Thursday, April 29, 2010

Mushrooms, past and present

The first mushroom I ever ate that didn't come from a supermarket shelf was this one:

This mushroom was truly the size of a dinner plate, and it was quite unlike anything I'd ever seen before.

The year was 1998, the finder was Colin (pictured), and the place was central Wales. I was in Wales visiting a pen friend - Tim - whom I'd been corresponding with since we were both 13 years old (remember snail mail??)

Anyway ... Tim had friends who lived in a country house that made me feel like I'd fallen into a fairy tale. It was quaint and beautiful, and the surrounding landscape was preposterously green and lush compared with my own brown and sunburnt country. This is where the giant mushroom came from:

Back then, I simply couldn't imagine being able to step outside to pick some field mushrooms from my own garden. But a few days ago, I experienced that very pleasure - right here in Dorothea Mackellar's land of droughts and flooding rains.

Prior to this little crop of dark-gilled beauties, the only mushrooms (or toadstools) we've seen around here have either had white gills (and therefore shouldn't be eaten), or else have been so bizarre-looking that you wouldn't dream of putting one in your mouth. For example, I named this magnificent toadstool "poo on sticks" (because, as I've mentioned before, I'm not very creative when it comes to naming things):

Finally, before anyone goes out picking and eating wild mushrooms for the first time, it's customary to have the bejeezus scared out of you by horror stories about mushroom-picking jaunts gone horribly, horribly wrong. These misadventures often result in entire families needing emergency liver transplants a week or so after eating the wrong type of mushroom.

For example, here is a suitably scary story about how the deathcap mushroom is "on the move", poisoning unsuspecting mushroomers in Australia.

The general advice is: be absolutely certain about what you're eating, and never accept mushrooms from a stranger!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Taking a closer look at ... leftover Gyprock

The shed received a much-needed clean-out today. With the straw bale cottage being built over the past six months or so, the shed has accumulated piles of fittings and fixtures, bits and pieces, odds, ends, and off-cuts.

I'm a pack rat from way back, so I find it very hard to throw anything away - because you just never know when it might come in handy! (I come from a family where things like string and rubber bands were always saved for re-use. And I was honestly surprised the day I learned that most people don't unwrap presents carefully in order to save the wrapping paper for another occasion).

So ... what to do with the many off-cuts of Gyprock plasterboard which have been piling up neatly (but uselessly) against a wall in the shed?

On pondering this question, my mind wandered back to an image on page 76 of Peter Bennett's book "Organic Gardening (6th Edition)". The image is really quite memorable: it shows a lady with neatly coiffed hair and a generous bosom, wearing a tight pink t-shirt, blue flares, and red sandals. Here she is:

Anyway, the significant part of the image is not the lady herself, but rather, what she's doing, which is: dressing the soil with gypsum.

What is gypsum?

Gypsum is a soft mineral composed of calcium sulfate dihydrate, with the chemical formula CaSO4·2H2O (thanks Wikipedia).

Among gardeners, gypsum is renowned for its ability to break up clay, making it more workable and improving its drainage. And according to Peter Bennett (whose photo I borrowed, above):

Being moderately water soluble, gypsum readily dissociates into free calcium ions and sulphate ions thereby supplying two major plants nutrients in a very readily available form. [...]

There can be no doubt whatever that many of the so-called "superphosphate responses" in crops have nothing whatsoever to do with the phosphate content of "super" but are purely sulphur responses arising from the sulphate radical of the gypsum which is the "other half" of superphosphate.

What's Gyprock made of? Gypsum!

So, why not compost the scraps of Gyprock, and put them in the garden? I wasn't 100% sure if this was a good idea, so I consulted Google, and discovered this discussion over in the Gardening Australia Online Forum.

Someone on the forum simply wanted to know if it was safe to use leftover plasterboard in their garden - but, as far as I can tell, there's no such thing as a simple answer on a gardening forum.

