Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Too long hot

In the middle of a second week of heatwave you can divide the world in two. Those who live in air conditioning and those who don't. For those in houses that hold the heat, sleep is scratchy and hard to keep hold of. Tempers are fraying. Clothing becomes more "casual", meals scrappy - conversation is close to argument or all about the weather. The unairconditioned go about looking a little shellshocked, a little rumpled and testy.

If your house is a good machine it can be adjusted for Summer. Deep verandahs, canvas blinds, louvered windows and ceiling fans help. Here the attic holds the heat and a verandah keeps the sun off the window glass. The house is over 100 years old. It has seen hot spells before. Called Ootycumund after a North Indian hill station it was built by decommissioned missionaries who knew a thing about heat. 

We have sherbets and cordials, iced tea, iced coffee and icy poles to hand. The dogs are indoors. We are seeing more than our quota of new releases at the cinema. All meals are either salads or ice cream. Exercise that does not involve water is a vague and somewhat ridiculous memory. Board games are in full swing. The bike is collecting cobwebs. The weather report can either dash or make your day.

The preserving pan has been temporarily retired in favour of making pop. On the go we have a kombucha - family is sceptical about this one, an orange lemon sherbet and an orange blossom lemonade.

from Claudia Roden's wonderful 
New Book of Middle Eastern Food

6 cups iced water
juice of 4 lemons
zest of 1 lemon
tablespoon orange blossom water
1/2 cup sugar

Mix all ingredients and leave covered in refrigerator until the sugar is dissolved.


Sidenote: the house pictured is my friend Rebecca's in Brisbane. Sheltered by giant mango trees, louvered and tiled it's a house built for long Summers.

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.   

Monday, July 15, 2013

Winter is a fine thing too

I resist Winter. Weeks into the season I am still not wearing socks. I scoff at scarves and hats. I am stubbornly cutting greens and tossing salad instead of roasting the pants off root vegetables. My internal clock runs slow. There is a reason my totem creature is a snail.Yet the day comes. And one day well into the season I wake up to the idea of soup and socks and late sleeping. Once I have made up my mind to it there is nothing to fear of cold but cold itself and lots to do to stave it off. 
Winter has a brace of good things about it. Let me remember them:
Low sun which is sweet to the skin and kind to the eyes
Knitting - cold weather makes clicking the sticks together less prickly and itchy
Board games - captive lunch guests are too polite to refuse Scrabble, Mysteries of Old Peking, Scotland Yard or jigsaws. Actually they are not invited to mull over jigsaws but often they will stop in front of a table with the pieces sorted patiently into colours and try their hand. It is a blow when savant-like they drop in a piece. They cannot resist a smile. 
Fires - both in the hearth and in the early outside darkness
French onion soups with a splash of brandy thrown in as the onions sweeten slowly
Make that all soups
Good clear cold nights for looking at stars
Etegami club and receiving mail from the opposite season
Sunday roasts with Yorkshire puddings and crabapple jelly
Cocoa and hot water bottles taken to bed
Working in bed
Dogs on the bed
Winter quilts on the bed
Dark skies
Beachcombing - storms throw up good shells
Late quinces
Pies - savoury and sweet and all shapes - galettes, potted, flans, freeform. I love them all in all their variety
Introspection. Of the good sort
Planning the Spring vege patches
Wearing woolly jerseys and tights
Slow cooking
Seeing dogs out and about sporting hand knit jumpers and coats
Moss, lichen and mushrooms
Chimney smoke and the smell of it
Visiting the Botanical Gardens hot houses or the butterfly avary at the Zoo 
Imagining flying north like a bird

Actually I love Winter.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Autumn at last

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.