2017, so long and thanks for all the fish

As this year slowly fades into the next, without a bang or a whimper, each day arrives and passes in a heat haze of small summer jobs around the house and gardens. I service all the fire fighting pumps. We have 4 or them. Cleaning the air filters and changing the oil, ready for any fire emergency that might crop up in this heat. These pumps are used for other jobs throughout the year, for garden irrigation, roof sprinklers on the house and workshop roofs for cooling on the hottest days and water transfer from tank to tank, this occasional work keeps them in good working order, so that I know that I can rely on them in any emergency.

We had a couple of weekend workshops of garden maintenance, with a couple of our pottery students and friends helping us get the garden back up to speed after our long absence OS in the late spring . They earned themselves a free raku firing workshop  ticket in the winter for their trouble. A very special thanks to all those friends who helped us out during the past 12 months, your friendship and support is greatly appreciated.

The garden is now producing a lot of food for us and will continue to do so into the future, with the germination and growth of all the seeds that we planted. We have successive plantings of corn, beans and zucchinis, etc. to keep us going.

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We have enjoyed a number of lovely meals recently from the garden. Our protein is mostly sea food based, as we have a very good fish man that drives up from the coast a couple of days a week. We often bake a whole fish and boil the bones to make a stock that we can use later to make something else. Recently I pan-fried a whole trout in olive oil and garlic, stuffed with lemon thyme from the garden and dressed with lemon juice and crushed almonds. I finished it under alfoil to slowly steam it through, de-glazed with a little splash of chardonnay and a dash of fresh cream before serving it with some steamed kippfler potatoes. I didn’t get any complaints and I made a good stock of the bones.

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Not only do I get a very good glutinous richly flavoured stock from the bones, but then the Spice Girls (chooks) get a nice surprise for breakfast the next day.

Many meals at this time of year start to look like variations on ratatouille, with mixtures of tomatoes, egg plant, zucchinis and capsicums. I try to mix it up a little using the fish stock to make a blond garden risotto, with Pumpkin, zucchini, caps, garlic and onion. I add a little pinch of saffron and Janine brings in a sprig of fresh oregano to help it along a little. I finish it with a chunk of butter to make it extra creamy and smooth.

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Later, we bake a snapper in the same way, except , this time I use some of the days tomato passata to simmer it with the days vegetable pick.

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I take the time to clean, scrub, oil and then re-wax the kitchen table.

 Someone once told me that I should oil my handmade furniture once a day for a week, then once a week for a month, once a month for a year and then annually after that. So now is the time for such small details to add up and need addressing. I refuse to go into the factory or the workshop for this precious week between Xmas and new year to do  kiln work. Instead I work at all the other jobs that need doing annually, like this one. A change is as good as a holiday! It’s been a busy year with trips to China, Adelaide, Canberra, Cambodia, Korea, then Japan and Korea and Japan again. Plus the launch of my new book ‘5 Stones’ at my big show of my 15 years of research into single stone porcelain at Watters Gallery. I still haven’t written up all of the recent Japanese trip yet. Maybe in the new year.

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I do go into the workshop many times through this week, but it is to get tools that I need for maintenance and to do repairs on household items.

I will go back to work on the 2nd after our Swiss Intern arrives for a 6 week stay with us. We will be busy making single stone porcelain and building kilns after she has settled in.

Last year we had Lauge from Denmark, this year it will be Catherine from Switzerland. Something to look forward to. However, before that, we will have our annual New Years day recovery party to welcome the new year in and I will be cooking up a selection  of our garden produce for that.

Boxing Day Domestic Meditations

Before we head off to have out Xmas lunch, we are up early to harvest the summer largesse from the garden and orchards. We have been picking a few nice red tomatoes each day since mid December. Our earliest crop ever. Due largely to the fact that I started them off under an improvised cloche in September before we went overseas. This beat the frosts and kept them warm to get them started off earlier in the year. It’s the first time that I have attempted this and it has worked very well.

Now we can harvest a basket full of tomatoes each week. So we have been making small amounts of Tomato passata since the week before Xmas. This morning I put on a Jan Garbarek CD and settle in for an hour to shell a big bowl full of beans the have got away and are not as nice as they could have been if I’d got to them earlier. I have been picking, blanching and freezing them each week to keep up. There are some big scarlet runners, some lumpy french climbers and smaller bush beans. I need to harvest them every couple of days to keep them flowering. Today I decide to shell the larger ones and cook them down into a dish of beans in Tomato sauce.

  

Janine has been chopping and mashing the bigger ripe tomatoes in a large copper boiler to render them down for more passata. This is pretty simple to make. We just cut up the tomatoes, Place them in the pot and mash them with a potato masher and let them boil down in their own juice. After they cool, we will put them through the kitchen sieve to remove the seeds and skins, before re-heating to concentrate the flavour and them vacuum bottle them for later in the year.

