First Wood Kiln Firing since returning from China

I have just completed my first firing since I returned from China a month ago. I did a solar powered electric kiln bisque firing a couple of weeks ago and now this stoneware wood firing. I started very early at 4.00 am, simply because that is when I woke up. I usually do wake early on the day I’m due to fire the wood kiln. It’s somehow worked it’s way into my psyche. If I start early, it gives me plenty of time to get the firing done in one day.

I also really like the predawn time. It’s very quiet here. Mind you it’s always very quiet here most of the time, as we are one kilometre outside of a small village, with no shops or real activity much. We do have a road that runs right past our door, but there isn’t a lot of traffic along it. Our peak hour sees 20 cars and one bus go past. However, at 4 am there is no traffic, not even bird call. That comes later at dawn.

Dawn brings the silhouette of the huge pines that tower over our little school house building. The dawn chorus is beautiful, the firing is well under way and the front row of pots is illuminated by the flames.

I fire very discretely. By choosing to use a down draught fire box design kiln, I am able to fire without making very much smoke at all. If every thing goes according to plan, there is only the faintest pale grey haze during the reduction cycle of the firing, when most kilns make enormous quantities of smoke.

The chimney just pokes up through the roof line in the dead centre of this image. if you look very closely, you can just make out a pale grey haze, just to the right of the vertical light reflection on the camera lens. If you can’t make it out, it’s because it is so very pale.

I spent the day before hand, preparing and stacking all the wood for the firing. I’m trying mostly casuarina for this firing. I haven’t had enough of it at any one time to try it out for a full firing before. It wasn’t a very nice experience. I found that it produced quite a buildup of charcoal in the ash pit. I had to open all the mouse holes to get enough air into the base of the firebox to keep it under control. I won’t be using it again as the sole fuel source. I don’t have anything against charcoal. Actually, I really like it to build up to a certain level, as this creates beautiful surfaces on my fired work, but I need to be able to keep the level under control. Otherwise, It can build up to the point that it blocks up the firebox. Luckily, I had taken the precaution of also preparing some old very dry stringy bark and a bit of pine as well. That got me out of trouble.

This was a very good precautionary move. I always prepare more wood than I think that I will need. I nearly always have a fall back position, a plan ‘B’ as it were. It’s just the way I am. Perhaps just a little aspy? I even recommend doing just exactly this in my book on wood firing called ‘Laid Back Wood Firing’. Good to see that I even take my own advice!

Janine has picked fresh artichokes from the garden for lunch. She has steamed them and prepared a warm seasoned olive oil dipping sauce, with salt, pepper, garlic and chilli. It’s pretty yummy. She has thoughtfully prepared the dipping sauce in a twin-bowl bain-marie of hot water to keep the sauce hot on its 100 metre trip down from the house to the kiln shed, and throughout the meal.

We peel off the leaves one by one and pull them between our teeth to collect the fleshy, flavoursome pulp. It’s a great reward for our efforts to be able to eat gourmet food like this at virtually no cost. For us though, it’s not gourmet food, it’s ancient peasant food. Home grown, home cooked, consumed on site, within minutes of its picking, in its season, just as it should be. A meal like this has very low embedded energy and is SO delicious.

The kiln is at full fire. No one would know, except for the warmth being given off and the occasional crackle of the wood burning in the firebox.

While the kiln is firing, you can’t even tell that the kiln is alight for most of the time. I get to sit and write or do odd jobs, some cleaning up. It takes about 20 minutes in-between stokes, sometimes 40 mins, or even up to one hour when I stoke in a large piece of heavy hardwood. There is very little to do for a lot of the time.

I repaired an old kitchen chair that was given to us by the son of an ex-pupil of the school, That is pretty amazing when you consider that the school was built in 1893 and closed in the 1920’s. Jan Riphausen gave us his Mothers chair after she died and he was cleaning out her house. It has two broken spindles, but he thought that I might be the only person that he knew that might value old junk like this. Jan’s mother had lived almost next door to us here in the ‘Green Gate’ Farm, just down the road. The chair is quite ordinary, and was missing a couple of spindles. I repaired it with hazel water-shoots from our orchard. Not the most usual way to repair a chair, but a chair like this has no value these days except for the sentimental value it carries. I use it as my firing chair.

