Over the rolling green hills, through the 'thick as a winter stew' mist, past the freezing sheep, through the eucalyptus forest then down into town, it's the routine of the morning school drop off. I have to admit I kinda love that morning drive. Every day there's something new to look at, a fallen tree, some migrating flocks of ibis, a flooded creek… we have no television, I'll take entertainment in what ever form I can get. I also like to extend the sensory experiences/entertainment which has led me to an annoying habit of sliding my window down, even in horrid weather. I like to hear the outside, smell what I drive by and best of all feel the cool air on my cheeks, it's fresh like a splash of cold water on the face at the start of a new day. Each morning we drive through a patch of bush, dry open woodland. Most mornings we'll spot a black swamp wallaby and the eastern grey kangaroo, the latter usually being in large mobs of 10, 20 or more. Sad to some I'm sure, but I can't help but think of a 12 hour roo tail stew each time I pass the mob. Always thinking of food. Aren't men supposed to be thinking about sex all the time? Food, sex, they're equally important aren't they?
I live surrounded by natural processes, we all do, it's just that when you rely on these process you tend to be a slightly more in tune with them, you tend to pay more attention to them as they're often critical to a certain amount of your food production. Often I'll notice the little things, like a sick chook, rabbit munched carrot tops or a growing number of green caterpillars on my kale. So I'm a little aware/obsessed with what natures getting up, you'd think it would have become mundane, or routine like the morning drive to school. But it's far from the truth. When I drove back up the hill, deeper into the mist of home I couldn't help but wonder how on earth does photosynthesis happen on days like this? How does anything grow when we have days and weeks of weather like this? Obviously nature has developed techniques to get around the crappy weather, and for that I am pretty darn grateful.
The winter crops make the most of whatever sunlight they get, in turn providing us with a selection of fresh greens for winter stews and casseroles. Each week, this time of year, I'll make a large batch of breakfast beans, which consist of dried beans I grew in summer, mixed with what ever veg I have on hand, often garlic, onion, carrot or celery. Passata always goes in, and if I have some around, a good drop of red wine drops into the mix. Some chorizo or bacon is the only meat addition and for spice I'll add heaps of cayenne pepper and pimenton picante. The freshness and veg element is what ever is in stock in the backyard patch, swiss chard, spinach, parsley or kale. The meal is hearty (and farty). It's mostly full of ingredients we're able to grow ourselves ticking the self reliant box. When I make a large batch it makes week day breakfasts a breeze. The freezing days and nights allow me to keep the beans in the pot on the hob, which I can simply reheat each morning. I'll toast my sourdough while the beans warm up, the flavour developing as the weekdays pass. When it's steaming hot, I'll feast like a beast. It's the best start to the day. It's one of those ugly looking meals, like a slop served in prison. Put aside it's poor aesthetics, and you'll enjoy a tasty, enriching and nutritional feed. Years ago I would have scoffed at being offered such a meal, but now when I don't eat it on a cold winters morning I feel slightly cheated. When the sunlight is absent, and the weather is frigid, people around here can get a bit depressed. Cabin fever sets in for winter. But for me, this time of year is a celebration of all the work I put in over the previous summer. I celebrate it on a plate, and in my tummy.
It's also the time of year that I slice open the salt cured leg of pork I cured and hung the previous winter. It's like using a film camera. You never know how it's going to turn out. I still have yet to get a consistent result for a jamon, but I enjoy the learning process I've had over the years. Last year I dry cured two legs, I figured why not! We love to eat it, the whole family enjoys it, wrapped over hunted rabbit, slow roasted, in pasta, stews or just on it's own. I think last year I left them in the salt bath a week too long, so they're a bit salty in parts, but still very edible. I'll be hanging the next few legs in a few weeks time, I think I'll go back to my original dry cure rule of a day per kilo of meat sitting in the salt bath. That got the best result by far. The last few years of experiementation are over. When it aint broke don't fix it.
