My Halloween lantern for tonight. A particularly daggy one, but Happy Halloween everyone anyway everyone! I am remembering to be grateful for what I have inherited from the ancestors, generation through generation. Music, stories, art, science, inventions, roads, trainlines, medicine, tools. I am remembering to be grateful, and in gratitude, pay it forward.
I heard a mad story last October about a Northern Territory farmer growing out of season pumpkins for Halloween carving. It isn’t easy growing pumpkins out of season. No wonder they cost a fortune.
And here, at the moment, the verandah stack grows. The wheelbarrow in the garden is full. The ones that the bush turkeys have (wastefully) had a peck at get chucked into the front dam to feed the red claw, or into the garden the chooks are foraging at the moment for wonderful yellow high carotene eggs. And still they come.
Food waste is an odd concept. I mean, I get it. Vast quantities of resources are used growing, transporting, packaging, selling, refrigerating food that ends up in landfill so tangled up with plastic tubs and tetra packs that it’s not worth anyone’s while to untangle so the only solution is to put some dirt on top and walk away. I get it.
It’s just that for every other creature on the planet “food waste” is an oxymoron. If it’s food, something will eat it. Eventually. Perhaps an earthworm that likes it best when it’s got to the stage of slimy. Many fruits go in that boom bust cycle. The plant fruits prolifically all at once, the animals feast, the seeds get distributed, the waste goes back to the earth, life goes on.
It is southern hemisphere Halloween in a week. It is oh so easy to see where the tradition of carving pumpkin lanterns for Halloween originated. As the daylength starts to level out into the short days and long nights of winter, as the harvest season ends and the season of storytelling round the fire starts, as we come to terms with the fact that everything living dies, Halloween pumpkins are a celebration of the excess of autumn harvest season, of pumpkins in such abundance that even after the people and the chooks and the wildlife have eaten all they can, there are still pumpkins, not for wasting but for fanciful, ephemeral art.
We’ve been away for a week visiting our daughter and grandson. Such fun being a grandma!
And I took my sourdough culture with me, and fed it and experimented a bit with Ethiopian flatbread (ingera) (more on that in another post), but for the first time in many years now, we bought bread.
And it struck me that, for several years now through busy times and camping holidays and all the inevitable ordinary routine-breakers of life, baking our own bread has made the cut – something worth doing even when time is the most precious commodity going and a zillion other things are barking for attention. Which is a bit intriguing. Bread baking has the image of being something only hardcore homesteaders do routinely. Yet, while the housework is undone and the pile of washing grows, while my poor garden is sometimes sadly neglected and any resolution to do daily yoga has no hope, the bread gets baked.
Maybe I’m lucky to have a really reliable and resilient sourdough culture, but for me it’s a happy nexus of two things: baking sourdough is a whole heap cheaper and easier than any other option, and baking sourdough gives me bread that is so much tastier and feels so much healthier than any other option.
I have a nice little routine going. Two or three nights a week I take the sourdough culture out of the fridge and feed it. It takes just a minute or so to mix one and a half cups of baker’s flour with one and a half cups of water, mix in the sourdough culture, put half back in the fridge for next time and leave half in a bowl on the kitchen bench, covered with a clean tea towel, for the night.
I use unbleached white baker’s flour for this, because my experience has been that if I feed the sourdough bugs a nice high gluten flour at this point, I can add almost anything else I like and it works. In the morning I have a frothy bowl full of active starter, and I can get creative.
Sometimes I add a porridge of cooked grains – barley, millet, quinoa, oat groats. Sometimes I add dried fruit and nuts. Sometimes I add raw rolled oats, bran and ground linseeds (flax seeds). Sometimes I add rye flour, caraway seeds and a bit of cocoa powder. Sometimes I add grated pumpkin and pepitas. Sometimes I add olives and thyme. Sometimes I add a beaten egg and some yoghurt.
Always a good teaspoon of salt and enough more baker’s flour to make a kneadable dough. Sometimes it turns out memorably wonderful and becomes a favourite. Sometimes not so much. But always it seems to turn out edible.
