Another Country Diary

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16 February '02

Nectarines. Click for a bigger image.I've picked all the nectarines, even the scrappy, part rotten ones. Covering them with bird net has meant that we've got enough to bottle, but I should have done it earlier in the week (when of course I couldn't because I had 'paying' work to do). There are a lot more moldy patches on them after the rain.

When I was picking up the ones that had dropped and rolled into the reeds beside the pond, I found a 'nest' where some animal (s) had been taking fruit and eating it. It was hidden by overhanging grass and there where a dozen or so nectarine stones eaten clean, and some soft brown droppings that looked wrong/too big for a possum. 

(We get lots of possum droppings on the tops of our cars. The possums sit in the apple tree that overhangs them. You learn not to leave the car windows open or you get a seat covered with possum shit and sticky urine.)

Whatever this is, it's been eating the nectarines that are hanging low to the ground in a manner which I thought were snails. They almost peel the skin off and eat shallow hollows, completely unlike birds. Other than a possum, all I can think of is perhaps a rat (there have been some big fluffy native mice or rats around that have been killed by neighborhood cats). Some of the droppings were suspended high in the grass so whatever it is, it can climb a branch but may have been stopped by the netting.

Nectarines, like peaches and apricots, are all variants of plums. Their botanical name is prunus persican meaning 'Persian plum' but they are thought to have originated in China. I don't know what variety ours are other than being a 'yellow nectarine' as compared to a 'white' fleshed variety.

The mission for tomorrow when it gets cooler, is to preserve them.

17 February '02
Over the years I've used lots of Fowlers Vacola preserving kits but I don't currently own one. When I helped stone and peel fruit as a child, the boiler my mother used was a battered old gray tin one, with an external side pocket for the thermometer. When I shared a house at Hillend there was an electric one that came with the furniture, and I later bought a stainless steel one and some boxes of jars in a clearing sale (and left it behind in the barn we built, when I sold the block before moving to Sydney). I've now got a large stainless preserving pan that works just fine on top of the stove so I'm not planning to buy the boiler unit. Which is just as well as I realise now they're damn expensive.

In the pantry I had a some jars, lids and clips but no rubber rings. After asking at a few hardware stores where they looked at me blankly, and at David Jones where a nice older woman told me that someone in Tuggeranong was the stockist (they weren't), I rang Fowlers in Melbourne and asked for a local dealer. Someone else had 'the sales book' when I called, but a lady promised to ring back and yesterday afternoon I made a quick trip into Queanbeyan to the Karabar Home hardware. I picked up another eight jars of different sizes, their lids, clips and rings. At the counter, the man who obviously knew the product well, ("you'll need a pack of the size 20 for them, they're hanging just around the end of the shelf on the left') took my money, and at over $100 I wondered about the value of all this. Sure they're reusable, and the ingredients in our case are free.  But this isn't the poor people's solution anymore. Home bottling would be heaps more expensive then all the tins of fruit most families eat in a year.

So it's back to the 'luxury you can afford' argument. The food is high quality, unprocessed and more tasty than commercial product. The concern about not wasting produce is also an issue. "I've been given this fruit (even if I didn't plant the tree) and it's now my responsibility". Sharing it around friends is appreciated, but at the peak of ripeness and attractiveness, bottling seems to make most sense. Now if I could only make it look as good as the entries in the local show.

The Bungendore Village PondThis is our Village Pond. Usually it's a vacant block next to the supermarket and opposite the bottom pub,  on the corner of the Ellendon cross street. It's (usually) used as a track to cut off the corner, and there is a line on the hypotenuse that's worn down like a sheep trail on a hillside. It is the preferred route of everyone on foot or on bike. The perfectly serviceable footpath only gets used by (oh, I'm guessing here as I've never seen anyone use it), by skateboarders, wheelchairs and old folks who can't negotiate the bumps and grooves. Even mums with prams and strollers cut across the block. Usually.

When it's been really raining (and it's not every time, just that combination of heavy rain after a long dry spell) it floods into puddles. People stand at the ends of the under water track and look perplexed. Couples talk to each other, and shake their heads.  When forced to walk the footpath however, people never talk to each other and just grunt or nod as you pass. 

