Winter

Winter

By
Rohan Anderson
Contains
27 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781743790540
Photographer
Rohan Anderson & Kate Berry

It arrives one of two ways, either ever so slightly sneaking in the back door, or as subtle as a freight train. This year it was the latter. With gusto and conviction, the wildness of the Central Highlands winter abruptly appeared on our doorstep. On the hill it’s either all wind or all calm; rarely is it an even balance of the two. The winter wind can be icy and cruel. It blew fierce for days, removing all but a handful of leaves from the old walnut tree. When the last leaves drop off that tree, we have no option but to accept the inevitable – autumn is over and winter is here.

There are signs everywhere that Jack Frost has moved back in. The cold evenings have killed off all the field mushrooms, which have retreated back into the soil until the following autumn. The chickens have gone off the lay, as they too can sense the change of season and spend most of their days huddled inside their wooden shack, sheltered away from the cold. The garden is again in an obvious state of transition, with some remnants of summer crops looking quite dismal and shambolic, while new crops pop their delicate heads from the soil, green, fresh and ready for a life of cold-season growing. If you’ve a keen eye you can notice the changes in the paddocks, the sky and the bush. Rabbits start getting frisky, bouncing around each other in mating displays that look more playful than serious. Robins fly down from the colder hills and prance and chirp in our farmhouse garden. The frog calls of winter become more of a ruckus, and frog foam appears sporadically on the still water of the dams. It’s a pretty nice time of year.

Although there’s a lot of activity for much of the animal world, this here animal uses winter to slow down, recuperate and enjoy the spoils of previous seasons.

I’ve worked hard for this time. My larder is stocked, my freezer is full, and my kitchen is primed for months of hearty-style cooking. I’ve spent the previous nine months growing, hunting, harvesting, foraging, preserving, pickling, drying, bottling, saucing, curing, smoking and sorting. Now’s the time to enjoy all these food assets I’ve worked for.

My firewood cache is bulked up with seasoned firewood, which will keep the house fire burning away and the house warm. My boots have a fresh layer of beeswax and new woollen liners. My jackets are dusted off and waxed to offer protection from the elements. Winter is finally here. It’s a great time of the year on the hill. I love and appreciate every minute of it.

Little bastards

Almost every day I check on the veg patch. Even in the dead of winter there always seems to be some action going on. To be honest, though, I think the only reason anything grows this time of year is that I’m mentally willing it to grow. It’s ridiculously cold on the hill. Cold enough that the frigid wind has blown the leaves off my poor lemon tree. That’s not supposed to happen. I have all my garlic in, which has sprouted those little green stems of hope. The onions are in the ground, although I’m pretty sure they’ll show zero activity until springtime. The broad bean crop is ticking along – there’s growth but it’s at a snail’s pace. All the leafy stuff like kale, rainbow chard, rocket and silverbeet seems to thrive in these conditions, and gets a hammering in the kitchen.

But what I’d really like to see thriving at this time of year is the broccoli. Sure, it’s nice to eat the fresh leafy greens, but broccoli feels more like a vegetable, and its arrival hints at the recurrence of slightly warmer spring weather.

Broccoli is one of those vegetables that I seem to plant more of each year. It’s a great ingredient that’s welcome in pasta and fritters or grilled with chilli for a warming salad. I’m a big fan of the sprouting broccoli because it allows you to harvest a little at a time without killing the plant, as it resprouts and continues to provide food. I do still grow the big boys, though; I can’t give up those jumbo florets that are a meal in themselves. My crop has got off to a great start. The seeds all germinated and transplanted happily into the garden. Within those last few weeks of autumn the plants thrived, with new green leaves promising future food for the family. I could almost taste those fritters dipped in a chilli aioli. Then disaster struck. One morning after feeding the chooks I did my rounds and inspected the veg patch. Most of that thriving broccoli crop had been nibbled to the stem, all those leaves needed for photosynthesis now completely destroyed. It’s such a shit feeling, a feeling not only of failing the family but missing out on the joy of eating such a great gift from nature.

I got down on my knees for a closer inspection, my jeans soaking up the moisture of wet grass. Fuming with a mixture of anger and sadness I saw the tiny teeth marks of the culprit – a yet-to-be- identified mammal. I know this might not seem like something worth making a fuss about, but in my world it’s a big issue. It’s bloody devastating. All that effort of propagating the seeds, thinning them out and transplanting them, all so that I have access to pure, chemical-free broccoli. Now it’s all gone. I have to start from scratch. But if I planted new seedlings, surely they’d just get hammered again – an exercise in futility, perhaps. And what animal was it that had feasted on my broccoli? I’ve built the garden with a rabbit-proof fence, so surely they couldn’t get in! I checked the entire perimeter like a special forces agent at the White House. No cracks in the perimeter wall, so how was it breached? Maybe the culprit was already inside the ‘compound’? Maybe it wasn’t a rabbit. My other options were possums, rats or mice. How can I protect my garden from these guys? Impossible! For possums I’d need to fence the entire structure, floor to celling! That would cost me a fortune in wire. I’d never seen any possum scats there, nor had I heard them of an evening so, throwing caution to the wind, I placed my bet on rodents. Determined that those little bastards wouldn’t get the next round of seedlings, I went and collected a bunch of plastic soft-drink bottles and cut off the bottoms. The bottles could now be placed over the seedlings, allowing air to get in but not mice or rats. I set traps all over the garden in the hope of making a dint in the population of the perps. I kept an even closer eye on the next round of seedlings. I was a veggie-garden security hawk. Over a few weeks I trapped a heap of rats and mice, confirming my suspicions of their heinous crimes. The seedlings are doing just fine in their little plastic bottle enclosures, and although the crop will be slightly delayed, I’m hoping to feast on those broccoli fritters sometime soon. I did wonder briefly what trapped rodents taste like, but it was a fleeting thought.