Some people were sure it was fine, while others thought it was a very bad idea. One person believed that using plasterboard in the garden would be dangerous because (he claimed) plasterboard is allowed to contain up to 100mg/kg of lead under Australian standards, which is (he wrote) "a very high concentration of lead".

Hmmm. What to think?

My next move was to check the manufacturer's MSDS (material safety data sheet). You can find CSR's MSDS for GYPROCK Plasterboard here.

The MSDS contained no unpleasant surprises.

It stated that Gyprock is >95% gypsum, and 4-9% paper lining (don't ask me about CSR's arithmetic or how they can fit >95% + 9% of material into a product. I dunno).

The worst risk they mention in relation to Gyprock is that "repeated exposure may cause skin dryness", and, if you get hungry enough to eat the stuff, you may experience "abdominal discomfort."

The "Hazardous Decomposition Products" listed are: "None".

So what about the risk of lead contamination?

I work in the chocolate industry, where lead contamination is a very serious issue. For example, did you know that commercial cocoa powders quite commonly contain 0.2ppm of lead? That's twice the concentration considered safe by the US FDA for children to consume.

So, if more than 0.1ppm of lead is considered to be unsafe for children to consume, then a concentration of 100mg/kg (that's the same as 100ppm) in plasterboard is astronomical ... isn't it?

Well, yes and no.

First there's the fact that most plasterboard probably doesn't contain anything like that amount of lead. Even if the standards do technically allow such high levels (and I'm not convinced that they do) I can find no evidence to suggest that the average piece of Gyprock actually contains any lead whatsoever.

Then there's the fact that it's not at all uncommon for commercial fertilisers to contain all kinds of heavy metals and other nasties - including lead, cadmium, and even arsenic. This is because fertilizer often consists of various industrial by-products from environmentally dubious industries such as mining. (I nearly fell over when I read the small print on a bag of citrus fertiliser once about ten years ago, and I've never touched the stuff since then).

The third thing to keep in mind is that a particular lead level in soil doesn't produce anything near that level of lead in plants grown in that soil.

Carl J. Rosen of the University of Minnesota wrote an informative article on the subject of Lead in the Home Garden and Urban Soil Environment.

He explains that surface agricultural soil in the USA contains an average lead concentration of 10ppm, and that dangerous exposure to lead comes from two major sources:

1) lead-based paint, and
2) auto emissions.

Furthermore, Rosen explains:

The most serious source of exposure to soil lead is through direct ingestion (eating) of contaminated soil or dust. In general, plants do not absorb or accumulate lead. However, in soils testing high in lead, it is possible for some lead to be taken up. Studies have shown that lead does not readily accumulate in the fruiting parts of vegetable and fruit crops (e.g., corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, strawberries, apples). Higher concentrations are more likely to be found in leafy vegetables (e.g., lettuce) and on the surface of root crops (e.g., carrots).

Since plants do not take up large quantities of soil lead, the lead levels in soil considered safe for plants will be much higher than soil lead levels where eating of soil is a concern (pica). Generally, it has been considered safe to use garden produce grown in soils with total lead levels less than 300 ppm.

We live in a toxic world where even breast milk is almost universally tainted with toxic chemicals. Sad but true (and just one more reason why I'll be remaining childless by choice).

If I had to choose between having a fertile garden with a few grams of lead in it, or an un-fertile and unproductive garden, I'd take the fertile garden every time.

So, it looks like my scraps of Gyprock will be going into the compost - and I'll be sure to let you know if I die of lead poisoning any time soon.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Remembering the first ANZAC day

I remember trying to explain the concept of "ANZAC day" to a Swiss friend once. He was incredulous that we Aussies had turned a hopelessly botched attack on Turkey into a national holiday.

Personally, I am amazed that the Turks welcome so many Aussie war tourists on ANZAC day every year. As Martin Flanagan observed in the Sydney Morning Herald: "Imagine if the descendants of the Japanese pilots who bombed Darwin held an emotional service beneath the Japanese flag on the shores of Darwin Harbour each year".

