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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Solar Panels in and Working, The Next Step is ...

As part of the installation of Solar Panels we had monitoring hardware installed. One transmitter is attached to measure our power usage and another to measure our generation. Both these send data to a receiver attached to a spare port on our ADSL line. Efergy who supply these units provide a free service which records all the data. As well as online graphs you can download various reports for analysis.

Step 1 was to change some household practices. The Dishwasher and the Washing Machine now only operate during the day after we are generating power. We are also looking at some of our refrigeration equipment to see if we can alter their operating times.

Step 2 was the assessment of our overall usage to see if our generator was big enough to run the house - it was. The Solar Panel installer will now fit a cutover switch to our meter board which allows us to plug our generator directly into the house. Rather than numerous extension cords snaking through the paddock and into the house a single heavy duty cable will run from the new (yet to be built) generator house. It will be positioned out of earshot but still close. Setup and changeover will be minutes. And the dismantling just as quick.

Each year we use our generator at least 3 or four times when power goes out. The last time was after the East Coast Low cut power for 3 days. We expect our country service quality to degrade in coming years when the state government sells off the service. The small investment in a quick changeover facility will make life just that little bit simpler.

Step 3 is the assessment of Time of Usage (TOU). Now that we have some usage history we were able to plug data from Peak, Off peak and Shoulder usage into a spread sheet and compare the cost of TOU to our current contract. Based on these numbers a changeover to TOU will give us a 14% additional saving on our quarterly bill.

Step 4 was to get the supplier to change us to TOU and then go to the Sales department and get a 12 month contract which would give us another 18% discount on the TOU rates. This has to be renewed every 12 months (calendar marked) and the bills paid on time and in full.

One warning here. Make sure you keep track of your conversations and write down the call reference numbers. We were able to eliminate a $66 changeover fee because in one call the operator said the fee was only applicable for meter configuration and not for the reading.

According to our spread sheet we have reduced our quarterly bill by a whopping 57%. A pay back period of 2.9 years on our Solar Panel investment.

The electricity supplier doesn't spell out all these discounts. It was only due to our solar installer that we were able to find out about and take advantage of the various configuration discounts.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Sprouted Grain Bread or Our Version of Essene Bread

We have been experimenting with sprouted grain bread.  There are quite a few variables to assess but slowly we are getting a clearer picture. Making a solid loaf seems beyond our skills at the moment and therefore we are sticking to making a flat bread to use with cheeses, dips and smoked Salmon.

First attempt in the oven

First up only three grains are involved Wheat, Rye and Buckwheat. The Wheat and Rye are dead easy to sprout but not so the Buckwheat. Maybe it isn't of sprouting quality. We tried a different source alongside the original and found the original worked fine. It just seems it needs more than one decent wash each day.

At first we limited the sprouting to just the tiniest of white shoots but further reading suggested that getting some green sprouts to appear may be better. The sprouting goes for about 4 days now.

Wheat Sprouts

We use a Champion Juicer to mill the sprouted grain into a coarse slop then pat it out onto a flat tray.

Champion Juicer

Quinoa doesn't really mash up

Usually we make two variations. One is the 100% sprouted slop and the second is the slop with a sourdough starter added 24 hours earlier which gives a acidity flavour. But in the quest for perfection we now stuck with nothing else but the ground sprouts.

Broadening the horizons we added Spelt grain to the mix with disastrous results. It had too many broken grains. The Quinoa worked fine but the Millet and Sesame seeds failed. Both Mung beans and Lentils had no trouble. At the moment the trial was about which seeds were easiest to sprout. Later we will try to assess overall flavour with various mixes. Although when you think about it the more variation the merrier.

Mung Sprouts

Lentil Sprouts

Along the way someone said it was best not to heat the mix above 120 F (48.8C). Although the 150 C baking provided a luscious caramelly  crisp biscuit we persevered with the low temperature in the Nara dryer while baking some in the 150 C oven for comparative testing.

Baking Tray

The Nara dryer was adjusted to stay below the 48.8 C. The first batch was spread too thin and we ended with the biscuit breaking up when it was removed from the tray.