The mighty wind

My landlady once said to me, ‘There’s two types of weather here: calm and uneventful or wild and windy.’ She should know; her family has owned the land for more than a hundred years. It’s true most of the time. I guess that’s what you have to expect, living on a hill that’s part of the Great Dividing Range. I can’t say for sure which season is the windiest – it seems to be windy when it wants to be windy, which is most of the time – but winter has brought some pretty wild weather this year, wild and scary at times. The last few nights have been particularly bad. I lay in bed listening to the old cedar and oak trees bend backwards and forwards in the fierce wind. These trees are both old and enormous, having been planted more than a century ago. I wonder if one will ever blow down and crush the house. I guess the house has been here since the mid-1940s, but maybe it’s just had good luck. There’s always a chance, though, and maybe it won’t be the whole tree, maybe just a huge limb. Whatever the case may be, it’s enough to keep me awake and alert on those extremely windy nights.

When I woke early in the morning, a hot cup of coffee had been placed on my bedside table, steam drifting up from the cup like a ghostly figure. It’s amazing how a cup of coffee in bed can make the start of the day more excellent than ever. Only one other thing can make the start to the day perfect. Today I missed out, but the coffee was much appreciated. I rubbed the sleepiness from my eyes and slurped up that warm brew. Before anything was done this morning I had to inspect the carnage from last night’s storm. The weather report said we’d had strong wind gusts, but it’s always more severe up here. Outside I went, checking both sides of the old farmhouse. A few little branches were down but, again, this house was lucky.

Out into the backyard I went to check the chooks, and it was then that I was greeted with the view of destruction. My beloved new poly tunnel, flattened. The northerly wind had found the weakest part of the structure and after one tube snapped, others obviously followed and the frame came down. Just devastating. I’d worked hard on that construction, but now it looked like an installation at Tate Modern. I was really proud of what I’d made, but now it was a pile of broken PVC pipe and clear plastic flapping in what remained of the storm’s wind. Upon closer inspection, any hopes I had of a patch-up repair were dashed. Too much of the framework had been compromised, and there was a huge rip in the clear plastic. Even if I did repair the frame, I’d have to replace the plastic, as a rip that large could never be held back together with tape.

I had to admit to myself that the gamble of the cheaper PVC version of a poly tunnel was a bad choice. It was one of those moments where there’s no point getting angry at yourself, you just have to accept the failure and plant it firmly in your memory so you don’t do it again. There was no way I’d rebuild with PVC; my next version would have to be steel. At least that way, when I move sometime in the future, the next poly tunnel will be easy to disassemble and transport to our forever house.

I’ve not yet pulled the tunnel down. It’s still there, taunting me every time I visit the garden. All I’ve done is crawl inside and harvest the last of the jalapeños and capsicums. I was going to grow broccoli and peas in it over winter, but that experiment will have to wait until next winter.

Got wood?

We have plenty of firewood for now, but I have to admit I’m worried about getting through to spring. For every house I’ve lived in that’s had to rely on a house fire for warmth, I’ve fretted about making it to spring. It’s natural to worry about such things. The very thought of not having a supply of firewood to heat the house on those cold winter days is, quite frankly, frightening. Even when the fire is roaring, it’s still cold in some parts of this old farmhouse.

I used to think that it was sufficient to have one year’s firewood in stock, but I’ve changed my view on that. I now like to have two years of stock. I think it’s a good approach to have one year’s worth of firewood ready to go, all stacked up, dry and neat, and another pile of wood seasoning away a few years in advance. That’s what I’ve been working on lately. There are domestic logging coupes open to the public that have at some stage already been logged and are now thick with copious regrowth. The Forestry Department crews thin out the weak trees to allow the stronger ones to thrive. People like me benefit because we’re permitted to go in and clean up the fallen timber. There aren’t many of us left who rely totally on firewood for heating, but enough of us still exist for this system to remain in place. There’s a town not far from us that only just got connected to the gas mains after all these years. Imagine that in this day and age. Our house is still too far away from gas mains, so we have no option but to rely on a fire for heating.

There’s something I love about relying on a roaring fire for warmth. The sounds, the glow and the smell of certain timbers as they blaze away – it’s primitive and nostalgic and it’s grand. I don’t mind burning wood – it’s a renewable resource, and if I lived in the city I’d be using gas heating. But I’m not. I’m out here, on a hill, in the sticks. So firewood it is.

This forest

This place hasn’t always been my home. I’ve lived in a million other places – well, that’s a slight exaggeration, maybe a few thousand. I was fortunate enough to spend the best of my childhood years living on a little farm at the base of alpine high country. There’s no doubt in my mind that my time living there formed the basis of who I am today. I was ten years old when we moved there, and you can imagine how exciting the whole experience was for me. Real farm life! Raising animals, growing food, fishing the river and playing cowboy. I’m obviously not ten any more, but not much has changed; I still love the same things. These days, though, all cowboy action is reserved for the bedroom only.

But that alpine high country, it somehow got into my blood and became part of me, or I became part of it. I remember fishing the creeks for trout before I was a teenager – the clear water, fresh from snow melt and mountain rain. The forest was actually temperate rainforest, loaded with delicate ferns, grasses and fungi of all shapes and sizes. In some parts the bush is so thick that visibility is limited to a few metres. Just magic. When you visit these places you need to go with your heart open, because one of its roles is to recharge the human soul. This bush and I have a relationship. It doesn’t talk to me; it’s a one-sided relationship, where I just admire its beauty.

If it were a thousand years ago and there were no cars, houses or iPhones, that forest would be everything to us. This bush has supported Indigenous people for thousands of years. They lived quite happily here. They took what they needed to survive and allowed it to repair itself. The water was pure and drinkable, the animals as they were meant to be – native, wild and free. Since we white people have been here, the bush has taken a bit of a beating. It’s now plagued with weeds, it’s filled with introduced animals and in places we harvest it for our needs, be it to manufacture toilet paper, house-building materials or woodchips. This forest, all the forests, all the remaining patches of land that have not yet been molested by humans, are more precious than ever.

It was my affection for this forest, its secret valleys and clear waters that initially got me thinking about living lighter. When I was a kid I dreamt of building a tiny house in the bush and living off fish, mushrooms and wild game. It was the idea of that forest being the source of much of our existence that made me think with a greener attitude. Even years ago, when I worked a corporate job, I’d often pack up my car and camp out there for a few days. It was a recharge that kept me sane.

