Is it weird to be back?

The number one question I’ve been asked in the past two weeks is “So what’s it like to be back in Australia?”. And the best word I can think of to describe it is…. “Weirdses”. That’s Dylan’s word.

When we first came into the house, Finn ran straight to the living room, pressed his face up against the glass to look at the garden and said “Wow. That’s what a lake looks like.” He meant our little spring-fed dam at the bottom of the slope, that after 6 months of living in Singapore suburbia, had metamorphosed into a palatial body of water in his mind.

Dylan ran off to find if there were any of her toys still in the house and she came back clutching her old teddy bear and another little one that someone had left behind. “Look mama!” she said, “my teddy had a baby when we were gone!”.

Yes we kept our farmhouse but it looks different now that it’s been spruced up for rentals to holiday makers and event organisers and it has already had 3 weddings booked and a corporate retreat. Google Cable Car Estate and you’ll find us there.

It’s still lovely and some of the rooms have been decorated with vignettes straight out of Country Life magazine. But sometimes I keep walking into the living room, meaning to play something I’ve just thought of on the grand piano, and then realising there’s just a empty space where it used to stand. It’s a bit like having a phantom limb.

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The vineyard looks fantastic, thanks to our trusty vineyard caretaker Paul who is the most reliable person we’ve ever worked with on the Peninsula.

I’d almost forgotten how gorgeous the light is in the afternoons, when it’s filtered through the vines hanging off the eaves and you walk barefoot on the floor over the dancing dappled shadows.

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Of course we had to have a party and invited all our friends and neighbours around for the afternoon. Peninsula style. Bring a plate! (This means pot luck, it does not mean we’re out of crockery!) Bring your dogs! Bring your kids! Bring their pajamas! Don’t forget the hummus!

Remember Bruno? Our rescue greyhound whom we gave to our neighbour Jo? He came over to hang out and he was a little stunned to see us again. “Oh, you guys”, he said with his amber eyes and tentative sniffs. Bruno looked so well, it made us all cry a bit. I’d never seen his teeth so clean and he had put on a bit of muscle as well, probably from running around in Jo’s beautiful paddocks and lavender gardens.

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The cows in the paddocks were mildly surprised to see us as well. But they went back to munching their cud after a few minutes. Nature’s most definitive law – life goes on.

I spent an hour near the dam, tracing fox tracks, like I was taught by a local hunter. They had entered through the south-east paddock fence where you could see tiny tufts of russet fur caught in the lowest barbed wire strand, and then gone down to the dam to hunt the wild ducklings at the start of summer, but yet this summer we had 6 ducks on the dam who survived. Last year none of the ducklings made it, so the ducks had learned a thing or two in our absence.

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In a sense, we come to the Peninsula to feel small amidst the largeness of nature. When you spend too much time in an urban environment, you start to magnify your problems and your sense of self-importance. The scale of the architecture is human, and wherever you go, things cater to your needs. In Singapore, I can order a masseur to come to my house at midnight, have a roti prata supper afterwards, and then buy groceries at the 24 hour supermarket a 2 minute stroll from my house. We have no frustration tolerance because everything revolves around us.

But in the countryside, nature puts you in your place. You walk in nature and you are an ant amongst the towering gum trees and the craggy mountains. You come back after six months of being away on a farm, and in the bush, the paths you painstakingly carved and slashed have vanished. Nature does not care if you hit the unsubscribe button and fly off to Boca Raton.

But yet your spirit soars. There is a certain bliss in being reminded of your smallness, your mortality. When you know you can’t control everything, you start to let go of the reins that never led to anything much anyway, and your incessantly worrying mind starts to relax and stops drowning out your emotions and the senses of your body.

When you walk, there you are, just walking.

When you eat, there you are, just eating.

So simple, yet so hard.

Is it weird to be back? Yes. Am I happy with the choices I’ve made? Absolutely. To be able to call two extraordinary places home, is a great freedom and a lesson in letting go.

