A Quiet Place in the Country

Although home and garden provide a daily antidote to the high tech world in which I earn my living, there is yet another place for me approaching an almost sacred aboriginal connection to the land: Pine Hut Knob.

P1030298This name appears on no map, and yet it stands squarely in the mythology of this family – I have owned it since I earned my first pay packet way back before wife and kinder came onto the scene. This 30 hectare (75 acres) of marginal grazing land lies along a hidden valley off Pine Hut Road on the eastern slopes of the Mount Lofty Ranges and encompasses a knob-like hill with a marvellous view of the grandeur of the Murray Valley laid out below. And all that for $6000…

P1030293None of my early dreams of self-sufficiency and a farming life proved to be in the least realistic out there where rainfall is scarce and summer temperatures scorching. Nevertheless, in the almost forty years that I have owned the property, I have quietly planted my crops – trees that are native to this area and can survive without any input from me beyond the first autumn plantings and some protection from wandering stock and rabbits. Where once barren hillsides stood, now I can lose myself among my trees and discover wildlife of almost endless variety. In the ancient River Red Gums along the creek bed, corellas and galahs and cockatoos screech and wheel, while masses of Monarch (Wanderer) butterflies that have all but disappeared from the Adelaide Plains can be found flocking and feeding on the sticky hop bushes found on the lower hill slopes.Western Grey Kangaroos in small groups of two or three are a common sight. Wedge-Tailed Eagles soar gracefully overhead.

P1030294So it is here that the family brings visitors from overseas or friends in need of a change from the city life. I light the wood fire and cook lunch, then sit quietly enjoying the ebb and flow of bird life in and out of all the trees I raised from seed and planted all down the years.

But this doesn’t last long – the gardener in me soon has me up and about, tending to my crop of young trees, a legacy that can be enjoyed by members of my family for generations to come, provided they don’t get greedy and cash it all in after we’ve gone.

Autumn seedlings at winter’s end

P1030189For too many years we’ve had too little produce in the garden during the lean months of Spring.

But this year, thanks to mass plantings in autumn, the garden is full. With Spring only a few weeks away, all that’s needed is to free these earlier plantings from the mass of nettles and soursobs that have taken advantage of the winter rains and flooded those hard-won seedlings.

Despite our affection for this garden, these are tiresome weeks as we hack away this winter growth. Back and knees and hands remind us constantly of the personal costs of home-grown produce.

P1030195But there is a real sense of achievement once known vegetables reappear, reminding us of choices made in front of the seed-table: beetroot, feldsalat (Lambs Lettuce), parsnips, onions, all sorts of lettuces, garlic, parsley and coriander, cabbages, broad beans, silverbeet and so on and so forth.

Only physical labour can bring order out of chaos in a garden. But when that’s done,the garden offers its own rewards – down in the production garden, the almond tree is blossoming, harbinger of the coming Spring.


How to pickle olives

P1020905Winter is well along in southern Australia, yet we’re still enjoying our summer crops – some from the freezer, but also all those things the cook has pickled so that they last well in storage for the lean times in late winter and spring – pickled cucumbers, kimchee, sauerkraut and olives.

P1020789I had never set out to grow olives, but nevertheless, an olive tree grew. Perhaps I threw an olive pip into that piece of garden, or perhaps a bird brought it. However it got there, this olive tree grew so well that the darn thing was starting to cut out our winter sunshine and push aside orange and plum trees. And yes, it had olives on it, but now they were so high up only the birds could reach them. So the cook placed all the usual pressures on the gardener (knowing full well the action of water dripping on stone) until neither tree nor gardener stood a chance. One proviso got though the negotiations - that the last crop of olives from this one tree would be salvaged rather than wasted. In due course, the olive tree was felled and cleared away, pickled olives appeared, and harmony was restored between cook and gardener.

P1020821Felling a big tree like this can wreak havoc, so it needed to be dropped in exactly the right spot; this was accomplished by tensioning a nylon rope from the tree top along the line of travel to a stake set deep in the ground, then the chainsaw did the rest.

Once down, olive harvesting was much simplified. A week later, the chainsaw and wheelbarrow took care of the wreckage and the olive pickling process began to appear all over the kitchen table and cupboards. I missed most of it, but here’s the cook’s recipe, garnered from the old Italian lady over the road, who still thinks in pints and cupfuls rather than litres and kilograms: -

P1020819Soak olives in fresh water for two to three weeks, changing the water daily – this soaks the bitterness out of the olives. When that’s done, immerse the olives in six pints of water, one pint of white vinegar, one cup of salt, a bay leaf and fennel seeds and bring the lot to boil. Simmer for ten minutes, let cool, sterilize jars then fill them three-quarters full with olives and this fluid. Add garlic and chillies to taste. Keep the olives immersed by covering them with vine leaves, then clip on the jar lids. Let stand for two to three months.

P1020815It appears that there are alternative ‘experimental’ recipes to the one described above – these involve  salted water and letting the lot stand for six months, and an even rarer method involving olive oil instead of vinegar. But those are tales for another day. In the meantime, home-grown olives are appearing for the last time in among the gardener’s meals…