Friday, 29 January 2016

My trip to the Countryside

Yesterday I went on a little outing to Castlemaine. Regional public transport is free of charge all of this week, an offering that was apparently made because of a recent series of issues in the transport network. Seeing as I have some free time on my hands at the moment, I decided to go on a little day trip to a country town. I chose Castlemaine because it has several attractions within walking distance of the train station, plus it's known for its heritage buildings.

This was in some ways a big step for me. In the last few years, my anxiety has gotten worse, and I've let it get the best of me much of the time. It's made me reluctant to go to social occasions or go anywhere on my own. I nearly changed my mind about going several times in the week beforehand, imagining all the terrible things that could have happened. But in reality, the "worst" thing that happened was I didn't have time to see everything I wanted to see! Going on an adventure like this was a huge boost to my confidence.

The train left Southern Cross Station from platform 16, at the opposite end from where the regional trains normally leave from. After wandering around for a while, I caved in and asked an attendant. I'm glad I did, or I would never have found it!

The trip to Castlemaine takes about 1-1/2 hours. The landscape gave way from urban wasteland, to farmland, and eventually to bush.

I arrived at the replica 'historic' station at about 10.45.

The weather was overcast and extremely humid the whole day, but at least not too hot. I found the art gallery without any issues thanks to the maps on my spiffy new ipad.

The art gallery is quite small comparatively, but it had some beautiful pieces. The feature exhibition was by the war artist Ben Quilty.

There was also a room of 19th- and 20th-century Australian art with some beautiful portraits.

When I first entered, the lady behind the front desk mentioned that there was a museum downstairs. I'm so glad she told me because there were no signs and I certainly wouldn't have found it otherwise. It was an amazing space, packed full of treasures telling the story of the local area. While the art gallery up above had quite a few patrons while I was there, there was no-one else in the museum at all, which was quite sad, but it gave me a chance to have a good look at everything and take some sneaky photos.

While I was there, a lady came in and started chatting to me. She was the curator of the museum! She told me all about the silver collection of over 250 pieces, and the arts and crafts that had been created by former residents of the town. She told me that if I was interested in that sort of thing (yes!!) I should visit Buda, a historic house nearby. I had been planning to go to the Botanic Gardens, but listening to the history of the home's inhabitants convinced me that I definitely wanted to go. I asked her for directions, which she was of course very pleased to give me.

On the way to find Buda house, I stopped off at a 'hole-in-the-wall' place to buy a coffee. I asked the lovely gentleman if he had any gluten-free snacks. He didn't have any left, but he was so lovely about it, and mentioned that they had gluten-free options for their lunch service, that I determined to go back there for lunch. After drinking my coffee and contemplating life for a bit, I walked on to find Buda house. It's on the edge of town, up and down several steep hills. I have to admit, a couple of times I thought to myself, where the heck am I?

I eventually found it and went in. It was fascinating. The house had been built prior to 1860 in the style of the time, with small rooms dimly lit with small windows. Then in the early 1900s, an extension had been built on to provide a sitting room, music room and gallery. The contrast between the old part of the house and the new is striking -- the new rooms being much larger, with large windows giving an airy feel.

The history of the Leviny family was fascinating as well. The mother and father had 8 children. Only three married; the other five (all girls) lived in the house for the majority of their long lives. Thanks to their father's inheritance, they were able to pursue their love of arts and crafts, everything from photography to metalwork. I have to admit, I wasn't a little envious on hearing that! Many of their personal belongings, as well as their artworks, were on display in the house. It really gave a personal touch and I found it quite moving.

The extensive garden was wonderful as well. There was a pond, herb gardens, a cypress hedge, and some amazing pine trees. At first I thought this beauty was a Monkey Puzzle Tree!, but on googling it I found out it's actually a Bunya Pine. Still gorgeous though!

The garden had an interesting mix of 'traditional' style plants, and cacti and succulents.