I know it’s a cliché for me to be a lover of trees and forests, but I don’t care. It’s part of me. In the bigger picture, it’s what drives me to step back from the wicked ways I lived, where little care was given to making an effort to live lighter. And yes, I’m aware that growing my own vegetables, blah, blah, blah, won’t directly save the forest, but the mindset of living lighter, the concept itself and putting it into action, will reduce other environmental impacts. Having that picture of a pure temperate rainforest in my mind helps me make more deliberate choices in my consumer life. I wonder what difference we could all make if each of us had a forest in our life. Maybe take a walk in the bush and think it over.

Pulling the trigger

I've been cooking a lot of deer this winter. In years past I’d only get little trickles here and there from friends or from the local deer farm, but this year, having hunted them myself, I’ve been blessed with loads of venison. I know hunting isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I’m very thankful for that, but I must say that making the choice to eat mostly meat that comes from hunted animals is quite a deal. It’s not the culinary side of things that’s the raddest, although saying that I can inform you that venison, when cooked right, is a tasty feed. I’m talking more about the process of hunting, which has been the real surprise for me. These two deer in the freezer, for example, they took some work to get there.

Not being self-righteous here, merely hypothetical. What if you had to cut open a large animal’s guts, place your hands in amongst the warm organs and rip the entire system out? What if you had your meat animal down the scope and you had to pull the trigger knowing all too well what the consequences would be? What if you thought about the concept that you’re killing some creature’s relative, a mother doe, a father buck? When we buy meat off the shelf, this hypothetical is nowhere to be seen. It makes buying ‘flesh’ an easy task, so easy that one could hypothetically buy loads of it without a thought in the world as to how and where said flesh came from. The thing most of us look at on the packet is the price. It’s a price that shrouds all sorts of behind-the-scenes stuff, from agricultural chemicals and antibiotics to welfare issues and carbon-costly transport. Wouldn’t it be a better system if we made more effort to know where our food came from? Do you think we would make better food choices? Is it even worth talking about? Or should we just allow the status quo to continue?

Sand carrots

Unfortunately, I don’t have a large vegetable garden. I’d love to have one, but I’m a renter. One day, I hope to buy a patch of land, build a small straw-bale cottage and spread my veg garden far and wide. But that’s not the case for now. Due to my space limitations, I have to manage my garden like a game of Tetris. When the seasons shift, there’s sometimes an overlap in crops. Carrots that have been growing over summer and autumn, for example, still occupy real estate that’s now needed for winter crops like peas, broad beans and kale. It’s a dilemma sometimes, because we can’t possibly eat all the carrots at once, but I sure need to harvest them to make way for the incoming crop. Over the past few winters I’ve been trialling a possible solution, and it involves a tub of sand.

I’d read somewhere that root vegetables used to be stored in a sandy mix on boats for long-haul journeys. Surely this could work at my place, too! I must warn you though, you do require some specialist equipment, notably a tub and some sand. This technique works a treat. I’ve stored carrots in the sand for months, then pulled them out and they’ve been stiff as the day I pulled them from the soil. Parsnips, potatoes and turnips also store well for a few months, but I’ve found sometimes beetroot can get a bit woody if left too long.

What the?

Can you believe it? A rabbit in my ‘rabbit-proof’ veg patch! Man, I feel like a complete hack at times! Darting for safety this morning, as I toured the patch, was a tiny baby rabbit. So small was it that it literally dived through the rabbit-proof fencing, through the ringlet only a few centimetres wide. This thing must be tiny under that winter fur! And it’s eaten some of my veg, too, that little mongrel! This is so embarrassing. A rabbit-hunting dude who can’t control the rabbits in his own backyard. Nobody’s perfect, eh?

I’ve made it my mission to catch this baby bunny. No matter how damn cute it appears, it’s got the eating potential of a hungry teenager at dinnertime. Left to its own devices it’s capable of doing some real damage, so it has to go. My first wave of attack was to send in the canine. Henry’s a damn fine rabbit-hunter. He often catches them when we go for a walk in the paddock, so maybe he could be the cat to my mouse. It didn’t take long for Henry to pick up the scent. For a bird dog he’s more interested in rabbits, which makes hunting quail a challenge when we’re in thick rabbit country! Straight away he’s madly pointing under one of the fruit boxes, a perfect shelter for a tiny bunny. I get on my belly for a closer look and sure enough, looking right at me is a shit-scared bunny that picked the wrong garden to invade. With a bit of encouragement, it made a dash for freedom only to be chomped by Henry. A feed for the dog and I can rest a while, knowing my veggies are safe. For today, at least.

Three times a charm

It’s the middle of winter. The sky isn’t just grey, it’s covered in cloud, no sun to be seen. The old farmhouse on the hill is often in cloud during winter. We’ve already had snow twice this winter, and I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised if we get more. The food I’ve squirrelled away from last spring, summer and autumn is getting well used in the kitchen. A lot of meals start with the gentle sweating of onions, carrots and celery, then in goes the meat to brown, topped up with lush red tomato passata (puréed tomatoes). The weekly winter bean stew bubbles away on the gas hob and feeds us for easy meals, for at least a few days if not a week. It’s a season of hearty meals that bring us joy when the grey skies do not.

The veg garden has slowed right down. Nothing appears to be happening. In the forest, however, there’s still activity, and it’s a welcome surprise. You’d think the freezing winter conditions would bring the fungi to a grinding halt. For the most part it has, but a few mushrooms have popped up that I call ‘the confused mushrooms’. One variety, though, is actually more of a winter species, and it’s fast becoming one of my favourite mushrooms to hunt for. The wood blewit (Clitocybe nuda) is a beautiful species. It’s not much to look at from above, but once turned over the gills are an iridescent lilac. It’s one of those absolutely stunning forms in nature that we humans can only dream of creating. These winter beauties seem to grow in the rotting leaf litter of oak trees, sometimes under pines, and I’ve once found them in grass, but usually they’re a forest species. They have an unmistakable mushroomy smell, which is a good sign, because often if a fungus smells distasteful it’s not safe to eat. That’s a loose rule, by the way.