I like it a lot, because it is made with craftsmanship, from real wood. Therefore I can repair it, again with craftsmanship, using real wood. In this case, wood that I grew myself. The new spindles are not like the originals, they are quite uneven and ‘natural’. I love it for this very reason. Because it now has a very special personality. linked to us through the medium of the Old School building that is our home, but also because I have added myself into it now. A little bit of sabi-wabi. It’s like repairing a chipped, but beautiful pottery bowl with gold inlay. Kintsugi style. I have developed my own ‘kintsugi-like’ way of repairing my favourite pots. It’s not the ‘pure’ traditional Japanese technique. It’s my own way. It’s the way that I can do it using what I have around me. I’m not Japanese, but I can appreciate their culture. I really treasure being able to take something that everyone else would throw out, and spend a little bit of time and effort on it, and turn it into something very special, with real value. At least to me, and that is all that matters. I might hazard a guess that this chair must be pushing on for 100 years old. I can’t imagine any piece of Ikea, melamine-coated, woodpulp and glue, furniture being treasured like this in another 100 years. This is my life, reflecting all of the choices that I have made along the way, attempting to live a gentle, green, passive, life of minimal consumption. An existence based on creative endeavour.

So I’m sitting on my special ‘enhanced’ firing chair, contemplating the firing, listening, smelling, sensing the process. I play some music, I write, I even talk to the chickens when they come in to visit, and they come in often throughout the day.

This metal lid is now over 20 years old and is in need of a bit of TLC and a few repairs around the air inlets.

I get up every now and then and look into the firebox through the air inlet holes in the lid, Only then can I see the wood burning inside. If it needs it, I open the lid and drop in a few more logs. That’s it. It’s a simple process.

the level of the wood in the fire box has dropped down and it is ready to stoke again.

When the wood has burned down and the charcoal drops into the ash pit, I stoke it up and fill it with new logs. The bottom logs slowly burn away and the logs on top drop down to replace them, until it is time to stoke again. In this way the firebox is partially self-stoking.

The firebox topped-up with fresh wood.

This firing has gone very well, and after 12 and a half hours, when I look into the kiln through the spy hole, cone 10 has melted and this indicates to me that the full temperature has been reached. It is now time to sit and wait for the wood to burn away, so that I can slowly close down the firing and allow it to cool for two days. I celebrate with a glass of chilled white wine and a bowl full of freshly picked broad beans. This is a special springtime treat that I learnt to enjoy in Italy.

It is only now that it is all over, that it is clearly apparent that the kiln is actually alight, simply because I have opened all of the air inlet holes. 14 hours well spent, with still plenty of time to spare, just in case I might have needed it.

Because we choose to fire alone, we have developed a firing schedule that we can fit into one day. An early start, sometime around 4am, to 6 am. When ever I wake up. I don’t require an alarm. This allows up to an 18 or even a 20 hour firing without missing a nights sleep. 14 to 15 hours is just right. We have chosen not to do the longer types of firings that require more people to be involved and organising and changing of shifts throughout the night. 

This is meant to be a simple life, rich in experiences with just enough rewards for our efforts to make it worthwhile. 

I am reminded that, nothing lasts, nothing is perfect and nothing is ever finished.

Back home to Spring in the garden

I’ve been away for a while travelling and researching in China. It was a very interesting trip and I will have some stories and images to write about here in the next few days and weeks, as soon as I can get around to it. I have been very busy these last few days, since returning home, doing a number of things. All of which needed doing all at once as soon as I was back.

We had some terrible storms and gales while I was away, so there were a couple of days welding the chain saw, wheel barrow and rake, getting the driveway clear and the various fallen limbs off the fences etc.

We had one really big she-oak snap in half and fall, but not quite to the ground, so it was left hanging precariously until I got home. A definite no-go zone for all and sundry, until I could get in there and cut it down to make it safe. Janine and I then cut it up into fire wood sized small pieces to clear the space again. A big job and I’m always relieved when events like this are resolved without damage to property or me while I’m in there and under the branches cutting the wedge out to encourage it to fall into a safe place.

It all went well, but it makes me realise that I’m getting a bit older now and I have think these things through property before I start. It’s probably called risk analysis or some other clever name these days, but it’s what I have always done. Pace it out, measure the space, asses the weight and any bias in the load on the trunk. I want to do this safely.

Sometimes I put a 13mm. steel cable around the tree and winch it over in the right direction using my slow and steady ‘come-along’ hand winch. This tree wasn’t so tall any more, so I just used the tractor to winch it along with a suitably heave load chain. Needless to say, that with a wedge cut out, a slice in the rear and the tractor pulling it along, it fell precisely in the right spot.

I insist on working alone when I’m doing dangerous jobs like this. Any other person on the site is one more risk. The chickens always come running when they hear the chainsaw start up, so luckily for me and particularly for them, they didn’t get to where I was working before I had it felled.

