Sunday, October 19, 2014


"I want potholders," she said. "Not oven mitts, and none of these silicone glove things. I just want old-fashioned potholders."

This was my mum, who came to visit on the weekend. We were heading to the nearest town, and she'd suggested a trip to the opportunity shop for this purchase.

"No problem," I said. "You want potholders, the second op shop will have them."

"The second op shop?" 

"The second op shop."

Despite there being very little in the town nearest Farmette, there are two op shops. You may wonder how a small town can sustain two op shops when it can't sustain a pizza joint or a single "fashion retail outlet". The answer is economics: the op shops aren't in competition. With each other, or anything else.

One, run by the hospital for fund-raising, is fancy. I've seen everything from vintage furs to Adirondack chairs in the window. It's great if you're looking for something fun and frivolous, a "find" that you can show off to your friends. When my jeans turned to rags, I bought two new pairs there for $7 (pitched as a double-denim deal). It has a little coffee shop built-in and ex-garden furniture on the street if you'd like to take your coffee outside.

The other, run by the local Lionesses' Club, is a proper, old-school op shop: the kind of place in which a Young Person renting their first share house could find everything they need to fit out their new life for next to nothing. I buy my linen and towels there, and kitchen utensils. They have an entire section for dressups in a shed between the electrical goods (all marked Purchase At Your Own Risk) and menswear. I bought my spare bed there for $30.

We visited both stores. My mum bought a salmon-pink quilted handbag at the first and her potholders (in fact, the entire inventory of potholders—six or so) at the second.

As usual, I entered the second op shop with nothing in mind to buy. But they have a good sleepwear section right next to the potholder department, and I needed pyjama pants (my last pair were procured in the same store's men's sleepwear section maybe six years ago). I found some: leopard-print. But outside, in the muddle of sheds, I came across two other gems.

A wide-mouthed thermos, for making yoghurt. I have a thermos, but its seal is broken and it's a tall one, for tea, which isn't great for yoghurt-making. Given that I now have a fully functioning organic dairy nearby selling unhomogenised milk in two-litre bottles for $4.90, this thermos was a bit of a find. Home-made yoghurt (and labna) return to the menu. Hooray!

The other thing? Flippers. I can't say I marched into the op shop intending to pick up flippers, but coincidentally, I'm about to go on what amounts to a week-long snorkelling holiday. I'm booked to stay at a cattle station and intend to swim on the reef every day. I'd been focused on finding a snorkel and goggles, but when I spotted these flippers—the rights size and everything—I couldn't resist.

Mysteriously, each item was $2.  At the second op shop, apparently, all proclivities are deemed equal.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Waiting pays

When I first moved up here, there was a lot to do, and I was always behind. Seven years on, I've got the everyday stuff under control, and can pace myself with whatever crops up.

Now, I realise at last, not everything needs to be done each and every year. Getting things done is as much about waiting as it is about doing.

There are some things that do happen annually, like cleaning leaves off the roof, testing the fire pump and mowing before fire season. There are other things that are continuous: weed control, animal management. But the rest now happens as the need—and time—arises.

On the weekend I had some friends over to take down a shed that was the only structure on the place when we got here. It was tucked into the edge of the forest, which is ages away from where we built the house.

I never exactly loved to see the glorious forest marred by this flimsy, pop-riveted construction, but dammit, I needed that shed: for the last six years, it's been the storage spot for hen-house straw. But in the last year, some kind of animal was getting in and messing around in the straw, which is no good for the hens. And I had more time on my hands, and possibly more experience too.

It was, finally, time to tackle the shed.

I had to wait a little longer, though, until I'd got everything out of the shed, found somewhere else to store straw, landed some decent weather, and had a clear weekend to throw a shed wrecking party. Because while living solo has made me more independent than ever in so many ways, it has made me entirely dependent in others.

Thanks to my friends, the shed, which was ancient, came down in minutes, and its nice flat sheets were stacked under the house in a few more, ready for whatever purpose I decide to put them to. Had I tried to do this myself or at another time of year, it would have been an epic task, and far less smooth (or fun).

Waiting paid off.

Now the question is: what will I build with the tin? A bigger wood shed? A new house for the goats?
This guy has ideas for that shiny secondhand tin. I just know it.
I don't know, and there's no rush to decide. I have plenty of time to let it percolate.

And if this experience is anything to go by, the more I put into working out how to go ahead, the smoother that path will probably be.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The timber tally

Wood-fire season's done for another year. And woohoo! I made it through! Not only that, I made it through on less than three cubic metres of wood, including what I cut from the forest.

My neighbour burns her fire continuously in winter. She used eleven metres of wood last year. She also buys her firewood. Common runs to around $80 a metre up here, so she spent nearly $900 to keep warm.

I bought two metres of hardwood at $110 a metre, and two of common at $80. And I still have half of it left for next year, so my bill for winter heating comes to less than $200.

That's quite the difference. Other than her desire to keep the house warm 24/7, what else is at play?
This year's delivery of common waits to be stacked
Her house is old, with timber floors and walls. I'm not sure about her insulation, but my house is insulated to R7 or R9 or something, and that includes all the walls (including internal walls) as well as the ceilings. It's built on a suspended slab—providing thermal mass that radiates captured heat on the rare sunny winter days—which is also insulated.

I have a ceiling fan to push the heat around, and double-glazing with northern exposure. She has no fan, a wall of single-glazed windows, and no northern exposure.

Our living spaces are around the same size, but she heats her bedroom, which is off her living room, and I don't. And of course, my house is colder for most of the time. I wear multiple jumpers in winter, and thermal leggings, too.

