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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cultured Butter, Nuts, Olive Oil Storage, Tomato Ketchup, Buying Wine, Manure, Firewood, Tools and Generosity

Cultured Butter

Most weeks we make a little butter. Because the milk is collected in a 20 litre container and repackaged into one litre bottles, the cream rises to the top after a day or two. All we do is decant the top 25-50 mm into a jug whenever a fresh bottle is opened. Sometimes we pour the entire 20 litres into our 25 litre stainless steel cheese vat and set the spare refrigerator to a low temperature overnight. This facilitates the cream rising and the broad surface area of the vat enables a quick collection of cream.

Cultured Butter

For ordinary butter it is a simple matter of using the electric mixer to churn away until the butter forms. Our Kenwood Chef has a clear plastic cover plate for the bowl which stops splashes making a mess. Once the butter forms, pour off the butter milk for own consumption or feeding to the chooks. Stirring and rinsing the butter in fresh cool water is done as often as needed until the rinse water isn’t cloudy. If the butter is not for immediate consumption, we store in glass or food grade, freezer tolerant plastic containers with a small piece of paper inside giving the date. These keep very well in a normal freezer.
Of recent, we have become devotees of cultured butter. All this involves is a little starter culture stirred in and left at room temperature for 16 hours. Because the cream is still cold when we start we only begin counting the 16 hours from when the temperature reaches about 20 degrees Celsius. The starter culture is from Cheeselinks but any good supplier of cheese making supplies will be able to recommend the appropriate starter.
Cultured butter has an extra dimension of flavour and texture. We don't bother salting as we find the pure taste very acceptable.

Chestnut Catkins

Hazel Nuts
Over the last few weeks the various nut trees have flowered and have now formed catkins or nuts. For only the second time we have Hazel Nuts and for the first time Pecans. One of the Almonds has a small crop while the other is bare. As usual the Macadamia trees are laden. These are so consistent that they have become our staple. The chestnuts are producing as well although in past years the fruit has been disappointingly small. Our Winters are not really cold enough for them.


500 ml Storage Jars

Olive Oil Storage

When buying olive oil in bulk such as 3, 4 or 20 litre containers, we try to ensure that as little oxygen as possible interacts with the oil. The 3 and 4 litre containers once opened are decanted into 500 ml glass bottles and corked while a 20 litre is decanted into glass flagons of 2-3 litres and then these, once opened, moved to 500 ml bottles. The glass containers are kept out of sunlight. This may seem tedious but it ensures the oil is kept at its freshest.

Tomato Ketchup Recipe

There seems no value in publishing a recipe if it is just mediocre. Unless it’s an outstanding recipe in terms of simplicity and taste it won't get a mention in this blog. Hence with tomato season upon us, here is a recipe which is superb, can be made in large batches, has a long shelf life and all the ingredients apply to the same season. The recipe is sourced from Mike Michaelson's book A Tomato Cookbook and it’s called Fresh Tomato Ketchup. We have modified it slightly to make a chunky ketchup rather than a sieved sauce. It is a delicious adjunct to scrambled eggs or omelettes and many other dishes.
u  4.5 KG fresh chopped Tomatoes
u  2 cups chopped onions
u  3 cups chopped seeded capsicum (red if available otherwise we use green)
u  4 tsp whole Allspice or 2 tsp ground
u  1 tsp whole cloves
u  1 tsp whole black peppercorns
u  1 cup cider vinegar
u  2/3 cup sugar or less to taste
u  2 tsp paprika
u  1 tsp celery seed
u  1 tsp mustard powder
u  2 tbs salt
Cook first three ingredients together in a large kettle, uncovered for 30 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients. You can put the chunkier spices into a bag for removal before bottling. We don’t bother. Bring to the boil for a few minutes then bottle in small jars.

Wine $

We love our wine and we love exploring different brands and varieties. In order to show some restraint in our purchases, we set ourselves a maximum limit of $12 per bottle (give or take a dollar or so). Be assured there are an unlimited number of quality wines available within this price limit. However, as with all things there is always one that eludes the price limit, usually an import from a very special region with wonderful health giving benefits or a particular variety which is highly regarded and rare.
To overcome this price restraint has proved not excessively difficult. It is a matter of averages. As most stores offer an attractive discount for purchasing by the case it makes sense to collect a dozen different tasting samples and make good the discount. Given that, with a price ceiling of $12 that sets the case limit at $144. Naturally some of the samples will fall well below the $12. This allows the surplus from each bottle to be accumulated and put towards that sought after rarity which may be winking at you from the $25 shelf. In desperation you can buy two cases or more. This provides some additional surplus dollars should the apple of your eye be significantly higher. So, as long as when you are loading the rear of your car with the purchases you can confidently divide the total spent by the number of bottles and arrive at a number that is 12 or less, you are sitting pretty.
A frugal life does not have to be a life devoid of simple pleasures, whether of the eye or the palate.

Manure, Firewood, Tools and Generosity of Spirit

We normally collect our weekly quota of milk during milking time as it is easier to fill a 20 litre container from the pipe going to the vat than ladle it from the vat a litre at a time afterwards. As part of the visit, it seems only polite to stop and chat to the farmer and pitch in with helping to wash out. The opportunity of company is warmly received and to shorten the milking time with some assistance is always valued. Most small dairy farmers spend a lot of time working on their own and generally they are a social group. It wasn't long before this routine of stop and chat and wash out moved to helping with the fitting and removing cups as the chat extended. This once weekly visit became a valued addition to the loneliness of milking and the dairy farmer reciprocated in kind.
One thing that dairy farmers have a lot of is manure. It accumulates rapidly and usually in places where it is not required. The offer was simple. If we wanted to remove the manure out the dairy yard (a concrete pad at the entrance to the dairy) from time to time we could keep all the manure. Well what a bonus! Endless amounts of manure for the orchard. Each pick up every 3 to 4 weeks resulted in nearly a trailer load. This was dumped in windrows between the fruit trees in the orchard. The chooks were in heaven spending all day scratching and spreading with their legs, showing brown high tide marks by day’s end.

