Gardening and Preserving

We have lived here in the Southern Highlands for 40 years now. We have a large vegetable garden which is now completely under wire cover to protect our hard work from all the various birds and other animals that have come to live here with us, because we have created such a bountiful place. We grow all our own green food and have about 80 fruit trees in three orchards situated around the property.

We don’t use any pesticides or poisonous sprays. We are fully organic in our gardening practices. We fertilise with our chicken manure that we have composted well with weeds and trimmings. We have several compost heaps all around the property, This is because we have a very large garden spread over the 7 acres and we don’t like to cart compost all around the block, so we make several different heaps, so that there will always be one near where we are working.

The only sprays that I use are home made garlic spray or organic oil that I use on the waxy scale, or the leaf miners on the citrus leaves. We also use a little lime to sweeten the acid  pH in the soil.

Caring and Fine Tuning

We have been away researching and studying, but we are home again now and settled in and it’s good. We are over our jet lag and are coming to terms with the fact that we probably won’t have our jobs in the art school any more. It was only one day a week – casual, but the 36 days a year brought in a small contribution to the budget. It was more than this though. It was a chance to get out and talk to other potters about the subject that we love and are committed to.

The cuts are shocking, severe, comprehensive and will start immediately. No real warning. None of this was on the horizon when we left. The bean counters are getting their way, they don’t care. It’s all about efficiency, or so we’re told. We have to Down-size, Out-source, Value-add, be Cost-effective, fine-tune our operation and all the other meaningless economic irrationalist mealy-mouthed double speak. Someone once asked me what bean counters use as a contraceptive?

Answer; They use their personalities!

Well what can a post modern peasant do? We head for the vegetable garden and have a good look around at our resources. We have the remnants of our winter garden that is mostly going to seed, but there are still a few remnants of broad beans, cabbages, celery, native spinach – Warragul greens, carrots, parsnips, garlic and onions. There’s enough there to keep us going for a while, but much of it is well past it’s best. Janine chooses some magnificent leeks and eshallots for a leek pie for dinner. IMG_9393In an effort to fine tune and value-add our resources, I collect 10 kilos of beef bones from the local butcher, I roast them gently for 2 hours in the oven, then simmered in water for 6 hours, then separated and a mirepoix of some of those past-their-best veggies added and simmered again on the wood stove all evening. I do some fine tuning, adding a pinch of salt, a palm full of whole pepper corns, a sprig of bay, reduced to half, strained and simmered down again the next evening to a litre of vegetable and marrow-bone jelly concentrated stock. After cooling, I skim off the thin layer of fat from the top, then divide and freeze for later use. I hate waste, so getting to use up all this food is very rewarding and it’s all been dug, planted, grown and harvested with my own knarly hands. On site, here in this place. Just like my ceramics – because I care.

IMG_9392If I’m going to have a reduced income, I’m going to have more time to reduce these vegetable over-heads, concentrate our stocks and value-add to our flavors. We may end up being poorer, but by-god we’ll eat well! and I haven’t even started to count our beans!

The Brandeburg Orchestra is in town to play a small concert in our local church. They play baroque music on original period instruments. The music is beautiful, but more than that I feel an affinity for the fact that someone is doing this. Going to all that trouble, to get an authentic expression in an art form. I feel a link between my chosen path in life using only local materials to make my ceramics. Choosing to limit my diet somewhat by deciding to grow all my green food onsite here in this way – organically. It takes a lot of time and effort to do this and it really is worth it as far as I’m concerned. No body else in this village even knows, never mind cares. It’s a personal thing. I care. I’m trying to use the gifts and skills that I have to be the best that I can be in this life. Always fine tuning.

The weather has been hot today, we had a thunderstorm in the afternoon and now it’s quite cool this evening in this pretty little church. The temperature variations and humidity plays havoc with these old wooden instruments with their hand made gut strings, meaning that they have to stop and do some fine tuning after every piece. They make sure that the sound is as beautiful as it can be. It takes time. It’s not efficient. It’s an art. It’s because they care.

with love from Steve the chronically inefficient gardener and counter of the beans that he grew himself – and The King is in her Counting House.

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Summer fruits and our own marmello pie.

We are in the throws of dealing with the early summer harvest. This summer, there isn’t as much to do as there normally would be, because we have been absent for the winter and early spring, there aren’t so many things to pick from the garden. At this time of year, there would normally be a host of early salad vegetables, but because we are only just back, the garden was late being planted, so the only thing that we have managed to harvest so far from our recent plantings are early, very small, red radishes. Which are really piquant, peppery and delicious and some very small but colourful lettuces in red, brown, pink and

various shades of verdant green. IMG_9437IMG_9441The produce that we have to deal with at this time are all the early perennial fruits like peaches and Youngberries. We spend half an hour in the morning with our visitors from Switzerland, Moni and Stefan picking Youngberries and later with Martina from Litchenstein. We are only picking the biggest, blackest and ripest fruit. We pick 5 kgs of berries in no time at all. This can be repeated almost every second day for the next couple of weeks. Our little 6 metre patch of berry canes are very productive and have been for the last 36 years. Back in the seventies, when we were given the first canes to plant. We found that we could expect to get only the first few early berries that were red enough to pick on Xmas morning. We could get just enough to fill a small bowl for Xmas lunch. The real bulk of the harvest came later in January. Now with global warming, the first berries are picked a whole month earlier and the harvest is all but over by Xmas day. You may not believe in global warming, but you can’t fool a Youngberry. Of course there are far too many for us to eat fresh as soon as the main harvest comes on with the summer heat. We gorge ourselves for the first few days, as is normal for all new and fresh tastes, but then the novelty wears off as our bodies soon tell us that we have enough vitamin C and we must deal with the bulk of the fruit productively, so that we will be able to spread out the enjoyment into the rest of the year. IMG_9443The Queen of Hearts, or in this instance, the King of Youngberries makes Youngberry sorbet for the freezer, while I fill a boiler with the rest of the fruit and nothing else, reducing the fruit down in its own juice. They cook down soon enough. I heat them until they just come to the boil and keep them on a moderate heat for a few minutes, then spoon the hot pulp into sterilised glass jars that have been heated in the oven. The jars are sealed with ‘pop-top’ lids that have also been sterilised in boiling water. Filled and sealed like this while still hot, the whole lot cools together and vacuum seals itself. I go out to the garden while the fruit is simmering and when I return, the kitchen is filled with a steamy delicious smell of hot, sweet, acidy fruit fragrance that makes my mouth water with anticipation. I expect to see the Knave of Hearts appear at the kitchen window any minute, also drawn by the smell. This delicious bounty of our long term efforts is stored away in the pantry shelves for later in the year, when we feel the need of Youngberry tarts or Pie when the weather gets cooler. We used to pick and bottle the mulberries as well, but over the years, we have decided that we much prefer the Youngberries, and so concentrate on those.

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Youngberry pie for the desert.

Place all the youngberries in a big pan and bring to the boil, let cool a little and then strain off the liquid for use as drinking juice. Mix a spoonful of sugar for each kilo of fruit pulp – I don’t like it too sweet. Mix a light sponge batter and pour over the top of the fruit in a metal baking dish, and bake at 190 degrees for 45 mins or until the crust is golden.

IMG_9469IMG_9470IMG_9471 It’s tangy and sweet with just the right balance of acid and sugar. And it’s just so easy to eat. I can’t help but think of the marmello fruit tart that we had a slice of in Bavagna in Italy. Janine deals with the days peaches sorting out any bird damaged or bruised ones for stewed fruit which will be frozen for later. If there is a larger quantity, we will vacuum seal them for longer term storage. Vacuum sealing in glass jars takes a lot more time and effort on our part, but takes less energy in total because vacuum sealed glass jars keep for very long periods, even years, without spoiling and there is no further energy required after the initial heating, which we mostly do on the wood fired kitchen stove. Fruit stored in the freezer is always vulnerable to power-outages, which we often get out here in the bush and there is the ongoing cost of running the fridge/freezer. We have chosen not to own a separate freezer because of the high energy cost that is associated with running it. We make all our own electricity and in fact we make more than twice as much as we need, selling the excess back to the grid, so we could afford to run a freezer, but why waste this energy that could be put to much better and productive use, when vacuum storage works so well. We keep the small freezer compartment in our modest domestic fridge for foods that require to be stored without being cooked, like fruit sorbet or basil pesto. We are down to the last two tubs of pesto from last years crop that made a dozen or so tubs, so perfect timing there. Had we not been away in europe, we would have run out about now. IMG_9455This years basil plants are up and starting to grow. With the 30 degree heat of last week we found ourselves out watering the garden twice daily, morning and night so as to get the tender young seedlings through the heat of the day and then to give them a chance to recover overnight in time for the next onslaught of heat. In any normal year, our little plants would be much more advanced and established by now before this level of heat stress, but the few months spent working in europe were worth having a late summer garden and all this hot weather and summer fruit is so much a part of our Australian summer for us here.

with love form the Knave and his Tart.

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Preserving Practices and Practicing Preserving.

It’s that time of year again. The first week of February, it’s autumn and we are out in the orchard picking the apples for cider making and quinces to preserve. The yearly cycle of jobs comes around with the season. At this busy time of the year, pottery making and kiln building must take a back seat to these other very important natural jobs. We have gone through the orchard cycles of pruning in the winter, watering and fertilising in the spring and netting the trees in the summer and harvesting in the autumn. It is at this time, as the fruit starts to turn colour, that the birds start to take an interest. The parrots will fly in and peck holes in the fruit. Principally to get at the seeds inside, once the fruit is opened or fallen to the ground, the bower birds will take over and mostly finish off the fallen fruit. I don’t mind this. Once the fruit is fallen, I like to see it completely eaten. It used to annoy me that the parrots would ruin the fruit only to get the seeds. But now that we have a healthy flock of 30 or more bower birds established here in the garden, nothing gets to go to waste. I’d be happy to get the fruit and peel and seed it for cider making, as we don’t want any apple seeds in the brew. We collect the juice for the cider and put the pulp and seeds back out on the compost for the parrots. Now we are both happy, but of course it doesn’t work like that.  In nature, it’s winner takes all and the vanquished gets the left overs – if there are any. We have had to make a lot of effort and taken pains to make all this system work for us. We have had to net our vegetable garden with a permanent frame covered with wire netting. We chose to use 60 mm hexagonal galvanised mesh. This choice was made on the basis of the bird size. We wanted to keep all the bigger fruit eating birds out, while letting all the smaller insect eating birds through. This has worked out quite well. Of course there are some younger and smaller fruit eating birds that get through the mesh at times throughout the year. However, in general this system has worked for us to our satisfaction. We now get most of the vegetables that we plant. We have not yet got around to building the very much larger, taller and more expensive frame that is required to cover all the fruit trees in the orchard. We have settled into a regime of covering the fruit trees with removable white nylon netting sections. This has become quite a big job as the years have passed, the annual cycles turn around and the trees have grown, some so large, that despite the annual pruning, they are now too tall for us to be able to cover with nets, even with the aid of step ladders and brooms. Once the fruit is fully ripe beneath the net, The nylon mesh is painstakingly removed, using a lot of care, so as not to tear the net and not to damage the tree. The netting will always find a sharp pruned branch to snag on, and every fruiting spur that sticks out. It is amazing how persistent the birds are. They just love fresh fruit in the season and will land on the netting again and again, depressing it slightly each time until it sags down within reach of the colourful ripe fruit. They peck holes in the fruit through the mesh, so a lot of the outer fruit is still damaged. If it is starting to rot, we compost it. but if it has only been pecked that morning, we pick it, cut away the damaged section and stew it. Once the nets are off , the fruit has to be harvested that day, quickly, before the birds can get in to do their damage. We make cider from both apples and pears and also a blend of the two. This all depends on which trees do well in different years, it is out of our hands. It seems to be more dependant on the vagaries of the weather, rainfall, sunshine and the timing and depth of frosts. This year, we have a very good harvest of quinces, so we must be busy and diligent in harvesting them before the birds can get them. The tallest quince tree is a ‘smyrna’, and now at 36 years of age, it is far too tall to net, even using step ladders and brooms. We harvest these fruit early, as soon as the birds take an interest in them. They are not fully ripe, but we pick them and keep them inside on the floor of the front room where it is cooler, and in a week or so they ripen up, as do the pears and apples that are also stored in there. It’s not an ideal situation but needs as needs must. It works for us. This year we are experimenting with preserving baked quince, which are put in the wood stove and cooked slowly all evening and night, then left in the oven overnight, as the fire dies down, still cooking gently all that time. We peel, halve and core about 15 to 20 quinces, cover with 2 litres water and 500g or so of sugar, with a few star anise, cloves and a cinnamon stick. We add a cup of port or some other rich and fragrant alcohol. When they emerge in the morning, they are a rich dark crimson red, sitting in a thick reduced fragrant jellied sauce. They smell and taste wonderful, We eat them for breakfast, what we don’t eat, we preserve, as we can’t possibly eat them all in such a short space of time when the harvest is on, so we bottle yesterdays baked quince in ‘Fowlers Vacola’ jars, while we prepare todays new batch for the oven. This is another process after the baking, but it is really worth it to go through both processes and bottling is the most energy efficient method of preserving food for later in the year. In the past we have simply quartered them and bottled them straight in a light syrup, but this only produces and pale pink fruit without the rich complex richness of flavour that slow baking produces. At other times we have stewed them with their skins on and pips in and then passed the pulp through a mouli, This makes an excellent desert fruit or pie filling, even good just straight with a little cream or ice cream. Sometime Janine makes makes a clear quince jelly by boiling them, skins, pips and all and letting the liquor drip through a cheese cloth, to get the clear jelly. The liquor is reboiled with sugar until it ‘sets’. I like to make quince paste, but it takes ever so long, hand stirring the thick paste as it reduces and dehydrates, to stop it sticking and burning. So many ways, not enough time in one life. All our peelings, trimmings, leaves and seeds are returned to the worm farm or compost and eventually back to the trees. Another cycle. This is not just another blog about food. This is about living an independent life, about being as self-reliant as possible on a low income. It’s about thinking and doing, rather than purchasing and consuming. Living this hands on life, directly connected to our food and income through the direct intervention of our hands, brains and emotions has its rewards, it is a privilege, a challenge, an endless source of frustration and at times a great pleasure. Most of the people who live in the village now don’t even know what a quince is, as it is a fruit that has fallen so far out of favour. If it’s not on the menu at SubWay or Maccas, it isn’t food. A couple in the village have planted two quinces in their front yard. When asked what they were going to do with their quinces. They said that the trees are ornamental ‘Manchurian pears’ and that the fruit isn’t edible!  I know a quince when I see one and they most certainly are edible – but not raw. When we first arrived here, to live on the outskirts of this village almost 40 years ago. There was an old couple living on the road side on the way into the village. They had goats, fruit trees and a small vegetable garden. They lived in one of the smallest houses in the village, on one of the biggest blocks of land, about 40 acres. I remember seeing him scything hay in the late summer in the home paddock and her coming after him stooking the hay on ricks out in the fields to dry. It was such a romantic idyl for me, but I bet that their backs ached. This hay making was for the goats during the winter when the grass doesn’t grow so well. To keep goats intensively like that, and going by the size of their udders, they must have been milking them. Too much milk for one couple, so presumably making cheese. In later years, we went and did a cheese making course. We learnt a lot and made some delicious cheeses, but what I learnt from this course that was most important to me and that I have carried with me all my life is, Never get involved in cheese making! Not unless you are prepared to give it the extraordinary amount of time that it deserves and requires. The Monty Python team told us that “blessed are the cheese makers – in fact all the manufacturers of dairy products”. We never did get to know this amazing old “blessed” couple. They were european, post-war immigrants and had brought all their cultural knowledge with them and continued to practise it in this new place. I think that there would have been so much to learn from them. I bet that they knew how to bake quinces, but they left the village before I could get to meet them. I was always too busy doing ‘stuff’ to stop and chat, and get to know them and what they knew. One day, I realised that they just weren’t there anymore. They sold up, retired or one of them got ill? I don’t know. The ‘for sale’ sign that went up told me that they were no longer there. I was so very busy getting myself established here, in that first very busy and insecure year, I didn’t find the time. Now I can only remember that they were really old, possibly in their fifties or sixties! It seems amazing to me now on reflection that I am not over 60. They don’t seem so old at all now! Their names are gone and all traces of their gardens, trees and goats. It’s a sub-division of new homes now. They were old and we were quite young. One of the older ladies in the village referred to us as “the little children who have bought the school”. At 22 and 23, we were like little children to them. Too young to be buying property and to be living alone, farming, potting, gardening and building a home without close adult supervision, or family and relations close by. Our liminal existence here as artists and greenies made us outsiders, just like that old couple, but for totally different reasons. It was the seventies and the old world was dissolving and new ways of behaving, thinking, living and working were insinuating themselves. We were the harbingers of that change here and definitely not that welcome. Our very existence created much unwelcome anxiety. Opportunities were being created and opportunities missed. I missed my opportunity to learn some useful country ‘lore’ from that old couple, some practical self-reliance skills. They seemed like a nice couple, making and sustaining their independent life. They came from a different place with different ideas and practices. No-one in their right mind would be out in the hot sun scything grass in 1970, even if they did know how to do it. You would get a mate with a tractor in to deal with it. Slip him a slab. I think that Janine and I have now become that old couple in the village, sustaining them-selves through their hard work. Preserving old practices. Practicing preserving, Another old couple, outsiders, another cycle. No-one really knows us that well in the village any more, we’ve out-lived most of at the old residents all and we don’t know the new ones very well. People are glued to their computers and plasma screens in their home theatre rooms, life is too busy to take the time to stop and find out about haymaking, pottery making, composting or preserving quinces, or even to find out what quinces are. ‘Twas ever thus, has been and probably always will be. Our new neighbours cycle past on their carbon-fibre bicycles with their kiddies, just as we used to walk or cycle to the village with Geordie. Lifes cycles continue.

