Rohan Anderson
23 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Rohan Anderson & Kate Berry

The mornings have been rather crisp, the air is fresh and pure. Through the windows to the east, bright rays of sun sneak in a little earlier each day, waking me, taunting me to get up and do something useful. I wish I could lie in bed, listening to the warbling of magpies, the chirping of fairy wrens, but there’s always something that nags at me to be done. Something to be planted, repaired, chopped, stacked, shot, built, dispatched, preserved, harvested or cooked. You couldn’t ask for a fuller and busier life. There’s little room for idle time now – that will have to wait until the following winter. And I like it that way. There’s something new for me to discover with each passing day, and every season the same chores come and go to be replaced by some other task that demands attention. There’s no doubt in my mind that my life is now dictated by the seasons.

It’s been a cold winter that’s just passed, and I have to admit that I’ve formed a bit of a naughty habit. I do linger in bed a little longer than I should. I’m reluctant to be anywhere other than under those cosy warm blankets. Unavoidable parental duties are what usually force me up. Normally they arrive in the form of a small child jumping on me asking to be fed or clothed. These rats are so damn needy, and they appear to be getting smarter and smarter! My attempts to feign unconsciousness are often futile – I must create some new avoidance techniques. It’s a pity the children don’t feed themselves. I wish they would – though, actually, scrap that idea. If kids fed themselves we all know what shit they’d choose to eat.

Even with sleepy eyes, I sometimes enjoy the morning routine. It provides that level of consistency, which I’m sure helps maintain sanity. And don’t be fooled by appearances; as much as it may appear that I’m happy to simply go with the flow, I do in fact relish a splash of order. Chaos has always been a very dear adversary. There’s order in a cycle, and it’s at this time of year that the fresh cycle begins – and I’m referring to the many and varied facets of nature. The circle of life, The Lion King and all that. Birds are busy building nests or feeding new chicks, minuscule tadpoles wiggle in the dams, and darling little rabbits pop their heads out from dark and dusty warrens. Nature is very active.

For the sheep grazier, this time of year is all about new lambs, born in late winter through to spring. Like insects to a porch light, they come seemingly from nowhere. And like the night-time buzzers, the new lambs arrive in big numbers. The paddocks of the Central Highlands are soon filled with clumsy, leggy lambs. Often I’ll pull the car over on the way to school, so the kids and I can admire and wonder at the beauty of new life. The kids love it. I’m hoping one day for my kids to see a lamb being born from a ewe. It’s a beautiful sight to witness.

One Sunday when I was a kid, we were in the family car on the way home from town when we spotted a cow calving. Dad pulled the car over, and like a horde of gawking tourists we leaned on the fence and watched the proceedings. I remember feeling goosebumps with the beauty of it all. Maybe I got a tad teary – so what, I was a young teen, I had hormonal issues. Anyway, it’s remained a clear memory ever since. Quite momentous, you might say. I guess I didn’t realise the significance of the experience, but now as an adult, with no semblance of innocence remaining, I look back at it with ‘wiser’ eyes. The paradox of life, that it cannot exist without death, is a frustrating reality. But without a birth, that very life would not exist. So as bloodied and gross as a birth may appear, it is in fact one of the most beautiful sights on the planet. And that’s something to celebrate.

I remember a farmer once saying to me, ‘If you got livestock, you got dead stock.’ And lambing season involves a great deal of death. Death seems to sit comfortably beside life out here. Even though fresh lambs frolic in the paddocks, you’ll also see plenty of dead lambs. They may have been attacked by a fox, frozen to death or had their eyes pecked out by a raven – any which way, like newborn turtles on a sandy beach, a lot of them simply don’t make it.

After nights of extreme cold, wind and rain, the sight in the morning is something to see. Sometimes the losses are so great, there seem to be more dead lambs than live ones. The carrion-feeders, like the raven and the wedge-tailed eagle, feed greedily. I often wonder how the sheep farmers feel about this. I wonder if they get emotional about the loss or whether they simply account for it in their percentage estimates for annual production. It’s nature, I guess. We can’t really call the shots. Or can we? Don’t think I’m anti sheep farmers. I know a few. They seem like nice folk. I’m merely observing a reality of food production, something most of us don’t get to see.

I see those dead lambs on the drive to town and I wonder how many more dead lambs there are across this country. The loss must be staggering. I mean, if Australians ate 21.5 million lambs in 2012, how many more died along the way? I wonder how many lambs weren’t even lucky enough to make it to maturity. I guess it’s either die on a cold night or be killed at the abattoir, but it seems like such a senseless waste. If we manipulate nature by servicing ewes with a ram to impregnate them, then shouldn’t we take the responsibility to ensure the new life we’ve brought into the world gets to survive more than a few weeks? Something worth pondering. No wonder so many people turn vegan.

For so many years now I’ve thought that by not eating supermarket meat I’d be making a difference. I figure that if we all bought meat knowing how it was raised, where it was raised and even better if we knew who raised it, we’d all make a difference. We’d definitely reduce our food miles by buying meat raised as close to us as possible, and by knowing who raised it we’d be supporting someone who cares about the animals’ welfare. This spring I’ve tried this approach, purchasing an entire lamb from a local farmer.

After being on a self-imposed supermarket-meat ‘black ban’ for so many years, I have to admit I was fairly intimidated by all this lamb meat, not having cooked with lamb for so long. Over the years I’d been given a few lamb goodies – some sausages here, chops there, and if I was lucky a roasting cut – but this was a whole lamb! The farmer had the lamb butchered into all the standard cuts, but I reckon there were a lot more missing that I could have used. I’m not complaining, though, as I now have a freezer full of potentially delicious lamb. I’m sure a lamb-cooking fiesta will begin soon, and with gusto! There are a lot of chops from the loin, which to my mind are kind of boring on their own, so I’m going to try to make the most of the cut, not by cooking it by itself on the ‘barbie’ but by using it as an ingredient in a dish. It seems a good approach to me to eke out the meat as much as possible by adding it to other ingredients, such as beans or veg. I’m not comfortable with the idea of meat and three, where the meat is the hero. In any case, I’m simply not rich enough to purchase a lamb every few months, although I’m happy to partake in this experiment.

Cooking wild meats has got me into a rhythm of slow and low cooking. When it comes to farmed meat, I find myself drawn to the commercially less desirable cuts, as they usually demand the same cooking approach as wild meat. With a dwindling supply of my dried summer beans, I’ve come up with (totally stumbled across) the most delicious bean meal. The peasant cook has a knack of transforming humble ingredients into food so divine that it’s fit for a king.

Over the last few years I’ve fallen head over heels for the beautiful little French flageolet. It’s a white bean similar to the larger white Spanish bean or Italian cannellini. There are many varieties of the flageolet, but the one I grew last summer was simply labelled French flageolet. When I first saw these pure white beans I’d purchased, I thought little of them. It was just a new bean for me to try growing. I’d been experimenting with planting different varieties to find those best suited to our challenging climate. I planted all the white beans I had last summer, every last one. Most of them germinated, which is always a relief, and after a summer of growing, the beans appeared, plump and pretty. I dried them out in their pods, and now it was time to cook them. My normal approach to cooking with dried beans is to soak them overnight, to reintroduce moisture to them before boiling them for roughly an hour until they’ve softened. This time, however, I cooked them for quite a bit longer – a few hours on a low simmer, in fact. On their own they had a lovely creamy texture, but I discovered something that’s made a big change in my bean-cooking approach.

That evening I slow-roasted a few cuts of lamb for about six hours. The lamb was so tender, it fell off the bone when introduced to a blunt spoon, and mastication was optional. I pulled the meat off the bone, added the beans to the pot with all the roasty lamb juices, and soon entered bean and lamb heaven. The roasted lamb provided a beautiful stock, the meat was sublime and the beans were buttery. Here I had stumbled across a meal that used one of the cheapest cuts of lamb with the humblest of vegetables and they had formed a union that made a simple man very happy. The best bit? Leftovers. The following morning’s breakfast was even better than the previous night’s dinner.

Mountain gold

There’s one wild food I happily put more energy into acquiring than I get in return. It’s one of those really hard-to-find wild foods that has the ability either to make or totally ruin your day. Hours of hard graft with little produce in return can leave you pulling your hair out and crying tears of frustration. It’s elusive, it’s fussy, and it often looks like kangaroo poo. The upside is that it’s tantalisingly delicious (unlike kangaroo poo … apparently). Morels have been on my food radar for a few seasons now, thanks to a friend who was kind enough not only to introduce me to their very existence, but also to give away his foraging spot. Tim, you fool!

