Mussels Galician style

There’s no shortage of good quality fresh fish and seafood in Melbourne, but getting your hands on it at a reasonable price is another thing. Under the State of Victoria’s present regulations for controlling the spread of Covid-19, there’s a 5 kilometre rule in place which limits the distance one may travel to do essential shopping. My nearest fresh seafood market is around 30 kilometres from my home; it has been 2 months since I’ve enjoyed good fish ( sounds like a confession opening)  and I’m beginning to feel like a deprived fish junkie. There was one small window of opportunity back in late July, when my favourite fishmonger offered a fabulous home delivery service: I promptly formed a local group, placed a huge order, then shared the $20 delivery fee. Sadly this fishy opportunity came unstuck when my trustworthy fishmonger closed due to Covid issues. We all cried. In the meantime, I can honestly say that the fish and seafood offerings at my local major supermarket are disappointing. Here’s what’s on offer:- flabby farmed Barramundi, farmed Tasmanian salmon, with its bright pop of pink synthetically dyed flesh, chemically dyed and smoked imported cod, ordinary defrosted New Zealand ling and nastiest of all, Vietnamese Basa, white, bland tasting catfish farmed in suspect ponds around the Mekong river. If local fish turns up at all, it’s ridiculously expensive, grey and tired looking. Shopping for fish at a supermarket is a frustrating business. There are only two questions you may ask: has this fish been defrosted and what is the use by date. The staff behind that deli window display are not fishmongers. Most of the other seafood –  prawns, scallops, etc- are thawed in trays daily, the stock trucked in from a national depot somewhere in Australia. None of the offerings reflect locality or season.

But there’s one option on a lucky day that warrants a quick sideways glance when scuttling past that fishy display – the vacuum packed bag of fresh mussels.  ( Yes, I know, more plastic). Local black mussels are a sustainable choice. Farmed on long ropes in pristine seas around Victoria, mussels cannot be fed or fertilised; this means the whole production process is totally natural. The only important thing to check is the use by date on the bag when purchasing. Try to obtain mussels that have just been harvested- the longer they’ve been in the bag, the less appealing they become, even if they haven’t yet reached the magic use by date.

Mejillones a la Gallaga – Galician Style Mussels.

  • 1 kilo of fresh black mussels
  • 1/4 cup white wine for opening the mussels
  • 2 tablespoons EV olive oil
  • one onion, finely chopped
  • two garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 heaped teaspoon of Spanish smoked pimenton/paprika- hot or sweet
  • 1/4- 1/2 teaspoon of saffron threads
  • one can diced tomatoes, including juice
  • ground pepper
  • chopped parsley
  1. In a wide, deep frying pan or non stick wok, heat the oil and add the onions. Cook on medium heat until they soften, about 6 minutes, than add the garlic, and cook for another minute.
  2. Add the saffron threads and pimenton. Toss through the onions then add the can of tomatoes. Turn the heat down low and cook slowly to thicken.
  3. Meanwhile in another large lidded pan or pot, open the mussels with the wine. They should all open within a minute or two so stand by with your tongs, ready to remove them as they open. Place the opened mussels in a bowl. Pour the remaining mussel juice through a muslin cloth lined strainer, over another small bowl to catch the juice.
  4. Add one cup or so of the strained juice to the tomato mixture. Turn up the heat and bubble the tomato mixture/mussel juice to thicken. You my wish to add more juice as you go.
  5. Remove the top shells of the reserved mussels. After cooking and reducing the tomato mixture for around 10 minutes, check it for seasoning. when its ready,  add the mussels and turn through the sauce to heat them.
  6. Add chopped Italian parsley if you wish and serve with crusty baguette, or cooked bomba rice or small shaped pasta.
Spanish pimenton varieties for that real smoky hit.

If you like eating fish, support a fishmonger before they all disappear.

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

 

In My Kitchen, August 2020

This month, I’m inviting you to step inside my kitchen. No one else can come inside these days, but you’re all welcome. It’s one long narrow room that incorporates a kitchen, a small pantry, a long table of 2.8 metres, a wood fired baker’s stove and two old sofas. Above are high beams and clerestory windows and plenty of natural light from the windows facing north and east. All are double glazed making the room easier to heat in winter and naturally cooler in summer. I would argue that retrofitting old windows and upgrading to double glazing is one of the most important energy saving moves you should make, regardless of where you live. Although we have other rooms in the house, we have chosen to live in and heat this single space, along with our bedroom which has a heater set on 17º c for 8 hours overnight. Our kitchen/living space heating consists of one small but very efficient wood stove and one split system inverter. Things are nice and toasty, even on days when the temperature ranges between 0º c and 10ºc outside. We monitor our power usage and note that the winter costs are much lower since adopting this single living space approach. Sig Tranquillo chainsaws fallen trees from the forest on our property which supplies the wood heater, another major cost saving and a gym workout for him.

Melbourne is now in stage 4 lockdown, due to the surge in numbers of corona virus in the state of Victoria. This is one of the most stringent of all lockdowns, and the world will be taking notes on the effectiveness of such a move. Mask wearing is compulsory, no one can travel more than 5 kms to shop, only one person from each household may do this and only for one hour, a night curfew operates from 8 pm to 5am, exercise must be undertaken locally, and only essential businesses may stay open. The vast majority of Victorians are doing the right thing and are determined to make this work. Of course, the media will highlight those who break the rules, and give way too much oxygen to the Karens and Kens of this world: anything newsworthy to feed the coffers of the Murdoch Press.

