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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the magnolia manifest

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Every spring soft bursts of magnolia flowers erupt like flower popcorn on the row of trees in our garden, exploding forth in glorious profusion day after day until the branches are completely laden with beauty.

Magnolia Grandiflora. Even the name is beautiful and stately.

There is a term in interior design, “visual reward”, and I always think of it when I walk down the corridor linking my office to our kitchen with my cup of tea, where a magnificent magnolia tree is the visual reward at the end of that well trodden axis. It is most stunning at dusk when the fading light turns the huge blossoms a surreal luminous silvery pink.

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All forms of happiness contain within themselves the seeds of their own decomposition and renewal. Our driveway is now lined with lush, velvety petals each the size of a baby’s hand. They fall in droves now, lying in the snowy drifts, until the Irishman rakes them into the compost pile, where they will rot, break down and be spread on top of the roots of the other living things in our garden.

We will not feel sorry when the magnolias are gone. They never really leave us, but just change manifestation, dissipated into the good earth of our garden and tinting my nighttime dreams the palest pink of springtime hope.

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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.

Unplanned perfection

Living in the countryside is learning how to dance with chaos. Where our life in the city was a tightly choreographed ballet of appointments and plans, our other life in the countryside is improvised, loose, freeform.

You never know what the day has planned for you when you wake up.

A tree blown down in the middle of the night. The sudden arrival of snowy cherry blossoms. The death of a beloved chicken (RIP Explorer Biscuit) or the smallest peeps and flurry of activity in the coop signalling the arrival of a new duckling.

Walk into your kitchen and there could well be your plumber who’s popped in for a cup of tea and to collect a cheque. Or you could find your eldest son missing, having been taken to the movies by a neighbour since they were passing by your house on the way there.

I’ve learned to make it up as I go along. And also to always wear a nightie around the house (although the plumber did give me a generous discount that one time…).

Now I “plan” my dinner by surveying the vegetable patch and what’s left in the fridge. This week we had an abundance of zucchini in the garden. Masses of papery lantern like blossoms on shiny car-enamel yellow stalks. When you have zucchini, you really have zucchini. It’s like that old country joke that you know you have no friends if you’ve got to buy your own zucchini. I’ve been known to push eggs and veg on my friends until one of them shrieked “Stop! You’ve become a produce-pusher!”

So I made a feathery light tempura batter spiked with curry powder and sea salt and fried these gorgeous flowers up. The secret is cold cold sparkling water and mixing it in a lumpy fashion.

The kids loved it, I’ve never seen them fight over zucchini before!

Another improv memory – we came back from an overseas trip and realised we had nothing to eat. Then my friend Imogen texted me to say that she had seen a huge smoked eel at the fishmongers and bought it for me and dropped it off in my fridge as I was the only person she knew who would appreciate such a cadeau. I was overjoyed! That night I made smoked eel cakes, mashing the eel with potatoes and onions and then fried up some silver beet from the the garden with tomato passata, red wine and simmered lentils. The Irishman declared it one of his favourite meals ever. (That’s Imogen below saying “The eel was THIS big!”)

And one of my favourite unplanned memories of 2013 was our pop-up lunch party. We were supposed to go to our neighbours house for a long lunch, when their water tank broke. “What shall we do?” said Anne. Well the answer was obvious. So we ended up hosting a party for 20 or so adults and children on a magical sunny afternoon.

The kids borrowed swimsuits and played in the sprinklers, rowed in the dam, chased the chickens about and picked sugar plums in the orchard for dessert.

There was a race and a talent show.

And of course there was much rolling down the hill in billy carts, bikes, ride ons, skateboards and tractors.

“This is magic!” one of the kids shouted. Dylan stood in the wind, arms outstretched as if trying to harness the wind.

Can there be anything better than unplanned perfection? Cheers to 2014 and to all the surprises it holds, I can’t wait.

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!

Rising moon, leaping trout

Last weekend was one of those perfect weekends, munificent with its bounty of delights, all laid out against a backdrop of perfect weather. And I say this with a twinge of nostalgia, sitting here amidst the incessant rain and hail that has plagued us for the past few days in Victoria while New South Wales burns to crisps around the edges. Crazy times.

Last weekend we made watermelon, feta, mint and shallot salad for the first time since last summer and brought it to Point Leo Boat Club. This is the definitive hot weather salad. Refreshing and unexpected, every mouthful is packed with a embarrassment of textures and tastes, the tart sherry vinegar marinated shallots, the green freshness of the mint and the succulent sweetness of cool watermelon. Every once in a while you get a splodge of kalamata olive or a crumbly cube of feta, just to spice things up. I am one of those people who hates fruit in anything but dessert, but I carve out a concrete exception for this salad.

We saw the craziest beautiful moonrise. It was brighter than the sunset due to the eclipse which occured the night before.

First the sun faded and sank away.

And then, as we sat on the deck eating charred greek lamb and That Watermelon Salad, we saw an iridescent copper orb float up from the horizon. I thought it was the sun coming back for an encore, and then realised that it was the moon.

It was the freakiest thing, as the sky grew brighter and more radiant, the rose gold moon suffusing the entire surface of the sea with rippling, flashing slivers of eerie salmon pink light.

The next day we went to one of the Peninsula’s best secrets according to our kids, the Ripe and Ready trout and cherry farm in Red Hill, for some trout fishing.

Finn was absolutely delighted as he managed to catch a beautiful golden trout not 2 minutes after he lowered his rod into the dam. There were so many trout the whole surface of the dam exploded like a field of squibs every time we threw bait into the water. We ended up catching about 20 trout and throwing all of them back but four. They charge you by the kilo at the trout farm, a very expensive pursuit if you’re as dedicated a fisherman as Finn! But we thought he deserved this little expedition given that he had been fishing for the last 6 times and caught nothing but one squid at the Mornington Pier.

The farm has about 20 varieties of cherries and the kids picked blossoms and checked the development of the cherries while we cleaned and gutted the fish.

They didn’t last for long and the kids declared they were the most delectable, freshest tasting fish on earth. We stuffed two of them chock full of herbs and limes from the garden and grilled them for dinner. And the other two were smoked over wood chips and had for lunch.

Then it occured to us that this past couple of weeks half of the meals we had eaten were from things we had caught ourselves – our Muscovy drake which became roast duck, duck quesadillas and then fried duck rice, and the trout. The kids are learning a lot about where their food comes from and all of us are treating meal time with a lot more respect and gratitude.

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!