winter sun, industrial ruins

Woken up by a parrot in the apple tree outside my window, I look up and then down; three kangaroos are grazing in the garden. Methodically eating little bits of grass- casual, like they drop by all the time. As I watch them they hear an unknown sound and stand up on alert; the classic garden ornament pose. I can’t work out how they got in, but then I seem them elegantly slide through the gap under the gates.

It’s the middle of winter and cold in the country. Everything outside looks dry and a bit gnarled. You don’t notice the seasons so much in Sydney- they can kind of slide into each other. It’s interesting to think that under this hard & frost bitten ground things are growing and cooking away; ready to burst out in abundance in spring, just a month away now.

Heading to Sydney I detour through Lithgow, the old industrial town on the far side of the Blue Mountains. I’d recently heard that it was once a centre for textiles and pottery and that there were still a lot of artisans in the area. The aqueduct always looks impressive when you drive past on the highway.

Passing through town I end up at an old mining museum –a deserted outdoors junkyard of coal carts, machinery and strange vehicles. Loud hip hop comes from one of the sheds- there’s a few welders working. The museum is closed. but they don’t seem to care if I look around. It feels like more of an adventure this way, walking around, discovering things yourself.

Heading back to the highway- on the hill, behind some tract homes; what looks like a ruined gothic castle. A sign says it’s the old blast furnace- again- there is no one around. Like a children’s playground – a di Chirico painting. With this and the aqueduct Lithgow is starting to feel like Australia’s version of Ancient Rome. Weeds grow everywhere, & the paint’s peeling off, the winter sun with its deep shadows makes it feel like the stage is set- & a play’s about to start.

Back home I do some google searches on Lithgow. Multiple images of the actor John Lithgow pop up, but not much about the town. More to come on this…

Baking with friends

wrapped up bread rising in a warm place

It’s easy to lose the habit of cooking. It can seem like something you do on TV and get judged for. It‘s been over talked, over examined. Yet to gather together a few ingredients and make something simple for friends and family can bring such delight.

in the kitchen with Rob and Leigh

Away from it all in the country, baking becomes an event. Something that is remembered, talked about. Rob and Leigh’s scrumptiously moist friands; now a sense memory bound up with a certain 80s German jigsaw and minty cocktails.

the loaves start to rise in the winter sun

Rob & Leigh's friands

My ideal is to bake a beautiful loaf of bread and bring it out for a really simple lunch. To have the whole house heavy with the aroma of it. A few dismal attempts following recipes has led me to ask Carolyn, a dear friend and master bread maker, for a lesson.

from one of Carolyn's old cookbooks

Carolyn's dough- smooth & elastic

Carolyn’s method of teaching is to have one lot of dough rising in a warm place while she shows you how to start another one from scratch. Then she puts the first loaf the oven and gives you the other one to take home and cook yourself. She makes bread with a minimum of materials – no dough hooks or bread makers. Just a large bowl & wooden spoon. Ingredients; flour, water, yeast and salt.

baking in the '70s

country gate made out of old stretcher bed

She tells me interesting and unusual tips that I have never read in books. The temperature should be 200 degrees but all ovens vary. To check it you put a piece of newspaper in the oven and if it goes the colour of a pine chopping block- then it’s just right.

She warns me not to leave the bowl of dough rising near furniture as it can go over the sides. Back home the next morning, like a small creature, some of it had escaped and landed on the floor of the kitchen. I put a pan of water in the oven to make the air moist, but I don’t get the heavenly bread smell & my loaf is somehow too hard and yet undercooked. Hmm… well, it’s a start. I’ve been initiated into the ancient ritual of bread baking.

Still Life

Lately I‘ve been looking at still life paintings and photos; I find them peaceful, comforting. Just a few simple objects placed together; a space for reflection on everyday things. In the old schoolmasters house I don’t want an unnecessary clutter of possessions. Only things that are handmade, or come from nature, or have the mystery of a story behind them.

It’s my dear sweet Nana’s 98th birthday this week. She has given explicit instructions for no presents – she has reached that stage where she likes to give things away. Only a few objects remain in her small room: a bejeweled camel whose hump lifts up to reveal a cavity, a little basket of wooden fruit from South America, hologram postcards of running animals. But I’m determined to get round her present roadblock.

picture of Nana from her modeling days

inspirations for embroidery projects

Working lately on a line of embroidered cushions; ones with old naval sayings,hearts & anchors. For Nana’s birthday, I ‘m going to make a little pincushion, inspired after seeing an article on WW1 soldiers’ art. It’s the same sentiment – things crafted by people away from home- thinking of what matters most.

