Little Owl Gully
Graham R. Cooper
Graham R. Cooper’s personal journal about modern-day homesteading at Little Owl Gull.
June and I celebrated our forty-first wedding anniversary in January with a home-cooked meal. That makes it sound like we only make the meals ourselves for special occasions. Nothing could be further from the truth. That’s the norm in our household.
Take-aways, eating out, and meals made at home from mostly bought ingredients are the exceptions. We get a great deal of satisfaction from growing our own food, harvesting the produce, preparing the ingredients and making our own meals.
What about the meals themselves? Well, we really enjoy savouring the aromas, tastes, textures and colours: a final appreciation of the fruits of our labours.
As I wrote ‘final’ I was saying to myself: “Not really final.” The food chain is cyclical and as for the entire web of life: a network so complex that the connections appear infinite.
My Bowels: Part One
But to be honest what came to mind first was Montaigne and my bowels. Home-grown and home-made are good for my bowels. I say that with authority after years of comparing the regularity and nature of such things; yet another comparison between ‘home-grown’ and ‘other-grown’ if you like.
Michel de Montaigne, as far back as the sixteenth century, was writing personal journals in French that had the stamp of genius on them. So much so that he is regarded as the founder of the personal essay. As a philosopher with a very personal take on matters, he had the knack of bringing us back down-to-earth. Montaigne once famously said: “Kings and philosophers shit: and so do ladies.” He followed that up with: “Upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses.”
Makes me wonder whether the comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell, would have found Montaigne’s brand of earthiness edifying. I suspect he would have been all squeamish about it. Somehow I don’t think Campbell had a discussion of bodily functions in mind when he reckoned he was with the philosophers right up until their feet left the ground.
Montaigne, the singer, gave Montaigne the long-time dead philosopher some air time in late 2016. She was giving her speech after receiving an ARIA award, but as she later tweeted: “… I wrote something COMPLETELY COMPREHENSIBLE and then decided FOR SOME STUPID REASON not to read it.” The media loved it, dubbing it ‘#PooGate’. After quoting Montaigne, her namesake, on even the high and mighty still sitting, like the rest of us, on our arses, she then went on to say that everyone poops at least three times a week. Then she got muddled and omitted explaining that what she meant was: “I will wipe my butt for the foreseeable future but everyday a host of people wipe it for me metaphorically,” and that each and every one of us is special, no matter what, and we all have to poo.
You know how you get thinking about something – in this case, Montaigne, bowel motions and home-grown food – and next morning, in my case, I’m having a really big, soft but well-formed, palish brown and healthy-looking dumping. And I’m giving much of the credit, (not to Montaigne) but to the previous evening’ s ratatouille and my morning bowl of porridge copiously adorned with fresh blueberries, raspberries and plums.
Those of you who are fans of Jamie Oliver might recall a television episode he did a few years back in which he compared the size and consistency of a pygmy from the Kalahari desert’s poo with that of a modern-day adult on a standard western diet. If I remember correctly, he visited a museum and filmed the exhibit.
You know the sorts of foods I’m talking about: lots of processed food, high in carbs, laden with sugar and salt and low in fibre. Well the simulated version of that poo was like a couple of little sausages no bigger than your fist. In contrast, the pygmy’s was like a little cone volcano with the consistency of thick porridge. An image that, unbidden, resurfaces for me from time to time. I guess my dumpings are on average somewhere in-between. Read into that what you will!
Perhaps just thinking and writing about this stuff is conducive to a healthy gut. A notion that came to me because I had to make a dash to the loo just as the picture reemerged in my mind of that mound of pygmy faeces. What have I been eating?
Lunch and dinner
I used yellow tomatoes on a bed of tasty cheese as fillings in the omelettes I made for lunch yesterday. Then we had wholegrain toasted bread spread with freshly made apricot jam, and finished the meal with a couple of Cox’s Orange Pippin apples – what a lovely name. For dinner, June made cream of broccoli soup. We had that with three buns she defrosted, (she’d made a couple of dozen a while back). Again followed by jam on toast – freshly made greengage plum jam this time. Nothing like a bit of variety to spice up life.
Four big broccoli heads had all come ready at once so June made them all into soup and put most of it in the freezer. Great winter lunches to have – especially handy on a Timaru shopping day.