In essence, ANZAC day is a day of remembering, so today I'm remembering my great grandmother's brother, Vivian, and his mate, Norman - both of whom had the misfortune of being among the first men to hit the beach at Gallipoli on that first ANZAC day in 1915.

It's a shame that we, as a nation, only seem to remember this dreadful stuff for one day each year.


The United Kingdom declared war on Germany on 3 August 1914.

Less than four weeks later (on 29 August), two young miners from Broken Hill in NSW signed up with the AIF (Australian Imperial Force) in Adelaide. Both men gave their home address as the New Wentworth Hotel, Broken Hill. Their names were Norman Ernest Davis and Vivian Clarence Bence. Vivian (pictured below) was my great, great uncle.

Who knows what Norman and Vivian were thinking when they enlisted for "Service Abroad"? It seems likely that even Adelaide would have been an exciting place compared with Broken Hill. But, whatever it was they were thinking, they couldn't possibly have imagined what they'd just signed up for.

On their attestation papers, in response to the question about previous military service, both Norman and Vivian list membership of the Orange Rifle Club as their only relevant experience.

Both men were assigned to the 10th Battalion (B Company). They sailed from Adelaide on the HMAT Ascanius on 20 October 1914.

The 10th Battalion's official war diary from that very first ANZAC day reads, in part:

At 3 am on Sunday 25th April B+D Coy & HQ=Bn staff, Signallers and scouts left the PRINCE OF WALES to the cutters life boats to be towed to within about 50 yards of the shore by steam boats.

Absolute silence was maintained by all men and boats & directly the boats were cast off by the steamers and quietly rowed towards the shore dawn was just breaking 04.15 no sound was heard except the splashing of the oars, we thought that our landing was to be affected quite unopposed, but when our boats were within 30 yards of the beach a rifle was fired from the hill in front of us above the beach, right in front where we were heading for, almost immediately heavy rifle and machine gun fire was opened upon us, we had to row another 15 yards or so before we reached water shallow enough to get out of our boats, this was at about 04.15

We got out of our boats into about 3’ of water & landed on a stony bottom the stones were round & slimy & many Officers and men slipped on them & fell into the water, but all bravely & silently made all hast to reach the beach, under a perfect hail of bullets, many men fixed their bayonets before reaching the shore. I ordered men to lie down, fix bayonets & remove packs. This was done in a couple of minutes. The men of the 9th 10th & 11th Bn were all mixed up on the beach, but there was no time to reorganise so ordered all to advance.

The men sprang to their feet at once & with a cheer charged up the hill held by the Turks and drove them off it. Following up their success by firing on the quickly retreating foe. Shortly after this, the two Companies A & B, off the torpedo Destroyer reached the beach, they were subjected to heavy Shrapnel and Machine Gun fire, these companies pushed on quickly and soon joined us in a general advance.

By about 08.30 we were about a mile inland & were holding by hill and ridge in front of it, we then pushed on to SHRAPNEL HILL & I reported to the Brigadier Col Macfagan, he was anxious for us to push on to the west ridge but as the enemy just then developed a strong counter attack he decided that we should "dig in" on the forward slope of SHRAPNEL RIDGE N/E.

The ANZACS "dug in" at Gallipoli for the remainder of 1915.

Vivian's military record has just one entry pertaining to the time he spent on the Gallipoli Peninsula: on 4 September 1915, he was punished for "Not complying with an order. Absent from duty".

Perhaps, after more than four months of risking his life for King and country, Vivian decided to take what is colloquially known these days as "a mental health day". Or maybe he had just received the news that his mate, Norman, had died 4 days earlier.

Norman was shot in the head at Gallipoli on 18 August 1915. He was taken to the Canadian Hospital on the island of Lemnos where he died thirteen days later, of septic meningitis and a compound fracture of the skull.

