In My Kitchen September 2020

The season has been fruitful, especially with an abundant supply of all kinds of citrus, though this colourful presence is slowly coming to an end, with Blood and Valencia oranges the last varieties to pick. In Spring, the trees will return to flower and leaf production for next year. We have around 14 citrus trees but there’s always room for more. Most were planted around 10 years ago, with productivity hampered  by drought, wind, rabbit infestation and severe frost. They’ve now reached a stage of maturity where they can withstand most conditions.

There are two citrus trees producing oddities. These knobbly, thick skinned fruit grow on thorny wild trees. One wild tree used to be a grafted Kaffir lime tree. After dying in the recent drought, it re-sprouted, reverting back to old root stock below the graft. Although incredibly bitter to taste, the fruits are exotic, brightly coloured and decorative. They remind me of the Renaissance fascination with formal citrus gardens and the collecting of rare and unusual specimens. The paintings by Bartolomeo Bimbi and Giovanna Garzani, reveal this fascination for depicting bumpy, disfigured lemons and other rare agrumi. 

On that subject, The Land Where Lemons Grow, by Helena Attlee, documents the history of the Italian fascination with citrus and is a great read. Thank you Beck, at In Search of the Golden Pudding, for recommending this. In terms of food writing, it’s up there with Delizia! An Epic History of Italians and their Food, by John Dickie and Honey from a Weed, by Patience Gray.

Seville Marmalade Orange Cake

In My Kitchen there’s always cake: the peasants have no fear of starving. I make a cake weekly: in this cool weather, it keeps well under a glass dome sitting on the kitchen dresser. I often halve them and send some away to other cake loving peasants. Most double as pudding: a couple of slices gently warmed in the remaining heat of an oven, served with something wet ( cream, icecream, custard) have kept us sane during winter and the lockdown. I’ve now made two versions of the Seville orange marmalade cake, pictured above. The recipe can be found here. The second version pictured below is a classic Middle Eastern orange and almond cake, glazed in marmalade. I think I prefer the first version. Excess marmalade can be used as a glaze in many ways. Maybe a chocolate cake could turn Jaffa-esque when topped with an orange marmalade glaze? Or a little Seville marmalade stirred through a rice pudding? Served with Halloumi? Liquified then added to a G&T?

Middle eastern Orange cake glazed with Seville orange marmalade

The little pasta dish below looks quite plain, belying the richness and intense lemon/orange flavoured sauce hiding within its folds. The sauce includes fine slivers of peel from an orange and lemon, which are boiled to soften, and the juice, a little onion, a knob of butter, cream and seasoning.

Tagliolini alle Scorzette di Arancia e Limone, recipe included in the book mentioned above.

The egg noodles from Mantovanelle come very close to those made by hand at home. These tagliatelline are my favourite comfort food. Cooked in five minutes, this gives you just enough time to quickly construct a sauce. Once the pasta hits the boiling water, my large non- stick wok is fired up and ready to go. In goes the EV olive oil, a little garlic, followed by fresh things from the garden, small stems of broccoli, young leaves of kale, some herbs, a few tiny unshelled broad beans, a dash of wine, perhaps some smoked salmon chunks, a few dashes of cream, seasoning and finally the cooked noodles. It’s a merry little dance around 2 stove jets. When the long lockdown ends in Melbourne, I look forward to returning to my favourite food shops which are further than 5 kilometres from my home. Since early July, strict travel distance rules have regulated movement in Melbourne. This pasta will be at the top of my shopping list.

I love this egg pasta and cannot wait to be allowed to drive further afield to buy more supplies.
Tagliatellini con salmone affumicato e verdure

The winter garden has kept us in fresh greens and now that spring is here, broad beans are slowly appearing.

Garden pickings for a pasta lunch.