with love from the little kiddies who are now the very old couple in the school.

IMG_9801washing the ‘fluff’ off the quinces IMG_9804into the oven, all pale and innocent and full of potential IMG_9803Emerging full of colour and flavour IMG_9802The sweet liquor is just on the verge of being reduced to toffee. It is jellied and wobbly and fills the kitchen with it’s full rich fragrance.
Spooned into fowlers jars, ringed, capped and clipped and ready for the preserving pan. The sticky flavoursome jelly that coats the baking dish is not wasted. IMG_9809Nothing is wasted, the last of the quinces jellied juices are added to this mornings apples. It adds just that little bit of extra colour and flavour.IMG_9810One nights work, the megre fruits of our labours. with love from the Fruity Goddess Pomona and her seedy side-kick Karpo.

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Autumn in the Garden

Well, it’s the last day of autumn and winter is about to begin. We are already lighting the fire in the school room at nights. Of course we light the fire in the fuel stove in the kitchen almost every day, because this is how we cook our dinners. The fuel stove also has a bronze boiler set into the back of the firebox which creates a lot of our hot water. Way back when we built this house, I decided to plumb both the solar hot water panels and the fuel stove into the hot water tank in parallel, so whether it its sunny or rainy, we still have free hot water all year. IMG_0109The day breaks cool damp and foggy, so foggy that we can’t see the vegetable garden behind the orchard. As it’s colder now, we tend to come inside a whole lot earlier in the evening – even in the late afternoon. In the height of summer, we’ll be out in the garden still at 9.00 pm chasing the last of the daylight, trying to get those few extra jobs done. But now it’s not uncommon to be inside lighting the fires at 4.00 pm on a colder overcast day. The garden is still producing lots of food and needs attention, although not quite as much as it demands in summer with the constant watering and bug squashing duties. Not to mention the endless weeding. In these shorter cooler days, things grow slower, as do the bugs. With less heat, there is less of a need to water everyday. As long as I do the brassica rounds at least every 2nd day and explore deep into the heart of the cabbage, Brussels sprouts and broccoli plants to search and destroy all the white cabbage moth caterpillars, then the basic maintenance is done. Our biggest problem these days comes from a Blackbird that has moved into the area and loves to squeeze through the wire netting and then proceeds to excavate the deep fertile mulch of rich compost that I put around all the vegetables. His excavations can wipe out a whole square meter or two of tiny carrot, parsnip or onion seedlings in a single morning. I’ve been forced to put fine wire netting covers over those beds of tiny young seedlings, so as to allow them to survive long enough to get their roots down and become sufficiently substantial, so that they can’t be carelessly dug out by the blackbird in his search for worms. IMG_0108I have made an effort to spend a little time in the orchard doing some pruning, maintenance and a bit of re-planting. As the trees are approaching their 40th year. They need a little bit of TLC. Some, like the peaches and cherries have died of old age already and have been replaced. In fact we are on to our third generation of peaches now, but the apples and pears are very long lived and still look in their prime. IMG_0079We made a rash decision to buy 10 blueberry bushes the other day, when they were on special at the nursery in small pots. I say rash because I wasn’t thinking at the time how much space they would require and therefore how much work it would take to prepare that much ground. We love blueberries. They are a really special treat every now and then. We could easily eat more of them, but for the expense. So they remain an occasional special treat. I haven’t figured out why they are so very expensive.  The label on the plants says that they bear prolifically! But they are delicious, so we’ve decided to give them a go. Blueberries like a deep rich, acid soil with loads of humus that is very well drained as well as being well watered!. It doesn’t sound like our garden at all! They prefer to grow in acid bog land with pure spring water constantly flowing. Apparently, they don’t like stagnant wet feet, and they don’t like to have any minerals in the water, bore water will kill them. That’s OK, we don’t have a bore, we use dam water. However, it remains to be seen if it will be suitable. Maybe it’ll be too muddy. Only time will tell. When we first came here so many years ago. There was a bloke at the other end of the village, who planted a blueberry orchard of 5 or 6 acres. All under netting, as a cash crop, and although they grew well initially, they only lasted a few years and then they started to die off. I think that from memory, he was using bore water for irrigation. After a few years he was gone, and the place pulled down and sold off.

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Once I got home and completed some research. I realized that I was in for a 3 day job, to clear, dig-over, compost and de-weed the couch grass from the site. The label tells me that blueberries like to have up to 2 meters between them to thrive. Our soil is naturally acid, so to fertilize and build up the organic matter in the soil. I go to the local chook farm and get a ute load of deep litter/chicken pooh. Which is essentially, wood shavings and chook pooh. Ideal! This will fertilize them and keep the soil acid. The planting information also recommends mulching with saw dust. Well that’s no problem, that is something that we have plenty of, saw dust from the chain saw where I have been milling logs for both furniture making and for kiln fuel. We have cubic meters of fine pulverized wood pulp from around the splitter in the wood shed. We have to dig out the floor of the wood shed from around the splitter every year to return to basic ground level, otherwise the place would fill up. There is also the large bin of wood shavings up in the barn where I do my wood work and make my chairs. Ideal mulch for these plants. I prepared a row of 24 x 2 meters on a gentle slope down the side of the vegetable garden Between the vegetables and the almond grove. Almost 50 sq. meters in all, and by the end of it I was starting to think that maybe I don’t like blueberries all that much anyway. Perhaps they are really quite cheap in the supermarket? Anyway, it’s all done now and so am I. Now that I’m a bit older, I’m starting to feel the strain of all the bending and digging on my back. I need to start to think things through more. To give myself a bit more space to get all this work done. Three days in a row was a bit too much. Easier thought of than actually implemented though of course! It hasn’t stopped me either. We just bought 4 Feijoas. What was I thinking? We planted one feijoa tree about 40 years ago and it has been growing along steadily it its little spot there behind the house for all this time. Because it didn’t have any fruit on it, I even forgot what sort of tree it was and just got used to ignoring it. I have no relationship with the fruit. It does have lovely red flowers on it though. Janine on the other hand hadn’t forgotten what sort of tree it was, and every now and then she would give it a prune and a bit of compost. Janine was introduced to feijoas in the 60‘s when she spent a year as a high school exchange student in New Zealand. Feijoas are very popular there and are a common back yard fruit, she remembers them fondly from that time. Suddenly last year, in it’s dotage, our tree decided to set a crop and my! How fantastic they taste. That wonderful combination of sweetness and acid juice. It flowered and fruited again this year. WOW! So now we have 4 more small plants sitting outside the back door waiting to be found a place in the garden for their permanent home. I certainly hope that they don’t take another 40 years to come to fruiting. I don’t have that long! We showed one  of the fruits to Geordie, when he called in last week and he casually mentioned that there is a large tree just like that one growing alongside the house he rents in Mittagong. The fruit just drops onto the ground. No-one seems to be interested in them. So we called in the next time we were down in Mittagong and sure enough, the concrete driveway was littered with them. Unfortunately all a bit past their best, but we found a few undamaged ones that were still fit to eat. When I read the label on our new Feijoa plants, I see that the label calls then feijoa/pinapple guava. Hang on a minute. I’m confused! Aren’t they different plants? We compare the leaves to our own tree to the seedlings and they are pretty much the same. The picture of the fruit on the label looks right too. I do a google search and decide that the label is wrong. Pineapple guava, although related, is a completely different fruit. These are feijoas. All I have to do now is find a spare couple of days to prepare the ground for our new feijoa hedge row! We are actually potters. We’re supposed to be making pots, and we are, but the garden feeds us – and our friends, so it must be wooed, loved and caressed. It’s not so much a job, as a labour of love. A constantly fluctuating relationship between our various works, the work of Mammon for the money that we all must earn, but hopefully not too much of that – just enough to get by will do, and the creative work that we love in the pottery and the garden. We must feed our bank account, but also our spirits and our bellies. It’s a balancing act. I have three shows coming up this year, so I must have a few very nice pots to show. Of course there is the special box of pots that I’m always adding too stowed away in the pottery where all my best work goes. So that I always have the best part of a show in stock, ahead of time. In they way, the pressure is alway defused. However, I can’t help wanting to make something better and fresher and lovelier. I’m never happy with my work for long.

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Freshly assembled tea pots drying in the sun.

In the garden there are all sorts of vegetables at this time of year, that are going past their best, celery and parsnip going woody, plus the last of the late summer/autumn veggies, broccoli, capsicum, tomatoes, carrots and pumpkin. I decide to make a large stock to profitably use them up. With the addition of a few bay leaves and some herbs, there is the basis of a really good stock. IMG_0011with some beef and lamb stock bones at $2.50 per kilo roasted for 1.5 hrs @ 200oC IMG_0012\ Then all boiled up with 20 litres of water and left to reduce from 3 big boilers down to two, then one, and eventually down to a single litre of jelly-like stock. IMG_0097What made this batch really special, was the addition of a full bottle of our home grown and bottled 1998 “Grape Expectations” bottle of cabernet sauvignon. It takes about 12 hours of roasting, boiling and simmering to reduce the 20 liters to just one of concentrated jelly. We couldn’t afford to do this if we were paying for the fuel. We do it over three nights on the wood stove while we cook dinner.IMG_0110IMG_0094It was our last bottle of that vintage. It has held up really well for 15 years, the cork was in good nick and it showed good red colour retention. It made a great contribution to the colour, flavor and body of the stock. Everything home grown and cooked using the heat from wood we grow ourselves, with free hot water as a side line. It’s such a reward. I really love doing this kind of thing.

With love from Steve and Janine – living somewhere in the balance.

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Packing it all in.

