Thursday, May 2, 2013
We were starting to wonder where Autumn was this year. Is it always so slow to come on? I can't remember. The days have stayed hot. Nights too and I have been starving for colour. The long Summer has bleached the grass, trees have kept hold of leaves but droop for lack of water. Maybe I made up the mid Autumn stained glass month that should be April. We went to mountains to look for it and found the cold. We found snow and clear starry nights, spoke to each other in steam and piled on coats and blankets. Back in Melbourne this week the weather is all that I want. Sharp in the morning, sunny afternoons and evening rain.
The pumpkin patch is yielding well - dark green knobby kobocha, summer squash and yellow orb. There are still flowers on the vine and small green bumps that might not ever be fruit. The olive is laden, the last tomatoes eaten by possums and the sorrel still going at a gallop.
We have had pumpkin soup with sage and butter croutons, kobocha pizza with blue cheese and walnuts - tonight Japanese steamed squash only partly pared and simmered chicken.
Long live Autumn. I'm not quite wanting Winter yet.
Wednesday, May 1, 2013
For Mark's birthday this year instead of a party we made camp. He wanted to be on the road and under different skies and I understand that thinking. It's nice to leave the cosiness of home and leave a bit of yourself there also. Age comes on us quickly and time seems more expansive on the road.
Preparing for the trip is both a pleasure and an exercise. I want to take everything. Mark wants almost nothing. I love all the equipment - the yellow gas burner, the red lamp, the picnic baskets, woven mats the hand sewn cutlery roll, the blackened billy can...The book box is a whole other story. I get pleasure from throwing in a patchwork quilt and a ceramic teapot. Mark doubts the necessity.
On our first camping trip to the Snowy Mountains in 1986 we had a tent, a stove, a billy and sleeping bags (borrowed)- no table or chairs, no icebox. We put our milk and butter in a canvas bag tied with string and threw it into the river. The Swampy Plains river is all snow melt from Kosiosko. It's cold year round and makes a perfect pantry. Now we have a teardrop caravan. It has a soft bed, little wooden cabinets, reading lights - why not take a watercolour box, the dog and a load of field guides? We have the room.
Our week and a bit took us first to the mountains to see stars and Autumn colour. Camped by a pebbly river the first night in sub zero Bright, we then took the road up over Hotham and into the snow! No sight is more glorious to a city dweller in the Southern hemisphere. How quickly the landscape is changed by snowfall, especially after bushfire. It's an exercise of imagination now to see where the forest was - now it is leafless and rocky with the extreme changes in light that elevation brings. One moment everything was sharply defined - the next we were driving into a cloud.
Each night we set up by a lake or by the sea. Cooking in the after-Easter-early-dark which comes on fast in April, putting our feet almost into the fire for precious heat, having one too many cups of tea before bed...getting up again at three for a wee under a thousand stars. Less frugal now than on our first trip - the highlights were of the same sort - finding a heart shaped stone, buying fresh walnuts, visiting the opshops, seeing snowfall, watching dolphins at dusk on the inside of a breaking wave, being cuddled together under a cold starry sky.
Thursday, March 14, 2013
For one night last month the city was incandescent. Plain surfaces - coloured with light - some buildings working like a child's kaleidoscope. Illuminations, shadows, projections - everywhere lamps working to hold back the night.
Before electrics the world would have been dark through the night. Properly dark but for the moon. Still darkness would have stood close to houses separating interiors and domesticity from the nocturnal doings of owls and bats, moths and monsters. The world would have been thick with shadows and the richer for stars.
Melbourne's one White Night was a magic lantern of entertainment - a reminder of the precious commodity that is light - and the large chunk of life called night.Visited by hoards - by children and adults alike - I hope it visits us again.
After the heat and people, the walking and wonder I was reminded of an excursion M and I took to see a colony of glow worms. We left the city after work and drove 3 hours to the coast - made camp, ate dinner and then drove again into the darkness to a thickly wooded piece of bush. Pulling on jumpers and mittens and bringing a blanket from the back seat of the car we were excited, cold, expectant. Then I realized we had left the flashlight in the tent back at camp. Too late and too tired to turn back - hand in hand with only a matchstick sized key light we walked the pitch black path into the forest. After 10 minutes or so our eyes adjusted and we saw the first spot of light. A half hour later everything was aglow.
Tuesday, December 25, 2012
Buon Natale and God Jul and let there be sun or snow to suit - may big and little find peace, joy and reconciliation.
All that is left of the year is a crust - a shadow. Let us go forward into the new year armed with good books, strong tea and Christmas cake. I want for myself there to be good swims, friends all around, a year of reading and writing, cooking, drawing and sewing, dog walks and long talks and letters in the post. To the northern you - bring on snow and sledding, carol singing and winter woolies. Go out and make a snow angel for me, drink hot cocoa and gather in the holly. The Antipodes holds dear this idea of the icy Christmas even as we sweat and swim!
Thank-you for reading this blog. And bless you if you left a comment last year. Please come again in 2013.