After the excitement of the garden, I was starting to get hungry. I walked back into town and found the Good Table again. With help from another lovely waiter, I selected the pork with polenta, and strawberry semifreddo for dessert. I had a Pimms fruit cup as a treat. I love some irony with my food!

The food was excellent, if overpriced. I do want to go back with a bigger group though, so I can sit at the table with the chicken centrepiece!

It was time to go home, so I headed back to the train station. I had half an hour to wait (country trains!) so I wandered around for a bit and saw what is presumably the original train station.

I was planning to read on the way home, but I did some more thinking and ended up having a nap.

It was a really lovely day, and I'm proud of myself for engaging with other people, following my instincts, and being open to new possibilities.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The Gluten-Free Files : Sausage Rolls

I've been gluten-free for over 2 months now, and it's mostly going very well. There are a few things I miss though, so I thought I'd make a list of them and experiment with making gluten-free versions. First on the list is sausage rolls!

As I often do, I chose a recipe and then changed my mind at the last second, found I didn't have all the ingredients, substituted some and ended up with something quite different. This is the recipe that I butchered was inspired by. I also found the tips from For Dummies here really handy.
And I apologise in advance again for the photospam -- most of my cooking posts seem to have a ridiculous number of photos!

The basic ingredients. The flour is a commercial pre-mixed blend of tapioca, rice flour and potato flour. I read that you can use chia seeds instead of xanthan gum (used for binding). I happened to have some black chia seeds in the cupboard that I'd been planning to make a pudding with. And of course, butter, salt and sausage mince. I think most sausage mince is gluten-free, as they tend to use maize or soy flour for the filler, but always check the label to be sure!

Cutting the butter into the flour. This pastry tool is probably my favourite kitchen implement! I bought it from an op-shop years ago. I love how the paint is wearing off the handle. And the fact that it has a wooden handle at all, now that I think about it.

The sources I found on substituting with chia seeds said they could be ground or not, but didn't mention if they should be soaked in water first or not. After consultation with an expert in all things cooking (i.e. Husband), I decided to grind and then soak them.

The pastry dough. The black chia seeds really stand out, oops! I'll get some of the white variety to use next time. Other than that, they worked perfectly. I only added a tiny bit of water, about a teaspoon, and it still seemed a little sticky. I hoped that the next step, the chilling, would help with that.

According to the source I read, the dough should be very cold when placed in the oven, as it's the sudden heating that causes the water in the butter to steam and separate the dough into flaky layers. I flattened out the dough so it would chill faster.

Meanwhile, I made the filling. To the sausage mince, I added herbs, onion flakes, a bit of curry powder, and shredded carrot. I mixed it together with my hands, the old fashioned way! I did take a photo of that, but it looked kinda gross, so I deleted it. =D

Half an hour later, I began the rolling. The dough became sticky again very quickly, and it was difficult to work with, even with non-stick paper. I might try adding a little more flour next time.

I had to use the non-stick paper to fold the pastry up and around the filling before peeling it off, much like making sushi handrolls, if you've ever seen how they're made. But in the end, success!

Half an hour later. Gluten-free baked goods tend not to go brown, but I can assure you, they are cooked!

The dough came out quite well, I think. It's flaky and holds together quite well.
But was it worth it, cost-wise? I saw some gluten-free sausage rolls in my local supermarket for $9.99 for a pack of 3 (frozen). That's $3.33 each. Leaving out the little one, I calculated the cost of my five to be $0.67 each. Fresh! It seems so!

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Art Practice, Moon Magic

I'm participating in Hali Karla's Art Practice, Moon Magic art-journalling project.

I've never been into astrology (I recently found out my Moon sign and it fits me just as little as my Sun sign!) but something about the moon fascinates me lately. I thought this might be a good way to start exploring that, while encouraging me to play in my art journals more.

