Information about work, life and play in Regional Australia

Friday, April 25, 2008

In memory of our old fuel stove

I was trying to cook a roast chook, hen for the benefit of those not used to Australian slang. Our oven is small, it has a grill that hangs down at the top, so that it is very hard to fit two baking trays in the oven.

This cast my mind back in a fit of nostalgia to 202 Marsh Street, the house in which I grew up. That had a stove, a real fuel stove of the type that used to go 24 hours a day.

The oven itself was not huge, just a little bigger than the one I have now. However, it was the combination of features that made the old-fashioned stove so great.

Just below the oven was a warming oven. This allowed me to transfer dishes from the main oven just to keep warm or to slow cook if I increased the heat.

The hot plate was huge, running the length of the stove. Hot at one end, cooler at the other, this allowed me to cook multiple dishes moving them along to cooler spots as required. So once the gravy was done, for example, I could move it to the other end to keep warm.

Yes, there were some difficulties. For example, a fuel stove does not heat quickly in the way that a gas or electric stove might, so you have to manage this. But still, once you had mastered this, the ease of cooking was great.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The lost art of the Australian picnic

Photo from

Growing up, picnics were still a central feature of Australian life. There were organised events such as sunday school picnics, school picnics or picnic races. But far more common was the simple domestic picnic.

These were in part excursion, getting out to a nearby picnic spot. But they were also a central feature of travel, with families stopping by the side of the road to have a cup of tea or coffee and something to eat.

Then, almost overnight, they seemed to vanish, replaced by fast food or BBQs. Don't get me wrong, I like a good BBQ, but the picnic has the advantage that you can eat in many more places.

Picnics still exist, but they have become much more ornate occasions. Again don't get me wrong. I do not object to a range of specially prepared food. However, there is a lot to be said for simplicity.

I think that the key thing about a picnic is that it can take so many forms.

When travelling on a tight budget in Europe, we used to picnic in our hotel room at lunchtime, combining bread, cheese and things such as olives and salami, washed down with a rough red.

Travelling in Australia, I fear that we have fallen into the habit of stopping at those monster road side stops that now dot the express ways. This is a real error. It quite destroys the pleasure that can be obtained from a more relaxed stop in a pleasant place.

Yes, the monster road stops are useful when travelling quickly from point A to point B, although even then there is something to be said for stopping by the road to picnic. But there is really no excuse when touring.

One of the real pleasures of Regional Australia is that there are just so many nooks and crannies that come alive when you stop and look. A second pleasure is that there is now such a variety of food that you can bring with you or buy on the way to try.

This is one case where I need to reform myself!


In a nice comment, Barbara Martin recorded her own nostalgia about picnics of the past. Barbara's own blog is a gentle view of Canadian life.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

White Mountain Banksia in Flower

Just for a short break from my lazy gardener series, this photo taken by Gordon Smith shows the White Mountain Banksia ( Banksia integrifolia subsp. monticola) in flower near Armidale in Australia's New England.

Growing up in this area I came to love the European feel of the landscape created by the European's love of plants from home. This creates the colours of autumn. But I also came to love the often subtle shades of the natural Australian landscape.

Mind you, there is nothing subtle about some of the bright reds and ochres of the Australian outback. However, most colour changes are more subtle.

I have never seen the two loves as inconsistent. We all change the world we live in. Australia's indigenous peoples did this, just as we do today.

There can be a difficult balancing act between preservation and change. However, I have little sympathy for some metro enthusiasts who want to lock Regional Australia up in an apparently unchanging stasis as their personal preserve.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Regional living - the lazy person's approach to gardening 5: digging your first plot

Now that you have purchased your first herb seedlings, it is time to prepare your first plot. Now here we come to some firm rules.

Remember, this is the lazy person's guide to gardening. Not for you the vast expanse of prepared beds. You are time poor and want the pleasure and results with minimum effort. Overgrown is in fact good, because that way the soil is resting.

Now here is something that I should have mentioned in my last post but forgot. Hey, no-one's perfect! While buying some herb seedlings, you really should have bought the following:

  • Some lucerne hay, although even sugar cane or some other form of mulch is good.
  • Along with some chook manure, dynamic lifter or equivalent. Plus some blood and bone.

I am assuming that you have some old newspaper around. If not, you should have been collecting that too.

Okay, now wander outside to look at the garden.

Work out the absolute minimum size of bed you need to plant the seedlings you already have. Now double it. You need the second half for next week end's plantings.

Weed this part of the bed, putting the weeds on the compost heap. This should take you fifteen to twenty minutes. Put the chook poo or dynamic lifter plus blood and bone on the bed. Plenty is good. Please don't breath the stuff, it's not good for you. Now water.

All the conventional gardening books say water properly. For the lazy gardener like me, that's rubbish.

It is true that if you water for a short while, the wet soil forms a thin skin on top. Try it sometime, you will see what I mean.

In my case I water till the top layer is wet, wait until the water has sunk in, then water again. Once that has sunk in I then turn the soil over. This redistributes the top damp soil plus chook poo etc into the soil. I then put another layer of blood and bone plus chook poo onto the top of the bed and water again in the same way and dig in. If necessary, I water once more, this time without any additions. Two, perhaps three times, and the soil is both moist and fertilised. All very time and water efficient.