My particular bias has me favouring breakfast as the most important meal of the day. Lots of carbs to keep Mr Skinny at bay. So it was omelletes for lunch, soup for tea and my usual fermented overnight steel-cut oats for breakfast. Topped with cut-up fresh plums and apricots. A welcome but demanding glut of vegetables and fruit as we head into late summer.
While talking about my idiosyncratic taste in porridge I’d also mentioned June’s ratatouille. Worth repeating – the capsicums in it sometimes do repeat on you -because it does so much justice to the bewildering array of vegetables she grows. And such a welcome change from the many dinners protein and fat heavy with meat.
Ratatouille: The Meal
I got June to take a photo of the vegetables she’d gathered for the dish and I took some of the meal cooking in our large cast-iron frying pan. The heat of the day had seen temperatures soar to 31 degrees Celsius; we took our meal out onto the south-facing verandah which, despite the stiflingly hot day, remained at a bearable temperature.
The heat would have been hard to bear if we had eaten indoors. The wood stove is in our dining room!
Anyway, surely there’s no one out there who religiously sticks to eating indoors? In the open air food aromas and flavours are so much more intense.
Ratatouille: The Film
‘Ratatouille’ would have to be one of the best animated films I’ve seen. That was some rat and did he know how to cook. Loved the way the aromas from the food wafted up from the pans. Would love to eat his ratatouille al fresco. Quite an achievement to make a rat so endearing. Wish I could say that about our rats.
Rataouille: The Rats
I just wish all our rats would stick to enjoying their food and other activities outdoors or in their nests. It’s so irritating and not at all conducive to sleep when one or two, (never seems to be more than that at any one time), find a way under our roof and scurry and scratch above our bedroom ceiling and down the wall space near my side of the bed. I set traps up there but it’s sometimes weeks before they go for the peanut butter bait that’s on the actual traps.
Still, that’s another story. Several actually. They’ll have to wait for another day. Check out the movie though if you haven’t seen it. And it’s quite some dish: ratatouille. Enjoy it someday soon if you haven’t already.
Spaghetti Bolognese: Part One
What can’t wait for another day is my finishing the story about our forty-first wedding anniversary dinner. I made a spaghetti bolognese. I can hear you saying, “Yeah, right, what’s so special about that. Isn’t spag bol everyone’s go to dish?” True, it’s not one of my special dishes. Not that I have many of those.
I’ve been making it more years than I care to remember. My spaghetti bolognese was one of my daughter’s favourite meals from way back when she was a little girl. A family joke was my supposedly ‘secret recipe’ – the improvised ingredients I used to make the sauce. We never had in most of the recipe’s ingredients.
The recipe itself came from an inspirational book of pasta recipes given to me – probably as a birthday present – by my sister, Jane. We use it for several pasta recipes and when June makes her own spaghetti she follows the process described in the book. Sorry, I used bought spaghetti but at least it was 100% Italian organic durum wheat. The book’s called: The Book Of Pasta and it’s by Lesley Mackley. The edition we have was published in 1987.
Grow your own
When you grow most of your own food it’s surprising how often meat, fruit and vegetable topics crop up in conversation. Knowing so much about what happened beforehand to get, in this instance, a bolognese on the table, means you never take food for granted.
The conversation that evening was no exception. June wanted to know where I’d got the carrots from. How romantic.
“I got some thinnings from the main bed. They’re getting quite big – long and slender.” We’re getting our carrots – the thinnings – from a raised bed in the main vegetable garden now. What’s left of the early carrots – the thinnings from the raised bed outside the back door – will hold well till we’ve finished thinning the main crop.
“I remembered to push soil back into the holes formed when I pulled the carrots,” I said. We didn’t want to make it easy for carrot fly to get in. Last year, carrots, over-wintered where they grew, became by the end of winter gouged out and riddled by the fly larvae.
Our main bulwark against them this year is a 40 cm high cloth barrier mounted on top of the 30 cm high sides of the bed. The carrot flies crawl onto the carrots to lay their eggs; the barrier is an effective way of keeping them out.
Two clothes pegs holding the cloth to one of the vertical wooden slats give way as I lean over to get carrots from the third row. I’m careful to pull up the cloth and secure the pegs before I go. Forty centimetres is the magic number apparently.
