Book review “Island Home” by Tim Winton

Book Club reflection to “Island Home” by Tim Winton
July 2018

Island Home is a revelation! So much of what Tim Winton writes resonates deeply with me. He articulates with rare precision what I have felt, thought and reflected on. A connection with the land that is more than visual. All the senses are engaged and the experience is stored deep within.

My home “country” of North East Victoria evokes such experience for me. (ref p.216) When I return there I have a deep sense of being home. It feels just right. The angle of the sun, the distinct smells of the local eucalypt, the breadth of the sky, the shades of blue/green and the familiarity of those mountains! I am coming to realise how much comfort I take from a peak. From my home on the Warby Ranges, Mt Buffalo stood proud, strong, robust. When I lived in the King Valley it was Mt Cobbler that drew my frequent attention and reassurance by its comforting presence. At my Grandmothers recently in Murwillumbah, Wollumbin – ‘Cloud Catcher’ or Mt Warning as it is also known, anchors my footing in a foreign place. Here in Gippsland I glance disappointingly at Mt Worth when travelling home from Melbourne. It doesn’t fulfill that need. The Baw Baw range fills a stronger place of yearning for me but is less visible from home and travel routes.

In my youth I was a great adventurer. At 18 I left school and worked on an Outdoor Education program deep in the Victorian High Country. This was a life of very little contact with the outside world other than the students who did courses with us and a scant number of neighbours. The seven of us who worked together there forged a tremendous bond. The isolation also precipitated a bond with place and “country” just as strong as with those wonderful people. Once again it was the mountains “The Knocker” and “Mt Wills’” and all of those High Plains that framed my life at Mittagundi. When you spend hours, days, months, quietly and in semi isolation, you come to know that place, belong to that place, and it becomes a part of you. Mittagundi joins my personal inventory of such places.

After Mittagundi I had a strong desire to see Australia. The interior, the country! Through Mittagundi connections I gained work as a Jillaroo in Longreach – ‘Rosedale’ sparse, grey, tired. Then on to ‘Manbullo’ at Katherine and a large station bordering Kakadu “Swim Creek Plains’ – green, lush, dangerous. Finally I Jillarooed in the Kimberley – bold, harsh, oppressive. I only stayed 3 months Jillarooing in The Kimberley at ‘Lissadell Station.’ The work was beyond hard, the people even more so, the romance of those books I’d read (Cattle King – Ion Indress, RM Williams, Mary Durack – Kings in Grass Castles) was everywhere but not enough to sustain. If we were based at the station rather than a stockcamp I’d call mum on a Sunday. “Is it beautiful?” She’d ask – expecting a poetic reply about the extraordinary splendour of the country. “I suppose so” I’d reply. It was simply and overwhelmingly harsh! The dry heat, sucking my vitality, making tools burning hot to touch. The rocky, bumpy landscape, experienced either from the back of a cranky bucking horse or perched on the metal tray of a farm Ute, where I’d be avoiding rolls of barbed wire, crow bars axes and sweaty stockmen also bumping around with me on the back of that Ute. Sharp Spinifex seeds in everything, the horse blanket, my clothes and socks. Scorpions in my swag at night, and days when water was not offered to us as we mustered and moved mobs of cattle. Once, I heard the Head Stockman had water, I cantered over to him, and he offered me the chance to come to his swag that night in return for a drink. So thirsty was I that I hesitated to consider before snatching it from his hands. #METOO.

These digressions I share and would love to elaborate more… they shape my experience of that place beyond the “seeing the country by car…….. in geographical limbo.” (ref p.180)

In the end I shared my time there in true romantic union with a fellow stockman – Indigenous to the area. This begs a book of stories and actually he came home to Victoria and lived with me in Melbourne for a year. However keeping in response to this book, I remember how in tune and connected he was to country. What we would call superstition framed his life. Spotting and unusual bird or animal, or a weather event, he would ponder health of family, good or bad tidings. I remember lying under that majestic curtain of stars with him and seeing a remarkable shooting star that led to the preposition of a family member passing? Sure enough the next day he received word that indeed a cousin had died. What we experience in ‘country’ or landscape is only touching on what Australian Indigenous people may feel after thousands of years spent connected to it. It is precious and it shapes us more than we imagine.

After reading this book I feel Tim Winton’s urge as my own. To jump in the car and travel, to be in country, to devour it, be humbled by her scale, connected to her beauty and majesty, and comforted by the mountains.

These reflections are examples of how I feel connected to spirituality of country have led me to great reminiscing and yearning as well as fear that in the digital era so many of us are not spending enough time just being in nature. That I’m not spending enough time in nature. Tim Winton felt comforted (ref p.226) by the young people he meets out and about who are curious, passionate and connected. I hope we have cause to share this optimism!

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Pesto

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I wouldn’t be the only one who has planted rows of basil, only to find that very suddenly they are inundated with masses of this fragrant summer herb.  Pesto is crying out to be made, savoured and stored in the freezer if you have space.  When the cold and flu season hits in winter it is a great way to consume raw garlic if you are coming down with an infection. It is not just for pasta but is great on toast or in sandwiches, in vegetarian lasagna, to build a rice or pasta salad, spread over lamb chops, steak, chicken, fish or tofu. If you are feeling really decadent you can even just eat it as a dip like we do with dry biscuits. This year I am making a budget pesto with toasted almonds instead of pine nuts. My plan is to add pine nuts when I serve up the final dish to add a bit of crunch and that classic pine nut flavour.