So now all that heavy work is doneAll the wood cut and stacked in the wood shed, it is time to give the vegetable garden a bit of a work over with plantings of spring vegetables, seeds and seedlings to get it all ready for the summer. The soil temperature is almost up to 15oC, so a good time to get started. The asparagus is up and we have had a few meals already. That’s a good sign that spring has sprung.

I have been pulling out wheelbarrow loads of red ‘Flanders’ poppies. The come up wild, like weeds everywhere that the soil is disturbed. I love them, they are so delicate, beautiful and very short lived. Each flower wilts the day it is picked. They are only good for one day in a vase. However, they come up absolutely anywhere and everywhere that I have gardened or worked the soil the previous year. Of course that usually means in the garden beds. We like them so much that we usually have a lot of them overwintering in the fallow beds.

Well, the time has come to thin them out. I remove them from each part of the garden as I need the space to plant out the new vegetables. I leave as many as I can along the edges and in the paths. They will flower all through the spring into early summer and set seed in the autumn to replenish themselves again for next year.

Beauty and frugal practicality in balence. The cycle will go on, as long as we’re here to keep tilling the soil and creating that fertile environment.

Making the Most of Winter

It’s another blowy, blustering cool day, with a wind that is bringing down a few branches. Luckily, it was quite still yesterday evening, so we decided to burn off our pile of garden, orchard and vineyard prunings. We manage to assemble quite a pile of these prunings during the autumn pruning period. We pile them up to dry out for a couple of months and then burn off the pile at the end of winter, just before the spring fire bans come into force. In the past we have waited for a cool damp night after rain, but it just hasn’t rained at all for months, so the pile just sat there. 
Last night was forecast to be damp with the possibility of a slight shower. That was good enough, After dinner we went down to the burn pile site, next to the Pantryfield garden and lit it up. It was a very slow quiet burn that took 3 hours to get through all the sticks, twigs and branches. By 11 pm it was just a pile of white ash and a few glowing embers. It’s a good feeling to get the fire hazard out of the way before summer, otherwise it would have to sit there for another 8 months. Fortunately it started to rain ever so gently later in the night, just half a mm. in the rain gauge this morning, but enough to settle it all down.


 Today a fierce, gusty wind has settled in, so we are back inside, after doing all our jobs, collecting fire wood and stacking it inside ready for tonights fires, watering the small seedlings and cleaning up. Now the sun is fully up, we drove the car down to the high amperage charging station down by the kiln factory. The kiln shed has 3 phase power installed, so we placed the fast charger down there, as there is no electricity in the car port. The kiln shed roof also has 6kW of solar panels on its roof, so direct access to the solar power for charging the car and firing the kiln.
As we’re inside, we decide to deal with kitchen duties. We held our second marmalade making workshop at the weekend, so there are numerous small jars of marmalade to be washed and dried , then labeled and stored away in the pantry. We made 3 batches, each slightly different, but all of them centred on Seville oranges, of which we have a beautiful crop this year. Hard to fathom, as we are currently in a drought. But we have been watering the citrus grove regularly.


Each large boiler, makes between 7 to 10 jars of marmalade, depending on the size of the jars. Our very good friends Toni and Chris turned up and the afternoon eventually wound it’s way into evening and dinner.


The other job on the kitchen list is to make a stock out of the bones left over from a duck that we have in the fridge. I start by browning some onion in olive oil, then garlic and water. Our organic garden garlic is getting close to the end now as the winter peters-out. What we have left is stored, hung up, outside on the back verandah in long plaits. This is starting to sprout now, but it still gives us the good garlic flavour. The new crop of garlic is filling out in the garden, but is still 3 months away from maturity.



I add water, the bones, a lemon, chillies, the very last of our late season tomatoes that we picked 6 weeks ago when they were still a bit green, as the bushes had been burnt off by the frost, and some pepper. After simmering for an hour, I pass it thorough a sieve to separate the bones and mirepoix from the stock. I add a bottle of ‘fume’ wine and return the clear stock to the stove to reduce. It happens in among all the other jobs, slowly and steadily, filling the kitchen with a warm, delicious fragrance that is so welcoming on a cold windy day.
 Domestic jobs can be really engaging and fulfilling sometimes. This is one of those times.You’ll notice that I don’t write too much about cleaning the grease trap!
Our enigmatic friend Annabelle Sloujé sent me this image that she saw somewhere, after I wrote about making a beef bone stock last week.
Best wishes from Steve who is making the most of winter – while it lasts.