My life pre-morel seems bland now. I might be going a little overboard there, but you get the idea – they’re balls of bloody amazement. For such a small mushroom they offer so much flavour. Describing their flavour is a hard nail to hit, so I won’t even try. In any case, I think they’re more exciting than dirt-tasting truffles. Okay, so I’ve obviously failed ‘foodie’ school.

Last season I had a few lucky days. My basket was never overflowing, but I got enough morels to keep me marginally content knowing I had to wait another year for my next mouthful. Yes, that’s right, it’s a yearly treat. When the first break of warm weather comes in late winter to early spring, the morels wake up and sprout from the soil. They have particularly fussy requirements when it comes to soil type, aspect and temperature. You’ll only ever find them in places where the perfect combination of these elements exists. And I’m not going to tell you where that might be. You’ll have to figure that out for yourself. Luckily for me, my friend was kinder/stupider when he took me right to his special spot. He taught me what to look for and to check everything, even if it looks suspiciously like kangaroo poo. Everything must be investigated, because if it’s a morel, dinner shall be grand.

This spring I eagerly awaited the call from my morel mate. When the call came, I headed straight out, basket and sharp knife at the ready. Two visits garnered nothing but heartache. I clambered over boulders, searched through wet grass, checked anything that hinted at being a morel, but I came away empty-handed. I decided that my third trip would be my last. If I came home with no morels, then it was a sign that this year was to be devoid of these delicious fungi. On the final trip I had extra servings of enthusiasm. I felt the need to give it a red-hot go. Nature may have fooled me so far, but I was determined to work harder and have a win. It would be good for my morale ;-). I waited for the weather to turn, I waited for the telephone to ring. I couldn’t go up too early, I couldn’t venture out on a whim. I had to wait for confirmation from my mushroom man. When the message came through, my inner voice gave a prepubescent squeal of excitement. My outside appearance, however, was as cool as a cucumber: ‘Like, whatever, man … If I find some, rad … if not … whatever.’ I set aside the good part of an entire day. I wanted to make this trip count, so I needed to allow as much search time as possible. I packed a few provisions and headed to the spot where my friend had plucked a basket of beauties just a day earlier.

Out in the bush alone is one of my favourite places to be. There’s no one talking at me and no one expecting me to talk, just the sounds of the bush and whatever adventure I’m on. I find such peace in the bush. Everything around me seems so much more important. Everything out here is very real. When I’m looking for wild food or hunting, my senses are on high alert. It’s nothing at all like walking the aisles of a supermarket – like I said, this is the real thing out here. Thankfully, this time of year is pretty clear with regard to snakes. I think most of them are still curled up in bed, waiting for the real hot weather to turn up. I don’t blame them. This final day of searching was a typical spring day – morning drizzle, then warm sun followed by sun showers and more sun. No wonder plants grow with vigour at this time of year – the conditions are ideal.

I’d spent a while walking aimlessly around before I stumbled upon the first little beauty. Sitting in a valley among the lush grass, in a bed of clover and soursop, was a cluster of morels. I lay on the ground with my eyes as low to the earth as possible so I could spot any others, and this approach paid dividends. I found a few more on the outskirts of the cluster and added them to my basket. Not much of a feed so far, but what a start! My heart was racing with excitement. How can this wild-food thing be so powerful? Why does it affect me so much? Does this happen to other people? Is this the way we’re supposed to live?

It’s interesting how excited I can get when I see food I haven’t set eyes on for more than year. I was never like this at the supermarket. I guess it was because I’d become accustomed to getting whatever food I wanted, whenever I wanted it. Maybe it was too easy and thus I didn’t appreciate that kind of food. But this wild stuff gets me hyper-excited.

There in my basket sat a once-a-year treat. Food that has had no human intervention – that is, until the moment my sharp blade slices their base, and my fingers gently place the treasured fungi in my basket for safekeeping. What joy these funny little things can bring a man, and how they’ve made me think and reassess the way I view different foods. But I needed to put my thinking aside, for surely there were more fungi-filled valleys and gullies to explore, more patches of wet grass to investigate, more morels to lay in my almost-bare basket. I spent the next few hours following every lead, picking more morels and considering all my options for the evening meal.

After much lone-man-on-a-hillside conversation with myself, I decided to cook the morels with as little interference as possible. Why manipulate those unique flavours when I could just appreciate them for what they offered? In early autumn I do a similar thing with pine mushrooms: I cook them just with butter, olive juice and sage. Minimal effort, maximum return. Wild food has so much to offer.

It often amazes me that people are literally afraid (yes, literally, not figuratively) of eating something taken from the wild, such as a mushroom, yet have absolutely zero fear of eating highly processed foods loaded with sulfites, high in sodium, and often treated with pesticides and herbicides. How did we get to this point, where the way we view food is skewed towards accepting fake food that’s been manipulated and is likely no good for our health?

I often find myself having to convince people that it’s safe to eat meat from a wild animal, chomp on a weed or devour a wild mushroom. I’ve had people refuse this food. It’s that individual’s choice to do so, but the irony is frustrating at times. I’ve even had the odd person turn their nose up at vegetables pulled straight from the garden covered in dirt. Have we become too sanitised? The most interesting situation is when someone who eats a great deal of meat turns down my offer to teach them how to kill an animal (with disgust, I might add). It’s a paradox for us to consider. Maybe it’s human nature to prefer a world where we remain in the dark about where our food comes from and the processes involved in its production.

Is it important that we should be prepared to deal with dirt-covered vegetables? To contend with blood and guts in order to eat meat? Or is the system we have in place – of not needing or wanting to know about the reality of food processes and origins – totally acceptable? Will it make a difference to humanity if the Western world embraces what most developing countries see as totally normal? Or do we simply continue to eat what’s provided to us in the aisles of our local supermarket, and remain blind to the realities of how our food is produced? Maybe I should just eat the damn mushrooms and stop thinking.

Cold comfort

A few days of warm weather in spring and I slide into feverish pottering mode in the veggie patch. Each year it happens, almost on cue. The clouds part, some warm sun visits my epidermal layer, and I get rather excited by the slight hint that the summer and its growing season might just be upon us. It’s the potential for fresh, delicious, home-grown food that gives me spring fever. Once it’s firmly set in, I get to work weeding beds, sowing crops and planting seedlings. I check the watering system is up to scratch and I dig over beds that have rested over winter.

But I’m fooled. I’m a gullible gardener. Invariably, that warm spell doesn’t hang around for long – it’s pushed back a few weeks, maybe another month. It’s those frigid winds that do it every time. They make their way to our hill, freezing everything in their path. I’m sure they come all the way from the iced continent Antarctica. I’m quickly reminded that spring hasn’t yet fully arrived. The weather is merely toying with us, like a cat with a ball of hipster string.

It’s no time to complain, though. Instead, it can be viewed as the firecracker up the proverbial I often need to get the place in order. It pays big dividends to be prepared for the coming season. If I don’t get the plants in the ground at the right moment, many crops just won’t have enough growing time over the summer and I’ll get a poor yield. It’s like a plane landing on a shortened strip.

Winter is harsh here, and the garden gets minimal love over the cold months. Not much grows, so I find myself hunting more than gardening at this time of year. It actually makes a lot of sense to hunt in winter. The wild animals have fed well from summer to autumn and are at their peak, and mixing hunted animals with winter veg makes for some pretty hearty meals.

So even though early spring has fooled me once again, I’ll take this opportunity to sneak in a few more heart-warming meals before the kitchen becomes dominated by the salads and vegetables of summer. One tool in the kitchen gets some heavy use at this time of year – ‘Big Blue’, my cast-iron Chasseur pot. People often talk about what’s essential in a kitchen, and for me this guy is a no-brainer. It sure cost me a pretty penny, but it’s dished out plenty of hearty meals in return. Dished out. Get it?

What value do you put on items that are well built, reliable, practical and last you a lifetime? They’re priceless, right? Few things in our lives fill these boots. Most mechanical gadgets eventually break down. Most ‘state of the art’ implements fade, wear and give up the ghost. But cast iron lasts. I treat Big Blue with respect. I use wood to stir his contents; I soak and wash him clean after use. He’s something one of my daughters will get use from, long after I’m gone. He’s a provider of memories. A creator of joy. A curator of pleasure.