Somehow I have a feeling that the antidote for the Weirdses is a great gift, a state of mind, called “Surrender”.

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When the lights go out

Yesterday, ferocious winds of 130 kilometres gusted across the Peninsula. I drove home, feeling the car buffeted left and right by the waves of wind. It was like steering a ship. Power lines were down, the traffic lights were out and brave traffic police directed traffic in the lashing rain while cars flashed their hazards at each other to indicate fallen trees ahead.

A huge gum tree fell on the road outside our house but I managed to drive around it. Thank goodness for our reliable Toyota Prado which has had plenty of practice trampling through the thick bush surrounding our house to get out on the main road when the driveway has been blocked.

All day my phone beeped with messages from neighbours comparing notes on who had power and who didn’t. 76 year old Lilian called to ask if I had blown away in the wind. I thought it was funny that she was checking in on me. Then I called her back to ask if she needed to come over to ours for a sleepover. The water pump wasn’t working. I called the Irishman, who was in Darwin on business, probably sipping a pina colada, and he helpfully suggested that I “suck on a tube and siphon the water tank.”. I told him he could suck on his own fecking tube.

The dogs had drank the last of the San Pelligrino and were farting copiously from the sparkling bubbles. I ran to the grocery store and bought their last 6 bottles of mineral water and San Pellegrino.

We were one of the lucky ones, the electricity came back on at 3 p.m. in the afternoon, thus preventing Finn’s tropical fish tank from turning into sushi soup.

The first thing you do after your power comes back on is to fill up the bathtub with water so if it goes off again, you’ll have somewhere to do the dishes and wash things.

The second thing you do is to scream with horror when you see the disgusting kombucha tea like liquid pouring into your tub and realise that this is what you’ve got to drink for the next few months.

The next day, I dropped the kids at school which was still in black out mode. Teachers wrapped in beanies and layers of woollens stoked the wood stoves in the classrooms and the gleeful kids told stories about how they had to have a sleepover at their aunt’s house the night before, or how they had to read by candlelight or how they toasted their sandwiches in the fireplace. Half the families I spoke to said that their power was still down.

Finn and Dylan were thrilled, it was quite an adventure to see their school transformed into a shadowy cozy place and the teachers running around saying things like “The printer’s not working!” and “We’ll have to cancel cooking today!”.
As I walked out, I saw Finn sitting on the floor in the dark, captivated by the stories his classmates were telling about the various adventures they had in the dark. And then a teacher from next door burst into their class room with a scary face on and yelled “It’s a spooky day at school and all the teachers are wearing black and sneaking around so the kids can’t see them… Woooo!!!” and the kids fell about the floor in hysterics.

Back on the farm, I did a walkabout. Pooky the peacock seems to have had quite a few tail feathers broken off in the storm, but he was in good spirits and ate his oatmeal and the kids breakfast scraps gratefully. The ducks and chickens were fine, enjoying the muddy puddles in the orchard.

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Our courtyard garden is very sheltered so it was situation normal there. Some yellow daffodils had sprung up and were nodding cheerfully in the wind.

The forest was a different story. A few trees had come crashing down in the North East corner of our bushland, bringing down a large section of fence separating us from our neighbours property.

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The sheep were encrusted in bits of bark, twigs and brambles and glared at me accusingly, stomping their cloven front hooves when I threw them a fresh new biscuit of hay. The wind had blown the top off the pail storing the alpacas vitamin, grain and molasses mix and I gave them the sodden contents of the bucket as a special treat.

It’s funny but I quite enjoyed our little lock down yesterday. Whenever there’s a storm, our community pulls together and we feel that much more connected to each other, making sure that every one is ok, no one gets left alone in the dark. I read C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to the little ones at night and we wondered about passages to magical lands.

Sometimes when the lights go out, we go in, and there is magic waiting.