I’d read about wood blewits in books, but I’d never spotted one in the forest until this season. It’s been a bit of a game-changer, too. I have to admit I may have become a little obsessed with them. Every time I spot a bunch of old oak trees I pull over and scout around for some food, whereas for years I’d been avoiding oak trees because of their symbiotic relationship with the death cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides) – yes, it’s deadly toxic, so don’t eat it. But wood blewits are friendlier. They can be toxic if eaten raw, so the idea is to cook them before eating. Who likes raw mushrooms anyway?

The wood blewit is very mushroomy, not only in smell but in taste. Its texture is a little soft, but not like the squirmy slippery Jack (Suillus luteus). Fried in butter and olive oil with a few sage leaves and garlic, it’s delicious. I’ve been so obsessed with trying to locate more picking spots that I’m spending time in the forest like it’s still autumn. What a great excuse to get back among the pines and oaks. Better than being cooped up at home in front of the fire all day. I was already starting to get cabin fever. Thankfully, the wood blewits saved me – they’ve got me off my arse and back in the bush, no matter how cold it is.

In my winter-mushroom basket I have the three forest mushrooms I love: the slippery Jack, saffron milkcap/pine mushroom (Lactarius deliciosus) and wood blewit. And I have them in good numbers, too! Enough so that I’ve been able to experiment with a recipe idea that I think will bring some stunning results. I’ve fried up the medley of mushrooms and been adding a little ricotta and then rolling out tasty ravioli. And when one type of cheese isn’t enough, I add two more. I cover the cooked mushroom ravioli in mascarpone and grate over some pecorino. Each delicate parcel of pasta and mushroom is gently placed in my mouth and softly masticated where mushroom meets pasta and cheese alike. It’s a recipe I’ll be making year after year.

Now with a brand-new flavour

A mate of mine always shares stuff. Almost without fail, just before I leave his place, he’ll take me aside and pass me some form of produce. Sometimes it’s honey from his bees, sometimes it’s a nice chunk of wood, but there’s always something. I feel awful because I didn’t come prepared with anything in return for a trade. I don’t believe for a second that his motivation is trading. He’s just a nice bloke who loves to share. His honey is something else, let me tell you! It’s quite different from the honey from down our way, which seems to be slightly sweeter. But Hatto, he lives over the divide, the large range that slices from the south to the north of the state. We affectionately call it ‘up there’. It’s country that’s drier and the vegetation is matched to the climate. It’s box bark eucalyptus country, and this is where the bees get the nectar to make their unique honey.

So why am I telling you about some guy’s honey from his backyard bees? Well, one thing I absolutely love about this ‘practiculture’ lifestyle is that I’m surrounded by many other people who kinda live in a similar way. They may grow veggies, they may raise animals, but in some way or another they take care of producing some of their food. It may be a little, it may be a lot. Regardless, the beauty is that we all share, give and trade. What’s so good about that, I hear you ask? Well, besides the obvious facts of local, organic, blah, blah, think about the flavours! Everything is unique. Every time you put something in your mouth it’s a potential new experience. New! Exciting! You picking up what I’m putting down?

Man cannot survive on bread alone. It would be too boring, although some breads are pretty delicious. But seriously, imagine a life of food that gives you that little rush of sensation every time you try it. Year in, year out, food shared this way always tastes different. Olives can struggle with drought one year and be waterlogged the next, affecting the yield and flavour of the oil. Variation in food is something I’ve embraced over the years. My expectations are zero. I never expect anything to taste a particular way – it’s best just to lie back and enjoy the ride.

Do the right thing?

There was a slight breeze, the clouds had rolled over, bringing with them a cover of darkness, and although there was a crispness in the air it wasn’t too cold to hunt in the evening. I sent a message to Jack and we met up at our closest spot for a shoot. We’ve got permission from a nearby farmer to help out with the rabbit numbers. I’m not sure we make any sort of dint in the population – they just keep coming back! – but we get a feed and the farmer gets some crop saved, so it’s a practical arrangement.

We walked the fields, up the rise and down into the wet gully, where the grass is long and damp. Not only are there plenty of bunnies, but there’s everything else down in this patch. Possums in trees, sneaking foxes, hares, wallabies, kangaroos, and the owls that keep a watchful eye on us from the safety of their high top perch. We bagged a few rabbits, enough for a feed the following day and a few to freeze for storage.

On the hike back up to the truck, we noticed a few more roos jump over the fence into the bush for safety. All but one. This kangaroo had one hell of a limp. In fact, it wasn’t a limp, the foot looked like it had been snapped at the joint and was just being dragged along. That roo must have been in a lot of pain. My heart sank, knowing that this fella was dead meat. With an injury that bad there’s no surviving. It’s not like a vet will suddenly arrive with lights flashing and operate and repair this animal. This guy was destined to limp around and end up possibly infected, dehydrated and most definitely food for foxes or wild dogs. If I were to follow the law, I’d walk away and leave the animal to die a slow death. It’s illegal to shoot kangaroos in Victoria unless you’ve been issued with a destruction order from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

The sad truth is, a lot of farmers, frustrated with the amount of crop loss they have, bypass the red tape and simply shoot the kangaroos in big numbers. Even for the people who do follow the law, the number of kangaroos that are culled is staggering. According to the ABC’s Bush Telegraph, an estimated 70 000 kangaroos are culled every year. Not eaten. Culled. Shot and buried to simply rot away. Isn’t that just madness? Here’s an animal that has evolved with the environmental conditions of this land; it’s the most sustainable red meat, requiring no fences, no stock feed, no agricultural antibiotics, no management other than to be shot and butchered.

It’s illegal for me to hunt this animal, which is in almost plague proportions here. Instead, like everyone else, I’m expected to go to a supermarket and buy meat that’s travelled miles to get to me, from an animal that’s been given supplementary feed over winter (which has a high carbon cost). It’s most likely been in a truck travelling a good distance and has been packaged in plastic and sat in a supermarket fridge waiting for pick-up. There just doesn’t seem to be any logic to this system. Wouldn’t it make more sense for me to drive down the road, shoot a kangaroo and harvest all the meat for the family to eat?