The meals I’ve slow-cooked over the years have brought smiles of joy and groans of contentment to those who sit at my table. It’s drastically different from my old days of opening up packets of frozen processed meat, placing it on a baking tray and cooking it as directed on the back of the cardboard packet. Slow-cooked meals with Big Blue are a far cry from those pre-cooked TV-dinner-type meals. I had no idea what was in that ‘food’ and I didn’t care. I just wanted my belly filled. The contrast often amazes me. How can I have turned my back on this easy-to-prepare/reheat food? It said clearly on the packet that it was a ‘healthy choice’. That alone should have been enough to convince me, yes? I mean, the packaging doesn’t lie, right? Instead it plainly states the facts. What the hell was wrong with me? Why did I consume such garbage? Here’s the honest truth: I knew it wasn’t right. I knew that highly processed food wasn’t rad. I knew it was loaded with shit. I ate it because I was lazy. I didn’t care about my health. I guess I thought it was the best option for me at the time.

It was simply a mindset. It took a great deal of thinking to persuade me to make changes. I actually had to convince myself that it wasn’t good for me. Thankfully for my health, a few events, a few reality-check moments opened my eyes to the realities of food. In my previous life, I used to walk the supermarket aisles impressed with the choice of ‘food’. Now I walk the aisles and view only a small percentage of the ‘food’ on offer as real food.

Imagine showing someone from the 1940s one of those ‘on the run’ breakfast meals – you know, those thick drinks in a small cask with a little feed straw to suck the contents out? It’s like astronaut food, but we’re not astronauts. What would these people from seventy-five years ago think of our modern food? How would they react to instant microwave risotto? Scrambled eggs in a carton? Instant noodles with sachet flavour? They’d probably be impressed with the convenience, but I wonder if they’d view it as real food.

Convenience is a killer. It’s the best excuse we use. I know, because I used it as an excuse for many years. Anything that would make my life easier. I’d use gravy powder to make gravy. I’d use a premixed stewing powder to flavour a casserole. I’d use a pre-made marinade mix to coat meat before barbecuing it. Can you believe I had no idea what was in any of these packets of flavouring? Yet I used them without a thought. How can we do this to ourselves? How can we eat food when we don’t even know what’s in it? There’s a simple answer – a combination of laziness, clever marketing and deceptive packaging.

Marketers and advertisers take advantage of the fact that we live ‘busy lives’. They market products to us that ‘save us time’, products that are supposed to make our lives easier, more convenient. But there’s always a price to pay for this alluring convenience. What we consume affects our health, and that’s not new information. Marry that with our stressful (often unfulfilling) lifestyle, and you get unhealthy, unhappy people. Take me as an example. My busy existence meant I ate busy-person food. That food, highly processed and loaded with rubbish, compounded with a high-stress lifestyle, resulted in very poor health. It gave me off-the-scale high blood pressure, I was carrying too much weight and I had high cholesterol. I suffered from debilitating anxiety and exhausting depression. If I’d continued, I would, as my GP warned me, have finished up just another statistic, beaten by the preventable health problems of the modern Westerner. That was enough for me to take stock, look at how I was living, what I was eating, and decide that I needed to make changes. Hell yes, it made me change!

Not only is our personal health important, but the health of our natural world should be high on our list of priorities. The energy required to make these processed ‘food’ products has a very clear detrimental effect on our environment. Broadacre farming takes from the earth more than it returns. Much of the food that feeds the Western world relies on chemical treatment, either in the paddock or in the processing factory. These chemicals require loads of natural resources to be produced, and let’s not forget the damage they do as residuals in waterways and soils, and as drift. The packaging of said food requires a massive amount of resources to produce, and inevitably ends up as trash and landfill. It’s one hell of a problem to consider. It’s unfortunate that this modern dilemma is in no way communicated to us in the aisles or at the checkout. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just a shit situation. But the most frustrating reality is that even after all this effort to make food to feed the world, most of it ends up being thrown out. Work a week at the back end of a supermarket or at a restaurant and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Imagine for a minute that we cut a lot of this type of food out of our system. Imagine a cultural shift where people made a concerted effort to source as much of their food as locally as possible. Imagine if more of us supported organic producers. Imagine if we returned to mostly cooking with wholefood ingredients. Imagine if we all cooked instead of reheated. Imagine. Would it have any impact? Would fewer resources be squandered if we all made that fundamental shift in how we acquire food? Would we as a Western population reduce our chances of preventable diseases? I reckon so.

The way I cook now is really basic and honest cooking. It’s about using real ingredients. I start everything from scratch. Now this doesn’t make me better than anyone else, I’m just telling you how it is. The result of this approach is worth the effort involved, which really is minimal in the scheme of things. The amount of time I’d save by using pre-made food is absolutely negligible, especially when compared to the benefits. To make a slow-cooked stew is now a real joy. I start off making a base of vegetables plucked from the patch. Typically, I then braise the meat. Next I add the liquid, then set the heat to low and let it run its course. The result is food that’s full of flavour, unique in taste and texture every time. And it makes life more interesting. It’s lighter on the environment, and nutritionally speaking it’s packed with real-food goodness. This is an ‘old-world’ approach to cooking. It’s what we as humans have been doing for thousands of years. It’s just unfortunate that in the last seventy-five years or so, this way of living has slipped from our grasp. I intend to hold onto it. Tightly.

Putting my old-world view of cooking into action, I once again pulled out Big Blue, my oven pot. I still had plenty of lamb. So many barbecued chops to get through, and a lamb neck. What the hell was I to do with a lamb neck? I ended up making a slow-cooked lamb madras. Sometimes I wish this cold weather would stick around forever.

Big pig

Each year I see those trashy magazines with headlines like ‘10 steps for a bikini body’ or ‘Get hot for summer now’. These articles are immensely irritating – in fact, they’re downright offensive to common sense and reality. Magazines present a body image that’s unachievable for most of us (which makes us feel like crap), and every human body is different. We can’t all look as hot as the people in the magazines; they fit criteria of physical features that just aren’t present in the entire human population. The real whale of a problem I have is the knowledge that I’ll never have a bikini body. It’s devastating.

It’s this time of year, in spring, that I realise that I’ve had a few too many evening stews accompanied by too many glasses of vino. My bikini body seems months away! I do, however, think it’s perfectly natural to eat stodgier meals during winter – it suits the season. In late spring, summer and through to autumn we tend to be more active, and the food that’s in season during the warmer weather allows us to favour lighter meals, such as salads, grilled veg and fish. So for now, while the cool season lingers, I’ll enjoy this stodgy grub while I can. The truth is that I have limited vegetables at hand. I do, however, have a great deal of meat, which is contrary to the norm for me. Not only is there lamb in my freezer (for which I’m very grateful), but there’ll soon be pork, too.

I gave up buying pork from the supermarket when I learned of the shitty conditions in which the sows are housed to raise their young. They’re often in large, overcrowded commercial pig farms that are really just massive sheds with caged pigs inside. It’s amazing how we humans can be so brutal to animals. It’s all driven by the lure of a cheap buck.

When you understand that there are pigs in small cages and they never see the light of day and never get proper exercise, it’s likely to influence how you view the ‘end product’. Robotic piglet producers don’t make pork very appealing. It’s like eating huge amounts of guilt and sorrow. It’s not appetising in any way.

But when I see pigs out in the paddocks, happy being pigs, rolling in mud, making little piggy grunts, well that kinda makes sense to me. I black-banned supermarket pork because I couldn’t be assured of its origins, so I’ve been sourcing pork from a handful of good farmers who do it right. They farm pigs free-range and keep the farm organic. They normally sell their produce at farmers’ markets or via those great grassroots email newsletters, along the lines of, ‘Guys, we’ve butchered some pigs … place an order.’ That is until now. This year things stepped up a notch with my pork supplies. Some lovely lady offered us a pair of two-year-old sows. They’d started off as her parents’ pets, but like all pigs they’d grown into megatronic-sized livestock, and to be honest I think her mum and dad were sick of feeding the hungry girls! I should inform you that I’d never actually handled a live pig. I’d never raised pigs and never intended to raise pigs. It’s just that when someone presents me with an amazing opportunity like this, I simply can’t pass it up. The idea of a freezer full of pork seemed like a wish granted from a Lady Gaga–style bacon-clad genie. It would surely cover the current shortfall of veg supply in my newly established veg garden. The only deal was that I had to pick the pigs up, and then I had to find a place to house them. And eventually, I’d need to organise the mobile butcher to kill them and break the animals down. Sounds easy enough, right?