There’s a feel to kneading bread, and it’s hard to describe. I knead only for a couple of minutes, never the ten minutes in some of the old recipes. Just until the dough is smooth and elastic and has lost its stickiness. I have learned to regard the kneading as my regular “Nana arms” avoidance exercise. If I don’t even have time to do that, I’ve learned I can get away with a very sticky dough and a single rise to make a ciabatta type bread.
Normally though, I leave the dough on the kitchen bench in an oiled bowl covered with the tea towel again, and rush off into my day. By the time I arrive home the dough has always doubled in size. This is the only weak spot in the routine. I need to pick the days when I will be home before about 6 pm, because the bread needs to be “punched down”, or very briefly kneaded again, then put into it’s baking tin with it’s top slashed to allow rising, and left to rise again for an hour or so before baking. And I turn into a pumpkin around 8 pm.
But if I get the dough doing it’s second rise by 6 pm, and I can keep it a bit warm, by 7 pm it is ready to bake. Sometimes I bake flatbreads, rolling it out rather than putting it in a tin after the punching down. Sometimes I put a tray of boiling water in the bottom of the oven to create a bit of steam. Sometimes I bake in the mellow oven of the slow combustion stove. Sometimes I put the loaf in a cold George Foreman electric oven. If it has sweetener or dried fruit in it I need to take care to keep the temperature low enough not to burn it. Usually it takes around 40 minutes for a smallish loaf to bake until the crust is golden and it sounds hollow. If I know I won’t be home in time, I just put a fairly wet dough in a rough loaf shape on a tray in the morning and bake a ciabatta style loaf in the evening after a single rise. And none of the bread we ate while away came close to even that last resort option.
We got home last night, and first thing was to feed the starter.
A trip to Daley’s fruit tree nursery is always dangerous. The mission was one tangelo tree. Ha, sure.
So we have spent today planting fruit trees, a little late for the perennial planting days this month but there you go. And this time of year is a good time for tree planting in our part of the world – the end of the wet season, with a couple of months for them to establish before winter, and a good six months to spread out roots before they encounter our hot dry windy spring.
For years and years, this was how we planted trees, bagged to protect from wallabies and mulched with grass clippings to protect the soil. It never was highly successful. The wallabies reach in over the top and push bags down, stakes get wobbly, bags rip, turkeys scratch away the mulch.
Lewie invented the new way. One of the advantages of bush regeneration is that wild birds plant native pioneers through the orchard – Bleeding Hearts and Macarangas and Native Mulberry. Plus there are nitrogen fixing pioneers we have planted – leucaena and pigeon pea and wattles, and trees that need pruning – a seedling peach tree, a carob tree, the bay tree, and giant bamboo that is the windbreak. Between all these, there is plenty of material available for “rough mulch” – chainsaw pruned branches piled roughly, quite high and wide, around the newly planted tree.
It has some of the advantages of hugelkultur – long lasting slow release fertiliser, moisture retention in spongy wood, soil shading, a great environment for soil building creatures. It also protects the trees from wallaby damage for a long time, usually long enough for them to get up above wallaby height with one refresh. The cut branches drop their leaves into a tangle of twigs and the turkeys can’t scratch it away.
Each tree gets a couple of buckets of diluted seaweed brew at planting and they’ll get watered again in about a week if there is no rain. Pomegranate, tangelo, orange, macadamia, lime, burdekin plum, feijoa. A good day.
I’ve caused conniptions in Chinese, Lebanese, Laotian, Greek, Albanian, Mexican and probably several other grandmothers. It’s time for some Vietnamese ones.
No doubt this recipe is not authentic, and I would love anyone who has a real Vietnamese grandmother to share the authentic version. But one of the nice things about multicultural Australia is the cross fertilization of ideas, in food as in everything else.
