Frosty Mornings, Lovely Days.

 

We wake to a cracking frost this morning. We have had a few good ones these last few weeks. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s just what it is. The frost has killed off every soft and vulnerable plant in the garden that were struggling on through the cold weather and short days. Plants like basil, just turn up their toes at the slightest hint of cold, quite early on in the season. The first really cool shift in the weather makes them lose a lot of their leaves. The next cold snap, especially if there is a cold wind with it and they are gone till we replant them in the spring.

Tomatoes hang on a lot longer, but the first light frost or near frost makes them lose their leaves. Funnily the lingering un-ripe fruit isn’t affected and can be brought into the kitchen and ripened on the window sill over the next few weeks.

Nasturtiums and capsicums seem to be able to tolerate a light frost and remain intact, although not exactly thriving. However, this mornings beauty has put an end to everything that was gamely battling on. This spells the end of the lingering autumn stragglers.

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What is great about a period of good solid frosts, is that they benefit the plants that have excellent frost tolerance and even rely on the freezing to establish the ‘chill-factor’ chemicals in the new growth that will emerge as fruiting buds in the spring. Some varieties of fruit trees need a good chill to become fertile. All the older varieties of plants like apples, pears, the stone fruits and particularly hazel nuts, need to get a hundred or more hours of below 4oC temperatures. If they don’t, the flowers cannot become fertile in the next growing season. A few years ago, we had a winter here without frost and didn’t get any fruit set on any of the apples or pears.

Hazels and filberts have slightly different origins, with one being rounder and the other more ovoid. Filberts have a longer skirt on the outer shell. They both seem to have originated in Asia minor/Turkey, but have been developed into stronger and more prolific bearers of larger nuts over the long period of domestication.

Hazel/filbert nuts are reliant on a high number of cold nights to establish their chill factor chemistry. A lot of work has been done on breeding local varieties of low chill factor nuts here in Australian in the post war period. In Australia, we just don’t get the sort of winters that are common in north America and Europe. However, we just happen to have a hazelnut farm research station near us here in the Southern Highlands.

We have been able to buy grafted varieties of local hazels that have been bred to fruit in warmer low chill areas like here. We have these low-chill fruiting hazel/filbert nut trees inter-planted in the nut grove with others that are inoculated with French black Perigord truffle fungus. We are hoping that the spores will spread to all of the other hazel/filbert trees at some time in the future.

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A good bit of cold weather really helps to colour up the citrus and sweetens the Brussel sprouts. In the mean time the frost looks great on the surviving plants until the sun comes up and melts it away.

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The sun shines and the days are glorious, as long as there is no wind.

When the weather changes and the wind blows off the snow. There is no frost but the days can be bleak. When we came here, the locals described it as a lazy wind. It doesn’t blow around you, but rather, straight through you.

Weekend Woodfiring Workshop

Winter brings on the season of wood firing workshops. We can fire our wood fired kilns almost all year round. With the only exception being the days of total fire bans in summer. We cope with this restriction, by packing the kiln as soon as the work is ready to fire and then we sit and wait until the fire restrictions are lifted, usually after a patch of rain. The pots can sit in the kiln comfortably for any length of time, as long as the kiln is sealed, so that no little animals can get in. We haven’t had  to wait long, a few weeks at most.

However. we can’t run a workshop kiln firing schedule on this basis. If we book in dates to run a wood firing weekend, then it has to go ahead as planned. Everybody has made their planes around the dates and is relying on it. We can’t cancel at the last-minute due to a fire ban. Our solution is to only book dates that are outside the likely fireban season.

We have had 3 weekend firing workshops over the past month since I returned from my last research trip to Korea. We were lucky to be blessed with fine weather most of the time. We are getting cold frosty nights, but many of the days are wind-free and warm in the sunshine.

We spend most of the week in-between each workshop in preparation, cleaning up and transforming the space into a safe, functional firing environment. We also spend a lot of time collecting and preparing the wood. We use mostly dead wind-fall branches from our eucalyptus forest around the house and dams. throughout the year, these branches fall to the ground and need to be collected up and stacked, out-of-the-way, so as to keep the ground clear for mowing through the hot months for bushfire protection. This stack then needs to be sorted and cut or broken-up to a suitable length. The smallest twigs go to kindling and the first part of the firing. Thicker pieces up to 50 or 60 mm. dia. are used as-is for the main part of the firing, and anything larger is cut to length with the chain saw and taken up to the wood shed and split into suitable thickness, then returned to the kiln site. It all takes time, but the chickens help. They just love to be at the centre of the action.

