had been eroded badly in the recent rains and all the best and whitest, material had been washed away. Simply because it was the most friable and easier to dissolve in water. Because the remaining material was less weathered and darker than I wanted, I blended it with some more reliable local kaolin based porcelain. 

I have been finding the loading and unloading of the porcelain balls into the larger porcelain ball mill jar quite hard on my back as I age. I have had to load the balls in and out in small handfuls. It takes time and requires and lot of bending and effort. So recently, I built myself a couple of new PVC ball mill jars. These a significantly lighter, although the porcelain balls still weigh quite a bit. For these lighter PVC jars, I made a stainless steel mesh inset for the spare lid. I can easily change the lids and simply up-end the jar over a bucket and let the charge all drain out. I partially refill them with fresh water, roll them along the floor to rinse the balls clean then re drain into the bucket.

The jars are then ready for a refill and to be used again. The balls never leave the jar. So much quicker and easier.

These new PVC jars are made from cheap, standard, over-the-counter, plumbing parts. They are larger, but lighter, than the old one, and I made them so that I can fit two of them on the roller at once. So now I’m able to get more done in the same amount of time..

As I have been throwing and turning the porcelain. I have been collecting the turnings, they pile up like so much fettuccini pasta strands in the hopelessly small Shimpo wheel tray that need to be emptied every few minutes. In the old pottery, I took the plastic trays off and had the wheels in enclosures, so that all the turnings just spilt out onto the floor, but it was a big job to clean it all out and wasn’t suited to the sort of work that I now do, that involves using a large number of different, experimental, small batch, sericite and halloysite porcelain bodies.

So I persist with the tiny tray so that I can recycle each different sericite porcelain body separately to maintain its integrity.

I have been collecting and drying the turnings, then calcining them in the bisque kiln and finally ball milling them to a fine powder to make a porcelain glaze from the porcelain body.

The raw, dried turnings

The same turnings after being fired in the bisque kiln. The low temperature oxidised firing turns the calcined porcelain slightly pink.

The powdered glaze material in the ball mill after milling, ready to make porcelain glaze. 80% porcelain body and 20% lime.

A simple glaze recipe, Self reliance all the way along the line. DIY.

Nothing is perfect, nothing is ever finished and nothing lasts.

Open Studio Sale

Janine and I had a very good Open Studio Weekend Sale. 

We are part of an artist collective organised by a local lady called Erin Adams, she came up with the idea of the ‘Pop-Up’ Open Studios artists collective and herded all of us cats into a cohesive group. A tremendous job of work on her part, and we are very grateful to her for her organising ability.

Over this long weekend, we had over 30 visitors each day, for the 3 days, and almost everyone bought a pot, so we were chuffed.

The weather leading up to the weekend was awful. Freezing temperatures and blowing a gale. We had power outages, with trees blown down over power lines, for 2 days beforehand.

I was starting to think that no one will turn up. Nobody would want to brave all this weather to come out here.

As it turned out. Lots of people came out to Balmoral Village to see us. Most of the ‘Open Studios’ are located in and around the towns of Mittagong and Bowral here in the Southern Highlands. It is a well recognised tourist destination for people from Sydney, and it is easy to flit around and visit all of those local studios about town, without having to spend much time driving between them. You are also in close proximity to cafes, restaurants and coffee shops. 

As we are 25 km out of town, it’s a half hour drive to get out here and the same to get back again. So we appreciate the effort that the locals put in to get out here. However, what was amazing was the number of people who drove down from Sydney to come and visit us. About 2/3 of our visitors were from the greater Sydney area. So Thank You very much to all of you who made the long drive of 2+ hours or so each way.

Luckily, we had our friends Susan and Dave here for a few days to help us clean up, set up, and then help us with selling and wrapping for the first couple of days. It made the job go so much easier. Thank you Susan and Dave! 

