Thursday, May 24, 2018

On Making Friends With Failure To Achieve




Do you ever have days when you positively absolutely do not get a single thing done? I do, all the time. Well, I achieve such things as getting up. Today I walked into town and performed one, no, two errands, then I came home and did two loads of laundry. I sat in the sun and read a book. I drank tea. I sat in the sun. I remembered that I have to snatch Rosy's latest magazine to read before she cuts it up and sticks bits of it in her art journal (she always sticks in pictures from the other side of the interesting article I am trying to read). So I sat in the sun and read Rosy's magazine. I have literally a thousand useful activities I could be doing, or you know, achieving something or attempting to make a living. I am writing a novel which at current productivity levels will be finished in ten years. I have two lines of thought which follow me through days like today:

My first thought is, "This is so lovely, ooh, look at the sun on the chestnut leaves. Sun on my back, mmm, may just close my eyes now." Then my second thought creeps sneakily in, "You are wasting your life, you are achieving nothing, you are failing again at being a useful human being." Today, as thought No 2 crept in, I happened to be reading this passage:

I go to the park and watch the ducks in the pond as they fluff their feathers. I see how relaxed they look - when all they're doing is fluffing their feathers. They aren't filled with tension trying to become something else. They aren't frantically attempting to build their careers, and they aren't sucking up to the other ducks. All they seem to be doing is enjoying the water, fluffing their feathers, and living their lives. When it comes down to it, isn't that all we really need in our lives, too?
Fumio Sasaki, goodbye, things: on minimalist living, Part 4, I enjoy life more

So, today, I will be like the duck.


Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Sourdough: The Experiment


Yes, looks like a football. Tastes better.

Sour dough bread has a bit of a reputation for being difficult to make. However, sour dough is the bread that every single person has baked since bread moved on from basic flatbread some thousands of years ago until brewers in the nineteenth century found a market for one of their waste products, yeast, and marketed it for 'quick rising' bread. Very few of these historical bread bakers had access to digital scales and bread managed to be baked anyhow..

Paul and I have been baking sour dough over the last few weeks and I followed the long and complicated recipes, and Paul just made it up as he went along, and his was better, so here is the result of his experiments.

First, the starter. We got ours from my friend Peter. If you know someone who makes sour dough they will almost certainly be able to supply you with some. It is easy enough to start your own, you just have to add a week or so to the time you get your first loaf. Also, starter does get more potent over time, hence the celebrated hundred-year-old sour dough from various places, however, week-old starter works just fine. The starter is simply a mixture of flour and water which ferments away and attracts wild yeasts from the air to form a natural, living yeast to eventually make our bread rise.

I made sour dough starter once before which worked quite well. Take one cup of organic rye flour (why organic rye? Rye is an old, relatively unhybridised flour, and being organic and whole grain it still has plenty of life in it) and one cup of unchlorinated water (I have been importing water from Paul's mountain creek, but leaving water out in the sun for a day in a bowl will unchlorinate it. Makes you wonder though, what all that town water is killing in our insides, if it is going to kill off the wild yeasts..). Mix this together in a large jar, put a cloth over the top to keep other bugs out, and leave on your kitchen bench, or somewhere that is ideally around 20C/70F. Now, the more often you feed your starter the quicker it will grow. You can feed it every 12 hours, but it needs to be done at least every 24 hours. Recipes will tell you to discard half the mixture before you feed it again. This is the kind of advice that makes me despair of a society that seems to actively dedicate itself to wanton waste. And this in pursuit of making authentic, simple peasant food. Huh. No self-respecting peasant is ever going to waste expensive organic rye flour. This is why I use a large jar, and keep on adding the flour and water mixture. To feed, you only need around half a cup of flour and the same of water. After several days of regular feeding the mixture will start to bubble up enough that you will run out of jar. At this point you can start using the extra starter in your cooking. The simplest thing to do is to add it to pancake mixture for sour pancakes. Yummo.