Drying Tray

The crumbed version made a good topping for soups and stews and even salads

In the next test a much thicker layer was applied, about 10-12 mm thick and only used the dryer. This worked really well and it didn't matter whether it was directly on the tray or on Baking paper. The direct to tray dried in under 24 hours and the Baking paper solution took just a few extra hours. We also added about 10% by weight of Olive Oil. This resulted in the final biscuit not sticking to the cooking surface.

Using Baking Paper on a drying tray - 10-12 mm thick

Final result

The final bread/biscuit is dry and keeps well. We didn't use any sourdough starter either.  It doesn't have that nutty caramel flavour of the oven baked version but it at least retains all its goodness. Using the dryer is cheaper than running the oven for six or more hours and burning is not risked. The flavour is hard to describe but probably dried sprouts is most applicable. It goes well with cheeses and other toppings.

If you want to avoid traditional breads this is a pretty good alternative, relatively easy to make and versatile. And they say sprouted grains are extremely nutrient rich.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Fancy, Tasty, Healthy Chocolate

In an attempt to improve the firmness of the chocolate we make and also add more flavour a few changes were made to the recipe.

The recipe is 3 x Coconut Oil, 1 x Honey, 7 x Cocoa Powder

We replaced one of the Coconut Oils with Cocoa Butter - good result i.e. more flavour and firmness.

Then instead of one type of Cocoa Powder we used one third Raw Cocoa which is lighter in colour but supposedly healthier and a third each of two other brands for more darkness.

Then came the discovery of the century. A big smattering of our own home made peanut butter made from roasted raw peanuts run through the Champion Juicer. At a rough guess about 2 to 3 measures. But by all means make it up yourself. Wow, what a combination. Be prepared to get fat.

See the posts on making the chocolate chocolate.

Remember not to skimp on the quality of either the Coconut Oil or the Cocoa.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

We finally invested in Solar Panels but what a Pain

We finally made the move to install solar panels hoping that it would be a simple process which didn't require us to spend days/weeks becoming familiar with the technology in order to make a decision.

Well it turned out to be a long drawn out saga and we did in fact have to learn all the details about solar panels and their installation.

Thinking it would be easy we selected three suppliers for quotations. We chose the three big electricity companies thinking that they would know what to do and be reputable. But not so. Only two responded. Neither was willing to attend the site without payment to perform the pricing. It was all done over the telephone. One supplier did this from a call centre in India. The other did it within the country but didn't respond to any follow up questions. They also turned out to have the poorest record of service with only 63% of customers NOT experiencing problems.

We then broadened the search criteria and invited another half a dozen or more companies to tender including a local electrician who came recommended. Three of these visited. As quotes came to hand we became further immersed in detail and potential issues. Rural installations have more limitations than suburban installations.

We found companies quoted on all manner of possible systems. And offerings were based on either our usage or the largest permissible system. Only three companies were concerned with the limitations of cable length and voltage rise which dictated the size of the final system. Most companies left it up to us to organise the new meter installation.

Some companies said we needed angling brackets others said we didn't. Some said 3KW was all we needed and said 5KW. As a general rule almost no one was concerned with optimisation.

We read all about panels and inverters and at least knew which were the best and most reliable brands.

The local electrician who visited spent 2 hours with us measuring and answering questions. He only dealt with the best quality materials. Over the ensuing couple of weeks we saw he and his crew in action on another site repairing water damaged pumping equipment and were impressed. Mentally we had chosen him and were hoping his pricing wouldn't be over the top.

His final proposed system was 3KW. Limited by the rather high voltage we have on this site. The pricing by our electrician was 10% below the nearest contender. He also included surge protection because of the voltage. And to assist us in measuring both our usage and our generation a pair of wireless monitors are included along with access to an web based analysis tool.

After many weeks of research, talking and comparing we were lucky enough to be hit by a rainbow. A local supplier/installer, prepared to visit, talk and build a relationship, be a one stop shop, came with a personal recommendation, demonstrated skills, designed a system for this site and nailed the whole deal home with an attractive quote.

Preparedness Tested Part 3


If you don't have easy access to water:

  •  it is impossible to flush the toilet. And it isn't much easier using buckets.
  • When your face is covered with sawdust from hours of chainsaw work (even with protective gear) you want to wash it off
  • Chain sawing is thirsty work you need to drink a lot to keep functioning for the long term.
  • At night you are crusty, wet and tired and desperately need a hot shower.
The house pressure system is the first appliance we connect to the generator.