Norman Ernest Davis died on 31 August 1915 - one year and 2 days after enlisting.

Norman's effects were recorded and returned to his father in Orange. They consisted of: "Cuff links. Wrist watch (damaged). Body belt. Razor."

Uncle Vivian survived Gallipoli, and was subsequently sent to the Western Front. He survived the Western Front too, and eventually returned to outback Australia - which probably never seemed quite so boring again.

Here's to the memories of:

No.840, Private V.C. Bence, 10th Battalion, and his mate
No.825, Private N.E. Davis, 10th Battalion.

Lest we forget.

Private N.E Davis, died 31/8/15.
Buried: Portianos Cemetery, Mudros West, Lemnos island, Greece.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Pumpkin Season

We had our first frost last week, which hit our pumpkin vine pretty hard - although it has sprouted new leaves near one of the less ripe pumpkins, so I've decided to leave that one on the vine, in the hope that it will continue to ripen for a little while longer.

I have read over at the Pumpkin Nook that pumpkins can be ripened off the vine by placing them in warm sunshine for a period of days, or even weeks. But as with tomatoes (and just about any other fruit you could mention), it seems logical that ripening on the plant will give by far the best result.

This year's pumpkin vine is a Queensland Blue that sprang out of the old compost heap. The vine only produced 4 mature pumpkins, but from an investment of 1 little pumpkin seed, and no water except what fell from the sky, I'm delighted with the outcome. Here I am with my first pumpkin of the season (the label "Pumpkin Bumpkin" springs to mind) ...

Given that each pumpkin is about the size of a slightly deflated basketball, they can do a remarkably good job of hiding. I knew there was a fourth pumpkin in there somewhere, but it took me a while to find it ...

The flavour and texture of this pumpkin was lovely, but it wasn't as sweet as it might have been. I guess that's my punishment for allowing it to be so severely overgrown and shaded from the sun during its ripening phase.

This pumpkin weighed in at just over 4kg. A few hundred grams of it went into making some fresh pumpkin gnocchi (yum!). The next half-kilo or so will go into a pumpkin pie (because I have a special talent for turning perfectly wholesome vegetables into sweet and heavenly comfort food).

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

I haiku. Do you?

One of my all time favourite books is Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, and one of the main characters in that book, Bobby Shaftoe, is a compulsive composer of haiku.

We are never told why Shaftoe is so captivated by this particular form of Japanese poetry - but, really, what's not to love about it?

Haiku is a structurally simple form of poetry that anyone can write - and quickly. (I remember being set the task of writing haiku in primary school, whereas we were never asked to write, say, a sonnet, an ode, or an epic narrative poem).

Of course, writing haiku well is another matter entirely. But it's intriguing to me that even the most basic attempt at haiku seems to create a very particular type of head-space, whereby your brain filters out large volumes of extraneous fluff in an attempt to capture the very essence of whatever it is you're trying to describe. After all, haiku is nothing if not economical, and that linguistic economy produces a mental state that feels (to me) very much like meditation.

So, below are three autumnal haiku, inspired by yesterday's outing to a currently under-utilized quarter-acre block of land known as "the creek block" (I'm not very creative when it comes to naming segments of land).

If you need a mental break some time soon, I urge you: write a haiku. It will be fun. I promise.

Incidentally, the word haiku is both singular and plural, and the structure is:

5 syllables
7 syllables
5 syllables.

Haiku on hops
Dry autumn lantern,
Brown, and golden, and bitter.
Hint of summer beer.

Haiku on mowing
Roaring blade on wheels
chews up grass, fuel, and time.
Neat lawn, quiet life.

(Does fuel have one syllable or two? How about oil? Apparently, I'm not the first person to ponder this thorny issue).

