Sunday, December 13, 2009

Current arrangement on the deck

I'm just about to head off to the country house to water the garden and prepare it for my absence over Christmas, so no time to write. I'll leave you with a couple of pics of the current arrangement on the deck.

Friday, December 4, 2009

La sagra della salsiccia (1)

While Lizzie and I were enjoying our lunch (vegetable soup and salad) during her recent weekend stay, the conversation turned to home-made sausages. Following a traumatic school excursion to an abattoir when I was 15, I barely eat meat, but I have to confess I do like a sausage. Living in the land-of-the-barbie (Q not the doll!) they are quite hard to avoid but often fall disappointingly short of expectations by being too fatty, too salty, or too heavy on the non-meat filler.

How hard could a sausage be to make from scratch ourselves we wondered? And why not make a fun weekend of it? So the plan for a Sagra della Salsiccia at the country house in early 2010 was hatched.

We decided that our sausages would have to be the from the best ingredients: the pork should be local, organic and from a farmer with humane and sustainable practices, and the herbs should be home-grown. Lizzie's homework was to talk to her mum Eva, who like all good Italian mamas would know exactly what cuts of meat we would need, my homework was to find a pork supplier.

Lizzie duly reported that Eva's recommendation was that we would need two shoulders of pork. My internet searching turned up only one pork supplier - Fernleigh Farms - who looked like they would meet our criteria. I won't darken your day by outlining here the kind of horrific practices that go on at many pig farms; thankfully information is becoming increasingly available to support those who want to choose animals raised and slaughtered humanely.

Last week I drove out to visit Fernleigh Farm to see it for myself. It's about one hour out of Melbourne in the Daylesford Macedon area. I had a lovely chat with the farm's Fiona Chambers who obviously loves her pigs. Fiona supports genetic diversity by breeding the heritage Wessex Saddleback pig. Her farm is accredited organic, her pigs are both bred and grown free-range, and she uses no antibiotics or growth hormones. There is no nose ringing, tail cutting, teeth clipping or use of farrowing crates or sow stalls. I asked Fiona how the pigs are slaughtered and she said that are sent to the abattoir at night, when they are more calm, and that they are put to sleep using gas, which is more humane than stunning them with an electric shock. I'm comfortable with that.

I'll post more about the Sagra as we progress our plans. The next step will be to source the appliances that we will need and some recipes.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A sprawl of garlic

I harvested my garlic on the weekend. Here it is sprawled on the back deck for its two weeks of drying. Garlic was the first thing that I grew at the country house. I started in year one with about 20 bulbs , this year I have about 70. I made a garlic plait with my first crop and every visitor to the house was forced to admire it. I don't get quite so excited now. Garlic is so easy to grow: you just take a clove and push it into the ground (in winter) about ten centimetres depth with the pointed end upwards. Then six months later...voila...a whole bulb appears. There's a profusion of Chinese-grown garlic parading around the markets in Australia now that has been fumigated on its way in and sometimes local garlic is hard to find. Home-grown is so much better.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A vivid grassy green cladding

My friend Lizzie came to stay on the weekend and the weather was deliciously rainy. We wrapped up and went for a walk and I thought that you might like to see some of the photos of the countryside surrounding the cottage. The Gippsland landscape is gently rolling hills that for most of the year wear a vivid green grassy cladding. They will change into their brown summer costume soon so I'm trying to make the most of the green while it lasts.

As well as slowing my heart rate into relaxation-mode as soon as I lay eyes on this landscape, the smooth green hills often whisper invocations to my inner child about how much fun it would be to roll down them. Lizzie and I have sworn that one day we will do this.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Introducing the house: the hallway

OK, so I have been a little slack on the blogging front, but I have had some work done on the inside of the house as well as throwing a big lunch to celebrate turning 40, so there is quite a lot to report over the next couple of weeks.

Today I'll start with something simple, the hallway. Here it was in 2007 when I bought the house. This is the view looking towards the front door (it's the screen door that you can see). It does have some lovely features such as the dado rail and paneling. But tell me what could possibly have been running through the mind of the person who dreamed up the colour scheme when they decided to paint the ceiling forest green. Yes, forest green. Please also note the very dark burgundy trim.
Apologies to any of you who think that forest green and burgundy are a winning colour combination, but they make the hallway, and thus the first impression of the house, very dark. I really dislike walking into a dark house.

I don't have the budget at the moment to paint the whole hallway, but a couple of weeks ago I got Paul the painter to give the ceiling a couple of coats of white undercoat. Here it is, much better, no?
Here is the view looking from the front door back through the house towards the back door.

