Friday, July 11, 2014

Osso Bucco day

An oyster shell-coloured sky today - sheets of water all about and it seems a far cry from the dry we had only a few years ago. Any vessel left out on the lawn - the odd jam jar, forgotten coffee cup, empty plant pot, boot, tipped over watering can, (I've told you not to leave them out - they rust through faster than.....), anything left out overnight is filled with rain.

It might seem drab out but winter colour can blaze. The camellias are pink, white, speckled cream and deep rose through to red. There are still haw berries on the hedges and lemons, oranges and cumquats have started marmalade themed cartoons in my head. 

Indoors it's an osso bucco day. I'm simmering one in a black enamelled casserole under a blanket of lemons, thinly sliced. It will get another good dose of citrus with the gremolata and after a 90 minute stew we should be able to eat it with a spoon. Long cooking means a chance to get at the mending too. There are trousers in for repair, socks and an apron pattern to cut. The rain rattling the casement windows makes me glad to be busy inside.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

How to blow a bird's egg

Yesterday my feet took me to the museum and my eyes enjoyed it immensely. Was it Darwin who said that god had a fondness for beetles? Me too! Nothing else comes close to their irridescense, their machine-age aesthetic. Engineered for earthworks, their design almost entirely externalised as exoskeleton - by all accounts what's inside is mostly mush. I want to handle them. I know museums are hands in pockets places but I'm itching to touch. My heart drops though to see the birds - their twiggy toes tagged and no note on the noise they make nectaring or courting. I jolly myself by tracking through to fossils and shells.

On the way home I look in at my favourite opshop and come away with a bunch of books and a Harris Tweed hat. The hat is a good fit, snug and silk lined so no pricks or itches from the wool. Best of all though is the lyrebird brooch pinned smartly to the side. I have done well on the book front too. A 1962  edition of John Gilmour's Wild Flowers - Botanising in Britain, which begins, "The first step to becoming a field to be visited with an irresitible passion."  It's true. To be struck with a lunacy of love is surely how we begin to know. The other book is a musty smelling 1955 print of The Young Collectors. The pages are foxed and yellow but there are articles by Georges Rees on pressing flowers and blowing bird's eggs and one by Clarence Ellis on pebbles. Who these days could wear the name Clarence without an apologetic smile? But as collectors go he is one of my heroes. Other chapters discuss in earnest tone the merits of collecting cheese labels and porcelain - an unusual hobby I would have thought for a child. Georges Rees spends a deal of his article on how to prick out an egg with a thorn. "I carried a few hawthorn points in my pocket, blew the egg straight from the nest and carried the blown eggs home loose in jacket my pocket; and rarely broke one." I can picture the young George kitted out in something like my tweed cap, socks pulled over his breeches for tree climbing and a future in filling museum cases with specimen birds.

Friday, July 4, 2014

A List for Winter

Pipe smoke/wood smoke/sooty chimneys
Early evenings
Pie: chicken and leek,spanakopita, apple
Puzzling out knitting stitches
Hard frost
Birds that are hardier than other birds
Floor wax
Marmalade: cumquat, Seville orange, lemon 
Sock darning /shoe polishing
Seed starting: making newspaper pots/ bird proofing seedlings

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Looking both ways

The word January - the name we have for the first month of the Gregorian calendar, comes from a Roman god. Janus, a god with two faces, looked both towards the future and the past. Big headed, he must have stored all the spent days in memory - far sighted - he must see clearly what is to come. Sometimes his two heads featured twin-like faces, sometimes one looked old and the other younger, one bearded and the other downy with youth.  He was both historian and forward thinker - an appropriate figurehead for the year.

The Romans thought of him as a deity of passage, of beginnings and endings. The doors to his temple stood open during times of war and closed during peace. He is the god of gates and doors. He has a yin yang quality, a tail chasing quality.He rocks back and forth between what we were and will be.

Some Papuan tribes too believe that we move ahead by walking backwards. Being able to see only the present moment and the days past, we face history and not the future. Like an oarsman in a rowboat we sit with our backs to the future, we look to the past to meet the approaching days. 

The last days of the old year seem tidily swept away by the middle of January. It is possible to write 2014 without error and scrubbing out. I'm able to remember the weekdays again after the fug of holidays, Mondays seem like Mondays again. It's a good month to lay plans, to outline projects, to make lists - to look forward like Janus, the uncertainty of things to come hedged by  his knowledge of history.

I like lists, even if not much gets achieved they are a witness to intention. Some of my lists are chores, some of them notes - shorthand reference to the way the days fall in a particular month. Above all January means cherries and swimming to me so here's a sort of list and a recipe for cherry cake.

January 1 through 31

north winds
house flies, horse flies, blowies
lawns that are bone dry
first tomatoes
bare feet, blisters, stubbed toes
electric fans
tennis, badminton, board games, cricket
beach towels hung along verandahs
cake: Christmas cake, cherry cake, pavlova
kitchen ants, bullants, ants in pants, Ant and Bee
sleep outs
sea swims
sunburn, ant bites, all sorts of itches
cherries, blackberries, apricots and mulberries
icecream, icy poles, ice cubes, eskies
shorts and sandals
sweetcorn in standing rows

Sour Cherry Cake

The vinegar in this recipe piques the taste of the already sharp cherries and the geranium leaves infuse the plain cake batter with a rose fragrance. If you don't have rose scented geraniums you could leave out the vanilla pod and add a few drops of rose water to the batter.The cornmeal gives the cake crumb substance and is a good foil for the soft fruit.