Throwing tomatoes, ghost chillis and other heirlooms

I never thought I’d marry an Irishman. I’d never thought I’d move to the countryside. And most improbable of all, I would never have dreamed that I would be reading gardening catalogues in bed on rainy nights. Oh yes, it’s time to talk about our secret obsession that rears its nerdy little head this time of the year – The Diggers Club Garden Annual Seed Sowers Manual. This little baby arrives by mail at the beginning of spring, and is the bible of heirloom gardeners in these fertile parts. But this is no ordinary mail order catalogue. For a start, you have to be a member of The Diggers Club, a gardening group that prides itself on reviving long lost heritage breeds, and owns two beautiful heritage properties which showcase its vegetables, fruit and flower gardens. One of them, Heronswood, being just 15 minutes from our house.

I just love the illustrations and commentary in the catalogue. It is brimful of quirky Australian humour. Take “Granny’s Throwing Tomato” below for instance, which is advertised as “Perfect for throwing at politicians or mining magnates like Gina and Clive. This is Italy’s favourite tomato and is used in salads and pastas and for hurling at old lechers like Silvio Burlusconi. ” Heh.

After circling our family selections in the catalogue ;-  Edamame for Mame, Teddy Bear sunflowers, “Bonk Choy” and watermelons for Finn, Zucchini and beetroot for Dylan, heirloom potatoes for Sean and too many things to count from Daddy, we headed down to Heronswood to have lunch at Fork to Fork cafe and peruse the Diggers nursery.

Somehow Finn managed to sneak in 2 Bhut Jolokia Ghost Chilli plants. Which we found out later were actually semi-lethal, being the hottest chilli known to mankind and ranking at more than 1 million Scoville heat units (compared to Thai birds eye chilli which ranks 50,000 units.) In fact it was used by the military in chemical crowd dispersion bombs! It’s called the Ghost Pepper because of its deadly powers. All this was extremely thrilling to Finn, but I’m secretly planning to dig up the ghost chills and replant them outside the chicken coop to deter the foxes.

Our veggie patch #3 is doing very well despite Coco the greyhounds efforts at sunbathing on top of the seedlings. We have acquired a number of derelict items from junk shops to use as planters such as the vintage bath tub cum herb planter below. The zucchini flowers look beautiful and the spinach is extremely prolific.

In fact the Irishman has done such a splendid job I think I may forgive him for The Horrible Flowers he planted around our new driveway. I distinctly recall saying to him “I don’t mind whatever plants you get, but I DON’T LIKE dark reddish brown flowers at all. White, purple, blue or anything is fine darling, JUST NOT DARK RED.” Which he somehow interpreted as “Blah blah blah DON’T LIKE FLOWERS” blah blah EXCEPT DARK RED”…. which resulted in an entire driveway full of hundreds of Dark Reddish Brown Kangeroo’s Paw plants as far as eye can see.

Upon confrontation, the Irishman squeaked “Oh, I didn’t know those grasses had flowers honey!” . Right. Urgh.

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Never mind. There are better things to worry about in Spring, such as our new alpacas, Blackadda and Mandate, the roses which have been decimated by the storms, the vineyard which has developed some strange new worrying affliction, the little swallows which have chose to nest perilously on an unstable ledge over the back door, the scrapping scamps, our busy international work schedule, the influx of Summer visitors… well really there are so many things I really think it is time to reach for a calming tea and that well-thumbed Diggers catalogue!

If you’re thinking of visiting the Mornington Peninsula, this weekend would be perfect. The weather looks to be sunny and the Red Hill Country Fair is on, this Sunday November 17th with plenty of good family things to do. See you there!

Spring means…

Spring is:

Lying in the garden with Dylan in mismatched floral bathers, watching clouds in the sky

Jade green avocado halves lavished with goats cheese and sprinkled with jalapeño slices

Heavy sheaves of wisteria unfurling along the eaves like a languorous yawn

Getting excited about baby animals on the farm

Early evening strolls with the dog to sniff out scurrilous fox holes. Four were found around the chicken coop today- this means war!

