Thursday, 29 November 2012

Pure joy

I vowed not to grow them again. They were a pain to plant (a daunting number of tiny fiddly seedlings) and an even bigger pain to transplant into the wheelbarrows (sometimes I lack vision and fail to see that 60 leeks will eventually outgrow a small plastic pot).

Then the aphids came along and threatened to destroy the whole lot. I caught them just before they sucked the life out of the slender stems. Blasting them with the garden hose and squirting with garlic spray seemed to get rid of them. I had another job when Mum reminded me shortly afterwards to earth up the stems to keep daylight out and blanch them, which means more of the finer tasting stuff.

I was waiting for fatter stems, but there I was standing, as I do, in front of the fridge staring at a nice piece of pumpkin and a few slices of smoked free-range ham.

It had to be quiche for dinner. I announced to Luca that we could finally go out and pick some leeks. What the picture doesn't show is how long the white parts were.

I will grow them again. I know now what to do (and what not to do!), but more than that, I love that feeling of pulling my own vegetables out and taking them straight to a chopping board. Pure joy.

And this quiche... I've made a lot of quiches, and this one with its raggedy edges is the finest of them all. And with two children competing for my attention, I cut corners. Pastry made in seconds in the Thermomix and I didn't even bother filling with baking beans or trimming my edges – my editors in days gone by would balk at this.

But I'm not working on a magazine shoot; I'm making a meal for my family.

Pure joy.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Dear cabbage white butterflies

Did you think we were running a breeding program? You might well see armies upon armies of your young feasting on our kale leaves as you flutter and hover, but that's not to say you are welcome to lay your eggs in the hope they'll hatch and fatten up nicely.

I am trying to feed my young, not yours. So with that in mind we've planted our own white butterflies to fool you – you apparently don't like competition so we're hoping you'll clear off somewhere else.

Only thing is it did fool you. You left our kale alone and today I caught a few amongst the wild rocket and one of your fat teenagers with his head buried inside my biggest tomato. Since when were you interested in tomatoes?

Tomorrow I'm going to scatter eggshell and make more friendly butterflies* for the tomatoes and rocket. Hopefully, you'll leave the garden for good.

In the meantime, whose chickens would love a bucket full of delicious green caterpillars? High in protein, organic... and hand-picked, of course.

*I made the butterflies by cutting out shapes from used cream cheese pots, then cut slits to attach to sticks. Large pieces of eggshell are also meant to confuse the butterflies and with any luck they'll lay their eggs somewhere 'safer'.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Favourite reads

It's that time of year, with Kian's birthday only days before Christmas and Luca's a short while after, where I take stock of what books we have and look into buying new ones for both the boys.

I still haven't finished reading Simplicity Parenting, but I am taking heed of the advice where books are concerned – just because they are a source of joy doesn't mean we should accumulate more and more. Rather then be consumed and ticked off a list somewhere, good books are there to share a story, beautiful illustrations and words you want to read again and again.

We do seem to have a fair few that are just a bit blah once you've read them a few times, and while it was hard to put all these books on the charity pile, it was good to see the real stars shining on the book ledges.

Julia Donaldson does take up a lot of space, and I have to say that some of her creations are better than others. Luca knows every word in Charlie Cook's Favourite Book and he's also very fond of Stick Man (a good Christmas book, by the way).

We've been fans of Lynley Dodd ever since Luca received the Hairy Maclary series four years ago. While Luca doesn't often request a Hairy Maclary title anymore, he does love Schnitzel von Krumm, Dogs Never Climb Trees, particularly when he's tired and only wants to read the one book.

Hairy Maclary and Zachary Quack was a board book we bought for Kian on his first birthday... Pittery pattery, skittery scattery... He's grabbed it almost every night for the past year, and I still love reading this one.

I wish Luca asked for Oliver Jeffers more often. I find his pace and illustrations just perfect for winding down and settling into bed. He writes in a way that makes you read slowly, almost whispering. It makes for a rather good bedtime book, I think. How to Catch a Star is one that always gets Luca asking questions.

Another lovely read is Heroes of the Vegetable Patch, by Ulf Stark and Charlotte Ramel, produced, would you believe, by Ikea. I haven't been to Ikea in yonks, so it was news to me that you could buy books there. Aside from a couple of oddities in the text, this is a beautiful book about children tending an old lady's garden, making friends with the vegetables, dozing on rhubarb leaves and saving a bumblebee. A story full of warmth and colour.