I still don't think it's light enough down the far end so will probably also have a skylight installed. Imagine it beautifully painted with white door frames, perhaps a soft gray underneath the dado rail, old chandeliers twinkling overhead and lined with photographs. Do you have any other ideas about what would look good? Please let me know.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Whimsical but solid

A couple of weekends ago I bought six of these chairs from a local antique store. Doing a bit of research when I got home I found they are called the Kangaroo chair and were made by a company called The Melbourne Furniture Company in the early 1900s. Each chair is decorated with a small Australian scene including an emu and a kangaroo. I love that they have a slightly whimsical feel to them while still being solid. I bought the mirror from the same shop last year.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

From two innocuous piles of brown material

You may remember the brief excitement when my mushroom box arrived. It has been living under my kitchen sink quietly receiving a spritz of water most mornings. This week it has just started to reward me with its first mushrooms stirring into life.

I find it quite amazing that by mixing two innocuous piles of brown material... can make mushrooms!

I have definitely got to get a life.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Meet the house: the back door

Here's the back door. This section of the house is different to the front and sides, which are painted cream. I'm not wild about having portions of the house coloured differently so this is likely to be painted at some stage. At the moment though, I'm enjoying the rustic feel.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

On rumination

The weather was wild on the weekend which provided a brilliant opportunity to lie on the couch in front of the fire to read and ruminate on all of the things that I should be doing. Such as clearing a whole bank of blackberry. (More on the role that blackberry now plays in my life in a later post).

While lying there I spared a thought for my friend Andrew who also owns a country house and whose weekend would apparently involve planting 800 agapanthus plants. Andrew is the type of person who orders 1200 lavender and 800 agapanthus plants then gets them all planted in a couple of weeks. He is also the type of person who will quite possibly be found several years later digging up 800 agapanthus for some reason that wasn't apparent when he hatched the planting plan. I am the type of person who plants 15 plants in her kitchen herb garden bed and considers this a laudable achievement. Given this, it is unsurprising that Andrew has made substantial progress in developing his garden and I have not.

I'm sticking to the argument that good doses of lying on the couch are a necessary part of creativity. When I was a freelance journalist one of my preferred forms of procrastination was researching the creative cycle (good stuff here if you are interested). Bathed in the warmth of the fire I reassured myself that my brain was getting necessary processing time, while simulaneously trying to subdue the tiny worry that 20 years will pass and I'll be gazing out at the knee-high trees I have only just got around to planting.

I distracted myself by making the arrangement above with some of the old weights I bought from the antique store last week. They are totally impractical but there is something quite beautiful about them. Outside in the rain the blackberry continued its march.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Staining my fingers with their aroma

I have a thing about fresh herbs. I love the thought of big bunches of them stuffed into a jug, strewn on the kitchen bench, thrown into cooking by a generous handful or staining my fingers with their aroma while still in the soil. The extortionately-priced and meanly proportioned cellophane-wrapped packets you can buy from the supermarket have never done it for me, nor have my attempts at growing herbs in pots. One of the great appeals of having a big garden for me has always been the desire to have my own herb garden.

While almost three years have passed since I bought the country house and I still find myself clearing and planning and procrastinating, on the weekend something momentous happened: I completed a small project: I planted my kitchen garden.'s not quite as impressive as that sounds. I almost finished planting one small garden bed, which is predominately devoted to herbs for cooking.

The herbs I have chosen for this area are the perennial cooking herbs, I'm going to put the annuals like parsley, coriander and basil in tubs. I have planted: Italian thyme, lemon thyme, Greek oregano, sweet marjoram, rosemary, garlic chives, sage and winter savoury. French tarragon won't be around for another couple of weeks so I have left a space for that. I have also planted a bay tree and a fig tree, both of which I've surrounded by Italian lavender and which I'll keep pruned so they stay small. I'm going to fill the gaps with those tiny, wild alpine strawberries. The next stage is to drain a small pond, which borders the bed and is permanently filled with some sort of annoying weed. The plan is to fill that with peppermint.

I'll post some photos soon.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Falling prey to a Spring cliche

The newspaper in the town in New Zealand where I grew up marked spring every year with a photo of children frolicking amongst daffodils. It was our city's spring cliche. Now I'm in danger of instituting my very own spring cliche. A crab apple, my favourite tree in my garden is in full bloom. A cliche becomes a cliche for a reason, right?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Mushrooms plucked by my own fair hand

After living in small apartments for so many years, one of the things that excites me most about having land, is the thought of growing my own food. My attempts to date have yielded mixed results. Food growing that involves nothing more than me wandering up to a tree to pick it, has had quite good results. I am modestly downplaying here my involvement in my peach harvest of last summer, which did involve me slinging a net over the peach tree to protect it from birds. Other attempts, such as the 'I wonder what happens if I just let the tomato vines just go wild?' experiment, or the great non-irrigated strawberry trial, have not fared so well.