We have had our 7.5 KW generator for over 20 years. It has paid for itself many times over both in making blackouts comfortable and also in saving the contents of refrigerators and freezers. Apart from major storm damage even short period blackouts are annoying as they seem to happen just on dusk.

Not everyone can justify owning a model this large but even a small unit can provide some essential services.


We keep 8 x 20 litre drums of fuel for our various engines. Petrol is 20 kilometres away if the road isn't blocked. Complacency lead us to only have just under three drums remaining full. Luck was with us and we were able to survive easily for 3 days without external power.

We now refill any empty containers as soon as possible. It is also a lot easier to carry two containers in the car rather than 6 or 8.

Fuel also means the accruements i.e.Chain and bar oil, 2 stroke oil and engine oil.


Most people have replaced their Telstra issued handset with a cordless multi handset model. These require electricity to function. We couldn't contact some of our neighbours because they didn't have the old handset. We keep both connected. The batteries at the exchange kept the service functioning for about 30 hours.


When Aldi had a special on LED wand torches we bought several. They are incredible. The battery life on LED is many hours and reading by them is like reading in daylight. Having them distributed in key locations for quick access. They come with a folding hook for hanging and a magnetic plate to stick on the refrigerator in the kitchen for night meal preparation. We also keep a standard lamp with two led globes for general night lighting.


When we renovated the kitchen more than 10 years ago we opted for a gas stove. But if you have a BBQ it works also. Just make sure you always keep a spare gas bottle.

Our coffee is made with a small espresso machine from freshly ground beans. Well made coffee makes a good start to the day. As a backup we keep a small amount of ground coffee frozen and also we have kept our old plunger and a stove top infuser as backup. Luckily we had plenty of milk on hand. These small things just make life a little more normal and pleasant.


A fireplace or slow combustion heater can't be beaten.


Our bitumen driveway has a badly damaged section which needs major rework. The cause was a blocked drain. The drain was blocked because we had become lazy and didn't complete our annual clean up of this vital drain.

Emergency Exit

It just so happens we are in the process of replacing our aging front boundary fence. The new addition will be another gate into the neighbours property for yet another exit.


Overall we survived very well. Ran a little low on fuel and couldn't run away for two days but we had plenty of food, water and warmth. Being able to take care of ourselves without calling on emergency services allowed others in need to be taken care of sooner.

We have learnt to be more disciplined about adhering to preparedness plans.

Most of all we found that it didn't take much to make life comfortable in that period. Because we were not in crisis we were able to check with neighbours to make sure they were unhurt and not in need. Life went on pretty much as normal but with a few changed priorities.

There is always an upside to every disaster. The local economy is thriving with the hardware stores and produce stores selling out of everything from fencing materials to chainsaws. People are restocking freezers and pantries. Tradesman are inundated with work. Best if the storm hadn't happened but always accept the positives.

All we need to do now after securing all the boundaries is to commence clearing away the 40 odd trees lying horizontally. No need to worry about firewood for some time.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Preparedness Tested Part 2

On Tuesday morning we woke up to no power. The rain had eased and so had the wind. Jean went to let out the chickens and I went about setting up the generator with extension cords to the house - it takes about 20 minutes at most. She came back to let me know a number of Eucalypt trees in The Nuttery had toppled over the fox exclusion fence.

Rather than do a full evaluation of the property I had some coffee and set about clearing the Nuttery fence to make sure the chickens were protected. It only took a few hours to cut away the foliage and trunks and re-erect the fence.

The following day and just by chance we found the chickens were not secure at all. Down in the gulley of The Nuttery there had been a wash out through the boundary. Come on in predators. Another couple of hours work to repair.

Rule: Make a complete inspection of the property before you start.

How fortunate that on the previous Friday we succumbed to a special on chainsaws at the produce store and purchased a light weight quality saw to use beside our big boy saw. We would need the big boy for the large trunks but wielding it at shoulder height to trim foliage is a real muscle killer.

Rule: Always have the appropriate sized tools.