Four Barrows of Manure after two Weeks
And then of course there was the Christmas Bonus ie a share of the sediment pond when it is cleared annually. This provided 3 or 4 groaning trailer loads of soft well fermented manure.
One of the continuous tasks on any large property is the renewal of fencing. On a dairy farm this is particularly evident as the property is broken into many more grazing cells. This farm had been in the family for generations and the farmer is in the midst of replacing grandfather’s fences on the rich alluvial flats. A lot of time is spent pulling and winding up kilometres of rusty barbed wire before removing the aged ironbark posts and in some cases even rails.
We seem to be always on the lookout for firewood for heating during winter and the idea dawned that a trade may be possible to the benefit of both parties. The idea was broached and accepted enthusiastically. In return for removing the fences we keep the very aged timber. In addition, we could use the farm equipment to do the task. This was soon followed by the offer of paid work to assist in the erection of the new fencing.

Fence Posts for Firewood
From time to time we have a need to borrow specialised tools or equipment from friends or neighbours. Usually items which you would only use once in a while and not something to justify a purchase. We always return them promptly and in better working order if possible. A sharpened chainsaw, a little rust removed and paint applied, fuel topped up, some oil or grease where necessary or even some cheese and wine as a thank you. It’s not surprising that these friends and neighbours are enthusiastic about putting their tools in our safe hands. Our belief is that along with the tools comes the responsibility of fixing it if you break it.
We have a strong belief that it is important to be generous with your time and to demonstrate willingness to do a good job and to not have expectations and not want something for nothing. The benefit of having no expectations is that you cannot be disappointed only gladdened when reciprocal generosity is demonstrated.

Backyard Chickens Part One Introduction

The Girls
We love chooks! To see them sailing, like small, curved ships, around the farm or garden is so relaxing and pleasurable. Our girls (and their roosters) spend their days grazing on green grass and dust bathing in the Orchard and Nuttery. They give so much: delicious, nutritious eggs, high nitrogen fertilizer, a meal if you can arrange for them to be humanely ‘processed’ (a nice euphemism for killed and dressed). They also give companionship and a great deal of fun and pleasure.
There has been a resurgence of interest in being a “backyarder”, the name given to people who keep a few chooks to supply eggs, as opposed to the “fancier” who usually specialises in a particular breed or two and focuses on the breeding of specified characteristics. We are very happy to be a backyarder as, underneath this conservative, middle aged exterior there may lay a touch of the animal liberationist.
If people are interested in acquiring some girls, and perhaps their male counterpart, there really needs to be some serious planning and preparation before the girls arrive. Like everything, they need a comfortable, safe house and yard; they need good quality food, companionship and room to move and express their personalities. And personalities they do have!
For gardeners, it may be better to keep garden and girls separated. What gardeners call mulch or compost, chooks call food. And they are very efficient foragers. So they can be great little helpers under fruit trees for example, as they will scratch and graze on bugs and pests, as well as any fallen fruit. They leave their droppings around the area which helps feed the worms and other living organisms in the soil. This chook manure is quite high in nitrogen and is excellent for some high foliage plants but can burn others; left to break down or incorporated into the compost, it is terrific stuff.
What they eat, can lead to what you eat, most quickly as eggs. We run our small farm organically/biodynamically. Therefore, no chemicals are used on any plant or animal; the girls can safely eat anything they are given access to, as we can. The eggs are as Nature intended. Most commercial eggs, in particular those labelled as ‘cage’, but also the “free range” or “barn laid” rarely see a blade of grass. The very nature of being a large scale, commercial producer necessitates the need for volume. Too many chooks on any amount of land leads to dirt, at best (battery hens don’t even have access to this!).
Hens need green grass (and what lives in and under the grass), as do most farm animals. It is what they were intended to eat. It supplies them with good amounts of Omega 3 fatty acids (albeit in a different form to those found in fish, but still very beneficial to our brains and cardiovascular systems in particular) as well as carotenoids in the form of beta carotene (a precursor to Vitamin A). This helps to give the eggs that golden colour and the long list of vitamins and minerals. Commercial feeds often contain an additive to colour the yolk. Hens who graze all day have higher amounts of Vitamin D, a vitamin now believed to be very important in helping to avoid osteoporosis by assisting the body to absorb calcium and deposit minerals on the bones. We get Vitamin D from sunlight on the skin, but the body’s ability to utilise and convert the sunlight decreases as we age, hence the need to include this vitamin in our diet.
Of an evening, we supplement this grazing diet with some whole grains. They love them, and the various grains we give them (corn, wheat, unhulled sunflower seeds mainly) supply some Omega 6s, of which chooks and us need less than what has become fairly prominent in the human and animal diet. Too much of these Omega 6s are now being blamed for inflammation in the body which is being increasingly linked with diseases such as arthritis, rheumatism, digestive problems, skin reactions, stress and also heart disease. The list goes on.
So what the chooks eat is really important to their health, longevity and happiness, as it is to ours. By allowing the girls to lead a healthy and contented life, they contribute to our own health, happiness and longevity.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Cattle Feeding, Fixing Things, Bitter Melon, Bulk Meat & Home Kills, Home Brew Beer

Cattle Feeding

Companion Steer
Today we moved the cattle (all three) into our best grazing paddock. This is the one in which we have grown tomatoes and melons in different patches over the last 15 or 16 years. The small section allocated as the Tomato and Melon bed this year is protected by an electric fence. Part of the paddock was slashed nearly three months ago and with the ample rain, has grown a solid cover of various grasses. The animals ran into the grass and the sound of ripping grass and munching was evident. This is probably one of the most pleasing sounds.