As the water recedes, big decisions have to be made about the timing of safe passage. Kids start to ride their bikes through it, or hop across the higher areas. Dusk becomes a particularly testing time, when the soft muddy spots are not obvious to the people who cross, usually to and from the pub. Thankfully, after a few days it dries out enough to walk, at first along the higher edges of the track, and then eventually it's safe to let your feet follow the grooved path again. We all forget about it then and get ready to be surprised the next time it floods.

There's one clue as to when the relief is coming. The frogs stop croaking. Were the frogs come from, or hibernate to between these irregular wet spells I don't know. But with the first puddles, they're there, loud and constant. Enough to draw the attention of weekend day trippers who stand along the concrete footpaths and stare into the water, never guessing the true purpose of the block. An old couple today were staring as I walked past, and I immediately assumed they were considering passage. I said something obvious like "It's a bit damp at the moment', but the woman said, "We're listening to the frogs!".  I agreed that they were great. "They're so loud' they said, 'are they always there?' I gave them the above potted history of the pond and they nodded and smiled a lot and said thank you. They then walked around the sum of the squares on the other two sides, to the store.

If you've never heard frogs in a pond, here's what our village ones sounded like today. Click for 200k Mpg audio
or download it, it's smoothest

18 February '02
I know that many people don't like beetroot, but the tinned vinegary variety was always part of what we called salads in my childhood and is still appreciated when it appears in occasional 'real' hamburgers today. Vaguely considered common, beetroot has moved to be more socially acceptable with baby beets appearing as a side vegetable in some recent restaurant dinners. 

That's how I managed to overcome Jan's expressed distaste of them, enough to plant a patch of seedlings this year. "We'll pick them small" I said. "Baby beets are lovely!"  I checked one about two weeks ago and thought it was a bit small and yesterday I pulled one up and thought 'Damn, it's too big'. I still picked the bunch in the photograph above because eldest daughter Jackie was home for dinner and as she's a non-red-meat vegetarian, we needed some more veggies on the table. I'd just dug up some fresh new potatoes and thought she'd also like the beetroot. 

When I asked, she shuddered and said no, but when I went on about 'not in vinegar but fresh, tender, lovely with butter salt and pepper, etc.', she agreed that she might try a bit of one if I cooked some. I scrubbed them and put them on to boil, then wondered what other things I'd do with the rest of the crop over the coming weeks. Given that there was some convincing required to get anyone other than me to eat them, I looked about for some recipes. Figuring that they're a common English root vegetable, I looked up Nigella Lawson's How to Eat, the Pleasures and Principles of Good Food.
Chatto & Windus

Well, she suggests eating the greens and throwing the beets away, saying "Something spooky can happen to beetroot when it's cooked (and I don't mean just the vinegar that is often added): it's as if the sweetness has a slight putrid edge".

She then waxes lyrical about Stephanie Alexander's recipe for raw grated beetroot with lemon juice and chopped herbs, eaten with yogurt. "Raw" she says, "the sugariness has a spiky-sharpness about it, which stops it from cloying, even in large quantities".

(Nigella has a nice 'line' where she recommends peeling the beetroot "wearing rubber gloves if you don't want to come over all Lady Macbeth later").

I had some trepidation about serving them to the family, but a testing sample, warm and fragrant from the pot, sliced on the chopping board with a some butter, pepper and salt, disappeared quickly. As did the bowl of them later on the table. 

And Nigella, after I photographed them, I threw the greens away.

19 February '02
Burnt pot bottomIf this diary is going to have any veracity then it has to record the failures and disasters as well as the things that went right. That beautiful image at left is the bottom of a saucepan that has now been consigned to the tip. The crusty bottom cleaned off ok, but the sides resisted all efforts to clean it. 

I felt pretty foolish when Jan came home but she knew what had happened as soon a she'd stepped through the door. Burnt fruit? Yeah.