I’m not suggesting that everyone go out and hunt kangaroos to extinction – that’s madness, and I’m sure it will never happen – I’m simply asking if it’s time to look at what we have around us. Maybe it’s time to look at more truly local native alternatives instead of relying on the commercially traditional ways that require a lot of agricultural resources. It’s just something to ponder.

Bean cooking

The romantic notion of living the simple life has been stuck in my mind since I was a kid on the farm.

Maybe I watched too many episodes of Little House on the Prairie. But seriously, how amazing, sweet and beautiful is the idea of living simply from what you’ve worked hard for, a life full of great food, experiences, traditions and nature stuff? This lifestyle is summed up in a few meals that consist mostly of ingredients for whose production I’ve been totally responsible. This is why I love beans so much. The idea that I can add things to beans in any season is brilliant. They’re as versatile as a desperate actor. I can make a cool bean salad in summer or a hearty bean stew in winter. Any which way you like it.

This winter, though, I’ve loved the beans more than ever. I’ve ‘bean’ having so much fun cooking different meals with the beans, and I’ve even got the kids to like a few bean meals! This winter I’ve discovered that you can make an amazing pâté de tête by boiling the head of a pig and removing all the good meaty bits. But then you’re left with pig’s-head stock. What to do with it? Well it makes an excellent broth for a bean stew. It’s rich in flavour so beware, el blandos. I ate this bean dish for days. French white beans simmered in pig’s-head stock with rosemary, garlic, butter and pecorino. I may have added a splash of white wine, too.

Still one of my best go-to bean dishes is the combination of dried beans, winter green crop and hunted or home-reared meat – all things I can be responsible for. For example, I had some of the slow-cooked venison left over in the fridge that I needed to eat. I also had a winter veg patch loaded with blue kale. So I boiled the beans, fried the kale and then added the roast venison. Some wine, herbs and a knob of butter, and a hearty bean meal is created. These meals can be for any time of the day. Before I start my day of work I have beans with toast; I can even stomach it for lunch and dinner, too. And that’s why beans are a staple for this way of living. They’re reliable. They store indefinitely and they can be added to most ingredients you have on hand, making them perfect for frugal living.

Staples

It’s so damn grey here it could make most people as blue as a Howlin’ Wolf tune. But the house fire is crackling away, my legs are covered in my Pendleton woollen granny blanket, and I’m as comfortable as a pig in poo. This is the end of my yearly cycle and I’m not making any excuses for the fact that I’m putting my feet up in front of the fire. I’ve worked for this, and to be honest there isn’t much else for me to do right now other than supply split firewood and cook food for the family. It’s the quiet months of winter that I adore, and sometimes it feels a wee bit extravagant. My larder is loaded with provisions; I simply need to walk in, open the freezer, grab some meat, dig in the sandbox for some root veg, grab a bottle of passata and some herbs from the garden, then go inside and cook.

I could only have imagined a lifestyle like this years ago, but here it is, in full form, keeping me content just as I imagined it would. Every bit of effort I make for us, to keep us fed, is very much appreciated. Well, at least by me. When you grow, raise and hunt your own food, nothing goes to waste. Every food ingredient has so much more value – it becomes precious. To eat meat I have to do the dirty work of killing – and it is dirty, it’s bloody and sometimes it’s confronting. For the food I grow, I must get my hands dirty, I often sweat and yes, when things don’t work out, there may be some salty discharge from the corner of my eye.

In the kitchen, prepping and preserving takes patience, hard work and organisation. Everything takes some form of effort, be it physical, emotional or mental. And how does that affect us? It makes everything we work for more valued. It gives the doer a sense of pride and achievement, and of doing things with a practical purpose. There’s little or no time for folly, for worrying about appearances, for doing things to appease others. Most tasks have a very real purpose. If I don’t do task A then I don’t have a warm house in winter. If I don’t do task B there’ll be no bread for the school lunches in the morning. You need to have your eyes on the ball at all times.

For three seasons I’ve kept my eyes on the ball. If I hadn’t, then we’d have a pretty lean winter and, to be honest, that scenario has no appeal whatsoever. This morning, as for many other breakfasts in winter (and lunches and dinners), I sparked up the gas hob and warmed up a big pot of chilli beans. It’s such a peasant meal, one that represents the entire system I live by. The beans I grew back in summer, the passata was made in autumn, the parsley, garlic, chilli, onion, carrot, kale and chard were all picked from the backyard garden. The cured chorizo I made from a pig that was raised on a mate’s farm, and the olive oil was bartered for with wild mushrooms foraged from the bush. This meal is what it’s all about – a range of base ingredients that I’ve either worked for or wrangled, and not a supermarket ingredient to be found.

I know I’ll always need to buy a block of cheese, butter or any other staple ingredient I can’t physically produce myself (although I do intend one day to milk a goat and make cheese). I don’t expect myself to make everything. I don’t expect anyone to be able to be that ‘self-sufficient’ unless they’re superhuman. The reality is we all need each other for our species to continue. By living in ‘practiculture’, I reckon I’ve made a rather large dint in my reliance on what I see as a flawed food system. Practiculture isn’t an extreme or all-or-nothing approach, it’s about doing practical things with the goal of finding an alternative to the standard option (which by now we all should agree is not rad for us, and nor is it rad for the natural world).

All this talk of ethical food is making me hungry. I might go toast some sourdough and warm up some chilli beans.

Old soles

It’s either mud, snow, dirt, blood or shit. Out here you just have to get used to walking through it all. Every frigid winter morning, as I head out to start my day, I slip my boots over my feet and I don’t even think about them. I just expect them to work, to do what they were made to do. To keep my feet dry and safe.

It’s amazing how we can get into a daily habit where we become almost robotic in our actions. We end up unintentionally dismissing the things around us, the things that support us day in, day out.

I find myself falling into this pattern often. It’s this DIY lifestyle, you see. I have a busy schedule. There’s always something that needs attending to. This time of year, many of my chores and responsibilities wait for me outside, which means that this old boy must contend with the winter elements. All the tracks, fields and paddocks are either soaking wet or muddy. Whatever conditions I face, my boots face them too. These guys look after me, so I must look after them. Every few weeks I dry them by the fire then rub them with beeswax, which keeps the leather in good shape and more importantly offers a little more waterproofing for my precious feet.

