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.

Orange, Ricotta and Almond cake.

If I knew you were coming I’d ‘ve baked a cake. Sometimes the strangest songs jump into my head for no particular reason. I like to think of them as song pop- ups. This cute but slightly annoying song, recorded by Eileen Barton in January 1950, must have been played often by my parents along the way, an earworm plant from childhood. There’s fat chance of any one coming here for at least another month if not longer. Despite isolation, or in spite of it perhaps, the cake baking continues once a week.

Ricotta, orange and almond cake. i cannot part with this lovely old chipped plate

Most of my cakes are flour free. After all those Hot Cross buns this Easter, I’m enjoying this subtle flavoured flourless cheese cake, with its evocative notes of orange, reminding me of Sicily. If you live in a two or three person household, small cakes of 18-20 cm in circumference are the best size to bake when no one is knocking at your door or dining at your table. This cake keeps well for a few days under a cake dome or lidded container in the cooler months, or in the fridge during summer.¬†

Torta Siciliana di Ricotta, Arancia e Mandorle.

Ingredients

  • 250 gr ricotta cheese, firm
  • 4 large eggs, separated
  • 1 tsp + Cointreau or other orange liqueur
  • 175 gr caster sugar
  • 220 gr almond meal
  • finely zested rind of 1 orange
  • 1 Tbles orange juice
  • flaked almonds for the top
  • icing sugar to dust.

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 160¬ļc. Grease and line a 20 cm springform cake tin.
  2. Beat together the ricotta, egg yolks, and sugar in a stand mixer, making sure the mixture is completely smooth. Add the liqueur and orange juice, stir through, then add the almond meal, mixing well by hand to incorporate.
  3. Beat the egg whites in a clean bowl till soft peaks form. Fold in a few tablespoons into the almond mixture to loosen it. Then gently fold in the remaining eggs whites.
  4. Spread into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the top with almond flakes. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. 
  5. Cool then release onto a wire rack to cool completely. Dust with icing sugar.

Those insane lyrics from that song.

Well, well, well, look who’s here.
I haven’t seen you in many a year.
If I knew you were comin’ I’d ‘ve baked a cake,
baked a cake, baked a cake.
If I knew you were comin’ I’d ‘ve baked a cake.
How-ja do. How-ja do, How-ja do.

Had you dropped me a letter I’d ‘ve hired a band,
grandest band in the land.
Had you dropped me a letter I’d ‘ve hired a band
and spread the welcome mat for you.

Sunday Pasties

It often seems like vegetarians miss out on all the fun when it comes to grabbing an instant treat from the local bakery. Here I’m talking about pies and pasties¬† with lashings of sauce. Most bakeries display one or two meagre offerings – a vegetable pasty, invariably disappointing and bland, with too much pastry that ends up all over your clothes, or the ubiquitous spinach and fetta roll, dried out¬† from spending too long in the pie warmer, a sad version of something that was once Greek. My local bakery produces a passable vegetable pie that comes with a reasonable amount of wet ‘gravy’. This is the one thing that is lacking from most vego bakery products- they are too dry and indigestible and lack that unctuous gravy that holds the filling together.

Lockdown blues, no cow bell sounds at the front gate. Time to make Pasties.

I tend to make pasties and pies in April, once the sky turns grey and the first fire crackles in the wood stove. Stay at home days, baking days. Pie making is more pleasurable with an assistant, as it’s not a bad idea to make a big stash for the freezer to tide you over the winter, or further months of isolation. One good standby iare these Lentil, Mushroom and Cheese Pasties. They freeze well too.

As is often the case, my recipe instructions are not precise. I don’t tend to weigh and take detailed notes of the things that I make, although I have a general notion of the quantities intuitively. If you end up with too many cooked lentils and feel that the ratio of lentil to mushroom is out, reserve some lentils and use to add to a soup. Cooked lentils keep very well in the fridge.¬†

Lentil and Mushroom Pasties

Ingredients, Makes 6 large pasties or 12 mini pasties.

  • 3 squares of frozen Puff pastry
  • 1 ¬Ĺcups of Puy lentils. ( you can use any dark coloured lentils here, but puy lentils hold their shape and marry well with mushrooms)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 Tbs Olive oil¬†
  • 1 Tbs butter
  • 1 small onion chopped
  • 1 -2 garlic chopped ( optional)
  • 2 cups ( approx measurement) mushrooms, quartered ( I prefer those with dark gills as they add more juice and flavour)
  • dried herbs of choice or finely chopped fresh rosemary
  • salt, ground black pepper
  • one small beaten egg for pastry glaze.
  • other additions, such as include left over grated cheese¬†