A minestrone to welcome in the winter. Winter is here and it’s the safest and best time for wood firing. We have had a few firings already since the end of the fire bans in April. We fired last week and are packing the kiln again now for firing tomorrow. It’s also time to allow ourselves a few thoughts of sitting by the fire, reading, keeping warm, snuggling up and enjoying some nice warming, hearty meals in the evenings. During the warm days of summer we grow a profusion of vegetables. We try our hand at anything and everything, not always successfully — a bit like my firings really. This year we grew 4 trellis’s of climbing beans, plus some bush beans. We always have Scarlet runner beans on the same trellis, year after year, because they are semi-perennial and re-shoot and come up from the old roots for several years in a row.  Because we don’t pick every single bean. In our slap-dash hurry to get every job done, to pack it all in. We miss a few here and there. These drop to the ground and self-seed, so there are always new plants coming up as well to add to the planting. After several years in the one spot, we move the trellis and dig over the ground and the old roots perish, but we always plant a new crop somewhere else in the garden that we feel might need a nitrogen boost. So we have had them growing now continuously for many years. We first grew them here in 1976, when our neighbour gave us a few of the beans to plant when we first arrived here. This year we also grew borlotti beans among others. These are a creamy/white bean with a few red flecks. We’ve grown these a lot over the years. I got quite enamoured of them a few years back and decided to only select the reddest seeds for re-planting.IMG_0238 Over a few years of this I eventually bred an almost completely red variety with just a few white flacks. I was amazed that it didn’t take too long to achieve the change by selective breeding. It was an interesting diversion, but I’m not so sure that it is environmentally advantageous to have only red borlotti beans. There must be a reason that they are multi-coloured. They’ve survived like that for a very long time. So as an insurance policy, I still plant a row of ordinary mixed colour borlottis, just to make sure of the survival of the fittest. If anything, I select for the biggest and fattest, hopefully, the fattest are also the fittest. Hand selecting these beans for re-planting is a bit like selecting rocks for crushing-up to make glazes and porcelain body, only the whitest or darkest go into the relevant buckets for processing. That is how I can make both a rich red and almost white porcelain body from the same stone deposit. Everything is selected and hand-sorted. It’s a lot of time spent achieving what appears to be very little, but it is essential for this kind of work. Borlotti beans can be eaten raw when small and very tender, or steamed like any french bean when a little bit larger, but are very good for drying. Towards the end of the summer, we let most of the later crop go to seed and dry off on the vine. We collected these dried bean pods and had a few evenings entertainment in front of the idiot box, shelling and sorting beans. We ended up with three baskets of beans which we put in front of the big north-facing kitchen window for some extra drying in the sun, before storing in glass jars for ‘later use’. It is important to get them really dry, so that they won’t go mouldy during the year. IMG_0072‘Later use’! What’s that? – Well ‘later’ begins now! Tonight it’s cold, we light the fires. It’s time for a lovely warm and filling soup, so it’s going to be minestrone. I was never quite sure what minestrone is or was. When Geordie was studying to be a chef, he told me that what he learnt at chefs school, was that it was any kind of vegetable soup that at least had some beans in it. It’s a very broad definition. It can be just vegetable soup, or it can be based on a meaty broth — most often pork. It can have pasta in it or not, even potatoes. I understood that it was an italian dish that was cooked by the peasant contadini, and was usually made from the vegetables of the season that they had in their own ‘orto’ or home garden, based around borlotti beans. Meat was scarce and expensive, but there was alway dried beans kept over from the summer to be mixed with whatever vegetables there were. Well, that suits me. I can do that. These days minestrone recipes always seem to have bacon, speck or pumped bacon bones in the recipe, and why not? It adds so much to the flavour and we are not medieval peasants. This is the first world that I’m living in, or at least on the edge of, and although I don’t want to be a voracious consumer, as I am committed to a philosophy of minimal consumption and frugal self-reliance, bacon bones are often readily available quite cheaply at our local butcher. The King and I discuss it and although we ought to decide on Siamese or Thai food for the firing, we don’t, We’re not Debbie and Yul tonight, we’re Donna Nina and Stefano, the post-modern peasants. So we stick with the original minestrone idea while we are packing the wood kiln with pots for the next firing, and decide to open the winter season with minestrone. It’ll be a good, warming, easily prepared, evening meal by the kiln. If we make a goodly amount, it will feed us for a few days. We have to get all these pots into this tiny space. It’s a skill, packing it all in, and it takes time to work out the most efficient solution that will achieve the best effects on each piece. Some of these bowls need a lot of heat to melt the rock glaze, others need a great deal less heat. Some need to be well protected from most of the fly ash to allow the subtlety of the natural rock glaze to show itself, while others are designed to look their best with a lot of ash deposit to get the right effect. It all needs time and consideration. I pack the kiln in such a way as to force the flame to do my bidding. If it all goes well the work will shine. Each pot in its own way. Finally it’s all done and the door is bricked up and sealed with clay slurry.  I can’t believe that it has taken me 2 days to pack such a small kiln, only 20 cu. ft. Actually I can believe it. It’s always the same. It takes as long as it takes. It all has to be packed in just so. Miss Contadini steps straight in to the intellectual space created by this kiln packing conversation about food and soup and whips up an amazing minestrone from the fridge and freezer within half and hour — while I’m still thinking it through and pondering the options. I’ve only just put the beans to soak. She pulls out frozen broad beans from last spring, hidden in the freezer, picks carrots and herbs for the garden. She fries onion and garlic in olive oil, till it wakes the dead from their long term slumbers with that exotic fragrance. She drops in a couple of rashes of locally farmed, slaughtered, butchered and smoked bacon. This is just @#$%*& amazing! What a smell. This bacon is a special treat that she had been saving, hidden in the fridge. Donna Nina-fragrancia then adds a finely chopped leek, to caramelise just a little. She uses some of my mirepoix vegetable stock from the fridge, some of my concentrated marrow bone jelly stock from the freezer and a few fresh herbs from the garden. No borlottis, no pasta! The whole thing pulls together into an amazing impromptu minestrone that we devour greedily. Broad beans aren’t the traditional bean for this soup, but what the heck, we have them there ready to go. Our good friend Val, who looked after our house and pottery while we were away, picked , shelled and froze a few tubs full of them as there was a bumper crop in our absence. She ate broad beans until she couldn’t stand to get any broader! Then froze the rest for us. I’m thinking to myself that I can’t let this beautiful treat go unchallenged. I’ll have to have a go at it too, but what really should go into a minestrone? I remember reading Tim Parks book, “An Italian Education” way back in the 90’s. A good read, along with the follow-up title “Italian Neighbours”. In this book , he references what Italians themselves might think about minestrone by quoting an add that he had seen on Italian television. It “shows a young man in a supermarket queue, buying onions, potatoes and various vegetables. The cashier, an unfashionably flashy beauty, plumply pale under the blackest jet curls, asks the fellow if he is making minestrone. “yes,” he admits shyly. And what a sympathetic smile the dear girl has as she leans her big breasts forward over her electronic till to tell him not to forget the leeks. No, don’t forget the leeks….Her grandmother always used to say that leeks were the secret to a good minestrone….So in the spoof everybody in the supermarket queue begins to say what their grandmother put in her minestrone, a huge list of vegetables, some of them most unlikely, with one customer insisting, against all reason, that the real secret to a good minestrone was…..watermelon. Yes, watermelon, in the minestrone! An argument flares up, while other customers who are eager to be served and to get along home begin to shout in frustration, until one woman cries out load, ‘You know what my grandmother did? You want to know what my grandmother put in her minestrone? My grandmother pissed in her minestrone, that’s what she did.’ To which the woman’s antagonist replies, ‘Yes, and my grandmother pissed in your grandmothers minestrone…’ There’s a limit to what I’ll put in minestrone. And it won’t be watermelon! Although all the vegetables in the garden are fair game and as the opportunistic Donna Nina did, I will raid the fridge for marrow bone jelly stock and any other goodies preserved full of the summer’s sunshine that might be in there and which I might find appropriate. I think that as minestrone was a peasant dish, based on the vegetables that were at hand in the kitchen garden, then that is what I will do too, a soup of the season. I won’t be going to the supermarket for any advice from the cashier or other shoppers in the queue. However, I will think about buying some bacon bones, if I see some at the butcher. I start off by soaking a couple of cups full of dried borlotti beans overnight. Left to soak, they swell up and soften.IMG_0140We have cabbage, carrots, leeks, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, pumpkin, kale and parsnip. That’s a good start. I start like Donna Nina did with onions browned in olive oil and while thats warming, I climb up onto the kitchen table so that I can reach the plats of garlic hanging from the roof truss in the kitchen ceiling. We hung them up there to dry out in November after lifting, airing, cleaning and platting them. We occasionally have to climb up to retrieve a plat, as we get through them easily enough. This last year we grew a couple of hundred knobs. It’s amazing, but we get through them. This year in Feb, March and April, I planted 300 cloves, about 100 each month. They are up and growing well now into the winter. We’ll harvest them in October, November and December as they wilt with the summer heat, but before they die back. I love to add a few cloves of garlic to the hot oil just as the onions are starting to brown. Not too soon, as garlic burns easily and much faster than onion. I add finely sliced leek fresh from the garden to soften in there with them and then when it all smells like it is just can’t smell any better, I ‘gloop’ in a tub of marrow bone jelly stock. That I made last week, it really is a firm jelly, but it soon melts into the stir-frying onion mix. IMG_0246Now it’s time to fill the boiler with boiling water from the always-ready kettle on the fuel stove, and drop in the soaked and swollen borlotti beans, the bacon bones, and the carrots. They need the longest time to cook. Plus a good hand full of fresh herbs from the garden. Later, I add the odd diced pine mushroom (Lactarius deliciosus) ‘orange milk-cap’ mushrooms, There are three this morning, picked from the back yard growing under the huge pine trees that dominate the house. IMG_0243Next the finely diced kale, then the chunked, newly harvested pumpkin, and newly harvested Dutch cream potatoes, that we grow right down the back of our block, because we have run out of space in our vegetable garden! The area allocated to vegetables is 150 sq. metres and it’s not big enough! The diced parsnips and Brussels sprouts are added and finally the tiny broccoli. It’s tiny because it is the fourth or fifth picking. The more you harvest it, the more it grows, but the size of each ‘head’ reduces each time, as the number of tiny ‘heads’ increases. So overall the same amount of broccoli is on the plant but it is smaller and more numerous. Finely it is time to add the sliced cabbage and let it all sit and simmer for a while. How long you wait depends on how hungry you are. I give it 20 mins, as I’m in no hurry. This really is a tasty, substantial, and filling soup for a winters night. It is also a quick re-heat for lunch time meals when you come in from the cold wind outside looking for something to warm you up. It smells and tastes delicious. No hint of urine anywhere! It’s Ideal for the kiln packing and firing season, as there is no spare time. We have to pack everything in. IMG_0159It’s 4 AM. I’m down at the kiln shed, lighting the kiln for the latest firing. It is fully packed, everything that could go in is in there. It really is winter just now and bitingly cold, and I can feel the cold seeping in through my multiple layers of woollen jacket, hemp shirt and tee shirt. It’s not easy to get up so early in the dark. When you’re not used to it. You have to want to. It takes focus and determination, but firing is the culmination of all that we do as potters, so this is it. Sometimes I set my phone to wake me, but it rarely does, I’m usually awake just a few minutes before. I could start later in the day, in daylight, but that would mean staying up later into the night and possibly the next day. I like to get up earlier and go to bed on the same day that I got up, or close to it. I can fit in a 20 or 21 hour firing and still work the next day, if I do it this way, so that’s what I do. It suits me and my particular body clock. Madonna Nina will come down later and bring hot coffee, once the sun is up. So for now I’m here, it’s quiet and very cold and dark, with just the crackle of the wood and flames for light. It would be romantic if it wasn‘t so cold. In fact it’s the most intense time in the firing. Most people think that it must be at the end of the firing a full heat, but that is actually quite relaxed the way that we have developed our wood burning firebox and kiln. However, It’s the beginning, now, when I have to use very small sticks to keep the fire small and gentle, and not get too hot too quickly, that it requires concentration and persistence. No time to wander off or day dream. Actually, I can’t day-dream, it isn’t day yet! These little sticks burn quickly and they have to be replaced often and at just the correct time to keep an even heat. I’m tied to this spot for the next few hours. I have all the wood cut, split and stacked near-by. All ready for the firing. I could easily fire this kiln faster, but I want a good long firing for these pots of mine that are in the kiln this time, so starting early is just one way that this will happen. I could easily start later, but that would mean that I would finish very much later and tomorrow, I have a job in the Art School, to pack the wood fired kiln there with the students. So starting early now means earlier to bed tonight for my beauty sleep for tomorrow. IMG_0164IMG_0172It will be a few hours, in fact much later in the day before I can nip out into the vegetable garden and see what needs attention, perhaps a little water, some weeding. There are times towards the later parts of the firing when I can load up the firebox with big logs and get to go to the garden for a while. But not too long. The kiln comes first and it’s far too easy to get distracted in the garden. I return just in time for the next stoke. All is well and the kiln is doing what I expect at this time. But that is no guarantee of success. I must stay focussed and listen to it’s sounds and smells, watching and getting the feel for what is needed next. I could also fire this kiln for much longer periods, for days, like a lot of other wood firers do.  But that would mean working in a team in shifts, it‘s a lot more complicated. I like to fire in my own time with the Donna Nina. I’ve found that this 15 to 20 hour time-frame allows me to burn just enough wood to get the look and feel on my work that speaks all about wood firing, but is very clean and efficient and gives the subtle finish that I admire so much. I’ve spent almost 40 years developing this kiln design, experimenting with all the variables to achieve this flame-lens concept of efficiency and elegance. I’m not too keen on crusty slag and dribble. I like it in the right place, on the right pot, but I also like to make things that can be used and handled without gloves! So I persist and continue to try and make something beautiful, delicate and sensitive. These are all such subjective words that I fear using them. But I know what I mean even if I can’t convey it so easily in words.

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IMG_0129It may appear from the out side that this is a relaxed, easy going, kind of life here. Making pots, growing food, tending the garden and orchards. But there is pressure, just like any other job. But it’s my pressure, so It’s all good. But It’s still a job to pack it all in. Our neighbour Elizabeth drops by just as we finish, so we share a bottle of champagne to celebrate. fond regards from Debbie and Yul, AKA – Anna and Mongkut,  The King and I

The long dark night of the soul-stice.

Suddenly it’s mid winter, and hasn’t that snuck up on us so quickly. Only a few nights ago it was the last day of autumn and now it’s mid-winter. The days are noticeably shorter and the nights are as long as they get. And they are good long nights. We find things to do in front of the fire, reading, writing, emails, or on the very rare occasion when there is something cerebral on the idiot box, we give it a go, but interesting programs are few and far between these days. The only good thing about this sudden arrival of the solstice is that it means that longer days are soon to be on their way, even if they are not that obvious a first. Over time it has an impact and the days lengthen. Although the year is now at it’s lowest ebb, the worst of the winter weather is probably yet to come. But that’s OK. It’s just the way it is. And intellectually, I know things are improving. My firings are improving too, This firing season is developing quite well, just a little improvement with each firing, as I learn what I need to do to get the look that I’m after. Or think that I am? I got half a dozen really good bowls out of the last firing, that are ‘keepers’, and some very good domestic wares for sale. Some nice tea pots and cups. IMG_0381IMG_0373The frosts have cleaned up everything that was tender in the garden and the blackbird has continued to dig up everything that was tiny and fragile, in its quest for worms amongst the thick mulch of compost that I put around all the small seedlings to help them on their way. Unfortunately, at this time, my mulching technique has been a direct disadvantage, as it has attracted the blackbird and so many of those tiny little seedlings are now dead. Half a bed of carrots, half a bed of onions and so many other little plants all scratched out. The blackbird turned out to be 2 blackbirds and I might have solved the problem. My first attempt was to built a wire cage, as large as two tennis courts, 12 metres x 36 metres over the whole garden, that was some years back now. I was just so discouraged by all the bird attack problems, particularly from the bowerbirds – they’ll eat anything that’s green, or so it seems. We tried at first to put individual wire frame covers over each garden bed. 10mm. dia. steel tube frames, 2.5 metres x 1.2 metres and 600 mm high, covered with small bird wire That worked, but was very clumsy and ugly. But hey. It worked. They were a little bit difficult to maneuver off the beds safely, when we wanted to plant, mulch, weed or pick to veggies. So I was glad, when we eventually got the money together to build the permanent roof over the whole garden. We chose to use chicken wire, which has hexagonal holes about 60 mm across. This we thought would allow all the little insect eating birds in through the holes , but keep out the larger fruit and vegetable eating varieties. This almost worked. Unfortunately blackbirds are just small enough to squeeze in through the wire, if they try very hard. It’s not easy, but they can do it. 50 mm wire would have been better. I don’t think that they even manufacture such a size. But anyway, we didn’t have a blackbird problem then, so I didn’t think of it. It’s all up and built and has been working quite well for some years now. Until the blackbird arrived. Blackbirds aren’t even a native here. It’s an imported pest that has gone feral here. I chase the little buggers around the garden when I catch them in there and they eventually fly up to a high corner and squeeze through the wire and are gone – for a time. Until I leave, then they’re back in when I’m not looking. No matter how early I get up, they are always in there before me. My 2nd attempt to rescue my seedlings, was to seek the assistance of the Mademoiselle to retrieve the old wire mesh frames from down the back. Although not particularly heavy, they are far too large and quite difficult and clumsy to maneuver for just one person. We placed them over the most damaged garden beds. This worked, but I could see that I would need 20 of them to cover enough of the garden to protect everything, and I only have five of them. At last I stumbled on the final solution. I went down to the garden two nights ago with my  torch and basket to pick vegetables for dinner. We had been very busy during the day and hadn’t managed to get in there earlier. Stumbling around in there among the wet grass and weeds in the dark, going from bed to bed to collect the carrots, spring onions, brussels sprouts, broccoli, lime leaves and lemon grass, all that I want to go with the baked fish that I plan, when something flurried away from me in the dark and with the torch I was able to locate the source of the ‘clicking’ warning sound that the blackbird makes when it is being chased. I found it high up in the corner of the wire cover where he usually exits, but in the dark, it wasn’t able to manage it. I picked up the long handled garden trowel and gave him a ‘thwack’. And the was it. Bye bye blackbird, bye bye. But not so fast, as I got back to the job in hand and was foraging for broccoli, another one took off from the other end of the garden. Now practiced at the technique it was short work to dispatch the 2ndone to the compost heap. There has been no more excavations these last two days. So until another pair arrive in this now vacant territory to fill the niche, all our food is safe again. I hope that the Saint John of blackbirds helps these little critters on their long dark night of their soul, if they have any, along their way to their ultimate union with whatever there is for a blackbird to be in union with. IMG_0133And those vegetables were very nice Julienned and baked with fish in a fresh ginger, shallot, lime juice and soy simmer sauce. The brussel sprouts and broccoli, were steamed and then sauteed in sesame seed oil and shredded kombu.   fond regards from The Mademoiselle of Household Efficiency and Garden Productivity and her murderous henchman

All stitched up — with a new fork.