Another day, another pasta. Rigatoni paired with a vegetarian ragù. The sauce included some mushrooms, dried porcini, herbs, left over thick lentil soup, a little miso, and tomato passata.

rigatoni con ragu’ di lenticchie

In these times, I often find myself looking back rather than forward. I cannot think of anything at present to look forward to- no short drives in the country, a family gathering, dinner with friends, travels overseas, visits to the city, a Vietnamese meal, a trip to the library- it’s a life without anticipation. Often, our next meal is the highlight of the day. The arrival of a book in the post, or a food order from Mt Zero Olives, is an added bonus. In this era of hard lockdown, the future has become blurred. Last night, as we were eating dinner, a spaghetti cacio e pepe, the conversation inevitably led to Rome. Where did we eat that last Roman cacio e pepe, where would we stay next time, an apartment in Trastevere again ( too busy) or over in Testaccio ( interesting suburb) or in centro? Through reminiscing, we came to the realisation that we would not be returning to Italy, or indeed Europe, and perhaps not to our favourite haunts in Asia. This is not meant to be a maudlin observation: I am a pragmatist at heart. Looking back over some of my old posts has given me a chance to relive some of those travels: like writing a detailed journal, blogging is a worthwhile pursuit in this sense. Unlike Facebook or Instagram posting, blogging provides a permanent and accessible log into the past. In the same way, participating in the monthly In My Kitchen for the last 7 years has produced another kind of documentation. Over the years my kitchen posts have gravitated towards seasonal food and simple dishes. My previous September posts expose another story: I’m usually away. Thanks Sherry of Sherry’s Pickings for continuing this series: it has been an interesting journey.

Melbourne’s Six Seasons

Put away your trumpet, there’ll be no fanfare for the dawning of Spring. In Melbourne, the month of September is changeable, windy and unpredictable. Sunny days are often preceded by blistering cold. Gale force winds rip through the hills, bringing down branches from bare winter trees while the ‘darling buds’, the blossom on fruit trees, bravely hang on. There’s nothing especially attractive or romantic about Spring: the arrival of Primavera is invariably disappointing. Early Spring is like a moody teenager: all that white and pink confetti blossom helps to create a sense of hope and promise, yet the new season is accompanied by immaturity and mood swings. It’s a season on hormones. I’ve often returned to Melbourne in late September to be disheartened by the cold and windy weather.

This year I experienced my first Melbourne winter for 10 years and was surprised by the vibrant colour in the garden and the calm weather throughout late July and August. It isn’t surprising to learn that the Wurundjeri – Melbourne’s indigenous people who have lived around what is now Melbourne for thousands of years- have a calendar consisting of 6 seasons. The period from late July to the end of August is a distinct season in the indigenous calendar: it’s the time of nesting and first flowers. This year, this pre-spring season has been remarkably clement, sunny and still, with many joyous picnic kind of days.

One version of a graphic attempting to depict the Wurundjeri calendar. http://www.herringisland.org/seasons1.htm

 ” The division of the year into four seasons comes from Northern Europe, and does not fit Melbourne. We still think of winter as an unfavourable season for plants, when northern European trees drop their leaves and become dormant, but for our native plants, especially the small tuberous herbs, winter is a season of growth. At this time the bush is green, and the temperatures are rarely low enough to stop growth. The unfavourable season is high summer, when water is scarce, and much of the ground flora becomes brown and dies off. “¹

In the last two weeks of winter, I’ve observed new seasonal birds in the garden, attracted by the early pink/mauve flowering Echium. New Holland Honeyeaters, Eastern Spine Bills and Wattle birds have feasted on this large bush while on still days, hundreds of bees have had their turn. Once the honey eaters arrive, a seasonal indicator of sorts, I start sowing seeds, knowing that the sun’s angle will be perfect for germination inside my north facing window.

Native wattle trees have been in flower for weeks, with different species taking turns to paint the distant landscape with bright yellow patches of mini pom poms. The blue green leaves of the eucalypt drape and sway gracefully from tall healthy trees. They are in their prime in late winter. The native purple flowering creeper, hardenbergia violacia spent winter snaking its way along a fence while the mauve flowers on the tips of the silver leafed Teucrum Fruticans hedge have enjoyed this pre-spring season. Some non- native plants have also thrived in late winter, especially the euphorbia, a startling lime green show off, while the jonquils and daffodils, now spent, are a late winter pop up. One lone flag iris emerged under a pear tree. The citrus trees fruit in this little wedge of time between winter and spring- Navel, Washington and Blood orange fruits brightened the season. Now that Spring has arrived, they’ve finished their fruiting cycle, with energy directed to leaf and flower.