Dan the Man

In My Kitchen is Daniel Andrews, the premier of Victoria, who appears at 11 am, or later on really bad days. Dan has been doing these updates for months: most Victorians admire and respect him. I moved the TV into our kitchen/everything room at the beginning of the pandemic to save on heating. Before the pandemic, we weren’t so glued to the big screen in the daytime. 

In my kitchen is a Nectre Heater, an Australian made wood heater that is very environmentally efficient and effective. We use it primarily for heating, but also  to cook stock and soups, heat the kettle, and warm leftovers and puddings in the little baker’s oven below. I often use the top to toast bread for bruschetta.

In my kitchen, there’s plenty of research happening. Sig Tranquillo is working on a Scottish history project. Sometimes his clutter fills the large table. Meanwhile, I’m finally back into full time reading and the books are piling up. I can highly recommend, Cal Flyn’s Thicker Than Water. A memoir of sorts, Flyn journeys from Scotland to Australia to investigate the travels and massacre of the Gunai indigenous tribe by the explorer, Angus McMillan. It is essential reading to all those who live in Gippsland, Victoria. More about this book in a later post. The local library sent my books by post but I feel that this is one book I must own. Books, computers, phones, diaries,and notes get swept to one end of the large table at meal time. Oh the clutter.

On sunny days we venture outside for lunch and have now established the routine picnic day, every Friday, on the platform under the old half built chimney. Picnic days can be dangerous, especially when the musical instruments appear.

I’m adding my post to Sherry’s In My Kitchen series this month, despite it’s lack of novel kitchen stuff.  Life is up and down here. I hope, dear reader, wherever you may be, that you keep safe and wear a mask.

Header photo. Turnips from the garden. Despite their vibrant colour, they always remind me of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. 

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.

In My Kitchen, June 2019

Winter is a tricky business. Throughout June, winter is still a novelty. Everyone walks around saying how much they love wood fires, barley soup, root vegetables, scarves, knitting and red wine, and how pleased they are that scary old summer is finally over. With the lowest rainfall on record, the first four months of 2019 were quite unpleasant, the ongoing drought finally breaking in May. These cold wet days are very welcome. Our garden sings once again. And yet I know that this love affair won’t last. By July, me, my bones and I, will want to fly to a warmer zone to dodge the worst of it. I’ll enjoy the remainder of this month and then I’m packing my bags.

Kitchen Garden

A visit to my kitchen is often preceded by a spin around the orto, my vegetable patch out the back that inspires most of my cooking.

A winter vegetable garden is often more productive than those of warmer months. While many Australians enjoy growing summer crops such as tomatoes, winter crops are a reliable source for salads and soup ingredients. I never let my beds lie fallow- if unoccupied, they are planted out with broadbeans ( fava) or filled with garlic, a crop that takes 6 months to mature. In my kitchen garden is abundant lettuce, ( spicy red Mizuna, Cos, Curly leaf, Endive, Bronze, Rugola), and self sown radicchio turning crunchy crimson. Cavolo nero, the Prince of winter, grows darker- a plant that thrives in cold weather. As the first frost has not yet arrived, chilli, tomatoes, basil and beans hang on bravely. Young turnips and radishes slowly plump: their leaves can be used as wild greens with pasta. Self sown leeks have been moved into position while wild mustard and celery appear in the pathways. Thanks to well rotted, mature compost, the winter vegetable garden is booming.

Cookbooks

Books and winter go hand in hand. I was planning to stick to library books for inspiration but a few purchases have crept through the door. The cost of a good second hand cookbook is usually less than half the price of a new magazine. Savers second hand store provides most of my cheap finds, while the Book Grocer is a great source of remaindered books.

Library books on trial. Happy to return all of these except Australian fish and Seafood, which is a superb, and Tartine, which is a great read for those who love sourdough bread baking. The two books by Meera Sodha were disappointing and Eat at the Bar by Matt McConnell was a quick enjoyable read but happy to return it.
New books purchased for $4 each. Two Diana Henry books are a delight to read, and while I don’t think I’ll cook from the recipes. they are good examples of excellent food writing. Magic soups on the other hand excels in food styling.
Second hand finds of note. The timeless classic, Turquoise, by Greg and Lucy Malouf, Neighbourhood, by Hetty McKinnon, modern vegetarian share food, and the Baker by Leanne Kitchen, old fashioned classics

Grains

I love warm grains in winter and farro is definitely my favourite. I used to buy Italian farro at the Mediterranean wholesalers, but now find Mount Zero Farro much tastier. Found at my nearby Deli and Larder.

Fish

Many species of fish are at their peak in winter. The snapper were almost jumping at the Preston market last week, along with a winter specialty, a rare item, small gutted cuttlefish. I bought one large snapper carcass to make fish stock to freeze, one snapper to bake, and 1/2 kilo of cuttle fish to freeze. Five fishy meals for $19. I was very happy with this baked snapper recipe from Neil Perry. We devoured young Roger the Snapper with gusto.

Roast potatoes to accompany fish.

Road Trips

No road trip is complete without a tin of home made biscuits and a thermos. These chocolate, date and almond biscotti came along on a road trip way out west, past silos and deserts, wine country and isolated, melancholic towns. Travelling through the Wimmera and the South Australian wine district of Coonawarra during winter is inspiring. The light is silver, the red liquid rewards numerous.