I was at the local markets recently. Just wandering around to see if there was anything there that might catch my eye. I like the markets, because I never know what will be there. Often it’s the same old stuff. But every now and them there is a little gem on one of the 2nd hand stalls. Half of the stalls sell cheap imported crap, or bootlegged stuff from Asia. Regrettably, there is virtually nothing hand made locally. Although the ladies Church Auxiliary committee has a regular cake stall and there is always some crochet or knitted booties. However, Just every now and then, someone bravely gives it a go, selling woodwork or pottery that they have made themselves, but more often than not I don’t see them again. The local nursery has a thriving stall, as does the vegetable seedling man. A neighbour of ours had a stall for a few years selling a mixture of imported Asian and her own handmade fabric and felt items, but she too has found it financially unfulfilling. Now the reason that I really go to the markets is because there is often a nice old guy who sells old tools and useful things. Not antiques, not even old wares really. Just old bits of farm equipment and at old-bits-of-farm-equipment prices. I got two chain blocks from him once, a one-tonne and a one-and-a-half-tonne, for $15 each. Seriously good value if you have a use for them — which I had. This time he had 2 old, and I mean really old, garden forks with beautifully forged tynes. These were in almost pristine condition. Virtually hardly used, no wear on them. What caught my eye and made me buy one of them was the fact that they had one-piece wooden handles. I haven’t seen that since I was a boy. These must have been in someones shed for a very long time, kept safe and dry. I have my grandfathers old garden fork. I have used it probably as long as he did. I don’t know its origin, but I suspect that it came over from England with him, post war. He was such a keen gardener. Along with his garden fork I also got his two garden allotment prize winning medals. One bronze and one silver. He kept his family well fed through the depression, by renting 2 garden allotments from the local council in different parts of the town. He worked them at night with an oil lamp after work and at the weekends. I’m proud to have inherited that family heirloom garden fork. Together, we have done a lot of work. I prefer not to dig too much in my garden, as it disturbs the worms, and I’m told, not that you can believe everything that you are told. That Mark Twain said not to believe anything that you read and only half of what you see! It’s probably very good advice. However I  do think that it is better to leave the soil alone as much as possible and let the worms do the work for you. I mulch heavily with composted manure and other vegetable matters, plus spent mushroom compost. it seems to work and the garden has very fertile and finely crumbly soil full of worms, and the plants seem to grow pretty well without much of any other fertiliser, although we do sometimes give a bed a bit of a boost with some commercial composted chicken manure pellets, because some of the newer hybrid seeds like sweet corn are very greedy feeders. Of course if you want to plant and eventually harvest potatoes, then you have to dig, and if you want good carrots or parsnips, then you will need a deep soft soil for them to develop in. This is when you need a good garden fork, but these are just about the only times. So I don’t dig very much any more now that everything is in order, but when we came here it was a different matter. The native  sandy loam here is very hard and full of small iron stones, acidic and lacking a whole range of nutrients. It’s great and perfectly adapted for growing native bush, as it has done for millennia, but those conditions won’t grow many vegetables or fruit trees. So the soil has to be enriched with compost, and the only way that we had 40 years ago, of getting the soil soft, the stones out and the compost in, in a hurry, was to dig it in. We have had 3 different vegetable garden plots here over the years. The first one was next to the house and we eventually extended the house over that spot. The next one was in among the fruit trees in the orchard, but got grown out and was very vulnerable to bird attack. So now it is pretty well fixed, under a netting cover, next to the orchard. Each time, we have had to break new soil to dig in the compost and the garden fork was there, slowly sacrificing itself as I patiently ground the tynes down to short razor sharp narrow points in this stony soil. Last week I snapped one of the metal flanges that hold the wooden handle. I had to take it to pieces and weld the flange back together. It’s good for another few years now, but I had a pang of remorse that I had broken it through fatigue and was determined to see it back in good order. So I was very pleased to see this new/old garden fork in such an unused condition. When I place my old one next to it. I can see that mine has worn down about 4″ or 100mm. and is quite short in comparison, but with razor sharp thin tynes from all the wear. The tool man had painted this new/old one with metal primer. That won’t last too long once I get to using it in the garden. I decide to spend a little bit of time and soak the handle in linseed oil to preserve its life a little bit longer. I oil my old one as well. Out of a sense of duty and in respect of it’s age and status in this brave new world of ‘pop-out’ plastic and ‘made-in-China’ cheap convenience.IMG_0420IMG_0421

I had to replace the handle of Granddads’ fork when I got it. I bought a new hardwood eucalypt handle, made locally but with a galvanised steel hand grip, because that’s how things were back then. It’s just about worn out now as well, so when I went looking for a new wooden handle. I was shocked to find that they are all plastic or horrible softwood  pine now. I suppose that I’m not really shocked. It’s a modern world, but I’m disappointed that I can’t find a ‘real’ one! Eventually I do find a wooden handle in the farmers Co-op. A new spade or garden fork is $10, $12 or $18, made in China, complete with plastic handle and pissy pine shaft. The new Australian hardwood handle alone was $32! I’m not stupid, but I do like a bargain. So I ‘ll surprise you and tell you that I snapped up the hardwood handle, because it will out-last the new plastic one by 20 years and out last four other pine ones, so it really is a bargain. Just as the old one I put on Granddads’ the fork in 1975 has lasted! This new handle will out-last me! I’m not so certain about the $10 one. I bought a cheap one of those flimsy pressed metal things once, masquerading as a garden spade, when I was out on a job and needed one. It only lasted a few months here. The metal spade part snapped in half, before the crappy pine handle snapped in half. I welded it back together, but it is only good for shoveling light soft stuff like saw dust or sand. You can’t dig with it. So I learnt my lesson. I bought the beautiful ‘deceased-estate’ looking garden fork at the markets as well for $40. It’s a beautiful object and if I look after it, it will see me out too. And who knows, I might have a grandson one day who will value it? After following that ‘fork-in-the-road’ of my thoughts, I return to the main thread. Back at the markets, there is the man who sells cotton and woollen yarns, bobbins and threads. I often stop and get something. It’s like looking at a colour palette in those big boxes of yarns. The ones I love most are the thick, multi-strand, embroidery yarns, in little hanks, bound up with two gold paper bands. The colours are luscious and sumptuous. I can’t help it. I just have to buy a few and at a dollar each, they are a very affordable luxury. This week it’s a few different shades of pink, mauve and purple. The last time I stopped, I got several different crimsons and reds. My mother had a few very precious bundles of these rich embroidery threads put away when I was a child. I was never allowed to use them, but I could get them out and look at them and play with them when I was little, as long as I didn’t unravel them. They were precious to her, as they were some sort of symbol, something to her that I was too young to understand. 10 years later, when I was older, as a teenager and at high school, she taught me how to repair my own clothes. Take up the overly long legs of my new blue jeans, replace a missing button, fold a hem, add a patch to a knee. She also started to teach me to cook. At one point she said something to me, the gist of which was; “no son of mine will ever sponge off his wife. You’ll learn to sow and cook before you leave here.” So my real education started. I can cook and I do my own sewing and sowing. So I am keen to get my own collection of hanks of beautiful embroidery threads. If nothing else, they remind me of my mother and darning fills an evening when there is nothing-in-particular to do.

IMG_0274IMG_0275 I like some particular pieces of clothing so much that they are worth repairing. I have several hemp shirts that are up to 16 years old. I keep working in them and therefore have to keep working on them, replacing buttons, stitching up tears. Replacing whole panels that have worn through to be almost transparent. This hemp fibre  just refuses to give up. It is so hard wearing and long lasting. Work jeans that are made from cotton don’t last the same, 3 to 5 years and they are falling to bits.IMG_0423These are not works of art. They are a creative way of forestalling waste. It’s all part of my philosophy of minimal consumption. Don’t buy anything that you don’t need and don’t throw anything away that isn’t worn out yet. It’s allowed us to live on next to nothing for many years now, and because we don’t spend, we don’t have to earn as much, so we can afford to live on what we can earn from our creative endeavours. Someone once said to me that  “It’s not what you earn, it’s what you spend” that determines your lifestyle. IMG_0422I was wearing one of my repaired shirts to the markets last week when I bumped into one of Janine’s past students. She commented. “Hey Steve you look very informal and relaxed” I enquired why. She replied. “you were always so stitched-up, so formal, so tight. You used to teach all that technology and stuff”. I offered the opinion, ” You mean I’m cold, analytical, anal retentive and borderline aspergers?” Yes! That’s it. You know!  Oops! Well, no not really!  She retracted. “OK, fair enough” I replied. “If you think so.” Well, what I mean is that you look really relaxed now, even a bit hippy and scruffy today — but it’s good! it’s a great look! Just not what I was expecting from you” “Did janine do that sewing for you”? “No, actually, I do my own sowing” “I’m a gardener!” So, now I know what other people think of me, or used to at least. Well, one of them any way. I ask the Madonna Nina, she of the driven snow, just what she thinks? Am I a fully stitched-up, remote, cold, anally retentive, borderline aspy, control freak perfectionist? She considers… “Not all of the time”! I’m starting to feel like Brian from ‘New Tricks’ with his wife Ester. He knows everything, except what’s going on. Am I really Brian to Janine’s, Ester? God! I hope not. And the new garden fork, well, it looks and works a treat.  I love it. The two of them sit well together. A bit like me next to my grandfather. Love from The anally retentive, fully stitched-up, borderline Brian-a-like, under close adult supervision from his long-suffering Nina.

The Fat Bastard.  Eats, roots and pees!

