Wednesday, July 18, 2012

My personal food project: Harris Angus

I have a project to source as much of my food as possible from farms that are local and that I know have agricultural and animal husbandry practices that I support.  This means farms that have sustainable environmental practices i.e. they focus on building the health of the soil and biodiversity, rather than using pesticides, fertiliser and patented hybrid seeds. It is also very important to me that the animals that I eat have a good life, are ideally heritage breeds, are fed only the kind of food that they are evolved to eat, and given the chance to move and express themselves fully. As I write that I imagine animals singing and dancing, but even though my criterion are fairly demanding, I don't go that far.

It's an ongoing project and I'm always really happy when I meet a new farmer to buy from.

A few weeks ago I met Shane Harris from Harris Angus. Shane is a fifth generation farmer and breeds and sells cattle and sheep from his South Gippsland farm.  Shane controls every part of the process, from the breeding right through to the butchering (one of the ways he supplies is through his own butcher shop).  I asked about how the animals are killed and he said that they go to an abattoir about 40km away.

One of the things I love about where the country house is located amongst the rolling green hills of Gippsland, are the cattle.  This pic was taken by my friend Nines, just up the road from my house.

Shane is passionate about breeding and told me that if it is done well there needs to be very little intervention in the rest of an animal's life: mothers can birth on their own and the animals are born and stay healthy and strong. 

His animals eat only grass, which he also told me he leaves to grow naturally. He said that if grass is stimulated with fertiliser it grows quickly but is low in nutrient, which ultimately impacts an animal's health. His sheep and cattle are completely grass-fed.

I'm really happy to have a supplier of beef and lamb that I am comfortable with. And, also importantly,  Shane's beef and lamb are both delicious. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Weekend visitors

I can't believe how long it has been since I posted. I've had my head down in the city working hard on my startup business. Everything has ground to a halt at the country house.

I did have some weekend visitors recently. Kerrie and Henry came to stay.

Here's Henry. He's a labradoodle.

He brought his own weekend bag.

I always like to do flowers for a guest's bedside. I did white roses with some marjoram and thyme for Kerrie.

I spiffed up the toilet wall vase with some fragrant heliotrope.

 Henry didn't say anything about the flowers but I'm sure that he noticed.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Inspirations: Woodland cafe

Happy New Year everybody!  I have been in New Zealand spending time with my family. While visiting my brother who lives at the top of the South Island in a gorgeous area called Golden Bay, we drove to a remote beach on the West Coast.  On the walk to the beach, we stumbled across a captivating cafe attached to a tiny camping ground. Coffee and food were being served from a van nestled in a stand of old Macrocarpa trees.

The tables and stools were made from Macrocarpa and the tables were built around the trees.

Charming details had been added: coathooks and a tableau featuring an old stove. Everything about the cafe was very simple but beautiful quality.

One of the best features was a  tame and no doubt very spoilt peacock named Archie. 

I was captivated and enchanted and immediately started pondering whether I could create something similar one day at the country house.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

It has been a while since I've posted.  I've been focussed on my work in the city.  I did get time to make a couple of things for the herb and vege garden that I wanted to share.

I converted a small unused garden bed close to the house nestled under a rose trellis into a small vegetable garden. It's not irrigated, but I thought I'd have a go and see how far I get before the heat of summer kicks in. Here are my snowpeas on the support that I made out of raspberry cane prunings.  I found the rhubarb forcer (seen in the background) on the roof of the house.

I also made my tomato trellises out of willow branches cut from the garden. About two weeks after I took this they sprouted! I'll have to remove them and dry them in the sun or they will suck all of the nutrients from the tomatoes. The half wine barrels are in an old pond that I drained and refilled. I like the shape of the stones.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Making a compost bin

I know it's incredibly geeky, but I love composting.  All of my food scraps and the paper that goes through my home office goes onto the pile.  I don't bother with turning or tending it, and after about six months it has transformed into beautiful black soil. There's something great about my old tax records and junk mail being turned into food for my herb garden, and in turn me.

 My current compost pile, made from an old wooden box has been slowly falling apart for a while. I thought long and hard about how to make a new one and how it should look. There's no reason for compost not be beautiful, I think.