I’ve always been fond of the idea of having a menagerie of farm animals. I guess growing up on a farm has something to do with it. After many years living in a city, I’d lost my connection with animals. They just never appeared on the train to work, in the office and especially not at the supermarket. Animals, in particular farm animals – the ones you can get up close to, smell, touch and hear – are the closest most of us get to experiencing living nature. If you’re a meat eater, the reality is that animals are your living future food, food that’s alive, food that we raise in order to fill our bodies with protein. For thousands of years, raising animals for food seemed to occur relatively ethically. Animals were permitted to be animals, roaming paddocks, scratching in the soil, generally being what they’re supposed to be. Then we outgrew the Old World, invaded the New World, plundered and grew until our population was such that we had to invent horrible ways to mass-produce meat, leading to a system that now treats animals like – hmmm, let’s say, animals. You know what I mean, right?

But why care about how animals are treated? They’re just animals and we’re going to kill them anyway! What’s the difference between eating an intensively farmed animal and a wild animal? They both end up dead, don’t they?

Consider that wild animals are introduced to this world by nature, whereas farmed animals are introduced to this world by our arrangement. We force it. We force and manipulate nature to our advantage. And forcing nature, twisting its outcomes to our advantage, comes with a responsibility. We arranged for that newborn piglet, chick, duckling and calf to come into the world, so it’s our responsibility to take good care of it, to provide it with a good life. It sure is food for thought.

Let’s consider, for example, the methods used to mass-produce pork. Most of it (like chicken) is done behind closed doors, in large tin sheds. The smell is ridiculous, similar to a three-day camping trip sans shower. The animals are kept in cramped cages. They’re so physically restricted they get little or no exercise. They’re fed types of food that encourage speedy growth and the production of plenty of saleable meat. It’s nothing like how a pig is supposed to live. And once again, because there are so many of us, all wanting meat, the process is accepted. It’s definitely not publicised in the mainstream media.

Imagine an advert for Christmas hams that graphically showed the living conditions in which the pigs were housed. No one would buy them! Instead, as for most things in the Western world, we’re lied to purely because that’s what makes things sell. Instead of the reality, a perfectly sliced Christmas ham is pictured on the advertising billboard, with a few added seasonal accompaniments to make the setting look totally appealing and desirable. The reality, though, is pig shit, stench, antibiotic injections, robotic butchering and short lives to promote tender meat. Would you buy that Christmas ham?

This gift of these two plump pigs was a real coup. I wasn’t prepared for it – in fact, I’d only just been on the telephone to our closest free-range pig farmer to order half a pig for the coming year’s pork supply. We ended up housing the pigs at a nearby farm, where they had a better set-up. We made an agreement to give them one of the pigs in return for housing. Keeping pigs turns out to be very enjoyable. The pigs make sweet grunting noises and they’re a constant source of entertainment with their antics. They’re intelligent animals, which makes them easy enough to fence in. Since they were piglets, these girls had been housed with one line of fluorescently coloured electric fencing line. Even though they were now big girls housed in a well-built cattle race, it was the fluorescent battery-powered electric line that kept them in order. They ate anything and everything. We sourced bags of juicing carrots, offcuts from the fruit and veg shop, and supplementary grain from the livestock feed store. After just one week they’d dug up, turned and eaten whatever vegetation was in the lot, giving me the idea of using them in future to dig over new garden beds while fertilising them with their poo. They had plenty of space to roll in, lounge on, and generally snout about in. They were as happy as pigs in shit.

Much as I considered them handy in the garden, the truth is that I’d accepted them as future food. I was eager to learn the process from beginning to end. I could have taken them to an abattoir, but I would have dropped them off and then picked them up all butchered and bagged, having learned nothing of the process. My other option was to use a mobile butcher, alongside whom I could work and pick up some new skills. I called the mobile butcher and spent a good half-hour explaining what I wanted done with the pigs. I planned to use as much of the offal as I could – I guess the ‘nose to tail’ approach sits well with me, as I don’t have as much money as I once did, so everything now has added value. I especially wanted the skin for crackling, but I also wanted to use the head to make pâté de tête, the trotters for a Spanish tapas dish, the ears for the dog – I wanted it all. There was so much value in this pig; the potential for future food for my family was immense. When the time came for the butcher to perform his craft, unfortunately for me I was double-booked, so I missed the big day.

It was a pity I missed it, not only because I wanted to learn the method of processing such a large animal, but also because it didn’t get done the way I wanted it to. It’s not normal for a pig in Australia to be used to the nth degree. Offal isn’t used much these days – well, not for human consumption anyway. I’m sure most of it ends up as pet food. Due to the large size of the pig, the mobile butcher decided it would be easier to skin it, which meant no skin, no crackling! Nooooo! And no skin meant no moisture-sealing skin for my jamon. Instead, the skin, insides and head were left in the paddock for a day or so, and by the time I arrived for the butchery day the offal was covered in flies. It weighed a ton, and maggots had already appeared, but I had no choice but to lift it into the skip. To rub salt into the wound, the stench was just plain nasty. It was the waste that frustrated me most. I’d organised to kill this animal; I wanted to make the best use of it. I felt guilty.

I did, however, have a whole carcass of pork that needed to be broken down. On butchery day we moved the quartered pig from the mobile coolroom to the cutting room, where the butcher and I set to work. He was a nice bloke, this butcher, and I wasn’t angry with him for the mixup. I guessed he wouldn’t be asked very often to keep the offal. And given it was a month since I’d explained what I wanted done, it was my responsibility to remind him closer to the date. These things happen. I’d learned a valuable lesson – next time things would be different.

But for now he and I had an hour’s butchery to perform. We set out his mobile saw, workbench and bagging table. We lifted the heavy, fat-laden pig onto the bench, one quarter at a time. Sliced, trimmed and bagged. Each cut he’d tell me if it was suited to stewing, roasting or frying. We filled a huge tub with the trimmed fat and meat to make sausages. We cut out the loin and belly for me to make green bacon and pancetta. The bags of meat kept piling up. I felt like I had money in the bank – we’d be set for pork for at least half a year! My freezer would be overflowing. In fact, I started to think it might not all fit in there!

That time I delivered hundreds of green babies

When the green peas and broad beans appear it’s the garden’s way of hollering, ‘Spring is here!’ They’re two mega-easy garden gems that most people like to eat. Well, broad beans can be tricky for some people, but I’ve managed to convert a few by cooking broadies in a ‘palatable’ manner.

For me, green peas were in the same castaway raft as pears – for years they existed adrift in the ocean of ‘clean food’ I didn’t like. In an effort to expand my fruit intake (in my previous life), I often tried pears from the supermarket, and every time I’d spit them out in disgust. My pea memories aren’t much better. My nan overcooked tinned peas and they came out bland and tasteless. My ex-mother-in-law used to laugh at me when I’d separate the more palatable corn kernels from the peas when she served me one of those frozen pea–corn combos. It wasn’t until I tasted real green peas from a friend’s garden that I had one of those moments of exciting pop-in-the-mouth freshness that got me hooked! Broad beans soon followed suit. It’s all down to freshness and realness. If only we could all access such real food! Well, if you have a bit of soil, some sunlight and water, you’re one of the privileged few who can. You just have to grow it yourself. But don’t panic, bugger all effort is required. Trust me.

Sometime in winter I’ll dig the soil over with a long-handled shovel. The soil is normally moist, and chock-full of wriggling worms. If the soil was used pretty intensively over the previous summer, I’ll replace some of the goodness with manure or compost. You see, with nature, it’s important to remember that if we take we should also return. So in goes some seasoned manure, usually sheep, cow or chicken. If I don’t have a cache of manure, I’ll shandy in some well-seasoned compost and, as a final option, I’ll use an organic mix of ‘rock dust’, which will boost some of the mineral levels in the soil for the next crop. A little rake-over to flatten out the soil and it’s ready to plant the peas and beans. I’ll then make some rows using the end of the rake, a stick or my hand – it doesn’t really matter what you use, as long as a little trench has been formed. I’ll drop the seeds in, spacing them well to allow for future growth, then I’ll fold the soil over the seeds. It’s that simple. The rest of my effort goes into waiting and seeing what happens.

In a week or so the seeds germinate and it’s like delivering a new baby. These little plants are beautiful living organisms that you’ve assisted in having their turn at life. When a few little leaves stretch out from the soil, there’s nothing more exciting – well, there was losing my virginity, but let’s just say it’s a rewarding and exciting moment. Especially the first time. Neat(ish) rows of tiny green shoots, they’re my babies! As the season progresses, I check on the baby greens, often like a fussing helicopter parent. Every little bit of growth is exciting to observe. Even better is the knowledge that eventually they’ll flower, and when pollination occurs those flowers will turn into pods that will burst with springtime freshness!

