Two Flans and Marzipan, from Two Music Fans

Janine and I have just enjoyed our first house concert of the year.

We spent an afternoon with Lindsay Martin and Victoria Vigenser – again!
We had them here with us in our home last year and they were terrific, such beautiful music. Lindsay is an amazing fiddler.
They work together so well.
A wonderful afternoon well spent.
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We are starting to eat into our summer preserves. We have been enjoying sliced peaches, plums and pears recently.
We have just started to open our jars of preserved whole peaches. These were bottled in December and vacuum sealed into ‘Fowlers’ jars.
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Having been heated in a light syrup to seal the vacuum in the jars, then stored for 4 months in the pantry. These whole peaches are just starting to develop that wonderful marzipan flavour that they get from the stones.
We have also been cooking a few cakes to keep the colder weather at bay on dull days. Janine used our pears to make a flan.
She recalled reading the recipe in a book from many, many years ago. We had to go looking, but we found the book eventually, just where we though that it ought to be. I skimmed past it initially, as the cover wasn’t like I remembered it.
Larger-than-life home cook, turned TV presenter, Ian Parmenter used to present a 5 minute cooking program as a fill-in on the ABC TV, possibly in the 80’s or 90’s? Called Consuming Passions Consuming Passionsand he later wrote a book called ‘Sheer Bottled Bliss’.
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Janine remembered his recipe for pear and almond up-side-down tart. It was very nice as I remembered it and just as nice this time round. Page 143, if you are interested.
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I tried my hand at prune and almond flan that I saw Rick Stein make on the Idiot Box one evening when he was in the Dordogne region of France. It look easy and I thought that I’d have a go at it. What could go wrong? Ididn’t have all the ingredients, but what the hell, give it a go.
Soak a couple of cups of your prunes in brandy. I didn’t have enough brandy, so I used half Cointreau. I think that It might even be an improvement!
Mix one of your beaten free-range eggs with the drained brandy. Then add in a cup of almond meal and half a cup of sugar. More or less.
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Blind bake a short pastry base for 20 mins at 180 oC. then pour in the filling over the prunes and continue to bake for another 45 mins or more as required
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I liked it so much, I made another one.
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After the Hail Storm

A month ago we had a hail storm. Not too bad as hail storms go, but bad enough. There wasn’t a lot of rain with it, – a pity.

A few weeks later we had a lot of rain in an hour. Quite a storm all told. We found to our surprise that we had a number of leaks appear in our old school classroom. We had to find buckets for the drips on the carpet, the computer table and other various places around the house. Having drips of water dropping onto the carpet in what is our lounge room, really concentrates your attention.

I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in and stops my mind from wandering!

We don’t usually have leaks like this, so I had to investigate. However, I needed to wait for it to stop raining, then to stop blowing, waiting for a day when there was no gusty wind. I once went up on the roof on a windy day and the ladder blew away, leaving me stranded up there until Janine came looking for me, replaced the ladder and let me come down. She must love me!

I finally found a day that wasn’t too windy, glarey or wet and slippery. I got up onto the top roof of the old classroom of the school. I found that the hail storm had pummelled the 130 year old corrugated galvanised iron roofing. Where there was an over-lap of the old sheets the iron had rusted to a very thin state because of the condensation in the over-lap, creating a few quite large holes.

A hundred years ago, corrugated iron roofing could only be manufactured in short lengths, as it was rotary folded across the sheets to make the corrugations. This meant that to cover a long-span, a number of shorter sheets needed to be used and this required overlapping to stop leaks. All old iron roofs suffer from this same problem of rusting out on the overlaps. We are lucky to have a roof that has survived for so long without too much trouble. We live in quite a relatively dry environment with about 500mm of rain each year.

I worked across the roof systematically siliconing every split, crack and thin rusty patch. The overlaps needed special attention. In one place I had to cut a small piece of rustic, but structurally very sound, old roofing iron into a small square. I glued this patch over the worst section, that was too big to close with just silicon alone.

