Sunday, January 31, 2010

Where There's Smoke

There's fire. This is the view from our house right now. Smoky and growing smokier.

There are several fires burning in Tasmania at the moment. This smoke is probably coming from two fires burning in forest close to Cradle Mountain about fifteen to twenty kilometres from us.

The Tasmanian Fire Service website classifies these fires as: 'A fire has started - there is no immediate danger.'

There have been phone calls flying backwards and forwards but so far there isn't any fire close enough for Farmdoc to be called out with the Fire Brigade so we sit tight and watch the smoke grow denser.

It's a little scary though and I've begun wondering what I'd want to take with me if we needed to evacuate. If a fire came through here the fire brigade wouldn't try to fight it because they couldn't be sure they'd have a safe route out. And no building is worth risking our lives for.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Rams For Sale

If you want Border Leicester rams you'd better be quick. We had six for sale but there's a shortage, ours are extremely well priced, and this year there's strong demand. We ran this advertisement in this week's Tasmanian Country and already all our boys have just about gone.

Border Leicesters are very pretty sheep, I reckon. They're the type of sheep that starred in the film, Babe. This is one who came for afternoon tea.

And these two offered a lawn mowing service.

People ask me how I can eat our own sheep. The truth is I find it hard to eat any meat whose provenance I don't know. I know where and how these sheep have lived, how they've been treated and how humanely they'll be killed.

This one's out for a stroll with Sharon, our share farmer.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


My book has been out for nearly three months now and, though I've had some terrific reviews, I'd given up on seeing one in the Melbourne Age.

I was disappointed at first. Alzheimer's: a Love Story is such a Melbourne story, I think. One of the best parts of writing it was learning about a Melbourne that has now vanished. I loved hearing my father's story of running out of petrol during the rationing period soon after the Second World War, and how he had to push the car through the city, up Lonsdale Street where his factory was, to the Russell Street Police Station, where he was given enough petrol to get him home.

And the story of the time before Father's Day one year when the Myer store ran out of Gloweave shirts. Dad parked his car right outside the store's main entrance and he and Baillieu Myer themselves carried the cartons of shirts up to the sales floor.

There were many more stories that brought the past of this city alive.

Anyway, I told myself I didn't care that my hometown newspaper wasn't interested in reviewing my book. I've done very well, I told myself. Don't be greedy.

Then on Saturday there it was: a half page review accompanied by a coloured photograph of me. To be honest, my first response was not excitement but anxiety: surely in such along review there was bound to be at least one negative comment. And I knew that no matter how many nice things were said it was the criticism that would stick in my mind and whisper in my ear at night.

I was in Melbourne as it happened the morning the review came out. As soon as I had the paper in my hot little hand I rang Farmdoc to read the review to him. I approached each sentence with trepidation: uh oh, here it comes.

In the end I spoiled the moment for myself with unnecessary anxiety because there was not one negative word. On the contrary, the review compares me with Joan Didion (blush) and ends by saying 'It is eloquently written, beautifully observed and painfully honest, yet never sentimental or self-indulgent.' Yay!

If you click on the photo above you can enlarge it and read the review for yourself. Otherwise, in the next few days my clever daughter Meg will post it on my website and you can read it there, along with all the other kind things people have said about me and my book. Thanks for the photo, Farmdoc.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sour Cherry Jam

I have just made my best batch of sour cherry jam ever! Some years I have overcooked it so it tasted like toffee and sat in lumps on the toast; last year I undercooked it so it ran down your fingers when you tried to eat it.

A couple of days ago we picked several ice cream containers full of cherries. That's the best part of the process: working in the shade of gnarled old trees, admiring the contrast of red against brown and green.

Then I waited until I had the time to complete the project. Yesterday afternoon I decided that the time and the cherries were both ripe. I have a stiff neck at the moment, perhaps because I am reading Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize winning book, Wolf Hall, and though I'm enjoying it a lot, it is a very heavy book. To avoid any neck strain I sat myself up on a high stool and decided I would only make a few jars. Maybe because I never seem to get it right or maybe because it's not the sweetest jam I make, I'm really my best customer for it anyway.

First I had to pit the fruit. I couldn't get any volunteers to help with the work so I plugged my iPod into my ears and listened to podcasts while I got the wood stove nice and hot. I use an unbent paper clip because I find it much more effective than my store-bought cherry pipper.

Because whole cherries tend to fall off the toast I cut all the fruit into small pieces before putting them into a pot to soften on a slow heat. At this time I added the juice and grated rind of one and a half lemons. Why that number? Because that's what I had and because last year I had a lot of trouble getting the jam to set, and I think it's because one lemon isn't quite enough. I was also very patient softening the cherries because although I hate to see them lose their shape, they do make better jam if they are really soft. This took about half an hour.

Then I measured the quantity I had in the pot, including the juice, and asked Farmdoc to work out how much three-quarters of that amount would be (because I am innumerate), and that's how much sugar I added. I stirred the cherries until the sugar dissolved and then cooked it over high heat. While this was happening I put the small white saucer that I call my jam plate into the freezer. This was pretty hot work because I managed to get the stove's temperature up quite high and I had to stand over it and stir the fruit pretty constantly.

When the bubbles subsided somewhat and the jam began to thicken a little, I took it off the stove and put a spoonful of jam on the cold plate and put it back in the freezer. After a couple of minutes I pushed the blob with my finger and when it didn't wrinkle, I returned the pot to the stove to cook some more. I actually had to do this a couple of times, each time removing the pot while I waited to see if the jam was cooked. I think this is where I usually go wrong. I was nervous about overcooking it and caramelising the sugar, but I was also anxious to make sure it was jam and not syrup. Once I felt it was done I poured it into my sterilised jars and covered them tightly.