Now with the chickens secure I wandered on down our driveway to inspect the damage. Of the four trees down over the driveway only one presented a serious problem. It was the second largest tree on the property with a metre thick trunk dead centre across the driveway. The huge canopy would have to be trimmed gradually to prevent the trunk from swivelling. It took two days to cut a path for a vehicle.

We had an alternative route out but it was 4WD access only and had more than 6 trees across it. There was also another 4WD access point through next door's property but it was impassable with 4 massive trees blocking the gateway.

Rule: Have multiple points of access to the property but don't assume they won't all fail. There needs to be a backup plan for that failure.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Preparedness Tested Part 1

The Williams River had flood warnings issued well in advance of the rainfall but a strange thing happened many if not most farmers were caught out including ourselves. We all recalled the 2007 East Coast Low and the river peaking at it's highest level. And then moved cattle and horses accordingly.

Well that didn't work because the river rose an additional 3 metres higher than before. All those ridges that remained above the 2007 water level now sat 2 metres below the water line. And it all happened very quickly i.e. no second chances.

On Monday night I moved the cattle on our work place farm off the river into what was deemed a secure paddock. On Tuesday morning we could no longer access that property. Being a cautious worrier about these things and watching the river spread I contacted the neighbour to that property and was able to get the cattle released into the highest ground. I found out later it was only with an hour to spare.

Some farmers were lucky and their animals floated down stream and survived but most others were not.

So what happened here. We all suffered the same bias. We did not allow for the event to be any worse than our existing memories. We also believed the rate of rise would be the same.

New rule for preparedness. Assume the very worst.

When we finally made it across the river to the work property we could see this silage had floated from beneath the tree line in the distance to higher ground with no damage.

Two days after the flood

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Preparedness - Espoused Theories and Theories in Action

Some time ago I said that when something of value popped up it would be the subject of a blog entry. Well we finally had our Preparedness Status tested.

We are all more likely to lose our jobs, be flooded or burnt or have an accident than to be invaded by Zombies or aliens or even another country, experience a Mass Coronal Ejection or have the country enter a decade long severe economic depression resulting in starvation and rioting.

A couple of weeks ago we were hit by the East Coast Low. The wind gusted in great long bursts all night waking us at regular intervals. Rain didn't fall it arrived horizontally. Between Monday morning and Tuesday morning 233 mm fell and then half as much again in the following 24 hours. Others received even more.

We live on a ridge above the valley and neither expected nor received flooding other than the wine cellar going under as usual and some water in the workshop. Water blew in under the doors and was stopped with a towel or two.

The roof stayed connected (thanks to much work on it 10 years ago) and nothing fell on us. The power failed in the early morning and stayed out for three days. The outage was so widespread and complete that even the telephone exchanges dropped out after 30 hours when their backup systems failed. We didn't know at the time and it didn't effect us but even the town water in our village failed when a 50 metre section of the gravity feed delivery pipe from Chichester Dam was washed out.

We usually look out over the Williams valley and see glimpses of the river in one or two spots as it meanders past. On Tuesday we commenced seeing more and more of the river until we could see the entire river in our view.

Over a few posts I'll go into:

  • How well we were prepared and talk about things that worked and things that didn't.

  • How historical bias created so much grief for so many people in our area.

  • How our processes had to be corrected.

  • How the local economy picked up as a result.

Here is a smelly problem.

Assume you have is no water pressure. You get one flush of the toilet then the second person has a problem and especially so when there are solids. Fill a bucket with water and flush manually? Try it. It isn't that easy. Toilets are designed to swirl and mix and flush. A bucket doesn't do the job anywhere near as well. Several buckets give a mediocre result.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Patisserie - Making healthy pastries

Isn't it a pleasure to enjoy a cup of tea or coffee along with a cake or biscuit. Shop bought biscuits and cakes have so many additives it makes you sick just reading the back label. So you make your own, fresh and with the best ingredients, organic if possible.

We weaned ourselves off the sickly, sweet sugar loaded treats and use a modicum of sugar if for some reason we can't substitute raw honey. And we restricted our quantities by having the item at morning tea only. Restraint is followed by weight control. On a day out in the real world we would try something if it looked fresh, interesting, unpreserved and not too sweet.

Then one day we came across Icky Sticky in Lorn outside of Maitland. This is a patisserie in what we would call the French tradition. You know, all those fresh fruits covering the pastry. It was inspiring and the coffee was excellent.