Fixing Things

Rechargeable Torch
Over the years we have collected a few expired, rechargeable torches. They were kept for spare parts as we always purchased the same make and model. While scavenging for a spare part, the realisation dawned that with a simple modification some standard rechargeable AA batteries could be utilised to replace the originals. It is a shame it took so long for this to become apparent. Now we have a bank of working rechargeable torches to choose from.
Just to boost our stockpile in this area we found an almost new waterproof torch washed up on the beach during a recent walk with the dogs. The battery was one of those large 6 volt non rechargeable models. After carefully prising open the black battery box and removing old batteries it was a matter of fitting an alternative. There were two spare 3 volt batteries from an old non digital camera that provided the immediate solution. When these die they will be replaced with an assembly of rechargeable batteries.
Having been spurred on by the success with torches, when our very expensive can opener ceased operation it was dismantled and the broken component replaced. It was just a matter of finding a piece of scrap metal to serve as a handle. This can opener removes the lid by cutting inside the rolled lip without leaving any sharp edges. The task took less than an hour. The dollar saving was substantial.
Unfortunately, we live in a throw away world where repairs are more expensive than replacement. This never takes into account real cost on the environment of replacement nor disposal of the expired item. There is an image in our minds of large amounts of raw material being dug out of a giant pit. An enormous factory is built and fed by electricity generated by a power station belching smoke. At some point, a pristine cardboard box exits from a door to be loaded onto a container ship and delivered to our house. Very shortly afterwards this $10 item stops functioning and goes into landfill nearby. Maybe we could skip a few steps and save all that hassle. Just on principle, we are prepared to expend a little time and attempt to patch and repair.

Bitter Melon

Bitter Melon Vine
The Bitter Melon seeds we planted had a bit of a chequered start. Something managed to nibble away at the seeds as they poked their heads above the ground. Nonetheless, these things are pretty hardy. They struggled on through this early adversity and are now thriving. Seems they must be a very hardy plant.
Once the fruit is available they become an addition to any stir fries. The bitterness when cook is apparent but not abhorrent. This provides a nice little dimension in flavour. Wikipedia provides a substantial amount of detail on its medicinal and culinary values. 

Bulk Meat – Home Kills

Although one of us is a vegetarian, meat still plays a part in our food requirements especially with cats who love their mince and dogs who love some meaty bones. Often it is possible to pick up scraps of meat and bone from the supermarket where they are packaged and labelled as pet pieces. We are fortunate to have access to a number of small farmers who happily sell an entire beast as a home kill. The price per kilogram is the equivalent to the pet pieces but is much more than the farmer producer would expect to obtain through the normal commercial sale.
The animal is sent to the abattoir and the carcase forwarded to our local butcher. The butcher is most helpful organising the cuts to suite our needs ie no corned beef or sausages and more mince and pieces for the dogs. There is an option to pay a little extra and have everything pre-packaged in small packs and individually labelled. We choose to collect the cuts in bulk, package and label ourselves.

Frozen Home Kill

The usual arrangement is for our solitary human omnivore to start with the best cuts while the dogs and cats start at the other end. All seem to be happy with this arrangement.
Our only lament is for the arrangement we had on our previous property where a skilled neighbour would attend the property and dispatch the animal in question while it quietly grazed, eliminating any stress. The body would then be hung for the appropriate time in a cool room and then cut to suite by this home butcher.
The last comment we have on home kills is on the feeding regime. If you must eat meat, a grass fed animal is the best for you. Grain feeding is an unnatural diet for cattle, sheep and pigs. This overloads their system with Omega 6 fatty acids which find their way into your diet. So unnatural is the grain diet that in order to prevent ketosis and other issues, the grain is supplemented with a low level antibiotic and other additives. More importantly, a grass diet usually means that the animal has lived a natural existence.

Home Brew Beer

Home Brew Fermenter
There are some very tasty beers available on the market and some of these are expensive. Alongside them is a swag of mediocre brews at varying prices. Although we like to try some of these quality items from time to time it is a practical and enjoyable measure to brew the bulk of our requirements ourselves.
Some people have superb palates and every nuance of the flavour profile stands out for them. We are not in that category but we can discern rubbish when it enters a glass. Hence, we don’t go to outrageous lengths to make the ultimate beer. Our makings are perfectly acceptable to the average set of taste buds.
The perfectionist home brewer will start with grains, hops, yeast and water and with considerable skill produce a superb beer to be savoured by the experts.
The next level down is to buy a high quality (and price) kit beer with some additional bits and pieces such as hops and/or special grains to enhance the kit and bring it closer to its suggested style. Some home brew shops have developed these recipes from arduous and selfless testing as well as input from their customers. Home brewers are a generous crowd who are willing not only to share their secret recipes, but also the outcomes.
Moving down the scale, the next level and probably the most utilised is the standard beer kit from the supermarket or home brew shop. Extremely inexpensive and able to pass muster as a good beer assuming the various hygiene processes are followed.
Lastly, there is the old family recipe handed down from first born to first born involving the basic of all ingredients: brown sugar, water, golden syrup and hops with a little molasses for flavour. A robust ale not to everyone’s taste, more for a memory of leaner times.
After trying the family recipe for a time we moved onto the basic supermarket kit some of which were pretty reasonable and of late some are very good. For such specialist items as homemade Guinness we use a local brew shop’s fully tested combination of extras and output a brew which in blind tastings gives the real stuff a run for its money.
Hygiene is a critical factor in producing a good quality result. Sterilising the fermentation vessel and the bottles is mandatory. A little aging (6-18 months) adds a lot of flavour, particularly with the heavier beers such as stout. Wheat beer though doesn’t improve with age, best drunk within a couple of weeks, after that it doesn’t change.
The best time to brew is in the cooler months when the fermentation naturally takes a little longer. Put down a few batches initially to provide a buffer that has some bottles receiving that needed bottle aging. Bottles, both full and half size, suite us best although some enthusiasts skip this tedious step and use CO2 to gas up their kegs which are kept on tap in their own refrigerator. For the enthusiast this takes out a number of additional steps but may create difficulty in tracking consumption.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Summer is Coming, Working Worms, Cabbage Regrowth, Telephone Bills, Fish and Other Seafood, Drinking Less than A bottle of Wine

