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.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Make it yourself

This week, I made a pair of jeans. Between my figure and fashion I have a hard time finding jeans I like, so finally I cracked and decided to try making some.

It took three hours one evening. They worked out. I like them.

And with that, another bastion of modern commercialism came crashing down: you can make jeans you love. You don't need to pay $150 for a decent pair. That whole takes-special-skill, industrial-sewing-machine, yellow-thread thing is a sham designed to distract us from the truth.

This week, I made a pair of jeans. Last week, it was lemon ice cream. The week before, I repaired the screen doors to my deck and garage.

I did none of these things with professional skill, and none has a professional finish (though that ice cream is pretty damn good). All of them approximate, but do not replicate, their commercial counterparts. They are their own things, unique. They are imperfect; they work as intended.

In a moment of enormous self-congratulation I wondered, "Is there nothing I can't do?!", "I" referring not to me personally, but to any ordinary unskilled human. The answer, specifically speaking, is yes, but generally speaking, no. There is nothing you can't do. This realisation feels like a wonderful gift. The more you do, the more you can do, and do easily.

This week, I made a pair of jeans, and my need for the products of contemporary commerce wore thinner than ever.

Who needs new, made things from shiny shops? Don't believe the hype. Try making it yourself.

Monday, September 8, 2014

A good day to disappear

This time a year ago I was on my way to Central Australia. To total independence. To complete freedom.

The day I left a friend texted me farewell, and said, "It's a good day to disappear into the desert." And I did. I  know it's a cliche to say that a holiday changed your life, but that one changed mine. For many reasons, and in many ways, but primarily this: it proved to me that unfettered by responsibility and relieved of expectation, I have fun.

If this is a world where people are defined by their commitments, and I think it largely is, finding that your default solo state isn't bewilderment or flailing or loss, but fun, is a worthy discovery.

For those two weeks I wasn't a daughter or a sister or a friend. Not an aunt or a niece. Not a colleague or a contact or neighbour or lover or even a travelling companion.

I was just myself. Just another unremarkable, unrepeatable human being. Out there in the desert you can see the peopled millennia reaching back into time. And yet there you are, the only human being for kilometres, and the only living being you can see.

How you deal with that kind of isolation inevitably says something about you. I loved it with a passion that alarms me still.

Monday, September 1, 2014

She was right about the stars

Recently, a friend saw the stars at Farmette and was overcome.

"But look at them!" She cried, peering into the dark. "Is that ... cloud? Or is it the Milky Way?!"

It was the Milky Way. Sometimes, it takes people who don't actually live here to remind me of what's good in this place. Another way is to go further afield and experience things afresh.

This weekend I went to a place about an hour away that I'd only ever been to once, as a child. I couldn't remember it, but there I saw Eagles and lava bombs, watched Mercury appear beneath a pock-marked moon, heard Musk Ducks calling as a distant freight train rumbled low and heavy across the tree-fringed plain.

It was a modest trip: a drive, a walk up a hill, camping on a lake's edge. Towns whose newest, biggest structure was the CFA shed. Towns comprising just the CFA shed and maybe a church or hall. Dual carriageways that give way abruptly to unsealed backroads lined with eucalypts. T-intersections with No Through Roads in both directions. And wattle everywhere.

But that kind of flexibility was one of the reasons I wanted to live out of town in the first place. To have nice weather and go somewhere new. A place doesn't have to be fancy to remind you of what's good.

It was also another chance to put into practice what I've learned here: from astronomy courses and bird-watching days, leaflets on flora identification, books on indigenous history, geological maps, park maps ... and talking to people.

The weekend was punctuated with two Geoffs: the Geoff who looked after the campground by the lake where I stayed, and the Geoff who gave me the keys to the mountain. Because the mountain is only open on Sundays, and I was there on a Saturday. The park website said to ask for the key at the service station, which I expected would be closed by the afternoon.

But it wasn't. The only service station in a town with a takeaway, a grocery, and a pub, it was built of clean, whitewashed brick, and Geoff was the only person I saw.

"I thought you'd be closed!" I said as he gave me the keys and told me to lock the gate behind me, otherwise others would come in and they'd never get us all off the mountain.

He smiled. "Open till six," he said, looking past me to the empty street. "Though I don't know why."

Geoff at the campground had the bald head, grey beard and gravel voice of a biker. He told me he'd had an accident that had left him with half a voice box and a steel plate in his chest.

"I still ride," he said, reaching for the beer on the dash. "The bike's 200 kilos. You need to be fit to take it out. I just do short trips, nice weather. Got ten visits to the hospital between now and Christmas, but what are you going to do?" he asked, his grey eyes gazing out through the windscreen. "That's life."