This morning I couldn't wait to try some on my breakfast Weetbix. It was perfect! Yay!

Saturday, January 16, 2010


I'd never heard of travelling journeymen until a day or two ago when our friends at Habitat Nursery in Liffey told us they have three German journeymen staying and working with them.

Journeymen are young tradesmen and women who, having finished an apprenticeship, set off on a journey to hone their skills and learn from masters in other parts of the world.

They have an ancient history, which seems to date from medieval times when workers travelled around Europe building the great cathedrals.

In Germany today there are apparently around six societies covering over 900 travelling journeymen and women from a number of trades.

They are governed by strict rules. They undertake to travel for at least three years and one day, and during that time not to venture within 50 kilometers of their home town. They are not permitted to use mobile phones. They must also wear a distinctive costume, which includes vest and hat and collarless white shirt, even while they work. They travel light, carrying all their possessions in bundles that are tied up in kerchiefs and suspended from long sticks, like characters out of a child's picture book. Each of them has a document, which they must have stamped by the mayor of every town where they seek work and they are only permitted to stay in one place for three months.

Their uniforms are based on ship builders uniforms with wide sailor legs. The vests' eight buttons represent the eight hours they work each day; the jackets have six buttons, one for each day of the week they work. The three buttons on each arm of their jacket represent the number of years they have undertaken to travel. The hats are a symbol of freedom because once only free men were permitted to wear hats.

The young men we met are helping to build an addition to our friends' house. They are paid wages that include board and lodging. Despite their medieval garb and ancient rules they listen to Triple J on the radio while they work, have a modern, open manner, and were happy to explain their lifestyle to us. The aim, one of them told us around a typical Aussie barbecue, is to make the foreign seem less strange and more homelike, and to incorporate the foreign into home.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Bridge Building

This is a big week in the life of Onemilebridge Farm. Last August I wrote about how the bridge to our property had begun to fail and needed to be replaced. I wrote about how we loved that bridge and how our friends did too. Our artist friend Janet, who had picnicked with us on it and fished from its weathered boards, painted it. This is the picture I use on my desktop.

It was sad to see our old friend dismantled, but we knew it was inevitable.

It helps, I think, that it's our neighbours from Blair and Sons Sawmill who are doing the work. They do good work and, because our bridge is practically in their garden, they care about its appearance.

The old decking has already found a new home as a retaining wall on a nearby property, and the new decking is being nailed in place today.

This new bridge will weather soon enough, and yesterday Jack Blair, who is nine, fished off it, making him the third generation of his family on the bridge at the time and the first person to enjoy it in its new incarnation.

All in all it's been a relatively painless operation, and in time I imagine we'll become as attached to this bridge as we were to its predecessor. We should go down as soon as the decking is secured and toast it, to make it feel properly at home.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Every morning at this time of the year Farmdoc and I start the day by picking raspberries. Our maximum harvest was last Friday, New Year's Day, when we picked one and a quarter kilos. Now we're down to about three-quarters of a kilo each day. We freeze some, eat some, and I'll turn the remainder into enough jam to last the rest of the year on scones, toast and as gifts.

Over the last couple of days I've made the first two batches of jam of the season. Raspberry jam is a pleasure to make because it's pretty, delicious and foolproof.

Take equal quantities of fruit and sugar, a little water, a saucepan big enough for when the mixture boils up, and a good hot stove, and you have all you need.

I measure the berries and sugar by the cup, and leave the sugar to warm while I slowly bring the berries to boil, stirring and mashing as I go.

Once the berries are boiling well, I stir the warmed sugar in. After that it's a matter of allowing the mixture to boil for only around two or three minutes while I prepare my sterilised jars. I test the jam on a saucer I've had waiting in the freezer, but really I know that once you go past the three minute mark you risk caramelising the whole thing.

So easy and so delicious. Absolutely summer in a jar.

Monday, January 4, 2010

On the other foot...

Farmdoc and I live in a house with a polished concrete floor. This is excellent for the passive solar values of the building: in summer, when the eaves keep the sun out, we are cool, and in winter the floor traps the warmth. An unfortunate side effect, however, is that when we drop something it smashes.

We discovered this early. The first thing to go, the week we moved in, was a small pottery butter dish, which broke neatly into two pieces. We were able to glue these back together and the dish remains in use until today, with only a pale scar as a reminder of its brush with death.

Another early victim was not so repairable. It was a heavy cast iron wok, which had been perfect on our wood stove, but which lost its handles in the crash. We couldn't use it any more but we couldn't let it go either. We passed it to our artist friend Annie Zon, who works with discarded materials, in the hope that she could make something of it.

She did. Her solution was simple. She found an old pot plant stand and placed our wok on it. Voila: one bird bath, which sits outside our living room window and is enjoyed equally by us and the birds.

When Farmdoc broke a platter recently he kept himself from being too upset about it by passing it on to Annie. He thought she and her fellow artist Janet could reincarnate our china shards into one of their mosaic pieces. We'd be able to admire the work in their garden when we visited.

Annie had other ideas:

Our platter has returned home as a pair of pottery and china feet.

One foot is encased in a ballet slipper, while the other has bare toes and proudly bears its brand name on its heel:

The platter was precious to us but now I'm glad it broke, because it was able to become something we will treasure much more: a piece of art made by a dear and talented friend. Now we only have to work out how not to drop it.