I procured some old potato boxes for free from a local farmer and with Piet my trusty garden help we transformed one into a new compost box. Well, Piet wielded the chainsaw while I stood by giving anal retentive instructions such as, 'Could we just shave another centimetre off that side as it's not quite even'.  And ...Voila!  Here it is.  Complete with shredded tax records.

My friend Lizzie came to visit and we made a drystone wall against one side of the box from some stones I had lying around.  It even withstood a 4.3 earthquake the following weekend.
No. There is no reason why a compost pile can't be beautiful.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Two types of Autumn happiness

Pruning of the lavendar yields a lovely bunch that I'll put on the fire to make the house fragrant over winter.

A little friend comes out for a sniff of lavender.

Saturday, February 26, 2011


I'm sorry about the lack of post for a while. The town of Christchurch in New Zealand, the place where I grew up, broke and crumbled in an earthquake this week and I feel very sad. Thankfully my parents, who live there, are OK and their house is not damaged.

Even though it has been many years since I have lived in Christchurch, I travel there every Christmas to spend time with my parents. I had assumed that the city would always be there, always be the same comfortable place, unchanged and waiting for me as old home towns do.  Although hopefully wonderful new buildings will rise from the rubble, I'm grieving because the place that I knew is gone.

A pic of Lyttelton, where the earthquake was centred,  I took from across its harbour last Christmas. It sustained heavy damage and along with the rest of Christchurch has lost many of its historic buildings.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Two types of summer weekend happiness

Small but perfectly formed crops.  I grew the potatoes.  The blackberries grew themselves.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Birthday summer lunch 2010 (3)

So, to the entree of my birthday summer lunch.  (I wrote about the hor d'hoeuvre here).
For the entree I braved souffle. Souffle is something that I've always equated with angst and a high chance of something going horribly wrong. As there is already enough angst and chance of something going horribly wrong when I cook for others with even basic, let alone highly strung dishes, I've always steered clear of it.

But then in my beloved Australian Gourmet Traveller I found a recipe for double-baked Gruyere souffles that sounded so good that I decided to risk it. The recipe, aside from looking delicious, fulfilled one of my entertaining requirements: it's pretty much prepared the day before.

Basically you make a bechamel sauce base, add whipped egg white, the cheese and herbs and cook the day before. Here they are looking quite angelic and not angst-inducing at all.

 Then half an hour before serving you add more cheese and cream and bake them again.

Pic by Nina
Next time I make them to this recipe, I'll go a bit lighter on the cream. I served them with a green salad to offset the richness.

Pic by Nina
They were REALLY good. I highly recommend this recipe.

Pic by Nina

Monday, January 31, 2011

The snakes are out

So you're sitting on your front porch enjoying the sunset. It's a gentle rural scene. You snap a couple of photographs.

As you're downloading the pics a week later you notice something on the bank. Hang on, you think, what's that?
You check the photograph before, it's not there.

 You look more closely.

You make a mental note to be very careful in the garden over summer.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Chicken houses, tears and boundary issues

I was very excited when my neighbour G dropped into conversation that he was building a chicken house. Images of fresh golden yolks swirling in home-made custard danced in front of my eyes. I enthusiastically endorsed the project.

A few weeks later when I saw that he was incorporating our shared boundary fence into the back wall of the chicken house I was, to put it mildly, less enthused. I was upset. I thought I'd made it clear that I didn't want anything built too close to our boundary. I was also surprised because G has been an exemplary neighbour. We have spent quality time strolling our properties together, beer in hand, discussing our plans and dreams. He has done electrical work for me, lent me tools and machinery and been on call for bat and spider-removal services. He is always offering to lend me a hand, even though he has 27 acres, a job and a family and often needs a hand himself.  So when I saw the location of the chicken house, it felt like a betrayal of our friendship. It felt, to put it mildly, like my boundaries had been breached.

The view from my front balcony of the part of my shared fence with G where the chicken house would have been clearly visible. I've planted out the garden bed, but it will take several years for the plants to grow high enough that we can't see into each others' properties.

I stomped around the garden yanking out weeds and reflecting. Then it occurred to me that from the day I made the offer for the property I had failed to proactively manage my own boundaries. Annoyingly, I had some blame for this issue, perhaps as much as G.