“The celery seems a bit coarser and greener this year. The leaves look a bit different.” I’m curious to know whether it’s the same seed as last year.
“I think so. I’ll have to check. It’s been well-watered. Might be the season.”
Then I want to know whether I should still be using up last season’s onions. June said she was still using them, but had also started on this season’s. Now that is romantic and sexy. To paraphrase what Graham Greene was on about in his novel, The End of the Affair: If you’re not keen on your onions your wife might look elsewhere for her onions.
“I used the red onions that are next to the broad beans for the Bolognese. They were small so I used five, including the stalks. The top of one was already folding over, I don’t think they’re going to get much bigger.”
“No, it’s very dry there. The red onions in the raised bed are doing well.” We do like our onions.
June’s sketch reminds me of the line from The Tailor of Panama. Geoffrey Rush, playing the tailor, is measuring a man’s inside leg to fit him up for a pair of trousers: “Do you hang to the right or to the left, sir?”
Spaghetti Bolognese: Part Two
With home-grown ingredients and my ‘secret recipe’, the spaghetti bolognese is full of mouth-watering flavours, (if I do say so myself), despite the absence of two tasty ingredients that are in the original recipe: bacon and chicken livers.
When it comes to meat, ninety-nine percent of the time we eat only meat from our home-grown cows and goats. We no longer keep pigs, so bought free-range bacon is a rare treat. And our four hens are hybrids, kept for their prowess at egg-laying. The key meat ingredient is mince, of course, and that came from one of our Dexters: a four year old steer.
“Is it up to the usual standard?” I ask June. “How is it?”
“Yes. Very tasty.” We swill it down with a glass of Pinot Noir. It has good body and a flavourful finish, more so than most Marlborough Pinots. That and a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and a bar of dark chocolate a thank you from my brother Paul for the two weeks he and his family spent with us a while back.
Bolognese is one of those dishes that’s only complete when accompanied by a good red. I resolve to start making elderberry wine again. The elderberries on our self-seeded trees are coming ripe every few days. So far I’ve painstakingly removed 0.9kg from the stalks and put them in the freezer. I need at least 5kg for my planned 25 litres of wine. If the wine-making goes well it’ll be as good as a decent Bordeaux style red. Emphasis on it going well!
Last forkfuls of bolognese satisfactorily washed down with the pinot, the appetite was still up to finishing off the meal with June’s custard pie and ice cream. Ice cream made with bought cream and milk from her goats.
Love and good food
There’s the old saying: The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I also recall my Dad reassuring me – all those years ago – that things were looking promising because June’s parents had invited me to dinner. He said it would be the start of a new phase in our relationship: “… once you get your feet under the table.” I do love my food!
I love June too. She’s my best friend, the person I confide in, my abiding romantic relationship, my lover , my wife, the mother of our two children.
June and I share many of the same interests and values. We’re still living at Little Owl Gully after twenty-eight years because we get on well and continue to find our way of life satisfying.
My Bowels: Part Two
Friends and family ask us if we are going to stay on the place , especially now that we’ve recently retired. We tell them that we’d like to stay here on our ten acres in the valley until we die. As I tell them: “When I leave, I’d like to be carried out in a plain wooden box.” But if I do end up in a rest home one day, I hope my bowel habits are treated with the respect they deserve.
Two very old men, Joe and Lou, in Tracy Kidder’s wonderful book Old Friends, certainly tried to assert a modicum of self-reliance despite being roommates in an American nursing home. Here’s a little of their take on how the nursing staff questioned them about their bowel movements.
A nurse aide would come to the door holding a large folder labelled the “BM Book,” and call out in a loud voice, “Did either of you gentlemen have a bowel movement today?” Eventually, the men got all the aides to use a normal voice and merely ask: “Did you or didn’t you.” Joe really got the point across one day when, after telling the aide they both had, he asked her whether she had.
“None of your business!” she exclaimed.
“Well, you ask me,” Joe said.
“But I get paid for it.”
“Goodbye,” Joe said pleasantly, and went back to watching the television news.
Well, that’s all from Little Owl Gully till next Monday. Here’s a nod in the direction of the now dead comedian, Dave Allen, who always ended his television show with: “… may your god go with you.”
Bye for now and may your bowels go with you.
P.S. To any tailor out there keen on making me a pair of trousers for free: I hang to the left.