The late winter vegetable patch has supplied us with bitter salad leaves, chard, kale, turnips, green onions, leeks, broccoli, fennel and parsley. Spring will push these plants sky high: it’s now a race to eat as many of these liver cleansing greens as we can before they bolt to seed.

This year’s pandemic and subsequent isolation forced me to regard winter with new eyes: I can honestly say, it wasn’t so bad. And now, let’s see what this season throws at us. Life has become as unpredictable as Spring. 

¹ There are many diagrams and charts illustrating aboriginal seasons, each one varying from place to place. The diagram above best illustrates Melbourne’s seasons. Diagram and quotation from http://www.herringisland.org/seasons1.htm

 

The Best Seville Orange Marmalade Cake

The search for a neighbourhood Seville orange tree began back in May. I’d just made a few batches of lime marmalade and had passed a jar on to a friend in our village. This inevitably led to a conversation via Messenger, ( aren’t all good conversations held this way during the pandemic? ) about the need to find some elusive Seville oranges to make the epitome of all marmalade, Seville Marmalade. I went as far as inquiring about Sevilles on our local community Facebook site. A respondent replied, an artist from the next village, who paints beautiful studio studies of seasonal fruit. In her walks, she had noticed some productive Seville orange trees and sent me monthly updates on the state of ripeness. Not only that, she picked 5 kilos, carried them to my daughter’s house, who then delivered them to my place. This season’s Seville Marmalade is now happily in jars, though plenty are walking out the front door.

The point of this simple little tale of two villages is that throughout this pandemic and months of lockdown, community consciousness has developed and now includes the sharing of major shopping trips, the cost of delivery services, spare garden produce, tools, and knowledge. Much of this is done through social media, which can be a tool for social change when used well. If there’s an up- side to the pandemic, it is this.

Seville Marmalade Cake

Ingredients
• 100 gr coarse-cut orange Seville marmalade ( approx 1/3 cup)
• 175 gr butter, softened, plus extra for greasing the pan
• 175 gr sugar
• 2 teaspoons grated lime zest ( optional) 
• 1 teaspoon grated orange zest
• 3 large eggs at room temperature
• 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
• 190 gr all-purpose flour
• 7 gr baking powder
• pinch fine sea salt

Glaze/icing

  • 30 gr icing sugar
  • 100 gr Seville marmalade ( approx 1/3 cup)
  • knob of butter

Preparation
1. Heat oven to 175º c. Grease a 23 cm by 13 cm loaf pan. Line with baking paper.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together softened butter, sugar, lime zest and orange zest for about 5 minutes, until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until incorporated. Beat in the marmalade and orange juice. ( Tip: if the mixture looks like curdling when you beat in the eggs, add a little flour as you go) 
3. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. Fold dry ingredients into wet until just combined.
4. Scrape batter into prepared pan. Bake until surface of cake is golden brown , about 50 to 55 minutes. Remove from oven and transfer pan to a
wire rack. Cool for  10 minutes before glazing.  then turn cake out of pan and place on rack right-side up. 
Glaze/icing. Heat the marmalade in a small pot over low heat until melted; whisk in icing sugar and butter until smooth. There are two approaches to adding the topping. EITHER  invert cake onto a tray, turn right way up then add the jammy topping which will run down the sides OR add the glaze to cake in the pan, which will concentrate the flavour to the top, though some will sink through and down the sides. When completely cool, lift from pan right way up. 

Keeps well for about 5 days

Notes.