Now, after a week or so, if you are Paul, your starter will be bubbling up and doubling in size over eight hours. If you are me you will have a bubbly mixture that rises some but never doubles. Don't worry. It still seems to make perfectly acceptable bread either way. The person with the exceptionally bubbly mixture may feel some moral superiority over the person whose mixture is kind of sulky. This is the sort of behaviour it is best to ignore.

Now, the Bread.

Feed your starter in the morning. Let it rise all day, then sometime in the evening, make the dough.




Take four cups of flour of your choice. Wholemeal, spelt, white. It needs some gluten in it to rise well, so if you want rye bread, add half white the first time and work up to the rye portion you like balanced with how much you want the bread to rise.

Add two teaspoons of salt and mix into the flour.

Add up to two cups of starter. This is way more than generally advised. It seems to rise better the more you put in. If you don't have that much, use less. Always leave about a cup in the bottom of your starter jar to keep the starter going. Add one to one and a half cups of warm water. By warm I mean blood temperature. To test this, stick your finger in. If you can hardly feel the water it is the same temperature as you, which is perfect. If you are a bread baker, you will know how much water to add to get a moist, shaggy dough. If you aren't, experiment. Bread is always generally edible, whatever you do to it. Stir the mixture up with a spoon until it all sticks together in a ball.

At this point Paul turns his dough ball over a few times with two wooden spoons. That is the extent of his kneading. I put it on a floured bench and turn the dough into the middle of the ball, quarter turn, do it again, over and over for a few minutes. Doesn't seem to matter much which method you choose.



Then I clean out the bowl, brush it with olive oil, put the dough ball in, turn it to coat it with oil, put a tea towel over the top and leave it to rise overnight somewhere warmish. Well, not that warm after the fire goes out, but it seems to survive ok. So far all of this preparation has taken about ten minutes in total.



Sometime next morning (it is not really critical when) pull the dough out of the bowl, turn it into the centre again a few times, then let it sit on the bench for ten minutes while you wash out the bowl (no-one wants to do the dishes when there is a giant bread bowl on the sink), then brush your tray with olive oil, then sprinkle it with semolina or corn meal to stop the dough sticking. If your dough is very moist still, and you can't imagine it holding together on a tray, pop it in a loaf pan instead.


Sometimes the dough rises a lot, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you just have to run with what you've got..



The second rising is much shorter, about an hour. You should see that the dough has risen some, but it doesn't need to double. Pre-heat the oven to 200C/400F. If you want a bubbly, shiny crust, put a tray of hot water in the bottom of the oven. This will create a lovely steam bath for the bread, but is completely optional.



Just before you put the bread in the oven, slash it twice quite deeply with a serrated knife. This allows the dough to rise up quickly when it is popped in a hot oven. Cook for 20 minutes or so at 200C then turn it down to moderate, 180C/375F so that the centre cooks steadily. Take the steam tray out. I usually bake at 200C until the crust is almost at the point of burnt, then turn it down. To tell if bread is cooked, tip it upside down and knock on the bottom with your knuckles. It should sound hollow like a drum, and the bottom crust should be golden brown. It will probably take 40 minutes to an hour. It is not an exact science..

Bread, whether sour dough or 'quick rising' is something that takes much experimentation. Try it again and again until you start to get the feel of how dough feels when it is 'just right' - how a loaf feels out of the oven when it is perfectly cooked. Sometimes you won't trust yourself, but trust the clock, and it will be under cooked, as happened to me just the other day. Eventually, as with every craft, the bread will talk to you, and tell you what it wants. Then you will be the bread whisperer..

I know many readers will have made sourdough, or indeed, be bread whisperers. Tell me about your sourdough adventures, and ask questions, and hopefully someone here will be able to answer..

Updated to add: Forgot to mention, you can keep your starter in the fridge between loaves, in which case you only need to feed it every five or six days. Then take it out, warm it to room temperature, and start again from the beginning of the bread recipe.