Raising a crop of either of these two beauties is a great introduction to growing your own food. Being able to observe the process from seed in the soil all the way to harvest time is so rewarding, and will no doubt encourage anyone to do it again year after year. That’s what happened to me, and I’m addicted. This spring is no exception. Again I’ve watched the plants from the beginning. I got excited when they germinated and formed those sweet green rows of promise. I kept an eye on them as they advanced into tall, healthy bean bushes and climbing pea plants. Finally, the flowers appeared, pretty as any ornamental flower. The pods arrived and, like every other year, I found myself enjoying fresh raw beans and peas straight from the garden! It’s the taste of spring, exploding in your mouth. This is how food is supposed to be, megafresh, simply grown in soil. No additives, no preservatives, no pesticides, nothing but real. It amazes me that I even find myself writing this. It’s so illogical to add all those nasties to our crops and our food when for centuries the human race has survived so prolifically with the very basic process of growing food naturally. There seems to be a fear now that we as a civilisation cannot survive without the interference in our food that we’ve become so comfortably used to. But growing these little beauties is the way for me. It may not be everyone’s medicine, but I’ll take a serve, thanks. It’s a pretty easy process, and the practical outcome is fresh real food – and plenty of it!

Now, what to do with all this produce? There are plenty of options for both green gems, and the best part is that even if you have more produce than you can eat in season, both the beans and the peas can be frozen for future food. I’ve found peas freeze well plucked straight from the pod but broad beans are better blanched first to retain that unique flavour and soft texture.

Black fingernails

After many months of relatively lame garden activity, it’s great to see some action in the patch once again. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cool spring; the thought alone that the garden will once again be active is good enough for me. The shift in the season can defrost the human spirit. Even though mornings and evenings are still cool and the fire remains stoked, the odd balmy spring day can really lift your spirits. Never in my life have I cared more about the weather than when I’ve been a grower of food. I check rainfall measurements, I keep an eye on forecasts and any mention of oncoming frosts, and I lament the insanity of the wind on our hill.

In my experience, the more I connect with nature (by working with her in such activities as growing food), the more I feel rightly human. It makes sense to work with nature, to be aware of her quirks. It’s not so much about forcing yourself to understand her completely as it is a matter of simply getting to know her better. She’s a fickle beast, one that I’m sure still has some surprises in store for us yet.

The slight change in weather is a call to arms. Sure, there’s some food in the veg patch, but truth be told, it offers anything but great diversity. The future is bright, though. In a few months’ time we’ll be grilling zucchini and eggplants, tossing fresh tomatoes and basil and munching on raw corn. Summer, the most critically important season in the calendar, is upon us. The earlier I can prepare for it the better, so I can grow as much food as possible. It’s that food I’ll store away just as a squirrel does. The cold season we’ve just endured was full of food I grew the previous summer. Year in, year out, the cycle repeats, just like a broken hipster record.

I bring the seeds I saved the previous year out from the dusty seed case. I select from my cache of hardened DNA-delivery casings (i.e. seeds) and I list everything I wish to grow. It usually happens over a cuppa or an evening wine. Kate and I talk about what we loved last year, the species and the varieties we ate the most of. We reminisce about that beautiful variety of tomato we discovered last summer, or groan about the fact that we planted too much of a food we didn’t appreciate so much. The discussion is really a way for us to brainstorm for our future food – it’s like a shopping list for the future, minus a DeLorean and a white lab coat.

With a list in hand (usually scribbled on whatever paper is around, dotted with coffee stains or wine rings), I head to the shed to rummage through my seed collection. I believe my seed box to be as good as a bank. In fact, if the world as we know it collapsed in some apocalyptic event, my box of seeds would carry more value than paper money. But even now, before the zombie alien attack, those seeds, if only just in my eyes, are valuable to no end.

Florets aplenty

There’s a hint of blue in the garden. Well, I really should get that checked – it could be a shade of green. Yep, it’s green. But let’s say it’s a bluey green (I’m colourblind). At the height of spring my garden is full of green, notably the supply of broad beans and peas. If it weren’t for the rainbow chard mixing things up a bit, the place would appear to be a monoculture. There is, however, a little row of broccoli, which to me looks blue. Whatever! A lot of men are colourblind!

Visual disabilities (enhancements) aside, I need to tell you how much I love broccoli. I’ve not always liked the stuff. In fact, I used to go out of my way not to eat it. In my previous life I’d set it aside on my plate and just focus on eating the other more palatable bits of the meal.

What was wrong with me? Broccoli is delicious, right? Well, as for most other whole foods, I’d been jibbed for years. That broccoli that I didn’t like all those years ago was commercially grown broccoli. And as for most things I eat now that I hated eating in my past, I owe my change of heart to freshness. This time of year, broccoli is the master of spring freshness. If I grow a sprouting variety I tend to break off mini florets in the garden and eat them raw. What the fuck has happened to me? Raw broccoli? Enjoyable? Yes, and I’m deadly serious.

Even better, though, is celebrating the fresh feeling of spring by cooking with broccoli. After a few hard months in winter, where a lack of freshness can drive a man mad, it’s a refreshing change to have that crunch of a broccoli for dinner. I’ve found a heap of different ways to play with it, too. Not in an awkward fetishistic kind of way, but just in the kitchen. Fully clothed.

With almost every vegetable ingredient, I’ve tried to make a pasta dish, and broccoli did not escape this brilliant approach. A simple pasta with broccoli, egg and cheese, and I’m in brassica heaven. When I tuck into this food I cannot understand for the life of me why I ate bad food for so many years. Did I get struck by lightning like John Travolta in Phenomenon and suddenly have some sort of awakening? In a way, I guess, but who cares? Here’s proof that real food can triumph over rubbish. Isn’t that enough in itself to be worthy of celebrating?

Tunnel of love

Spring leads to summer, and the peak growing season ends in autumn. It’s a beautiful cycle, one into which I’ve been happily dragged. I think I should get these three seasons tattooed on me one day. The thing is, though, that as the growing season ramps up in spring, it’s not only what I can grow in that season that’s important – it’s more important for me to make sure that the summer and autumn growing seasons are totally prepared for. When I grew my vegetables in a city backyard I had the benefit of the city’s thermal mass. An array of buildings, roads and concrete all helped keep the nasty weather away. The buildings blocked the cold wind, the brick houses and roads harnessed the sun’s rays, warming the soil and keeping away the hard frosts, and the drainage systems kept the yard from becoming waterlogged. When I moved further out to the land, I revisited the challenges my parents would have faced when they were growing vegetables back on the farm. The wind off the hill where I have my patch can be like an iceberg. The rain can collect and make drainage challenging, especially for those plants that aren’t keen on having wet feet.

A friend of mine, Jack, had built a few small poly tunnels using a technique of interlinking PVC conduit. The results he was getting were unbelievable. He was totally putting my garden to shame. Now it’s not a competition, but if it were I was definitely the sore loser. Every time he dropped over, he’d offer me excess produce from his overabundant poly-tunnel supply and I’d cringe in failure. I felt like a fake at times. Why couldn’t I get my veg to grow as fast, as furious (could be a movie in that)? It was all due to that controlled environment his poly tunnel offered. These small structures have an amazing ability to harness any sunlight, even on a dull day in winter, especially if they’re built as airtight as possible. So after receiving yet another batch of poly-tunnel broccoli I decided to construct my own. I really had no idea what I was in for, and for a long time I’d been fighting the idea of a large blanket of plastic camping in my backyard. But the proof was there for me. It came in the form of fresh delicious vegetables from my mate Jack.

After a few visits to look over the original structures, I drew up plans for my own love tunnel. It was to be larger, grander and more opulent than Jack’s. No, just kidding! Just bigger. Instead of having two small tunnels I decided to make one large one (much to Jack’s disgust). He was genuinely concerned that I was pushing the friendship with regard to the ‘structural integrity’ of my planned tunnel. Its footprint was around 4 by 8 metres, almost double the size of the original and proven formula. But you know, I can’t just do the same thing. Life isn’t a blueprint we must all follow. I incorporated some extra support with concreted-in masts and hardwood ends, also concreted deep within the soil of my garden. With my plans in mind I started to scavenge the local tip and bonfire piles for the wood I needed. Over a few weeks of being as opportunistic as buggery, I had the timber I needed and started to construct the lower frame. In the back of my mind, doubt suddenly grew about my plans for a larger construction. I could just see the whole damn thing blowing off in the wind, flapping away like a superhero’s cape. Unfortunately for me I’m stubborn as a mule, so I persevered with the frame construction … nervously.