Kitchen Table

I’ve been tempted with the idea of downsizing. Clearing out junk is very satisfying, but when I advertised our 2.8 metre long kitchen shearer’s table on the local Buy, Swap and Sell sites, I received a blunt message from my daughter in capitol letters. WHAT ARE YOU DOING? I sheepishly replied that our table was far too big for our needs but soon realised that on an average day, the kitchen table is covered with stuff-  laptops, phones, books, notebooks, lists, baskets of fruit and vegetables from the garden, bowls of sourdough slowly fermenting, a teapot and more. The table ad was withdrawn.

Yarns

In another cosy corner of the Kitchen cum dining room live the wool supplies. They have gathered here to remind me how enriching winter can be. My yarn stories can be found here

Discards for small projects, found at op shops.

Thanks Sherry for hosting this monthly series at Sherry’s Pickings. There’s always more going on in a kitchen than in any other room in the house. 

I am slowly being converted to the joys of Instagram. Less demanding than my blog posts, my pictorial pastimes can be found at @morgan.francesca

In My Kitchen by the Sea, April 2019

My annual family holiday, from the end of January through to the end of April, involves maintaining two kitchens. It’s a schizophrenic life involving a disciplined routine. Three days by the sea, four days back at home, or vice versa, is very manageable now that the drive takes only 95 minutes or so along two freeways.

After the trip, we unload a few things from home and then drag our chairs down to the beach. The sea is so calming and hypnotic and instantly relaxing: it’s worth the effort. On warm nights we set up the dinner table on the sand or in front of an old boat shed and watch the ships cruise by. On cooler evenings, we have a quick aperitivo and a snack by the sea, watch the sunset, then return to the warmth of the caravan annex.

The ship of fools

The food is simple: we eat a lot of locally caught fish and Mt Martha mussels, supplemented by my vegetables and preserves from home. I’ve found some lovely fresh fish sold in a seaside van at Safety Beach. The caravan operates from Friday afternoon through to Sunday. I always end up choosing the sweet gars, a fish that is overlooked by many Victorians who are scared of bones. There’s a trick to bone free garfish eating. Once they are cooked, prise open the fish, grab the head and lift it gently towards the tail. The whole bone structure will come away, leaving the sweet fish fillets on your plate. The other trick with gars is to coat the fish in seasoned rice flour and gently fry them for only two minutes on each side. The flesh is so delicate, it only needs a simple sauce. Once cooked, remove fish onto a serving plate, add some butter to the pan, turn up the heat, scraping all the fishy bits into the butter, add lots of lemon juice and parsley, then pour the sauce over the fish. Buon appetito.

Gars ready for gutting and cleaning, a most sustainable fish. Garfish sell for around $12 a kilo at the Safety Beach fisho. I usually by 6-8, at a cost of around $6, a greedy feast for two.

Local garfish, simply sauteed, then sauced with butter, parsley and lemon’

The local mussels are readily available in fish vans as well as at the Dromana supermarket for around $8 a kilo. I love these mussels and limit myself to a kilo a week. The classic French Mouclade is my favourite recipe at present. There’s just a hint of old-fashioned British curry powder- think Keens or Clive of India- and some creme frâiche /sour cream, shallots, butter and all that salty strained juice. Did you know that Mouclade hails from the seaport of La Rochelle? These days when I eat Mouclade, I can’t help thinking of Das Boot! Have you seen the original film and the new series?

My favourite mussel dish, Mouclade from La Rochelle.

My beach kitchen is not entirely basic. I have everything a girl could want in terms of implements, gadgets and serving ware. There’s a small stove top inside a caravan which I never use- cooking and sleeping in the same space doesn’t appeal. There’s a canvas annex with a two burner stove top, and a small Weber BBQ outside. I’ve finally mastered the art of making pizza in the Weber. It’s amazing how good food tastes when you cook and eat in the open air- even when the nights are chilly.

These Garfish were coated with flour, turmeric, salt and pepper before a quick saute in olive oil.

I’m looking forward to the next two weeks down at the beach, with lots of  hungry grandchildren in search of their favourite soups. The cooler weather will be accompanied by spectacular sunsets: the slow cooker will come out of hiding for the Easter season by the bay.

Thanks Sherry once again for hosting this monthly series. Participating bloggers all have a very different take on their approach to life in the kitchen. These can be found at Sherry’s Pickings.

 

Afloat in a Sea of Generosity. Black Saturday Bushfire Donations, 2009-19

I never sent my thank you letters to all who donated so generously after the Black Saturday Bushfires. This is a sign of ill breeding, I know, but the task seemed overwhelming at the time. For the first year I had difficulty concentrating on defined tasks, looking for addresses, remembering phone numbers, handwriting, and finding things. I was always distracted, anxious, tired, alarmed or annoyed. Burnt out.

And so my thank you letters are rather late. Ten years late in fact, but I have chosen to write the letters today, February 7, 2019. The list will be rather long, dear reader, and so you may want to stop reading here. I remember every gift, donation offer of kindness, and all the faces of every volunteer I met in the weeks and months that followed the Black Saturday bushfires. These memories are very clear. It’s never too late to express my enormous gratitude to the Australian people who volunteered and donated money or gifts during that time. It was a tidal wave of kindness, to which I owe my recovery. If I have forgotten you by name, forgive me.

People Making a Difference.