Haiku on pitchfork
Bent tines, worn handle.
Lost, and sorely missed. Now found,
in the neighbours' yard.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The "bleeding heart" turns to stone

Last week I had a nightmare in which I was holding my heart in my hands and wringing it out into a plastic bucket.

As my heart's blood finished dripping into the bucket, I jolted awake, close to panic, and was left wondering for a few minutes if I was actually having a heart attack. (The experience even came complete with genuine chest pain - which, thankfully, went away as my heart rate returned to normal).

This dream - the first one I've remembered for a long time - nagged at me for the rest of the day. What exactly was my subconscious mind telling me?

I went to Google for a dream analysis, and learned that I was probably either:

a) falling in love [not likely: love never felt this bad],
b) experiencing an emotional hurt of some kind, or
c) attempting to get to the heart of some matter.

Bleeding hearts can also represent desperation, despair, extreme sadness and sympathy.

Funnily enough, I've been known as a "bleeding heart" for most of my life. (According to Wiktionary, a bleeding heart is "a person considered to be over-sympathetic to the supposed plight of the underprivileged or exploited").

Here's the thing: it's fairly easy to be sympathetic to all sorts of people (e.g. "the underprivileged") when resources are abundant, and energy is cheap. Under such circumstances, fairness seems, well, only fair. And charity is both affordable and heart-warming.

When the super-abundance of cheap energy dwindles, though, and global financial crises snowball, charity becomes more and more difficult to afford.

But does charity ever become categorically unaffordable? If so, how do you know when (and what) to stop giving?

Mother Teresa famously implored people to love their neighbours, and to "give until it hurts" - which brings me to the subject of my neighbours, who also happen to be my tenants ...

In 2006, via a series of complicated circumstances, I rented my house (a charmless, 4-bedroom renovator's delight - pictured below) to a family with 5 young children. The father was known to me as a hard worker, and at that point the family of seven was living in a one-bedroom unit. (The housing in our town consists mostly of one- and two-bedroom worker's cottages, built around 1920. Houses with more than 3 bedrooms are as rare as hen's teeth around here).

I figured that the family needed a break, and I was in a position to give them one. They were very happy to be able to move into a (relatively) large house in a quiet street, and for a couple of years they were very good tenants.

Then, in 2009, the father was caught growing dope (but that's a whole other story) and he was sent away for several months of court-ordered rehab (or to prison, depending on which version of the story happens to be true).

Fast-forward to 2010:

The carpet in the dining room has not been worn out so much as composted - with the help of copious quantities of spilled food and drink, and a very relaxed approach to cleaning. In fact, the tenants informed us just this week that the dining room carpet had become so smelly that they removed it and threw it away. (They're now in the process of ruining the un-polished floorboards that had been protected by the carpet).

Most of the balusters on the stairway are broken and missing.

The baby gate we lent them when they moved in was destroyed and thrown away (whereas an identical baby gate, purchased at the same time, is still in daily use with our dogs, and is still in perfect working order).

The laminated particle-board kitchen bench has been utterly destroyed by a leak that the tenants didn't bother to either fix, catch the water from in a bucket, or tell us about.

The front door is coming off its hinges, and is being dragged over the carpet - helping to complete the destruction of both the door and the carpet.

The eldest boy has kicked a hole in his bedroom wall.

A window was broken. (The tenants had it repaired within a week - resulting in late rent that month).

Another window was broken. (The tenants decided to repair it themselves - with cardboard and sticky tape).

The list goes on, and on, but you get the picture.

As Lang was leaving the house the other day after replacing the leaking kitchen tap, he noticed the tenants' seven year old daughter writing on the wall.

"Did you say anything to her?", I asked.

"What could I have said that would have made a difference?", he replied. "She tells her own mother to fuck off, and the wall was already covered in writing anyway."

We've bent over backwards to let this large and "underprivileged" family stay in the house - while we live in a corrugated iron shed with no windows and no running water.


My heart has been wrung out, and the writing is on the wall.