I’ve learned one great lesson from this lifestyle, and that is it pays to look after the things that look after you. My old boots, they sure look after me. We’ve spent evenings together walking up hills searching for rabbits and hares, and days together quietly stalking forests, hunting deer. We’ve cut firewood together and spent hours under an old car getting soaked in oil and dirt. My shoes and I spend more time together than I do with my loved ones. It’s not like I have a ‘special’ relationship with my boots, it’s more that I realise how important they are to me. You know, it’s like a good pair of jeans you wear all the time. In time they develop a character. You love slipping them on; they make you feel comfortable. I like that we humans have these items that are so dear to us. I also like wearing jeans, for without them I’d get arrested.

In my previous life I owned many shoes. I’d say at one point I’d had thirty pairs floating around the house. Too many shoes, not enough feet. So as part of my downsizing and minimisation, I gave most of them away to charity. I kept a few pairs, some for hunting, for working and something fancy for going out on dates. That’s it. And remarkably, my life feels much clearer because of it. I loved the process of clearing out excess clothes, shoes and household stuff. It tends to lighten my mental state. Odd? Maybe.

But I’ll never be able to get rid of my old boots. They’ve lasted me a long time, even though I’ve put them through some hellish conditions. They’re the metaphor for how I view a lot of stuff now. They’re well made, practical and hard-wearing. Anything else just doesn’t get the job done.

Change

Once you become aware of certain information, there’s no way to ‘unknow’ it. You’re stuck with it, and if it’s crucial information there’s a fair chance it may change the way you see things, the way you think and your opinion. I recently discovered how much methane cattle and sheep add to our global-warming woes. On top of that I discovered the amount of resources required to raise each animal. I’m not going to state all the scientific figures, but let me assure you, it’s not a very environmentally friendly way to get meat.

The process cows and sheep use to break down grass in their stomach oozes methane. Like a lot of methane. And on top of that, it takes a heap of resources to raise and then transport them, not to mention the resources needed to manufacture the chemical and medical treatments administered to them. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, on a global level, livestock accounts for 18 per cent of greenhouse emissions. Knowing this, with a desire to contribute less to global environment issues, I think I won’t ever be buying a sheep off any farmer, no matter how close their farm is. I’ll still eat some lamb, and a burger every now and then. It’s just that I have other sources of meat that are slightly more climate-friendly.

I consider myself a relatively forward-thinking person. That’s not to say that I think I’m better than anyone. Jeebers! I’m just saying that I like to be aware of the impact my daily choices have on a range of different problems. So I keep my ears to the ground and pick up bits of info that can ‘improve’ the way I live. But sometimes I think – if I keep hearing depressing news about how certain types of food are bad for the planet or bad for our health – that one day I’ll opt to not eat at all!

That’s never going to happen, but you get what I’m saying? Our food will always have some impact on the natural world. I think the best thing we can do is identify where we can reduce our impact, be honest with ourselves, actively make positive changes to reduce where we can, and strive for some balance that’s right for us and our families. I’ve clearly said before that what I do, the way I live, the way I acquire my food, isn’t the answer for everyone and nor will it solve the world’s problems. But I’ve found that it works for my family, it’s practical and it’s had a positive impact on my health. I’ve changed a lot over the years, and I’m now enjoying this second chance at life. Sure, on the outside I’ve lost a few pounds, but it’s the insides that seem to be back in order now.

Ideally, we should all eat less meat. Ideally, we should all shop direct from farmers. Ideally, we should buy free-range, organic, chemical-free, antibiotic-free and every-other-bad-thing- free. But that’s never going to happen. There are many social and individual reasons for this. But many of us can make some little changes, and together they could make a big difference.

For any real impact to occur, we need us Westerners, those of us with the ability to change some of our food-buying habits, those of us willing to be more aware of the impacts of our consumer choices, to influence some societal shift. It’s just a case of identifying and acting. I’m not suggesting that it’s super-easy, either. It takes true grit and determination. It doesn’t mean we all need to put our hands inside rabbits or rip the heads off backyard chickens. There are plenty of food choices that can make a difference. It’s the twenty-first century: if you’re not aware of those choices, then we’ve failed ourselves somewhat.

Rest

Winter is such an important time for me to rest. I’ve worked my middle-aged butt off for three seasons and I don’t feel a bit of guilt taking it easy for a while in winter. Let’s be honest, it’s so crappy here, there isn’t much to do anyway. I could spend all winter drinking wine and making love but there are some things that need to be done outside the warmth of a cosy bed. Not that I drink wine in bed (any more). Winter on the hill is about taking it easy. It’s about as clichéd as you can imagine: warm jackets, wool-lined boots, knitted gloves, roaring fires, hearty meals and the chance of snow. I love it. Each season I can be caught saying, ‘This is my favourite season.’ Maybe I just like being alive no matter what the season.

It’s not only us hill-living humans who take time out to rest in winter. The veg garden doesn’t mind a little rest over winter either. The past three seasons will have taken a great deal from the soil, and winter is a good time to allow some rest. Each year, I choose a row or two that will remain dormant over winter. I don’t plant a crop as such, but sometimes I plant a green manure or allow weeds to take over for the winter. When spring arrives I dig in the weeds and allow them to rot down, returning some goodness to the soil.

Winter is also a great time to collect manure from the surrounding paddocks and spread it out over the soil. I don’t bother digging it in, as nature will do some of the work for me. The rain and elements will help break down the manure, and the goodness will be slowly released and filter down into the soil, eventually making its way to the roots of my plants. By the time spring comes around the soil is full of natural energy and summer crops will have a better chance of success.

If I don’t put love back into my soil and push it to be productive year in, year out, it tends to get a little grumpy and my crops aren’t as prolific as I’d like. I’ve found this to be the case with broad beans this year. Their germination rates seemed fine, but the number of beans was down on last year. I didn’t plant the crop in the same row, I just didn’t let that bed rest over winter. It’s a good reminder of the importance of allowing the natural world to recover from what we take from it. The same approach is scalable, too. The demands our Western lifestyle places on the natural world are high. It’s important that we allow nature to recover. How we do that on a large scale I don’t know. I guess it would be something like live lighter, live with less in the hope that we’re personally using fewer natural resources. Is that too simple?