The big issue turned out to be the ridge capping. This is 130 year old lead! I wanted to replace it 35 years ago, when I was much younger, able-bodied and building the extensions on to the Old School Classroom. I didn’t want any lead on my roof. Unfortunately I struck one massive problem that stopped me in my tracks. The old lead was about 600 mm wide and the old wooden roofing battons were well spaced accordingly. Modern galvanised ridge capping is only about 460mm wide. Not wide enough to reach the old battons. This meant removing all the old sheets of iron and screwing on new battons, then replacing the roofing, then screwing down the new narrow ridge capping. A massive job. Not one that I could complete easily in a day.

Being basically lazy, I decided that I had enough to do with building the new extensions onto the Old School classroom to make it into a house, so I left the old flashing up there. It was just easier to ignore it and hope for the best. The old lead capping has developed cracks and splits here and there along its length over the years. I siliconed these splits and cracks 30 years ago, and 20 years ago and then 10 years ago, Now the cracks are just too big and too long for silicon.

Now my lead flashing chickens are coming home to roost. I will need to re-roof the whole school roof eventually. I hope that I can make it last long enough, so that it isn’t my job to do. I couldn’t do it by myself now. I’d need to employ someone to help me these days.

My creative solution was to lift the old lead flashing and slide in new sections of shiny galvanised ridge capping in underneath the old lead. Then I screwed the old lead down over the new galvanised ridge capping, through into the old galvanised roofing. A cunning plan!

From a distance, no-one can tell that I did anything at all. It looks exactly as it did before I fixed it, and that’s the way I like it.

From Garden to Glass jars, Preserving our Excess

Our international guest and pottery/environmental living intern, Ms Kang from Korea, is about to leave us. We spend our time in the pottery, garden and kitchen. We put in a big day from early morning through till late night, a 14 hour day. There is a lot to get done at this time of year.

We have glazed our pots and packed the kiln previously, so while we wait for the sun to get up in the sky so that we can start the firing. I get up on the roof and wash the solar panels. We live on a dirt road which is quite dusty in dry weather. We recently had a good rain storm and collected 75mm. (3″) of rain, but then we had 150mm. (6″) of wind and dust, This means that I need to wash the PV panels so that we achieve maximum efficiency. At this time of year, the shadow from the trees doesn’t pass off the last of the panels until 10.00am.

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By 10.00am the sun is up in the sky and we are generating good energy, it’s a good time to switch on the electric kiln. I wait until the PV panels are generating enough power before I start the firing. I like to start about 10-ish and finish by 5-ish, thus making the most of the sun. The kiln is very powerful and can easily fire straight through to Stoneware 1300oC in 5 hours if needed. Once the kiln gets to 1000oC, I start reduction with 2 small pilot burners running at 5 kpa. I can’t set the pressure any lower than this and expect it to be reliable. This takes the kiln through to 1300 in reduction using just 300 grams of gas. I’m still experimenting with this kiln.

If we want to fire longer, or on cloudy days when there isn’t enough direct sunlight, we have the Tesla battery to fill the gap. We can, if needed, fire the kiln and charge the car as well on the same day. On a good sunny day, we can charge both car and Kiln, fill the battery and still sell a little to the grid. On the off days when we don’t fire or drive the car, we sell everything to the grid. We sell our excess at 20 cents per kW/hr. occasionally when it is cloudy for a few days we buy back power from the grid. We chose a 100% green power contract and pay the premium price of 35 cents per kW/hr for the privilege. However, we are connected to the grid by a net meter, so we only have to pay for power if our imports exceeds our exports in any given month. It never does.

Once the kiln is on, It fires itself in semi-automatic mode. I only need to check it occasionally. Then its back into the garden to continue the harvest of more tomatoes, chilis, capsicums and aubergines. We are at peak tomatoes now, as we dealt with the last of the late-season plums last week. They are all safely vacuumed sealed in their jars, in the pantry, waiting for later in the year.

