Thursday, January 30, 2014

Bunya, bunya, bunya, oi, oi, oi

A couple of weeks ago, Tim received the following email from his august New-South-Welsh father: "Tim, would Lexi like some bunya nuts?" Tim said yes. Of course I'd like some bunya nuts. Who wouldn't like bunya nuts? Who, especially, having recently seen a lifetime's supply of almonds disapparate in the presence of cockatoos, wouldn't say yes-diggety-yes to the offer of compensatory nuts d'bunya?

A week later: "How many would she like?" We decided that Pa of Tim had probably come by a single bunya cone. Loath to deprive him overly of his riches, I suggested, tentatively, "Seventeen?" Seventeen kernels from a single cone still leaves thirty or so kernels for the finder to keeper.

A week later: "You'd better bring a suitcase when you visit. I've got 20kg of nuts for you." Turns out Tim's progenitor had interpreted "seventeen bunya nuts" as seventeen stonking, bigger-than-your-head, heftier-than-a-bowling-ball, spikier-than-a-spiky-thing bunya tree cones, and had been assiduously gathering them from the local park, rolling them home with the help of a small team of elephants, hacking them apart with his tomahawk and cutting the kernels from their shells with his bare teeth and/or secateurs. 

One of several yet-to-be-tomahawked cones.

Approximately a fifth of the current harvest.

Raw, these chaps have a tough woody skin. We addressed this by boiling a potful for 45 minutes, which softened the skins enough that we could wrestle them off with our bare claws and/or a fork and pliers. 

We're now munching the kernels with pumpkin dip. They're chestnutty, starchy and waxy, a bit like potatoes, intensely filling. 9% protein, which ain't much for a nut, but sure beats spuds. And we have 19 kilos to go. If we can get them back to Lalor, we won't need an alternative source of carbs for months, and while I'm pretty fond of alternative sources of carbs, I'm also darned excited by the thought of being able to live longterm on the droppings of a tree rooted in a public park.

So excited, in fact, that I'm tempted to bury seeds all over Lalor and sprout a local bunya nut forest. They're allegedly indigenous to south-east Queensland, but are growing and fruiting (with a vengeance, I can verify) not far north of Sydney, and I've seen a tree in Werribee Park, which bodes well for other climatically equivalent parts of Melbs. The minor matters of them being gigantisimally huge and having a habit of dropping mega-conkers on people's heads are quite beside the point.

N.B. Edible Culture gives a much more thorough account of how to grow, massacre, cook and eat your own bunya nuts. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Why I am going to acquire some posh tree-nets before next Summer

We have two almond trees, each procured, for an impossibly measly $5, from the rootbound-plants-for-cheap area at Epping Bunnings. They're good trees. They've grown well. They survive on nothing but rainwater and free range chook poo (poo of free-range chooks, that is, as opposed to free-range poo of chooks). They provide shade. They seem immune to the leafcurl virus that sabotages our peaches and nectarine. All they don't do - and I hasten to note that it's not their fault - is give us almonds.

Things in the Lalor almond department were looking pretty promising back in early August, as the almond trees came into flower.

The bees, who hadn't bothered going into any sort of hibernation whatsoever, on account of our sex-crazed rosemary and our nymphomaniac dandelions, giddily pollinated Every Single Almond Blossom in town.

The humans were cracking open their first bottle of feijoa wine and for mysterious reasons quaffing it beneath the petal confetti of the great god Prunus.

The chooks were pooing their darnedest.

The cats held off using the almond trunks as scratching posts.

All was well in the almondy world as hundreds and hundreds of tiny green almonds began growing from the spurs of the almond trees.

Things were still looking pretty good in early January:

Some of the fruit had fallen by the wayside, but that's entirely necessary when the bees have gone into pollination overkill and the tree risks dying trying to provide for all its potential offspring. The fruit that were left, though, were ripening beautifully. An almond harvest was thrillingly imminent.

And then a herd of two-footed berserkers with yellow caps and white capes flew into town. "Scrawp!" they said, "Scrawp! Scrawp!", which was the signal to start ripping open almonds and eating the kernels.

Leading to (a) no almonds for us, (b) very happy fat cockies, and (c) a deluxe mulch of almond shells.