Reading Roald Dahl classics to two avidly listening little faces at night by the fire while it’s still cold enough to light it

Dreaming about summer days and buying a boat

Putting the roof down on the car for the first time and feeling the eucalyptus wind on your face while you drive, happy as a doggy

Planning, planning and more planning of paddock and vegetable patch configurations

Spring cleaning the library books of cobwebs and getting endlessly distracted by reading random pages

Stopping at the driveway to see if you can spy breaking waves on the beach

Airing out the camping tents in anticipation

Rabbit hunting with Sean and the local butcher at dusk

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and last but not least…

Discovering Dylan in her bathers, fur vest and wellies because the weather outside changes every 5 minutes!

Random list – the winter edition.

There’s this game going around in the blog world where if you’re tagged, you have to complete a list of questions. In that spirit of randomness, this is my list of random winter fragments.

Reading: House of Leaves – Mark Danielewski’s seriously creepy and subversive book which my little brother gave me

Listening to: Amazing new band London Grammar – the lead singer reminds me of Beth Orton, Tracey Thorn with a dash of Lana Del Rey.

Making : My special winter kimchi and fermenting red wine vinegar. And big arrangements of greenery from the garden out of the savagely pruned branches from our orchard.

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Cooking : Roasted cauliflower with nam pla, lime juice and chilli, all kinds of dumplings,

Drinking : Lots of liquorice tea, genmaicha, berry smoothies and water

Wanting: Warmer weather! And a boat for summer sojourns to the nearby islands

Looking: For inspiration, always and everywhere.

Missing: An old pearl and sapphire necklace. And one of my best friends in Singapore.

Playing: Just playing with things in general. Messing about in the kitchen, experimenting with new skills. As I get older I learn how to take myself more lightly. And it helps that I have a great bunch of fun and silly friends here on the Peninsula.

Wishing: That the dishes would do themselves…

Enjoying: Fires in our awesome new Cheminees Phillippe cast iron fireplace. I love the satisfaction of lighting a fire, watching the flames, the ambient crackle and snap, the fragrance released when you throw orange peels on them while reading books in the living room.

Having: So many visitors from all over the world recently! Just this month we’ve had 4 groups of guests come to our house. It’s great living in a place where people go on holiday

Preparing for: My next Legacy Retreat in Bhutan. It’s very exciting but also one of the hardest things I’ve ever organised.

Liking: The ages my kids are at. Our youngest is 4 and everyone is out of nappies, old enough to reason with and now we can travel longer distances for car trips and camping without packing the entire house!

Wondering: If we should set up another business. Tempted, but we will need to be careful. I don’t want to overstretch myself and I know that the last year was frenetic and I need a break.

Loving: My husband, we have never been at a better place in our relationship. Coming up to 10 years now and I’m still excited to hear his footsteps when he comes home and grateful to clamber into a warm bed with him at night and talk nonsense.

Marvelling: At Finn’s willpower and quiet conviction. I volunteered to help out at his gym class last week and he had to step on a seesaw to flip a beanbag up and then catch it. He missed the first 43 times but he immediately tried again and again until he finally made a catch. And then he made 8 catches in a row. I have it on video. He’s such a marvellous soul.

Smelling: Our limes and lemons everywhere in the house. And unfortunately, also smelling Bruno our greyhound’s farts. He’s on probiotics now to see if it makes a difference to his general flatulence!

Hoping: That my business Legacy Retreat settles into a happy self-sustaining rhythm next year.

Wearing: My favourite cashmere sweaters in neon pink, yellow and crazy patterns to cheer me up in this winter weather. And my Hunter wellies for mucking around with the greyhounds and in the chicken coop.

Following: Self sufficiency expert Rohan Anderson @WholeLarderLove on instagram. I just went for a weekend workshop with Rohan and learned to dispatch, pluck and butcher chickens and skin rabbits. More on that later.

