June 9: bread is life

2016/06/09 deej 0

Someone said to me recently, joking about our mutual bread-making habit, “Bread is love. Bread is life.”


It may have been said in jest, but there’s a certain truthiness to the statement as well. Bread has been central to a lot of cultures around the world; to the best of my knowledge, the East Asian cultures whose main subsistence grain was rice through most of their history are the only ones in which bread hasn’t played a central role (cooked rice replaced bread for those cultures). Even the Australian Aboriginal peoples appear to have had a tradition of breadmaking long before they met any European colonial influences.


I have to admit to never having made traditional damper myself. I’ve made the schoolroom version, which is basically soda bread (scone dough), sometimes enriched with spinach and/or feta cheese, wrapped in tinfoil and then baked in an oven (rather than in the coals of a fire, as is traditional). I’ve certainly never made bread from the seeds of native plants, nor have I even ground my own flour from wheat or rye grains (although I’d really like to get a mill and try that). I have made both yeasted and sourdough breads from scratch, though, as well as using a bread machine, and I love it. There’s something deeply satisfying about kneading the dough until it genuinely stops being a sticky mess, the proteins change their structure and hydrate, and the dough becomes “silky smooth” (or at least satisfyingly even-textured and significantly less sticky).


My current sourdough culture is derived from the wild yeasts of my kitchen, which makes me happy. Every time I make bread with it I think to myself, this is what a healthy kitchen smells like. I think a good dose of beneficial wild yeasts and lactobacillus are the modern equivalent of the old stories about brownies who live int he kitchen and keep a home safe and healthy. (As an aside, I find it really interesting that pre-scientific people described spirits as invisible entities which could cause illness, in the case of evil spirits, or health, in the case of friendly spirits – sounds a lot like bacteria and other microorganisms to me.)


So, for those who’d like to follow me down the dark paths of kitchen technomancy, here’s my method for a sourdough starter (stolen wholesale from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, of River Cottage).


  • In a large bowl, mix about 100g of bread flour (at least 50% wholegrain, e.g. wholemeal, spelt, or wholegrain rye) with enough lukewarm, chlroine-free water to make a batter the consistency of thick paint. You can use rainwater, or dechlorinate tapwater by boiling it and then letting it cool; the chlorine in regular tap water will kill the wild yeasts you’re trying to encourage.


  • Beat the batter well, then cover it (with clingfilm or a lid) and leave it somewhere warm and dark. A warm kitchen is fine, or a pantry cupboard. Check it every few hours until you see bubble forming on the surface, indicating that fermentation has begun. Don’t be concerned if this takes overnight, especially in cold weather. Be patient.


  • Your starter now needs to be fed regularly. Whisk in about 50 – 100g of fresh flour, and enough dechlorinated water to maintain the thick-paint consistency. Keep the starter at normal room temperature, unless it’s summer and you’re in Australia, in which case you may want to keep it in a cool place if you can (or feed it more often, as heat increases activity). Be aware that the starter will start to die at 40 degrees C, so don’t let it get too hot – just like any other pet.


  • Feed the culture another 50 – 100g of flour and some water every day, removing some of the starter first if your bowl is getting too full, and after 7 – 10 days you should have a healthy sourdough culture. It should smell fruity and sour, like a good plain yoghurt.


Hugh says that you should not  be tempted to bake a loaf until the starter has been going for at least a week. In practice, I’m impatient and I did exactly that. It worked. The second loaf, a few days later, did rise better, but the first loaf was perfectly edible if you don’t mind a dense, chewy, more-than-half-rye bread (I used organic rye flour to start my starter).


If you’re going to bake every few days, and the weather isn’t too hot, you can keep your starter at room temperature and feed it every day. If you want to go longer between baking, add more flour to make a stiffer dough out of the starter – this way it will need feeding for a few days. You can get your starter to hibernate by putting it in the fridge, and it should keep for about a week without being fed. You’ll need to let it sit at room temperature for a few hours to reactivate it before using it again though.