Most of the large gifts and monetary donations were distributed in a coordinated and egalitarian way. The large donations collected through Red Cross were distributed through government agencies: the amounts varied, according to loss, and were apportioned in parcels over a 12 month period. A significant amount of this fund was set aside for whole community recovery such as town infrastructure, small grants to artists, film makers, workshop providers and so on. Those who lost their homes were appointed a case manager to assist in negotiating the applications for these funds, other services and information: they eased the pathway through the mire of administrative and bureaucratic nightmare facing those who lost everything. I never formally thanked our case worker, Linda Fabb, though I did along the way I am sure. Linda visited and rang us often to see how we were travelling. She stayed with us until we finally re-settled one year later. She visited armed with information, tick sheets for grant applications, forms to fill in, and discreetly checked on our psychological well-being as well. She was on our wavelength, we got on well. Not all survivors were so lucky with their appointed case managers. After we found our new house, Linda visited twice with boxes full of little plants made from cuttings. These were made and donated by her mother. Through these random gifts of kindness, I also learnt how to strike cuttings in recycled plastic containers just like Mrs Fabb senior. I have one garden in your honour. Now I strike, grow and give away plants. Thanks Linda.

Not long after the fire, a wonderful association emerged, thanks to Catherine Lance of St Andrews North. As Cathy’s house survived the fire, she decided to establish a regular morning tea venue for other women in St Andrews who were affected. 65 houses were destroyed overnight on February 7, 2009, and others lost shedding, crops, and outbuildings. We went by the title of “Ladies of the Black Belt”, a geographical reference to the area burnt in St Andrews North but also with visual and psychological connotations too. St Andrews North was black and treeless, as was the outlook of those affected. After the first get together, it became necessary for Cathy to limit the membership of the group to those within a defined boundary to protect the vulnerabilities of its members. We grew as a community over a two-year period and shared enormous friendship and a common bond. Cathy’s neighbour, Barb Barbetta, also offered her house for similar get togethers, morning teas and shed nights. The shed nights started as bloke nights but were soon converted to family nights. Tony Barbetta’s shed became our local town hall, complete with its own clock. These gatherings also defined us as a community, albeit a traumatised one. Cathy Lance was also a font of information along the way, with reminders of grants, events, warnings, funerals, and organised a fine Christmas party catered by Maree and Rodney Adams, restauranteurs at Latrobe University. She also connected us to a caring group of folk in Inverloch, who hosted us for a fine luncheon and then kindly donated home-made little Christmas puddings and cakes for the Black Belt Ladies’ first post fire Christmas. Thank you friends from Inverloch. Through this umbrella, we also enjoyed several women’s’ getaways to Phillip Island, offering us a chance to chat in a completely different environment. To balance this, men’s getaways ( otherwise known as fishing trips) were funded and organised, mostly through Helen Legg. Thanks Cathy and David Lance.

Volunteers

  • Helen Legg and all the friendly volunteers at the Hurstbridge Bushfire Relief Centre, Fiona, Jane, June, Annie and so many others. I’ve written previously about the extraordinary efforts of Helen here .Volunteers also go through enormous trauma during times of national disaster and I am aware that Helen’s team was emotionally exhausted after a long two-year stint. Thank you for making such a difference.
  • Thanks to the owners of the building which became the Hurstbridge Centre, in main road Hurstbridge, who donated the property for a lengthy period.
  • All the volunteers at the Hurstbridge Church Hall, the St Andrews Bushfire centre,  Diamond Creek Sporting Stadium, the Whittlesea Bushfire Centre on the showgrounds, and the Clayton Warehouse Bushfire centre. We came to collect wonderful new and second-hand goods from your vast emporiums which only functioned because of your time so freely given. Thank you.
  • The guys from Hurstbridge, friends of Helen Legg, who came up to our burnt landscape and helped clear the mess, and Sunny Cross who helped clear the toxic stuff on the block. Of course, my immediate family also attended working bees on and off for months. There were many others, too many to mention all by name.

    Sunny Cross (right) and daughter, Rachael Morgan( left). Angels cleaning up the toxic mess. They spent four days on this unrewarding task, and in my daughters words,  ‘we were looking for something.’

    One of those wet yourself laughing moments. Sunshine Cross in full protective gear, takes a ride on my burnt bout exercise bike.
  • Terese, a local landscape gardener and teacher, who designed a garden for me, provided a colour coded plant list and helped me begin my new garden once I resettled. My love of gardens developed further thanks to your inspiration.
  • Louise Ferguson, of Ferguson winery in the Yarra Valley, who voluntarily gave a series of simple cooking lessons to groups of women in the months after the bushfires. We loved going out together and eating your samples. I still make your toasted muesli.
  • Chris, an amazing teacher of mosaics, who freely volunteered her time to organise workshops in the old St Andrews School. She ran these workshops for years after 2009, such was her dedication. You can visit the amazing mosaic bench chair, a masterpiece of history, coordinated by Chris and completed by the bushfire affected in the area. Those who lost their homes added small fragments of old plates and vases to the work. The chair is near the St Andrews hall on the market site. I attended a few sessions but found my artistic skills were sadly lacking after the fire.
  • Jenny Cox, whose name became synonymous with the Knitted Chook for a few months. Jenny and her crafting friends began knitting colourful and exotic knitted chooks ( hens) after the bushfires. These were entered into a grand final competition and comedy night, hosted by Denise Scott. The funds raised from that event were used to gift knitting baskets and hand spun wool to the women who had lost their homes ( and their knitting supplies). This hilarious event, along with the chooks themselves, lightened the mood along the way. It also helped forge a bond between the two burnt communities of St Andrews and Strathewen. Giving comedy, a craft outlet and joy. Thanks Jenny.