Use any orange marmalade if you don’t have Seville, though that sweet bitter taste will be missing. Omit lime zest if you don’t have limes on hand and add a little more orange zest. I’ve left the ancient non-measurement, knob, because I love the sound of it. A knob could be anything you wish it to be: it’s also a crude  term of abuse in Australia- Don’t be a knob! A knob only applies to butter and is similar to that wonderful Italian cooking measurement qb or quanto basta, which means ‘as much as is enough’, or ‘to taste’ or as much as is needed to achieve the desired result.

Last few slices. The cake didn’t last long.

For a look at Kylie’s beautiful fruit painting, see @kyliesirett on Instagram or https://www.kyliesirett.com.au/

On Not Comparing Winter to a Summer’s Day

This year’s winter has brought so many charms, compensation enough for the cold. As the early morning light breaks over the horizon, the distant hills and clouds blend and cling to their darkness still. The lingering fog hovers over the Diamond Creek, vacillating, waiting, before moving along the valley. The sharp crystal light captures the work of the night weavers, strings of pearls webbed between gnarly branches, holding the night rain, ethereal but strong. I imagine wearing this exquisite rivière for one second, more alluring than gemstones, a spider girl’s best friend.

The winter flowers have more charm than their spring cousins, their appearance always surprising and more welcome. The first delicate jonquils of June exhilarate with perfume, while the long flowering fronds of the Hardenbergia Violacea glow deep magenta in the early light. Blossom spurs fatten on the pear trees, the coned tips of the Echium engorge: the more abundant seasonal rain will make these creatures shout in purple and blue when the time comes. Pale green lichen hugs the Melia Azedarach, an exotic knitted sleeve that will dry out in summer’s harsh winds. Brave dying oak leaves, copper and russet, cling to the trees, Pre- Raphaelite colours brightening the driveway.

I’m learning to understand winter and may even like her now. But then it’s only late June. While the light slowly returns, the cold winds will come and shock that early promise back into dormancy. It’s not yet time to rejoice.

 

 

 

Thoughts Arising From a Tune

Sometimes a snippet of a song becomes lodged in my brain for days, like the needle of an old record player stuck in a groove, playing the same bit over and over again, a reminder that madness is just around the corner. The line in question here is, ‘I come from the salt water people’ from the song ‘My Island Home‘, written by Neil Murray of the Warumpi band, recorded in 1988. In the song, for those readers who aren’t familiar with it, the narrator is stuck working in the desert for six long years and longs to return to his homeland by the sea. It encapsulates, in a lighthearted yet melancholic way, the deep cultural ties between country and aboriginal identity. 

As the song line continued to play, my mind wandered back to all the other great songs written during the 1980s that gave voice to the issue of indigenous civil rights. These include include Kev Carmody’s From Little Things Big Things Grow, which tells the story of the Gurindji people’s struggle for equality and land rights after their walk off at the Wave Hill property in 1966. Archie Roach’s Took the Children away, Yothu Yindi’s Treaty, as well as protest songs from non- indigenous bands such as Midnight Oil’s, Beds are Burning, and Goanna’s  Solid Rock. Throughout the 80s and early 90s, land rights street marches were held frequently in major cities. The chant, ‘what do we want, land rights, when do we want them, now,’ was one my children grew up with. Through song, protest, literature, ( for example, Sally Morgan’s My Place) and historical research into the unspoken genocide which took place in Australia throughout the 19th century, (historians such as Henry Reynolds, Don Watson, Peter Gardner),  Paul Keating’s inspirational Redfern Speech, 1992, and the Mabo Decision and the Native Title Act of 1993, the general public, the non- indigenous as well as indigenous communities had good reason to feel optimistic. The recommendations made by The Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, 1987-91 also made many feel hopeful that the days of institutional racism might be over. ( see findings of the commission here)

So what has happened since the 80s-90s? All that good will, community hope, and expectation that came with the new century? Over the last twenty years, not a great deal. Here’s a very quick summary of things that stand out. I’ll start with a few positives:

  • Kevin Rudd’s sorry speech for the Stolen Generation, February 2008, became symbolically important and a momentous occasion for all Australians.
  • Welcome to country and the acknowledgement of traditional elders is now read at most official gatherings. At times these are deeply moving, at other times, tokenistic.
  • Adnyamathanha man, football player and community leader, Adam Goodes, received an Australian of the Year Award for his “leadership and advocacy in the fight against racism both on the sporting field and within society”. This followed a period of disturbing racism in football, from both commentators and fans.
  • Bruce Pascoe publishes Dark Emu, 2014. The book re- examines colonial accounts of Aboriginal people in Australia, and cites evidence of pre-colonial agriculture, engineering and building construction by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Meanwhile the right wing press debates Pascoe’s claim to indigenous ancestry. Evidence is questioned. The history wars are back on the agenda. 
  • The situation of aboriginal deaths in custody has worsened. The recommendations made by the Royal Commission 30 years ago have not been acted upon.
  • The rejection by the Turnbull Government of the Uluru Statement From the Heart was a profoundly sad day for Indigenous people and all Australians. Malcolm, you’re hands are not clean. Read the Uluru statement here.
  • Rio Tinto blows up 46,000 year old Julukan Gorge heritage caves in Western Australia, a major indigenous cultural site and human historical site, and says sorry: nothing else happens. Further destruction of 40 Aboriginal heritage sites is planned to take place in the Pilbarra.
  • A statue of Stirling, a colonial murderer of indigenous people in Western Australia is ‘defaced’. The perpetrator is charged with criminal damage. Pass me that spray can.
  • Marches are back on our streets, with the spotlight on indigenous deaths in custody in the  black lives matter movement here in Australia. Will the momentum keep up?

The following link from last year’s Guardian provides an interactive map of the massacres of indigenous communities that took place throughout the 19th century. A genocide map, most of the research was done by historians in the 1980s and 90s.

My Island Home, by Neil Murray

Six years I’ve been in the desert
And every night I dream of the sea
They say home is where you find it
But will this place ever satisfy me
For I come from the saltwater people
We always lived by the sea
Now I’m out here west of Alice Springs
With a wife and a family

And my Island Home
My Island Home
My Island Home is a waiting for me

In the evenin’ the dry wind blows from the hills and across the plain
I close my eyes and I’m standin’ in a boat on the sea again
And I’m holding that long turtle spear
And I feel I’m close now to where it must be
And My Island Home is a waitin’ for me

Photo, Lake Tyers, East Gippsland, Victoria. Looking toward the Lake Tyers Aboriginal trust.

I was planning to examine the role played by Angus McMillan in the genocidal massacres of indigenous communities in East Gippsland during the 1840s in this post, but became diverted. During my recent travels to that area, I discovered some more recent histories on that topic and am pleased to note that libraries have re-opened for picking up reserved books. 

Is Your Mother Sweet or Savoury?

Mothers’s Day, La Festa Della Madre, always presents a few dilemmas. To celebrate or not, to give gifts or not. The commercialisation of the day is viewed with suspicion in my family, however for grandmothers and great -grandmothers, this day often has more significance. In the past, we’ve enjoyed small family gatherings with my mother, often in the dining room of the Lomond Hotel. A table for nine, set with white linen and fresh flowers, free bubbles for the ladies, followed by a simple three course meal, it was an easier way to get together than at Christmas. My mother always gave small gifts to her three daughters on this day, recognising that we are all mothers. This year, as my mother is in residential care, visits are not yet permitted. The facility management is adhering to very strict guidelines and has partially opened up: one designated family member may visit her once a week. To err on the side of caution makes sense, given that the elderly are so susceptible to the devastating effects of this plague. And as for my immediate family, none of us are planning to break the gathering rules. I’ll miss her today, but she does enjoy a long phone chat.

Crostata di albicocche

My biggest dilemma today is this- sweet versus savoury for Mother’s day? I’ve gone with both. For my daughter, a mother of three daughters and two leggy whippets, a crostata filled with apricot jam, Crostata di Albicocche, and for my caring son, a sourdough Panmarino bread filled with baked garlic and fresh rosemary. 

Panmarino sourdough with baked garlic. A small blowout in the centre of the salty crown. Sourdough, like life, is rarely perfect. ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember.’