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While I harvest the tomatoes et al, in the vegetable garden, the ladies, Ms’s King & Kang collect hazel nuts and quinces from the orchard. We are all soon very busy in the kitchen, by the time the heat of the day sets in. All the tomatoes need to be washed and sorted. Even though we have set fruit fly traps all around our garden and orchards, we still get some fruit fly stings in the very ripe tomatoes in this late summer season of hot and damp weather. All the tomatoes are cut open, checked for fly strike and then sorted into two separate pans. A big boiler for the good fruit and a small sauce pan for the fly struck fruit. The spoilt tomatoes are all boiled to kill the grubs and then fed to the chickens, with the remaining skins and detritus composted or fed to the worms.

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While I’m cooking, Ms Kang is shelling the days pick of hazelnuts. This batch of tomato passata will be cooked with pepper corns, bay leaves and a bottle of good red wine. It looks great and tastes delightfully sweet and sharp, sort of tangy, with just a little bite and lingering heat from a few chilli peppers in the mix.

The quinces are washed, peeled sliced and then boiled with a little sugar, 300g in the big boiler + a couple of litres of water to cover them. I add a stick of cinnamon, a few cloves and two star anise. After they have softened. I transfer them to baking trays, pouring the sweet boiling liqueur over them and add a little bit of Canadian maple syrup into the mix I give them 45 mins at 180 and this reduces the liquer to a sticky gel and turns the fruit to a lovely red colour. I choose to cook them with a minimum of sugar. If I added more sugar, they would turn a deeper/richer shade of claret red. I love that colour, but don’t like the saturated sweetness.

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We preserve everything in our antique ‘Fowlers’ Preserving jars. We bought this old boiler and a few boxes of glass jars, 2nd hand at a garage sale over 40 years ago and they are still giving good service. We have only had to replace the rubber rings.

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It still surprises me that a basket full of quince fruit can fill the sink when being washed, then fill 2 baking dishes in the cooking and finally be reduced to just 3 jars of concentrated sunlight, colour and flavour after a days work. Two baskets of tomatoes fills two boilers, then makes only 4 jars of passata once it has been reduced on the stove for an few hour.

Such is the business of summer.

Our New Intern from Korea

We have a new intern working with us this January. Our visitor is Ms. Kang from Korea. She has come here to experience our sustainable approach to life and our ceramic work.

We have been working together crushing and grinding porcelain clay body and glazes from local rocks, throwing pots, working in the vegetable garden growing our food, cooking the food that we harvest and doing a little bit of sightseeing as well. The three of us have been doing some tourist activities together, like a trip to Sydney with a ferry ride on the harbour, and a trip to the local National Park and the south coast beaches.

Ms. Kang has been learning to use our foot-powered ‘Leach-style’ kick wheels.  We have just finished making sufficient clay work today to fill the solar powered electric kiln for a bisque firing. Last week we calcined some local white granite rocks, to make our local blue celadon/guan glaze.

Pretty-much life as usual, but with a hard-working and dedicated student-guest.

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Electric Car Review – Ioniq PHEV

I’ve had the new Hyundai Ioniq PHEV Plug-in hybrid electric car for just over a week now. So I can give a better account of what it is like to drive and own. As with most modern cars, it has a heap of complex software options in the inbuilt computer which is capable of doing more things that I care to learn about in the short-term. A bit like my phone or my laptop, it can do much more than I will ever ask it too. It will take me a little more time to work through all the options and internalise them to a point that they are at my finger tips and therefore useful to me. At the current time most of it is still opaque to me, so I don’t attempt to use stuff that I don’t see any need for. Especially if it distracts me from my driving, I don’t go there. 

 

I am not a petrol head, so I don’t know anything about cars. I’ve always bought the cheapest, fuel-efficient car that I could afford. That was nearly always a 3 cylinder, 1 litre engine car. We had a Daihatsu Charade and then a Daihatsu Sirion. We had them for about 10 years each and about 250,000 kms. Being one of the cheapest cars on the road, they came with manual everything, totally no-frills driving. I really enjoyed driving a small manual car. That is what I’m used to. So the hardest thing to get used to in this new car is not the technology or the electric propulsion, but the fact that it is an automatic! I’ve never driven an automatic car before. I still feel the need to lift my left foot to de-clutch as I approach a stop sign!