Someone gave our daughter Jackie a big bag of pears. She said her friends had a brother in Young and they get whole trays of fruit from him, more than they can eat. As our pears are still ripening, she asked if I'd like some and I said ok. I found that they were developing rotten patches so I decided to make a batch of pear paste. I chopped out the bad bits and cut the fruit into chunks. (The centers were all brown and soft so I presumed that they'd been in storage). There was enough to fill the pot to the lid, with the steamer frame in the base. An inch or two of water was enough I figured, because I only needed to steam them for about 10 minutes. 

Well the phone rang and I had to go to my work room to send off a quick email and I forgot about the fruit. The result was pretty spectacular. Smoke, smelling of sweet burnt jam wafted down the hall and into every room. After rushing the pot outside and opening windows and doors, I couldn't resist grabbing the camera and photographing the smoke shifting around in the shafts of afternoon sun light. The movies are best, strange swirling patterns but I'll spare you the download time on those. Trust me, they look terrific.

The house still smells hours later, but now it's not so pleasant.
20 February '02
Shoot Ferals"Well officer, there I was, with my V8 Grunt and my Crow Cams just Shoot'n Ferals when this road sign jumped out of the spotlight and, well..."

With the guns wrapped in a soft case and permanently tied to the rack above the inside rear window, this is a side of the Bungendore life I don't get close to. That's emotionally. Physically it's all around me as part of this 'country life'.

For a year the house next door was rented to three single girls. All nice girls (young women), one a school teacher, the others all working in Canberra or Queanbeyan. I guess they'd all be aged in their early twenties. One kept a horse in the back of the yard and a float in the drive and went to gymkhana's. Weekdays they all left early for work at the time we did, with a synchronised scraping of frost from our windscreens. However Fridays and weekends were a pain, the cars and boyfriends would assemble in the yard and they'd all walk down to the pub. After midnight as we'd just got to sleep, the dogs in yards along the road would start barking and laughter and singing would approach. The stereo would start a few minutes later and a party fill all those silent corners up and down the whole block, for the next three or four hours.  It was better when they were inside on freezing nights and we had our windows closed, but in summer it was hell. 

I did some pleading for a volume change, stumbling in half dressed and wild eyed. The police even came around a few times (the local police station shuts about 11.00pm* and the Queanbeyan police have a twenty minutes drive to get here, so a noisy party isn't high on the agenda). I moved from reasonable, pleading, to angry and shouting but it didn't work. There is no where else to go after the pubs shut, so the girl's place was the party house. At 3 am, with lots of slamming of doors and goodbyes either one car would ferry them all home, or the various V-8s would rumble off with stereos thudding. They were just average but drunk kids, and in the light of day looked sheepish as they passed me in town. 

But that's a long intro into the story of those weekends when they'd go hunting as a group. Then the town would be silent, no dogs barking after midnight, no discarded stubbies and mixer cans along the street and although a few cars would drive past looking for the party, the lights would be out and no one home. I'd wake automatically at 12:15 and lie there wondering what was wrong. It was quiet.

After work on Friday, the utes and tray backs, now with their pyramid wire cages with canvas covers and filled with excited gun dogs, would be loaded up with tents, guns, sleeping bags and eskys. And they'd disappear until late on Sunday night when they'd unpack and head home, not so noisily.

A walk past the pub or round the streets will show that there's still a strong hunting component around here, even if the town is filling with Canberra-escaping public servants and old grumpy guys like me who just like to live in the country. The serious hunting dogs are the clue, and the For Sale signs for bull mastiff X's are always in the store windows. When I was growing up, hunting was just a part of what you did if you were male. It was what I did, until as 'late teen'-ager I developed a fear of guns and a hatred for killing things with them. 

But hey, it's ok if it's just shoot'n ferals and road signs.
(See 10th Feb.)

*We did have a great midnight high speed chase through town a few weeks ago however. We woke up to lots of sirens and a helicopter. An armed robbery in Braidwood ended with the guy and his car wrapped around the tree at the T intersection in town. The rescue helicopter flew around in circles for half an hour until someone found the key to the lighting on the oval, so it could land.
Fred Harden
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