Out & about on a job, little things for the old schoolmasters house drift my way. Some old inkbottles from the lovely Instagram discovered shop Drunk on the Moon. They are from the 1890s with jagged, serrated tops- disposable at the time, they didn’t bother to finish them off. The Glass Stopper at Mitchell Road has more beautiful bottles- ones with cloudy colored glass, covered in old writing.

Arranging my new collection on a windowsill with seedpods, banksias & and gum nuts. Australian natives have such sculptural shapes- they are unlike any other plants. I predict a new wave of Australiana on the way – it’s time for a fresh interpretation. Finishing off Nana’s pincushion; mixing beading with embroidery & an old photo of her– it’s very possibly gaudy but I don’t care. I want it colourful, exuberant, & full of life . All it needs now is pompoms…

Road trip

Getting out of Sydney, hitting the road; four hours to the old schoolmasters’ house. Leaving behind the signs and car yards of Parramatta road, heading down the freeway, crossing the Blue Mountains. So liberating to just drive. No checking in, no waiting around, no one telling you where to go. It’s relaxing – you don’t have to do anything else. You can stop where you like- take random detours.

The deeper into the Blue Mountains the further back in time you go. The villages become older, quainter. There are more references to Australian history; a stump that has something to do with Wentworth, Blaxland and Lawson, now seemingly permanently covered in plastic garbage bags & tape. A restaurant advertising murder mystery nights in a creepy font. This is what I find fascinating about rural Australia – the more you get away from cities the more eccentricities are revealed; topiary animals, abandoned boats & cars, odd signs. A surreal edge starts to surface.

One time crossing I can’t resist jumping the fence into the abandoned Hydro Majestic. A once grand hotel on the edge of cliff- nothing much seems to be happening there now. A squat Italian colonnade guards the view out over a canyon. Today you can’t imagine anyone being allowed to approach it if not wearing a fluoro vest. A sandstone wall with castle like crenellated top borders a couple of tennis courts with stunning views. It’s the middle of the day and the light is hard and directly overhead. Peering into the interior there’s a lot of plastic 80s furniture stacked up. I hope that the eventual renovation can keep this mood of drama.

One of the highlights of the trip comes at the very end of the Blue Mountains. Through a parting in the trees your eye swoops down across a valley- it’s the country now. Sheep and paddocks and signs for crossing kangaroos. Like a 19th century landscape painting there it is: silence, nature and space.

It’s a great feeling leaving the last roundabout behind. Country music blasting -now its 100 km an hour. Trees close over the road, dappled light filters down. I’ve become very interested in country letterboxes & have started photographing them- I want to build up a collection. No trip to Bunning’s for a little neat box – these are big and wild and made out of old milk canisters, kegs, plastic containers – what ever’s around. I love their individuality.

Scones in winter

I think the beauty of winter comes from the contrasts- the cold freshness of the air outside versus the warm coziness of the interior; a fire and scones and full-bodied music on the record player.

It’s the heart of winter and house guests are due to arrive in the afternoon. I’m making scones. But first I have to prune the fruit trees in the orchard. Instead of a weathered old gardener beside me guiding my hand, I’m puzzling it out with the Readers Digest Complete Guide to the Garden. Starting off with very slow precise cuts- by the end I’m cutting more and more- shaping it to eye. Will it work? Well the answer will come around springtime. I have pruned plants before; it’s such an interesting process, cutting back hard to get new growth.

I started making scones for friends a few years ago. I had found a wonderfully easy recipe in the Bundaberg Country Women’s Association cookbook; it works perfectly nearly every time. Scones have something to do with childhood- they take you back to different time. I remember my dear granddad Albert and how he would be out in the kitchen quietly throwing scones together, almost in a way you didn’t notice him doing it. Then a luscious baking smell preparing you for the warm scones with lashings of cream and jam.

It’s not an experience you can get at a café- they have to be fresh out of the oven- they have to be home made. Scones take a cup of tea with friends & make it all seem special and give the afternoon a glow. It’s a great moment where everyone gathers around the table in anticipation- I always tell people to go for it with the jam and cream!

Demi whips the cream

hand knitted koala tea cosy

Bundaberg CWA scones
3 cups S.R. flour
1 tablespoon icing sugar
2 tablespoons butter
1 ½ cups of milk
pinch salt
Melt butter in half cup of the milk. Pour that into milk from the fridge. Sift flour , salt and icing sugar. Make a well in centre and pour in milk. Mix with a fork to a dough that is not too dry. Put on a floured board and press to 2 cm thickness. Cut quickly with a round cutter and place close togther on a greased tray. Bake 250 Celsius, until the tops are golden brown.