The car has 3 modes of travel. Fully electric directly off the battery, Hybrid electric where it starts off in Electric mode and sometimes switches to petrol mode if you put your foot down. and then ‘Sports’ mode, which seems to engage both motors at once. This mode is pretty zippy – I’m impressed! Changing between these modes is done electronically with the press of a button.


I have spent the first week mostly driving in ‘eco’ mode in fully electric selection, because this is why I chose this car. I have lots of solar PV on my roof and a Tesla battery at home, so I’m completely ready for fully solar electric living and travel. I have found that I can do all my local driving on the battery in eco electric mode. Recharging is done using a bog standard 10 amp 3-pin household power point and takes 4 hrs if the battery is almost fully depleted.


Because I’m not a pushy or aggressive driver, driving as I normally do and am used to doing around here, the car stays in ‘eco’  fully electric mode 99% of the time. Just occasionally when I come to a steep hill and put my foot a little harder on the accelerator, the petrol engine cuts in when I’m in Hybrid mode and I can feel the surge of extra power propel the car forward. Because the car is electric (most of the time), there is no engine noise or vibration when you pull up at the lights. The car pulls away smoothly and silently from the lights. If it is in hybrid mode the engine cuts in after a hundred meters or so, or if/when you get up to 20 kms/hr or so. This is totally seamless and the only way that I know that it has happened is the little icon on the dash that changes from electric to hybrid.


Most of the time it is just steady as she goes, totally silent, comfortably plush and comfy driving. The most noise that I hear is the tyre noise on the bitumen, I’ve become quite aware of the differences in road surface and the various noises that they each create. Visibility is very good with the mirrors. I really dislike cars that have tiny back windows. The back hatch on this car has a metal bar across it as part of the design to strengthen the huge flowing lines of the sculptured, mostly glass hatch. but visibility is still very good. I’m used to driving with the 5 point visibility habit and this design works perfectly well for me. However, I can see that I will eventually start to loose this habit, as I become more accustomed to the reversing camera and the active side mirrors.


Even though this car is the base model it has a few bells and whistles. Like side mirrors that have an alarm built-in that beeps and flashes to let you know another car is very close on that side if you put your blinker on to change lanes. It makes a humming sound that is generated when driving slowly in pedestrian zones like shopping centre car parks, so that people car hear you approaching from behind. It has adaptive cruse control, so that if you are cruising along and another car pulls into your lane in front of you, this car automatically senses that car and slows down to the same speed as the car in front, keeping several car lengths distance. The car also beeps if you cross a marked lane without indication. When reversing, it beeps if there is a car coming from either side that you can’t see, as you attempt to reverse out of your parking spot. The media player/radio also cuts the volume to half when you put the car into reverse, so that you become more aware of your outside surroundings as you reverse. All these little gadgets are very common in all new cars these days I expect, But our last car purchase was 13 years ago and it was the very basic poverty model. So this is all new to me.


The car has an automatic, 6 speed, dual clutch, gear box, so that either motor can operate independently, but also at the same time in unison, when you choose to. It is powered by an Atkinson cycle 4 cylinder, 1.6 litre petrol engine, as well as the electric motor. Although it is still a small car hatch back, it is also the biggest car that I have owned. The Atkinson Cycle motor is a very interesting design and is particularly fuel-efficient. Try searching for it on the Wiki. To get the best fuel efficiency out of the car, many of the panels are made of aluminium and the rest of the body is made from super high strength, hot pressed, high tensile steel making it lighter, yet stronger. This saving in chassis weight is taken up by the battery. In stead of using the brakes, the car uses  standard regenerative braking that is basic to all hybrid cars. An idea that has been around since the 50’s. Over-all there are a lot of little efficiencies all combined together to make this an impressive piece of engineering.