I am sure that the tide of food-growing success is about to change with the arrival this week of my mushroom box. I have a vision of mushrooms plucked by my own fair hand and tossed into a pan with olive oil and lashings of fresh thyme from the herb patch.

The mushroom box comes with two bags of ingredients, a bag of casing material that is dark brown and very damp and the compost, which is a bit like bark but furred with white fungus.

According to the instructions, you just add some water to the casing, put it on top of the mushroom compost, keep it somewhere out of the wind and light and mist it regularly with water. In three to four weeks...voila!

I ordered my box online and it cost $36.70 including postage. This will quite possibly work out to about $1 per mushroom, but I think that sometimes you can't put a price on taste.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

On taking to the bed

I have been working very hard and in my moments of too brief respite all I want to do is to take to bed.

I read a beautiful newspaper piece once by a writer called Brian Doyle who explains the allure of taking to bed better than I could:
For from the bed we came and to it we shall return, and our nightly voyages there are nutritious and restorative, and we have taken to our beds for a thousand other reasons, loved and argued and eaten and seethed there, and sang and sobbed and suckled, an burned with fevers and visions and lust, and huddled and curled and prayed. As children we all, every one of us, pretended the bed was a boat; so now, when we are so patently and persistently and daily at sea, why not seek a ship?
Not long to go on the project that is consuming everything I have and then I shall be free. In the meantime, there is bed.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The jolie-laide of fruit

I have been collecting old jam jars for a while now with the vision in mind of, A) growing enough fruit and, b) being organised enough to try making jam. I have failed on both counts. I have never cooked with quinces before but I decided to dip a toe into the jam arena by making quince paste. It is such a nice addition to a cheese platter and the arrival of a visitor with cheese usually results in a tiresome process of me peering around the fridge for the last previously purchased exorbitantly-priced tiny tub of quince paste, which invariably bears about a shrivelled teaspoon.

How exotic, I thought when spied the quinces at the market, to be able to whip out homemade quince paste for visitors. I even had a recipe that my mother had recently photocopied for me.

So I bought the quinces. I think that they are, to use an apt french term, the jolie-laide of fruit. They are kind of ugly but also quite beautiful. After I had amused myself by making some table-scapes and admiring the colour contrast (the fact that I choose to prioritise playing with quinces over actually working on the house and garden is probably a good reason why major progress fails to be made) I was actually a bit torn about cooking them. But I made myself. I did have to get over the fact that quince paste should actually be called sugar paste with quince flavouring. Then there was a small incident involving lost patience and the breakage of a sieve during the straining process, but all in all, it went quite well.

One of the nicest parts of the process is that the quince mixture starts out yellow but over the course of the hours of stirring slowing turn ruby red. It's quite beautiful.

So, I now have more quince paste in my fridge than I have ever eaten in my life and quite possibly will ever want to eat. I have also been so busy that I haven't transferred it from the pan it set in to seal it properly, so it's quite possibly suffering the effects of oxidisation as I type this, and may well be spoiled before I even get the chance to eat it. But, at least I know that for my future potential jam-making exploits, I can mix fruit and sugar and boil it and get it to set. That bodes well.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Plundering the flowers at will

One of my first jobs when I arrive at the country house is to prowl the garden for fresh flowers to cut and arrange, although my arranging skills sometimes leave a little to be desired.

My mother always kept a beautiful flower garden, but I wasn't allowed to plunder it at will. Now that I have my own garden, my desire - suppressed for so many years - to create big arrangements bursting from large vases can be indulged. I am hampered now by my relative lack of flowers.

Here's the flowering quince I picked on the weekend, in the country house kitchen.

And here it is in my apartment in Melbourne.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A beautiful exuberance dampened

I earn the bulk of my living consulting to large corporations about how they communicate.

One of my favourite things about being self-employeed is the luxury of working often from home, where my modus operandi involves a comfortable uniform of cargo pants and t-shirt, and the chiropractically-dubious habit of reclining in bed or on the couch with my laptop on my knees and a beverage close to hand.

Often though, I need to work from a client’s offices - as I did for four days this week.
I’m lucky to have the work and I appreciate it. Like most big companies in these global-financial-crisis-tainted times, this one has laid off many people. The corridors echo with their absence alongside the surreptitious presence of the many contractors smuggled in to do what needs to be done.