Three-way experimenting

There’s nothing worse than the same old drab approach. Sometimes we get in a rut and we do what seems to come most easily. But I’ve come to the point where I need to mix things up a little bit, and it involves a deer. Well, a deer shoulder blade, to be precise. After I served my darling Kate another (apparently) boring stew, she hinted that I have a ‘particular’ cooking style I rely on a lot. I get it. I need to change my cooking approach. But it’s winter and I’m not loaded with choice right now. I have meat in the freezer, I have a few leafy greens in the kitchen garden, a row of carrots, some celery, potatoes, some fresh herbs and whatever stores I have hidden in the larder. I’ve been making a lot of stews with passata, beans, some meat and whatever veg I have. Winter isn’t great here for growing veg. That’s the whole point of this system. I’ve prepared for this, so stews it is, darling!

Secretly, I’m a bit over the hearty meals, too. But let’s keep that between you and me. So here I am, pulling a shoulder of deer out of the freezer and thinking of anything but a slow-cooked stew. The good thing about the stews this time of year is that they can sit on the stove for a few days and get added to with a splash of wine here, a pinch of salt there, and the flavour improves over time. I like to make a big batch of stuff – it’s just practical and saves time. So this large cut of meat will need to be spread out to make a few different meals. I decide to cover the meat in fresh garden herbs, such as sage, thyme and rosemary. I add a few garlic cloves, some lard and butter for moisture, and a cup or two of shiraz for zing and to further reduce the chance of the meat drying out during cooking. I wrap the whole parcel in foil and cook it super-slow and low on the outdoor hooded barbecue, until the meat is so tender that mastication is optional.

After letting the venison rest, I make meal number one: a warm salad with slow-cooked onions, broad beans and spring onions. It needs some wow factor, so I add preserved lemons, sumac and feta. Job done. I like it, the girls like it, and my darling likes it (and there isn’t a stew dish to be seen for miles).

I have heaps of this slow-cooked meat remaining, so I store it in the fridge overnight. I soak white beans that night and in the morning make a bean dish simmered in pig’s-head stock and fresh rosemary, then add some of the roast venison meat. I grate in some pecorino for character, throw in a knob of butter and add plenty of cracked pepper. Hello, morning! Best bean breakfast I’ve had in ages.

That afternoon I come up with the last dish to top off the three-way combo: a pasta sauce – a few slow-fried sprigs of rosemary, garlic and onions, a bottle or two of tomato passata, and the last of the roast venison. I don’t even try with this dish, and it isn’t anything fancy, but you should see the kids wolf it down then ask for more.

Little victories like these bring me true at-home happiness. It’s really such a dorky thing, getting excited about a few meals from a roast shoulder, but it’s the bigger picture that makes me smile. First, I reckon I’ve made it. I’ve got to where I wanted to be, a bloke who’s almost self-reliant regarding the food I feed my family. Secondly, I like that this way of living challenges me to try new things, to look for solutions, to be creative. And the best bit is when my girls eat the food I serve them, not necessarily knowing every ingredient or where it’s come from, but they’re eating my damn food! That’s a victory in itself.

I felt a great deal of guilt about my old lifestyle, especially what I used to allow my kids to eat. I now realise that I was setting my kids up for a life fail. I was forming their future eating habits, which no doubt would have made them a bit unhealthy. But now I feel like we might be on the better path. It’s never perfect, but it sure is ace just to be here, at this point. Now, stop talking and eat ya stew!

The over-share

I've been debating whether or not to include this bit, as it’s quite the over-share. But it’s important to me and I think it’s worth sharing, even though parts of it are a bit embarrassing and shameful. I’m going to share some information that some people may not like to hear. The truth is often hard to listen to.

In my early adult life, just after I got my driver’s licence, I secured a job and moved out of home. I started to change. I got fat, really fat. And it happened really quickly. Over two years I gained a massive amount of weight. I was close to 120 kilograms and I’m only 180 centimetres tall. So yes, I was clinically obese.

How did this happen? On my wedding day, I was just twenty-two years old and I hated myself. I got drunk to suppress my feelings of self-hatred. In fact, I got drunk most days after that for the next decade or so. I got divorced. Most of my friends hated me, my ex-wife’s friends hated me, and I hated me. I was a horrible person.

I can look back at my early adult life with a bit of hindsight now. My self-destructive behaviour was a cycle of eating poor food, remaining overweight, then drinking heavily to suppress my depression. I was fuelling a raging fire. I had a few moments in my adult life where I’d go on a diet, lose some weight, then return to my old ways – and sure enough, I wound up overweight, depressed and very drunk. Somehow along the way I got worn out with taking the bandaid-treatment medication for my self-inflicted woes. I got to the point where I said enough is enough. I guess that’s what they call ‘the lowest point’.

I looked into what was causing my poor health. I held up the honesty mirror, and it sucked. I was the one choosing the food that went into my body, I was the one pouring in the drinks, lighting the smoke.

I had to make changes, and I had to admit that I needed to change my lifestyle. I started with baby steps. I started eating whole foods. I started growing my own veg. I taught myself how to cook. I went all grow, gather, hunt, cook. It’s been a long journey over several years, but I think I’ve reached a much better place. And that’s only measurable by the individual.

I’ve had to work hard at this lifestyle change. I’ve had to give up the easy choices and make hard ones. It hasn’t been an easy ride. There’ve been so many moments when I’ve wanted to light a smoke, pour a glass or eat shit food. The hard option has been to lace up my joggers and run. To not drink that night. To eat well.

Today I watched a clip on the internet that had some masters of medicine arguing about whether or not obesity should be categorised as a disease. I don’t really have an opinion either way – it won’t make a difference to the person who’s obese. What really pissed me off was that they kept saying that obesity is purely a genetic problem, which I agree with to a certain extent. I got fat, while people around me ate the same shit but stayed skinny. But from personal experience, I can say the reason most of us Westerners are getting fatter and sicker is that we’re lazy and we make bad food choices. You can get all cranky with me for saying that, but I have an ex-fat-man licence, so I can say whatever the hell I want. I’ve been there. I know why I got obese and sick. That truth hurts me, too.