If you are an exacting kind of person then I have included Stephanie Alexander’s measurements in brackets for each ingredient.  I feel my way through and taste test at the end.

Ingredients

Salt                  My current preference is for Himalayan which is high in minerals

Olive Oil         (1/2 cup) I like to use a good quality Australian Extra Virgin Olive Oil like Cobram Estate

Pine nuts        (3 tablespoons)

Basil                (1 well-packed cup) Washed, spun in salad spinner, leaves picked and stems discarded.

Garlic              (2 cloves)

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Method

  1. Toast the pine nuts in a heavy based frying pan. This is not a time for multi tasking, but a time to be Zen. It is very easy to burn pine nuts if you get distracted. They just need to be very lightly browned.  Allow pine nuts to cool completely before blending, or they can spoil the tender basil leaves.
  1. Place the basil leaves in a food processor or you can use a mortar and pestle.
  1. Add olive oil, pine nuts, garlic and salt to taste.
  1. Blend to a desired smooth consistency. If using a mortar and pestle it can be good to use coarse rock salt, which will help bruise the basil. This rustic looking pesto has fantastic flavor and is no second best!
  1. If you want to keep it in the fridge for a week or so, place pesto in a glass jar and add a bit of olive oil to the top. I find mine does loose a bit of its rich green colour but is still fine to eat for at least a week.
  1. If you are cooking it straight away you may wish to stir in grated parmesan cheese now.
  1. If you want to freeze some, scrape it into a small plastic container or into ice cube trays. After it has sufficiently frozen you can remove the cubes from the ice tray and store them all in a larger container, perhaps separated with kitchen paper but they are easy to separate. (I always remove one portion to freeze from each batch made, as it freezes well and makes a fabulous winter treat when basil is no longer readily available..)
  1. You can definitely improvise with pesto, using other herbs like parsley, coriander, even spinach leaves, as well as different nuts like cashews, walnuts and pistachio.

 

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Bread and Butter (Cucumber) Pickles

There has been a glut of cucumbers here this summer and they still seem to be going strong.  We estimate having picked over 200 cucumbers from just 3 plants. They became pretty bitter after the first few crops, but have suited pickling very well.  I was inspired by Tamsin of http://tamsinstable.com.au/ who mentioned her excitement at the return of cucumber season and being able to stock up on a family favorite of cucumber pickles again.  I searched through many recipe books and eventually went with  a classic.  My recipe below, has been adapted from Margaret Fulton’s “Crisp Bread-and-Butter Pickles” recipe.  I  have given some thought as to when you can claim a recipe as your own.  I have made this so many times now, streamlined it, and added new ingredients.  So  I think as long as I acknowledge the original, I am happy to claim some credit.  They are really easy to make as you do it in two parts.  Even with little kids around, if you get the chopping done early afternoon you can bottle them up in a flash when they are in bed.  Which reminds me I have a bunch of cucumbers waiting my attention.  Maybe another night……..

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Ingredients 

  • ¼ cup Salt
  • ½ cup water
  • 10 cups of finely sliced cucumber or approximately 10 medium sized Lebanese cucumbers
  • 1 finely sliced capsicum (only if you have one handy, otherwise don’t worry.)
  • 4 medium onions cut into half rings.
  • 1 ½ cups sugar
  • 1 ½ cups apple cider vinegar or vinegar of your choice
  • ½ tbs mustard seeds
  • ½ tbs coriander seeds
  • ½ tsp turmeric
  • ¼ tsp whole cloves
  • 6-8 black peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 bay leaf

Method

  1. Prepare your sliced vegetables and place them in a large stainless steel bowl.
  2. Dissolve salt in water and pour over the vegetables.
  3. Put about 3 cups of ice on top of vegetables, cover with a weighted plate and allow to stand for at least 3 hours.
  4. Drain vegetables, rinse lightly and drain again.
  5. Combine the sugar, vinegar and spices in a large saucepan and bring to the boil.
  6. Add the vegetables and toss through the sauce gently with a wooden spoon until coated and allow the liquid to come to just below boiling point.
  7. Heat jars to sterilise them in a low oven.
  8. Ladle the pickles into the warm to hot jars.  Fill to the brim.
  9. Put lids on tightly and wash spills off the outside if necessary.
  10. Stand back and admire, while you salivate, and as soon as they have cooled get one jar into the fridge to chill.

These pickles are most delicious served simply with fresh homemade bread and real butter.    We also eat them with cold meat, roast meat, cheese, at a BBQ or with eggs and bacon at breakfast.  I have even been known to do a ‘Nigella Lawson,’ that is take a sneaky trip to the fridge with a fork for a mouthful or two.  I’m not sure I can make it look as seductive as she does though. 

My naturopath encourages me to eat more turmeric and uncooked onion, so when I eat these pickles I kind of trick myself into thinking they are like medicine.  Without the sugar they really would be, but then, they wouldn’t taste so heavenly either.