When it comes to sweet versus savoury, I think I’d choose the garlic- laced bread. I may need to steal a slice or two of that loaf. How would you choose, dear reader? 

 

 

Anzac Day and Memorialisation

Anzac day always fills me with deep melancholy. It’s that annual combination of personal missing of my father, a WW2 Vet, autumn leaves falling, and that deeper sadness that comes from the stories and legends of the Australian/New Zealand experience in battle, particularly those relating to the soldiers who fought in the Great war, WW1. We can talk about personal sacrifice, the fallen, and repeat the usual psalms on this day but we can’t remember what we haven’t experienced. I don’t attend morning ceremonies on ANZAC day but I always spend time visiting small suburban and town war memorials whenever I’m travelling around the Australian countryside. After reading the list of names of the fallen, it becomes evident that in some country towns, a whole generation of related fathers, brothers, uncles, and cousins were removed from families. And when I think of these young men, I recall the history, again with deep sadness, of the calculated way they were used as colonial cannon fodder for a cause that was not their own- the fallen in the fields of France and Belgium, the slaughtered youth at Gallipoli. On this day, let’s also remember those who returned, the gas poisoned and shell shocked, the wounded, the legless and armless, those who could never love again, or be loved, those who lost their hearing, their sight, the mentally disturbed, the haunted, those with the shakes and post traumatic stress before that condition had a name, the men living out their remaining years in soulless suburbs or country towns, as life moved along often without them, forgotten by the governments of the day, their war medals or moth eaten slouch hat tucked in the back of an old wardrobe, the men whose names are not listed on the shrines of remembrance, and the sadness that they carried deep inside and tried so hard to forget.

And on this day, I often read the poetry of Wilfred Owen.

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;He soon died;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Indian Night to the Rescue

Unlike the residents of the nearest village who are offered a plethora of dining options during this period of social distancing and isolation, we have none. Down at that village seven kilometres away, every coffee shop, take-away, fine dining restaurant and catering business has published their menu online to tempt families, couples and the non cooking brigade, setting times for parcel pick ups, sourdough bread days, couple’s date night in, and more. They all seem to have adapted to the new normal, competing for the same disposable dollar. They appear to be doing well enough.

I’m not prepared to brave the queues or drive at night to pursue those options. The last time I went out, everyone was too close for comfort. There’s no rest for the lockdown wicked. I get quite cantankerous in the kitchen these days, especially if I’m the only one contributing to the decision making about meals. There’s trouble in paradise. It usually goes like this:

Me “What would you like for dinner?”

T  “Hmmm, what do you feel like?”

Me “No, I asked you first. I’m sick of thinking about food”

T  “Maybe a stir-fry?”

At which point I pour myself a glass of wine and turn on Netflix. A stir-fry is not the answer I was hoping for. It’s a recipe for disaster, usually resulting in some hodgepodge dish doused in a collection of pantry Chinese sauces and condiments, the plating resembling a dog’s dinner, with little thought given to ethnic origin or finesse.

I usually cook Italian food, which is second nature to me, but if I’m straying at all, I’ll choose between Indian, Lebanese, Turkish, and Greek cuisine. We’ve now resolved the problem with the advent of cuisine theme nights, where we both test new recipes from my wall of cookbooks. On Indian nights, which seem to be occurring rather frequently of late, we make one curry each, starting quite early to allow the curries to settle a bit before rewarming them for dinner. There’s usually enough leftover to stash in the fridge for another meal, given that most curries improve with age. We rate our new concoctions, and if they get the nod of approval, they’re scanned, then popped into a folder. Our Indian nights include dressing the table with Indian fabric and playing some romantic ghazals by that old crooner, Jagjit Singh. Who needs to dine out? It’s a fine solution for those who take self isolation seriously.

I hope to share our tried and true Indian recipes this week, in case you need some inspiration for some Indian take away made at home. Recipes will include two good versions of pakhora, muttar paneer, prawn curry, dhal, potato, pea and yoghurt curry, pumpkin curry, rajma and naan bread. Stay tuned.

eggplant pakhora with coriander and mint sauce.