Summer is coming

The days are getting much warmer and the humidity less bearable. The best way to fight the desire to stay indoors and away from the many jobs that needed completion is to raise the level of fitness. Gradually over the last two and a half months we have been increasing the amount of work done in the pool. A few more laps for the lung capacity, a few more repetitions of the various exercises to strengthen the muscles and keep the joints flexible.
The hats are on earlier in the day, long sleeves even though they make you perspire more. Sunglasses just to have something fog up. Water bottles strategically placed to ensure a constant intake.
The kidneys process on average about 100 ml per hour. The average bladder holds 500 ml. So you should be peeing every 5 hours under normal conditions. When working in hot conditions you don't want to wait 5 hours to find out you have a problem. Moisture loss from perspiration is high and needs compensation. If your urine is a dark yellow you are not taking in enough water. Check this regularly when working hard in hot weather.
Be careful of lazy bladder syndrome. This is when you have the desire to urinate very often. This can have been created by urinating so frequently that the bladder trains itself to send the signals more frequently. This can be fixed easily by holding off and retraining the bladder. If this doesn't work then you may have a more serious problem.
There is growing satisfaction as your body gains some match fitness and the less than pleasant conditions don't feel all that bad. Don't push too hard. Regular breaks to cool down are critical. Building up stamina in these conditions is no different from athletic training. It takes time and a slow process is a good process. The worst outcome is to be hurt and lose all ground gained.
Conversely avoiding the confrontation is the worst thing for your body. It weakens the body and the mind and is unhealthy in the long term.

Working Worms

Sometimes there is spare space in the vegetable bed for which we don't have an immediate use. This is a rare occurrence for us as there always seems to be something that could be planted. When this space does arise, it is a good opportunity to perform some lazy gardening.

Mulching for Worms

A generous layer of chicken litter is put over whatever are there, weeds and all. This is then covered with thick biscuits of hay or straw and left alone. Within a very short time a miracle occurs. The mulch kills off any green growth and the worms feed off it and the chicken litter. They dredge through the soil making it loose, crumbly and very rich in nutrients. What is left of the mulch can be reused on another spot (with some additions). All this is performed with the minimum of effort.
Sometimes if time permits we even bury material due for composting in trenches in that bed. This really gives the worms something to work on. You will find the soil becomes filled with worms as large as miniature snakes.

Cabbage Regrowth

Cabbage Regrowth

When recently harvesting cabbage ie one every few days, the stump and a number of outer leaves were left in the ground to be attended to at a later time. Well the later time was long in coming and the cabbage decided to regrow. It shot out a number of fist sized clumps. When the worst of the outer leaves were removed there was a very nice little edible cabbage. Chopped and lightly fried in Extra Virgin Olive Oil, fish sauce and some chillies, it becomes a delicious treat.

Telephone Bills

Some time ago there was a big effort by us to reduce costs. One of the targets was the telephone account. A number of new practices went into place to trim its size. Eventually, we more than halved the monthly amount and put the savings to better use.
Step one was to get rid of unwanted services such as the rental on extra handsets, which were promptly returned to the post office. Rather than pay for an answering service we used our own answering machine. This has the benefit of allowing an opportunity to filter unwanted calls.
Step two involved returning calls after peak periods ie 7pm, avoiding initiation of useless calls. A useless call is one which conveys no useful and timely information which can be put off until a face to face meeting. Many return calls were relegated to email so that a lot of people could be contacted through one dial up transmission call (we as yet don't have Broadband). Care was taken with calls to mobile telephones (best avoided) and long distance calls, especially timed local calls. Some years ago what was a local fixed price call changed. Local calls now cover only a very small distance and timed local calls are in force for everything else.
Step three was to look at the makeup of our remaining calls. As it turned out, all our calls are of short duration, therefore a plan which gave unlimited time for a fixed price per call would have increased our costs. This is an important step. We simulated our call data through a number of offered plans. All the fancy offers increased our costs. Providers spend a lot of time finding offers which will increase your payments not decrease them.
There is always the danger of looking at a new offer by a supplier which offers all the calls you can make for a fixed monthly fee. Closer analysis usually shows the fixed fee is greater than the amount already spent.
The mobile telephone is a wonderful invention; it is also a revenue generator for someone else. A business person will find it difficult to operate without a mobile. For the average person who may really need to stay in touch with family or friends for a particular reason a mobile telephone with a prepaid card is more than adequate. Is it really necessary to peer mindlessly at a supermarket shelf and ask your partner who is elsewhere whether they wanted the 375gm or the 750 gm container? A little bit of planning can save time and interruption.
Working outdoors alongside others who carry a mobile telephone is an interesting experience. Productivity declines rapidly when one person is answering yet another call. Worse still if the task is a two person effort ,one is left standing uselessly while the other chats away.
One important point about mobile phones is their settings with the provider. Unless these settings are carefully made, the provider will chew up the balance of the prepaid card faster than you can refill it. Options such as a message service and automatic notifications are always at the user’s expense.

Fish and other Seafood

It is important to ensure your level of Omega 3 intake is balanced with Omega 6 intake. Omega 3 is predominately found in fish of the deep sea variety and some seafood. Omega 6 is predominately found in vegetable oils.
Catching your own fish can be the cheapest method of keeping a regular supply. The only down side is the limited species available in any one fishing area.
Buying frozen fish (whole or fillet) is reasonably cheap and just as nutritionally good.
Buying from the local fisherman's co-op is the next cheapest source and the variety of species is greater although a significant jump in cost over fishing and frozen. Sometimes two to three times dearer than buying frozen.