Their lease won't be renewed next February, and as a result of having made this decision, I feel both mean and happy.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

In praise of fresh, flaky, home made croissants

If you enjoy baking, and you enjoy eating croissants, then home made croissants are definitely worth the effort. Here are some I prepared earlier:

This croissant recipe comes from Tamara Milstein's "The House Book of Bread". As Milstein says, croissants are not really difficult to make, but getting the dough perfect takes time - so the first hint is: start making the dough the day before you want to eat your crispy crescents.

I've made this recipe with and without the recommended chilling periods. The chilling substantially increases the flakiness, but the un-chilled version is still delicious, and much quicker to make ... just not very flaky ... which probably defeats the whole purpose of croissants.

For any experienced bread bakers reading this: the recipe below is basically a slightly sweet, milky bread dough, laminated with layers of butter. If you have your own favourite bread dough recipe, you might prefer to use that instead (for example, I've seen croissant recipes that are based on mulitgrain dough, and sour dough).

INGREDIENTS (makes 8 croissants)

400g (2 2/3 cups) bread flour
30g (1 rounded Tbspn) brown sugar
2 tspn instant yeast
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup hot water
170g butter for laminating


Here are the basic steps, which I'll expand below:

1) Make dough as for bread
2) CHILL dough in fridge for 2 hours
3) LAMINATE dough with half of butter
4) Repeat step 2 -> CHILL
5) Repeat step 3 -> LAMINATE
6) Repeat step 2 -> CHILL
7) Form croissants
8) Allow croissants to rise for about an hour
9) Glaze croissants with milk
10) Bake for about 10 minutes at 220C (425F)

1) To make the dough: combine and knead first 5 ingredients. (If any bread-making beginners happen to be reading this, feel free to ask if you need help with making basic bread dough).

2), 4), 6) CHILL:
Allow the dough to chill in the fridge for 2 hours or longer (or cheat like I do and put it in the freezer for a shorter time). The idea is to keep the dough nice and cold so that it doesn't melt the butter, but you don't want the dough to dry out or become un-rollable, so keep it covered, and don't let it freeze solid.

3), 5) LAMINATE:
The idea with lamination is to get thin, alternating layers of dough and butter happening.
So: take the chilled dough, and roll it into a rectangle roughly 45cm x 20cm.
Cover two-thirds of the rectangle with half of the butter. (Milstein suggests slicing the butter very thinly with a vegetable peeler. I just ended up with melted butter all over my hands when I tried that, so instead I spread softened butter over the dough, and that worked fine - although I suspect the pastry purists would disapprove).
Fold the top (un-buttered) third of dough down onto the middle (buttered) third; then fold the bottom (buttered) third of dough up onto the folded-down third. (You should now have a square-ish bundle of alternating dough and butter layers).
If your dough and butter is still chilled, roll the bundle into a rectangle once again, and fold the dough into thirds again (without adding any more butter at this stage). If you used soft butter to laminate the dough, then return the lot to the fridge for its chilling period prior to rolling. (And if these instructions are completely incomprehensible, give me a shout and I'll put together an illustrated version ... or something).

Roll the thoroughly chilled and laminated dough into a rectangle roughly 60cm x 25cm (it should be about 5mm thick).
Slice the dough into four 15cm x 25cm strips.
Slice each strip in half diagonally, so that you get eight long triangles.
Firmly roll each triangle up, starting at the base.
Bend each roll into a crescent shape, and place them onto a baking tray.

I glaze the croissants immediately after step 7 by rolling them in a shallow bowl of cold milk. This works well for a cheat like me, but every recipe I've seen says to let the croissants rise for about an hour, and then brush with milk shortly before baking.

10) BAKE
Milstein's recipe says to bake the croissants for 10 minutes at 240C (465F), but my first batch burnt on the bottoms within 7 minutes at that temperature.
With our oven, I've found that 10 minutes at 220C (425F) works perfectly.