Then came the desire to do it yourself. How hard can it be? Not hard when you're passionate. Richard Bertinet's books Crust, Pastry and Dough are three books we explored. He made it easy, especially as there were DVDs and YouTube sessions. Sweet dough was a piece of cake and despite ineptitude by the cook the Puff pastry a roaring success.

Different toppings, mango, Rockmelon, Frozen Cranberries, Frozen Raspberries and Blackberries. All on a wholemeal Puff (unpuffed) base

Fresh home grown Apple topping, straight forward minis with Crème de Patisserie or creme d amande

Some things we learnt:

  •  Your own fresh fruit picked ripe is just so good and the shop bought stuff is rubbish i.e. picked too early and lacking flavour.  Shop bought Mango is good. We tried our Rockmelon and that worked. What that means is that your toppings will be seasonal. By the way a light cooking of fruit adds some health benefits. It releases some locked up goodness.

Wholemeal Puff pastry ready for its 12 hours resting in the fridge

  • Frozen berries are fine but obviously not as good as your own. Defrost them first so that you don't get excess liquid. But keep the liquid to make a reduction glaze.

  • We substituted our honey for any sugar. one gram of sugar equals one gram of honey. We also used the oldest honey some of which had crystallised. Probably good timing as we robbed the hive again last week for the third time yielding another 35 KG. Too much honey and nowhere for it to go.

  • The fillings are really easy and healthy. Creme d amande and Crème de Patisserie are two we have tried. we have also invested our life savings into a KG of Pistachios for yet another filling next time

Crème de Patisserie. The little black flecks are the vanilla pod scrapings.

Crème d Armande

  • Use Vanilla pods. A bit more expensive but makes a flavour difference.

  • Don't use wholemeal to make Puff Pastry. It will not puff although it didn't taste all that bad so we used it as a pie crust with leftover fillings and it turned out a real gem.

Recycled wholemeal puff crust with a mix of fruits and filling

  • Use organic butter. It requires heaps and don't worry about the misinformation that butter is bad for you. And butter does make it taste good. We keep a stockpile in the freezer.

  • The pastries freeze well. And because we got a bit excited and made too many we also shared a few with friends. This sharing also helps because we asked for honest feedback. Never too late to learn. The friends were also the suppliers of some of their freshly harvested fruit. Everyone wins.
There are a lot of different doughs to work through and then each one makes a whole series of different cakes, biscuits and tarts. This will take a long time to explore. Ahhh another new hobby.

Another Batch

Monday, January 5, 2015

Making Bread - 100% Wholemeal Flour, 100% Sourdough Starter

What in the past have been rock solid bricks requiring only the most passionate devotee to begrudgingly consume are now gone forever.

Seed Loaf

Parmesan and Pepper

Thank you Josie Baker and your book Josie baker Bread for solving our problems of technique.

But also thanks to Richard Bertinet and his book Crust with its DVD on handling dough.

Josie's book is structured to lead you through a series of breads starting with simple loaves using bakers flour and yeast. Each new recipe adds a degree of complexity as you move to wholemeal and other flours and then making and using Sourdough Starter in place of commercial yeast. This gradual process builds confidence as success follows success.

Sourdough Starter

 Richard Bertinet publishes his videos online here. We were lucky to have our local library stock two of his books.

BUT there are a few things to remember from our experience:

  • Start with a sloppy wet dough which is what you get when you follow Josie's recipes. Use the weight measurements in the recipes which are deadly accurate as opposed to the volume measurements where cup sizes vary.

One of our well used bread tins
Oiled and floured ready to take the final rise dough

  • Being lazy we use the bread machine to do all the mixing but it is pretty easy by hand or in an electric mixer.
Final Proving rise

  • After the bulk rise, shape the loaf and put it in the refrigerator overnight before its final proving rise the next day. Miracles occur with the dough. Don't forget to wrap it in plastic wrap to stop the top drying out. And always use plastic wrap during the rising phases. Although it is only an option to refrigerate and come back to making the bread is in every recipe (before the bulk rise or after shaping) we found it a key element of the success to perform either one of the refrigeration's. Yes, that means it takes two days to make bread. In fact three days if you include prepping the starter.
Protected from drying out - reusable many times

  • Always use the tinfoil tent cover for the first part of the baking. This one of the keys to success. Other than protecting you from aliens this is best use of tinfoil hats.
Tin Foil covering - reusable many times

  • Use a pizza stone or a granite tile as the heat sink in the oven. This requires heating the oven well in advance. We use an overly thick granite tile which takes a lot longer to heat through but it really pays off.
Granite tile on top of a pizza stone

  • The bread will keep for weeks in a freezer bag in the refrigerator.