Four years ago I knew as soon as I turned into the front gate that I badly wanted this house. I stood with the real estate agent while he swept his hand in the vague direction of the property boundaries and that was good enough for me. Dear reader, I'm ashamed to say that when I signed the contract I had no idea where my exact boundaries lay.

My laxness continued. The property had been empty for over a year (it was a mortgagee sale) and another farmer who was owed money by the previous owner had been grazing his cows on my bottom paddocks (via G's land, which he leases). It suited me not to have to worry about mowing those four acres and I have no water for stock, so leasing my land without putting some mental energy and work into setting it up wasn't an option.  So I let the cows continue to graze...without any formal discussion. When the fence needed repairs and when he made improvements, I let G do the work...with thanks, but without any formal discussion.

In my own defense, my property-owning experience before the country house has been with apartments where boundaries are very well defined and managed by a body corporate. I had never given property boundaries much thought. And I was overwhelmed with getting my mind around all of the other things that owning a run-down house on six weed-filled acres entails.

I gathered my courage and I went next door to talk to G. I told him that I realised that I had not taken my share of responsibility for our shared boundary fence and I apologised. I told him that a chicken shed so close to our shared boundary was not OK with me and I asked for a meeting to discuss it. It was a hard conversation for me to initiate and when he kindly pointed out that he recognised this, goddamn, I couldn't help but squeeze out a couple of tears. So annoying.

The next weekend when I arrived at the house, the chicken shed had been dismantled. I walked my whole boundary line to check the condition of the fences. I called the local council and the local community law centre to find out more about my responsibilities. The next time I saw G it was a little uncomfortable but we laughed it off. Then we had a conversation about the work that needs to be done on the fences. I took accountability for my half. It felt good.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

One type of summer weekend happiness

...the promise of a bumper season of apples.

 If the parrots don't get in first.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Birthday summer lunch (3)

I'm stretching it a little when I say 'lunch', or rather it's the lunch that's stretched.  When my guests are staying the night and thus there's no need to worry about an inappropriate mix of driving and inebriation, I like to plan the meal over a stretch of many hours. Say, from about 3pm to 10pm. Someone really needs to make up a word that describes a very late lunch that stretches on into dinner.

Hors d'oeuvre in French means outside the work (of art),  i.e outside the meal, but I don't see why the hors d'oeuvre can't also be a work of art. I mean, just take a look at this cheese that my friend Andrew brought along with an sourdough olive loaf. A total work of art. French, of course.

We also had stuffed olives (a mix of almond, anchovy and sun dried tomato) and smoked salmon and prosciutto with a sour cream,  dill and caper dip, which was also great with the olive bread.

I wrapped chicken legs in proscuitto with a dab of quince paste and oven roasted them with olive oil and fresh thyme.  Here they are lurking in the foreground with the other hors d'oeuve favourite, Veuve Cliquot. Well, it was my birthday.

And here's everything ready to devour.
Pics by Nina

Monday, January 3, 2011

Birthday summer lunch 2010 (2)

Hello and happy 2011!  One of my resolutions is to blog more this year.  First up, I'll finish posting about my 2010 birthday lunch in November.  Here are a couple of pics of the table (pics by Nina).
I kept it really plain; bare wood with white napkins, cushions, paper lanterns and sprigs of olive.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

One kind of summer weekend happiness

A post luncheon stroll. Nina snapped these a few kilometres from the house in early November. Gippsland, where the country house is nestled, is a quilt of rolling hills and quietly grazing cows.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Not all flower arranging and luncheon parties

In glossy country house magazines people perch on the edge of their fountains looking completely relaxed in their pricey gumboots. The photographs never show someone with gritted teeth making a third call to the pump installation man to inquire why the pump was not installed last Tuesday. Or someone riddled with PMT digging up 50 thistles in the paddock by hand.