A sudden cold spell

We have just emerged from a sudden cold spell. We were glad to find a few jobs to do inside for a while until the cold winds blew themselves out. Our good friend Annabelle Sloujé lives a little bit farther south of here and a lot higher up, she had a low of -9oC, I’m glad we live here in Camelot where it doesn’t get so cold. My friends in Korea report a range of -35 to + 38oC. They probably think that I’m a wimp for talking about a winters day of -1 oC. They possibly think that -1 is quite warm, in comparison.

However cold or hot it is, we found things to do out of the wind. I shelled nuts and Janine made a cake from the last of last years hazelnuts that she milled into flour. It’s one of those recipes with reduced flour and usually almond meal. The Lovely down loaded it from the internet, but as we didin’t have any almonds left to shell, she used all hazelnut meal instead. All recipes are just a guide. Living where we do, we have learnt to compromise and use what we have rather than drive for an hour to get something specific. We save all our jobs and shopping list for that weekly trip.

Glazed with melted 85% dark chocolate and a few chunks of chopped crystallised ginger. It was just right for cold weather and didn’t last too long.

For my part, I made a beef marrow bone and vegetable stock over a couple of nights, using the free heat from the wood fired kitchen stove after we cooked dinner.

I make stock like this a few times each year, especially during the colder months when the stove is always on. I have come accustomed to always having our own personal, giant, frozen stock cube in the freezer. We don’t own a dedicated freezer, so we only freeze what can’t be preserved by other means like vacuum sealing ‘Vacola’ jars. The special conditions required for safe preserving in vacuum jars is that the food must be boiled in the jar to seal it, so that counts out pesto. Also, it is best if the food is naturally acidic like fruits and vegetables like tomatoes. Meat can be preserved this way, but it is recommended that the vacuum sealing be done twice to make sure that it is perfectly safe. A bit of a bother.

After the cold spell blew itself out, we have had a few glorious cloudless sunny days with no wind. I took the opportunity to move my chair out into the sun and get a little vitamin D and finish decorating my last few pots doing scraffitto, carving into the surface with a sharp tool. This will show the pooling character of my local granite blue celadon style glaze when fired in the reduced solar fired electric kiln.

Spring is almost here

When the poppies arrive, spring is almost here!We still have 2 weeks before spring is officially here, but we have been enjoying a nice steady display of the red Flanders poppies for a few weeks now. The night time frosts are still continuing, but the poppies don’t seem to mind.

They brighten the kitchen breakfast table. The shaft of early morning light illuminates their semi-translucent fragility. They only last such a short time in the vase, but they make us happy while they are here.As it is still winter, we have been enjoying all the varied brassicas that are maturing in the garden. We picked a gigantic cauliflower and had to think up a variety of ways of eating it. Fresh picked, we like it best cut into small florets and dipped in a little mayonnaise and eaten raw. We also add it to stir fry and risottos, but the classic has to be cauliflower au gratin. I have to make it at least once each winter. 
I melt a little bit of butter and add in some flour, for us, that happens to be wholemeal. I make a roux using approximately equal parts of each, but I only cook it to thicken it, I don’t want it to colour up, so I only cook it off on a gentle heat and soon add some milk a little at a time. The first few drops instantly thickens it to a stiff paste. I have to work at dissolving the first few drops of milk into the mucilage, as it is adsorbed, and the mixture loosens, I continue to add the milk slowly while stirring to avoid lumps. I only want a pale sauce for the gratin. I think that it looks most appropriate with the pale cauliflower.

I’m a lazy cook, I don’t have any bread crumbs and I’m not about to start making some, and I certainly won’t ever be buying any ready-mades, so as soon as it comes to a slow, gentle bubbling boil, I add in my steamed cauliflower and I stir in a little grated cheese, with a little more added on top, and the whole lot then goes under the grill.

It’s a lovely warming veggie winter dinner.
We have been in to have dinner at our sons restaurant, Bistro Sociale in Bowral,  <http://www.bistrosociale.com.au>

Always a lovely time, good, interesting food and not too expensive. We almost never eat out in restaurants, but we make an exception for our son. He made a beautiful desert for Janine and our friend Annabelle Sloujé.
A prune creme brûlée with fruits and flowers.


Geordie managed to get me a fresh black French truffle recently. The weather has been so dry here. We are in drought, and this has affected the truffle harvest this year. It turns out that the Southern Highlands is a very good place to grow truffles, but not in a drought. Our own truffle trees have not shown any inclination to produce a truffle as yet, but we live in hope. Maybe in the future, if it ever rains?