The same can be said for age old technics of food storage. What did the old people used to do before food preservatives where invented? I've been on a mission to remove myself from the normal system of food acquisition, this means that I can no longer buy frozen or pre cooked meals. The alternative is to have some fresh food on hand, growing in the back yard. As great as the system souds it has it's problems. Often I'll have a lot of the same variety all ripen at the same time. It's been this way for ever. So what better way to prepare for the future by looking at the past. I found a method for preserving/extending the shelf life of root veg by using plain sand as a preservative/storage bath. The idea is to keep the veg in suspended animation using sand, which doesn't have all the nutrients and physical elements required for the plant to grow, but it has just enough to suspend the veg in a state of hibernation. Months ago I had both elements required for this process, sand and root veg. Thus ensued another of my 'self sufficiency' experiments. A large tub was filled with a heap of deliscious carrot, beetroot and turnip. All freshly plucked from the garden, hard and snap fresh, although I guess I'd be hard pressed to snap a beetroot. I then covered to veg with the orange sand and stored the tub in the shed (I think that was sometime in march or april). Now that we've moved house and I have no established crop of carrot in my newly created veg patch, so I figured it was time to check on the status of 'root veg in sand experiemnt'. As my hands plunged with anticipation into the cold sand, I expected to find shrivelled carrots, mushy rotted beetroot, but no! Man was I impressed. Sure there where a few losses, but on the whole the carrots where firm and fresh, snap fresh yo. Unbelivable! With a bunch of carrots, Kate made a mega cake for one of the girls birthdays and the taste was just phenominal. I don't eat sweet food much but I enjoyed this cake so much I went back for seconds. I was happy that the experiment worked, so too was Henry, who snuck in a nautghy lick of the icing sugar on the wall of the cake. What a sweet tooth! Not cool for his 'tough' hunting dog image. Maybe he likes Chai tea too.
We continue to embrace the 'win some lose some' approach to our food, with winning meals like pumpkin gnocchi and wild stinging nettle pesto foraged walnut pesto just after we'd lost so much veg eaten care of rabbit and co. We also get to enjoy the food we grew and harvested months ago, pairing it with what little green tucker that grows in these harsh winter conditions, thats more of a win win situation. How amazing to have found this way of living! I don't want to sound like a turkey, like I think I know everything, but these last few years, this food journey of 'self sufficiency' or what ever you like to call it, it's taught me so much. It's opened my eyes, and my mind. I look at what is considered normal, and I'm concerned. What I'd been doing for years, which is relying on the supermarket system for my food is clearly unnatural and I'll be brave enough to say, totally and utterly wrong and in no way good for us or our natural world. We are bedazzled with choice for food in the supermarket isles, choice for the same meal just slightly tweaked, sugar reduced, no fat, salt reduced, all unnecessary.
Whats on offer is highly processed food, pre-cooked food, chemically treated food, its convenient and it shoved in our face as the only option. But what I've learnt, albeit slowly over some years is that the answer lies in the past. The answer lies with cultures that have remained unchanged in regards to food acquisition for hundreds of years, and they're doing just fine. I've learnt that the alternatives to the supermarket option are totally doable. I've learnt the value of a days work, of working to achieve something that will give direct benefit to your family. Planting veg gives me food that I once sat in an office to earn money to then buy food with. Now I just grow the food. Somehow I cut out most of that reliance on the supermarket. Now I realise that the supermarket can return to a general store, and we'd all still survive quiet dandy. The staples are all we rely on now. Someone else still makes our flour, salt, sugar, spices, dairy etc. The rest we seem to be in control of now. And by being constantly open to new/old ideas around food, like the root veg sand experiment, I reckon we're doing ok. And it's not like we never get to eat a burger, sushi or thai noodle soup. I'm not that hard ass to give up those joys. But for our everyday family eating, we're outside the system now. No plans to return.