    One of those chooks, photo courtesy Melbourne Museum. There were hundreds of chooks knitted. I also made two: mine were quite ugly.
  • A big thank you to all the bands who played at SOUND RELIEF, a huge benefit concert held in the MCG, Melbourne. The highlights included Midnight Oil, Hunters and Collectors, Jett, Kings of Leon, Paul Kelly, and many more. There was a similar benefit concert held in Sydney with a different lineup of bands. The funds raised from this event were huge and were added to the Red Cross funds for equitable distribution.

Temporary Accommodation

Some people have commented over the years on my resilience. I don’t think I’m resilient, just very fortunate. In the early days after the fire, all sorts of offers of short-term accommodation became available. I could have stayed in the city, but felt it important to be near my tortured land, my burnt out home, my community, and to own my recovery in the place that I had always lived and loved for the previous thirty years. Community and support came through being among those who had experienced the same catastrophe. During those early months, I found new neighbours and rejoined with others with whom I had lost contact.

  • Within three days of the bushfire, a large and comfortable caravan arrived in the front yard of my daughter’s house in Hurstbridge. We stayed there for a while, and the van was left there for months for when we needed it along the way. Thanks Rachel Brown and Jason.
  • Tess Baldessin offered us a little cottage on her bushblock. It was simple, beautifully crafted and quite monastic. It came with its own bathroom but no kitchen. Her partner Lloyd soon installed a little gas stove which enabled us to cook simple meals there. My friends, Diane and Brian Gilkes, stayed in another nearby cottage. Together we became a little commune and stayed for three months. Thanks Tess and Lloyd.

    Our little stone cottage at Tess’s place
  • As winter approached, we needed a warmer environment and were delighted to be offered a house in St Andrews to care for, along with an aging cat, Bonnie, while the owners were travelling. Thanks dear friends, Helen Hewitt and Chris Warner. Since then, our friendship has grown, and Chris and Stuart now share a regular music practice together, a sort of musical men’s shed for two.

    Noah and Bonny
  • We were also given a large, 1970s unroadworthy caravan, donated by a woman from Anglesea. The caravan was moved by tilt tray truck to St Andrews, the 160 kilometre journey courtesy of Nationwide, who donated their trucks, drivers and time to move old unwanted caravans to bushfire sites around Victoria. The caravan adoption movement was coordinated by Helen Legg at Hurstbridge Bushfire Relief Centre ( a year later, she also coordinated the distribution of loaned shipping containers). Our Caravan of Courage provided shelter on our burnt out block for 9 months. It was a place to escape the howling winds, which were horrific due to the absence of trees and bush, nature’s windbreaks. After we sold our block, my son-in-law, Kyle Bradley, renovated the van at his own cost: it’s now roadworthy and spends a few months at the beach, providing retro accommodation for my children and grandchildren. Another tiny van was also donated: this was gutted inside and served as a lock up shed for our disposable safety gear, overalls, tools, buckets and so on. We called it the Kebab van. Thanks Matt O’Connor.
  • Transport donated by Nationwide trucks . Donated caravan 70s caravan from Anglesea. Organisation of this gift through volunteer time, donated by Helen Legg.

    The same caravan today. Renovated and roadworthy, but retaining original 70s vibe. At the Mornington Peninsula by the sea. The gift that keeps on giving.

Organisations and Charities

While thousands of Australians donated money to the main fund-raising body, Red Cross, many other organisations and charities collected funds and directed them to those displaced by bushfire. The Salvos distributed shopping vouchers for the IGA supermarket and Kmart, Sussan and Sportsgirl. Vinnies offered vouchers for petrol and the local hardware chain, Mitre 10. The Holden Car company gave us a new car, free of charge to use for one year which included  servicing. The Country Women’s Association provided a farming grant which we used to buy a ride on mower, ( thanks  once again Cathy Lance for coordinating this)  while the RSPCA provided an animal focused grant. We used this to re-establish a chook house and run, along with 6 chickens. ( 50 or so of my chickens perished during the bushfire ) An organisation emerged for the replacement of musical instruments: a rep from Resound personally delivered a beautiful new electric guitar to Mr T, who lost 9 collector guitars in the fire. For guitar aficionados, it’s an ESP LTD EC-1000 with Seymour Duncan pickups. There was also library grant replacing some of my books, including an academic Italian dictionary, gardening books and classic novels.

  • Red Cross
  • Salvation Army ( the Salvos )
  • Holden Car Company
  • St Vincent de Paul (Vinnies)
  • RSPCA
  • The Country Women’s Association
  • Small Business grant to buy computer equipment
  • Library, new book donation
  • Musical instrument grant from Resound

Personal Gifts.

The personal gifts of money and/or items were many. My immediate family, my parents and siblings were all very generous. My niece Louise replaced my Stephanie Alexander book, her friend sent over a bowl made by Leon Saper, local potter, a platter came from a lady in Cockatoo ( Jan?). There were gifts of books and a book voucher. Beautiful hand-made quilts were distributed by key women within the community. When my grand children were little, they could pick one to cuddle each night when they stayed with us. These quilts are our heirlooms and will be handed down to them one day.

Anonymous star quilt. 2009 bushfire donation.