Monday, November 12, 2012
The sun is climbing and the evenings are longer and lighter now.The tomatoes are planted, the chard and beetroot has bolted and the quinces are yellowing but so far eluding the birds. We are treading on the coat tails of Summer and already I miss the green fuse that is early Spring. The first short days of the season are fragile. They are early cold and all afternoon sun. But we are grateful for it. Bees are about - they have overwintered on honeycomb but now are about pollen getting again. They are on the pear blossoms and the echium. They nose into half open roses and use the magnolia like a helipad. The first few weeks of Spring are for those, like bees, who live for flowers.
Three years ago we flew to Japan in flower viewing month to chase the cherry blossom north from Tokyo into the mountains. We diligently followed reports in the Japan Times, where a boxed diagram daily charts the tide of flowers rolling across the country. A map spread out on the hotel bed and a squint at the flower forecast on the evening news, helped plot a journey from Spring into the last days of Winter. So linear is the island of Japan it seems to be possible to move backwards through time and seasons.
On streets, in parks and from train windows we studied the Japanese in full Hanami mode - something deeply arresting in the
value put on transient beauty by a nation so steeped in work and hardship. That some of the oldest trees are named and venerated almost as saints seemed wonderful to us - their branches propped and roped to prevent injury - blankets spread underneath them. Picnics and parties celebrate the fleeting few days of blossom. The Sakura is a non eating cherry - it bears small blunt fruit that fall to the ground green, so it is for its flower alone that it is prized. As Basho walked and penned his haiku visiting with mountains and rivers there are some in Japan who visit the old trees, calling in on them, spending an afternoon with them, sharing sake - perhaps even a song.
In Melbourne spring is signalled by sudden warm days, days of wind and then a week of cold nights. Just as the wisteria has its heaviest bloom the wind dashes them to the ground. This year the blossom seemed to come early starting with the almond and quince and then moving to the cherries and plums. In a spirit of nostalgia we made bento and took it to the cherry trees in the hills. We may not have walked there or known each tree as a friend but it is a good Spring thing to sit with trees.
Now the flowers are gone and the fruit is set. The pictures above might be from another place or age. At the hairdressers I wonder if we will pick apricots before Christmas. The season is at once just begun and nearly over. The Korean barber tells me that the snow is already falling north of Seoul. Early? I ask him. Five days earlier than last year he says.
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
In the chilly Autumn,
thousands of porcelain pieces
as green as the mountains
appear from the kiln.
Strictly speaking celadon is not a good green. It has none of the vivid energy of leaf buds, nor the sombre notes of eucalyptus. It is neither verdantly mossy or bravely bottle green. It sits somewhere between jade and lichen - on the colour spectrum it leans towards grey and away from yellow. Rather than lifting the heart it speaks to it - a colour for poets and those of an exquisite eye. Made from earth and ash, celadon has an earthy appeal. The green glaze is composed of iron and cinders. An incremental increase in iron results in deeper greens. One can imagine the Chinese feeling for porcelain as a magic composed of the elements - of fire, water, earth and iron.
That colour is arbitrary or inexact is a notion we rail against. We do our best to describe it as chemistry in terms of mineral pigments - in physics as wavelength and frequency. But surely my green is not your green. Greenness is in the eye of the beholder. Derwent pencils - the last word in colour in my childhood originally produced 10 greens. In 1939 the full spectrum of Derwent colours was 72 - in the 1990's that increased to 120. When on my twelfth birthday I was given a set of 24 I felt life could not possibly be richer. Today there are 14 shades of Derwent green including teal, fern, felt, apple, iron and Ionian. There is no celadon. Perhaps the fact that celadon can be anything from a smoky jade to a oyster shell makes it a poor descriptor.
In the Romance and Icelandic languages the word for green derives from the root word for growth. In many cultures green is synonymous with hope, freshness, Spring, youth, perennial return and in times of ecological fragility with environmental safety and protection. But green can also stand in for callow inexperience, for jealousy, sourness and decay. If the green of the celadon ware had resonance for Chinese poets and princes it spoke to Buddhist teachings too. Pottery is the perfect palimpsest. It has meaning laid over meaning. It is used and wiped clean like a slate. It is at once fragile and concrete. It is a vessel and so are we.
Long before the Japanese fascination for wabi sabi, the Chinese celebrated flaws. Fabled celadons were often crazed - the glaze and porcelain operating differently under fire. Even after being taken from the kiln the finish can move and the cracks travel. This process is said to explain the life of the pot - a resident energy - an exquisite tension expressed in the clay's journey from plastic to some sort of stone. The imperfect finish somehow suggested, hinted at the sublime. How much more perfect can an object be than one where the beauty is somewhat diminished? One must instead hold the idea of perfection in the mind.
The oldest celadons are also the least perfect - their crackle like cobwebs, their porcelain heavier than other pots. Originally this might have been because of limited production compared to other wares. Practice makes perfect. Or it might be direct reflection of its material makeup. But perhaps celadons were also less than perfect in order to pique the jaded eye of the elite.