Shatter Pack of Hoki

The best buying for us has been to purchase frozen caterers packs of 5-10 kg. These are called “shatter packs”: the individual fillets are packed in a layer separated by sheets of plastic which you can later recycle. Individual fish fillets separate easily. The range of these is quite broad and in addition many are packed by fillet size. Some varieties such as Sole may need to be scaled and species such as Sardine also gutted before use, but on defrosted fish, this is an easy task. One of the best all round fish we have found is the deep cold water Hoki. It has a delicious white flesh and can be used in a whole host of different meals.
Don't forget to buy the skin on fillets; it’s cheaper and better for you.
New Zealand Green Lip Mussels are extremely cheap in one kilogram frozen packs minus their shells. They are recognised as an anti inflammatory and without a shell there is no struggling with your meal. They are naturally high in Omega 3 as well as Glucosamine and Chondroitin. The latter two are necessary for growth and maintenance of healthy cartilage.
Occasionally you may come across Australian frozen shelled prawns. These can be very well priced when you take into account you are not paying for the shell that will be discarded. We avoid imported prawns because of the poorer controls over them. Although not high in Omega 3 there is little else as pleasurable on a hot day as freshly caught cold prawns and a chilled glass of white wine.


There are occasions when we want only a glass of a particular wine. This means the remainder must be kept for another occasion. The problem being that the remainder oxidises and becomes undrinkable. A simple solution is to have a few different sized bottles handy. If you only want one glass then decant the contents into a 500 ml or a 375 ml and a 160 ml.

Wine Bottles

A marker pen will enable the appropriate writing to be made if you don't trust your memory.
We find screw top bottles the simplest but corks work just as well as long as all components of your chosen solution are sterilised after each use.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

First Spring Vegetables, Bees, Budgets and The Pond

First Spring Planted Vegetables

Japanese Climbing Cucumber
This week the first zucchinis were picked. All baby size but just perfect in freshness and flavour. One of our favourite ways to serve is sliced longways in half and fried in Extra Virgin Olive Oil drizzled with some soy sauce and served warm either as a nibble with wine or as a side dish with the main course.
Yesterday the first two Lebanese Cucumbers were picked. Only small, no more than 150 mm in length so that the seeds are immature. Cut off the bitter top and tail then slice lengthwise and served with a little sprinkling of coarse salt. The slight coolness of the interior contrasting with the sun warmth of the skin.

Tomatoes over 2 metres Tall

A pleasant surprise to find two ripe Beefsteak Tomatoes. Also found two Hungarian Wax Capsicums ready to go. Must be a good season as this is the earliest harvest of these two we have ever had.

Rattlesnake Beans

The rattlesnake beans are flowering more heavily and multiple tendrils have climbed the baling twine with some already tangling at the top. One day it would be interesting to see just how high they might grow. On the other hand that might awaken giant up there. The early flowers are already beans 75 mm in length. Another few days and we should be eating our first crop. Again we favour a simple recipe. Top and tail steam lightly until they change colour slightly then drizzle with Walnut oil and again a light sprinkle of salt. Serve as an entrée or with the main course.


Bee Hive

Bees are so important for successful pollination. With so many fruit trees and vegetables growing we find it critical to have our own hives. The free honey that comes with the hive is a bonus that more than justifies the small amount of work to maintain them. Our hive numbers fluctuate. We try to catch any swarms that form, sometimes these are not viable. As with so many other projects we can’t claim any great expertise but we try our best. Sometimes we lose a hive because of our poor management and this encourages us to take more care. Reading the bee books and experience improve our performance ,however we yearn to spend time with an experienced apiarist to get a better grounding.


When we first began this low income lifestyle it was imperative to understand how much we were spending and on what, as well as to be able to mould our monthly outgoings to our varying monthly incomings. There was also a goal to put some money aside each month to service the remaining mortgage and when it evaporated that surplus was needed to build a reasonable buffer against lean times. Initially we set the buffer at a minimum of six months then as opportunities arose grew it to 2 years. That means if we were unemployed for two years, we would not be destitute.
The critical tool for achieving this was the budget. The initial setting up requires a little effort. There are free software tools available on the web but we chose to use Microsoft Excel. The time consuming work revolves around gathering the historical data of the past 12 month’s expenditure. In our case, we had a shoe box with the past years shopping dockets and invoices from the various utilities etc. Once sorted, the task wasn’t too bad. Starting with expenses sets the scene because it dictates how much you must earn. The breakup of categories depends on what needs to be tracked. Telephone, fuel and electricity are three classifications it pays to keep separate at first as they can be reduced. After twelve months of targeting fuel, telephone and electricity reductions personal behaviours change permanently.
At first it is a good idea to have a lot of categories to track in order to build a bit of history. Personal items mostly involve discretionary spending and we tracked these by individual. Shopping was broken into a number of categories such as food, wine, pet food, seeds and seedlings, fish, meat, cheese making supplies etc. The motor vehicle costs are split between fuel, services (including tyres & batteries) and registration and insurances.
The budget then consisted of four columns for every month ie Planned Expenditure for the month, Last Year’s expenditure for this month, Actual expenditure for this month and the variance between the Plan and Actual. There was a subtotal of expenditure for the month at the bottom, followed by the income items for the month by individual and a subtotal for income. Income and expenditure were subtracted to see if there was a profit or loss for that period, this could then be either put aside as savings or put towards the mortgage.
Every month, once the numbers were complete, we would look at the variances over a cup of tea and discuss progress. Sometimes the savings were false as the expenditure had been deferred to the following month. In these cases we adjusted the plan accordingly. If there were true savings or overspends, we assessed why and discussed future actions.
One benefit of laying out the whole year’s expenditure by month is that one off big bills such as Home Insurance are visible ahead of time and can be accommodated accordingly.
Although we use a Credit Card to pay for shopping and other outgoings we never ever not pay off the full amount each month. Better to have a few lean months and go without some things than needlessly incur interest payments.
A surprising thing happens when the mortgage is paid off. Suddenly there is this quite a large amount of money which doesn’t need to be spent. Depending on the size of your mortgage and repayments, this can be a significant sum. At this point the sensible thing to do is forget you have the surplus. Don’t be silly and try to justify its spending as some form of reward. Put it straight into a special savings account with the best interest you can get and build up your security buffer.
When we want something special such as a new large screen TV then we set up a savings program to get it. This serves three purposes. Firstly, there is a separation of time between your desire and the actual event. This is an ideal situation to ensure that your interest in the acquisition is not a passing fad. Secondly, by saving separately you confirm that you have the long term funds to contribute to the new object. Thirdly, waiting for something increases the pleasure. Not only satisfaction of reaching the savings level needed, but then the purchase and use afterward.
One important shopping tool that we always use is discussion. Anything that is not a standard shopping item on a list is not purchased without prior discussion. And that means anything irrespective of the value. An item of clothing, a new tool, a book all are bounced off the other partner. This discussion starts with do we really need it and progresses through is there are better way of getting it to is it the best model ie should we pay extra and get a higher quality more expensive item with a greater duty cycle. We don’t set a minimum dollar limit to discussion items. Every dollar adds up.
Speaking of dollars all loose change is confiscated in this household. The eye opener is how often this results in another $100 going into savings or off a mortgage.
Two other planning tools are useful. The first is the Capital Replacement Program. This is a list of all our major appliances such as washing machine, dishwasher, freezers etc. Against each are its age and an estimate of when it may need to be replaced either because of age or inefficiency and a generous estimate of cost. When planning each year’s budget a quick reference to the Capital Replacement Program allows the insertion of any potentially large expenditure. The second tool is the Repairs and Maintenance Plan. This lists all the big jobs. Painting the house outside, painting certain rooms, fencing replacement, additional paving etc. Again against each item the associated costs and when it should be scheduled. And again this is referenced when planning the new year’s budget.
There is surprisingly little effort required in maintaining these plans and budgets once established. Gradually from year to year the categories change as the process is streamlined and we feel the situation is under control.