I had made a batch of Tea Pots for the sale and sold most of them. I like making tea pots, they are an interesting challenge. You need to make all the different parts in the correct proportions to fit together in a unified design, but they also need to perform their function properly once fired.

The shelves are greatly depleted now. I love making pots, so its great to have space to make more things.

In the past couple of weeks, I developed a new high calcium porcelain glaze that has a lovely ‘streaking’ quality. I works well with a thin, soft pigment wash.

The pigment highlights the texture of the glaze. It also feels very soft and buttery to the touch.

In the days leading up to the Open Studio, I baked a loaf of bread in the pottery wood fired oven and although it took longer than it would have in the house oven, it turned out very well. This new oven has its own personality and will take a few goes to get used to.

I prepared the dough in the house as usual, and then put it in a cast iron pot in the pottery oven.

I also made a couple of panforte cakes for the open weekend, to share with visitors. Panforte translates from the Italian as ‘strong bread’. It is a small, solid, flat loaf of sweet bread, filled with dried fruits and held together with some honey and flavoured with a few spices like cinnamon and cloves. The recipe was listed here in an earlier blog. Search ‘panforte’ on the home page search box.

The dried fruits are measured out and mixed with the flour, before adding the honey water and spooned into my homemade stainless panforte rings on a buttered baking tray.

Spoon the mixture into the rings and press it down to fill them well, then bake at 180oC for 40/45 mins.

When the cakes come out of the oven, I sprinkle on a mixture of castor sugar, cinnamon and flour as a decoration. Served in thin slices, they go very well with tea or coffee.

Now that the Sale is over, it’s back to work. Our first job is to chain saw logs to refill the wood shed with fuel. 

We have been so busy potting to get everything ready, we burnt a lot of wood in the house and studio stoves, to keep us warm during this very cold start to winter. We burnt so much wood, that we started to run low in the wood shed.

So today was wood chopping day. Out with the chain saws, the wheel barrow and the mini tractor.

We have no shortage of dead trees after the fire, but they need to be chain-sawn into short lengths and then carted to the wood shed where they are split and stacked, ready for use.

A good days work and ready for the next job. This is self reliance. Nothing lasts, nothing is perfect and nothing is ever finished.

Our on-going pug mill saga

Over the past couple of weeks, we have been making pots, working towards the June Long Weekend ‘Pop-Up’ Open Studio Weekend.

I have finished building work for a while. I need to be making pots, no more work on the house until later in the year. I still need to fireproof the facia and eves of the roof against ember attack. The roof is now completely watertight. That’s the first step complete. Andy came back to help me fit the last sheet of roofing iron and then screw down the ridge capping, while I followed behind peening the ridge capping into the corrugations of the roofing iron. A very solid, proper, solid job of roofing. I’m glad that roof work is now over for some time. 

In the pottery we have been throwing and turning domestic items like cups, bowl and plates to fill out the shelves for our Open Studio Sale. 

I made 100 cups.

On the on-going pug mill front. I stripped down the big blue pug mill and took the motor off and sent it away to be re-wound and repaired – if that is at all possible? I should know in a weeks time. In the mean time, I took the worn-out vacuum pump off the purple pug and swapped it for the good one that was on the blue pug. So now I have a good working 3” purple pug that we are using for our white stoneware clay and the buggered vacuum pump is now on the blue pug mill that has no motor. A matching pair of non-goers. Well for the time being at least. I will get back onto that problem after our Open Studio Sale. 

The blue pug is hoisted up onto a tressle to keep all the new, clean gear box oil down in the gear box while I take off the motor. There is no easy, clean way to drain the oil without some mess, so I’m leaving it here for the time being. Hopefully the motor can be rebuilt and back on the machine within a week or so?