 

 

I steal a ladle full of her tomato sauce and add it to the beans in a small pot and add a tiny knob of our home-grown garlic and one of our dried chilis. I set it one small burner to slowly simmer and get stuck into slicing all the small tomatoes in half for drying. It’s a cool morning, so it’s OK to have the stove on.

We are all done by 10.00 am.

Mottainai

Janine and I have just returned from an extended trip to Japan and Korea.
I was lucky enough to be invited to Korea to represent Australia at a conference in the Yanggu Porcelain Museum and Research Centre in Bangsan in South Korea.
I wouldn’t normally go to conferences, but this one was all about single-stone porcelain, its history and its contemporary applications. A topic close to my heart.
They also offered to pay my air fare, which made it a lot easier to decide to go.
However, I wouldn’t usually consider flying half way around the world for just 2 days at a conference. It’s a lot of environmental damage, for just 2 days of interesting experiences. So to make it more worthwhile Janine and I decided to take the month off and go to Korea for an extended time, so that we could catch up with our friends there and also take in some time in Japan on the way.
I can’t really justify taking a month off just now, as I have a lot of orders booked in and we are very busy. Not to mention that there is a lot to do in the garden at this time of year. However, this was a wonderful opportunity not to be missed, so we made efforts to fit it in.
As we had decided to fly via Japan, we arrived in Tokyo and spent a few days visiting galleries and museums. There is a lot to see in Tokyo, but we only had limited time, so we had to be selective and we kept very busy fitting it all in.
There were a lot of Galleries and a lot of shows, but I will only write about a couple, so as not to bore you.
As I am a keen patch-worker, but not for any fashionable reason. My interest in hand stitching patches onto my worn out work clothes is just to extend their life really. However, it also creates something beautiful and unique out of what would otherwise become a rag. It’s something akin to the kinsugi technique that I use to repair chipped and/or broken pots that are meaningful to me and deserve to be repaired and made more beautiful than they were originally, just because I like them and respect them as objects. A nicely repaired chipped pot is more precious than it was before it was damaged. So, the same applies to my old jeans. They become more interesting, beautiful and precious after I have spent a bit of time on them, and it saves the waste of throwing them out and buying new ones every few years.
I can afford to buy new jeans and new shirts, I just choose to repair and maintain my older clothes as a political statement about over-consumption and our throw-away economy. The fact that these things become gorgeous as well is an added bonus.
So, with all this in mind, Janine and I went looking for the ‘Boro’ museum. Boro, is a traditional Japanese word used to describe old clothes and blankets that have been patched, repaired and maintained for several generations because of poverty, but these days these old clothes fetch hundreds of dollars in the antique markets.
The boro Museum is a small private museum in outer Tokyo. We tracked it down and spend a very interesting afternoon there.
Amazingly, there was an exhibition of contemporary indigo fabrics on show on one of the lower floors. Janine just happened to be wearing her indigo dyed Japanese shirt that she bought some years ago on one of our earlier trips to Japan when we visited Mashiko. We spent a bit of time in the old indigo dying workshop in Mashiko while we were there. The indigo dying workshop in Mashiko dates back about 600 years if I remember correctly. The Lady artist showing the fabrics in the Boro museum contemporary gallery recognised the shirt immediately and told us that it was made by her teacher, who has since died. Such a coincidence.
Janine tries on a few pieces of old boro from the collection.
 
 
All these items were simple peasant farmers clothes that were patched out of necessity. A lot of these pieces were made in the north of Japan, in the Aomori Prefecture, where it gets quite cold and the seasons are short. It is too cold to grow cotton up there, so all the clothes were made of hemp and/or other local natural plant fibres, all dyed with indigo to preserve them and make them long wearing. indigo dyed cloth doesn’t rot and insects wont eat it. It is interesting to see old cloth that has both blue and white designs woven into it. In the very old pieces, the white areas have rotted or been eaten away and only the blue indigo dyed areas remain.
Really old and extremely worn out fabric was pulled to pieces and used to stuff bed-clothes, or cut up into strips and rewoven into indigo hemp warp to create new cloth from the old. This recycling, making sure that nothing is wasted, has a term in Japanese. ‘Mottainai’. Which can be literally translated as ‘being too good to waste’.
I have written about my interest in ‘boro’ in the past on this blog. See, “Something boro, something blue”. Posted on
Best wishes from Steve and Janine in Tokyo.

The Weather Warms Up

As the weather warms up, we continue to harvest the garlic as it starts to mature and dry off. each different variety comes on at slightly different times, but  most of it has been lifted now, with just a few blocks of plants still remaining in the ground.

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The citrus are flowering, one of the lemons is flowering so profusely that the ground under the tree is white with fallen petals. The fragrance is beautiful.