Of course, most of these ideas are not new. The Toyota Prius has been around for 20+ years, but it can’t drive on sunshine, it is strictly a petrol powered car. Many of the initial concepts of both electric and hybrid cars were introduced to me by Meredith Thring in 1980 when I read his book. Professor M W Thring pioneered many of these innovations in Yorkshire at the University of Sheffield and later at Queen Mary College, at the University of London in the post war period. See regenerative braking above. I bought the book that he wrote after he retired in 1980, called ‘The Engineers Conscience’. Interestingly, he was an Australian who moved to the UK to work, so maybe we can lay some marginal claim to the intellectual property invested in this car. I can safely claim to have been intellectually engaged in watching the long, slow development of these cars since the 80’s.


I have driven 500 km so far and the fuel tank is still completely full, the indicator hasn’t left the full mark yet. I must say that it is a very rewarding feeling to be able to drive totally on sunshine. I know that this will annoy some people, but the development of cars like this has been in the back of my mind since 1980 and has now become manifest in the availability of this car in Australia now. I have to say that it is so important to me and very rewarding to be able to drive for the rest of my life on the sunshine that I collect off my own roof. 

That’s priceless.

The Glorious Weeks of High Summer

We have entered the glorious weeks of high summer, where it’s just too hot to do much physical activity in the middle of the day. Having both had skin cancers removed – fortunately at early stages, we are careful to wear long sleeves and a hat when we are out. We start early in the garden and orchards, as we want to be out of the sun before it gets too hot in the middle of the day. We work until lunch time and then stay inside until the heat has passed in the afternoon, then we get back out there and do some more.

The jobs vary, but they are never-ending. There is always something to be done, often needed in a hurry. The morning starts with picking fruit. We have passed peak young berry and although we are still getting some each day, we are no longer picking kilos a day. At the peak, our biggest day was 3 kg. We will continue to get less and less, picking only every second day now, up until Xmas day, or thereabouts.

We have reached peak blueberry season today with 2 x 200mm. plastic containers of blueberries. We have about 20 plants, some doing well and others not so well. They are high maintenance and very demanding.

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Blueberries won’t do well unless all their demanding criteria are met. They need to grow in a bog of fresh seeping, acid water, or at least watered every second day. They also need to grow in acid conditions, preferably a very well-drained situation. So here, where we are, up on top of this dry, stoney, drought ridden ridge, there is no natural place for them. We have tried them in the ground in a couple of places, even mulching with huge amounts of acidic leaf litter and the addition of a little sulphur powder to the soil, but they are not happy, even though we water them well, I suspect that they are not sufficiently well drained. They are growing, but not too well, hardly putting on any growth. They do flower and set fruit, but only in moderate amounts. They have only grown 700 mm. high in half a dozen years. Our second attempt, also in the ground in the vegetable garden, where we dug in copious quantities of acidic leaf litter and she-oak mulch, they did much the same, they didn’t thrive, but we do get some fruit from them.

Our best effort to date was to plant them in tubs filled only with naturally acidic leaf litter and detritus from the wood pile and from around the wood splitter, this being almost entirely made up of coarse, fibrous woody compost-like material. These 7 plants have grown 1.2 metres in one year and have flowered and set a great crop. They still need to be watered regularly, but boy are they productive. I’m still finding it hard to believe that a plant can grow so well in nothing but tree bark and saw dust! A medium that has no soil in it. It’s certainly well-drained and is naturally acidic. It seems to be just a matter of keeping up the water to them.

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We have just started to pick the first santarosa plums along with the last of the apricots. Now that the apricots are over for us, the net is no longer needed there and we have decided to move this big net off the apricot tree this morning and along with its poly-pipe hoops and have set it up over the second plum-tree. The elephant heart plum.  These plums are still green now, but will be turning red soon, and that red colour always attracts the birds. So far we have managed well with the birds this season.

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Once the poly hoops are set up and the netting transferred, I drag the last of the netting over and manage to trap one luscious Janine and two chooks under the net. Now we can relax a bit. All that is left to do is to move the DAK pots and fruit fly lures across from the other tree. I try and keep at least one fruit fly lure inside every net. I spend $50 each year on fruit fly trap re-fills and a bag of dynamic lifter. Even growing your own fruit isn’t free + the hundreds of hours spent in the maintenance and watering, but this isn’t really work. It’s better described as fun and recreation, otherwise you wouldn’t do it.