250 grams soft butter
1/4 cup caster sugar
1 teaspoon white balsamic vinegar
2 cups pitted morello cherries
1 1/4 cups self raising flour
1/4 cup medium ground cornmeal
pinch of sea salt ground between your finger tips
3/4 cup raw sugar
2 eggs, separated
1/2 cup milk
1 vanilla pod sticky seeds scraped into the milk
6 rose scented geranium leaves

Set the oven to preheat to 170 C 
Combine 100 grams butter, 1/4 cup sugar, and the vinegar in a bowl and then pour into a pan and heat over a medium flame until thick and bubbling. Add the morellos and stir to coat the fruit in syrup. Remove from the flame and cool.Butter and line a cake pan and lay the fresh clean geranium leaves face down over the bottom. Pour over the cherries in their syrup.
Mix flour, cornmeal, and salt in one bowl. In another beat the egg whites to stiff peaks. In a third beat the remaining butter until light and creamy and pale in colour. Pour sugar onto the whipped butter and beat for 2 - 3 minutes. Add the yolks one by one. At a low speed beat in flour and milk in which the vanilla seeds have steeped. With a light hand fold in egg whites. Pour the batter over the cherries and bake for 45 - 50 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean - this can depend a little on your oven's fidelity and size. If your oven runs hot turn it down to 165 C half way through baking.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Do what you will

It's a mite cold down south this Summer but the light is good. The days are long enough for holiday luxuries - waking slowly from sleep to read, eating late or early or not at all or making a meal from fruit cake and coffee and calling it lunch. No-one has to be anywhere except where they are right now and now can be lingered over. 

In the lovely lump of days between Christmas and the new year coming in we've established a routine of nothing much and it goes like this - someone - not me - when they wake to make tea and toast and bring it to bed. I'll be just conscious enough to decide on a jam. We have to three on the go: an apricot from a backyard tree old enough to be my mother, a sour cherry from local morellos and a mulberry and blackberry with that mix of floral and smoke scents that bring to mind a north wind and the whiff of a eucalypt fire. We have 14 jars of apricot on the shelf - some of them will go to good homes the rest are calling for toast and scones to be made and made often. We have three of the cherry and the same of the blackberry jam which elevates each jar to a rare and endangered status. If we are to have one of those on toast the bread better be up to the job. 

After breakfast in bed it's a book and or a chat or the radio, or nothing at all and a good look and the ceiling. When we are upright enough for wandering we might watch a ship slide along outside the window or a cluster of boats tack into the wind straight out from the lighthouse and back. If the cricket is on, the telly's on too with the sound switched down and the commentary coming from the radio instead. You can still hear the knock of the ball on the bat if that's your thing.

Soon it might be time for a walk. Or not. If we strike out along the beach we are bound to find sea glass and shells and sand to bring home and the dogs will paddle or swim and bark at each other and birds. 

Next lunch and a game. Maybe some friends will call in and we'll eat salad alongside a savoury tart followed up by stewed fruit or left over Christmas cake. Scrabble, Lotus or a Trivial Pursuit-like game called Parliament can be started in earnest, abandoned for something else and come back to later. 

There has been a jigsaw puzzle on the table for a week and no-one has needed the space for anything more important. Like a video run on a data poor phone its assembling itself in clumps of colour. Mark sits to it for a moment or two or an hour each day depending - I wouldn't dare drop a piece into place even if I found the piece and knew the place, unlikey as that might be. 

The afternoon can be as long or as short as you like. When the sun goes down is another matter. It's over almost before it's begun. Twilight is not our thing in the Antipodes. You can watch the sun dip into the sea or walk out into your own holy illumination. You can turn your back on the sky and see your shadow stretch out on the sand. 

In the summer slack you can do as you will.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

On the Island

A fortnight ago we crossed Bass Strait.

For half an hour the plane looks down at the surface of the sea and that is all. Sometimes a cloud passes.It is landscape enough. Then seemingly suddenly it noses down and follows the river into Hobart. Such a short flight but momentous - leaving the mainland. 

Our friend, studio potter, Jane Sawyer, had been shortlisted for a major ceramics prize in Tasmania and a group of us assembled to see her work and marvel. 

Her pots embody her seriousness as well as her warmth. They engage the heart and fix in the mind - each a love letter and a lesson and an argument for beauty. Her collection River Reflections refers to the shape of her home farm. Her reference points are specific and finely observed. They are a nod to old geology and geriatric trees. But they are universal.

Truth and beauty. Beauty and truth - they can be applied as inarguably as mathematics.

Seeing the work in the gallery, we then saw it everywhere outdoors. We saw it in cloud shapes, in dark water, reflected from windows, in beach stones and sea glass and in each other.

Hobart is sombre and beautiful too. It put on its best weather for us. We ate good food, talked about politics and art, tasted local honeycomb, walked up and down steep hills and mooched in bookshops. What could be finer?

It is the pots that will stay with me though - as a lesson and a preoccupation.