We managed to get just one small truffle. Since Ted retired and sold his truffiere, we have been cut off from our supply. Geordie has contacts though! So we had truffled eggs for breakfast. You can’t be mean with a truffle. They may be expensive at $1.40 per gram, but it’s best not to think about the cost and just inhale deeply and enjoy. We made scrambled eggs with a little cream whipped in and some fresh grated pepper, and then grated the whole truffle over the top. No point in rationing it out over several meals, such that you never really get the full flavour experience. Just go for it and enjoy it to the max. You only live once.

We have had absolutely no mushrooms come up in our garden this winter. It is just so dry. There is still just enough time, if it rained in the next couple of weeks, we could get lucky.


After storing the truffle in the fridge for a few days with the eggs and rice. We used the rice to make a risotto for dinner. It’s amazing that when I opened the container and poured the rice into the big pan to roast it a little before adding the wine. There was a very noticeable smell of French truffle wafting up to me. Beautiful! It became a winter vegetable risotto.


I added a bottle of our preserved, concentrated, summer tomato, sugo as well. It really fills out the flavour like no other vegetable can.


We are lighting both the wood fired stove in the kitchen and the fire in the lounge room to keep the place moderately warm at night. As the kitchen stove also heats our hot water tank in the winter, it is a necessity. But most importantly, its carbon neutral, as we collect all our kitchen stove wood fuel off our own land, from our own forrest. However, it’s also a beautiful way to cook.

The Winter Garden

The garden can look a bit barren at this time of year, but there is still plenty to eat. We have all the brassicas doing very well with the frosty nights. Cabbages, cauliflowers, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and kohlrabi all bountiful and gorgeous. We also have leeks and celery, and we have just finished off the last of the autumn/winter crop of carrots. 

Of course we always have spring onions and lettuces for salads when the days are suitably sunny and warm, as is often the case these days in the global emergency. Winters as we knew them in the 70’s are over. No more snow and many fewer frosts that are much milder in intensity. Fruit trees are flowering now just past mid winter and not in spring. Everything has advanced about 4 to 6 weeks earlier over our 43 years here.

peaches

almonds

blue berries

At this time of year, the days are getting longer and the soil temperature is just starting to warm up a little with the soil just starting to hit 10oC. The asparagus is responding to this minuscule change and starting to sprout. We have our first couple of spears poking their heads up.

Although the beds look barren under their winter mulch, there is the beginnings of spring growth.

There may be some benefits to a warmer climate, but the down side for us is the prolonged drought, with only one significant rain event of 30mm over winter. We are preparing our selves for a long dry and very hot summer with July breaking many records for the hottest winter month. This past July being the 3rd hottest July ever recorded.
On the positive side, there are lots of people starting to wake from their media/Murdoch induced stupor, and starting to take action. I am seeing a lot more positive articles in journals indicating creative, affirmative thinking.

Vegan Wood Firing

It is a beautiful clear, sunny day here today. The air is cold and a little fragrant. I’m not too sure what with, but it is crisp and refreshing. We have been up to Sydney and back for the opening of the wood fired show, at Kerrie Lowe Gallery, where we have our work on show.

This is a small white tenmoku bowl with a lovely soft ash deposit on the fire face, showing grey some carbon inclusion on the body and rim.

A very delicate and beautiful object.

  

These are two of janine’s blossom vases. These two vessels are inspired by Korean ‘Moon’ jars. On this occasion, Janine has incised a sgrafitto, carved band illustrating the phases of the moon, as a way of linking these beautiful pots back to the origin of their inspiration in Korean, where we have spent a bit of time recently doing our research.

These pots were fired in just 4 hours in our small portable wood fired kiln. This little kiln is so environmentally friendly that I call this type of firing ‘Vegan Wood firing!

All the fuel for this kiln is collected from wind falls in our paddocks. Large old eucalypt trees are constantly dropping dead branches. We have to go around collecting these dead branches to keep the ground clear so that we can mow the dead grass. We have to mow, because in summer, high dead grass is a severe fire hazard. So part of out land management plan is to keep the ground around our house clear of fire hazards, as we live in a very bush fire prone area.

IMG_6127

Having picked up all these dead branches, it seems irresponsible not to use them productively. By firing our wood kiln with wind falls, we are not hurting the trees in any way. No tress were harmed in the making of these pots. Hence ‘Vegan Wood Firing’. As we only use what the tree has rejected and finished with. It is also worth noting that some of the carbon that we collected from the atmosphere through the trees that we have grown here over the past 40 or so years is now encased chemically in our pots, making it securely trapped, more or less forever. So we are doing our bit to reduce the carbon load in the atmosphere. Carbon sequestration and removal on a personal scale.

We each do what we can.