I discovered this by looking at limes falling off the tree and a shelf full of lime pickles and lime cordial, and wondering how limes would go salted and preserved the same way I preserve lemons – which is a recipe of North African or Middle Eastern provenance I think. Preserved lemons are a kitchen staple for me, finely chopped and added to couscous as a side dish, or to broad beans or tagines or pasta sauce or fish stew or mushrooms on toast or any number of dishes that need that little salty sweet sour note. Preserved limes are more limited in cooking – if I have preserved lemons I usually prefer them.
Except for this.
A little bit of salted lime in a glass, topped up with water or ideally soda water. I like it unsweetened, but you can add a little sugar if you like. After a session of mowing, it’s the best drink.
My limes are just coming into season which is handy, because this one is the last of last year’s jars.
Sterilize your jars (and their lids) by boiling for ten minutes or pressure cooking for five. This recipe will make about 4 medium jars.
Measure out 250 grams of salt.
Chop 16 limes into quarters. Put them in a big bowl, sprinkling them as you go with the salt. Massage in.
Pack the lime pieces into your jars, pressing down to really pack them in.
Pour the juice left in the bowl evenly into the jars. You will be left with some undisolved salt in the bottom of the bowl. Juice 2 or 3 more limes and try to dissolve the salt in the juice. Top up the jars so they are quite full and the limes are covered. Discard any salt that is left.
Wipe the neck of the jar with a clean cloth dipped in boiled water and seal with a sterilized lid. Store in a cool spot for at least a month before using, better two months. They will last for years on the shelf, becoming salt candied and jelly-like. Once a jar is opened it is better kept in the fridge.
To serve, finely slice or just squash a segment of lime and put it in a glass. Top up with water or soda water and ice and add sugar (or not) to taste.
We have a big and growing stack of pumpkins on the verandah. A big stack. This is just the start of the main pumpkin harvesting season and already I am looking for places to store them, feeding them to the chooks and to the redclaw in the front dam, and sending every visitor off with a 10 kg behemoth.
And using every pumpkin recipe in the repertoire – pumpkin pasta, pumpkin salad, pumpkin dip, pumpkin balls, pumpkin curry, pumpkin pie, pumpkin scones, pumpkin bread, pumpkin pizza, pumpkin soup, pumpkin cake, pumpkin patties.
So, you can see why my quest was to see just how much pumpkin I could include in a pumpkin granola and have it still crunchy and granola-ish. The recipes I see have just half a cup or so of pumpkin puree. Hmfff. And also maple syrup, which is lovely but so far out of my 100 mile (160 km) zone that I don’t buy it for home.
This recipe uses treacle, which is just as healthy and much more local, and 1½ cups of pumpkin puree. Which makes no dent at all in the pile but at least makes me feel like I’m trying.
There are lots of substitutions possible, so this is the basic recipe and you can adjust to your own style.
- 1½ cups of pumpkin puree – cooked pumpkin blended to smooth.
- 3 big dessertspoons of treacle
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- Pinch cloves
- Pinch nutmeg
- Pinch salt
Stir through 1 cup of pecans, and/or your choice of nuts and seeds. I added a handful of pepitas and macadamias.
Stir through 2½ cups of plain rolled oats, and/or your choice of rolled or puffed grains. I used plain rolled oats, but I would have used rolled barley and triticale if I had any on the shelf.
Oil two large baking dishes really well and spread the mixture out as best you can without pressing down.
Bake in a moderate oven for around 20 minutes, then take out and break up clumps as best you can with a fork.
Bake for another 20 minutes or so and break up and stir again.
Mine took just under an hour to get to a nice roasty-ness. It will crispen up as it cools.
If you want to add dried fruit, best to add it after it comes out of the oven as it burns too easily when roasted.
It’s great with fruit and yoghurt for breakfast or dessert, or just as is as a snack.
Store in an airtight jar and it will last for ages if you can manage to avoid raiding the jar all the time. Dare you.
It’s the southern hemisphere equinox at 3.30 pm today, the moment when the earth is exactly half way on its journey round the sun between the short shadow full face to the sun days of midsummer, and the long shadow late mornings and early evenings of midwinter.