All seedling packs say water even if the soil is moist. This is one instruction I follow. I dig little holes, use a watering can to water, wait until the water has sunk down, then put the seedling in in the centre of a little hollow. Then, once planted, I water just around the plantings very gently with the watering can.

Once this has sunk in, I water the whole cultivated area again using a light spray with a hand-held hose. This time I do try to water properly because I want to soil moist before mulching.

Now we come to one of the real keys for the lazy person's approach to gardening, the role of mulch. Mulch is God's gift to the lazy gardener. I rip up paper or cardboard, it really does not matter want paper products you use, and put it down round the plants. Then put your mulch on top of the paper and water again just to bed the mulch down. This stops it blowing away in the wind.

You now have a planted, mulched area plus a second area of soil. You leave this until the next weekend to allow seeds to germinate. In the meantime, you can water the planted area very easily with a watering can as required, carefully watering in the holes left in the mulch. It only takes a few minutes, with the mulch keeping the general soil moist.

In the next post we can extend our planting.

Introductory post in series. Previous post. Next post.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Regional living - the lazy person's approach to gardening 4: the importance of a good herb garden

Rosemary in flower.

Now that you have you compost at least underway, it's time to make your first serious decision, the location of your herb garden. So wander out into the back yard with a beer or a wine, if that takes your fancy.

Herbs are one of God's gifts to cooking, adding to the flavour of our meals. No matter how overgrown my main garden may become, the herb garden seems to survive.

I always have my main two herbs - rosemary and oregano - on hand.

Rosemary, the queen of spices, is central to my cooking. It goes well with so many things, especially meats. It also has a nice smell when crushed. Unlike most common herbs, rosemary is a bush, so you need a little space. Not a lot mind you, if you are like me and use it a lot! Once established it just grows, so it is there whenever you need it.

I also use oregano all the time. The Wikipedia entry on oregano understates its uses. I prefer Greek to Italian oregano, it has a different taste, and I use it in a number of meals. Among other things, when chopped up and added to lemon juice, it makes a very nice marinade for chicken dishes.

Other regular herbs in my garden include sage, basil, thyme, coriander and mint.

The herbs you want will depend upon your own cooking requirements. So sit down outside with your beer or wine and draw up a list. Sometimes one of those cooking compendiums helps since you can browse all the dishes connected with a particular herb.

Please do not get too side-tracked, though. I need you to do a few things.

You have already worked out the general design of your garden. Now you need to look at the herb part. This needs to be close to the kitchen since you will be using it all the time. It also helps if there is some light nearby, since this is one part of the garden you may want to access at night.

Now you have a choice. You have identified your new herb garden. Many people proceed to bed preparation. The really lazy gardener like me does not because I need to be motivated. Instead, I head to the nursery and buy my my first few herbs. With watering, these will survive in shade for a while. Now I have to no choice but to proceed!

In my next post I will look at the lazy person's guide to bed preparation.

Introductory post in series. Previous post. Next post.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Regional living - the lazy person's approach to gardening 3: the importance of a good compost heap

I cannot over-emphasise the importance of a good compost heap. For a lazy gardener like me, there is nothing so satisfying as the thought that you are growing some good compost even if the rest of the garden does not have a single plant!

Remember this is the lazy man's guide to gardening. I do nothing posh with the compost at all!

Rule one. Do not allow your wife to force you to buy one of those plastic compost bins. They look neat, but do not work.

Rule two. Mowing or weeding should not be regarded as a chore, but as harvesting to get material for your compost. This is quite a different perspective.

Now look at the garden. A good overgrown spot with space on one side is great. Overgrown is good because you can fight the weeds with your heap. Space is good because you need to be able to turn the heap.

You should have a waste container in the kitchen for all your scraps. This is one source of raw material for the compost. You need more.

I have tried to compost most things, including paper. Paper is not good. Beside you need it for other purposes. Meat scraps attract maggots. So you want all forms of vegetable material.

Start by searching round for leaves, grass or weed to form an initial heap. This needs to be big enough so that you can poke a hole in it and pour in the kitchen material, then cover it over. Add to the pile as you go along.

Rule three. A compost heap shrinks to around one third of its size as material breaks down. I make the point only because you need to get the heap to a fair size before you go to the next stage. So keep adding material to it.

Before going on to rule four, you need to be aware of the difference between aerobic and anaerobic reactions. Aerobic requires oxygen and gives you that sweet compost smell. Anaerobic takes place in the absence of oxygen and gives you that sour smell.

Rule four. To get that sweet smell, you need to turn the compost to bring in air. That is why you need space, to turn the compost to the next place in the bed.

This brings me to rules five and six.

Rule five. Add something like dynamic lifter at periodic intervals because this aids the breakdown. It can also be helpful to add a little lime because kitchen scraps tend to get a little acidic. Think of the influence of the balsamic vinegar on all your salads!

Rule six. Add a little water from time to time. This helps the reaction.

Each time you add new material to your compost, that is stuff that has to break down. At a certain size, freeze your compost and start a new one.

After a little while with this process, you will have a never ending supply of compost for your garden beds.