When not in meetings, I sat on a discretely navy office chair in a grey partitioned cubicle. The visual stimulation provided by a hot pink folder someone gave me was tempered by my anal retentive dissonance that the holes in the documents were punched unevenly. In an open-plan room containing close to 20 people, the only noise for long stretches of time was the clacking of fingertips on computer keys and the white noise of the air conditioning. Occasionally a phone conversation would break out and expose a glimpse of private life: an exhortation to a child to clean a room, a good bye to a husband tinged more with frustration than love. This corporation has the best art collection I’ve seen outside of a major gallery but even the beautiful exuberance of many of the pieces seemed dampened by their surroundings.

While I’m enjoying the mental stimulation of the work, it was a stark reminder about the aesthetic and sensory deprivation of many modern working environments and the subtly corrosive impact this can have on the soul. I bought the country house provide a way to plunge back into the world of the senses. This weekend I’ll really need it.

Today, I didn’t have deadlines or commitments and although my to-do list is long, my brain is sucked dry, so I abandoned myself to a day of pleasure. I browsed food magazines and blogs to plan for dinner at the country tomorrow night with my friends Tracie and Tim, who are bringing their young twins for the night. Then I went to the South Melbourne Market to pick up ingredients.

Still life with weekend menu planning in my apartment in Melbourne.

I will start by baking oatmeal cookies for afternoon tea (my scones are execrable, which is something that needs to be rectified in future). Tracie is bringing a main dish. As an entrĂ©e I’m going to make celeriac soup (inspired by the recipe in the Australian Gourmet Traveller May 2009 issue) garnished with the remnants of a jar of summer truffles I bought last time I was in Umbria. I’ll bake some bread rolls to have with butter mixed with garlic chives from the garden. (Disclosure: I’m planning to cheat and use my breadmaker to do the mixing and kneading so I’ll just need to fashion the rolls and put them in the oven). For dessert I’m going to use Granny Smith apples fresh from my tree to make Frangipane Baked Apples, inspired by a recipe in the May 2009 issue of my favourite food magazine, Cuisine.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A city girl buys a country house and belatedly starts a blog

I have always loved cities and made it my business to live centrally. I was, and still am, the quintessential urban apartment dweller, currently perched in Melbourne Australia. In February 2007, I bought a weekend country house about an hour and a half out of the city. The plan is to transform it into a beautiful haven.

From the beginning, I planned to blog my progress. Alas, my perfectionist streak and distaste for things IT snarled my blog-making efforts for several years while I prevaricated on an approach.

At first I thought that I’d make the style of blog that I often like to read, such as food blog Orangette. My version would be snappy and happy vignettes about my experience as a city girl developing a country house and garden with stylish photographs and snippets of take-away value, a recipe using my fresh picked herbs here, directions for how to brew the perfect compost there. The subplot would be my maturation as I, plucking the fruits of my labour for dinner, get in touch with the rhythms of nature and, ultimately, my own true nature. The denouement would be the entrance of a fabulous partner who is also also a mix of urban and rural, style and substance: cue photos of us with friends and home-grown garlands of garlic around our rustic pizza oven.

This kind of ‘build the tracks and the train will come’ theme had been floating around my mind since my friend Nicola mentioned it when I first bought the country house. It’s a theme from Under the Tuscan Sun, the middle-aged self-actualisation movie involving a protagonist who moves to Italy and finds self knowledge amongst the renovations of her villa. It’s the type of fairy tale where her band of slapstick workmen manage to knock down a wall yet leave a nearby chandelier untainted by dust, and where her very eligible partner walks into her life while she sits in her garden.

While my x chromosomes find this concept ineffably appealing, it bears no resemblance to my own circumstance in which small renovation tasks have been known to coat every surface and crevice of the house in plaster dust; and months and years, indeed perhaps a lifetime to date, of sitting around have not seen the arrival of a handsome stranger seeking only me.

My previous attempts to write about my experiences in the country have also been abandoned in a blaze of cliche: city girl learns valuable lesson about mulching - that if you spend a whole day painstakingly weeding a garden bed then swan off to Italy for a month, when you return, said garden bed looks as if you never touched it. Or, city girl screams at [insert any number of insects and animals including mice, frogs, spiders, or even fleeting shadows that resemble insects and animals]. Or, city girl learns that when she piles seven filthy old tyres in the back of her Volkswagon Golf and drives them back to the city, but has her plans to drop them at the recycling station thwarted, she may find herself in Friday night peak traffic on her way to a gallery opening confronted by an enormous Huntsman spider (think fist- size - almost more marsupial than arachnid) crawling up the windscreen directly in front of her.

So, here I am over two years in. At least I have made a start.