We tell ourselves that all this exercise it is probably good for us 🙂

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Throughout the year I get fire bricks, stainless steel sheets and all sorts of other material delivered here on Pallets. Some of them. The ones with beautiful straight-grained wood, get dismantled and used for building things. It takes quite a bit of effort to dismantle a modern pallet. They are assembled with gang nailed corners and hot glued nails from the nail gun. I spend a fair amount of time priseing them apart and de-nailing them to save the wood in good re-usable condition. A successful pallet re-cycling session gives me a great sense of achievement – and usually a sore back and shoulders from all the bending, lifting, stretching, levering and hammering. But it’s worth it. I hate to see good wood wasted. It’s just another small step towards self-reliance, through making do, recycling and making the most of what we’ve got.

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As we have 11 workshops booked in for this winter. We will need a lot more wood, than has fallen from the trees around the house over the summer. Janine has been making expeditions out into the ‘wild woods’ farthest from the house to drag back dead limbs to add to our stock. For this firing I also called in to visit the local mower shop. He gets a lot of his machinery delivered on Pallets and he has to pay to take them to the tip/recycling centre, So they are happy for me to remove them for them.

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One of these pallets is a monster. It has bearers with a cross-section of 200 x 100 mm. and beautiful solid decking of 25 x 150 or 200. All beautifully straight-grained and knot free. I made an effort to keep it all as pristine as possible. It’s so nice that I think that I may be able to make a beautiful chair out of it for the house. There are of course also a lot of ugly pallets. These are easy to deal with, because all I do is chainsaw off the ends of each side and the pallet falls apart into perfectly usable thin lengths of fire wood.

The students turn up knowing nothing of all this. The wood is ready and stacked in the trailer on-site. The kilns are all prepared and the glazes are out on the table. The days events proceed calmly and in an orderly fashion. Every thing happens as planned and the sun is warm in the middle of the day. Everyone seems happy.

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The result of all this effort on everyones part is some beautiful pots.

Wintum, A time for a clean out and change over

Here we are on the last day of autumn, on the threshold of winter. All the garlic that I planted on the evening before setting off for China is up and thriving. Garlic loves to get an early start. Late Feb and early March seems to suit it best around here. I know this because this is when all the old, last-years cloves that  missed harvesting, all start to shoot up, looking for the last of the warmth as the days get shorter. If these little fellows know that it is time to shoot up, then this must be the time. So in they go, or went in this case. I didn’t get time before leaving in the hectic weeks before setting off. So it was a case of do it now in the evening dusk or miss out. I’m glad that I made the effort now.

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Its a very much smaller crop than I have managed in previous years. This time about 100 plants. It’ll have to do. At least it is something. I realise that I can’t do everything. I’m very happy with what I have achieved.

When I returned from our little break away in Canberra, but before we left for Cambodia. Apart from building a kiln and making some more porcelain stone bodies from my recycled turnings. Janine and I managed 2 half days in the garden. Cleaning out all the old dead and finished summer plants. It was all cleaned out and taken to the big compost heap behind the pottery. This is one of the chooks favourite places. They can spend hours in there. They really want to get into the vegetable garden to ‘help’ us! But alas, they are kept locked out. We don’t need their kind of help in there just now.

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The chooks like to see what is going to the compost and ambush Janine on her way demanding to see what is nice and possibly edible in the wheel barrow. They decide that un-ripe, green  and sour golden berries are just what they love. and as long as we peel of the paper coating, they gobble them down.

We prune off all the dead asparagus fronds and top dress the 2 beds with compost. It all starts to take on a look of care and attention again, instead of the wild riot of form and colour that was there at the end of the rampant summer growth. Janine mows the orchard while I wheel-barrow compost and spread over the garden beds and all around the citrus trees.

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I will be time to start pruning the orchards and grape vines soon. But before I can do that, I have some Korean sericite porcelain to make. Everything in its own time.

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

However, for now, the garden and orchards look loved again.