The Pond
Being so high up in the valley we don’t have ready views of bubbling creeks, dams or rivers. Our solution was installing a pond as our water feature with resident gold fish and water lilies. There is a flow form waterfall which we activate from time to time. We don’t have the pump operating all the time as we found there was a correlation between the flowing water and the reproduction processes of the resident gold fish. The original 7 gold and one black have grown considerably over the years. We now practise sensible birth control by switching on the pump less frequently.
The design of the pond has meant a draining and resurfacing every few years was necessary. Some of this may be a result of the odd dog cooling off on a hot day which may have breached the membrane. A small design fault also causes cracks. The pond is cemented too closely to the pergola uprights which flex from time causing the concrete to fracture. Either way the occasional refurbishment is minor to the pleasant vista and gurgling sound of running water nearby. In the evenings there is beautifully serene scene across the pond and its foliage with a backdrop of the valley beyond.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Warm Weather, Rain, Magpie, Bread Making, Casual Work, Asparagus Weed, Bicycles and Buying Chicken Food

Warm Weather and more water from sky

Regular rainfall at this time of year is welcome as it boosts the growth of the young vegetable seedlings. However, the downside are the lawns and weeds jump out of the ground with more and more time becoming devoted to mowing and weeding. The main reason for mowing is to get a clear view of the snakes before they get under foot. No more venturing out without the appropriate footwear and long pants.
The local public swimming pool is in full swing with Learn to Swim classes and swimming squad training morning and afternoon, interspersed with children cooling off after school and individuals with their own exercise regimes like ourselves. Fortunately, there is a monthly day by day programme on the whiteboard allowing us to insert ourselves in between classes and visiting schools. The water temperature is higher and more comfortable although there is something to be said for the cooler temperatures of a month ago encouraging more vigorous activity as well as cooling down the limbs.


Bathing the Magpie
The young magpie has settled down but not without some downside. The cats are still trying to kill it meaning, only one species is allowed in the house at a time; although the 20 year old cat looked completely surprised when the magpie splashed down beside him and cuddled up. There is also the issue of what goes in must come out - in a different form! There seems to be this tube starting at the top in which we add various goodies such as moistened cat and dog food, mince, greenery and worms. These additions move down the tube by gravity and drop out in a more liquid form like little oysters with a dark centre surrounded by a white milky substance. Unless wiped up immediately, they dry into difficult to remove solids. These appear at random down the back of chairs, down open doors, down the back of your clean top and in various other inaccessible areas. Miggie, as she is called, has also discovered play. This involves everything on the kitchen benches being carried to another location. The dried chillies, garlic, notes, pencils etc relocate at random. More interesting was the water filled platter being used to rehydrate rice paper which became a bird bath after the first sheet was removed.
She is just over 4 weeks old, hopefully soon self feeding and flying skills will evolve and more time will be spent outside. Not that it isn’t cute but it is wearing after a time. We will miss her when she decides to leave us.

Bread Making

Bread and Machinery
Many people write wonderfully about the joy and relaxation that bread making brings; the kneading and tactility as the dough changes texture is inspiring. Neither of us has that thought! Bread must be made. It is better made than bought. This way the ingredients can be controlled. Usually this task is required to be performed two or more times each week.
Our approach uses a bread machine as the labour saving device to allow other tasks to be paralleled. Over time a manual setting has been developed to suite the style of bread we make. Our problem is that our flour is stone ground not long before we use it. Just enough is ground for one or two loaves and/or some fresh pasta. We have an old stone grinder driven by an electric motor that was passed on from the previous owners. It needed some refurbishment and it doesn’t grind really fine flour but it works well enough. Good quality Bio-Dynamic whole wheat grains which we buy in bulk and store in a vacuum is our preferred ingredient. Of late we have been using milk instead of water in the dough. This seems to provide a better result. In addition a little extra liquid is added to give a much sloppier dough which gives us a better rising and texture.
Today also involved cinnamon bread or simply the standard loaf with three spoons of powdered cinnamon and a third of a cup of sultanas. A nice little treat at breakfast, particularly with our homemade cultured butter.