The next stage of the build was cutting, slicing and setting in the PVC conduit. The PVC frame was a fairly simple concept: loops would be supported by a cross member, which would slide into a larger PVC pole via a hole cut using a hole-saw drill bit – a clever way of using the thicker conduit to support the thinner. With all the materials now sourced for stage two, I started the drilling, cutting and joining. Before long, there in front of me was the framework of the tunnel. A tear welled up in the corner of my eye, probably from PVC dust. Even though the end product was still a long way off, there I was, looking at something I’d been too intimidated to build for ages. But I’d done it by myself. The reward was visual and a little overwhelming.

The next stage required me to make framed walls at either end of the tunnel. One end would have a swinging door and the other would have two windows to allow the hot air to escape. I’m not much of a builder – I’m more comfortable playing in dirt, hunting or fishing – but this job wasn’t going to do itself, and I sure as hell didn’t have the finances to employ someone to make it for me. So to work I went. My first job was to pull out all the nails, hinges and whatnot from the timber I’d scavenged. I figured it made sense to use this second-hand timber for a few reasons, the most obvious being that I’d be saving a few extra trees from being cut down. It was probably a romantic notion but it made sense at the time. Secondly, my budget really only covered the PVC, the plastic and the fittings. So it was off with the nails and into a bucket they landed. Must have been thousands of the bastards! I’d already worked a few days on removing metal from the timber I used on the framework so my bucket of used nails was getting rather heavy.

Setting up the end frames was relatively simple. Two large pieces of structural hardwood were cemented into deep holes and allowed to set; this formed the door or window frame. The rest of the frame was an upright fastened to the lower frame, holding a cross member to the doorframe, all held together with screws and taking a lot less time to construct than I initially thought. At the other end I copied the design, but added two square wooden frames, hinged to cross members hanging on the frame – a super-simple approach, but effective. I hung the door, which I’d bought from a house-wrecker for the measly sum of $5. My frame and walled ends were now complete. More bloody tears ensued.

It took a few weeks before Jack and I were both free and we could roll the plastic over the framework. One night after he finished work, he and his wife, Al, joined Kate and me, and over the frame the plastic went. We stapled it to the timber frame, nice and tight. The only remaining task was for me to cover the door and windows with the remaining plastic. And there she stood. My very own poly tunnel of love. I’d put so much love into its construction, and she would return the love with oodles of produce. Not a bad relationship, I reckon. Over the next few months I planted more and more inside her, until there was no room remaining. This poly tunnel was now ready for summer.

Very little effort required

I have this inbuilt calendar that tells me it’s time to check for a specific food that should be in season. Foraging is such a buzz phrase. You see it on menus at hip restaurants and I hear it’s even entered the foodie TV world. Funny, because the whole point of foraging (where it has its roots, so to speak) is based around the necessity of feeding one’s family. Nature’s supermarket. It’s also been a staple food source for many poverty-stricken communities over the ages, and somehow from that it’s become embedded in numerous cultures across the globe. One of the most recent cultures to embrace foraging is that of the middle-class restaurant-goer. Which is ace, because they’re eating food that’s wild, food that’s much better than over-processed rubbish. So let’s take the good with the bad.

For me, foraging is a little more real than a sampled dish at a three-hatted restaurant. It makes up a good section of my food supply, and I particularly love it because I don’t have to work hard for its production. I till no soil. I water no garden. I graft no branches. All I do is take. Nature does the rest. Now to me that makes very real sense. Nature does all the hard work? You’re kidding me, right? That’s too easy!

Nearing the end of winter, I keep my eyes closely fixed on the bare branches of the elder trees that grow on roadsides and in the bush near home. By early spring the buds have arrived and the leaves pop out a rich green. Soon after, the flowers develop and the white petals eventually come out on display. This is when I get excited. It’s those aromatic flowers that are the key ingredient to the most refreshing cordial I’ve ever drunk – elderflower cordial.

Years ago, ‘Hatto’, a good-looking furniture-making friend of mine, got me addicted to elderflower cordial for life. He gave me a bottle of his freshly made cordial and that bottle made many beautiful summer drinks (mostly with added vodka). Unfortunately, it soon ran out and I begged for another, which with some clever trading (on his side) garnered me one further bottle. But then it was gone. The elder trees had long finished flowering that spring, so I had to wait until the following year to make my own. Hatto was reluctant to give me the exact recipe for his cordial, so I researched my own. It all seemed so basic. All that’s required is to steep the flower heads in a broth of water, sugar, citric acid and fresh lemons. Simple, right? All the recipes had slight variations, so I figured it would be easy enough to make up my own. No harm trying. It’s not like I’m going to walk into a supermarket and buy elderflower cordial. Now I just had to wait that damn year until they flowered again.

Fast-forward to now! The trees on the country roadside were finally in flower. We’d also scoped out some elder trees in friends’ backyards – often they had no idea what we were on about with this flower cordial, so we promised them a few bottles in return for our haul of their flowers. For one day we picked like mad. It was a beautiful crisp spring morning, the blue sky dotted with soft pretty clouds. We spent the day up ladders, clambering on fences and hanging from branches. By the end of the day we had bags of flower heads. The smell was from the old world. It’s an aroma that reminds me of tea-cosies and grandmas.

I set up the large pot on the flame of a gas burner. This is the same large pot I use to boil the tomatoes for making passata (puréed tomatoes) – trust me, I washed it. The pot is massive, so large we could fit the entire haul of flower heads and the remaining ingredients inside for steeping. Once the water was almost boiling, we turned off the heat, covered it and left it for two days to steep. Into clean bottles it went, which was probably the stickiest task I’ve ever undertaken! But the sweet smell kept us happy. We filled more than forty bottles, which was well and truly enough. Now we were set for those hot days of the oncoming summer, when our daily chores were finished and it was time to relax. Now I just need to learn how to make my own vodka.

Making babies

When I started growing my own vegetables I used to buy all my veg as advanced seedlings from the nursery. It cost me a lot of money, which at that time I had because I worked a nine-to-five. But since taking the leap into the great unknown (becoming professionally unemployed), I’ve had to accept that it’s too expensive to continue with this approach. So as the seasons came and went I learned how to raise my own seedlings. This approach has a few rad benefits other than just a cost reduction.

I guess if I were an extremist I’d say that buying seedlings from a nursery is contrary to my approach of reducing food miles. Think about it. The seedlings are raised on a farm somewhere in non-recyclable plastic pots and then transported to the nursery. I don’t know how far they’ve travelled and I don’t know what, if anything, has been added to the plants in the way of growth stimulants or fertilisers. I’m not an extremist, I’m a realist, but I also think that giving it a go ourselves is more rewarding than simply making a purchase at the nursery. Sometimes, though, when seeds don’t germinate at home, we have no choice but to buy pre-raised seedlings.

To raise seedlings from scratch you need the seeds, right? I’ve found that there’s more variety when buying just seeds than there is in seedlings. My nursery would only have advanced seedlings of two or three types of a particular sort of veg. I want a bit more variety than this, spice of life and all that. So back in the early days, when I turned my backyard into a food bowl, I found one of those online seed banks. No, not Monsanto ;-).

I found a seed company that served as a seed reservoir with the goal of preserving and supplying a heap of old-world (heirloom) varieties of vegetables and fruit. As I sifted through the varieties online I was gobsmacked! So many types I’d never seen before. So many old and rare beauties (just like me). After the excitement subsided I clicked on this variety then that one. Before long my digital shopping basket was overflowing and my credit card was getting a workout. A week or so later a package arrived in the post. Hundreds of my old-world seeds had arrived and now I had to take action to plant them. But before I mixed soil and seed I went through all the seeds, admiring all the rad names – like Zebra, Aunt Ruby’s Green, Purple Sprouting, Christmas Lima, Flageolet, Painted Mountain, Slim Jim, Rosa Bianca, Futsu and Scorzonera.

It was then that I suddenly realised I’d been ripped off. Ripped off, but not by the seed company. They’d done the right thing and sent me the seeds I’d ordered. It was more the realisation that I’d been ripped off by supermarkets (again). This variety of seeds meant I’d soon be enjoying an array of new and interesting flavours, textures and even aromatics, something that had never been on offer at a supermarket, sensory pleasures I’d been missing out on all my life. Realising I’d been ripped off just fuelled my resolve, and before long the empty toilet rolls I’d saved were standing in trays, filled with seed-raising mix to house my seedlings. And thus my future of delicious food was written.