Also I have made bread for years but I am only relatively new to sourdough. I am having successes and failures, but as with every failure in life, you learn something every time. This is the simplest way I have found to make sourdough, but still, I imagine it will take at least six months of making it every week to feel like I really know what I am doing. I will keep updating as I find new things that work or don't work. So far I will say - I think a sloppier mixture has a better texture, but then it needs to go in a breadpan..














Saturday, May 19, 2018

Green and Thrifty




The theme of this post is Using What You Have. It is three years since I wrote that original post and I have downsized my house, given away half the stuff I owned, and yet I am still quite well endowed with the world's goods.

First, food.

People are still giving me apples. I am not complaining about this at all. This afternoon I listened to music and chopped and stewed up a giant pot of apples to keep us in crumble and breakfast topping for the next week.

I have used up several boxes and pots of tea since I decided that 42 kinds was too many. I am here to tell you that tea evidently does not go off, as one of the half-used boxes of chai I finished off was best before 2012. I am now mixing a rather strong chai with vanilla tea as my morning tipple, with milk and honey. Yum. Who said that using up left-overs was boring? What it really does is to stretch ingenuity and force you to try new things. Necessity really is the mother of invention.

I still have half a freezer compartment of frozen venison to use up. I am experimenting with different ways to slow cook it. So far I have done a red wine and tomato casserole with cous cous, and chilli with beans and rice. I think the chilli wins the popular vote so far..



I made sourdough! Only once so far, but it was excellent. I will start the next batch in the morning. The only problem with sour dough is that it takes two days to make. Very little hands on time, but forward planning required.



Posy made a Mother's Day cake for Grandma, and we decorated it with edibles from the garden.

I am also using up the many and varied spices that I have had for years and never used. Just in case anyone has the same spice glut that I do, ground fennel seed is really yummy on roast vegies, including potato wedges, yum. Also, whole fenugreek seeds (why?) can be planted in the spring and eaten as delicious greens. You can also sprout them. I may try that first..



Ok, enough about food. Now, gardens. I have always been an enthusiastic mulcher, and mostly I buy expensive bales of pea straw which do a marvellous job of keeping soil moist and depressing weeds. However, did you see the bit where they are expensive? I am doing some experimentation with alternative mulches. First, autumn leaves. It is definitely the season for gathering these. I am putting a layer onto the fallow winter beds. Why fallow? Because there is a persistent weed I am stubbornly removing, inch by painful inch. It has a tuber that needs to come up so it won't come back. I will not let it beat me! The other mulch is seaweed, or more correctly, sea grass. It is a beautiful mulch that tends to stay where it is put, and it is also full of sea nutrients, which our old Australian soils desperately need. Paul and I went to the beach a few weeks ago and collected some bags full. We made such a tiny dent in the supply that you couldn't even see where we had been. We might pop back and get some more.



During the summer it occurred to me that the reason the polyanthus were looking sad and wilty is that they are woodland plants and they want to live under a tree in the shade, not in terracotta pots in the sun. So I moved them and they are blooming their heads off in appreciation. I am not buying more plants at the moment, but I am moving the ones I do have into more propitious positions, and so far they have all survived. A few weeks ago I made a new bird bath by placing a pre-owned terracotta saucer onto a pre-owned rhubarb forcing pot. Sometimes I do wonder at my former self. Why did I buy a rhubarb forcing pot? Who wants blanched rhubarb?



In other using what I have news - the gate latch broke this week, but luckily I had one in my box of hardware in the shed. It was a fancy brass one that I have had hanging about for years, and have almost got rid of several times, but clearly it was waiting for just this moment.

CDs - remember them? I have a very slim collection but have decided to listen to them all again and see if there are any more I can dispose of. This week I have been listening to Elgar's Enigma Variations. Elgar is a drama llama. He really knows how to make the heart swell. My favourite is Variation IX, Nimrod. I know you will recognise this - it is the soundtrack to many solemn events - funerals, memorials, dramatic bits of movies.. ok, so as you know, Youtube is a rabbit hole. On looking up Nimrod I discovered it is mandatory for this music to tug at your heart strings if you are British, and I rediscovered the choral version, which is my actual favourite, and here it sounds like angels singing. I am continually amazed at what is available to anyone with an internet connection. The whole of all the beautiful art and music and all the words plus how to make compost and sourdough and learn French and also Slovenian. See, I am old enough to remember life before the internet and just how much work you had to put in to find information once upon a time. And here it all is. It is actually a miracle. I keep telling my children this, but I don't think they quite get it..