Casual work

Some years ago we both decided that fulltime work was detracting from our desired lifestyle. With the mortgage within relatively easy reach of final payment it seemed a good time to move to casual work. It was surprising to me how easy it was to find work locally which would only occupy 2-3 days each week. The pay rates were not as high as city work, but then travel was greatly reduced as were the costs associated with it. The work environment was also more conducive and the hours more flexible.
With a last big effort we not only paid off the last of the mortgage but also put aside enough to live off for a several months should there be a downturn in demand for labour. This additional free time opened up the opportunity to do more things for ourselves and to also revisit our cost structure and prune any waste.
Waste did not involve good food or good wine. We don’t indulge in all the goodies associated with a large cash flow such as new 4WDs or large TVs in every room or any toys to be thrown away after a few uses. There is nothing we cannot afford, the issue is do we really need it to provide a brief pleasure before that pleasure dulls and we are looking for the next big thing.
Once established in our area a reputation for honesty, work ethic and loyalty resulted in more offers of work than we could accept. In a small community the recommendation of other locals is a gold pass.

Asparagus Weed

Invasive Weed Sample
It didn't take long to uncover the cause of the problem with the Mary Washingtons ie why they were late to shoot. What appeared to be an innocuous ground cover which easily pulled away turns out to be a very nasty weed. This nameless invader has an extensive matted root system  going down 200 mm below the surface smothering everything. Over a couple of days we managed to remove a substantial quantity but not without some damage to the asparagus roots. Then every day or two we go over the entire bed with a small hand fork plucking out any shoots that were missed or any green leaves that pop above the surface. The hope is that with long term diligence and preventing any remaining roots from gaining access to the sun, it will eventually fail to thrive. An additional job but better than having to start the bed again.


Recycled Bicycle
Our first two bikes were second hand picked up at an auction sale - $2.50 each! A couple of working spares were added from friends and relatives’ rejects. Since then, we have accumulated spare brakes, tyres, rims, tubes and accessories which have proved very handy. Every year the local council conducts a bulky goods pickup. This is an ideal time to grab a few discarded bikes, strip off any reusable components and place the remainder out for recycling.
The council very cleverly ensures the announced pickup date is a couple of weeks before the actual pickup. This ensures that people such as us can rummage through the goodies on display and select any reusable pieces before the big truck takes them away. We mustn't be the only ones with a sharp eye for reuse as over a period of days large quantities of discards disappear overnight. Wisely the council reduces its work load by about 75%.

Buying Chicken Food

Feed Bins
Buying bulk supplies of grain for the chickens provides significant cost savings. Careful storage of grain is critical as in warmer weather weevils can decimate the storage bin in a short time. Non-organic grain is usually treated to protect it against weevils but Organic and Bio-Dynamic grain requires mechanical protection.
We store our grain in 200 litre plastic drums with screw top lids. These can be cheaply purchased from food importers who repackage products such as olives and capers. They are happy to sell the empty drums for a few dollars to all comers.
Once the drum is cleaned and dried, it is filled with grain until about 250-300 mm from the top. A piece of aluminium foil is placed in the drum and a small candle sits upright on the foil. Light the candle then curl the foil over so that the flame is below the turned foil. This stops the heat from melting the plastic lid. Ensure the screw top lid has its rubber seal intact and screw the lid on tightly. The candle will eventually extinguish leaving a slight vacuum and carbon dioxide. This is an environment which is not conducive to weevils. In the warmer months we relight the candle every month or so to ensure conditions for weevils don’t improve.
Over the years we have tracked down a number of organic or Bio-Dynamic grain farmers who store their grain on farm when the market is depressed and sell when the market is more attractive. They are happy to sell any quantity for cash and the price is very competitive compared to normal retail. These buying trips involve a long day. An early start followed by a long drive to grain country, filling bags from the silo and then weighed down with a slow return trip. This is a good job done with a solid trailer.
If morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea are packed, this can be a pleasant sightseeing country trip. The country hospitality is always there so don’t be surprised to be offered a cup of tea and spread of homemade goodies.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Tomato Transplants, Seasonal Produce, Mulch Hay, Library, Gleaning Wooden Pallets, Okra, Shiraz Bottling

Tomato Transplants

One of the smallest tomato seedlings that went into the Tomato Bed didn't survive. There were still some spare seedlings remaining in the nursery. The largest was chosen for transplanting. When the original plantings were done the weather was overcast for a number of days making it excellent timing. However the weather this time was quite warm. To reduce the risk of withering from the heat about half the foliage was pulled off once the seedling was in the ground. This has been a successful process in the past and there was no disappointment this time. Had the weather been even hotter it would have required the additional placement of a small pot over the seedling from mid morning to mid afternoon for the first week. This is a useful tip if planting in the hotter months.

Recipes for Seasonal Produce

The garden is producing a good quantity of Peas and Broad Beans. Both these can be transformed into a bruschetta. The Broad Beans steamed until soft have olive oil added with some finely chopped garlic, pepper, salt and some finely grated parmesan cheese, then smeared on toast. A similar process can be followed with the peas, but using only finely sliced leeks or onions which are cooked in olive oil until quite soft.

When on the lookout for alternative uses for seasonal produce it’s quite amazing how often recipes include ingredients which are not grown in that season. This is fine for the city dweller who can attend the nearest supermarket and choose any combination of fruits and vegetables. These recipes are unhelpful to anyone aiming at self sufficiency or buying produce from the local farmers market. The worst aspect is that it encourages vendors to source products from long distances rather than supporting the local growers. It would be more thoughtful if food writers were more aware of these unseasonal combinations.

Both the peas and broad bean plants are getting to the end of production but the timing isn't too bad as the climbing beans are over 2 metres tall now and small flower buds have appeared. If all goes well there should be a beautiful transition in the next month.

Rattlesnake Beans
It doesn't matter how hard we try, its feast or famine with different vegetables. At the moment the self sown Fennel is prolific, the Silver beet ,although nearing the end, is still formidable. Parsley has gone to seed but some self sown plants have popped up elsewhere. Last year we were scratching around to get a meal from the podded peas yet this year it has been full on. Maybe one day we will be like the TV gardeners and have everything orderly, copious and in good health.