It turns out that there is a reason why T and V two houses down have veiled their almond like a 1940s bride. Look at her go, almond-a-rama.

So, lesson learned. Next year, there will be nets, disappointed cockatoos, and almonds for me. Insha'Allah.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The six-footed ladies of Camberwell

We've had our bees here in the Lalorium since August 2012. This is long enough for me to have become smitten with them, very pleased with their pollinating, wax-secreting, honey-making ways, and kind of proud of my own bad-asserybottomery in hanging out on a regular basis with tens of thousands of stinging (if usually gentle) insects. It's not so long, though, that I don't still have a lot to learn about ye olde apiculture.

In quest of apicultural learnings, then, we tagged along this morning with friendly bee-meister W. W was removing a youngish hive from above the front door of some peops in Camberwell. These peops included two grown-ups, two small children, a guinea pig, and a dachshund with a fondness for eating bees, and consequently a habit of getting stung somewhere between his muzzle and his houndly equivalent of a uvula. The dachshund was gnawing at a very wet dead bee when we arrived, which was evidence (in case we needed it) that the hive above the front door and the family behind the front door had certain problematic incompatibilities. (And/or that they were perfectly compatible insofar as the dog was providing a free dead bee clean-up service and gleaning his own protein to boot.)

The bees were living in a portico, their entrance a tiny fissure between the portico's masonry cladding and the brick wall of the house proper. Our bee-meister had a cunning plan, which effectively amounted to standing on a ladder, jimmying away the beading that held up the portico's thin (gyprock?) ceiling. When the ceiling fell on cue, it was to reveal this warm beautiful bundle of bee energy.

There were thousands and thousands of bees here, clinging together to conserve warmth for their babies - little pupae tucked into the white waxy cells.

The bees were very, amazingly, gentle with us. Bee-meister W sliced each piece of comb from the wood it was anchored to, and passed it down to one of us. We fitted the pieces of comb into frames, which had been prepared earlier with a hammock of elastic bands to support the comb pieces. The comb had to be fitted so that it was the same way up as it had been in the hive.

The cells capped with orange are full of larvae; the pale capped cells in the top righthand corner of the frame, and on the leftmost piece of comb in the frame, contain honey.

Most of the bees moved with their brood and honey stores into the box, but a few stragglers stayed, confused, in the former location of their hive. We tried brushing these into a dustpan and plonking them in their new box. When that failed, we turned to the smoker, which had been puffing away in a corner, unused, for the main part of the operation. Some of the bees still clung to home, or failed to find the box. These bees will die, sadly, as the hive that warms them at night has been taken away to greener, less Camberwelly, portico-y pastures.

The operation wasn't without casualties (not only these stragglers, but the bee who impaled herself on my glove, and some of the brood who were injured as we cut the comb to fit the frames), but it was vastly less brutal than the gassing of the pest-exterminator, and spared the house people the horror of several kilos of dead bees rotting in their own syrup above their front door.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Lessons in chook husbandry

Sometime late last year, a young Australorp of our acquaintance developed an abscess in her foot. Her whole leg was burning hot, and I knew enough words like 'septicaemia' and 'raging torrents o' pus', to bundle her up, sore foot and all, and take her to our local vet. Our local vet confessed almost no experience of chickens, but she nonetheless valiantly palpated Esme's foot, agreed that Esme had an abscess, and estimated an appropriate daily dosage of penicillin. 

The penicillin tablets had been designed for larger animals, like dogs, or possibly diprotodons. They were huge, anyway, and there was no way Esme was going to eat them whole, or even halved (we tried, we really did, which was stressful for her and seventeen thousand times as stressful for us). Finally we realised that they had to be pulverised and mixed with something irresistibly tasty. Like yoghourt and muesli. Or like Esme's own eggs, which, having a penicillin allergy, I could no longer eat and which she was still laying like the frisky young chook she is. Twice a day, then, Esme was presenting herself at the backdoor for her delicious yoghourt avec penicillin, or penicillin omelette with smidgens of kale. She ate this inside, to prevent her fellow hens from getting an unnecessary dose of penicillin and if that meant chook poo on the floor, well, so be it. Meanwhile, instead of dining on penicillin cordon bleu, Esme's colleagues all stood by the backdoor, peering in with wistful expressions on their beaks.