For a long while celadon was secret. Green was valuable. Like the royal purples of popes, the Middle Kingdom's monied classes kept green porcelains for themselves. The Chinese for secret also means withheld - unspoken, reserved as in shy or reserved for, as in reserved for royalty. The ambiguity is aptly appropriate. Celadon's scarcity enhanced its appeal.
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Tea is every day ordinary and also sublime. Even the most humdrum brew sets us up for the day, for work, for study, for attentiveness. The Chinese have it that tea brightens the eye - both the I and the outlook. It's a drug which works equally on the meat and mind. It's a hook - on it hangs, history, empire, enterprise and every day.
What you drink says something about you but how you drink it is important too. There are rules for tea drinking and while some ignore them - most of them make sense and add drama and ritual to tea time. Not everyone agrees on what the rules are though.
Orwell thought enough of tea to write down his rituals - actually they read as commandments and remind us of how taste is custom and culture but also fashion. He warns against China tea preferring black Indias, he rails against tea strainers and muslim or silk bags - he wants the tea to float freely as it infuses. I am with him there. Never add sugar, he says, unless taking tea the Russian way. I wonder if he means puddled into a saucer and sucked up through a sugar cube. This is fun though perhaps not for every day.He has another jab at Tolstoy and Chekhov and their acolytes - never drink tea from an urn. How very English - one of my abiding dreams is to own a samovar.Poor Orwell would have been subject to railway tea - not of the Orient Express ilk either - an urn would have leeched every bit of tannin from cheap tea over hours - to be endured on the rainiest of cold days in the second class waiting room. I'm with Orwell on additions to tea. To my mind most tea is best drunk without milk - builders' tea might want the tannin toned down and sure, milky tea is good for dunking. Billy tea needs to be stronger than usual and laced with torn gum leaves. But mostly with exception of chai I want unadulterated tea.I don't even want a wafer of lemon.
School tea is a curse on all our houses. I remember an elephant of an aluminium tea pot, hammered with dents and equipped with a dozen tea bags - their strings tied to the handle. Forty or so cups were lined up - pushed as closed together as possible and the weak tea poured in a continuous stream. You hoped to get one of the first pourings because the second, third, sometime fourth were the product of water added to the same tired bags. Edward Epse Brown, in a film about the Tassajara Monastery, spoke lovingly of the kitchen's battered teapots. Cheap, oversized, some stoved in and covered in dings they were to Espe Brown a lesson in service and humility. I wonder how tea tasted from them.
These days still half asleep my first cup is sometimes brought to me in bed. M leaves it on the night stand and creeps out to work.Often only the dogs open one eye to watch him. Some days this first cup is cold by the time I wake enough to swallow it. The second one of the day is the one that counts. And here our methodology parts ways. Being a coffee drinker who rarely strays towards tea, M boils the electric kettle. I prefer the stove. Most often I boil the tea kettle on the hob. It's primitive but seemingly essential to light the flame and see the steam. I warm our old Arabia 3 cup - throw a measure aromatic leaves into the pot and pour on the boiling water. M is emphatic that the taste is identical between the electric kettle and the stove.(You don't argue with someone who brings tea before first light).If you have a glass pot it's nice the watch the tea leaves steep - otherwise I walk the teapot to the table with a sturdy cup, buttered toast if it is breakfast - or a crumpet for afternoon tea. Turn the pot three times and if you are a black tea drinker like me, pour out that first fragrant cup. Steam yourself in a herbal cloud - its both wholesome and dreamy.
If you are Orwell you will be using good china and drinking Darjeeling. If you are like me you want something homely in the morning - perhaps bancha or barley and something poetic in the afternoons when friends come - a smoky Lapsang souchong, a Japanese cherry leaf tea or something bright like Orange Pekoe. Even the names are enough to brighten bad weather.
I have a hierarchy of favourite teacups too.(I have tried M's patience by trying to pack good cups and a teapot for taking camping). I have some wide blue and white cups brought back from Japan, some heavy Denby, some handsome Arabia and the folksy Lotte all from fetes or opshops.For my birthday I was given some of Jane Sawyer's tea bowls. They are at once precious and formed for function.I am immediately reminded of the axiom of daily use proposed in The Way of Tea – that pots “come to life only after they are put to the test of their purpose.”
I am glad to be giving life to these beautiful objects by using them.
Recipe for Marbled Tea Eggs
Put 6 eggs into a pan of cold water covering by at least two fingers.
Boil for a minute then cover and turn the flame low and simmer for 7 minutes.
Take the eggs from the pan and cool in a bowl of water set in the sink.
Tap the eggs all over with the back of a spoon. Take care to have a light touch so as to keep the shell whole. When patterned all over drop back into the pan adding 3/4 cup of soy sauce, 1 tsp sugar, 2 tablespoons black tea, (Earl Grey or Russian Caravan is good) and 2 star anise or a stick of cinnamon.
Bring back to the boil, then reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for a further 45 minutes.
Let cool in the pan for an hour or so or even overnight. Carefully peel to uncover the marbling. Often the peeled shell is as pretty as a bird's egg.