I rang my friend John Edye recently and enquired about the 4” Venco Pug mill that he had for sale a while ago. I bought a lot of his equipment last year when he retired. I didn’t make an offer on the pug mill, as I thought that I was going to get a couple of pug mills from other friends. As these have proved to be a little bit problematic. A rang John and asked if the big pug was still for sale and amazingly it was. I’m so lucky! I bought it over the phone and made the trip up to John’s place to pick it up. Luckily, it isn’t as far away as Melbourne and I could do the return trip all in one day. John assured me that it worked, but that it had a lot of corrosion inside the barrel. I’ve dealt with that before over the years by fill ing the worst holes with a home made epoxy based filler, or ‘wick-in’ thread sealant, that seeps into crevices and sets in the absence of air.

When I got the pug mill home, I was able to lift it off the truck and straight onto a wheeled, steel pug trolley that I had welded up in advance. I even had a vacuum pump cradle welded on underneath for the pump. These machines are way too heavy for me to lift, so having them on a mobile trolley is the way to think about them.

It’s interesting that this machine is the first model of Venco 4” vacuum pug mill and presumably dates from the late 1970’s. It has an inline plunger handle and all the castings are different from the later models.

I had a bit of trouble getting all the bolts loose to strip the pug down to clean it out. A few bolts needed the impact-driver to get loose and one snapped off, requiring the hole to be drilled out and the thread re-tapped. Slow and a little bit tedious, but all do-able.

The pitting is deep, but hasn’t gone through the wall and with a little bit of maintenance, will see me out I’m sure. I cleaned everything back to the metal. There was a lot of flakey white aluminium oxide to clean off.

Some etch primer, followed by a couple of coats of paint and it is all back together now and ready for work. I’m not too sure how John will take the new colour scheme I’ve chosen to cheer up the clay making area of the workshop? Pink, purple and mauve, with a little bit of black detailing. I like it!

When all of this clay making machinery trouble is all sorted out, it will make our life so much easier. I am committed to making almost everything myself. To be as self-reliant as possible, in food, in water, in electricity, in wood fuel, and this extends to clay and glaze making in the pottery. The principal difficulty that I am dealing with here is that I’m trying to replace in a couple of years, what it took me to build up over the past 40 years of life experience. I don’t remember it being so difficult in the past, but I guess that I was only dealing with one or two problems per year over that extended time. Now I’m trying to do everything at once. It is a bit easier this time around as I have more life experience and more skills, but I’m so much older now and I don’t have the same energy that I used to. I certainly find it harder to go back down to the workshop at night, after dinner and continue working. Although I still do sometimes!

Running Repairs and Fixing Old Stuff

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.

The Strange Pleasure of Self-imposed over-work

This last week I finally got around to replacing our very old roof on the Old School classroom. 129 years old in fact.

I have had it on my ‘to-do’ list for some years now, but I have always been too busy.

However, as I have been getting older and less virile, I realised that I needed to get on with it without too much delay.

We were getting a few drips in during heavy weather, but not too bad. Just enough to warn me that this needed to be treated as a priority.

Then the fire came and I suddenly realised that the roof was the weakest part of my bush fire protection. 

The old iron sheeting was coming loose from its screws and gaps were appearing in-between the over laps of the joints. This was also adding to the rusting and leaking.

Since the fire, I have been so completely focussed on re-building and getting back to my proper work of making beautiful things, that I had to ignore the pressing need to replace the roof.

Then the floods. We had more and larger leaks in the lounge room during the recent torrential rain events, so the roof had to be dealt with.

I had asked my friend Andy, who is a very skilful builder, to give me hand to replace the roof, as I wasn’t at all confident to be up on the 6 metre scaffold and then onto the 30 degree pitch of the roof.

Just a few months before the fire I had single handedly replaced the north face of the old pottery roof over 2 days, replacing the roofing batons and the insulation as well.

But that was then. I have lost a bit of confidence up on roofs and ladders since then with all that I have been through. It’s shaken my self confidence. I think that the experience of the fire has aged me.

Particularly the episode of climbing into the big pine tree up 7 or 8 metres to chain saw off the burning branches over hanging the house during the fire.