A few weeks after her course of antibiotics ended, Esme started sitting on every egg she could muster, purring sweetly to the unfertilised yolks inside. We're pretty sympathetic to hens with parental urges, and I, for one, deeply regret our lack of rooster, so we rustled up some fertilised eggs, and the result was:

Geoffrey! who, six and a half weeks later, is showing every sign of being a young lady (phew), and possibly an Araucana/Australorp cross.

Esme didn't come to the backdoor for quite a few weeks. Sitting on the egg that became Geoffrey was a full-time job, with perhaps ten minutes smoko (grain-o, drink-o, poo-o, dust-bath-o) per day. Once Geoffrey was hatched, Esme was consumed with parental duties: sitting on Geoffrey to keep her warm; finding Geoffrey little green things to eat; finding Geoffrey little brown and pink and grey and red and black things to eat; showing Geoffrey how to scratch; purring and whirring at Geoffrey as Geoffrey said 'peep-peep-peep, peepy peep peep, peep'.

Sometime around Geoffrey's four-week birthday, though, Esme magically managed to delegate parenting duties to her sister, Shirley. Now it was Shirley who was finding things for Geoffrey to eat, Shirley who was making room under her wing for Geoffrey to nestle at night, Shirley who had even taken up the purring-whirring of mother (and aunty) chooks.

This gave Esme the opportunity to resume her activities as the gourmand of the living room. 'Don't give her an inch,' said Tim, as Esme poked her beak in through the tiny gap of the backdoor. Within minutes, she was on his knee, eating scraps of pancake from his fingers.

Then, not content with the limitations of his hand-feeding mallarcky, Esme took a flying lunge for Tim's plate, which didn't end for her as well as she had expected.

The moral of the story is: to avoid disappointment, give your chook her own pancake from the get-go.

This has been the Natural History and Antiquities of Lalor, with an impossibly helpful message about chickens.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Plumtious beauties

We have, here in Lalor, what's known as Enough Plums. Plumtasm '14 started a couple of weeks ago in Heidelberg, where my friend Kim's plum tree was pendulous and pregnant with 55kg of blood plums. Kim and I have been negotiating plum-based transactions for three years now. She gives me twenty kilos of plums, and cooks me dinner, and shows me how her carrots have gone to seed, and permits me the slightly indecorous but wholesome pleasure of being smooched by her slobbery hound, and in return I relieve her of the gluttiest third of her plum glut. How nice of me.

She's a bit of a special tree, this plum of Kim's. The fruit are deeply red fleshed, with a purple nap of bloom on their crimson skins.

I bottled 17 serious jars of these ladies, with a splodge of honey and a cinnamon quill per jar, and put the rest in the freezer. Then I and my cohabitator went for a walk along the Venetian canal of the northern suburbs – Henderson's Drain Trail – and found a blood plum groaning with hundreds of fruit. Groaning right over the back of someone's fence, in fact. Plums were rotting on the ground and That Will Not Do (oh no sirree), so we salvaged a bag of them. Just what we needed, three kilos of iddly little plums, bigger than cherry plums but smaller than Kim's, on the eve of the heatwave.

And so this ...

Plumjam. Plumjum. Having jarred a year's supply of plamjam, I have this to say: if following Eugenia Bone's plum jam recipe in her otherwise excellent book about jam and stuff, do not believe her when she recommends chucking your un-de-pipped plums into the pot, trusting the pips to rise to the surface so that you can "fish them out with a slotted spoon". Those babies rise all right, but they're the colour of plum jam and nigh impossible to spot. I fished and I fished, with a slotted spoon no less, and each time I thought I'd fished enough, and prodded at the bubbling jam just to be sure, the slotted spoon would collide with another plum stone. There may well be plum stones lurking in the jars to this day. Someone could break a tooth, I tell you.