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Welcome home

We arrive back home at the end of Autumn. The pistachio tree has turned red in our absence and the liquid ambers are loosing their leaves. We head straight to the chook house to see how the girls have been faring without us. Perfectly well it appears. They have changed their allegiance to Annabelle Slugette, because she has been living here, working in the pottery and feeding them treats for the past few weeks. Hens live for food! I know that it is only cupboard love, but I do feel a little bit abandoned. I’ll need to find them a few snails or other special treats to win their hearts ( and stomachs) back.

 

We head to the garden to see what there is for dinner. We find our selves in that special period of the year when there are just a few summer vegetables hanging on, while the winter crops are just starting, so we pick the last zucchini and the first cauliflower. There are only a couple of weeks when you can eat this combination of garden produce. The chillis have ripened a lot more while we have been away, so we pick some and dry them.

 

The next day I’m back at work in the pottery. I have  to slake down all my turnings that have dried out while I’ve been away. Clay slakes down so much faster when it is bone dry. I have lots of small batches to deal with. I have been working on my collected samples of porcelain stones from all around the world and I have to keep all the turnings from each batch of pots made from each special rock completely separate and well-marked, so that I don’t get mixed up or confused about which is which. I have 10 buckets marked with masking tape and felt fen, so as to keep it all under control.

I start with the first 5 batches. I slake, blunge and sieve them all through a 100# mesh screen, then flocculate them and decant the excess water, it takes a while to get its all done. Eventually, they make it out onto the plaster drying tubs that I use for small batches of re-cycling like this..

 

I’m not just dealing only with turnings here. Many of my pots don’t even get to the turning stage. These ultra-fine, ground stone bodies, with virtually no real ‘clay’ content, based solely on mica and quartz, with just a little illitic material. Consequently, they have no dry strength. They sometimes just split as soon as they are placed on the chuck, some don’t even get to the chuck, as they split during drying. Other decide to part company with themselves after the first turning at the ‘roughing out’ stage.

 

Some others tear themselves apart after the second trimming. Only a few make it to the final turning and bisque kiln. The only good thing about pots cracking during drying, is that at least I can re-work the material and have another go at making something that might survive to the kiln. What happens in the glaze kiln is another matter. I’ll find that out for these samples soon enough!

 

Environmental fellowship

We have had a Danish potter staying with us for the past month. He won the Environmental Ceramics Fellowship for for 2016, but for both of us it was just too difficult to complete it last year, so we postponed to this year.

He is a potter from Denmark who is interested in sustainability and new ways of exploring how to make a living in this new digital age. He has his own web presence in Denmark where he markets Potters wheels, kilns and clay bodies, as well as making his own work. He is a digital native. Whereas, I am, on the other hand, a dig-it-all-native. Making everything myself from the ground up – and that is what he is here to learn.

We crushed porcelain stone in the big jaw crusher to make single-stone porcelain body. We made clay tests to investigate unknown clays. We worked in the gardens and orchards. Ate all our own produce. Cooked up some wonderful meals. Lauge is a great cook, so that helped. We went on a geology excursion to look at some of the local stone deposits. Harvested the shiraz grape crop and made dark grape juice from the grapes.

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All in all, the month flew by and it all went too fast, leaving so many things un-explored. A month just isn’t enough time to experience everything that we do here.

Janine and I are planning to do some volunteer aid work overseas soon. So we are working towards this by making clay tests out of the local clay that has been posted over to us to process. Our Guest lends a hand in everything that we do.

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We decide to go exploring and looking at a few rocks for making glazes. Then, to complete the true ‘Australian’ experience, we take him to the local micro-brewery and have a meat pie with tomato sauce, accompanied by a tray of the brewery’s sample beers for lunch. Fantastic! I haven’t eaten a meat pie since I was a kid, so it was an experience for me too!

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You have to look closely at the image of the analcime basanite deposit above to focus on the small figure in the foreground.

We cook and eat what is in season in the garden this autumn equinox. An autumn garden risotto, a fresh garden salad of shaved beetroot, cucumber, raddish, quince. Served with wasabi rocket, lettuce, beetroot tops, chilli and crunchy pan-roasted almonds.