Seed Season

2016/04/10 deej 1

A week ago, I planted a selection of tree seeds – five different species of wattle (Acacia spp.), poinciana (Delonix regia), jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia) and honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos). Today I noticed that some of them (notably the wattles and poinciana) are germinating already. In spite of torrential rain, the tiny, delicate seedling heads are poking up through the soil, seed cases still covering their baby seed leaves. I’m so pleased 🙂 I know it’s silly, but I love seeing baby plants emerge, especially baby trees. It also means I did pick the right time of year to plant them, just intot he beginning of the wet but before the weather cools down. Not that Perth gets that cold, even out in the hills.


Today I started the next phase of the seed planting plans: the vegetable seeds. I haven’t managed to plant them all; there are way too many for that. I went on a bit of a seed-buying spree a while ago, so I now have many packets of seeds, many varieties of each thing, all heading towards the end of their “best before” (i.e. easily germinates if planted before) date. This afternoon, so far, I’ve planted the eggplants (Mini Purple Oblong, Green Oblong, Rosa Bianca, Pea Eggplant, Udamalapet, and Small White), capsicum (Alma Paprika and Sweet Chocolate), chilli (Chilli Fatalii), and tomatoes (Roman Speckled, Reisetomate, Costuleto Genovese, Red Fig, Jaune Flamme, and the seeds I saved from my mum’s garden last summer, for some sort of delicious cherry tomatoes). So, all the nightshades, really.


All my vegetable seeds are grouped according to their place in the planting rotation, so all the nightshades are together. Standard rotation puts leafy greens together, root vegetables together (which one is beetroot??? leafy or root?), and legumes together, and there’s generally a ‘green manure’ or fallow rotation to build the soil back up. My rotation groups are:


  • Nightshades (eggplant, chilli, tomato, capicum)
  • Root Vegetables (radish, beetroot, onions, carrots, salsify)
  • Legumes (beans, peas, cowpeas, lentils)
  • Squash & Corn (sweetcorn & maize, sunflowers, summer squash, winter squash, cucumbers)
  • Brassicas & Leafy Greens (lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, swedes)
  • Green Manure (barley, roselle, alyssum, cosmos, basil, dandelion, purslane)


So.. yeah. I still have a lot of planting to do, even just planting the autumn and winter varieties (and a few of the ones which recommend spring sowing, but which I think should be sown in autumn – like tomatoes). But it’s a good feeling watching the seeds sprout. And it should mean I have a beautiful productive kitchen garden this spring & summer.


2016/01/08 deej 0

One of ethics of permaculture is ‘right livelihood’, which is a boiled down abstraction of the idea that people should be able to make a living – being environmentally conscious doesn’t necessarily mean giving up on commerce. Which is good news for those of us with a mortgage. I want to be ethical in my interactions with the rest of the world, even the financial ones, but I also want my bills to get paid.

On that front, although this property is home now, and a test bed for a great many ideas and experiments (such as my dino-chook project – more on that in a later post), it is also intended to be a productive farm. Not just productive in terms of providing us with fresh, ethically produced food with low food miles and a certainty of no pesticide residues, but in terms of producing things for sale, to make a profit with which to pay for things we can’t produce ourselves (including mortgage repayments). I don’t think that Gallifrey Forest Farm will be making enough to free us entirely from our day jobs any time soon, but.. well, let’s call it an aspirational goal.

For this aspirational goal to become reality, we need some profitable enterprises. In order to count as profitable, an enterprise must bring in enough money to cover not only the associated production and packaging costs (e.g. fertilising the trees which produce the fruit, sugar to add to the fruit, bottles and labels for the resulting jam, etc.) but also the cost of our time. I have a notional minimum hourly rate which I would bill myself out at as an IT contractor. This rate is less than my day job currently pays me, but it’s enough to pay my share of the bills, and working on farm stuff is much more satisfying to me than my day job so it works out. If the amount of time that I need to spend working on an enterprise, billed at that minimum hourly rate, pushes the cost of the finished item past what someone would reasonably pay for it, then that item just isn’t profitable. And since estimating how much time something will take is actually part of my day job, I’m pretty good at it.