I also got healthy. So I know what it takes to get fit. I know that our bodies have evolved to be fuelled with real food and they need to be kept in order with some sort of physical activity. So I have a healthy-man licence, too. And let me tell you, being skinny isn’t really a sign of inner health. I’m not saying that being fat is healthy either. I’ve been hunting and hiking up hills with skinny blokes, and they’ve huffed and puffed all the way up the hill, when I’ve not even been out of breath.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that we as a Western culture have a problem with obesity and diet-related health issues. The reason we’re here isn’t that people just eat too much. It’s the food itself. It’s rubbish. I cook with lard and butter and I’ve still lost weight. But when I ate processed foods and chain takeaway food I was horribly unhealthy. The food I was eating was loaded with hidden salt, sugar and fat.

Look at pre–World War II photos. You’ll hardly see any fatties. It doesn’t take years of research to realise that the things that have changed in the Western world since the 1940s are the types of food we eat and the reduction in the amount of physical work our bodies do. It’s as simple as that. Every fad diet, protein shake, protein bar or weight-loss pill is just a money-making scam that’s capitalising on people’s ignorance. I can’t shout this loudly enough: Eat well and you’ll live well.

At my worst:

–I weighed almost 120 kilograms.

–I could drink three bottles of wine a night.

–I would smoke a packet of twenty-five cigarettes a day.

–I ate highly processed supermarket food and chain takeaway.

–I had massive anxiety attacks and suffered from debilitating depression.

–I was an arsehole to live with.

My in-between bandaid was medication: antidepressants and high-blood-pressure pills. This really helped. It gave me stability. It gave me a starting point.

The endgame:

By this stage in the book you’d be fairly aware of how I live. I eat well, I’m healthier and thus less depressed, so I drink less and smoking – well, it’s gone, except for those rare occasions. If you’re an ex-smoker you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Over the years of my new, second-chance life I’ve had some positive results:

–I’ve lost more than 20 kilograms.

–My depression and anxiety are practically nonexistent, which I think has a lot to do with removing processed foods and large amounts of alcohol from my lifestyle.

–My blood pressure has taken me a few years to control but is now well down to normal levels.

–I’m no longer medicated for anxiety, depression or high blood pressure. I worked with my GP on this one. He monitored my progress and accepted that my lifestyle changes had improved my health enough for me to work on a program to reduce the medications, with the goal of going off them completely

I guess I can say that even though it’s been a hard slog at times, I’ve managed to ‘cure’ myself of my self-inflicted preventable Western illness. My second chance at life wasn’t a gift, nor was it lucky. It was all about making choices and working bloody hard. And that’s not something that’s appealing to most of us who are afflicted with diet-related obesity.

I hope you get something useful from my over-share.

Back to the start

The last days of this winter are upon us. It’s been a beautiful winter – it always is. Hell, let’s face it, every season we’re alive is pretty good, right? The only thing I don’t like about winter is the ability of the cold temperature to shrink certain manly body parts. Apart from that, I just love it. Why do I wait until the end of winter to consider investing in thermal undies?

Cosy undergarments aside, I wanted to share something a little bit more classy than disappearing testicles. Ducks. Baby ducks, in fact. They’ve started popping up in the dams. The adults paired up long ago and now little ducklings appear with their mum and dad, as they waddle out from the long grass and sedge that grows on the banks of the frigid water. They have the cutest walk; their little bums wiggle as they stumble on dry land, but they look far less awkward in the water. I’m the complete opposite. I look like I’m drowning when I’m in the water, but look almost normal on dry land. The point is, these beautiful little ducklings have the ability to make a bearded man turn all schmoopy-whoopy. All at once I revert to the child version of me and appreciate that beauty through childlike eyes.

Today I sat alone on the bank of the big dam and just watched as the duck family swam about happily. Above the dam, circling on the thermals, was a brown hawk. Birds of prey are common where we live, probably because there are so many damn rabbits around. This bird is an absolute machine of nature, built tough, fast and violent. What a bird. I can’t help but compare us humans with the hawk, or any bird of prey for that matter. Although these days, let’s face it, most of us aren’t built for speed. But we do hunt. Well, actually, there’s another lie; we mostly get someone else to do the ‘hunting’ for us. And by hunt, I mean buy meat, mostly farmed meat, which we get someone else to do. Okay meat, whichever way it comes.

Out here I feel privileged to be able to observe an ecosystem. Ducks have babies, predator eats new ducks, feeds baby hawks, some ducks survive and the cycle continues the following year. It’s a basic biological formula that’s been in existence for aeons. We humans are part of it; we’ve just been a little ‘smarter’ by inventing ways to manipulate the system a little – farming is just an advanced form of hunting, for example, a manipulation of nature to our advantage.

We’re currently the masters of our food chain, but I can’t help wondering how long we’ll last at the top. Our system has its weaknesses. The one particular weakness is fossil fuels. I can’t imagine how our current modern system would operate without it. But I bet you, regardless of our dwindling fossil fuels, those ducks will continue raising ducklings, and those hawks will continue soaring in the heavens, stalking their prey for many moons to come.

A dirty great black cloud is rolling in from the north. The wind has picked up and the hawk has buggered off, uninterested or distracted. The view here is amazing: one side of the sky is bright with patches of blue, the other side is dark and menacing. It’s the end of winter. This is the beginning of the crazy spring weather, marking the approaching end of another year in our cycle. The garden is full of potential food and some of it has already started to flower. Soon I’ll be eating fresh broad beans, peas and broccoli. In a few months the summer veg will get planted in the damp spring soil and our bellies will rejoice in a mostly vegetarian diet for the summer. It’s a beautiful system.

Some people have said I’ve lost everything by pursuing this life of practiculture: my career, my possessions, my financial wealth. But to tell the truth, I’ve gained everything. I’m content to exist in this ancient cycle, to live with real food, purpose and mindfulness.

I sound more and more like a damn hippie every day.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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