Thursday, February 28, 2013

"When peak oil comes, what else will there be to do but scythe dance?"

That's what Pearl said when we watched the incredibly earnest but incredibly sweet and inspiring DVD that accompanied our very own scythe.
Yes, a few months ago I got a really big, exciting present in the mail. It's taken us a while to fully get into the scything business, on account of all the house-building and garden making that's been going on for us, but believe me: we're making up for lost time.
I can't remember when exactly I decided that I wanted to scythe, but man am I pleased I made that decision. It is such a quiet, gentle exercise that results in a nice, not crazily overgrown orchard, and massive piles of mulch - perfect for mulching the fruit trees in said orchard, and providing a playground for the guinea pigs.

And a crappy day at work simply melts away to the gentle swish swish of the scythe.

The scythe itself was purchased from Scythes Australia - regenerative farming people, fermentation enthusiasts and importers of Austrian scythes which are hand-forged in a factory that's been making scythes since 1540. Excuse me if that's not cool.
It's an amazing piece of equipment, made all the more so, I think, by the ancient-ness of its design. Scythes have history, and they also have culture. They even have counter-culture, in that back to the land-er hippies like us, and a few other people around these parts, are extremely enthusiastic about scythes and what they can do and also what they represent.
We got a scythe starter kit, which has a multi-purpose blade - good for mowing but also good for slightly woodier weeds - in our case fleabane and purple top and small scotch thisles. When the scythe is sharp (which it usually is because I stop and sharpen it with the whetstone every 3-5 minutes) it doesn't take much to slice those buggers down. VERY satisfying.
Honing with the whetstone. The whetstone comes with a very fashionable copper holder that clips onto your belt. HOT.
The years-old over-the-knee kikuyu grass is a little more taxing, but I can tell you absolutely 100% it is still easier and quicker with the scythe than with the brushcutter, and you don't have to wear earplugs. And the cut grass doesn't end up all over the place! The scythe just puts it in this neat little windrow - without me even trying! You can see that in this super-cool video:
The scythe came with an awesome DVD, which was about a tiny-house-dwelling hippie family in Canada who make scythes and are generally enthused about the scythe-related lifestyle (low-impact, relaxed and quiet). As I watched it, I felt like I was being born-again into some kind of religion. I became an overnight scythe-zealot! Not that I'm pushing the scythe revolution necessarily, but I can assure you that when I come home from work (or when I wake up in the morning or if I just have a few spare moments...) scything the orchard is a fun and rewarding and relaxing and energising kind of thing to do for a few minutes or hours. No petrol, no stink, no hideous noise that scares ducks, chickens and children alike.

Oski honing his hoe with the whetstone. Never too young to hone, I say...

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Bega show: 'groing food' and other adventures

Errol and Olive
I've always been a fan of a small rural show. When I was a kid, we went every year to the Albion Park show. Occasionally we went to the Kiama show, but we mostly just went to Albion Park, and picked up ribbons in sections like "dog with the cleanest teeth". It was ace.
"groing food". Love it.
One of the things I love about being in major regional centre like Bega is the abundance of small rural shows. There's shows like Candelo - small and picturesque and pretty much all about the animals and handcrafts. The 'rides' are a small jumping castle and pony rides, and lunch is put on by the show society in the luncheon pavilion. It's been going for 126 years and when you're there, it kind of feels like not a lot has changed, except maybe for the addition of a tractor display. There's also a small hut selling watermelon slices for 50 cents each, and a 'kids korner' with painting and colouring in and potting up little plants and seeds to take home. It's super relaxing and very low key. The slogan for the show is 
"Share what you know, 
show what you grow, 
meet your friends at the Candelo show". 
We dig it.