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The late peaches are ripening, I suspect that it won’t be long and we will have these on the menu too. The late peaches are luscious, dense, yellow fleshed and so flavorsome. They put the super early white peaches to shame for flavour, but the early peaches are always first, so we are so glad to get them and really appreciate them for their sweetness. We don’t realise how thin the flavour is because we are so looking forward to eating them after 12 months without peaches. Now in the midst of the high summer heat and ever so long days, the solstice is just a few days away, we are getting picky. For instance, we have stopped picking and eating the mulberries, there is always so much more and better fruit at this time of year. We let the birds have most of those, we just take the easy low hanging fruit these days.

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The strawberries are still continuing to produce regular pickings since spring, never too many, but just regular and steady, we have the strawberries mulched with pine needles that Janine sweeps up from under the big pine trees after every storm. We have a constant pile of it down where the truffle trees are growing. We use it for litter in the chook run and in their nesting boxes. After I rake it out of the chook rum every few weeks, along with a load of pooh all mixed in with it, it gets wheel-barrowed to the citrus grove and used for mulch around the trees in there. Nothing is wasted, everything has a use and a re-use.

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Looking back at our mornings work, I can see that there is a lot of grass grown up under where the netting has been. I get out the whipper-snipper thing and see to it, then think that I should also do all the paths in the veggie garden while I’m out here and into it. Couch grass never sleeps in this hot weather. I can’t afford to let it get a hold in the garden beds. One thing leads to another. There is no end to jobs. But the sun is right up there now and its almost 12-ish and time to put the mower away and go inside for lunch and then some inside work till it cools off. It’s a good thing that the days are so long right now, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to get it all done.

I get out there again and dig out a nasty patch of couch grass that has got a hold of part of the garden path. I set too with the mattock and dig it out roots and all. It’s hot sweaty work, but very rewarding when you look back after you’ve finished!

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This is a job that won’t need doing again for another year in this spot, but there are still 3 more patches just like it at the other ends of the pathways.

I must have been wicked!

Veggies and Flowers

When we came here 43 years ago. There was next to nothing here, Only the derelict shell of the old school classroom. We had to work 7 days a week for the first few years just to pay the 23% interest rate on our money-lender mortgage on the property. It was a huge impost, an exorbitant interest rate, but they were the only people who would lend us the money.

Because of this huge level of debt, In those first few years I had to work the equivalent of 8 working days in each week. Seven full days and two nights, that equaled an extra day. I got part time work at 4 different art schools, then on Saturdays and Sundays, I flew out into western New South Wales each weekend to different towns, all over the state to build pottery kilns on-site as weekend workshops. Janine worked a couple of days and one night at Liverpool TAFE college. It was a killing work load, but we managed to pay off the first of the two mortgages early and save a load of interest.

During the school holidays, we were able to establish an orchard and a vegetable garden around the house. We were complete novices in the vegetable garden, but learnt by doing. The gardens started out as a way of growing wholesome, fresh food cheaply on site.

A few years later, I got to see a few French period films set in the south of France. “My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle”, based on books by Marcel Pagnol. These films and others like it, (Jean de Florette) opened my eyes to the possibility of growing both flowers, vegetables and fruit trees, all in the same garden. Our life is much more under control now, and we are finally solvent, with more time to relax and enjoy the fruits of our labours.

In the past few decades we have introduced a lot more flowers into the edges of the garden beds and these are now self seeding and well established year on year.

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So now we grow herbs, grape vines, fruit trees and vegetables all in the same space. It is all netted over now, mostly with hail proof, fine bird netting. However, we have incorporated side panels of 35 mm hexagonal, galvanised wire mesh in the walls that allows all the little insect feeding birds easy access. We get all maner of finches, fire-tails and wrens flittering through in waves thoughout the day. They do a great job of cleaning up all the little pests and grubs, without touching the food crops. It this way we don’t have to use any insecticides.

So here we are arriving at some sort of way station on the journey that we set out on together over 40 years ago.

It’s nice, but I keep in mind that nothing is ever finished, nothing is perfect and nothing lasts.