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We also make an alternate version of okonomiaki, using some very firm, third pick, red cabbage, our own home grown eggs, garlic, chilli and shiso. Everything from the garden. Red cabbage is too slow to cook straight off as a cabbage pancake. So I pre-cook the cabbage to soften it down before I blend in the pancake mix and all the other ingredients. It’s not really a traditional Japanese okonomiaki. It’s an improvised Aussie OKA-nomiaka. Served with mayonnaise and Japanese okonomi sauce. Topped with bonito flakes and some Japanese pickled ginger.

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We finish the meal with fresh figs and soft white cheese. We do this desert a lot at this time of year while the figs are coming on. We try it with all manner of different soft cheeses. Boconcini isn’t the best, but you don’t know these things until you try them out. We’ve tried it with blue cheese, fetta and soft white goats cheese which was best.

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Lauge helps me finish off the internal fittings for the 8 little dalek kilns. These are now  almost all delivered, leaving space for me to start welding up my 2nd kiln job of the year. There is just enough room to get both jobs in the factory at the same time, but it takes a little bit of planning and maneuvering to get everything into the tight space.

Now the shed is almost empty, with the big new frame gone off to be galvanised and all the little ones gone to good homes:)

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Platform Heal

We bought the old Balmoral Village Railway Station building to save it from demolition back in the 70’s. The local ‘Loopline’ train line had been closed to passenger trains and all passenger services were replaced by a bus service. The line was still open to the odd freight train, or it was used as an alternate line to the main line if there was a derailment on the main line, which actually happened in 1978.

For a whole day and night we got all the Sydney to Melbourne train traffic off the main line diverted along our old loopline tracks. We got to see the Sydney to Melbourne Inter-capital Daylight Express and the Southern Aurora rumbling along past our house at 20 kms hr. on our old, little used, light gauge tracks.

We live on this old and now closed line. It was originally the main line south for about 50 years. It came through here in about 1864 and was replaced by the new main line in about 1916. The old line through here is now just a ‘loop’ off the new line.

The original line was difficult for some of the older steam engines, as the gradient was very steep. Digging cuttings through the hard rock of these steep hills was time-consuming and expensive. There is an extremely deep cutting just up the road from here. I was told that it was the deepest railway cutting in the Southern Hemisphere when it was built. This cutting allows the line up through a difficult part of the terrain to the next village that was originally called ‘Big Hill’.

Our village was, at the time, a place to keep and maintain an extra steam engine. When the Sydney train arrived here. The spare locomotive was hitched on to the train and used to pull the carriages up this steepest part of the line. Even so, it was a very slow and difficult job to get the train up the big hill.

There is an old story, and I can’t vouch for its truth, about a bush ranger stepping up onto the very slow-moving train at the front and robbing everyone on the train as he walked down through the carriages, and then hopping off again, not too far from where he got on!

There were originally 7 stations along this part of the original train line, now the ‘loop’. We live right in the centre of the loopline. As we are half way between the two ends of the loop. It was decided that a School would be built at the half way point to service all the children of the track ‘fettlers’ and engine maintenance men that were stationed here.

The school was opened in 1893 and operated full-time until the line was relocated to the new route in 1919 and the population started to decline, as the railway men and their families slowly moved away. The school then operated as a part-time school for a few more years, and then closed. It reopened during the Second World War as a part time school, sharing a teacher between here and the now named village of Hill Top, higher up the line. The school closed permanently at the end of the war. The station remained open until the line was closed to passenger traffic.

Once the line was closed to passenger traffic and the bus service instigated. It was decided to tender all the stations along the line for demolition. The first station to be offered up to tender for demolition was Hill Top station, next door. We heard on the grape-vine, that the only bidder just wanted the tin off the roof to build a chook shed, so only offered $2, won the bid, took the iron off and burnt the building down to comply with the clause that stated “remove to ground level”.

When the Balmoral Village station came up for tender next, we were keen to see it preserved and not destroyed, so we bid the ridiculous price of $250 to make sure that we would win and could preserve it. $250 was about half the cost of the wood to build a new one. We won of course. No-one in their right mind would pay that much for what amounted to a little old wooden shed.  A very old wooden shed indeed. It is thought to have been installed in 1864 or there-abouts, when the line opened. Making it the oldest building in the village. We thought it worth saving.

We measured it up and built footings to suit, then hired a crane and low-loader. We picked it up and drove it home to the school in one piece. Then lifted it into place. It was the biggest job that I have ever attempted and it all went like clockwork. It turned out to be the least troublesome thing that I have done. However, I did spend a lot of time planning, preparing and choreographing it.