And then there's the Bega Show - the Far South Coast National Show. It's bigger. There's a whole section that's all about the rides. There's a smash up derby, and there's fireworks. But it's still super fun and relaxing, especially if, like us, all you take in is the pavilion full of preserves and cakes and novelty heads made from pumpkins and other vegetables, and the woodchop (my personal favourite).
My favourite of Olive's photos, entered into the under 10 colour photography section
This year, we all got into the spirit of things and entered some of our wares. Olive entered photos and a sculpture, a poster about 'groing food' and a bantam rooster. 
The sculpture was made from willow, bamboo and chook feathers
She cleaned up, getting second for her sculpture and poster, and highly commended for the rooster (it was Errol Flynn, and she's pretty keen to enter him in the upcoming regional poultry show, too. I think her favourite bit was giving him a lavender-scented bath the evening before the show, then delivering him into the pavilion amidst oohs and aahs from the old-timers). 
Champion stout
Novice jellies
Pearl got first for her entry in the local food utilisation section - "Menu for a February lunch" and second for her blackberry jam, though was strangely robbed of a prize for her tomato sauce and peach jam. The tomato sauce was especially puzzling, given that the winning sauce was somewhat pale and seemed to have a layer of water on the top. Weird.
Jam in the foreground, next year's ribbon at rear
We're super excited about next year, and are already planning our entries. I've got my eyes on one of those felt ribbons they give out to the champions of each section (I'm thinking home brew), and Pearl's hungering for a ribbon for her tomato collection. 
Errol and Olive back home, recovering from an exciting couple of days in the poultry pavilion

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

News from the orchard

So it would seem that our duck and chook have been sitting in vain. When the 3 week point came (the time when chooky eggs are supposed to hatch), we waited eagerly for any sign that the eggs were hatching. Nothing. After a few days I started to worry. A week after the 'due' date, I'd pretty much given up, and was starting to feel bad for the chook, who was looking a bit worse for wear - she is one determined sitter! 
4 weeks sitting on a nest will do that to a bird...
The duck was a little less determined, and there were several times we thought she'd given up on her nest of eggs, taking extended swims in the dam and generally hanging out with her duck and chook pals. The chook, on the other hand, barely left her nest, even for food. She just sat there, fluffed out over her clutch of eggs, looking wearier and more pallid with each day that passed.
Then one day we arrived home and noticed that the chook had kicked one of her eggs out. When I cracked it, it was rotten, with no sign of an embryo having ever been present. I decided to crack another, with the same outcome. Next day, I got the chook out of her nest. She'd been sitting on 10 eggs, as I'd guessed, and none of them were (nor had they ever been) fertile. Weird given the extremely high rooster to chook ratio we've got going on. Poor chook. I couldn't help but feel sorry for her. All that dedication! Still, she wasn't too attached once I kicked her out, and soon joined in a scratching frenzy with her chooky pals. She seemed kind of relieved, though I may be projecting.

Next day, when the sitting duck was out and about, I inspected her nest too. Seems she'd been laying, while she was sitting, and her nest of eggs had gone from 2 to 5. But when I looked closely, they were all a yukky blue-grey colour: rotten.
She, too, seemed kind of relieved when I locked her back up in the orchard so she  couldn't get back to her nest and was very quick (like, 2 minutes) to get back into the swing of the extended chicken/duck flock.
A couple of our roosters. The one on the left is called John Howard, on account of his evil nature, cranky face, and bushy eyebrows. The one on the right is Errol Flynn.
And then I buried the eggs. It was all a bit of a disappointing climax, though I was happy to see the girls back out and about. 
So we have no babies of the avian variety in the orchard, but we do have some young guinea pigs running around the place which is... well... extremely cute.
The guinea pig in orchard came about a couple of years ago when I was reading an article by Jill Redwood. Now, I only know Jill through what I've read by/about her in magazines, but crikeys she strikes me as a totally amazing and inspiring woman. The kind of lady I want to be when I grow up. Anyways. Jill advocates having guinea pigs in the orchard for a couple of reasons. 1: they keep the grass down. Recent studies done by the owner of our local nursery (extremely lovely chap who helped us select our orchard trees so we'd have fruiting and cross pollination all year round) suggest that guinea pigs keep down about a square metre of grass per guinea pig per day. Handy! 2: guinea pigs, being small, scurrying rodents, attract birds of prey. In our case, that would be wedge-tailed eagles. While the wedgies are hanging around, so the story goes, you'll get less parrot action. Ergo, less fruit gets chomped on your tree. Hey: if it's good enough for Jill, it's good enough for me. And like I say - they're bloody cute, and not at all obtrusive and they do eat the grass down.
I was only a little bit miffed that they snubbed the very swish Frida Kahlo-inspired guinea pig house that Oski and I lovingly constructed for them, in favour of some burrows they made in the mulch around the apple tree. No worries.