Our favourites are the Parmesan and Pepper Loaf followed by the Seed Loaf.

The seed mix soaking - about 6 or seven different seeds

Coarse ground Pepper

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Dill Pickles - The Authentic Method

This is Summer in Australia. The time when there is so much produce in the vegetable garden that it is impossible to keep up with the quantity maturing each day. Friends and visitors are always offered all the surplus. There is a mental list of people who don't have their own gardens and who need to be kept onside such as our dairy farmer. This group is showered with only the finest produce. The chooks and the cattle get their fair share. Every year we promise to plant less or at least try to stagger the planting. Each year we get a little better but fail to achieve perfect harmony.

Tomatoes are drying in the dryer. In desperation sliced Zucchini is also drying. It is a bit leathery but it might work as a Winter Pizza topping with a bit of a soak and chop. Tomato puree has reached the 23 x 750 ml bottle stage and we still have bottles from 2012 and 2013.  No drying of Tomatoes has occurred for some years as we had such a stockpile. Now that that pile is down to 2 x 3 litre jars the drying has commenced with a twist. Rather than go for the completely dry format they are being pulled out and placed in Extra Virgin Olive Oil when they are still just that little bit moist. Taste wise these are lovely - no need to soak out the excess salt.

Dried Tomatoes and Zucchini

But what to do with the Cucumbers? A decade or so ago we tried salt and vinegar but they really weren't all that great unless chopped finely and used as a garnish on smoked Salmon in place of Capers. Bread and Butter Cucumbers although tasty have sugar which is the last thing needed in a healthy diet or at least kept to a minimum and it is the sugar that dominated the flavour rather than the Cucumber.  A couple of times we purchase Dill Pickles from the wholesaler. These were Kosher pickles made in Israel and they were fantastic, crunchy without vinegar - just a little salt. This year after some research we found a purer form of making Dill Pickles and tried the recipe. Wow what a success. Flavoured with Dill seed (no Dill plant available), Garlic and Chilli. Just like Sauerkraut these whole Cucumbers fermented over a few days and tasted magnificent. The salt was balanced, the Cucumber crisp and just a little hint of chilli and the lovely overtones of Dill.

Just started, notice the bright green colour

An older batch losing that bright green

The first batches repackaged

BUT the story doesn't end there. By chance, amongst the batch of books in the last foray to the Newcastle University Library a copy of "Microbiology of Food Fermentations" by Carl S. Pederson found its way into the house. It has a great section on making Dill Pickles backed up with the science. How much salt, how it works, temperatures, times and much more. And don't worry about the cloudy liquid as that is a sign of quality. The longer the ferment and the less salt the better the end result.

The tip of the century was using a plastic sheet across the fermentation vessel mouth which is filled with water to exclude air but still allow gases to escape. The experimentation continues with salt levels and cucumber sizes. You all know how it is when you overlook a cucumber in the patch and the next day it is a foot or more long and just not as tasty as those young immature ones. This recipe could be the solution for those oversights.

Plastic cap with water

This is the recipe online which we tried first Real Kosher Dill Pickles.

From Pederson's book a few tips:
  • 3-6 weeks for ferment to cure
  • Cut off the the tip where the flower was i.e. opposite end to the stalk
  • 5% or less salt in the brine. 5.3 -6.6% will yield 3.3 to 3.6 % salt in the pickle
  • DO NOT USE VINEGAR it will kill the good bugs
  • Brine will become increasingly cloudy for the first few days and foaming occurs
  • Darkness is required
  • Will keep for extended periods if pasteurised at 165 F or 74 C for 15 minutes and rapidly cooled
  • Storage temperature is ideally 35-40 F or 4 C
  • Cloudiness is a good thing
  • The less salt the slower the ferment and the better the quality of the pickle