I haven’t been the same man since. It took something out of me that day and I haven’t been able to recover it.

Anyway, Andy said that he would help me out, but not during the summer, when it would be too hot for roof work, so last week was the time. He had a few days free. 

I had ordered all the materials a few weeks beforehand, and I also asked my neighbour Larry to give us a hand, as it is good to have someone on the ground to pass things up when the ladder is 6 metres up and down. Over the years I have had Larry over here occasionally. I taught him to Mig weld and on several occasions he has brought sheet metal jobs over here for me to cut up in the guillotine and bend in the pan break etc. We have developed a barter system of swapping labour on jobs that we can’t do alone.

Over 3 days from Monday to Wednesday, we built the scaffolding, stripped the old roof in sections, insulated the ceiling with more insuwool batts, Checked the old roofing timbers and structural joints. Which turned out to be amazingly sound and better quality than any modern-day, fresh hardwood available for sale locally. I was really thrilled. It was such a solid build.

I had expected to have to replace the batons at least. We improved the structure by bolting the timber roof batons onto the rafters as a safety precaution, as those 129 year old nails were starting to look a little rusty.

We ceiled the roof cavity with ‘anticon’ sheeting and fibreglass insulation, to bring the structure up to the current ‘BAL40’ Australian Standard bushfire fire-proofing. 

Then fixed new single length gal iron roof sheeting back onto the roof. By doing it in sections, the whole roof was never exposed all in one go. This was a precaution against any possible sudden change in the weather.

We were lucky. It didn’t really rain very much and the days were not too hot or too windy, so we finished most of the job in 3 days. 

There is still a lot more to do, but this was the most pressing and difficult part.

After climbing the 6m ladder 20 to 30 times a day carrying up all the materials and tools etc. My thigh muscles were screaming from over use, and it didn’t get any easier by day 3, but then we had Thursday off, as Andy had another appointment, so on the Friday as we did the flashing, the front ladder was so much lower to get onto the front verandah. That meant less ladder climbing, so my legs and knees were coping much better.

I fell into bed each night with a sense of relief, but also a hovering feeling of extreme tiredness bordering on exhaustion. All self inflicted and well earned. 

The trade-off for this minor pain is that I now have a roof that doesn’t leak in heavy rain, but most importantly, a roof that is better designed to survive the next catastrophic bush fire.

That’s a relief! I’m really too old for all this kind of ladder and roof work, but it just needs to be done.

The new roof has cost me about $5,000 in materials. I’m pretty sure that it would have cost me 4 times that much if I had got a roofing company to do it. Self-reliance has its strange pleasures.

The next job is to fire proof the timber end gables and under the eves to stop ember attack. 

But first I need a good rest. I have some big porcelain bowls in the damp cupboard that need turning. A change is as good as a holiday I’m told.

Paving Tiles and Wood Heater Repairs

We were busy last weekend with a bunch of friends paving the court yard area around the new, almost finished, wood fired kiln.

I still need to finish laying the last of the floor bricks in the chamber, I would have finished this small job a couple of weeks ago, but when the court yard flooded with 70mm of water sloshing around in there. It wasn’t very appealing to be kneeling done and doing the bricklaying. Then all that water was sucked up into the floor bricks like a wick and they became saturated so that any new mortar wouldn’t stick in place. Finally, they have now turned green with algae. I’m sure that they will dry out – eventually!

This severe weather event, although not life or property threatening for us, like it has been for our friends and relatives up on the North Coast. It has been a good warning and trial run for what we can expect in the future as Global Heating increases unchecked. No one in government seems to be taking this seriously, so what can we expect for the future? Well my guess is more of the same, only much worse. We’ve been warned.