I have spent the last few weeks kiln building, and kiln number 300 is now complete and ready for delivery. This is my penult kiln, kiln number 301 will be my last before I retire from building these larger, heavier kilns. I will continue on in semi-retirement for  a few more years building the smaller, lighter, relocatable, mini wood fired kilns, as these are easier on my worn-out body.

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The birds have started to destroy the fruit crop – as usual!. After 40 years of organic farming here, all the older stone fruit trees are too big for us to net individually these days. It has crossed my mind, that we could net the whole orchard, but this would be prohibitively expensive. We did net the entire vegetable garden area about 15 years ago and that was there best thing that we ever did. Now we get all of our produce and the birds, rabbits, wallabies, possums and eastern grey kangaroos are no longer a problem.

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We spend a day with our good friend Warren, helping us to net all the smaller trees. The parrots have started to hollow out the almonds, looking  for the sweet young developing nuts. There is nothing that we can do about it. The tress in the stone fruit orchard are just too big to net. The birds can have them. I planted a dozen new almond trees, in a row down one side of the netted vegetable garden. These are reaching maturity now and depending on the vagaries of the weather, can produce good crops.

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We drape nets over the smaller trees, supported with tomato stakes and use irrigation pipe hoops to support the nets over the larger trees. We have been doing this for years, it’s a days job every spring. The nets are getting a bit old now and are getting a little brittle, so holes are starting to appear. I made a huge needle out of TIG wire to use as a repair needle to stich the nets back together using baleing twine, repairing holes and joining seams. It works rather well.

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We end the day in the nut grove, by pruning all the suckers from underneath the dozen hazel nut trees on our hands and knees. These trees want to grow as a small wide thicket, so they need constant attention, removing the suckers, to encourage them to grow as upright trees with a single trunk, or two or three trunks. This makes them very much easier to maintain, manage and mow around. It’s a constant job, but the nuts are worth it.

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

Spring has Finally Arrived

Spring hasn’t sprung. It’s sort of crept in very slowly. It hasn’t rained properly since March, so all the dams are very low and as the weather slowly warms up, we are having to water the vegetable garden and potted plants every day.

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We have been harvesting the new crop of garlic for the past month as it starts to dry off and wilt. I planted over 100 cloves this year and we have harvest a very good strong crop. However, one of the varieties that I planted has turned out to be a bracing type, initially it grew as one stem, but as it matured, it separated into a dozen separate plants. One stem for each clove. I have no idea what the variety is called, as I bought 2 knobs of this garlic from the health food shop, as Australian grown organic garlic, and that is all I know about it. It has quite a mild flavour.

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Each batch of garlic has to be laid out to dry for while before it can be plaited and hung up for storage in the kitchen ceiling truss.

 

Total Fire Ban

We had two wood firing workshops booked for this weekend.

Sadly we have 29oC and windy conditions. So there is a Total Fire Ban declared for the weekend. The fire season has started early! A total fire ban is a TOTAL fire ban! There is nothing that we can do about it. We have to cancel both workshops. Now that the hot weather has arrived early, it may affect the next two weekends that we have planned on our calendar for a Stoneware wood firing and the last raku firing.

Running workshops right up to the end of the season like this does increase the risk of running into fire bans. Some groups actually ask to be booked right at the end of the firing season to take advantage of the longer day length for travelling here and also the warmer daytime temperatures.

I’m NOT a climate sceptic. I believe that we are experiencing man made climate change caused by our use of fossil fuels.

This winter in Australia was 2oC above average winter temperatures across Australia. If this is our new reality, then we had better get ourselves adapted. In the short term. It means only booking wood firing workshops in the middle of winter when it will still be safe to do so, as I hate letting people down. In the longer term, we have been adapting for many years now. Collecting all our own water for drinking and irrigation, dealing with our own sewerage and generating our own solar electricity. This is all still a work in progress.

To this end, I suddenly realised that I had an unexpected day ‘off’ yesterday with the sudden cancellation of the workshop. We had been busy all week preparing the site, the glazes, the wood fuel and the sawdust. We have ordered a new, 2nd generation Tesla battery for our house, as we have an excess of electricity during the day from our solar panels. For the past 10 years, we were able to sell this excess power to the grid at a good price. But now with the end of the subsidy. It is better to store that excess and use it ourselves later in the evening, when we usually buy in green wind power back from the grid.

The announcement of the new Tesla battery came at just the right time for us. We are going to electrify all our energy use in the house and pottery. That means no longer using LP gas. Our choice to use an LP gas stove in the kitchen as a fall back position for cooking during the very hottest months, instead of lighting the wood stove, was based on the proposition that LP gas burnt directly, was greener than using dirty black electricity generated from coal.