The end result is that a lot of farming enterprises which look superficially cool are almost immediately off the list. Milk, for example: keeping goats or a house cow to produce milk for our own use is definitely worthwhile, but selling milk just isn’t. The cost of producing and packaging and certifying it leaves a very, very slim profit margin (or no margin, depending on packaging choices, wholesale costs, and the cost of animal feed). Cider, on the other hand, seems like a good option. Wine has weird taxes placed on it, but cider and beer don’t. I don’t like beer, so there’s no chance I’ll be able to work out how to brew a good one, but I do enjoy a good artisanal cider (for anyone in the US, I’m talking about hard cider, with alcohol in it – not just apple juice).

This also works out well for me because one of my passions is heritage fruit tree varieties. So, with cider production in mind, I’ve been looking at lists of old apple varieties, and making a shopping list. I’ve whittled it down to 32 varieties, mostly dessert apples (i.e. good for eating fresh) with a few cider-specific types for the astringency and acid I’ll need for a good cider. Today I planted the first six trees, which I bought as bare-root stock last summer and have been keeping in pots since then. Only another 26 trees to buy and plant.

It made me happy, planting them. Even in the heat this morning, dripping sweat as I dug holes for them and hauled watering cans full of water to settle them in, it felt good. Next step, a couple’ve boxes of apples from the market, an apple press, a brewing kit, and some experimentation. Who’s in to taste-test the results? 🙂


urban agriculture and space habitats

2015/12/09 deej 0

I’ve been thinking a lot about space, recently. As in, spaceships and stars and planets. I know, I know, that sounds like it has nothing to do with our fledgling smallholding – but in reality it has quite a lot to do with it.

When I say I’m thinking about space, I mean I’m thinking about humans going to space. Space habitats and the ecosystems we’ll need to support them, producing enough food not just for a few scientists but for entire villages of people living in colonies on the moon, or Mars, or Venus, or even in permanent space station habitats orbiting the Earth. Recycling water and air, nitrogen and carbon and all the micronutrients and elements that we need to survive.

I think that a lot of the techniques which are useful for urban agriculture and peri-urban (urban fringe) agrculture in the here-and-now are also applicable to setting up self-sufficient space habitats and extra-terrestrial colonies. And equally, a lot of the techniques that might be researched and developed for use in space are also applicable, with minor modifications, to urban agriculture. Aquaponics and aeroponics are the most obvious examples, recycling water and nutrients to produce fish and vegetables (in an aquaponics system) or to use minimal water for maximum vegetable production (in an aeroponics system). Insect farming is another example, everything from raising crickets as a food source for ourselves or for fish (fun fact: you can also include crickets in the diet of chickens, for the protein, and even in the food for your cat or dog) to composting with black soldier flies, the larvae of which again provide high quality fish and poultry feed. The main point is to have closed systems, or as closed as possible when we are removing nutrients by eating some of the produce.

Composting toilets are also a thing, since recycling those nutrients is going to be essential in space and is increasingly essential here on Earth. The amount of soil which is being lost to erosion each year means that we need to do absolutely everything we can to retain and enrich the soil we have. Of course that includes composting food waste and animal manure as well as humanure, since nutrients are nutrients.

Any sort of ecosystem that we were to set up in space – or in an urban environment, as a relatively closed or self-sufficient system – requires careful planning around the types of plants and animals that we raise. We need enough different foods to provide both the nutrition and the energy (calories or kilojoules) that we need to live, and if we keep animals at all then we need enough food to provide them with their nutritional and energy needs as well. And, as any biodynamic practitioner will tell you, we also need enough carbonaceous materials (e.g. the stems of cereals and grasses) to allow for effective composting. Unless we use only hydro-, aero-, or aquaponic (water based) systems, in which case we still need some way of recycling the nutrients in waste food, non-food plant parts, and manure.