People ask me how I can stand to go camping alone, to deserted places where there's literally no one else. But I find there's always a lot to think about.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Summer dreaming

I just spent $65 on seeds. Really, I did.

$65 seems a lot, but then I tell myself other people have more expensive hobbies than growing vegetables. Right?

Over the past few years I've worn down my seed supplies to practically nothing: some saved lettuce and mizuna seed, a drizzle of radish seed, and the remains of some packets of peas and beans. That's it.

Given the success of my winter seed-raising, which saw me planting out fine carrot and lettuce and fennel seedlings last weekend, in spite of good sense and weather forecasts, I've been inspired.

A wayward carrot that appeared in
the garden in Autumn
This summer, I tell myself, will not be last summer!

(For those who've joined us recently, last summer, everything died.)

This summer, I think, will be different!

I do this each spring: enjoy a few rainy days and tell myself I'll lavish the garden beds with water all summer if that's what I need to do to get a decent haul. I'll be out there each evening with the hose and the seaweed solution, cajoling the things into growing.

What's more likely is I'll go into water-conservation mode after the first rain-free week, and spend my evenings out with friends rather than tending tender shoots to greater tenderness. And everything will die.

However, this summer, I have a new plan! That plan is to grow most things in spring, then leave only a few things in from February to the end of March, raising new seedlings inside to be planted out in April. This way, I'll miss the hottest of the hot weather, and avoid wasting water barely keeping things alive.

It's the latest in a long line of vegetable experiments. I expect some successes among the inevitable failures. But the most important thing, I think, is to let yourself be inspired, and to learn a little more each time.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Renovation project: the asparagus bed

When I came to Farmette I made an asparagus bed, and planted something like twelve crowns into it.

The wisdom about making garden beds near the house is true: the asparagus bed became more unkempt than any other part of the place, and is further from the house, too. It's the only true garden bed that doesn't have soaker hose to it (that may be a summer project) and it didn't fare well in those hot weeks of the last, very dry summer. At all.

It's also reclaimed from virgin hillside, so keeping the native grasses and groundcovers out is practically impossible. And then there's the fact that until this year, I've manured it every Autumn, which seems only to have encouraged grass to flourish.

This morning, it was all weeds.

My mum says don't ever use horse manure: it's too full of weed seeds. She's right.  I peeled off the top layer of grass (and decent soil) with the mattock and then wondered what to do with the bed.

The few remaining asparagus crowns are clustered at the ends of the bed. But after mulching all ten fruit trees, and restacking the woodshed, I wasn't jumping at the chance to dig the bed over.

Then I remembered I'd planned today to plant some Jerusalem artichokes. Why not put them into the asparagus bed!? There they could break up the soil over the summer, and I could actually plan (for once in my life) to order some new asparagus crowns before next July.

Here's how the bed looked after I took off the weeds and measured out roughly where the artichokes should go. They're staggered because the long side of the bed faces North, so I wanted each one to get plenty of sun.

I didn't really go hard with the digging. For each one I just took out a shovelful of soil, dropped the artichoke into the hole, and covered it over. Then, of course, there was more mulch. The chickens were a big help with the compost pile I dug this out of, as you can imagine. I think I spent as much time scraping straw back into the pile as I did shovelling compost into the barrow.

This was it in the end. I expect great things of the Jerusalem artichokes.  I'll update you as the season, and matters, progress. But you can expect great things, too.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A history in trees

Trees are a living history, particularly in a place like this where the past sneaks up on you every chance it gets.

A walk in the forest turns up hundred-and-sixty-year-old footpaths; at the bottom of my block there is a clay mine of the same age, and scattered through the bush are the scanty remains of homes, of gold processing plants, of toil from long ago.

Those habitations had gardens, too; in the forest you can find paired pines that once marked the gate to a home, bulbs gone-wild and rambling Elderberry. The historical photos in the local pub show young editions of oaks and pines and elms that remain, older and larger, on the streets here even now.

So to see one of these go this week was a sad affair. It was a truly enormous pine—one of the largest in town—that stood between the school and Farmette. The stump measures somewhere between two and three metres across. It took three days to bring down.

Winds the week before had damaged some other pines at the school, and the teachers had panicked. So a number of old pines—four? Five?—came down in the space of a week or so.

This was sad from an historical perspective. Much as I'm no fan of introduced species in a place like this, it was an amazing tree, and part of the town's heritage. The photos don't do it justice; in the photo below, it stood as tall as the pine on the right, and filled all the space framed by the eucalypts.

The good news? More North-Eastern exposure for Farmette, particularly the living room. Will it make a difference to the heating? To the solar panel output? Time will tell.