Companies donated linen- new sheets and pillow cases, often remainders in odd colours which are still in use 10 years later, tea towels and a doona. These company gifts came through the Bushfire relief centres in Diamond Creek and Whittlesea. Enormously valuable in the first month was the donation of safety protection gear, full suits and masks, as well as wheelbarrows, spades and tools. A brand new generator arrived from another company. New socks and underwear came from another.

And then came the second-hand things, as Australia cleared out their cupboards and donated goods, useful clothing, and toys, a national KonMari moment in history. We wore these clothes with pride. I remember one evening when Mr T went off to work in an odd assortment of second-hand clothes. He thought he looked pretty dapper. Some of his work colleagues thought he looked more elegant in his new attire, a step up from his pre-fire dress sense. Often when I look at our 2009 photos, I am a little amused at my clothing style back then. Skirts, boots, and odd colours, a sort of aging hippy op shop couture. We obtained second-hand towels with plenty of wear still left in them as well as pots and pans, cutlery, an old Kenwood mixer, crockery, books, you name it – we made use of all your wonderful donations.

Thank you to all Australians who responded so generously and with an open heart in 2009. Your money, gifts and clothing found a new home and was valued and appreciated, both big and small. I know I have forgotten a few people. Remind me if you can. And, dear friends and readers, if you recognise anyone in this post, please pass on my personal thanks.

About Donating. If every working adult in Australia put at least $50 aside each year, imagine what a difference we could make during times of natural disaster, either here in Australia or abroad. If 1 million people give $10 tomorrow to a reliable charity, $10 million would become available to distribute aid to those suffering from the floods in Queensland right now. Multiply this by 5 causes per year, and you have a good recipe for giving, and for changing people’s lives. Other ways to give during disaster: volunteering your time and expertise, assisting in clean ups, donating food parcels or meals to neighbours, sending your unwanted goods to charities that arise during these times.

Donated by Resound music.

This is my last post on Black Saturday bushfires. It is meant to be a happy post and a suitable finale to my previous chapters. By reading and commenting, you have assisted me and my family during this difficult anniversary. We thank you.

Black Saturday Bushfire Anniversary. A ten year old post.

Today I’m sharing a post I wrote 10 years ago. It was written on February 12, just 5 days after the Black Saturday Bushfire, Febrary 7, in 2009. I remember writing this in my daughter’s house in a confused and anxious state. It appeared on Blogger, a platform that I used back then. I have added these photos: the rest is unedited. After 9 months, all my writing just vanished overnight, thanks to a takeover, without warning, of my registered domain. This piece was mercifully preserved by Pandora Archive- National Library of Australia.¹  I’m sharing it again today because I want my children to keep these records. They need them more than I do. As I re-read it, I can’t help but think of all those people throughout the world who experience displacement on a much grander scale than I did on that day- refugees from war-torn countries forced to flee to other lands, to live in camps for years, those displaced through flood or cyclone, left homeless for years. I understand how fortunate I am. The gifts and financial assistance offered to us was overwhelming during the first year and deserves a post of its own, simply to document and thank every individual and organisation. It’s a huge list. Here’s that original post from February 2009.

Citrus grove, post fire 2009

And the Nightmare Continues

” I have been looking back on my previous posts. That life last week, up until February the 7th, seems so distant already, and yet only 5 days have passed. Each dawn brings the fear of more bad news, more neighbours and friends who are dead. My dawns last week took me to the vegetable garden or fruit trees for the day’s picking, or the chookhouse to gather the eggs. So many beautiful dreams for the future of the vineyard, the olive trees. Colourful imaginings of salads of tomatoes in four colours. The figs, although the leaves had already dropped in the furious heat of the previous fortnight, clung bravely to the branches, reminding me each morning that autumn would be along soon and figs would be part of the menu or preserving plan. My partner had planted Albarino grapes, he was excited by this Spanish variety as they are said to be drought resistant. Each morning or late evening he would move water from one dam to another to ensure that these new grape plantings would have sufficient water to survive this summer’s blasting heat. This was our work, these dreams kept us too busy, we had hopes for a small wine making barn, we planned to preserve the tomatoes in the old Italian way, to breed prettier hens, to pickle our young olives, to cart our excess of produce to neighbours, family and friends. It was work, it was our identity. And that’s what we lost in last week’s inferno.

We are reminded daily of the horror that was last Saturday as the death toll rises. We grieve beside our friends, we hug neighbours and are so pleased to see them again as they walk into the Community Centre. We cry as we get over our embarrassment and accept donations. We laugh sometimes as we model our donated new or second-hand clothes. We are overwhelmed by the generosity and the food that comes from unknown people who arrive at the community centres with car loads of items.

We eat food as a matter of course and are very grateful to be offered it from family and strangers. But nothing tastes the same anymore. Like travelling, you are always waiting to eat something that is normal, homely, nourishing. Displacement from a life, from a lifestyle is not about ownership or things. It’s an identity loss.

We are the lucky ones who left St Andrews early. Part of the nightmare puts me back in the house, unprepared for the inferno, like so many other poor souls who have lost their lives. I can’t remove this fear, it’s disabling.”

Electricity pole took a week to burn out

Vineyard. 2009

We were not allowed back into our properties until after February 10, three days after Black Saturday, February 7, 2009. We had no idea what we would find, what might be left. As it turns out, everything was destroyed except for a few amazing items. One of the most insane things was a red plastic petrol container which sat beside the dam. It survived, with all the petrol intact!