Once we realised that we now owned all (both) of the public buildings in the village and there is no water works to buy. We could put a motel on Pall Mall and charge all passers-by to pay $200 dollars to pass ‘GO’!

Instead, we decided to sand blast off all the old flaky paint when we sand blasted the old School classroom. We had hired all the equipment for the weekend and had some spare time and ‘shot’ left on the Sunday evening, so we cleaned it back. I bought undercoat and we made some top coat our selves. We bought a one gallon tin of pale yellow oil based gloss top coat, then added an equal amount of turps mixed with mica and talc dust 200# that we had in the pottery for making our glazes. This gave us 2 gallons of paint. This rock dust saturated oil paint is still as good as new today. No drying out or flaking off. The stone particles guarantee that there will be no UV penetration. The little weatherboard waiting room is still in good shape. Well the paint job is anyway.

Interestingly, we noticed that after we cleaned and painted the waiting room. The train line fettlers that passed along the line each few days, saw the station building in its new location and new clothes and waved to us and we waved back. They saw that we thought that the building had some historical merit and was worth saving and restoring.

After that no more stations were offered for demolition. All the others have now been restored and painted creamy yellow! Personal activism does work sometimes.

Well that was 40 years ago, and the poor old wooden sleepers on the platform have been weathering away. I have no idea how old they are. Not 153 years I shouldn’t think. I’m sure that they are not original. Perhaps they were replaced in the 60’s when there was a derailment at the station when a goods carriage came off the line and ploughed into the end of the station destroying the Ticket Office building. Perhaps the original sleepers on the platform were replaced when the platform was repaired?

They are sill in good shape where they are under cover of the verandah, but the exposed ends are rotting away. We have our wet weather clothes line under the verandah and Janine has stopped using it because she feels that it is too unsafe.

I take a day ‘off’ and go down to the timber yard and buy new ‘treated’ sleepers. I slowly remove each of the old sleepers a few at a time, and replace them with the new ones. It all goes pretty much to plane and is finished by the end of the day. However, I still have to put up the new guttering.

Everything goes to plan, except that I drop one of the old heavy hardwood sleepers on my recently damaged and recovering finger, which splits it open again.

No good turn ever goes un punished. I’ve healed the platform, I now have to wait for my hand to re-heal.

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We Are Cooking in the Heat

This last few days of heat has really set the garden back. We are out early and late watering. I watered for an hour, early this morning, but by lunch time everything was drooping with this blast of oven temperature air.

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Because it is so baking hot, I have been out cutting bracken fronds and sticking them into the seedling beds to give some shade to the young transplanted seedlings. I transplant them in the evening when it is cool and give them overnight to settle in before the next hot day. They seem to be surviving OK so far.

I have been harvesting the summer excess. A bucket of beetroot, a bucket of cucumbers a bag chillies and another red cabbage.

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I decide to make pickles, I wash, chop and thinly slice the cabbage, then soak in a brine of 2 cups of salt to 1 litre of water. The cabbage collapses over night and in the morning it is completely submerged. I rinse it twice to get a lot of the salt out, then pack it in hot sterilised jars from the oven and cover with hot pickling vinegar, then seal down the lids.  I hear them ‘pop’, and vacuum seal themselves when they cool, as I go about dealing with the cucumbers. They have been sliced and soaked in brine too. I rinse them and pack them into hot jars, cover with more of the pickling vinegar.

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While I’m at it, I stuff another large jar with whole chillies, that I have sliced open on the side to allow the pickling liquid in. My final job is to peel, then slice a big boiler full of cooked beetroot. They are a really wonderful colour. I bring them back to the boil for a minute or two in their original juice, I get 4 jars packed tight. I fish out a chilli, some cloves, pepper corns and a small piece of cinnamon bark to add to each jar. Then cover with the last of the vinegar.

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I have to go back to work tomorrow in the kiln factory. I have 7 kilns ordered, so far this year already. I’m booked out till September.  I have to get busy. My summer break is over. I started back a couple of weeks ago to get an early start on all these orders, but then I sliced my knuckle open. So that was that till now. With the scorching heat, I don’t fancy working in the tin shed that I call the factory. But needs as needs must. I think that I’ll be running the sprinkler on the roof during the hottest part of the day.