What combinations of plants provide us with the minimum viable diversity of diet to live well? Which ones combine nutritional efficiency with high production – and what does that mean for our diet? Rice is far more productive than wheat or corn under ideal conditions (yields of 4 – 8, and up to 22 tonnes per hectare for rice, compared to 1 – 4.5 tonnes per hectare for wheat accoirding to google), so should we try to move away from our western, wheat-based diet? Or should we try to breed more productive wheat varieties? And what animals should we keep, to maximise production while minimising the space we need to use?

Fish seem to be an obvious choice, along with insects to feed them, but which species of fish? Trout, tilapia (illegal to keep in Australia) and carp have been raised in aquaculture systems very successfully, and both will breed in captivity without outside intervention. Barramundi are harder to raise because they are more inclined to cannibalism when crowded, and they do not breed naturally in captivity. Catfish grow well and will breed in captivity, but they do not like being crowded and will fight and injure one another.

Then you start down the road of poultry (chickens, pigeons, ducks, quail, ..) and small ruminants (miniature goats or sheep, or even miniature cattle). Smaller animals such as rabbits or guinea pigs are possible too. Or will we simply have vats to produce artificial meat instead? And what about pets? Do pets have a place in the system, even if the only work they do is to provide us humans with companionship and the associated psychological benefits? (We’ve decided that they do, that both cats and dogs have a place on our farm simply because we believe that we, as humans, are poorer and lonelier when we don’t have dogs and cats in our lives).

I don’t have answers, but I’m working on it. I want to go into space one day.


supper club

2015/08/04 deej 0

the aptly named 'Dinner', roastedI haven’t posted much about plants or animals recently, which is mostly because it’s winter and cold and nothing much is growing. And most of my attention is on the house-building project.

The chickens are moulting, and so laying fairly sporadically. The quail are still laying, although one of them got sick and we had to euthanise her. We ate her afterwards because (a) I feel that eating the carcase shows respect tot he animal, and not eating it is wasteful and disrespectful, and (b) the illness was a beak disorder, so there was no health risk to us. We also killed and roasted one of mum’s chickens, which had stopped laying. She was a little tough, but very tasty.

The garden is green and happy, and the citrus are fruiting massively, but that’s about it. The olives I put up in autumn are fermenting away (the quick processed ones are ready for eating, and we’ve eaten some of them). We made some calamondin and raspberry jam (which is delicious) and also a calamondin and blackberry variant (also delicious). And there’s been more use of limes and lime juice in our cooking (I made lime jelly on the weekend, to top a lime and blueberry cheesecake), and a certain amount of grapefruit juice consumed.

Which brings me to my point, actually. It’s winter; it’s cold and wet, and when the weather is cold and wet the eye turns to food. Pies and puddings and jam and cocktail syrups (we have a lot of citrus, and I don’t really care for marmalade) and overly fancy dishes inspired by watching Masterchef.

things I want to try making: passionfruit sphere and coconut granita with pineapple

Normally I don’t watch TV. I have so many things in my life that any time I have spare I either read a book or watch something without adverts in it (hello internet! Have I mentioned how much I love you?), or put some time into one of my hobbies, or play with my cats. But there was a lazy dinner evening of buying fish & chips, and in the fish & chips shop there was a TV playing an episode of Masterchef, and then we had to watch the rest of the episode later for closure, and then we were hooked. Also, the show (and most of the recipes used on it) are available free online from channel ten.

things I want to try making: liquid butternut gnocchiPartly as a result of the show, I’ve started a little supper club. A group of us have agreed that we’ll have shared multi-course dinner parties every couple’ve months – we’ll do a degustation style meal with lots of smallish courses and each member of the club will make one of the courses for each dinner. We’ll rotate who does which course so we all have a chance to do appetisers and mains and desserts and everything in between. The idea is to make fancy dinner parties a bit more affordable to hold, and more fun because the effort is shared, and also to put some time aside to catch up with people more often and maintain those social networks which are so essential to us. I’m really looking forward to the first dinner party (scheduled for October, after we’re completely moved into the new house). (Which, by the way, is almost finished! It’s on site, the electrics are connected, verandahs are being built this week, and it looks amazing.)

1 2 3 4 5