Method

  • Preheat oven to 180c. Line two baking trays with cooking parchment, or grease well.
  • Cook the lentils in ample water, adding a by leaf, and cook till soft. Test them as some lentils, especially if old, take a while to soften. Drain the lentils completely, and reserve the juice for another use.¬†
  • In a large frying pan, heat the oil with the butter and add the onions. Cook on gentle heat till softened, then add the garlic. Cook till soft and translucent.¬†
  • Add the mushrooms and herbs to the onions. Cook until soft and cooked through, stirring around as you go.
  • Combine the lentils with the mushroom mixture in a bowl. The mixture should not be too runny, but you do want a little gravy.¬† If you feel the mixture is too wet, cook down further. Season well. Consider adding some grated tasty cheese. Cool the mixture.
  • Defrost 3 sheets of puff pastry and halve these on the diagonal for 6 large pasties. Have more sheets on hand in case you end up with extra mixture.
  • Beat egg for pastry glaze.
  • Add the mixture to the centre of each triangle, spreading a little towards the corners. You want the pasties to be well filled but allow for ease of folding and joining. Wet the edges with a pastry brush and join the seams, pressing down as you go.¬†
  • Place three pasties on each baking tray and cook until the pastry is golden. Cool them first if you intend to freeze them for later.
  • Serve with an old fashioned chutney and green salad. Or heat, wrap in foil, and take it on your travels, when you’re allowed out.

For Rachael P and her daughters. I’m singing that Tom Petty song, but substituting LOCKDOWN for the Breakdown chorus. Sing along with me while we bake: Lockdown, go ahead and give it to me…….

 

In My Kitchen, April, 2020

Some time after I drafted this month’s In My Kitchen post, it occurred to me that this monthly world diary of kitchen activities could form a valuable record, documenting how cooking and food availability changes during a pandemic. It will be interesting to see if some items continue to be hard to source, for example flour, and whether the pandemic is followed by higher prices due to manufacturing interruption and a decline in agricultural output. It would be good if those joining in this platform could note their country and region when writing and perhaps comment on some of these factors too. Thanks Sherry from Sherry’s Pickings for enabling this connection throughout the world. I urge others to join in and to consider taking up blogging during these difficult times.¬†

Francesca, St Andrews, Victoria, Australia.

So much for April fools day. No one expected the unexpected, a pandemic that may end up rivalling all previous plagues, changing the direction of our lives forever. In the meantime, I imagine that there is far more activity in everyone’s kitchen this month. No doubt you, dear reader, will be in lock-down like me or are semi- quarantined. This pandemic is, for many, a time to embrace older values, kindness, sharing, communicating more than usual but from a safe distance, cooking, baking, making music or going slightly mad. The handy phrase ‘cabin fever’ has never been more applicable. On the plus side, it is a reminder for many how much time we waste shopping: this break from consumerism is not such a bad thing. For those who have lost work and income, I hope that you get through this difficult time and are adequately supported by your government.¬† This will not be the case in many countries.¬†

So many quinces. 10 jars of quince jelly later, and still more quince to process..

My shopping list is now tiny: my granddaughter shops for us once a week. I exchange, at a safe distance, a container of home made soup and the money, left on a metaphorical pile of Celtic stones. I feel like a villager from the famous Eyam village, sometimes referred to as the plague village. I’m fortunate to have a productive vegetable garden which supplies most of our fresh vegetables. But it is a labour of love.

These lettuce are grown from seed all year round.

Apparently there’s a rush on vegetable gardening in Victoria: I’ve heard that seedlings are as rare as toilet paper and flour. Plant seeds. They might only take a few weeks longer. Some vegetables are better grown from seed as they don’t transplant well. These include all root vegetables such as radish, carrot, and turnip, while rocket and all lettuce varieties appear within a few days and can be transplanted easily. You don’t need a special garden bed. Sow seed among your flowers and in your regular gardens. Make a drill with a stick, add some fine white sand or very fine soil, add your seeds, cover them lightly with soil or sand and keep moist. Within one week, and voil√†, you’ll have seedlings. Parsley seeds may take a little longer, as it’s said they go to hell and back before germinating.

Packets of seed. It’s time to sow.

Every time I make risotto, I think of my dear friends in Lombardy. Alberto grows beautiful rice in the countryside near Pavia. His mother and Zia and Zio will, no doubt, be safe in the countryside. To date, 10,000 Italians have died from this virus, with most occurring around Lombardy. Make a risotto and offer a thought for this region- all that lovely Carnaroli, Vialone Nano and Arborio is grown in the Po and Ticino river valleys, in the fields near the Lombardian villages that now feature daily in the news. We are all interconnected. 

Risotto con crema di zucchini. Lombardia, sempre nel mio cuore.

My pulses are getting a workout this month. This is not an unusual ingredient in my kitchen, nor has it much to do with the pandemic. I have to admit that while others were hoarding weirdo paper products from supermarkets, I went to BAS foods and bought an ungodly share of lentils, chickpeas and beans. Sono colpevole, I am guilty of hoarding too.

Marcella Hazan’s green pea and potato soup, made from dried split green peas.

The smell of chutney cooking in the kitchen is enormously comforting, reminding me of my matriarchal line and the old Irish-British aromas that would emanate from their kitchens in Autumn. This is a great way to use up less than perfect fruit, all those windfalls and spotted specimens. 

Apple and tomato chutney

The orchard keeps giving throughout the months of Autumn, thanks to some fortuitous planting of heritage varieties nine years ago. The Beurre Bosc pears are the best keepers and star when poached in wine, sugar and saffron. After the pears are cooked,  I remove them and cook down the syrup for a while, producing a pear flavoured sticky wine.