Over to you for more thrifty adventures..









Wednesday, May 16, 2018

All of Earth's Gifts


Leaves from the bush from Paul accented by jonquils from the garden from Posy

Those were happy years. Jean was an extraordinarily considerate and attentive companion, always seeking to please me, and from him I received all of earth's gifts. I always had the privilege of the first violets he had gathered under the dry leaves, the first strawberries from the garden, the first cherries. For my bedside table, he brought the first roses, and to my plate the first March trout. And so, the man who owned nothing under the sun shone on those around him. Through the warmth he radiated, the gifts he lavished on everyone, Jean Carles dealt out happiness.
Emilie Carles, A Wild Herb Soup, Ch 22

Today is my birthday. A month or so ago Paul and I absolved each other of ever needing to provide birthday or Christmas gifts to each other, because a) neither of us really like or need standard gifts, and b) life is too short to worry about present-giving. Gift-giving is, on the whole, in my opinion, a trap and a snare, cynically manipulated by advertisers and turning love into a consumer commodity.  Also, we are not really people who fuss about things. And yet, Paul is a master gift-giver. Flowers from the bush next to my bed, brown paper bags of dried figs and medjool dates because they are my favourite, email commands to go outside and look at the sunset or directions on how to spy the international space station. Views of parrots or the echidna, a picnic by the river, the gentle insistence that I sit on the couch and read a book while he cooks dinner.

Paul may have slightly violated our gift-giving resolution by presenting me with hand-made ceramic mugs on my birthday. His mum's partner is a ceramicist, and Paul has a number of his perfect tea mugs. I always take possession of Paul's favourite mug at his place. Now I have my own. I think maybe it was self-defence. Anyway, he is forgiven, this once.

Also, after he cooked me lunch he took me to his mum's farm, where they have just taken delivery of nine miniature donkeys. Including a baby. I fed them carrots and gave them cuddles. Best birthday present ever.

Like Jean Carles, Paul deals out happiness, and I am a bit lucky to be in the orbit of that sunshine. 

As I think back on this autumn I am acutely aware of the bounty brought into my kitchen day after day from the garden, from foraging along roadsides, from friends and family. More than ever this year I have tried to rely on the gifts of the earth, and not to waste any of it. In truth, the earth has provided masses of food that I have not even been able to manage to collect, although it is there and free for the taking. I started a journey to see if I could live a little in the spaces between the commerce that demands a price for everything. I am beginning to discover that there is a lot of freedom in those spaces, a lot of places where all of earth's gifts are abundant, and where there are rather splendid humans who know that love and gifts do not come with a price tag..



Saturday, May 12, 2018

Green and Thrifty




When we are home, the girls like to curl up in their rooms like snails, with their electric heaters on. I am trying to find a way to entice them back into the dining room of an afternoon and evening, where there is a fire on anyway, to save electricity. There hasn't been much space in the dining room, because it is a dining room, and has a table taking up most of the available real estate. Today I got Posy to help me move the table lengthways which leaves a good space in front of the fire to perch next to the dog. Then I needed something nice to sit on there. Tempted to run out and buy a little vintage armchair. But no, can't do that. So I wandered around the house until I spied the ottoman in the corner of my room that The Girl had left here when she went to live in a small cupboard of an apartment in the big city. No doubt one day when she finds a slightly larger house she might want it back, but in the meantime, it is perfect in front of the fire. I am so happy to have made our space bigger and refurnished it without spending a cent. Now, to see if my cunning plan works.

I borrowed Matt the Builder's drop saw this week to cut up a bunch off off-cuts from the deck he is making, and also from the fence that was built two years ago when we moved in, so that now I have a lovely big heap of kindling for winter fires. We have wild, windy and cold weather here, and the fire is on all day when we are home. I have the kettle on the fire so that we have free hot water for cooking, dishes and cups of tea.