Emily Gravett. We love her. Ever since Auntie Jennifer bought Luca The Odd Egg for his first birthday. He still reads it today, making egg-cracking sounds as he turns the pages. There are books Luca has that inspire him to draw. He literally leaps off the bed and has an urgent need to put pencil to paper. Emily Gravett's books do this to him. The three of us huddle around my feeding chair (which should now be called the reading chair) every night and read Monkey and Me, chanting as we tap our thighs to the beat we've made up. I talk about how I love her illustrations and how I'd love to buy prints of her elephants. Orange Pear Apple Bear is another simple but gorgeous title.

Eric Carle. Who doesn't have a few? The usual suspects are always good of course, but our favourite is Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? I made up a tune for this years ago and now Luca sings it to Kian.

I've sometimes found the two of them on the sofa or in their bedrooms sitting quietly with Luca reading him a book or two. Very precious moments, especially when they're both blowing the wind in We're Going on a Bear Hunt.

Sam McBratney's tales of Little Nutbrown Hare and Big Nutbrown Hare are wonderful, especially for picking at the start of each season.

Peepo! Do you know that one? Janet and Allan Ahlberg's names are synonymous with good children's books, and this one is a classic. Old-fashioned, nostalgic and adorably charming, Peepo is a keeper.

Lastly, we're all allowed at least one book that we dread whenever our children's little hands reach for them... The Tiger Who Came to Tea, whilst very special because of the place it's had in this family's bedtime hour for the last four years, reminds me every time of its author's fondness for 'and'. And then, and all Daddy's beer, and he went, and Sophie found... I decided that I'd count them for you. Thirty-four instances of 'and'. A whole lot of 'ands' in this one little story, but don't let that put you off. Every young child should have this one – if only so that you have to answer questions about the water in the tap.

Over the last few weeks, I've been looking at new books from favourite authors and authors we haven't come across before, trying to be a little more careful about how I fill their space and choosing ones that will really capture their imagination. I'm looking forward to reading Again and Blue Chameleon, both by Emily Gravett, plus Ernest and Solomon Crocodile by Catherine Rayner. Pat Hutchins' Rosie's Walk is another I think they will like.

And just because I want to pore over this one: Oliver Jeffers' This Moose Belongs to Me.

Because WE have to love storytime, too. Don't you think?

What's on your list for new books? What are your favourites and which ones irritate you (just a little bit)?

Monday, 19 November 2012

On a brighter note

Thank you for your lovely comments on my last post. What a beautiful community this is.

We had a very slow weekend – even if I briefly forgot about the time of year and got caught in stifling crowds on a Saturday afternoon (note to council: when you organise your excellent backyard chooks workshop again, please steer clear of shopping centres in the run up to Christmas).

We even booked to go away on a little camping holiday. Somewhere where Luca can finally sleep in a tent under the stars. Somewhere he can watch our very own campfire and toast homemade marshmallows. Somewhere where Sydney can swim in a mountain river and we can hire a canoe and spot the odd platypus. All the fresh air will mean the boys will nod off quickly and sleep soundly, and we can sit by the riverbank with a glass of red...

Who am I kidding? There's no point spinning it. It is what it is. Two nights away with our children. In a tent. Two nights.

Did I mention we're sleeping in the one tent? Or that we're somehow going to divide ourselves up between a double air bed and a single air bed?

The funny thing is I'm almost looking forward to it more than I did our Hunter Valley trip.

What do you think – do we need our heads read?

Now who hasn't entered my giveaway?

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Stormy seas

It's been a difficult week. I made a decision to take a stand. A stand to protect our two little boys and hopefully in the process, we get to stand up for childhood.

It isn't easy swimming against the tide. It would be easier not to fight it. Swim with it and it's plain sailing, avoiding all conflict and unpleasantness.

But it wouldn't be worth it. And it isn't living our best life or giving them their best childhood.

The storm is slowly passing, and Graeme and I are better sailors for it.

And strangely I'm grateful. At the very least because these two have the two of us.

Joining other gratefuls over here.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Spot the giveaway

I've been a fan of local potter, Aleida Pullar, ever since her spotty little pots caught my eyes at the markets. Her beautiful mix of porcelain and stoneware are made into a delightful collection of planters, blossom jars, beakers and trays.

I couldn't resist calling her up (especially as I'm celebrating my favourite artisans) and asking if I could pop round to her studio at Avoca Beach. She paints with landscape and turns porcelain beads into silver earrings. There are glazed tiles and indigo linen canvases. It's all very striking especially in her clean, white-washed studio.

But I still love the spots. Those cobalt and cornflower hues draw me in every time.

And the best bit is that I don't have to wait for the markets to get my hands on a new planter or flower jar. She's happy for people to call up and drop by for a browse.