Here we are just past the solstice and already the earliest peach has it’s first flower. I can’t believe it. Doesn’t it care that there are still another month or more of frosts? It never sets any of this very early floral display. I think that it’s just for show. Later, when the frosts are over, it will set fruit and will be in line with the other two early peaches. It’s such a waste of energy on it’s part, but it is lovely to see that first flower. If nothing else, it’s a symbol of the return to warmth. And any beauty is worthwhile, just for it’s own sake. Nothing else. There was a time when all the stone fruit trees needed a good frost or two to make them fertile. However, I have noticed lately that some varieties are now bred so that they don’t need to be frosted. Apparently, for all the old varieties, what it is fashionable to call ‘Heritage’ varieties. If these plants don’t get enough hours of below zero weather over the winter period. They won’t develop the enzymes or other chemicals in their wood to enable them to set the fruit. My Grandfather was a very good gardener, and he had an apple tree in his garden up in Sydney, only a few kilometres from the beach, where it never frosted. That tree grew very well and was strong and healthy, but it never had an apple on it, – ever. Not in twenty years. He would have been amazed by the new warm weather apples! We on the other hand are still growing our old ‘heritage’ varieties of apples and get fruit almost every year, except in the worst years of the draught, or when the birds are particularly ravenous! IMG_0464IMG_0436Seeing that it is that time of the year, the poly-nominal Nina, she of the many names and skills, gets stuck into the asparagus bed and cuts away all the dead and dried ferny tops, then weeds and mulches it all. It has a lot of couch grass through the bed, which it is impossible to weed out, because the roots go deep and we would kill the asparagus if we were to excavate down to get it all. I wonder what they do in industry?  I don’t know, but I bet that it involves poisonous sprays? We’re not going to do that . We’ll just have to put up with the couch grass and a reduced crop. IMG_0437Back in 1977, we went shares with two neighbours to buy a bulk purchase of 100, three year old crowns of asparagus. Asparagus can be grown from seed very easily, but growing from 3 year old crowns puts you 3 years ahead. So we agreed, It was the cheapest and fastest way to get an asparagus bed established. We planted our share of just over 30 crowns in a long trench filled with plenty of compost. They were an old variety called ‘Argenteuil’ from memory? I don’t remember where our neighbour got them from. I wasn’t involved in the selection or purchase. We were just there to make up the numbers, so as to get the price down. We were the new kids in the village in those days and were trying to fit in. Those plants did very well for us and grew vigorously for many more years than we wanted them to. Apparently asparagus can grow for up to 20 years. We only had that vegetable garden in that spot for 10 years. We eventually built our house well into and over most of the garden and the house cast a severe shadow over the rest of it, so we had to relocate the vegetables to a better place. Asparagus can’t be dug up and moved once it is established, or after the fourth year. So we left it where it was. That asparagus trench ended up in the edge of the cherry orchard as it expanded up towards the new house extension, and the spears came up every year in amongst the fruit trees. They got mowed over in the summer, so didn’t get to rebuild the root vigor during the autumn and eventually died out. Asparagus needs to be left to grow its ferny top once the cut spear size gets down to 6 to 8 mm in dia. Otherwise the plant can’t generate the energy to rebuild the large fleshy root system for the following years growth. When we moved the vegetable garden over to the other side of the house and into the stone fruit orchard we bought some new crowns to get started again, as well as planting some seed. This time we grew ‘Mary Washington’, because that was what there was for sale at the nursery. It grew well too. This part of the orchard eventually ended up as part of the back driveway around the orchard. Those asparagus popped their heads up every year between the tire tracks, even after we abandoned that part of the orchard. Those plants were driven over and sometimes mown. They persisted for some years, it has all gone now, but it took a long time. We decided to start our third attempt at a vegetable garden where it is now, completely under a wire mesh, bird proof cover, so it won’t be moved again. At least I hope not! This latest asparagus bed was grown from our own seed about 15 years ago and as asparagus can’t be transplanted, we had to start from scratch again with this bed. After 15 years now, this bed is getting a bit over grown and the plants are too crowded, having been inter-seeded over the years. Now they are too crowded to do really well. Perhaps I should dig the bed over and get out the couch and start again with new, well spaced crowns. Perhaps I will, but not till I have an alternate supply of asparagus corms established. We decided to expand the crop a little by starting a new planting in the bed next to where it is now. We buy a few crowns of UC 157 variety. Doesn’t that sound so lovable and cuddly? I much preferred ‘Argenteuil’ or ‘Mary Washington’. UC157 is a modern hybrid, that is supposed to be immune from the rust disease that can attack asparagus, but we have never had any trouble with that. I think because we are quite isolated here and we don’t mono-crop. Still, it will be interesting to see the difference between the varieties. We visited my only friend, Jim Black, earlier in the year and he had the most prolific and thick asparagus in his garden. He said that it was a new hybrid called ‘Fat Bastard’, I’ve had a hunt around and found some, so now we will also try a small row of The Fat Bastards and see what they do for us here as well. Then, after they are established, maybe I’ll get around to digging out the couch? Asparagus has that wonderful flavour when steamed, that we all love. It’s one of those special seasonal things that we look forward to so much, but don’t mind leaving behind when it’s cropping time is over. It can be eaten raw, but we don’t, because I grow it in a bed of rich manure and compost, and I don’t like the idea of what that might entail. I prefer to see it well cooked. The water that it is cooked in makes a great addition to stock or kept as a soup base. It is supposed to be very good for the kidneys, acting as a diuretic. Our friend and neighbour John Meridith always drank the asparagus water after it cooled a little. Now I’m told that Asparagus has the amazing effect of changing the smell of ones urine, but not everyone is aware of this, because this ability, to smell asparagus flavouring in urine is dictated by genetics. So some people don’t get it – lucky them! I am always amazed how fast the asparagus smell appears to me after eating it. Now I’m not too sure as to whether, the genetic trait to identify asparagus in urine is because; A/ Everyone who eats asparagus produces asparagus scented urine, but only those lucky ones with the genetics actually has the ability to identify the smell, or B/ Only those with the special genetic ability actually react with the asparagus in some way to make the exotically fragranced pee? Not too sure! Because I only have a study sample of two individuals. ‘She of the Driven Snow’ and my wicked self, to do my research on, my figures are a bit shaky, so I won’t be publishing my results any time soon. And it looks like it’s going to stay that way for some time as I can’t see myself asking other individuals to come to dinner in the spring so that I can serve them asparagus and then ask if I can smell their pee for them, after they do, so that we can compare notes! It could work?, but I’m not going there! I’m just happy that all the digging and planting are done now and we can look forward to the upcoming edible rewards of our handiwork in the spring. Asparagus, pees and peas please. All those specifically fragrant rest stops! Ahh! While we were in the garden and I was leading Bella-Nina down the garden path, I realised that the path was desperately in need of another good weeding, As I looked closer, I could see that there were significant patches of couch grass that had got away in there over the summer and it was now fully entrenched under cover of the clover. If I don’t deal with this now, it will be a real nightmare in the coming warm weather. So the big job that I have been putting off began. The whole path down the middle of the garden has now been dug over and all the couch, and everything else, has been removed. To stop the grass growing back in a hurry, I decided to mulch the path with some old rotted hard wood saw dust from the timber yard. I decided also that it was time that I dealt with the 3,000 A4 pages of my PhD thesis that has been sitting in the office area for almost 10 years now. I haven’t looked at it since I put it there, I don’t need it anymore, so out it goes. It makes a good substrate for the sawdust when laid down in an overlapping kind of way several pages thick.

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My parents always maintained that education would be a benefit to me in my life. And so it has. My thesis has finally come in handy. This is the first tangible proof of practical benefit that I can see so far and I look forward to the next one! I’ve renamed the garden path as “The Philosophers walk”.

Of figs, filberts, fertility and fungus

We have two fig trees next to the cherry orchard, not too far from the original asparagus trench. We planted them in 1976 when we first arrived here. We did a lot of planting in that first year. Thank goodness we were young and had the energy. Turning a couple of acres of wild bush into a cultivated vegetable garden and an orchard was an insane amount of digging. Those figs, a white Genoa and a brown Turkey. Have never done well. Perhaps it’s because they are smack bang up against a huge eucalypt tree? Not too surprising really. Having spoken with friends who also have figs, we agree that there is a lot of natural variability in figs. Two trees of the same name growing side by side can have very different fruit characteristics. I don’t give a fig about those two older bushes. We are lucky if they give us half a dozed pieces of fruit a year. We decide that we should try again and plant a couple more, but in a different spot. Those earlier two, not being in a very good spot,  have hardly thrived. They remain very small, compact, multi-stemmed bushes rather than trees. We go with the same two varietals, but from a reputable grower, Flemmings. So we have high hopes. Our first orchard trees were bought from Brunnings nursery in Victoria. We saw their add in the ‘Weekly Times’ agricultural newspaper. It was printed on orange coloured paper in those days. I haven’t seen it around lately, I wonder if it still exists? They were recommended by our neighbour John Meredith, who had dealt with them in the past and gave them a good rap. We ordered a full range of fruit trees from Brunnings, 4 apples, 4 pears, 4 cherries, 4 plums, 2 peaches, an apricot, a nectarine, etc. etc. When we were notified that our trees had arrived at the station, all bare rooted and wrapped in hessian with damp straw. We brought them home and unwrapped them. Everything was there, but we realised that there were two almond trees in with our trees that we hadn’t ordered. We were going to plant nut trees later when we got more time and money. This was going to be our first choice orchard. I wrote a letter to Brunnings explaining where their missing trees had ended up. Surely someone would be waiting for these two trees, that had accidentally ended up in our lot? I wrote a letter, because that is what you did back then. We didn’t have a phone, and wouldn’t have one for another 10 years. Eventually, a letter came back explaining that the almond trees were ours. They had noticed that we had ordered what appeared to be a full set of fruit trees for a family orchard and Mr Brunning had decided that if we were doing that, then surely it was an oversight on our part to have left out almonds from our list. He was sure that we would need a couple of almonds in such an orchard, so he had added them into our order gratis, No-one was waiting for any missing trees. What nice people the Brunnings were. I was quite touched. I googled Brunnings recently, NOT Bunnings, but Brunnings nursery in Victoria, a while ago, but they don’t seem to be in the bulk fruit tree market anymore. Pity, a nice memory. We now have about 80 fruit and nut trees in the garden, with a few more added each year. It’s always nice to scratch a hole and plant something. It’s a positive feeling, something rewarding, full of potential and life affirming creativity.

IMG_1603We go to the local markets and find that as it is winter, the local truffle seller man is at the markets, selling his locally grown truffles.They are $2,500 dollars per kilo! OK, Let me think about that for a while. That is $2.50 per gram and a small truffle is only a few grams, so such a truffle is actually $30 and that’s OK. I’m prepared to pay that for the experience. We take it home and I make an omelette and grate half of the truffle over the top. I bend down and smell the plate. It’s not strong enough I want more, I’m expecting more. I end up grating all of the little black gem over our meal. All of it over just one meal – two plates of omelette. It’s all gone in one go, but worth it. It’s delicious. It was only a very small truffle. IMG_0514IMG_0526

I must say that I’m not all that surprised. We’ve had truffle a few times before in France, another time in Italy and then once more here in this kitchen, when Geordie brought a small piece home from work, for us to try, just $40 worth. This was the first time we had truffle, I’m sure that it was more intense then. Was it just because it was rare and exotic for us at that time? Or was it a better quality truffle? It was a small slice off a large one. I can’t say anything about the quality, because I don’t know enough about it, So I think that I will need to do some more research into this. I’ve planted 8 trees that are ‘inoculated’ with various truffle fungal spores. It will be a matter of time and circumstances, to see if anything comes of this. We have 2 Italian stone pines inoculated with white truffle spores. These are reputed to be the most delicious and fragrant truffles in the world and therefore the most expensive. We also have two French oaks inoculated with ‘Perigord’ truffles. Likewise a couple of english oaks with French black truffles and finally a few hazels infected with the black truffle spores. Hazels are reputed to be the earliest bearing truffle inoculates. Apparently, it’s possible to get truffles within 5 years. However, If you buy 2 or 3 year old nursery stock, then the returns might come on a few years early. We are certainly hoping so. We have about a dozen hazels trees in total. They are mostly just coming into nut bearing fertility now. I can see the tiny, almost insignificant floral bracts peeping out of the dormant branches. The male catkins are large and obvious, whereas the standard fruit bearing combination, of highly specialised buds with just a few small red hairs are almost insignificant. Hazels are a very special bunch of plants. It has taken centuries for keen and observant horticulturalists and gardeners to find the best combination of varieties for cross-pollinating plants, because hazels are self-infertile. Even though they are both of the same family, they always need a different, but compatible variety to get successful cross-pollination. As far as I know, hazelnut trees are also the only trees that are fertilised while they are totally dormant over the winter. They can fall pregnant while they are asleep as it were. Oops, apologies miss! As it happened, you see. well. It was while you were asleep! Sorry!. There are so many varietals of hazel, but so few compatible pollinator combinations. These trees are amazingly specific and exclusive about who they will and will-not be fertile with, and yet at the same time totally unaware of who the father of their nuts might be. There are so few trees that are compatible. They put out their male, pollen-bearing cat-kins in the late autumn and early winter. They loose all their leaves and go into winter dormancy for a few months. The male pollen is released from the catkins and carried on the wind. It is during this time of dormancy that the female flowers open and show off their tiny, discrete, very special and very red coloured female private parts. Fertilisation takes place and they awake from their slumbers ‘with nut’. These nuts then take the rest of the summer to ripen and fall from the tree. That’s how you know when they are ready. You find them on the ground. IMG_6166Hazels also put up lots of strongly vertical suckers and water-shoots. These a excellent for making furniture. It’s one of the few timbers that retains its bark as it seasons. I’ve made chairs from these one and two year old shoots. It’s very strong, resilient timber and looks great with its bark on and only the end-grain whittled down to make the wedged dowel joints.             IMG_6167Finally, hazels are one of the very few species that are suitable to host the truffle fungus, only a few species form this symbiotic relationship with the fungus. We have 11 hazelnut trees and two of them are inoculated with the black truffle fungus. I’m hoping that the fungus will like it here and spread to all the other trees in the truffiere. We also have a couple of french oaks inoculated with the perigord black truffle fungus and a couple of Italian pines with white Italian truffles. Whether anything comes of this venture, only time will tell. Actually I don’t mind, I just like the idea of all that potential. Hazels are the fastest developing truffle trees, so we just might have some in the next few years. Truffles are known to be fussy about their living conditions. They like to grow on tress that are just a bit stressed, even stunted and with a pH of 7.5 or slightly greater. So they are to be found on stunted oaks on dry limestone ridges, in poor soil. Where there are frosty winters and warm summers. They also like a bit of sunlight on the ground, so not too deep into a dense forest, but more likely in around the edges. Once the soil is properly infected with the fungus developing well, in symbiosis with the tree, a bare ‘burnt’ looking area of soil around the trees develops. Once this appears, there is a very good likelihood that truffles are on their way. This burnt looking bare soil is called a ‘brule’ in France, and it is within and around this bare area that truffles are to be found. Growing them is one thing, finding them is another. Traditionally, the French peasants used pigs to find truffles, but only sows, as the female is attracted to the truffle because its smell mimics the boars sex hormone. So sows don’t have to be trained to find them, they are self interested. They also like to eat truffles, so the peasant had to be careful to pull the pig off the truffle before it ate it. A few careless and slow moving peasants lost fingers to hungry, randy sows. You can’t use small sows, you apparently have to have fully grown and sexually developed sows for them to cum to the job naturally. And a large sow is quite hard to pull off good food. In Italy, they have now banned the use of sows in national parks because they were causing too much damage. Dogs can be trained to find them. There isn’t any particular breed that is best, apparently almost any dog can be trained up, of course some will have more natural ability than others. Because there are already three established commercial truffieres in the Southern Highlands as well as many small holders like us. There is now a man with a trained truffle dog available for hire. pastedGraphic_19.pdfHowever, according to the author Philip Oyler, who lived and worked in the Dordogne from the 1920’s through to the 70’s, there are other ways for the cunning and thrifty peasant to locate truffles. Firstly he would look for stunted oaks or hazels on dry, barren ground. He would also look for the tell-tale ‘brule’ beneath the infected trees. I enjoyed his book. ‘The Generous Earth’ when I read it in the seventies and have enjoyed it all over again when I re-read it a couple of times since then. It’s a charming, if dated, description of rural life in the French countryside. In his chapter on truffles, Oyler suggests that there is a third and “most ingenious method” practiced by the local peasants to locate truffles precisely. If you don’t own a pig or a trained dog. He recounts how the cunning paesan will go to the forest or truffiere at dusk, after a warm day. It is possible to scan the ground horizon towards the sunset and see columns of gnats hovering over the truffle fragrance emitting from the warmed soil. A canny paesan, will come armed with a dozen or so small sticks or ‘piquets’ which he deftly pokes into the soil at each promising spot. In this way he can cover a lot of ground before the light fades and the gnats disperse. He then retraces his steps and excavates each of the truffles before darkness falls. IMG_8438When Mademoiselle Fifi and I were driving through France last year, We stopped our car at a high point on a ridge, to look out at the view. While Mmslle Daguerreotype was busy taking pictures of the view. I noticed that there were lots of little scuffled areas in the soil along the side of the road. All freshly dug. While Mmslle Kodak was recording the vista, I followed the trail and noticed three people wandering along the edge of the forest, above the road. A lady with a basket and a man with a dog on a very close leash – almost like a seeing eye dog harness. The other man was armed with a long pointed stick. As soon as they spotted me watching them, they stopped studying the ground so intently and started to wander around aimlessly looking up at the sky and pointing at tree tops. I said to the Mmslle ‘Agfa’, “I think that those people up there are out collecting truffles, just see how guilty and weird they’re acting, now that they know that they are being watched”. If they were finding anything, they weren’t about to let us know. We drove on and left them to it. pastedGraphic_21.pdfpastedGraphic_22.pdf We bought 3 truffles and some infused oil and a truffle infused olive teppinade in the nearby village. All very nice. Although I’d be very surprised if the oil or olive tepinade had ever had any contact with a real truffle. I’m sure that these ‘processed’ commercial products are all made from synthetic esters. They are certainly not very nice, compared to the subltetey of a real truffle. That oil is just too intense to be real. I must be very sparring with it. We shared all these goodies with people that we stayed with along the way as we travelled. Good times and pungent memories. From the Mmslle with the basket and her fungal snouty porker on a short leash.