My son enjoys making craft beer and is still able to purchase a freshly made wort, though this may change in the coming weeks. It is a noble pastime which takes place on our back verandah and in our shed. We have our isolation environmental protocols well in place since our lockdown, so he wears gloves and doesn’t enter the house.¬† After the brew is ready, it is kept in a refrigerated keg. Yes, dear reader, we have cold craft beer permanently on tap, and though I feel this situation is a little unfair, I’m not complaining.¬†¬†

Plague pale ale

The following is a thought provoking video link from Italy, subtitled in English.¬† Worth a peep. Meanwhile, if you’re short of interesting ways to cook pulses and beans, check my blog over the coming week as I plan to document my vegetarian adventures more frequently.

Way out West. Postcards from the Wimmera.

It’s Sunday morning and the small town of Jeparit seems deserted. We walk towards the centre and do not see a soul. There’s one car parked outside the Lutheran Church along the way. ¬†Old time religion lost its customers long ago. The only remaining cafe, an annex of the supermarket, is closed as are the other two businesses in town. There are two pubs, the grand looking Hindmarsh, which opens from 4 pm a few days a week and the other, the Hopetoun, recently purchased by enthusiastic new owners, which opens from 11 am daily. Two years ago, neither pub was in operation. Business fluctuates in Jeparit. Welcome to the heart of the the Wimmera District of Western Victoria. Not many tourists bother to make it here. The vast bleached plains seem too flat and monotonous to the untrained eye. After a few visits though, the stark¬†beauty of this rural, dry and at times, inhospitable landscape, leaves a stirring impression. I am called back annually, leaving my own claustrophobic hills and valley behind.

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Corellas in the sunset sky.

Jeparit, with a population of 632, clings to survival. Each year another business fails and more large Edwardian and Federation houses fall into disrepair, crying out for new owners to love them. But while the school, post office and bank remain, there’s some hope for the town. Situated 370 kms north-west of Melbourne, it takes a brave soul¬†to re-settle here. The physical isolation is palpable: cheap real estate, pure air and austere beauty comes at a price.

The Wimmera river flows through the town.
The Wimmera river flows through the town. The river and nearby Lake Hindmarsh often run dry.

I have been visiting a friend here for around twenty years now and with each visit, the beauty of the environment unfolds: I am often overwhelmed by the silence and majesty of the vastness of the land. On one occasion, we were tempted to buy a solid 1920s red brick mansion on a thousand acres. It was a dream house begging to be cared for, with a crumbling earlier house from the 1880s out the back, beautiful handcrafted sheds, wild almond trees growing in the sand dunes, and rusty old harvesters lining the driveway. The property was going very cheaply. We resisted. The property still haunts me, such was the strength of that particular fantasy.

Flowering gum in bloom. Jeparit Camping Ground.
Flowering gum in bloom. Jeparit Camping Ground.

There is a sadness about the town, a melancholy that hovers under the mantle of continuance. This year, the rains have been good: the wheat crop is the best on record. Other crops such as lentils, peas and green manure crops have also been abundant, making the local farmers more optimistic. The newly re-opened pub, the Hopetoun Hotel, managed by smiling Mel along with an enthusiastic young chef and assistants from Sri Lanka and the Punjab in India, offers a cheerful gathering place for the locals. Our new Australians are breathing life into these isolated communities.

Harvesters busy at work on a Sunday.
Harvesters busy at work on a Sunday.

The first thing you will notice in the Wimmera is the sky. It seems overwhelming, surrounding you in blue clean air above and right down to the ground: even during winter when the mornings are crisp, the skies seem to be perennially blue. The landscape is entrancing and after a while, you begin to see slight rises in the flat, bleached plains, where old sand dunes rise and may contain ancient water springs, as old knowledge about water sources was passed down long ago to the farmers by the traditional owners, the Gromiluk aborigines.

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Old abandoned railway station, Hopetoun. The train lines still function for goods trains throughout the wheat-growing belt.

Another appealing hallmark of this wheat-growing district are the silos dotted along the horizon at each small town. At sunset, white silos turn pink against an azure sky. The silos at Brim have become a tourist attraction thanks to the amazing artwork by Brisbane artist, Guido van Helten. They are now a tourist landmark and have put the tiny town of Brim ( population 100) on the map. Nearby small towns are gearing up to get their silos painted also.

Famous painted silos, Brim, the Wimmera, Victoria, Australia
Famous painted silos, Brim, the Wimmera, Victoria, Australia

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Silos at Brim, painted by Guido van Helten

Other buildings, many falling into disrepair, dot the main streets in Brim, Beulah, Hopetoun, and Rainbow. It’s worth a drive around the circuit in this lonely land, to visit the real country, the heart of north western Victoria.

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Old Anglican church, Brim.

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Attractive rural shed opposite the Brim pub.

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Old shed, Rainbow.

Towers of straw bails follow the wheat harvest.
Towers of straw bales follow the wheat harvest.