Noticing: The magnolias blooming more luxuriantly every day.

Knowing: That I am blessed and lucky. Just like that 10,000 Maniac’s song These Are Days.

I’m tagging @thebrewerswife next!

xxx,
C

Chinese New Year at Foo King Daves

Dong Dong Chiang! That’s what Chinese kids say when they’re pretending to do a lion dance. And thats me and the Irishman wearing our Dragon and Lion heads to usher in the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Snake!

This year our friends Karen and Dave, of the inimitable Red Hill Brewery fame, kindly offered to host Chinese New Year at their house as we had just moved back to the Peninsula and the thought of cooking my usual 8 course menu for 20 people was leaving me feeling lower than a snake’s belly.

Dave, also known as Foo King Dave in these parts of the Peninsula (*and some say his reputation extends as far as Springvale Shopping Centre), lived in China for some time and learnt how to cook Sichuan food complete with mouth-watering arse-numbing spices, so I knew we were in for a treat!

I spent the morning making fried wontons, homemade pork ingot shaped dumplings and prepping the yu sheng auspicious salad and then slipped (or should I say slithered) into a salmon pink silk cheongsam from Hong Kong.
Kaz and Dave’s kids were resplendent in their very pretty silk cheongsams and cute little chopstick buns. They made me a gorgeous knitted purple wool necklace for the occasion too. I wore the necklace to Melbourne this week and had all these hipster types asking me if it was Marni. Ha!

David, Rick, Karen, Anne and myself, the first to arrive at the party.

Now this, below, is the lucky Yu Sheng salad which is a Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese tradition. Each ingredient in the salad represents a particular blessing for the new year e.g. the chopped peanuts symbolise a household of gold and silver, and the fish sashimi symbolise abundance and excess.

That’s me and my little helpers who are helping me put each set of ingredients into the giant silver salad bowl as I recite the appropriate blessing in Chinese

They really got into the spirit of it! That’s them tossing the cinnamon powder, pepper and sesame seeds all over the salad to symbolise money, valuables and a flourishing business. Chinese values hey!

Finally, we got to toss the salad, which went as high as the roof. I think only 60% of it made it back to the table and the remaining 40% is still orbiting Earth somewhere. These Aussies take the salad tossing very seriously indeed!

Karen then asks me whether this is a decorative salad or do we have to eat it. I’m like “Decorative my backside! I’ve spent all morning chopping bloody fish and radish, you guys pick it out of your hair and eat it if you want your businesses to prosper! OR ELSE!”. Well you asked!

And then Dave rolled out two massive hot pots filled with Sichuan ma la broth and we all had the most delicious steamboat (that’s what we Chinese call hot pots) dinner outdoors under the stars.

Thanks guys for an amazing evening, and Gong Xi Fa Cai to all!

Just a little something that I whipped together…. ahem

No kidding, how insane is this cake! My friend Meizee is in town, ensconced in my Southbank apartment, visiting for 3 weeks while she does a cake course in Melbourne. She made this beautiful 30kg beast over 3 days, and brought it down to our place in the countryside for a dinner party yesterday and we had it for dessert.

Yes, this beauty literally took the cake and everyone’s breath away. I’m so glad that my friends here can finally get off my case now that I’ve found a even better prime specimen for overachieving – my dear friend Meizee, who is not only gorgeous and still gets carded at discos, but is also mother to three children and single-handedly runs a successful cupcake & dessert catering business. And of course the real reason I adore MZ is because, like me, she is a nocturnal animal who stays up till 3-4 a.m. and is seldom to be seen out of bed much before noon.

Every single petal is handmade and edible.

Meizee assures me that the flowers and painting is the easy part, the hardest part apparently is cutting the fondant bands around the cake evenly and making the joins blemish-free.

This is MZ telling everyone the doors are locked and no one can go home till dessert is finished!

You can see more of her work at her website http://letthemeatcakemz.com/ We still have 15 kilos of it in the fridge – any takers?