Short Days and Marmalades

A hotnsticky sweet mid-winter treat It’s the middle of winter and the days are short, so that means that the nights are long, mercifully the days are getting a little longer now, but only just noticeable. It’s certainly not getting any warmer. It was so cold a few days ago that my cars’ windscreen was frosted solid with ice even under the carport. I don’t get any joy from going out early in the frost, so in my dotage now, I am quite happy to sit in the kitchen and write or answer emails, catching any early sunlight that I can to warm me up. It’s the kind of morning when I might fancy a big warm bowl of frothy latte and a piece of toast with marmalade. IMG_0622Now it just so happens that during these short days, this is the time of year for many citrus to bear forth their fruit. The main one of interest here and now is the Seville sour orange. Seville oranges, as the name implies were developed in Spain, but originated, like all citrus in China. Seville sour oranges seem to have quite a short season. So marmalade must be made now. The sour orange is my preferred citrus for marmalade, but other varieties are also very good to have incorporated in the mix. There are so many different types of citrus, nearly all originating in or around China and South East Asia, then traded all around the world over millennia and developed in isolation into different varietals in various countries where they ended up. I think one of the exceptions is the native Australian finger lime. It is endemic here, but distantly related to the Chinese citrus family, because the CSIRO has managed to interbreed other citrus varieties with it to produce local hybrids like the ‘sunlime’. A cross between Australian finger lime and tahitian lime. Every country seems to have their own variety of citrus, like the Italians have Chinotto, Tahitians have their limes and the Spanish their Seville sour orange. I think that the strangest national citrus variety that I have encountered is the Japanese ‘saw dust’ orange. That’s not its name of course. That is just what I learned to call it when I studied there in the 80′s. The national orange was cheap, plentiful and omnipresent in all the supermarkets in one dozen net bags. Bright orange skin and nice citrussy fragrance. It promised so much. But alas, when you peeled it open it was almost completely without juice. All the little segments were there, fully formed, with the tiny transparent globules shrivelled up like dried paper, that should have had juice in them but  didn’t. They were as dry as a nun’s gusset. At first I thought that I was just unlucky, so I opened another one. It was identical. I thought that perhaps it was just this bag, I struggled through them all over a few days. But when I bought another bag and found that it was just the same, I started to think that there was something going on. I asked a potter that I was working with, if this was normal. He just looked at me blankly. “Is what normal”? I suggested that oranges should have juice in them. He dissagreed. Not traditional Japanese oranges. They have been specially bred for centuries to be just like this and this is the way that that Japanese people like them. I was amazed. Like many other countries, the traditional farmers lobby is very strong politically. The citrus farmers had no interest in digging up all their trees and starting again with new ‘improved’ juicy varieties. I didn’t particularly like these dry desiccated, saw dust filled, pretend oranges, but they were cheap, did have some vitamin C value in them and they were a good source of ruffage. In fact, mainly ruffage. I might even say, only ruffage. That was why I called them ‘saw dust ‘ oranges. But bit by bit pressure was brought to bear and eventually Californian oranges with sweetness and juice were allowed into the country and were creeping onto the market and at a very high price, which was most likely a politically imposed sales barrier tariff. So when I finally found a fruit shop that sold ‘Californian’ oranges, I was thrilled, real juice at last. I settled into a routine of Japanese oranges for fibre and ‘Californian’ oranges for pleasure. I was  travelling on a bicycle and had not easy way to cook, so Japanese oranges for fibre and ruffage, Californian oranges for juice and sweetness. ‘Pang-o-mimi’, which were bags of bread crusts sliced off from the white loaves of bread that no-one wanted. These were cheap and all the carbohydrate on needed to peddle all week. With the occasional tray of sashimi twice a week for protein, this made up most of my diet at that time. When Janine and I returen to Japan a few years ago, I warned her about the oranges. However, when we got there, it was almost impossible to find any older style ‘traditional’ Japanese ‘dry’ oranges. The market had been opened up to foreign imports of oranges and the local farmers had lost all their business over night. They were forced to plant juicy oranges to compete. No farmer likes competition, it’s a lot of work to compete, but people vote with their wallets and it appears that the Japanese people didn’t prefer the dry, hard ‘saw dust’ variety of orange at all. It was just a case of that was all they were offered for centuries. With that kind of citrus history, it’s no wonder that they didn’t invent marmalade for themselves. We have 11 different citrus trees and a kumquat, which isn’t really a true citrus, although it is vaguely related and also comes from China, plus the finger limes and nearly all of them make their way into marmalade in one way or another. The word marmalade also has echoes of the past from Portugal, where it was a fruit based conserve, but it was originally made from quince, because the quince is called ‘marmello’ in Portugal. Whereas in Italy, as we discovered last year, and I wrote about in an earlier email. Marmello over there seems to mean any summer accoutrement like ‘blackberry’, but not ‘iPhone’. I don’t know if it’s because I was originally English and was introduced to it early on by my parents, that has given me this taste for marmalade. Apparently there are people out there who can’t stand the stuff. Hard to believe isn’t it :))  Well I love it and it’s one of the things that I look forward to in the winter. Mmslle Fifi loves it to. Ms Marmalade has tried lots of different approaches and recipes. Delia’s’ is very informative and very thorough. Although very long and tiresome. Señorita Citrus has tried them all, and they all take a lot of work, time and stirring, some of them over two days! About twenty years ago, half way through our time here, as we started to get a little bit more settled and financially secure. We bought a bread making machine. This was quite out of character for us, as the only gadgets that we owned were an electric jug (that we didn’t use) and a toaster. We just don’t tend to use many gadgets. We don’t have a microwave or a dishwasher, or almost any of the normal kitchen stuff. So I poured scorn on the idea of a bread maker when we first heard of them, how decadent!  However, once we’d visited Peter and Bobby Rushforth and seen one work, we could see the potential. Not for making bread as it turned out, but for making and rising the dough. I don’t care for the cubic loaf with the bum-hole that the machine produces. But the dough it makes is excellent, depending on your choice of flour and yeast. pastedGraphic_24.pdf  I prefer the crust that we get from cooking the loaf in the open, in the wood fired kitchen oven. I like to make a hand shaped plait or round flat loafs, just like my mother did and taught me to do and just as she learnt form her mother. I can still remember my grandmother coming down through the extensive vegetable garden that my grand father tended which separated the two households. Coming down to see her daughter and to use my mothers oven to bake her loaves. Apparently she didn’t have a suitable oven herself, or for some other reason, ours worked better for bread. I don’t know. I was too young to know the details. These Yorkshire lasses would share a good gossip and a cup of tea while the bread proved and was baked. Perhaps that was the real reason, not just energy saving. It was quality time? The product of the oven was shared out between them, with most of it staying with my Mum and here 3 boys. This was a twice-weekly event. So, I wasn’t interested in a machine baking the bread into an alien cube, but I was very interested in seeing the machine mix, raise, knock-down, re-rise and prove the dough, expertly, at just the correct times, temperature and humidity.  This is the slowest and most crucial part of bread making and needs some focus of attention. We had managed to ruin a few loaves over our time here, when we forgot to come back up to the house in time, while getting very busy in the pottery or garden, to find the dough up and all over the oven. or over-proved and collapsed, flattened out to a dull heavy lump. We used that machine a lot and for over ten years for its dough, it worked well, until one day, it didn’t work anymore and constantly shorted the fuses. It wasn’t economically repairable, or so I was told. So we were forced to buy another one. The great joy of this built in obsolescence, failure and replacement , that would normally annoy me, was that the new machine has a built in jam making program that we didn’t know anything about or even guessed that it existed, until Bella Nina, the resourceful Mmslle of household efficiency and economy discovered it. So this is how we make our marmalade now, and it couldn’t be easier. 350 g of cheapest supermarket sugar, 550 g of whole citrus friut. That’s the recipe list, it’s that simple. Being a lazy sod, I can now make good marmalade too. I hand squeeze the juice out of the fruit, discarding the pips and add the juice and any pulp that comes along with it, to the sugar in the machine’s baking pan. Then I slice up the empty skins very thinly and add them in. place the pan in the machine , press ‘jam’ and come back an hour later to put the recycled glass jars into the oven for ten minutes to sterilise, with their lids in a sauce pan on the stove top to simmer. The machine stops after 1 hr and 5 mins  and beeps to let me know that it’s finished. Out come the hot jars from the oven, the hot marmalade is poured from the corner of the machines square baking pan directly into the jars and the lid fetched with tongs from the boiling water and screwed on tight. It couldn’t be easier. A loud ‘Pop’, half an hour later announces that the jar has vacuumed sealed itself tight and will now keep for a year or two, except that it won’t last that long before being greedily consumed.

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No you don’t have to pre-cook the fruit. No you don’t have to preheat the sugar. No you don’t have to de-pith the fruit. No you don’t have to use special sugar granules. No you don’t have to cook the pips in a calico bag with the fruit. You just ‘frap’ it all together in the machine, go about your business and come back an hour later. I wouldn’t have thought that I would ever be saying this, but it’s true. It’s that easy. I don’t mind spending time at the stove. I like cooking. This is a nice kitchen. Lighting the wood stove and cooking is part of our daily ritual. but if the machine that we already have can do the job as well and maybe even better. Well I have other things to do that the bread maker can’t do – Yet! I have tried de-pithing the fruit and I have tried adding a little slurp of brandy directly before bottling. but these are only minor variations that don’t really show up all that much. The marmalade is good and thick and sticky, both sweet and simultaneously tart, even slightly bitter. Just as it should be in my book. The thing that does make all the difference is the choice of fruit. I personally like to use a mix of Seville bitter orange, ruby grapefruit, tangelo and lemon. It makes a suitablely bitter-sweet and deep orange coloured marmalade. She of the Driven Snow makes a virtuous version using our ‘lemonade’ lemons, that is less bitter and a lot milder and sweeter, which is universally popular with everyone who tastes it. I would use cumquats in my mix if I had some, and I sometimes do, as we are often given some at this time of year, but not this year it seems, and our tree isn’t bearing any fruit as yet. So maybe next year. Something to look forward to.

fond regards from the sour, bitter, not to mention hot, Steve and his oft-times sweet and sticky, Mmslle marmalade with her fragrant pale and always loved homely blend.

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The Hungry Gap.

Even though spring is well and truly here, and almost gone, there is a lag or gap for the garden to catch up with the warmer weather. This results in a shortage of choice in what there is to eat from the garden. The last of the over-wintering vegetables bolt away to seed with the on-set of the warm weather, and although we plan to plant out the summer vegetables as soon as we can, after all the frosts have finished. We still find that there is a gap, when there isn’t that much to choose from in the garden. Before refrigeration, the old-timers used to call this time of year ‘The Hungry Gap’. The time of year when the old plants have bolted and the new seedlings are not yet producing. This year the hungry gap has been widened by the fact that we didn’t arrive back from working in Europe till later in the year, so we were a bit late in getting the summer seeds and seedlings in. Because of this late return, this year I bought a lot of seedlings to get a quick-start in the garden instead of waiting for seeds to germinate. It’s interesting to me to see that the sweet corn seeds that I planted have now almost caught up with the growth of the punnet of seedlings that I planted on the same day. On the other hand, tomato seeds that I planted on our return, have only just produced their second set of leaves and grown big enough to plant out during the week, while the seedlings that I bought from the nursery now have flowers on and are setting small fruit. The red cabbages are about to bolt, so I make some pickled red cabbage for summer salad lunches.

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Two jars of pickled cabbage and a vase of flowers from the cottage-garden meadow.

We were able to harvest 200 knobs of garlic from the 3 plots that we planted in March, April and May. A very nice crop, even though we arrived home to find that they were all affected somewhat by a fungal infection of the leaves. It doesn’t seem to have reduced the crop or the size of the knobs. Although we will have to find a new place to grow garlic next year, to avoid reinfection.

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The first of the fruit to come on were the mulberries, also a very nice crop. The berries were quite large, but lacking somewhat in intensity of flavour this year. We ate our fill and gave a lot away as well. Janine was making quite a few mulberry fruit cobblers while they were on. They are just about finished now as we start to pick the first of the youngberries, which are fantastic, such a perfect balance of acid and sweetness. The cherries only had a small crop this year. I don’t know what happened while we were away, but they didn’t seem to set well. However, we were able to go out each morning and stand under the branches chewing and spitting the stones out as we picked. It’s a spring tradition for us. A lot of the fruit never makes it into the house, it’s just eaten straight from the tree on mornings when the weather is nice. There is a noisy chorus of birds, probably complaining to each other that we are eating all of their fruit!

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The first early peach, a yellow slip-stone, has just finished. We managed to eat the entire crop in just one week, just in time for the second early peach to come on. It’s a white fleshed variety that clings to its stone, even though we bought it as a slip stone. The Goddess of Household and Garden Management and Frugality, managed to bottle a few jars of the early crop and the day before yesterday we picked 3 kilos of berries, sterilised and bottled them into 6 jars, before we went over to the Village Hall for a working-bee to rebuild and re-plant the garden which was destroyed in the recent bush-fires. When the first flush of fruit comes on we can easily pick 2 or 3 kilos of youngberries each morning. Yesterday we picked just under 2 kilos, because we were short on time. This morning we picked 4,400 grams just for breakfast as we thought that they would be nice with the white fleshed peaches and some yoghurt for breakfast. The rest are just simmered to sterilise them and then poured into heated glass jars, straight from the oven. This bottled friut will keep for a few years, but it never gets the chance to last that long. IMG_2855IMG_1339IMG_2859IMG_2862

We have a friend who owns a share in a co-operative cow, but she is lactose intolerant, So Little Miss Muffet, Goddess of Household Management, Garden Productivity, General Frugality and now cheese-making, gets given some milk. We both did a cheese making course years ago, and what I learnt most strikingly from it was that cheese is very cheap in the shop, compared to all the work that you have to do to make a good soft ripened cheese. So we stick to yoghurt and ricotta that are quick and easy. Miss Muffet decides that she will make some cheese with this milk and I  whey in with the suggestion that we try making some Hand-casse, like we had in Hoffgut Appenborn in Germany. It is traditionally eaten with rye bread and washed down with cider — which we have in abundance. Handcasse is a strong flavoured cheese, that is preserved and aged in olive oil and flavoured with caraway seeds. We really liked it.