Years down the track, here I am picking the seeds from my own patch, the same variety of seeds that were collected for me by that online seed bank. I love seeing the process of providing the right conditions for a seed to germinate, the magic of plant birth and then the teenage years, the fruiting and then the retirement years where I come back to collect the seeds to ensure the process happens again the following year. And yes, sometimes if life gets too busy, the realist in me goes back to the nursery and buys advanced seedlings. It’s a better alternative than out-of-season non-organic veg!

Ryan the gosling

My mate Jack is always working on some new project at his place. Years ago he had a few head of sheep that he’d fatten up for the freezer. I was totally jealous, as I didn’t have the land for that, but these days he’s moved on to a more dynamic approach to food acquisition. He grows a fair bit of his tucker and he’s always looking for ways to improve his yield and his approach to DIY food. Now he’s into geese. One male and a handful of willing females, and his goose population exploded. There were so many little goslings getting around that he gave us one. We couldn’t help but call him Ryan. Unlike the megastar lady-loving Ryan Gosling, ours met an untimely death. I got up to check the nursery of ducklings and chickens and there he lay, quiet, still and very much dead. It’s not easy killing an animal, and I’ve had to work on that for a few years now, but when one dies by itself and when it’s so damn little, it just plain sucks. To lift my spirits I hired The Notebook, bought a tub of strawberry ice cream and stayed in bed all day. Not really. But I was sad.

With Ryan the Gosling gone, there were still a lot of geese in the neighbourhood. Jack had so many that eventually the amount of goose poo deposited at his place began to cause a problem. With sixteen goslings now mature, Jack decided they were all destined for the freezer. That’s a great deal of labour for just one fella, so he wrangled me in to help. Payment? Yep. Five birds! Made my day! The thought of five of those large birds for my freezer – wow! What a brilliant source of good meat.

The day came and we did what needed to be done. We were well organised – well, mostly Jack was. I just grabbed the birds, dispatched them and gutted them. Jack was operating his home-made feather-plucker, which worked a treat and saved us a good deal of time. I had the dirty work, with my hands up cavities bringing out the reality – all blood and guts. Literally.

By the afternoon, we were both exhausted. We had all the birds in the freezer, including the livers and hearts, and we’d swept up and hosed out the feathers and inner workings of the birds. It was time to crack a coldie. I went home that night with five large birds and a heap of offal. Even though I was excited about cooking geese (which was a new experience for me), I was even more excited at the thought of all those hearts. I know it sounds a bit wrong, but I’ve learned to love these little hearts as a treat. They’re rich in flavour and firm of texture, and eating the heart seems like another way to use as much as possible of the life that’s just been taken. It’s not really a way of showing the bird some respect – it’s dead – but instead I see it as a way of respecting what’s been provided by Mother Nature. It’s important to give thanks, and this is a way of doing so. In fact, it’s become a little bit of a ritual, mostly just with poultry, like ducks, chicken and geese. I eat all the hearts of these birds. There are cultures around the world whose traditions may seem odd to us, but now I have a better understanding of how these weird food traditions and rituals possibly developed and why they exist. In any case, if I blindfolded you and served you a forkful of goose heart with sherry glaze, I’m sure you’d be converted to my weird heart-eating religion.

Collecting the blueprint

There doesn’t seem to be any one time of the year when I collect seeds. A plant just gets to the point where it’s finished providing the food, and then it becomes a priority for me to preserve the seed so the entire process can be repeated the following year. Seeds come in so many sizes and forms. Some we eat – such as beans – some come later, after the plant has flowered, after we’ve taken from her what we wanted. They’re all different.

There are a few issues, however, when it comes to the world of seeds. First, the information the seeds possess is becoming more and more the property of corporations. This is a concern, is it not? It’s surely something we should be questioning. Should one entity have control over a food source for the masses? Well, I reckon if that entity invented the seed then sure, it’s their intellectual property. I don’t really have any interest in any form of highly manipulated seed anyway. I think we all have the power to resist. Sure, it’s good to question the power of corporations, I’m all for that, but I also prefer the approach of doing more than just complaining. Seed saving and planting are a way we can take back ownership of the problem. Little seed co-ops are popping up all over the Western world. Most of them seem to have similar ideals – to save seeds for the good of the people. The varieties are interesting, and they’re often not generic, so they can cater for variable climates, soil types and other growing conditions. You can save these seeds yourself, so you’re then in control. Isn’t that a good thing? Hell, yes!

As a high-school student I was awarded dux in biology in my final year. I’d fallen in love with genetics. The study of life, of biology, had me fascinated. The idea that critical information about an organism could be trapped, harnessed and passed on to the next generation was mind-boggling. The concept that little changes (mutations) in that information (DNA) could be beneficial to a species was so intriguing. This knowledge transfers to growing veg at home. If you were to try growing a range of varieties of the one species, say different types of tomato, eventually you’d find one that grows the most successfully in your yard. One or two varieties will stand out as clear success stories. You want to save the seed from those plants. Each season, tiny changes may occur with that variety. It might mingle with another, cross-pollinate and produce a new variety even better than the last. It might grow and improve over the seasons to work more productively with the conditions available. This is how we got these varieties in the first place. Corn, for example, was a pretty lame wild grass until it was improved season after season by growers until at last it was nothing like its original form but a food source that spawned centuries of prosperity in South America. So you see, it’s important for us to continue that process. We have that ownership, that responsibility – we needn’t rely on a money-hungry corporation to do that for us.

Spring marks a great resurgence in fresh food from the patch. It’s the renaissance of the annual seasonal progression. It’s when eating veg is cool and in fashion again. The winter has been hard – sure, there’s been plenty of kale, chard, etc. – but now some variety comes into play. Not only is it a time to delve in to freshly podded peas, fluffy-housed broad beans or stunning-tasting broccoli, it’s also a time to be mindful of preserving the seed for planting these beauties the following year. There’s a catch for those of us with limited space for our patch, and let’s face it, that’s most of us. If I were to leave rows and rows of vegetables to go to seed, I’d likely miss out on the right time to plant the vegetables for the oncoming season. This year I was caught out by leaving broad beans in too long.

First I buggered up by planting the beans a little late, and secondly I was greedy and waited until the beans were plumper to gain a freezer full of beans for the following winter’s dry spell. But I also allowed the broad beans extra time, to ensure as many flowers as possible formed bean pods, allowing me not only to collect buckets of food, but also a bucket or two of beans I could keep for seed, readying me for early winter when it’s time to replant them.

So how can we get around this dilemma of managing our valuable backyard real estate? Well, I figured out one approach when a mate of mine offered me a haul of broccoli seeds. He’d feasted on the florets, and he’d allowed one or two successful plants to go fully to seed. He then plucked the plant from its earthly grasp and hung it in a shed with a cloth underneath to collect any falling seeds. Now this might not seem like a solution at first, but consider this. He didn’t collect and cure any broad bean seeds. But I did. See where I’m going here? A seed swap ensued. We didn’t moan and whinge about corporations owning seeds, we just swapped seeds for plants we’d both grown, for plants we both enjoy eating. Now that’s taking back control.

This is the seed I collected in spring–summer. I don’t grow every imaginable vegetable, so the list is modest. The ideal conditions for drying seeds is somewhere cool and dry – avoid high moisture or dampness.

Things that grow in pods, dry in pods: peas; broad beans.

Note how much ‘stock’ you have remaining on the plants. Don’t eat it all because those beans and peas you munch on are next year’s seeds! If you’re battling for space and you need to make way for your next crop, I suggest pulling the plants out, pulling off the remaining bean and pea pods (don’t shell them!) and storing them somewhere undercover. Dry, warm or cool is fine, just not too much humidity or they may rot. The next element to be mindful of is pests. Just like us, the mice, rats, possums and tigers all want to eat your produce. So keep it up high and free of pests. In a month or so, depending on the weather, the seeds (peas and beans) will rattle loosely in their pods. They’re ready when this happens. I normally test a few by crushing a bean pod. If the pod cracks and crumbles dryly in my hand, it’s ready for the next stage in the process. I then remove all the peas and beans and store them in a large glass jar with the lid off for another month. Keeping the lid off allows any final moisture to evaporate and ensures a clean dry.

Things that need to be hung up: silverbeet (Swiss chard), rainbow chard, rocket, parsley, broccoli, celery, mustard, cress, kale.