Matt the builder put up a shelf for me in the laundry, made from spare decking planks. I am so very happy about this, as my old shelf was tiny and too high up for me to reach. It cost me half an hour of builder time, but no materials, as the planks were left over and he re-used the brackets. Now, I challenge any woman out there to refute this statement - the way to a woman's heart is more shelves. Really, It's What Women Want. I generously shared this information with Matt in case he ever needs to impress his girlfriend. I mean, more than he already does.



Here is another project. One of Paul's friends owns a little vintage second-hand shop which is gorgeous and delightful. She bought a set of lovely little chairs at auction and gave Paul the two broken ones, which he gave to me because they don't fit in his shed. Some of the dowels holding the legs together are broken, as is the rush seating. They would be perfect in front of the fire if they were mended, so I am going to sit and look at them for a while until I think of a way to do it without spending any money. I know it can be done. One thought is to cut out the rush seat and put in an upholstered wooden chair pad. My granny used to re-upholster her chairs all the time. I think this might be a good starter project.. any thoughts welcome.

After two years of being totally uninterested, Rosy and Posy have started lighting the fire for me. The catalyst was Paul the fire master telling me that using too much paper to start a fire causes lots of ash, as paper has clay in it.. who knew? So we decided to try and start the fire using only two sheets of our small local paper. I didn't think it could be done, and that was all the challenge the girls needed. They are now totally on top of fire making with minimum paper starters. We are using up lots of twigs instead from our summer fruit tree prunings and the girls have learnt a new skill. We also use walnut shells for firestarters, very effective as they generally still contain a little bit of walnut, and pine cones that come to us from various places, including my mum, who picks them up on her walks and brings me a bagful every now and then. Thanks, Mum:)



Posy made us hot chocolate for a morning in front of the fire treat. She heats up milk on the stove and adds this chocolate syrup which is cheap and wickedly delicious. Secret ingredient is a pinch of chilli powder for an extra hit of heat and warmth.

Paul has been making absolutely wonderful and divine sourdough bread every few days from the starter that my friend Peter gave me a few weeks ago. I killed my starter, so Paul gave me some more. Did I detect a note of smugness at all? Anyway, I am sitting here willing the starter to double in size today so that I can finally get cracking on a loaf of my own. Meanwhile, I have been baking my usual, with (gasp!) storebought yeast. The humiliation..

The rosehips that Katherine and I picked last weekend are bubbling away on the stove to turn into rosehip syrup, and I have been stewing up lots of roadside apples to turn them into apple sauce, which I stashed in pots in the freezer, although Posy keeps sneaking them out and eating them. I figure there are lots of worse things thirteen year olds could be being sneaky about.. By the way, rosehip syrup, though simple to make, is very messy, and makes the kitchen look like a murder has recently taken place. Squashed up boiled rosehips look very... visceral.

Tell me about the green and thrifty adventures at your place this week. I love your stories:)


Later: Benson-the-sneaky-puppy decides that the ottoman is clearly meant for him.



Monday, May 7, 2018

Foraging for Rosehips




Yesterday my friend Katherine and I went foraging for rosehips and apples. There are plenty of old rosebushes growing wild along the country roads of Tasmania, and plenty of old apple trees growing in ditches along farm fence lines as well.

We were on a mission. Last year we picked rosehips and I made a litre or so of rosehip syrup which I used for frivolous activities like making salad dressing. Katherine made six litres of it and took a spoonful every day from May to September and swears it is the reason she doesn't get sick over the winter. It may very well be so. Rosehip syrup is very high in Vitamin C and who knows what other compounds. During World War II in Britain the government sent a request to all the Women's Institute groups to pick rosehips to supply a healthy tonic for British children. It tastes delicious, which must have been rather a relief for the children who were no doubt regularly administered doses of castor oil and other nasty concoctions to keep them healthy and regular.