Over the Hills and Far Away

Day 26.  Living in the hills on the periphery of Melbourne, it’s always fairly quiet around here. We don’t have neighbours within hearing distance, and the road isn’t close by. There’s one small general store, a primary school, a rural supplies store, a pub, bakery and a pizza place. Most of these are now closed or open on a limited basis. Time has come to a standstill. The nearby flight path is silent, the early morning workers’ cars are few and far between. The kitchen clock tics more loudly, evoking memories of dark, claustrophobic antique shops crammed with heavy wooden furniture, tapestries, Victoriana and mantelpiece clocks. The wooden beams creak overhead, expanding and contracting with the day’s heat; an annoying fly hums about, landing on my arm as I write. This deathly quiet seems like I’ve stepped back in time to another place in another century. On days like this, the black dog hovers too close for comfort.

It’s almost four weeks of self-isolation now and I can count the days of escape on one hand. Simple pleasures- a walk around an oval, a short drive to a nearby township to pick up a special order, or to drop something off from a distance, a long awaited postal delivery- have become the highlights of my month.

Driveway, mist over creek. Day 10

One of those outings occurred on Day 10. We left home early as the morning fog still hovered above the creek valley below our place. The drive took us through the hills that form part of our district and followed the steep descent to the township of Yarra Glen, suspended below the road in a pool of blinding light. Travelling along the fertile plains of the Yarra Valley to Coldstream, we passed by vineyards and strawberry farms, fields of dark leafed cabbage and paddocks of sheep and cattle. Our mission was to collect a few day old chickens from a hatchery, a necessary and essential trip, officer, in order to provide future laying hens for my small self- sufficient farm. It is a familiar landscape: I’ve been travelling through these same hills for forty years. Yet on this occasion, the landscape seemed to sing with extraordinary beauty. I discovered new vistas, old railway bridges and distant mountain ranges that I had ignored all these years. Less traffic, the cold, clean air of the morning, the silver sun rising through the glinting frost in the valley, I felt a rare euphoria, a joy that emanated from being immersed in nature.

Cabbages of Yarra Valley, Day 10

I made a resolution on Day 10, that when all this is over, I want to go on more picnics in the nearby hills and valleys. To be a part of this landscape while we still have it. To do what our ancestors did on their days off.  And when I’m more confident about the state of the world, perhaps I’ll take a longer drive to other beautiful landscapes and bush within Victoria, to visit this land with new eyes.

Time’s Winged Chariot and Quince Jelly

Time now marches through life like a merciless drill sergeant, or dawdles behind like a whining child depending on how you now find yourself. Days have lost meaning, a weekend for workers fast becoming a redundant notion, as time turns into a series of statistics- the day’s death rate, the increased spread of the covid 19 virus, the daily rise in numbers, the shape of the curve, the waffle and contradictory chatter on the airways clouding all sense and reason. Dear Italia and the people of Lombardy, their statistic is about to become ours. Easter holidays, no longer holy, as longed for days of family gathering will pass without much fanfare. No chocolate eggs, don’t risk the shops. Hot cross buns? Make your own, you have the time now if not the will. Use the ingredients on hand in your pantry. The old Venetian ‘quarantina‘ makes more sense as a measurement of time: forty days, not a fortnight, but perhaps much longer if you’re still living in the land of days and weekends, still congregating at the beach, the river or renting weekend houses, shopping for fun not necessity, still in denial, joining another queue with strangers. Wake up Australia. The time is now.

For those who measure time by the slow drip of quince juice from a jelly bag suspended over a chair, making quince jelly is a seasonal and timeless pastime, resulting in the colour of Autumn’s bounty trapped in a jar. If you manage to score a bag of big gnarly quinces from someone this season, wash your hands after collecting the bag, wash the quinces well, and follow the most simple recipe on the internet you can find. There are only two ingredients required- quinces and sugar. I’m assuming that the toilet roll hoarders haven’t bought all the sugar, but then in my mind there’s a warped correlation between the two.