For these veggies I tend to pull out the entire plant after I’ve allowed it to form seed. I hang them upside down in the shed and tie around them a bag of a breathable fabric such as fine hessian or calico. The seeds will eventually dry and fall into the bag for easy collection.

Some of these, such as rocket and chard, will self-seed if you allow them to. Rocket is one of my most successful garden weeds!

Meat my sausage

I've been using chorizo in cooking a great deal over the years. It’s become so important and I use it so often that I had two options: either cut back on it because of its expense, or start making my own. I opted for the latter. Who wouldn’t? Being an opportunist and deciding to have the pig killed in spring was a little risky in terms of making dry-cured meats. Usually I’d have the meat hanging in the depths of winter – the conditions are prime when it’s bloody cold. In cooler weather the moisture in the meat doesn’t seem to exit so fast, so the process is slower and the product you’re trying to cure doesn’t sweat so much. Making dry-cured sausage in spring can be chancy, especially if we encounter a spell of warm days. Luckily for me, that’s a rarity on this hill.

If you ever want to experience one of those super-rewarding chores of the good life, I can tell you that making sausages is a sure bet. The first time I made sausages was surreal. I kept mumbling to myself, ‘Look, a sausage! I just made a sausage!’ If I can do it – me, a total sausage novice – then surely anyone can. If we don’t at least try things, we’ll never know, eh? And by the way, I don’t have any majorly specialist equipment. In fact, I’m pretty sure I have the cheapest, crappiest and smallest hand-cranked sausage-maker ever produced. I bought mine in this crowded ‘food DIY’ place run by a family of Italians. I looked at a heap of different machines, too many to choose from. I couldn’t see the difference, nor could I see a reason to pay a large sum of money for something I might only use three or four times a year. I also wanted to steer clear of electric sausage-makers, as I plan to be off-grid one day. I finally asked for some help, and a beautiful Italian nonna talked me through the pros and cons of each machine. I found myself continually asking, ‘Do you have anything cheaper?’ as most contraptions seemed to be over the $400 mark. That’s an expensive sausage, I thought. I ended up investing in a little Italian number that she assured me was good value for money. ‘So it makes sausages, right?’ That’s all I really wanted. Nothing fancy, just something practical and functional. I still ended up forking out a few hundred dollars and I felt pretty guilty even spending that much. It seemed like a frivolous purchase as I walked out the door with a cheerful ‘Ciao, ciao!’ I’ve changed my mind now, though, as it’s a machine that’s served me well and will continue to do so for years to come. It makes my sausages – my chorizo, the sausage that’s so important to my cooking. I can’t put a price on that now, can I?

Chorizo is like salami, not in flavour but in that there are so many recipes – each household, butcher, aunty or uncle will have a different one. Some frown upon putting chilli in, some don’t use wine, some put in less garlic, some more. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it tastes good and it makes you happy. What matters is that you enjoy sharing it and you enjoy eating it. That’s the goal, really, to get someone to eat and enjoy my sausage.

My final task as the butcher’s assistant was to mince the remaining meat from the shoulder and all the trimmed fat we’d been collecting. At the end of the butchery session we had a large rectangular bucket of meat to process. I was a bit amazed how much mince I was going to receive. I could see a lot of chorizo in that bucket! With the belt-driven mincer we processed all the meat into a mass of white and pink.

My freezer literally overflowing with pork, I went to work immediately on curing and sausage-making. I’ve learned some very valuable lessons from curing meat at home, the most important being to respect the power of salt. Too much salt and it’s like a fever you just can’t shake – and once that salt’s in the mix you can’t take it out. Too much salt and the meat is ruined. If you’ve transcribed a recipe and, let’s say, accidentally added a zero to the end of a salt quantity, you might find out the true definition of frustration in defeat. This, my friends, is how I acquired, through first-hand experience, my knowledge of torture by salt. My first batch of chorizo had great flavours, the spice mix just right, but the salt ... OMG, the salt! I fucked up on the salt. It was inedible. In an effort to save the situation, my only option was to add more meat. Thankfully, I had no shortage of pork mince. Into the mixing bowl went double the amount of mince. I saved it to some extent, but it was still salty. It was a painful lesson, albeit one I won’t forget in a hurry. It’s like the first time you successfully figure out how to undo a girlfriend’s bra. Get it right and memories are made. Get it wrong and you look like a dick.

I’d like to share a few tips about the process of making a chorizo using a hand-cranked machine similar to mine. I’ll tell you what I’ve learned from my experiences in the hope you may in turn be brave enough to attempt it yourself. You’ll be armed with a few pointers, learned by a novice sausage-maker like me. So here’s my process from beginning to end.

How I make chorizo

I mix all the ingredients into the mince, ensuring the spices, herbs and wine are all worked into it thoroughly. I fry up a small amount to taste. If the salt–spice balance is okay, then I transfer that mixture to the fridge overnight, to allow the flavours to mingle and get well acquainted with the pork. I use natural casings, which I source with ease from a commercial butchers’ supplier in town. The casings come in a plastic bag and are covered in salt to preserve them. This salt needs to be rinsed off, so I pull out the number of casings I need and soak them in a tub of cold water for about half an hour. I then fill them with water and rinse out any remaining salt inside the casings. I rinse twice. To be sure, to be sure.

Next step is to fill the meat reservoir in the sausage machine with the pork mince. I attach the nozzle – I use the larger of the two sizes to allow for sausage shrinkage. (Warning, from here on in there may be a few penis puns.) I crank the handle until meat begins to cometh from the spout. Then I load the rinsed casing over the shaft of the nozzle. Ensuring there is no trapped air, I tie a double knot at the end of the casing. Now I’m ready to go. The meat is in the reservoir, the nozzle is attached and the casing is mounted and sealed with a strong double knot to withstand the pressure that will come down the shaft.

When I work with sausage, sometimes I like to work alone and sometimes I like to work with someone else. One person can crank and one can feed the meat into the casing. Crank, feed! Crank, feed! Either way, you need to find your own rhythm. If you crank too fast the pressure of the meat may split the casing. If you don’t crank hard and fast enough you may end up with less meat in your casing, allowing air pockets that are a perfect breeding ground for bacteria and bad penis jokes. I recommend playing some Al Green to ease any tension during sausage production.

The idea is to fill the casing tightly with meat. This will give you a harder sausage, and let’s face it we all want that. As I crank away, a large sausage forms. It naturally wants to curve into a circle like a snake coiled in the grass. I tend to move the large sausage, turning it around and around as new meat fills the casing. You end up with a big ol’ pile of sausage, all twirled up in a heap. To finish off I normally pull a bit out to leave a length of empty casing, enough to allow a tight knot with plenty of casing remaining, as I’ll need to tie on the string for hanging. I also recommend that you finish off with a cuddle.

Using butcher’s twine (not blue-dyed nylon twine) I then make incremental tight knots separating the long sausage into smaller sausage-sized sausages. Get it? You can make the sausages as big or little as you want. I tie in around 10–15 centimetre increments, as it helps push the meat either side of the knot, making the sausage even tighter. Don’t worry about the unsightly twine. Once the chorizo is cured you can discard it.

You can eat the chorizo fresh (and freeze it to eat ‘fresh’ later), or you can dry-cure it. If you’re planning on hanging the chorizo to dry-cure it, pop it in the fridge for a few hours to let it settle, which will help it hold its shape when it hangs. When you’re ready to hang, use a sterilised pin to prick each chorizo ten to twenty times – just enough to allow exit points to assist the shrinkage process. Hang the chorizo in a place that’s ideally got a low temperature, high humidity and isn’t too draughty. If the sausages hang in warm, dry conditions (even worse with a draught), they tend to go rock-hard and are difficult to cut. You can hang the chorizo in the fridge for a week, then vacuum-seal them in bags and they’ll keep for a very long time. You can also hang them in your larder for six to twelve weeks and enjoy them later. I use both methods with equally good results.

Commercial producers commonly use sodium nitrate as a curing additive. If you’re concerned about adding it yourself, do some research and make an informed decision. I stopped using it a few years ago, but that’s not to say it’s not a dumb thing to do. It does work well to limit the chance of botulism, but a sodium nitrate serve of 22 grams is enough to kill a man. I don’t like it in the house, so I cure without it. I use all of my chorizo in cooking – I never eat it raw. If you don’t want to take the chance of botulism, I guess a smart person would opt for sodium nitrate. It’s your choice.

Now, go back over those instructions and count how many penis and sex innuendos I inserted.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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