The bottom line here? I think it comes down, firstly, to sustainability. Not just sustainable design, but an environment-focused mindset that champions reduced consumption across the board.

Then, too, when you cut your own wood, you tend to be more careful about its expenditure. But if you cut it from your own, ~70-year-old forest of just 1.5 acres, you're very careful with it—and, as a corollary, with what else you burn.

That timber should be rotting into the earth, providing foundation for fungus, giving homes to insects and birds and reptiles, growing mosses and lichens, and enriching the forest. Instead, it's going up the chimney.

Multiply that feeling for every tree we burn, and frugal consumption starts to seem pretty logical.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Q&A: What in hell is that noise?

There are many mysterious sounds in the forest, each a perfectly logical basis (as far as I'm concerned) for belief in the bunyip.

But at this time of year, when the nights are mild, tender, and freshened by the slightest breeze, the forest emits a sound of screaming that really is blood-curdling.

That's right: screaming. There you'll be, sitting down with a gin and tonic when suddenly the hair stands up on the back of your neck, and a scream shatters the peaceful dark.

I'd read about boobook owls that reputedly screech, but according to this site, it's a fox.

Listen to the first recording in the list on that page. Then imagine yourself home alone at night, not a light to be seen, surrounded by a forest alive with the secrets of millennia.

Perhaps there's a sliver of moon, now sharp and bright, now fuzzy with cloud. The leaves, still just a moment ago, toss restlessly on the breeze as if the trees themselves are breathing.

Then, that sound. It slices through the forest, mournful, terrifying. You catch your breath. It comes again, and once more, floating around the bowl of the valley as if disembodied.

You know it's just an animal. It has to be, right? But nothing makes you feel more suddenly alone, more pitifully human, more aware of your own paltry heartbeat than that sound.

More recordings? Here's a video. Prepare to have your socks blown off.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Home grown

Striking native plants isn't as easy as European plants, or so I hear.

But after Beelzebub ripped a large branch off one of the pretty, delicate, slow-growing ti trees I planted along the drive, I decided to try to make the best of it. Other than sticking some in a vase, striking the new spring growth was the only idea I had.

I've only ever struck berry cuttings—loganberries, gooseberries—but they were a success. So even though I don't have proper hardwood rooting hormone, or special native potting mix, perhaps, perhaps one of the six cuttings I made will take and I'll be able to beef up the driveway planting.

In the meantime, I've taken to mowing around the best-positioned clumps of kangaroo grass on the driveway each spring. They stand tall, seed-heads nodding alongside the ti tree in the sun, a small tribute to the beauty of flora really indigenous to this place, regardless of fire risk.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Grapefruit four ways

This was my weekend: grapefruit four ways.

There's an idea that sustainability means disconnection — going off the grid in as many ways as possible. But while Farmette may not be powered by big business, it is powered by friends.

My friend (and my boss) in Melbourne has a surfeit of grapefuit. I took two big bags and made grapefruit curd, grapefruit preserved in syrup, Earl Grey grapefruit marmalade and Vin de Pamplemousse. 

These last two, pictured in the middle here, fore and aft, came from a really great cook book loaned to me by Sir Permaculturing, up in Kyneton. Vin de Pamplemousse involves sugar and sauvignon blanc, vodka and vanilla beans (this last Madagascan, a birthday gift from a friend). Oh, and limes from a lucky neighbour with a warm garden down the road.

Two bags made seven jars of curd, eight of marmalade, five of grapefruit in syrup and four litres of the vin (which takes months to mature, so just keep your shirt on, ok?). 

It was a busy weekend. So busy that I didn't get to bake bread made with sourdough starter given to me by another friend until this morning. I did a boring old high-tin loaf, half wholemeal. It was delicious. And, baked on Monday morning at ten, quite the working-from-home luxury.

I'd never made sourdough before. Or preserved with grapefruit. Without friends to inspire us, to share their goodness with us, where would we be?

I'm taking a jar of marmalade and curd in to share as afternoon tea with friends at work tomorrow. 

(The marmalade is dynamite, by the way. The tea gives it a great flavour. I have lofty expectations of the Vin de Pamplemousse, I can tell you.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Q&A: What about offal?

In recent weeks I've killed three cockerels for the freezer. Which meant three big livers and hearts were packed away in there, too.

Livers aren't difficult to get out of the bird, but if you're not careful in your cleaning, you can get the contents of the gut or spleen on them, which ruins them. So the procurement of a clean, whole liver and well trimmed heart takes some care and skill. Not much, but some. To eat them in a recipe that you love is a only fair recompense for your trouble.

Friends occasionally ask if I make pate with the liver, but I'd need to kill a lot of birds to make any amount of pate. And I have another, equally indulgent recipe that I love: chicken liver curry. To that I can add hearts as well—small morsels that wouldn't exactly make a meal otherwise.

The recipe comes from an old Indonesian cookbook I bought second-hand, written by an Australian woman who'd married an Indonesian man. There are few ingredients. Basically, the livers and hearts are cooked in minutes as pure coconut milk riddled with onion, ginger, tamarind, bay, turmeric, chilli and garlic warms around them.

There's no frying anything first: you mix the meat and spices, then turn them into the coconut milk and start the heat. This isn't a technique I've come across before, but it makes for an unbelievably delicate and flavoursome curry.

Fresh turmeric is difficult to come by this far from city markets, so I had to use the dried powder this time. But still, it was amazing. And amazingly indulgent.

Like this potato recipe, intended as a solitary reward for the gardener, I think of chicken liver curry as the ultimate solitary reward for the fowl keeper. And, it has to be said, killer and cleaner.