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Drained, firmed kurds and caraway seeds in mortar and pestle, then preserved in oil. The first vegetable to be harvested from our new, post-German-trip plantings are the zucchinis. Last night we had half a dozen small fruit steamed and 10 zucchini flowers stuffed with some of The Goddess of Household Management, Garden Productivity, General Frugality and Cheesmaking’s freshly made ricotta mixed with a few capers, olives and anchovy, and gently pan fried. I made a garnish of crispy pan fried leeks. All the old leeks are bolting to seed, I came inside to find that the Garden Goddess had picked, topped and tailed 30 or 40 of them and they were in the sink. I stripped them down and over a few hours, I diced them very finely, then pan fried them in a little olive oil until they were golden brown and crispy. I did several batches during the evening until I filled a plastic container, so before bed, I popped them in the freezer for garnishes over the summer. So the hungry gap has closed for us now and summer is almost here. All this self-reliance work goes on hand in hand with the making pots, setting up exhibitions, open-studio sales and kiln building jobs.

It’s all part of the mix.

With cheesy grins from the Post Modern Peasants in the Casa del Kaese René Rennet and his Fräulein Fromage.

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We’ve had an explosion of rabbits recently, since the guy at the end of the road baited his property for foxes. He keeps cows. I haven’t heard of a fox bringing down a cow! But that’s what he did. Now without any predators, there is an explosion of rabbits eating his grass and competing with his cows for grass. So now he’s out in the evenings with his shot gun blasting away at the rabbits. He’s not too bright. We’ve always had the odd rabbit around here, but the foxes seemed to keep them under control. The upshot of it all is that we have an explosion of the rabbit population here on our place as well now. The little rabbit kittens are small enough to run straight through the 40mm rabbit wire netting at high speed, without even breaking stride. I’m having to re-fence everything with an extra layer of 25mm netting at ground level to keep them out of the gardens and orchards. It’s a lot of effort to re-do perfectly good fences with more, smaller wire. I have to do something, because they can eat an enormous amount of young vegetable seedlings in one night. They seem to prefer young lettuce, capsicum and tomatoes, but they will go to any lengths to get to young bean plants. Until I can get to redo all the perimeter fencing I have resorted to putting small wire rings around their favourite menu items. I have moved these wire rings over from the citrus grove where they are no longer required since the completion of the Great Wall of ChinaClay filled gabion wall. We have also called out of retirement, three larger wire frames that we used before we roofed the garden with wire netting. IMG_2882IMG_2883IMG_2884 IMG_2881

Last week we found one rabbit dead in the drive way, after I managed to fence it out of the stone-fruit orchard. It had been getting in there and crawling in under the white plastic bird netting and eating the peaches off the tree. We were utterly amazed one afternoon, to see it in under the net standing up on its hind legs, standing tall and grabbing peaches of the lower branches, pulling them off and then eating them down to the stone. When we walked over to look. There was a pile of twenty or more peach stones there under the tree. I made an extra effort to get the new gate made and the fence fixed. All the other gates repaired and finally we were rabbit proof again in that orchard. I went around and filled in all the rabbit holes and felt better that this was now over. The next morning the rabbits had eaten all the last of the English cottage garden flowers along the drive. They had been avoiding two particular flowers. I suspected that this was because they were toxic, but now they were eaten down to their stems. The next morning we found a big rabbit dead in the driveway. I assumed that it had poisoned itself eating the flowers, but perhaps I was wrong. The next day Mrs Farmer McGreggor-King, found another one. A smaller younger one, karked down in the pumpkin patch. Hmm! Yesterday while I was mowing in around the vegetable beds. I came across three more dead rabbits in the long grass under the almond trees.

No wonder I was having trouble growing vegetables with three of the little buggers getting in there. I thought – lapins lapsed you lithere dead. Three lapsed lapins laying there. I think that I may have made a blue about the flowers being poisonous. I wouldn’t make a very good copper. Now I’m thinking that maybe we have an outbreak of Myxomatosis or Calicivirus? Perhaps the numbers of rabbits had grown dense enough to allow the spread of something infectious? I don’t know, but good riddance to the little pests. IMG_2879IMG_2880 

There are still quite a few around, I can only hope that whatever it is, it is contagious and that it spreads quickly. I don’t want the rabbits to suffer. I just want them out of the garden. Whether it is better to be hunted and eaten by a fox, or die of Myxo. I don’t know. I can’t do anything about either. But our life will be easier without them.

Now, did the little buggers leave any carrots and an onion?

With love from Mr & Mrs Farmer McGreggor

A Letter from the garden.

The heat wave continues. It continues not to rain. The tomatoes continue to ripen and get sunburnt. The cucumbers continue to die off in the heat and the dry.  The corn continues to shrivel and desiccate. Some plants handle the dry and the heat better than others. Clearly cucumbers have a strict upper limit past which they just die! Not room to negotiate. They curl-up, shrivel and turn to dried paper over night. Watering twice a day didn’t help. Perhaps we might have to use shade cloth during the summer months over these sensitive plants in the future if our local climate continues to heat up and dry out like this. Global warming – what global warming? We have tried to prepare ourselves as well as we can. We have dug 4 dams over the years to collect all the ground water that passes our boundaries, some more effective than others. We usually have enough water in the dams to provide us with irrigation water for the gardens and orchards to get us through the summer heat.

There have been years when I had to pump all the remaining water in the lowest dams up to the higher ones to reduce the water surface area and reduce evaporation.

I disconnect the petrol powered fire-fighting pump from the pottery system and carried it into the dried out dam floor, then ran a temporary poly-pipe line up the dam wall and over to the next dam, concentrating all the water up there. I repeated this 3 times until all the water was concentrated from the other three dams into the smallest dam. This provided us with enough water to keep plants alive for another 2 to 3 weeks longer in the summer. On two occasions we have run out of water in the dams all together, having pumped them all down to mud. We said good bye to all our fruit trees and let them wither. Fortunately for us it was only another few weeks before it rained again and nearly all the trees survived. Only the oldest and weakest died. As in life.

We collect all our own drinking water in water tanks, from the rain that falls on our roofs. There have been times when we got so low in reserves that we only had a few weeks of drinking water left, and as it was from the bottom of the last tank, it was getting a bit murky with sediment. We had to ask a group of potters that planned to visit, if they wouldn’t mind bringing their own drinking water with them. It is possible to buy drinking water and get it delivered in a tanker truck. We have never got that low that we have been forced to buy drinking water. We’ve always managed on our own. When we came here, with virtually no money, we bought some 2nd hand water tanks that were very cheap because they were old, and old water tanks don’t like to be moved. These old rusty tin tanks slowly corroded away with age, however, as we settled in over the years and started to be able to save some money. We were able to replace these old water tanks with new ones, one at a time as they slowly turned to rust. I became quite a dab hand at getting inside the old tanks and either cementing them up to extend their life span, or later, using silicon rubber to fill small holes. Of course patching-up old water tanks rarely works, it just gives you a few more leaky years. Because as we all know, rust never sleeps.

Eventually, after 20 years we saved up enough to get a ‘cast-on-site’ concrete tank built by an itinerant tank maker who was passing through the area, several of us in the village put our names down. We all lived to regret it. He duded all of us in different ways. He acquired the nick-name of ‘Tank-Boy’ from one of the locals. Tank-boy never worked when you were watching, he’d turn up, always late, and if I was home working in the kiln factory where I could see him, he’d make some excuse to leave again. I don’t know where he went, perhaps to other jobs, where there was no-one at home. He was completely shonkey. He worked in chaos with rubbish all around him. He had to borrow my spanners to tighten up the bolts on his metal form-work. On the day of the big concrete casting, there still wasn’t any steel rio-mesh in the bottom of the tank. When I came home from working at the Art School all day, the tank was cast. I suspect that my tank has no reinforcing mesh in it’s base. When it was all finished and he’d gone with his cheque. I finally got to look inside to find that the concrete was so badly cast, that there was steel mesh showing on the inside surface. It would soon rust out and crack the tank apart if left, so I had to climb inside and re-render the holes and patches with a special concrete primer and then render the surface with cement. 2 days of work. The final insult came when I found that he hadn’t fitted the tap into the tank properly, just cemented it onto the outside. As soon as the tank started to fill up with rain water, the tap just “popped” off. I had the get inside again and chisel out a proper hole through the wall of the tank and then fit a 2″ threaded brass pipe through the wall with flanges and sealant on both ends and screw it up tight. Then I fitted my own 2″ tap to the outlet. This part is the only part of the tank that is well done and is still working well 20 years later. The concrete on the other hand is full of cracks and ‘weep’ lines. The concrete roof in particular is in shocking state of cracks.

My friend Dave who runs a truck with a ‘Palfinger’ hydraulic crane and moves all my kilns for me, plus other jobs like stretching orchard netting over garden frames, had a tank built by the same guy, a year or so later, west of Mittagong. Dave came home to find the plastic down pipes missing from the guttering on his shed. Tank boy had sawn them off to make support pillars inside the tank that he was casting for Dave. We compared notes and it turned out to be the very same guy. Quite a strange man.

The time for having fun and making pots is over for a while now. I have to find some paying work, so it’s back into the factory/toy-shop to make some kilns to earn some money.

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One kiln finished and ready to deliver with another being welded prior to galvanising.

As it’s February now we are approaching the end of the summer. Everything is ripening and we are very busy in the kitchen in the evenings. The kitchen echoes to the sound of the fermenter ‘blurping’ away as it converts our grapes into wine. I took the afternoon off from kiln building and stainless steel sheet-metal work to harvest half of our shiraz crop. This year the vintage is quite early. In past years the shiraz was vintaged in March, but with global warming, everything has moved forward a month, more or less in line with all our other fruit crops. Since the early seventies when we first moved here ripening has occurred earlier and earlier, and it snows less and less. It hasn’t snowed here in Balmoral for years now and it must be at least 5 years since the Hume Highway was blocked by a sudden snow fall. The shiraz aren’t fully ripe yet, not as ripe as I’d like them to be, but the black birds, wattle birds and the frier birds have found them and more importantly, have found that they can just squeeze through the 65mm hex mesh ‘chook’ wire that encloses the garden. We will need to re-wire the garden completely with smaller mesh, if we are to keep them out in the future. I only want the little insect eating birds in the garden, not the larger fruit eaters. I suppose that we are lucky that it has taken the birds 15 years to work out that they can get into the garden and help themselves. I plan to re-clad the garden walls with 30 mm hex mesh in the future, if fact, as soon as I have the time and money. I already have a 50 metre roll of white plastic orchard netting left over in the shed from when we netted the vineyard 20 years ago. This is enough to cover the top. I have kept it wrapped up in black plastic up in the barn loft, so that it wouldn’t deteriorate from ultraviolet exposure.

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If only I’d known all this when I started!  I could have saved myself a lot of time, effort, loss, angst and money. In my experience of life. I start out knowing nothing and learn as I go, usually by observation and then by asking questions. Most people respond well to genuine enquiries, but there are a few stupid people who think that everyone should know what they already know and respond in a Neanderthal sort of way. I can do without them. I don’t think that they know as much as they think. They say that they don’t suffer fools gladly, but all of us are fools until we get ourselves educated and as there is always something to learn, I’m a perpetual fool. Even experts are fools in another field. There was one particular shop keeper in Bowral that I’m thinking of! The Neanderthals prove themselves redundant in the long run. Mmslle Fifi and I have learnt to live our lives, by living it, on the job as it were, from trial and error –  A lot of error actually, but we persist, and good-will always shines through and it’s been mostly fun. A complex mixture of hard work, fun and the emotional rewards and comforts of that hard work! Afterwards there is always a little bit of time to relax and enjoy the rewards of our previous hard work. We share a glass of home made cider outside under the newly enclosed grape arbor.

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This year we are experimenting with whole bunch maceration for the shiraz vintage. I have picked the grapes a little early, before the birds eat them all. They could be sweeter, but never mind. In a perfect world I’d wait another week or possibly two, but the wildlife won’t allow that. I have two fermentors working. One with and one with-out French and American, lightly toasted oak shavings in the must. I’m trying whole bunch maceration again this year, I have enjoyed a few very nice wines made by this method, that some of my friends and associates have either made themselves or given to me as presents. The product can be quite tannic from the extended close infusion of the tannins from the skins, pips and stalks in the vat. This is not a bad thing. But takes time to soften out. Just about all red wines. Well, actually, all quality red wines, are made by extended contact with the grape skins. The better wine makers who want the best results for their wines also perform a ritual, called ‘plunging the cap’. No, it’s not a ritual humiliation performed on youngsters in british private schools. It’s a way of getting the maximum contact with the grape skins with the fermenting juice. All the colour in red grapes is in the skins. The juice is clear, hence champagne, a white wine, being made from red Pinot noir grapes as well as chardonnay grapes.

With prolonged contact of the skins and sugars, the yeast slowly converts the sugars in the juice to alcohol. The alcohol is the active ingredient that dissolves the anthocyanins that produce the red colour. I’ve read that the red is good for me. I certainly hope so. I like to think so, just as I like to drink it. I won’t know for another year or so whether this experiment has worked well enough or not. It has become quite trendy recently to ferment wines on wild yeasts. I have decided that there is enough at risk in making our years harvest of shiraz grapes into wine without adding the uncertainty of possibly loosing it all to a rogue wild yeast. So I have taken the precaution of using a known, reliable, cultivated red wine, shiraz, yeast.

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After all these last few weeks of dry heat, it has finally rained. We have 32 mm. of slow soaking rain and it is really nice. All the plants are responding well and shooting out new growth.

Mmselle Fifi is out and about in the garden with her baskets harvesting whatever is ready to be eaten on the day, any excess is cooked, concentrated and otherwise preserved in some way for later use.

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Yesterday, she was out harvesting some of the red ‘isabella’ grapes. Perfect for making dark grape juice. So far she has pasteurised and preserved 14 litres of the delicious stuff, so fruity, fragrant and sweet. A perfect drink for a hot summers day or any time really. So far she is about half way through the crop. A crop that we otherwise wouldn’t have got if we hadn’t put it entirely under netting a month or two ago.

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with love from Syrah and Isabella

The end-game of summer, and an anticipation of Autumn and Winter.

First take a leek, or even take a pea.

As January passes into February, these are the months of being busy with the harvest, but also it is a time to be even busier with preparation for autumn and winter. If we don’t start now, it will be too late to get things growing in time before the warmth leaves us.

It’s time to get peas in for autumn and the brassicas in for winter, then finally the garlic for next spring.

When we first came here in 1976 there was a hardware shop in the nearby village of Thirlmere. It had been there since before the war. It was run by the elderly Middleton Bros. Their business was started by their father a generation before them, who had originally taken a horse and dray from farm to farm, orchard to orchard. Selling hardware and iron mongery items door to door, Eventually building up a clientele sufficient to start a shop front in the village. This grew over the years and expanded eventually taking over the three or four shops next to it, until it occupied a considerable slice of the main road shop-fronts. The Middletons eventually sold everything from hardware and building materials through fencing wire and agricultural supplies like fertiliser and chook feed, bales of hay to galvanised water-tanks, household items and small electrical goods. They even had a haberdashery dept. and a tiny supermarket.

On our first visit there we bought a large galvanised laundry tub there as well as a pepper grinder and even ordered our first galvanised water-tank for the old School plus all the plumbing fittings that were required to go along with it. I picked up a hardwood adze handle/shaft which was still priced in pounds, shillings and pence.