In gardening terms, it’s time to start planting things that need the threat of winter to persuade them to store food- garlic and onions, cabbage and turnips, celeriac and cauliflower. There’s a whole set of posts about what I plant, in northern NSW, this time of year at Early Autumn Planting. It will be different in your part of the world but the concepts are the same – with a few exceptions like broad beans, it will be plants that hunker down and store food to see them through till the lengthening days signal good times ahead and time to seed. Except by that time, they will be harvested and eaten.
It’s also time to start thinking about firewood and crafts and good books and the idea of balance. The spring equinox I think of as being about balance by planting and growing, but the autumn equinox is about balance by harvesting and culling.
I don’t usually like winter much. The days are too short, the quality of the light is wrong, I have to wear boots. I like the long days of summer when you can do so much in a day. But I think maybe this year I need winter. Some time contemplating the bare framework without all the leaves and flowers and fruit that can hide as well as yield. Some time to sift what is important out of the ongoing urgent, to cull and whittle.
The equinoxes and solstices, and the cross quarter dates midway between them, are wonderful calendar markers. A reminder to that it is useful to step back from the daily flurry every so often and let the philosophical have a moment. So that is my philosophical autumn equinox musing – cull and prune so the framework is strong enough for the load.
There’s a fine line between pleasure and pain – and cucamelons, I’ve decided you are the wrong side of it. This photo was last year. This year I didn’t plant any, and weeded out most of those that came up on their own. I let one go over the bed the chooks were in, thinking they might keep it under control, but this week I decided they’re too risky and the whole lot came out.
Cucamelons (or mouse melons – Melothria scabra) were all the rage there for a year or two. For those who missed it, they’re little, melon shaped cucumbers. Very cute. And very, very prolific.
Sadly though to my taste they aren’t a keeper. They’re not bad, a slightly lemony cucumber flavour, but the flesh is like the seedy part of a cucumber – rather watery and the skin is the only bit that makes them crunchy. I made several salads out of them but while I had Suyo Long cucumbers, or Richmond Valley Whites, or Continentals, there was no way I was going to use cucamelons. I pickled a batch, thinking they might go well pickled on a cheese platter but they ended up soft and sour – not nice.
Permaculturists, and gardeners in general, have been guilty of evangelising quite a few plants that turned out to be invasive pests. There’s a very fine line between the permaculture ideal of a plant that is so hardy, it grows, survives, and self seeds and needs little management, and the permaculture nightmare of a plant that is so hardy, it grows, survives, and self seeds and can’t be managed. How do you select plants that fall on the right side of the line?
Australian bush food is wonderful – we grow finger limes and macadamias and Davidson plums and Burdekin plums and lemon myrtle and Bunyas – but it isn’t going to happen that we live on bush food. The long introduced European staples of peas and carrots are pretty safe from going invasive – they’re a long way out of their comfort zone. It’s the others, the food plants adapted to African desert countries or South East Asian tropical and sub-tropical countries that are both exciting and worrying. Olives are an invasive pest in the Adelaide hills. Taro (Colocasia esculenta) is regarded as an environmental weed in Queensland, New South Wales and south-western Western Australia. Passionfruit (Passiflora edulis) is regarded as an environmental weed in New South Wales and Queensland. Queensland arrowroot (Canna indica) is an environmental weed in New South Wales and south-eastern Queensland. Coffee (Coffea arabica) is regarded as an environmental weed in south-eastern Queensland and northern Queensland.
Yet clearly, we aren’t going to give up drinking coffee.
And if we are going to drink it, it is going to be grown somewhere, and I’m a firm firm believer that out of sight, out of mind isn’t a solution.
The tests for me:
- It has to be really good to eat, so much so that it is going to be harvested. So much so that I know that even if I were to be hit by a bus, someone would bother to come and harvest it (which is the case with olives or coffee or passionfruit around here).