We still had a freezer full of Kim's plums, which Sidekick Tim, as is his wont, decided to commandeer for the purposes of plum melomel. Melomel, a mead containing fruit, is an excellent solution to both a plum glut and a honey glut. Tim juiced the plums (easy after they've been frozen because the freezing and thawing breaks down the cells) and chucked the plum juice with honey and a hunk of ginger into a 5L demijohn. Then wine yeast and organic raisins (Tim's preferred low-tech yeast nutrient).

The plum melomel is fermenting like a herd of wildebeests, who, as you know, are renowned for their fermentability. Srsly. There's a lot of carbo-alco-dioxide action going on in this here vessel.

Photo suspiciously fuzzy. Almost as if I'd had a wee tipple or seven.

There, you might suppose, our antics with plums had ended, but it turns out we have a plum tree in the backyard. I should know this, because I planted her myself in 2011. She's a Japanese plum, the 'Luisa' cultivar, which means a yellowish skin with a red blush, and sweet super-juicy yellow flesh.

My finger gives you some idea of how enormous these fruit are. Eating a Luisa is like eating two plums, or three. They've been looking more like mangos than plums (all the more so because they're more ovoid than spherical). Last Summer, we had hundreds and hundreds of blossom set, but the little plumlets grew to a centimetre or so and dropped off. Probly the drought, and my stinginess with water. This Summer is the first time we've had plums come to fruition, and oh my there are a lot of them.


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Arthropod of the Week, or, Brief Distractions from the HellWeather (TM)

I accidentally watered this lady while trying to resuscitate a roasted abutilon last night. She didn't look like she minded too much. 

I can't quite work out what her name is. She looks like a false garden mantis – Pseudomantis albofimbriata for those who talk fancy zoological Latin and/or can use google. Only I can't see the bit of her that's meant to be albofimbriated (or, y'know, white around the edges). The photos of P. albofimbriata on ye olde internet show chaps with yellow elbows and knees, not the violet bits this gal's got going on.

Anyway, I find myself suspecting she had something to do with this:

I'm indecorously pleased at the thought of curious green insects breeding in the front yard. To be honest, I'm pretty pleased about anything breeding in the front yard, with a few obvious exceptions (anopheles mosquitoes, tsetse flies, local youth). It's a credit to the way we keep our herbage that the critters would think our wooden garden stake sufficiently ambient for a bit of romantic ovipositing.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Harbingers of doom and the sauering of kraut

Mum turned 75 last week (happy birthday, Mum!).  In Sydney, in January 1939, on the fourth day of Mum's ex-utero career, the temperature reached 113.6ºF. Forty-five point something, in the new money.

Mum tells a story about hospitals requisitioning wherever was cool, which meant new babies and their mothers being installed in butchers' cool-rooms, beside the hanging carcasses, I guess. 

Adelaide is going to out-heatwave 1939 this week, and Melbourne's not very far behind. We're into Day 2 of what will be a five day stink-a-thon. It was still 37ºC at 2am last night, a special kind of apocalyptic. I woke up just after midnight when a hot westerly pelted a window shut, shattering the glass, and I spent the next three hours awake in the bristling heat, watching the thermometer and worrying about the dry lightning that was falling all around. Tomorrow's set to reach 44ºC, Friday 41ºC. The glazier can't fix the window because it's too hot to work and too hot for putty to set. I think doomish thoughts when it's like this. Our chooks are panting, holding their wings away from their bodies, despite icy water and frozen corn. We've done what we can for our more sensitive plants, but they still shrivel and look sad. The 7000L water tank is almost empty, only half way through Summer. There's a 4000L back-up tank, but it doesn't have a pump, so it's pesky to use.

So. Anyway. Enough with the global warming already. I would be very happy for 1939's records to remain unbroken. I would like this kind of weather to be rare and surprising. I would really like not to find myself thinking about the moral pickle of air conditioning: on the one hand, there are people whose lives have probably been spared today because of air conditioning; on the other, air conditioning units are just pumping inside's hot air outside, where the birds and insects and trees get an extra dose of shrivelling heat; to say nothing of the carbon dioxide that's diffused into the atmosphere in order to power the majority of Australia's air conditioning units, which carbon dioxide, as you know, is contributing to the hot air that needs conditioning. (This is not a very productive line of complaint, I realise, but it's too hot for productive lines of complaint. I just want to complain unproductively, and/or for a stonking southerly wind to saunter up from Antarctica, bearing buckets of rain.)