So, lest I give the impression that developing a run-down cottage on six acres is all flower arranging and luncheon parties, it's time to talk about my project list. Here it is:
Cut and remove fallen tree in field, windbreak for orchard, new water tanks, clear and develop dam/lake, new driveway, landscape and plant front of house, remove trees from orchard area, plant orchard, remove trees in front boundary, plant front boundary, clear, landscape and plant bed behind deck, clear level two trees and plant, trim and remove trees obscuring view, prune Blue Gum, architect plans for deck and house, swales to direct water to lake, new vegetable garden, build BBQ and pizza oven, insulate house, get dock in the paddocks under control, new front fence and gates, new washing line, get creeping grass under control, new woodshed, paint house inside and out, install irrigation, weed and reshape front driveway bed, install gutter guards, install range hood in kitchen, finish herb garden, new compost bins, split pile of wood by the shed, get aerials checked, remove old tin and posts on third level, get roller door remote fixed, get scrap metal taken to recyclers, dismantle old vegetable patch, finish boundary bed.
Calming scented candles help project overload
I've posted about how overwhelmed I felt when I first bought the house. I know it's a 20 year project, but at the beginning, the sheer scale of what needed to be done swamped my brain. Each individual item on the list above is a major project in itself.  This year I instituted a three-project at a time rule and it has worked amazingly well. Instead of spreading my physical and mental effort across multiple projects, I now restrict myself to three.  Nothing new goes on the list until something comes off. Only small one-off tasks can be done outside of the list. It works I think because I make progress more quickly, which gives me more momentum to finish things.  It also limits the number of to-dos cluttering my brain.

Now that I've figured out how to do photo slideshows, I'll post about my three current projects soon.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Flax, roses and lanterns

Here are the flowers I did for a recent weekend lunch. Pic by Nina. More on the lunch soon.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sausage making finale: la sagra della salsiccia* (4)

So, finally to the sausage making. 

Thank goodness that we had Jeanie, a trained scientist, in attendance because someone good at maths had to translate the American quantities for the recipes that we had chosen and adjust them for the amount of meat that we had.  Some of the recipes in the book called for quantities too large for us. Even though we were making only three recipes: classic Italian, pistachio, and fennel, all of our six pairs of hands were needed on deck to chop, grind and measure.

We could have ordered the pork already minced, but we wanted to try out the grinding for ourselves, so ordered it in pieces. We chopped these into smaller chunks and chilled them in the freezer for 30 minutes as per the recipe instructions.

There was great excitement at the first cranking up of the grinder. We had a rosemary-cutting ceremony, to add to the sense of occasion.  The grinding began.

And the grinding continued.  And continued. Then a little cloud settled over the room as it dawned how long it was going to take to grind our seven kilos of meat, which didn't jauntily fly through the grinder as the picture on the box implied. It was slow going and we kept having to stop to remove stringy pieces.

So my trusty food processor was pressed into service and whipped through the grinding at a much better pace. This may have had an impact on the texture of the final sausages, which were very firm. The hand grinder looks beautiful and was great for stuffing the casings but I think I'm going to invest in the meat grinding attachment for my Kitchen Aid for future sausage adventures.

Then we mixed in the ingredients and tested the flavour by cooking a little of the meat in the frying pan.  It was good. 

We weren't entirely sure how to use our saline-packed casings (our recipe book called for dry salt-packed ones), so after having soaked them in lemon water, Stuart bravely stepped in, cut off a length and rinsed it by running  tap water through. The fear of puncturing it proved unfounded, casings are much stronger than they look. We were less assiduous with our rinsing for the other batches and there was no discernible difference in the texture or taste of the final sausages.

Now. I'm not sure that there is a delicate way to broach the subject of stuffing the sausages. I'm preparing you out of love because it doesn't mention this in any of the books I've read: it is phallic.  The knot was tied in the end of the casing, the nozzle was attached to the grinder, the ground meat was churned through and as it nosed its way through the first casing a group of adults literally collapsed laughing on the floor like school children.  I blame the grappa.

Thankfully we had Lizzie to advise on the stuffing technique. She stepped in with a firm hand to make sure that the meat was being packed firmly enough.  We had one person putting the meat into the grinder and turning the handle, and one to hold the casing.

A tip if you are planning to make your own sausages: make sure you remove any stringy pieces from the initial mixture. We did with some batches and not for others and it came through as chewy bits in the final sausages.  Also make sure that you get your meat with at least 20 percent fat. Although this is what we ordered, our meat seemed a little on the lean side.

We cooked up our sausages and enjoyed them with salad, relish and roast potatoes.

We were very proud of our efforts. And stuffed.

*A sagra is an Italian festival. Salsiccia are pork sausages.
You can read the other posts in this sausage making story, here, here, and here.