We totally withdrew from the coal economy 10 years ago. In keeping with this thinking, we have ordered another 3 kW of Australian made solar panels from ‘Tindo’ in Adelaide. These are tier 1 grade panels, made to the highest specifications. Our original 3 kWs of panels were made in Sydney by BP Solar (since closed) and have performed very well for the past 10 years. It is great to know that we can still buy Australian made solar panels. They are 10% more expensive than the best tier 1 panels from China, but we are employing Australians and that makes it worth it.

Once our new panels and battery are installed, we will replace the gas stove and go fully electric. We have had solar hot water on the house since we built it in the 80’s. We fire all our glaze work in the wood kilns and bisque in the electric kiln. However, before I can install another 3 kiloWatts of solar cells on the pottery roof. I have to remove all the old rusty ‘galvanised’ roofing and install new ‘zincalume’ sheeting, as these are compatible with the aluminium framed solar panels. I had ordered the new roofing last week and it arrived on Friday, along with the 6 lengths of hardwood beams that I also need to add to the roof structure to accommodate the solar panel mountings.

It wasn’t the nicest job that I have ever attempted. I fact it was up there with the worst. But it was an unexpected day ‘off’. So I didn’t want to waste it. Pulling an iron roof off in a strong wind isn’t good. Doing timber framing up there on your own with heavy hardwood beams isn’t easy either, then finally re-roofing shiny reflective zincalume in 29oC heat isn’t at all nice. But now it’s all done and the new roof is ready for the contractors to come and install our new solar panels.

The ladder work and hard wood roof framing, has really taken it out of me as well as the heat and I have to lay down afterwards. I’m getting too old for this. But the thought of having electrical independance with 6 thousand watts of solar power and a 15 kW/hr battery kept me at it.

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The old galvanised roofing on the pottery and kiln shed was 100+ years old when we reclaimed in 1983. It’s doing really well for a 140 year old iron roof.

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We had already replaced the top half (right hand side of image) of the roof with new zincalume sheeting in 2007, when we installed the original solar panels. Now it’s time to fill up the remaining roof area. It’s a perfect situation for solar collection of a 30 degree pitch roof facing due north.

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Complete!

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Productive Pets

Chickens are probably the only pets that give you breakfast each day!

We have 3 chickens, not because we need 3 eggs a day, we don’t. Rather, we can get through one or two eggs each day between us on average, but chickens are flocking animals. They like to hang around together in groups. One chicken would be lonely. I think that it would be cruel to have just one solitary bird. Two chickens would be a bare minimum, at least they would have a friend, but three allows for more of a dynamic relationship between them. Even more would be better for them, maybe 10 would be a comfortable number for them, I’m not too sure, but we don’t want or need that many eggs each day. We don’t want to be chicken farmers.

We chose three hens, even though it was too many for us, but only just enough for them to feel comfortable. It’s a compromise. We want to be responsible animal husbands. We keep our hens locked in their wire reinforced run until 9 or 10 in the morning. Hopefully well after the fox has gone to bed, and we lock them back in in the late afternoon, at 4.30ish, well before he comes back out in the evening. This has worked quite well so far. But foxes are cunning and patient.

Previously, we kept Old English Game Fowl. They were very edgy, skittish and flighty. Very highly strung. They could fly really well, easily capable of flying up into the highest gum tree. We always knew when the fox or a dog was about, as the chickens would all squark and fly up into the trees. We never lost a chicken to a fox. But the ducks weren’t so fast and were sometimes taken. The main problem is that our land isn’t fenced, only the gardens and orchards are fenced. We want the local wallabys, Eastern Grey kangaroos and other wildlife to be able to wander through, drink at the dams and eat the grass. They were here on this land before us.

Our current chickens are hybrid ISA Browns. They were commercially bred for a life in intensive production in cages. We saved them from that fate. They are great egg layers, but the real reason for choosing them instead of a pure breed this time around is that they are so amazingly tame, friendly and personable. They seem to just love hanging around with us in the garden, ‘helping’ us do whatever it is that we find our selves doing at the time. When we go inside for lunch, they usually hang around in the front garden, waiting for us to come back out again. it’s impossible not to be fond of them. They are very cute.

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I’ve read that chickens are the new dogs. There was an article in The Guardian Newspaper recently saying as much.

Pet swap: are chickens really the new dogs?

No longer content to keep poultry as merely egg suppliers, the UK is embracing them as pets, with names and roaming rights
The domestic chicken population in the UK has been stuck at about 500,000 since 2010.
The article was a lightweight bit of flim-flam, but there just might be a little bit of truth in it.
I think that they make great pets, because you can go away for a couple of days and they seem quite contented in their wire run, with dirt to scratch in and dust bath in and plenty to eat and drink.
We have built the run to give them loads of space to roam in, but they very rarely have to spend any time in there as we have them out with us almost every day.

 

Oh to be a chicken next time round! (well, one of ours anyway)