The project works like this: each month, at the new moon, a prompt will be posted on the blog. As the moon waxes, the participants work on the theme. Traditionally, the waxing moon is time to do work of increase, abundance and coming into being, as the moon gets bigger in the sky. It seems fitting for creating a work of art. The piece can be in any form, and the time spent as long or as little as we like. There's a link-up on the blog if we wish to share our results.

This month's theme is DEDICATION. To consider dedicating my energies, or an aspect of myself such as my creative practice, to something outside of myself.

At first, the theme didn't really resonate with me. It's been such a long time since I've done much creatively. I haven't had the energy to do very much for myself, let alone anyone or anything else. I was starting to get quite mopey when I suddenly had an idea -- what if I dedicate myself to my art and craft?

I was so excited by this that I decided to tackle the thing I feel I'm worst at art-wise. The drawing of faces! I flipped open my art journal to a random page and there was a collage piece with a face on it. I tried to copy it as best I could. I'm so out of practice that I'm a little embarrassed to show it, but here it is. And I have to apologise in advance for the bad photos, it was a dull day:

I'm not very happy with the eyes. I think it's because I tried to draw them as eyes 'should' look, rather than what I actually saw in the photo. Otherwise, it's OK. I feel happy because often I hesitate to draw in my art journals and consequently I never feel like my pages are quite finished. I always think, one day I'll get serious to improve my skills and do something more meaningful. Perhaps this is the time to begin.

I've also started my second painting on canvas. I think the square format is throwing me -- I'm used to the rectangular format of a journal.

I have no idea what it will be yet, and whenever I put it in front of me I'm confused about what to do, but I'm sure I'll get there at some point. I did with my first one!

Sunday, 17 January 2016

I made Jam

I made jam for the first time today. We had a good harvest from our plum tree this year, way too much to eat as we pick. Something had to be done! This is just under half of the total harvest. (I made stewed plums for the freezer with the rest.)

Cutting up the plums.

Look at this funny double plum! You'd never see that in the supermarket.

I was curious to see whether it was two plums that had somehow fused together, or one monster plum. There were two seeds inside, so that answers that question.

1.4 kilos of plums! I'm quite proud of my little tree.

I used this recipe from the CWA (Country Women's Assocation) Preserves cookbook. The Association is renowned in Australia for their traditional cooking knowledge. I got this cookbook just before Christmas, and I'm using it already. That's quite rare for me!
I decided not to add the port as I wanted to try a 'pure' jam for my first time.

The plums are boiling in a little water until soft.

Adding the sugar. I had to reduce the amounts to suit the amount of fruit I had, but it was a huge amount of sugar! 1.4 kilos! I had a 1-kilo bag, so I added all of it, but no more. It still felt quite wrong. But that's the traditional way....

While the jam was boiling, I prepared the jars. First I washed them in hot water and tried to get the labels off as best I could.

Sterilising them involves putting them in a slow oven for at least 15 minutes.

We tested the jam by pouring a small amount onto a plate that had been in the freezer for a while (to cool the jam down quickly). It wasn't setting as it should, so we added the juice of 1 lemon, as that causes the pectin to activate. After a second test, it was ready. I was too excited to remember to take photos of that part!

The process of filling the jars is pretty messy, but Husband, who has made jam before, assures me that this is perfectly normal.

And there we are -- 6 jars of plum jam!

Maintaining fruit trees and making produce from their harvest is certainly some work, I have to say. Pruning the trees, watering them, covering them with bird netting, monitoring the fruits so they're picked at just the right time. The process of making the jam was actually the least time-consuming; just over an hour. Sure, I could go to the supermarket and buy 6 jars of jam for $20 and save myself the time. I enjoy being amongst my trees, though. I love watching the ants run along the branches, and seeing the fruits slowly grow. I love the thought that I'll be doing the exact same thing this time next year.

Now that all the fruit is picked, I thank my tree and say to it, "you can rest now". Later this year, our work together will begin again.