So, rosehip syrup for health this year. Plus, travelling the back roads of Tasmania and stopping to pick scarlet rosehips while catching up with a good friend? What could be better? As Katherine noted, more fun than a flu shot. When we had picked a sufficiency of rosehips we started hunting for apple trees. Katherine has a new fabulous apple picking doohickey, which is like a basket on a pole to pick hard-to-reach apples. This was excellently efficient and entertaining. I wish I had taken a photo, but we were laughing too much. All the trees seemed to have planted themselves in ditches by the side of the road, generally in the centre of blackberry patches, and it was all we could do not to fall in whilst woman-handling the apple picking contraption. At the first tree we stopped at, a bevy of chickens was milling hopefully about waiting for apples to drop from the sky for their lunch. When we arrived and started picking and dropping apples they were very excited. I am glad to think that we brightened the day for some hungry chickens.

Of course, we brightened our own day too, coming home with bags and bags of delicious apples and lots of rosehips. Apple crumble has now been on the menu two days running already, with more to come.

It may be that you live in a land of rosehips and apples, or maybe not, but wherever you are, there is likely food on the side of the road to be gathered. What do you forage for and glean in your patch of city or countryside?


Saturday, April 28, 2018

How To Not Buy Anything


Apples on an abandoned tree. Another free resource in an abundant universe.

About a month ago I decided to attempt to live with even less and reduce even more the amount of stuff that still somehow abounds in my life, despite rarely buying anything new. This month I have spent money on food and bills, and paying Builder Matt to make me a verandah. Plus I spent $2.20 on a tea towel and two books about pruning from the op-shop. This was an impulse buy as I originally went into the shop to buy some single quilt covers for the girls and there weren't any nice ones..

Here is the best way I have found not to buy anything.... wait for it.... DON'T GO INTO SHOPS. Really, it's much better just to walk past them. Also, it makes trips into town so much more pleasant. I go to the library, I do some tedious admin, I buy some food from little local shops, I enjoy the autumn leaves drifting down in the parks, I say hello to people I know. It all removes that tight feeling I once had in town, that fear that I might be missing some amazing sale, that I somehow needed to buy in order to save?? That covetous feeling of Needing a Thing, a thing that I hadn't needed at all until I went into the shop, and then feeling that I literally could not live without it anymore. For quite some years after I stopped buying new I still coveted lovely lovely things in the shops, but somehow, recently, that feeling has completely gone away. I can't even imagine wanting to buy the things I see in shops now. I think I have unhabituated myself to shopping. It all seems very crass and vulgar and such a terrible waste of precious resources to have shops full of shiny tat that people will cart off to their homes and then send the same amount of stuff from their homes to the op-shop or the tip in order to make room. That is the cycle I see when I look in a shop window now.

Still, needs happen. For instance, this week I discovered I am nearly out of ponytail bands. I thought about this for some time, then made a bunch this afternoon out of bits of leftover elastic from my sewing drawer. When Rosy used to do ballet we had to cut the elastic off her shoes to sew on the satin ribbons. I saved all of that elastic, of course. Today I cut it up the middle then tied a knot in it. Voila, new hair ties. Then I realised I could also tie a knot in my old, broken hairband.



Sometimes I think this could be renamed "Most Boring Blog Ever". I mean, really, hair ties. But, now hair ties are another thing I don't have to buy that uses up something I had in a drawer. It's like living in a slightly different universe. My daughters already think I do that. I think they are right. I used to live in a universe where I 'needed' lots of things that cost money and resources. It was a universe where I often felt slightly deficient because I didn't ever have quite the right stuff. Now I live in a universe where I have enough. I have everything I need and a lot of what I want. If I want or need a thing I can exercise my somewhat atrophied ingenuity muscle to make or remake a thing. Hey, this works for hair ties. It will probably work for lots of things, although most likely not everything. BUT if I encourage my brain to find an alternative way first, then I will leave more of my financial resources for that moment when there is something I really can't cobble together with leftover bits of elastic. Meanwhile, I am loving not going shopping.