The conversation went something like this;

“This says that it costs one pound, two and six. How much do you want for it now?

Mr Middleton smiled kindly and said, “Let me see now. One pound, two and six That would convert as $2.25″

“But this is 10 years later!” I replied.

“That’s OK, $2.25 will do”

We walked through to the haberdashery dept, and Janine asked the lady, in her 60′s then, who had worked there all her life, woman and girl, if she stocked circular section, leather drive belts for foot operated treadle sowing machines. As Janine thought that if anywhere would have one it might just be here. The lady politely replied. “What size would that be, large or small, stapled or bonded?” She had several in stock to suit the various machines that had been on the market over the years!

Mr Middleton stocked real charred-hide blood and bone fertiliser with the blackened fragments of hide, hair and bone chips all in there, direct from the abattoir in those days!

We bought seeds from the gardening dept. and I remember well that he gave me the following advice. That we should plant out the brassica seeds on Boxing Day and trans-plant them on Empire Day!!!! – which is now Australia Day.

So loosely, this translates as germinate brassica seeds on the summer solstice, around the 26th of December and transplant the seedlings once they have their second set of leaves, a month later on the 26th of January.

This was very good advice and I have followed it ever since with good results.

The Middleton brothers were kindly souls, always polite and attentive. They wore aprons over their suits and ties. Card dealers eye shades over their foreheads and sleeves held back from their cuffs with silver, metal, expandable, spring-loaded, sleeve retainers. For want of a proper name. I don’t know what these items of apparel are really called.

They seemed to have fashioned themselves on old-fashioned, out-back, western, casino croupiers. An odd, but somehow comforting, look after a while, when we got to know how helpful, friendly and attentive they were, it just became normal.

I really miss them!

They sold wheat packed in 112 lb jute sacks or 1.5 bushels, that’s about  50 kgs. I only know that I had a hell of a time lifting them into the VW back seat and back out again! They were so heavy. There are somethings from the ‘good old days’ that I don’t miss. They weren’t so good. The new 20 kg bags are so much better.

IMG_3333Rows of cauliflowers, cabbage, broccoli and brussels sprouts a month after planting out and starting to grow their 3rd and 4th sets of leaves and taking their mature form.

We have planted out our first peas, direct sown into the garden beds. Some bush varieties and also some climbers. The blackbirds love to scratch them out, while looking for worms. They are very active excavators, so I have had to cover the seeds with wire netting to get them all germinated. But still, there is a big gap in the middle of the row where the wire didn’t sit flat and the little buggers got in. It’s getting a bit late to plant more now, so we will make do with what we have. I haven’t managed to solve the blackbird problem as yet, they still manage to get into the garden through the wire mesh. I really have to deal with this as we loose so much of what we work for to these little pests. We talk it through together and decide to use the last of the roll of white plastic vineyard mesh to cover the garden roof. We can’t get up on the wire roof now and it will be a lot of work to take the old wire mesh down. I decide to ask Dave, our friend with the crane truck, to lift the roll of mesh up in the air  and over the garden roof. It takes a few hours to get it all wired down and secure, but at last it is done and it feels good, even though we ache a lot from the effort.

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The proof of the pudding is that we haven’t had a bird attack since we put the new mesh up, even though it doesn’t cover the front of the garden fully. Just its presence has been enough to scare the blackbirds off. They haven’t managed to figure out as yet that we haven’t got around to finishing the front side wall. But for now we are OK.

The wine is made and in the fermenters. The fruit is bottled and in its jars. The basil has been ground to a paste with its garlic and pine nuts and is in the freezer. We have had tomatoes in salads, in omelettes, in sauces, in frittatas, in ratatouille. We have made 25 bottles of passata/sugo pasta sauce, all pasteurised and vacuum sealed in their re-usable glass jars. We have 20 litres of ‘Isabella’ dark grape juice, all sterilised and bottled.

The almonds are all in and dried, popped out of their outer coating and dried again in the oven. We have a few baskets full,  enough for the year. No matter how much we grow, it will be enough for the year, as we eat what we grow, and that’s it.

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It’s time for the end game. When it’s almost all over, the last few manoeuvres are played out to avoid the inevitable. Checkmate comes with the first frost.

However, for the time being, it’s time for the drying of the tomatoes. For the next couple of weeks we will be collecting all the small overripe little tomatoes and splitting them and drying them in the oven. They keep well as dried tomatoes and the flavour is just so intense, it’s like eating savoury lollies, once you start, you don’t want to stop. They are great to add to whatever you are cooking as well.

The little buggers just keep on producing. Loads and loads of small, intensely flavoured little red spheres. They sprawl all over the garden beds with no regard for paths or territorial boundaries. They are wonderful the way they are so well adjusted to draw the last solar energy out of the fading sun and soil and convert it into such beautiful, piquant, sweet, acidic flavour.

At the beginning of the season, I just can’t wait for that first tomato to get ripe enough to explode with it’s shocking, warm, mouth-filling flavour, but like all things, it soon becomes common place, and although still wonderful, it’s not so special anymore. Just plain great!

Now at the fag-end of the summer. We are actually now into autumn. These little wonders keep coming, so we decide to dry the next couple of basket loads. I split them in half, leaving them joined at the hip. This keeps them stable on the trays and I place them in a very low oven. The last load, we dried over night in the wood fired stove after dinner was over. The next morning, Miss Summer Ripeness and Fulfilment, The Lady of Mouth Filling Surprises , decides to bottle them in olive oil with herbs and a chilli.

However, this time we are freshly returned from Writers Week and WOMAD in Adelaide and the garden is groaning with redness. It has rained consistently while we’ve been away, so everything has continued to grow well in our absence. A few have split with the rain, but most of them are still OK.

I dry 6 trays of small red tomatoes and decide to make a tomato tepinade, by mulling them all up with some capers, olives, garlic and a few sardines in a little olive oil and wine vinegar.

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In general I prefer to preserve things by cooking them and vacuum sealing them in jars, as this way there is no energy used in their storage, just the energy of cooking ,which is most often done on the wood fired stove, using the waste heat, after dinner is cooked. Anything like these tomatoes or basil pesto may not keep so well out of the fridge seeing that it hasn’t been cooked to sterilise it. We only have a compact domestic fridge, nothing special, so the freezer compartment is quite small, with no ability to keep too much in there during the year.

These dried tomatoes keep for ages, as does the tepinade, in the fridge as long as the glass jars are sterilised in the oven and the lids in boiling water first to make sure that they are clean.

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My. Don’t they shrink!

And the flavour is Oh! So concentrated.

Delicious!

Still they flower and set more fruit, so we are back to making tomato paste this time. Reducing the tomato sugo, down until it is thick and concentrated. Passing it all through the mouli to get it smooth and separate the skins and seeds from the pulp, before reducing it down further. This time I start by browning a few onions in olive oil and then I add a load of capsicums because there are just so many of them this time of year as well. Then a big bunch of basil, a few pepper corns and a chilli or two – whole. They all boil down together.

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slowly emptying one pan into another, and then continuing to reduce the sieved pulp down to a thickened sauce on a low heat with continual stirring to stop it sticking to the bottom.

Once reduced to half its volume, it’s ready to put into sterilised glass jars. Treated like this, it’ll keep like this for a year or two , but isn’t usually allowed to. it’s just too good not to use up quickly.

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6 jars, one night and a mornings work. Concentrated summer in a jar.

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A bowl of dried tomatoes, that would have been 10 or 15 kg of red ripe tomatoes, reduced down to a few hundred grams when dried.

I see at the greengrocers that a mixed kilo of heirloom tomatoes cast $17.50 per kilo. It looks something not unlike this;

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IMG_3233On this basis, we are almost millionaires! As we’ve been picking a few kilos every day.

So much work. Beautiful, fulfilling, rewarding work.

Who ever wrote “Summer time and the livin is easy”, didn’t have a garden!

So now the summer is over and the autumn is here. It is time to think about firing the wood kiln again. The fire bans and the bush fire danger are past, or almost so. So it is time to start to get busy again in the pottery.

with love from

from the dried old fruit and his perfectly matched aperitif

Slow food on fast

Dinner from the garden

It’s dinner time and we have been busy, so busy, that we haven’t thought much about dinner and have no plans, so we will just eat what there is in the garden basket today. That means more ratatouille or variations there-of.  Some onions browned in good local Olive oil. Wow! What a great smell. I just never get tired of it.

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When the onions are starting to soften, I add a few cloves of our fresh garlic. It’s magic. The smell fills the kitchen. I don’t add the garlic too early, as it doesn’t take much to burn it. Next I add the chopped tomatoes, some fresh torn basil leaves. This may be the last of the basil, as the nights are getting colder now.  And then some egg plant, capsicums and small zucchinis complete with flowers attached and a fistful of our dried, small tomatoes. Almost all of this straight from the bushes in the garden just a few minutes ago. I also add a block of frozen stock.  While all this is going on I boil some French black lentils in some of the stock. It all comes together rather well and is nearly all fresh from the garden.

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The only part that isn’t fresh is the stock which has been in the freezer for a few weeks since it was made.  I usually make enough stock to fill two food containers. One I use fresh from the fridge for a week or so and the other goes into the freezer. When the fridge one is all used up, I start to use the frozen batch. I take the container out of the freezer, bang it up-side-down on the kitchen table and out pops the frozen block onto the cutting board and I cut a slice off, then put the rest back into the freezer tray and back into the freezer straight away. The frozen stock, although water based, doesn’t freeze hard. I suppose it’s the oily/fatty marrow bone jelly component that keeps it sliceable. It melts down and adds a lovely rich depth of flavour and mouthfeel. I love this part of our life. It really is so rewarding.

Lentil and vegetable ratatouille recipe – cooking time 20 mins, preparation time 40 years.

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I’m back in the kitchen cooking dinner for The Lovely. She is no longer Mademoiselle Fifi! Having now attained the status of being a woman of a certain age. Any mention of age will be ignored or deflected through to the keeper.  The Lovely, will be eating risotto tonight. I won’t be, as I’m fasting. Madame Fiona(it just doesn’t sound as good, does it) fasted yesterday, as did I. But because she is so svelt and trim, one day is enough for her. I on the other hand, being somewhat fuller of stature and larger of scale, greated in dimension. Not to mention fatter. I decide to do two days most weeks. So I’m fasting while cooking slow food. I’m actually cooking her a risotto, which isn’t all that slow, it’s 50 minutes and an easy meal, but the stock that I’m using in this one is very slow in deed, as are the other ingrediants. I made a marrowbone and red wine stock over two nights with garden vegetable mirapoix. It’s lovely and rich and sticky. I made lamb shanks with garden vegies previously. That being our red meat meal for the month, and I used some of this stock in that. We ate the shanks but had some left over vegies and sauce, so I’m using that as a base for the risotto, its become even richer and stickier with the taste of the lamb and its herbs still present. I add it to the rice bit by bit and keep stirring, it slowly becomes viscous, even glutinous. It smells terrific, but I’m not having any, well just a little bit on the end of the spoon to taste, to see how it’s going.  I’m trying the two days a week of fasting after watching Michael Mosley’s documentary on SBS last year. After a year of this, my weight has stabilised and even dropped a little, so that’s not too bad. I started last April after watching the documentary. I was 86.5 kg then. Now I’m closer to 78, and even 75 kg on occations. But Xmas, and a Certain Persons Birthday has interferred with that. I don’t follow it religiously. I allow plenty of variation to fit in with what’s happening day to day. I compromise a lot, so that the whole thing is flexible and realistic. It seems to work. There just doesn’t seem to be any point in setting unrealistic dead lines and goals, making rules that you can’t stick to, and then end up failing and then feeling worse. I usually do two days straight with just water. It seems to be easiest and most comfortable for me that way and it seems to be working out OK. Anyway, I’m still at it after a year, so that’s something. When we came here in 1976 when we were only 22 and 24 respectively.  We bought this place with almost no money to our name. We couldn’t get any finance from the banks and had to go to money lenders. This meant that we had to pay 23% interest PA. on our loan. It was crippling, but we did it by working very hard, multiple part-time jobs, long hours and being frugal. Nearly everybody had to do it this way back in those days. Credit was very hard to get, unless you had a very good job. We got used to being so frugal for such a long time that it became ingrained in us and now it seems the natural way. Even after we had paid off our mortgage, We sometimes had to convince ourselves that we could allow ourselves to buy something that we needed. We are so used to making do that it’s hard to break the habit, even when we can easily afford something. We go through a discussion about whether we really need it or not. This is particularly pertinent these days, when nearly everything is built to fail quickly. The built in obselescence is apalling. We try very hard not to buy unrepairable plastic junk. So frugallity has paid off for us. My income is now less than $20,000, but I am still able to save some money on this level of income. Not a lot, but we can do it.

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We are picking the last of the tomatoes. We have had to pull a lot of the old straggling plants out as the weather cools off, the days get shorter and the nights colder. We needed the space to plant out the garlic, peas, early barletta onions, leeks and a whole host of other vegetables.  We have picked some Yellow ‘banana’ capsicums and a few beans for this meal. We also picked some of the largest tomatoes that we have ever grown this year. A few of them weighing in at over 500 grams. 

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It’s that time of year, it’s time to deal with the last of the quinces, by baking and preserving them. We eat them with yoghurt for breakfast and for desert, but we also vacuum seal them in glass jars and store some away for later in the year. It never ceases to amaze me how beautifully red they turn once cooked.     We grow capsicums over all the warmer months, as they are a great compliment to all the other summer flavours. The long yellow ones come on first and produce the best crops for us. The green bell capsicums take a lot longer to ripen, and so are only just now coming into full crop, just as the warm weather ends.

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IMG_3523As we are well serviced for capsicums already. I decide to pickle these large green ones as a savory condiment. I roast them by building a small pyrimid of them over a gas flame on top of the cooker. The trick is to keep them moving all the time, so that they don’t burn and go too soggy. Once charred and blacked on the outside, the skin blisters and will come loose if storred in a plastic bag for half an hour to sweat off.     Once peeled, sliced and de-seeded. I slice them into a bowl and pour over a dressing of good local olive oil, white wine vinegar, a twist of salt and just the tip of a small spoon of our local honey. Sometimes I add a little bit of soft ropened blue cheese as well. They are best left to merge their flavours for a day and will keep in the fridge for a while, but never do.

They’re too yummy.

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Preparing vegetables for a steamed/stir-fry dish. 

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We spend the day preparing, cutting, splitting and stacking wood for the first firing of autumn. Now that the summer fire bans are lifted, we can fire the kiln without restriction until next September or October, depending on the weather.  

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The day ends with a massive hail storm that will have punched holes into every plant and piece of fruit in the garden. Time to replant! But fortunately all the wood for the next couple of wood firings in all cut, split and stacked in the kiln shed and everything that needs to be, is stored undercover. Thank goodness for spare roof space. 

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Hale well from Steve

Recent Posts

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.

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