If you live locally, Aleida is having a drinks and Christmas sale on Friday 30th November 6-9pm and on Saturday 1st December 10-4pm (Studio Latitude 33, 195 Cape Three Points Road, Avoca Beach). Mum, guess what you're getting for Christmas...

Oh, and Aleida is very kindly giving away one of her porcelain beakers to one of you. I do what I always do when I'm picking a gift for someone: I pick what I'd like to receive.

So you know it's a spotty one, and you know it's blue.

If you'd like to enter, leave me a comment to make me smile below and I'd love to know if you can make it to one of her open days. Think I'll go on the Friday. Boys to bed early and jump in the car for a... spot of Christmas shopping!

If you're not already a follower, you can join me with Google Friend Connect or on Facebook. Lovely to have you here by the way.

Giveaway now closed. Amanda @ mammajoy... you win!   

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Hanging out for bruschetta

We're spending every afternoon in the garden at the moment. I'm loving it. With our tomato plants standing proud and next door's jacaranda in perfect purple bloom, it's where I rush to in-between meals.

Five plants aren't quite enough – not when I'm planning tarts, salads and plates of bruschetta for lunch, not to mention that a certain four-year-old round here ate half our crop last year straight off the vine. So I bought two more on Saturday and couldn't resist some purple basil to keep them company – all in the name of companion planting, of course.

The big boys shovelled homemade compost into a $3 fruit crate I found, while my little boy wanted to mulch. We staked and pinched, tied and watered.

Still no red ones, but plenty of green ones. Not long now.  

Meanwhile, as chilly as it was yesterday, we picked the first of our summer basil for pizza. A bit of purple and a lot of green. It went into the tomato sauce with a handful of fresh oregano, and the rest was piled on top at the table.

(And duly picked off by our two saucepots.)

Thursday, 8 November 2012

My mum used to...

Isn't it funny the things we remember from our childhoods? I remember mum making bread, pizza dough and pastry without any scales. I remember her hands smelling of wet rubber from her washing-up gloves.

She'd be in the kitchen at 6am making our egg and basturma (air-dried cured beef) sandwiches before she waved us off at 6.30am onto the hour-long school bus ride across Cairo. I remember rich spinach flans, crisp potatoes in the pan and waffles filled with icing sugar.

I remember her knee getting infected from washing the parquet floors on all fours. I loved how she let us watch Knots Landing late in the evening with her, looking out all the time for Dad to come home so we'd have enough time to run back to our bedrooms and feign sleep. Mum was always on our side.

This afternoon as Kian helped me shred newspaper in the garden, I wondered what things the boys will say about me. Will they remember that I called them little pickles and little saucepots... When they're older and talking to friends, will they say Mum was always buying bags of crap from the side of the road and you should have seen how ridiculous she was whenever she saw a cockroach... and the way she chased flies around the house with that green swat (didn't we call it a splat?). 

Or will they look back fondly and say Mum let us stir and chop in the kitchen, and she always gave us the cake spoon to lick. She said 'goodness gracious me' an awful lot and sometimes she'd yell 'ssshhhhhhh' and say 'sugar'. 

There are images I hope will always stay with them. Images of stories read over and over and songs sung over and over at bedtime. Our sushi and a show ritual and squares of dark chocolate in the top cupboard.

Except maybe what will stick is this one thought: Mummy always had better things to do than clean.

What will yours say about you? What are your lovely childhood snippets? 

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Pausing in the Hunter Valley

It doesn't feel like we went away. How can it? It was only really a pause in the mayhem of family life. A very brief pause from thinking, planning, wiping, making, doing.

But a lovely pause.

When we booked our guest room on Hermitage Road, we had no idea we'd be walking distance from most of the Pokolbin wineries, not to mention the second best meal we've had in Australia.

The hour-and-a-half drive made us realise even more that we live in such a wonderful part of the country. A short drive to bigger open spaces and even bigger skies. Hotter too, I might add.

Patchworks of vineyards flanked by the Brokenback Ranges were a real sight especially the rows of green against the dusty brown of the land. It hasn't rained here since February. The horses in the neighbouring property came to us for food and we picked the last bunch of green grass we could find for them.

Even the kangaroos were desperate and at sunset we walked along a dirt road towards dozens of Eastern Greys gathered around a nearby billabong. We watched them for a few moments before my red dress scared them away.

We had dips in the pool and read to the sound of very excited birds above our heads. Pink galahs were the only ones I recognised.