- The local wildlife has to not spread the seeds. So either they love eating it so much that it doesn’t get to seed (which is the case with Leucaena or Queensland arrowroot or Taro around here), or they don’t like it at all.
- I have to be able to grow it in a careful, close, watched way, well away from bushland, for a season or two to see what it does.
Sorry cucamelons. You’re not good enough for number one. I’m not at all sure about number two. And I gave you a season and you blew it.
This post was first published on Simple Green Frugal some years ago. It’s worth a re-run.
A post on Little Eco Footprints this week called Are we making a mistake living in the city? has been in the back of my mind at odd moments all week. I live in a rural community. I moved here as a young hippy mum nearly 30 years ago, living first in a caravan with no power, road access, or running water. I have never regretted it and although it was diabolically hard in those early years, I do have the best of lives.
But sometimes, like the deserted beach or the fantastic suburban restaurant, things are only fantastic so long as no-one else knows they are. Is living in the country like that? Is it only possible to do it without destroying it because most people don’t?
My “perfect world” fantasy has everyone living in permacultured villages with tiny ecological footprints, networked and linked with electric railways and internet (powered with geothermal or big desert solar installations), largely self sufficient in food, water, waste disposal, houshold and local energy, trading knowledge, culture, art, craft, manufactured goods and specialist crops.
The villages would be neither city nor country, but a bit of both. They would have enough population density so that people could get around by foot and bicycle – kids could walk to school and to their friends places to play, neighbours would be close enough to rely on in emergencies or even just to borrow a cup of flour or a tool or visit for a chat. But they would have a low enough density to allow most of the fresh food production to be local – kitchen gardens, fruit trees, chickens, geese, dairy cows.
That’s not a very different level of population density to the older suburbs in Australia. As permaculture writer David Holmgren says, “It’s technically possible that the traditional older suburbs could actually produce all of the food needed to sustain the people living there. The amount of open space – both public and private space in backyards – means that you’ve got a population density not that much greater than some of the densest traditional agricultural landscapes in the world.”
FAO says that “It is realistic to suppose that the absolute minimum of arable land to support one person is a mere 0.07 of a hectare–and this assumes a largely vegetarian diet, no land degradation or water shortages, virtually no post-harvest waste, and farmers who know precisely when and how to plant, fertilize, irrigate, etc.” John Jeavons claims that 0.2 hectare can support a family of four. So my fantasy isn’t unreasonable.
But back to my fantasy. Households and small businesses would have local grid connected solar power and rainwater tanks for water, with local water and power boards managing supply and floating pricing to force frugality in times of shortage.
Villages would have their own schools, hospitals, and local economies, based on trading everyday goods and services, but would be connected by high speed electric trains to allow some villages to produce specialist and higher education, specialist medical services, centres of excellence in research, arts and sport, and manufactured goods and specialist crops. Villages would also be connected via the internet, allowing work in any kind of knowledge industries to be globalised.
Giant solar installations in the desert would provide the power for the railways and energy intensive manufacturing. There would be no private cars. Petrol would be very expensive and reserved for engines and manufactured goods that couldn’t do without it. Young adults would go backpacking round the world on trains, bikes and sailing boats.
Thump. That was me falling back to earth.
In reality, both urban dwellers and country dwellers are a long way from my fantasy. With the prices people are willing to pay for quality food, and the cut that goes to packaging, transport, storage, wholesalers then supermarkets, it’s no wonder that many farming practices are the equivalent of strip mining of farmland, as destructive to the environment as concrete suburbs. Much of our food is industrially produced, in CAFOs and ILOs that are just like rural factories. Both farmland and urbanisation are threats to biodiversity. Both lifestyles rely, in different ways, on huge energy subsidies.
I think most rural areas in Australia at least would benefit hugely from a big population influx of people intent on creating a simple green frugal lifestyle. It would move them towards, not away from my fantasy. But in reality, the majority of the population lives in cities, and it is there that the real work of creating change needs to be done, and will have the biggest effects, for all of us.