In happier news, Sunday was lovely. Exemplary Summer weather. Top of 25º, cool breezes. This chap was harvesting plums from next door's tree:

Wise bird. Knows which side his plum is buttered on. Knows to eat fruit before it stews on the tree. From this fine feathered citizen of the air I augured that it was time to haul some food in from the garden.

The red cabbage that's been growing since August or so, some leaves from the seven bagillionth generation of silverbeet in the front yard, beetroots of love, and some very dried out coriander.

There's been some serious fermentation afoot in the Lalorium (yo, hipsters), in the spirit of which I chopped some of this veg up into teeny bits and set about sauering my kraut ...

This home-grown cabbage and beetroot palooza is now burbling away under its own juice in a giant jar, wee little lactobacilli acidifying the krauty ecosystem and producing a rather gruesome froth atop the surface. Yes, indeed. Foaming tankard of cabbage. Everybody's fave.

The dried out coriander yielded these seeds, plus some high-end coriander-flavoured straw:

One day, when it's less beastly hot, I might cook again. When that day comes, I will activate Operation Coriander Seed. Oh yes I will.

Hold me.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The terrible burden of home-grown berries

You can only imagine how disappointed I was to find these berries in the garden this morning:

The strawberries of despair, the silvanberries of neverending ennui, the blueberries of dolour, and the tayberries of pestilence and ill-will. The raspberries were so appalling I had to dispose of them immediately, before I could find my camera.

Some of these berries, like this blueberry "Brigitta" cultivar, are not only highly undelicious, but also a purulent blight upon the festering excresence of the front yard:

And then there is strawberry "Tarpan", never more foulsome than when in flower:

This Cape gooseberry, no relation of the gooseberry gooseberry, appals all who cast an innocent eye upon its monstrous progeny:

As for this fruit of horror, I dare not even speak its name:

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Remembering excretions past

When Mum and Dad chopped down an ancient pine and put our shed in its place, a pile of red earth came into being. I used to squat at the top of this hillock, pants around my ankles, and wee, watching a thin rivulet rush down the slope, one metre or two, before melting into the clay. It was a good place to wee, close to the shed that we slept in, but away from its entrance, so reasonably private. By crouching at the apex, I could be the river-maker every time I weed.

Under the nearest pine along the windbreak, Mum kept our handwashing basin. A branch had snapped off the pine at my head height, leaving a stick poking out from the trunk on which we could hang our hand-towel. The pine's roots pushed up orange stones, seamed with quartz and patches of purple, and grown over, like everything else that stayed still long enough, with bubbling grey-green lichen. Sometimes, overnight, a skin of ice would grow across the handwashing basin and I could break off impressive shards of it, then take my frozen hands into my mother's sleeping bag and terrorise her warm armpits.

You could walk along the pine windbreak in two directions, feet scrunching softly on the pine-needle carpet: uphill, towards the cattle grid and the sheep-loading ramp, the grass here growing lushly through sheep poo, red-skinned toadstools flecked with white after rain, or down a little, and then up again, to where the pines petered out into an uncleared patch of gums, tall and grey-barked, a huge orange termites' nest, and a cropped to bare earth hilltop that felt like wilderness except that it can't have been, because the horses gathered along the fenceline there, nose to tail, nose to tail, when the wind was especially fierce.

Our actual loo was nowhere near the windbreak. You set off north from the entrance to the shed, downhill through the round-leafed bluey-grey Argyle apple-gums, under the trunk of a huge fallen eucalypt, to where Mum, or Dad, or Mum and Dad had dug a pit straight down, and put what they called the Thunderbox on top. You went here for poos, and to watch the cows nextdoor watching you back, and to worry about redback spiders nipping your bottom, which of course never happened. Aristotle would come with you to keep guard, or snap for grasshoppers, or sniff out rabbits, or generally smell what was what.