¹https://pandora.nla.gov.au/historyachievements.html

Black Saturday Bushfire,10th Anniversary. Finding a Way to Memorialise.

Memorialisation takes on greater significance and more noble heights during milestone years. After one, five, ten, twenty- five years and so on, commemoration of significant events in history or in our personal lives is important to remember, celebrate, mourn or commiserate and in some instances, to learn. As Victorians begin February, they are being presented with an intensification of 10th anniversary events commemorating the Black Saturday Bushfires of February 7, 2009, the day that a firestorm of unseen proportions killed 173 people, destroyed over 2000 homes and left more than 6000 people homeless. These are the figures that scream the loudest. Further facts and figures reveal the impact on the whole State.¹

The commemorative events are many and will appeal to different sections of society: academic presentations at a symposium, a flurry of new documentaries and films, books, interviews, art and photography exhibitions, talks, church services, meetings, newspaper articles and many private commemorative get- togethers. Most of the fire survivors I know will avoid these events. I can’t help thinking that there is a considerable level of opportunism in the timing of some of these new books and films which deal with this national disaster.

One of my deepest residual psychological blocks from 2009 is the issue concerning those who overstepped the mark in terms of opportunism and lack of sensitivity. Within days of losing my house, the vultures were out – first came the tourists with cameras, but they were quickly dispelled thanks to the installation of road blocks soon after the fires. Then came the media, artists and photographers. Some behaved appallingly during those early days, eager as they were to cash in on the spectacular nature of the event and, in the process, make a name for themselves. During a time when people were mourning the loss of loved ones, or their homes, their way of life, the ‘recorders of bushfire’ were on a mission to get in early, at a time when the army was still scouring the hills for bones of the dead, when the helicopters above buzzed like a scene from Apocalypse Now, and when ancient eucalypt trees glowed red in slow death, the white ashen ground still hot.

Media journalists at the time lacked an ethical framework for dealing with a national disaster of this size.² They were simply told to go; get the scoop, the best story. Road barriers were often ignored, especially at night if unmanned: in the day time, fabricated identities were used to gain entry. Some behaved like paparazzi, while others, when faced with the enormity of human tragedy they witnessed, revealed respect, restraint and empathy in their reportage.

Now that ten years have passed, I need to purge this anxiety, a sort of PTSD, from my memory. That’s the plan. I did try to do this back in July 2009. I took up the offer of 10 free psychology sessions at a nearby clinic. I had a rather naive plan in place- the sessions would help remove all that adrenalin from my brain, which included this distaste for these bushfire vultures. I lasted only 3 sessions. I wanted to talk about fire issues: my anger at telcos, bureaucratic nightmares, the insensitivity of media: my psychologist was heading somewhere else. I lost faith in the process when I watched her eagerly jot down some notes after I mentioned the word ‘MOTHER’. Just another Freudian obsessed counsellor. I left, not in a huff, but with all my residual angst firmly intact.

I won’t be attending any major memorial events, I won’t be looking at any documentaries or films with bushfires roaring in the background: I have never watched any TV news or documentaries dealing with fire over the last ten years. Some of these blazing reports are now appearing on my Facebook feed: Facebook, everyone’s pocket TV. I won’t be sitting in the local hall watching the latest film offering, and I won’t be attending any art exhibitions portraying bushfire. No churches for me, no gatherings in silence with a cuppa. No trip up into the hills to see how my old bush block is recovering. But I do plan to do a few things on the day and during the following year. I will look out for an eagle in the sky. It was mighty Bunjil circling in the overheated and smoky sky who warned my dearest friend to leave her home on that day. I will also visit a local gathering in Hurstbridge, one being organised by Helen Legg, an amazing and dedicated volunteer who gave most of her days to assisting those who had been affected by bushfire for two years: a drink is on the agenda. I will give thanks, once again, to all those who assisted my family after that National Disaster. I also plan to read a lot more about fire. I’ll start with works by Stephen J Pyne.³ It’s time to learn from sources that are objective and well researched, especially as the reality of global warming makes wildfire more common around Australia and around the globe, in places that have never experienced them before.

Old man tree with tin and wire.

¹ Wikipedia Stats included in full here.

  • 450,000 ha (1,100,000 acres) burnt
  • 7,562 people displaced
  • Over 3,500 structures destroyed, including:
    • 2,029+ houses
    • 59 commercial properties (shops, pubs, service stations, golf clubs, etc.)
    • 12 community buildings (including 2 police stations, 3 schools, 3 churches, 1 fire station)
    • 399 machinery sheds, 363 hay sheds, 19 dairies, 26 woolsheds, 729 other farm buildings
  • Agricultural and horticultural losses:
    • Over 11,800 head of livestock,consisting of 2,150 sheep, 1,207 cattle, and an unknown number of horses, goats, alpacas, poultry, and pigs
    • 25,600 tonnes (25,200 long tons; 28,200 short tons) of stored fodder and grain
    • 32,000 tonnes (31,000 long tons; 35,000 short tons) of hay and silage
    • 190 ha (470 acres) of standing crops
    • 62,000 ha (150,000 acres) of pasture
    • 735 ha (1,820 acres) of fruit trees, olives and vines
    • Over 10,000 kilometres (6,200 mi) of boundary and internal fencing destroyed or damaged
    • 7,000 ha (17,000 acres) of plantation timber
  • 98,932 ha (244,470 acres) of parks damaged, 90 per cent of which was national park. It was claimed that 950 local parks, 70 national parks and reserves, and over 600 cultural sites and historic places were impacted or destroyed
  • 3,921 ha (9,690 acres) of private bushland
  • Over 55 businesses destroyed
  • Electricity supply was disrupted to 60,000 residents
  • Several mobile phone base stations and telephone exchanges damaged or destroyed