Mulch Hay

Hay for mulching is a very sought after product. This Spring has turned out to be a bumper year for availability. Very large quantities went on sale at very attractive prices. We took the opportunity to acquire next year’s requirements as well as this year. Luckily we had plenty of
Mulch Hay
undercover storage. When gluts like these arise its very satisfying to be able to take advantage of them and put in place a little future proofing. After unloading and storing the bales there was a deep sense of wellbeing in the knowledge that we were ahead.


Our local council library works in conjunction with a number of neighbouring council libraries. They have combined forces and share a common catalogue. The catalogue is also available online to any library member. Any books, CDs or DVDs can be requested online and the item will be forwarded to the library branch of your choosing. When finished with it can be dropped at any of the participating branches. If an item is in great demand such as a recently published best seller then the system assigns a number in the queue. You can track your progress in the queue online and you are automatically notified by email or text message when the item is available at your requested collection point. All this is available for just a miniscule fee for each item.

Gleaning Wooden Pallets

With the continual publicity about logging forests it’s surprising to see how much timber goes to waste. Not all timber pallets are reused, most which are used to carry products from overseas are thrown away or burnt. When we were building an over sized pantry to store bulk supplies in our shed we chose to use pallet timber in its construction.

Pallet Wood

The pallets came from a heavy machinery parts importer and a tile importer not all that far away. They were pleased to give them away as an alternative to paying to have them dumped. After collecting a couple of trailer loads it was just a matter of knocking them apart and removing the nails and stacking like sized pieces together. There is some wastage as this isn't first grade cabinet timber and can split. But those broken pieces make excellent starting sticks for next winter’s fire. An ordinary electric planer can be used to remove the roughness. Obviously if you have a planer/thicknessor you can achieve an A grade result. We went for the more rustic look but the design incorporated strengthening to cater for the load the shelving would carry.

Pantry from Pallets

Since then we have collected a number of additional loads of pallets and store the recovered wood for future projects. They have been a real bonus in the workshop for all manner of projects. The only thing to be aware of is to avoid any of the pallets made from chemically treated wood. Fortunately most soft and hardwood pallets from overseas are heat treated for sterilisation.


Okra Bed
We plant about 10-12 Okra plants every Spring. By Summer they are producing enough every few days to provide a great little nibble with drinks. They are best when small and tender about 50-80 mm in length. From experience Clemsons Spineless are the easiest to grow. The simplest preparation is to fry them in a covered pan with some olive oil until tender then drizzle a little soy sauce or even salad dressing over them then serve. They go well with a beer of wine. The plants will provide an ongoing supply well into Autumn. Last year the plants must have been very well fed as they grew well over 2 metres tall. A few pods left to mature will yield more than enough seeds for the following year.

Shiraz Bottling

Crusher Destemmer & Basket Press
In February this year we were lucky enough to be able to buy and harvest grapes for our own wine making. With the reds no preservative is used. In the case of Shiraz it was destemmed and crushed with 10% of the stems being returned to the fermenter. The stems are a good source of tannins but too many can detract from the flavour; while the pips and skins are a good source of polyphenols. The pH level was adjusted slightly with Tartaric Acid and one third of the required yeast nutrient added. The remaining yeast nutrient would be added in two further instalments as the sugar level dropped. If the pH is too high the wines can taste flabby and be more susceptible to spoilage. Yeast nutrient ensures the yeast gets a good start and reduces the possibility of a stuck fermentation by ensuring there is sufficient Nitrogen for the yeast to reproduce.

The temperature was lowered to 15 degrees C and the must was inoculated with purchased yeast, the yeast having been rehydrated and acclimatised to the low temperature. The lower the temperature the slower the ferment and the longer the skins and pips remain in contact with the juice. The longer the contact the greater the extraction of polyphenolic compounds such as procyanidins which provide the antioxidant health giving benefits. The next morning 5 litres was bled off to make a small quantity of Rose. The temperature was maintained between 10 and 16 degrees for 9 days until two thirds of the sugar had fermented. The temperature is managed by having the fermenter inside an old freezer which is regulated with a timer. The timer being adjusted as needed to accommodate the changing intensity of the fermentation. Over the few weeks of vintage each year our electricity bill skyrockets as we run up to 6 recycled refrigerators and freezers to keep the different batches cool. In addition we run an air conditioner to keep them cool. Well good wine does require some sacrifices.

Because no preservative is used it is important to get the juice under airlock before fermentation finished. Consequently, once two thirds of the sugar is consumed the must is pressed and loaded into demijohns to finish fermenting under airlock. This is also a good time to add oak chips to enhance the flavour profile. As the fermentation eases and finishes the demijohn is topped up as needed to minimise the air pocket. Of late we have avoided racking the wine and therefore any potential oxidisation. The wine is usually bottled within 6 to 9 months. There will be a lot of bottle sediment but that is of no account as it is easily decanted. In the past we have racked between one and three times before bottling but of recent times the move has been to less and less handling and letting the wine develop its own style.

Based on the Specific Gravity measurements, this Shiraz should come in at about 13% alcohol. Only 25 litres was produced as we also had a good quantity of Merlot and Malbec. We put aside one dozen in the cellar to observe how it develops and ages over time; the remainder will be consumed over the next 12 months or shared with friends. As we have still some bottles requiring corks, some is bottled with recycled corks and the remainder under screw top.

We are lucky that the fruit has been of superb quality which makes the wine making a breeze. When the fruit is faultless the winemaking skills can be minimal. It has been said that the worst a winemaker can do in those circumstances is interfere too much and make a hash of the end product.

Only one demijohn remains and it has 34 litres of Malbec which should be bottled next month. Bottling on a descending moon ensures the clarity is much improved, as we've found .

Every year is in itself an experiment, as different ripening conditions take place. In addition, we try a variety of experiments such as wild yeast ferments, varying the temperature at different times during fermentation, quantity of stems in the ferment, timing and quantity of oak chips. Lots of notes are kept with each batch. Apart from failing to make a successful white wine without at least 50 parts per million preservative (compared to anything up to 200 ppm in commercial wine), all the batches have been very good or at worst acceptable. But then, when it is of your own making, there is a greater level of tolerance.