Apple tree mulch burrows: Apparently far more attractive to guinea pigs than flash, Frida-coloured houses

Oski jumps at any opportunity to operate a power tool. Takes after me...

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The harvest we almost didn't have

It takes a while for Summer to really hit in these parts. It's not 'til Christmas time that we find ourselves properly immersed in the heat of the Summertime. And it's about this time that we start to see blackberries everywhere, everywhere, everywhere growing fat on their brambles. Last Summer, our first summer here, was also our first excursion into the joys and pain of blackberry picking and preserving.  This Summer we spied the darkening and fattening berries with excited anticipation of true and immense deliciousness. We'd decided to embrace the handy tips in our new bible, The Weed Foragers Handbook to "... stomp down on the highest canes in your path using them to flatten to the ground all the canes beneath them. Do this with each step into the bushes' centre and you'll quickly triple your collecting area..." Ok so we were ready. Then the heat really hit. 45 degree days with hot North Westerly winds do not a happy blackberry make. Everywhere we looked we saw fried dried blackberries and yes, it was a little despondent making. 

Then one day Annie was wandering around our land, down low in the gully and spied a perfect vision across the fence. On the south facing slope hung a wall of blackberries, a veritable avalanche of berries cascading over to a sea of wild growing watercress. Wow. Thank you lush cool micro-climate for saving our blackberry 'harvest'. It is quite amazing how a little less sun and a bit more moisture can result in such a profound change in eco-system, such that the edibles are growing in wild abundance whereas literally a few metres away, it's all dried up and brown. 

wall of blackberries

sea of watercress

We didn't need our handy blackberry picking tip this year as these blackberries literally fall into our hands. We've been picking bowlfuls and jamming up a storm.

Oh the deep purple delight

I used the same recipe as last Summer but have learnt my lesson and now cook it for no longer than an hour. The result is less thick, but better. And yep, the kids love it...

Olive and jam
Huon, Oscar and jam

We've also invented a rather delicious dessert gozleme of blackberries, honey, mint and fetta. It is superb. 

And we've been eating a lot of blackberry breakfast pikelets with locally foraged peaches, Brett's passionfruit, yoghurt and maple syrup or honey. These are also superb and so easy to make. 

This seeming over-indulgence is what I love most about eating seasonally. For us now, it's all about tomatoes, zucchini, basil, corn, beans, greens, blackberries, blueberries and peaches. We're eating so much of it that I won't be sorry when this Summer bounty ends. In fact I will be relieved to move onto the pomme fruit, root veg and brassicas of the cooler months. Then just when I think I can't bear to eat another cabbage or cauliflower we will be in asparagus, pea, broad bean, artichoke and leafy green land and back on the brink of the Summer bounty. And by this time I know I will be seriously yearning for some tomato and basil action. For now we are really enjoying what we have, it feels like true abundance. 

Blackberry breakfast pikelets
(serves 4)
200g flour (I use whatever we have so sometimes it's all white, sometimes a halfy mix of some kind of wholemeal and white)
2 tspns of baking powder
1/2 cup rapadura sugar
2-3 eggs, beaten
400ml milk or buttermilk or a yoghurt milk combo
butter for cooking
Blackberries (also works super-well with other berries, especially foraged ones like native raspberries. They are just tastier when they're free)

Stir dry ingredients into a large bowl and make a well. Pour eggs into the well and then slowly add milk. Depending on the flour you use you might need less or more milk. You want a smooth, not too runny batter.

Heat a heavy based frypan and add butter. When the butter starts to bubble from the heat, drop in spoonfuls, when bubbles start to appear on uncooked side, drop blackberries onto them and flip over. Keep warm until all are cooked.