I think all this is why I've always found actual toilets, the white ones with the flushing water, deeply disappointing. I infinitely prefer weeing outdoors to in. At the moment, I'm weeing straight into the watering can, then topping up with water, and offering my libation to some thirsty looking plant. I've been experimenting with composting my poo, which takes a lot of some kind of carbon-rich material to offset the nitrogen. There's a joinery nearby where I can get sawdust now and then, so no problem there, but however liberal my handfuls of sawdust atop poo, I'm yet to find a fly-proof system in the Summer months. And experimentation, when neighbours are so near, isn't really viable - so, al fresco pooing in hiatus until the weather cools. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Larceny, with apricots

I'm pretty sure that if the citizens of Lalor so chose, they could supply half of Melbun with backyard fruit. Nextdoor's got a giant fig tree much beloved by late January fruitbats. Also: an apple, a lemon, a gorgeous apricot. The other nextdoor has a plum and a nectarine. Nextdoor next to nextdoor has packed an orchard into 200 square metres: an almond, a mulberry, peaches, plums, nectarines, citruses of various hues, an olive. Nextdoor to them is a loquat, a huge sprawling plum, and one of those funny perennial capsicums. Nextdoor to them is a forty-year-old grape trellis, another loquat, a lemon, blah blah, fruity-fruit-and-more-fruit.

The nextdoor with the apricot was recently vacated by our neighbour, whose landlord whacked up a "for lease" sign that was promptly tagged in spraypaint by one of the local artists. For a week before Christmas, I watched hungrily the apricot tree, hoping, in my not-very-sympathetic-to-landlords way, that the house would still be untenanted a fortnight later when the apricots ripened. It is, and I am a dab hand with a ladder, and therefore:

APRICOTS! Stolen from next door with complete sangfroid! Je ne regrette rien (except perhaps depriving the rampaging rainbow lorikeets, who seem to like nibbling a quarter of an apricot before moving on to another).

Our own much younger apricot tree is on the cusp of fructifering. It's a slightly later ripener, a Moorpark, much vaunted by fruit tree vendors for its cameo in Mansfield Park:

“Sir, it is a moor park, we bought it as a moor park …”

“You were imposed on, ma’am,” replied Dr. Grant; “these potatoes have as much the flavour of a moor park apricot, as the fruit from that tree.  It is an insipid fruit at the best; but a good apricot is eatable, which none from my garden are.”

“The truth is, ma’am,” said Mrs. Grant, pretending to whisper across the table to Mrs. Norris, “that Dr. Grant hardly knows what the natural taste of our apricot is; he is scarcely ever indulged with one, for it is so valuable a fruit, with a little assistance, and ours is such a remarkably large, fair sort, that what with early tarts and preserves, my cook contrives to get them all.”  

The Wool Spaniel gave us a box of Fowlers' jars for Christmas, so last night I preserved up a storm with nextdoor's pilfered apricots, and a dollop of honey per jar. (This honey, btw, rather satisfyingly produced by our bees' pillaging the neighbours' fruit-tree blossoms. Gleaners 'r' us.)

Yesterday's achievements in looting needed consolidating, so this morning we set off on a dangling-over-back-fences-fruit nicking expedition. This is a perfectly moral and time-honoured activity. Wasteliness is next to ungodliness, quoth the famous quother. Also, food security crisis. And rotting fruit is a European wasp hazard. And peaches.

Happily for peachy posterity, Cistern Harlot gave me an excellent book of preserving recipes by Eugenia Bone for Christmas. I couldn't quite come at Comrade Bone's Peach Melba jam recipe, because it involves the besmirching of raspberries, and doing anything with raspberries other than immediately gobbling them in their birthday suits should be a criminal offence. But this Butterscotch Peach Jam recipe maketh a damn fine alternative.

Ingredienti: 6 cups peaches scavenged from over backfence within half hour walk from home; 1/3 cup lemon juice from lemons (ditto); 5 cups brown sugar (lawfully procured from local brown sugar purveyor). Then all stirred to bejesus in a pot over medium heat for 35 minutes. Comrade Bone's recipe is slightly more nuanced, but the gist of it's writ herewith.

Ta da! Jammy jam!

The peaches and apricots should be past their prime soon, but there are plums at varying stages of tart green the length and breadth of the land, so there'll be months, or at least weeks, of gathering them in and converting them to supplies. Plum wine, ftw, as the kids say.