² https://apo.org.au/node/19735

³ Stephen J Pyne’s works are listed here, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_J._Pyne

A film I may consider watching might be Afterburn- in the Tigers Jaws. ‘The Steels Creek community invited the research team to use them as a case-study because they believed that something lasting had to come from this terrible tragedy and future communities would benefit from partnering with the academic and creative industries. Afterburn has the potential to influence future policy development at all levels of government in the areas of collaborative community recovery and the long-term impact of trauma on communities and individuals.’

On my block in April, 2009. Autumn had softened the disaster zone. I’m wearing a red armband, as did all those who lost their homes. This indicated our identity to the police staffing roadblocks. I wore it for nine months and still have it tucked away.

I have great admiration for a few journalists whose work stood out from the pack during Year 1. Thanks to Ian Munro of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers and to Gary Hughes, a St Andrews resident and Warkley award winner, who wrote so poignantly of his own survival. And to Jon Faine, radio presenter from the ABC, whose broadcasting efforts and interviews, particularly in the Strathewen community, were remarkable.

In My Kitchen, February, 2019. Ten Years Ago.

There’s a lot on my mind this week as we approach the 10th anniversary of Black Saturday, the monstrous bushfire of February 7, 2009, that redefined my life and that of more than 2000 other Victorians. I’ve started to look through my old photos today, the first day of February, to renew my acquaintance with my old house and kitchen from 10 years ago. I’m still coming to terms with why things changed so much. In the end, it’s not really about the possessions, the things. Something else happened on that day, an indefinable sense of loss. Was it the house itself or the setting, the way it incorporated the rising moon through the kitchen window?

Front door near kitchen and hand built pizza oven, 2008

We began work on the building of our old house in January 1980, and moved in around August that year, just before my youngest son, Jack, was born. No electricity or running water back then but we didn’t care. The initial house, constructed in mudbrick, consisted of one huge central room with a soaring ceiling, a hand crafted fireplace, old Victorian four panelled doors, leadlight windows, and a staircase leading to our mezzanine bedroom which was neatly tucked into the ceiling at one end. It was, in many ways, an impractical design, hard to heat in winter and rather hot upstairs in summer but we loved it. We were idealistic, young and ready to embrace our new life. The house came to symbolise everything we were choosing ( and rejecting) at the time. This was not a suburban house: its design and quirkiness grew out of the mudbrick movement that was prevalent in the Shire of Eltham, a romantic building style that began with Montsalvat and was developed further by Alistair Knox. This local style was adapted throughout the 70s by other mud brick builders. The house reflected our new life in the bush which centred around the ‘back to the earth’ ideology which incorporated self-sufficiency in food production, small-scale farming, wood gathering for heating, and a building culture based on a preference for natural and recycled materials, mud, straw, large old bridge timbers, Victorian doors and windows, second-hand red bricks, and any other ‘found’ materials that could be recycled. The more modern notions of ‘tree change’ ‘sustainability’ and ‘repurposing’ had not yet enjoyed linguistic currency. The materials used made each house in the area quite unique. Many of these houses were destroyed on Black Saturday and current building regulations now make them too expensive to replicate.

Hopes and Dreams. A new vineyard planting of Albarino grapes struggled with the drought of 2008.

As the children grew, so did the house. The first addition was a small two roomed mud brick cottage out the back of the house. Each weekend friends arrived to help on the construction: they soon mastered mudbrick wall building and rendering along the way. I pumped out the pizzas and other goodies from the kitchen in the main house. Then in 2004, we added a new modern kitchen and dining room to the main house, an expensive project that took more than a year to complete. That huge farmhouse style room became the focus of my life as a cook and a grandmother for the following four years. It was the place to bath a baby, celebrate a birthday, enjoy a wine, stroll out to the BBQ and terrace, make a mess, play guitars or listen to music. It was a kitchen dedicated to my family. I’ve never really found that life again: the disruption after the fire was too great. Of course I see the family in my current home, but that old ‘hearth and home’ feeling has been lost. The moon rises in the wrong place. I know my children feel this too though they say little.

Most of the internal shots below were taken in my old kitchen. It’s a media file so you can scroll through these by clicking on the first pic in the collage.

These few photos of my old kitchen and pre-fire life have been acquired thanks to friends over the last ten years. Of course our PCs died in the fire on that day, and so did the history of our life in that house, but there were a few pics on an old laptop, and others have been sent to us. 

Today’s post is the beginning of a little series I have been working on to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Black Saturday. Words and stories have been swimming around in my brain at night for months, keeping me awake. I hope these see the light of day and finally get transferred to the digital page. I know more thanks must be given, more pictures aired, some myths dispelled, and some anger vented too. And after this year, I might let it all go.

Funky old house.

Thanks Sherry at Sherry’s Pickings for hosting the monthly In My Kitchen series. I know there’s not much kitchen stuff going on in this post, but at least I’ve made a start on my memorialisation and for this I thank you.

The header photo shows apples baked by bushfire. See also my In My Kitchen post on this topic from 6 years ago.