So this extreme weather event has been a great warning to us as to what we can expect in the future. I have learned from it and and I’m taking actions now to limit the sort of damage that very heavy rain fall can cause. To start with we have paved the kiln area with a significant fall away from the kiln and out into the open. I have also ordered some more steel batons and some more poly carbonate roofing sheets to wall in half of the courtyard directly behind the kiln. With contour drainage to take the water to the edge of the retaining wall. Although the pottery didn’t flood, it has become obvious that we need to create a dish drain around the front of the building to carry all the excess ground water away from the front of the building, because another event will eventually be worse. 

This is a start

Back at the kiln, I also need to fabricate a stainless steel firebox lid and a stainless steel chimney flame tube incorporating a spark arrester. I planned to have started this job already, and 3 weeks ago, I ordered the Stainless steel sheets and some Stainless steel wire mesh for the spark arrester. The sheeting is here, but the couriers have lost the SS mesh. The supplier won’t replace it until he knows what has happened to the first order. The courier company won’t pay out to replace it until they know what has happened to it. So I’m stuck in a catch 22 situation. I can choose to wait it out until the original order is found and delivered, or buy a second sheet of stainless steel mesh and get on with it, but it’s not cheap stuff, so I’m waiting and continuing to write emails of enquiry.

We had a great weekend with our friends laying the paving tiles. We also met two new people who volunteered and turned up all the way from Newcastle, who will surely become friends now. They were a great addition to the group. The stayed over night with us and we got to know each other over a home grown meal from the garden. I had previously made a big pot of tomato passata from the last of our tomatoes, so we had an easy meal of pasta. Dan and James are environmental campaigners and organisers, so we shared a lot in common. James took this image of Dan, Janine and me standing on the new paving.

Dan, Steve and Janine. image by James Whelan

  

This is all great progress and I’m really happy to see so much getting done.

Janine and I started the levelling and paving earlier in the week. As a trial run, to make sure that everything would work out the way that I planned. As we haven’t done any paving since we built the last pottery shed in 1983, I’d completely forgotten what to do and had to re-educate myself and get my skills back up to date. It’s not rocket science, but does need concentration and quite a bit of back bending work. I decided that at my delicate age, I should not do so much bending and instead get the knee pads on and work down on my knees to keep my back straighter. This worked out much better. But then getting up became a bit of an issue.

Starting the paving, getting our levels sorted out and learning how to space the pavers to allow for all the different sizes to fit together evenly.
the courtyard paving complete

As we are in Autumn now and the weather is getting cooler and the days shorter, we have thought that we may need to light the fires in the kitchen and lounge room soon. The slow combustion heater in the lounge has started to wear through and rust out in the top fire box steel sheet. A crack started to appear at the end of last season, so I made a mental note to repair it once it cooled down, during the off-season, well that time is running out now, so it has to be dealt with as a matter of urgency. I decided to attack the problem by fabricating and new roof for the firebox out of a scrap piece of 2mm thick stainless steel sheet.

The new Stainless steel fire box roof sheet ready to install
The new firebox top bolted in place

Rather than try and weld it in place, which wouldn’t really work very well , as stainless and mild steel have different rates of expansion and contraction. I decided to bolt it in place with stainless steel bolts through over size holes and oversize washers. This should allow for the differences in expansion. The 2mm thick stainless roof should last as long as the 4 mm mild steel walls and whats left of the old top sheet. Time will tell. The stove is about 30 years old, so it has proved it’s worth. I’ll continue to work on it and preserve its life for as long as I can. We bought our slow combustion kitchen cooker over 40 years ago now and it was 2nd hand then. I’ve managed to keep it going all this time with home made adaptations and ingenious improvised repairs. I’m proud of that achievement and I’m hoping to extend it to 50 years if I can.

While I was at it, working on the lounge room heater. I also made a new front door frame seal. Afterwards, we went out into the paddock and spent an hour together with chainsaws cutting bushfire devastated and blackened logs. We cut them to stove lengths and stacked them in the wood shed ready for splitting. This will be about 1/4 to 1/3rd of the fire wood that we will get through the coming winter months.

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  🙂