We walked to Restaurant Botanica on the first night. Every once in a while, something magical comes along when you least expect it. I wasn't expecting to find somewhere to eat that grows its own heirloom vegetables or somewhere that believes in organic gardening. I certainly wasn't expecting to find Black Berkshire pigs in the backyard. And yet this is what we found when we popped by earlier in the day to have a look at the menu. A beautiful kitchen garden and three very friendly muddy pigs – Chop Chop, Salami 2 and Crackle – who all loved a good scratch. Coming across it in that moment brought tears to my eyes. 'This is where we're eating tonight', I said to Graeme.

It was perfect. All of it. We oohed and oh-myed over the duck and the pork belly. The brioche-crumbed pork rillettes came from Salami number 1 and their marinated fetta was the same amazing fetta we tasted at Binnorie Dairy that afternoon. We even tasted beautiful artisan sourdough made from the same flour these guys use.

If that wasn't enough, we had a lovely lunch at Panino in Wollombi. A simple organic chicken burger and pizza is all we wanted that day. I loved seeing glass bottles of Udder Farm milk for sale inside the café.

We were wise to visit just a few cellar doors and not go over the top with expensive all-day wine tours. It's what most people do when they visit but I hated the thought of being a captive audience. So we went at our own pace and fell in love with a bottle or two (not surprising with floor-to-ceiling views, Ella Fitzgerald's voice and tasting notes that read like poetry). 

I know the Hunter Valley is all about the wine. It's what everyone goes for. But it was all about the food for me. Always the food.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Food Artisan: La Tartine

I love to shout about people who do good, especially when it comes to food. I knew when I visited La Tartine that I wanted to do a lot of shouting. I hope everyone can hear me...

Nick Anthony and his French wife, Laurence, opened La Tartine, Australia's first certified organic sourdough bakery, almost 15 years ago. They moved over from France where they made traditional pain au levain – proper heavenly sourdough with nothing but organic stoneground flour, spring water and Brittany sea salt. This beautiful bread with its distinctive sourness, chewy open crumb and sweet, crackling crust is the reason they set up their own bakery on Wisemans Ferry Road, Somersby here in NSW.

Instead of French ingredients, these Central Coast-made loaves use organic flour from Gunnedah, filtered tap water ("there was no way we were using tap water after our daughters complained their bath water stunk like a swimming pool!") and Murray River salt.

So what is sourdough? Well, it's bread raised using natural yeasts – wild yeasts that are all around us. The sourdough process starts off with a natural leaven made up of flour and water that's left to ferment with the help of these airborne yeasts. This leaven is mixed with more flour and water to make a dough, then it's cut, weighed and shaped into loaves – all by hand at La Tartine. It's the long proving, though, that makes a great loaf.

Jan Hackenberg, one of Nick's bakers, and one of those infinitely charming people who draw you in with talk about their craft, did just that. He talked to me about bread. He told me that a properly fermented sourdough is much easier for the body to digest. It's how we should eat bread.

And have you wondered about those cheap loaves with a sourdough label? Well, that's all they are. Commercial yeasted breads made sour with added vinegar. Sourdough, as Nick pointed out to me, is more than just a sour bread. It's all about the fermentation and the proving; the sourness is simply the end result. You can always tell a slow-fermented loaf by the air bubbles all over the crust.

The stoneground flour they use is creamy and coarse. It's beautiful. Modern powdery roller-milled flour, on the other hand, is stripped of its nutrient-rich wheatgerm and bran.

But here's why they scared me. They work really hard; they lug back-breaking bags of flour and cut loaves from early morning till late at night. Slow food is always really hard on the people behind it. It's passion that drives them. But they can't get dedicated folk who share the same passion to work as hard as they do. They never last.

It's so hard on them they don't even want their children doing what they do.

What happens in years to come when Nick and Laurence want to retire from 14-hour days at the bakery? Who will take over and sell us sourdough at the markets?

Will there always be someone like Jan who cares enough about slow food to work this hard, or will traditions eventually die out because the appeal to earn quick money making cheap food is too great?

People nowadays don't want to make bread this way, or cheese... They don't want to age their meat and they don't want to properly cure their bacon. Slow food is becoming a rare thing.

It's there if we look for it. I'm always looking for it. Writing about it. I know that helps.

If you live near me, look out for La Tartine loaves – they're sold in most good grocers around Sydney and the Central Coast (or head to the bakery on a Friday after 3pm and meet them in person). If you live in London, read the piece I wrote for Homes & Gardens on London Bakeries – it was always a good day when Graeme walked through our front door with a St John's loaf. If you'd like to try and make your own, then come back here. I'll be making my own sourdough very soon. My pat, pat, rub, rub rhythm is working well...

What's your idea of slow food? Do you wish it was the norm? Do you live near lots of wonderful artisans?

Follow me on Facebook or here on Blogger and you'll know when I get it together to start sourdough at home. 

Another artisan: Cocopure