Blooms and brews

It’s sunny and warm and unseen birds are chirping. Time seems to pass slowly, perhaps because of the long summer days that last through midnight. I usually write the first draft of a post in a notebook, finding a cozy place to sit and wait for the ideas to come. As I write this draft, I can smell the earthy, sour scent of tomato leaves and warm soil. Along the window sill sits a line of pots of all sizes, containing plants of various shades of green sprouting or lolling about. Though I’ve recently been to a night of obscure and worldly music, a speech about cultural appropriation, seen Sweden open up in the summer sun and learnt more about teaching, I’d like this latest post to be closer to home.

Young tomatoes in the sun

Young tomatoes in the sun

Many of the plants to my right are looking less than healthy, the lower leaves stained and wilted beneath newer, greener leaves. These are all tomato plants that I grew from seeds, carefully watering and weathering until I thought them tough enough to brave the outside weather. Unfortunately, they weren’t all quite ready and all but one are now inside again. Little yellow blossoms tell me that this was the right move, though whether I get food out of them is another thing. According to google all I need to do to help with pollination is give them a little shake every day, which for some obscure reason is a bit of a relief.

Tomato flowers

Tomato flowers

In between the tomato plants are covered plastic growing boxes with seeds that I planted two weeks ago. The cress has been growing like a weed, leaning purposefully towards the sun and already tasting sharply peppery. Behind them are the nasturtium sprouts, which are popping up more ponderously and then quickly unfurling. Every day adds about a cm to each sprout, especially when there are blue skies and the sun is pouring in through the window.

New sprouts

New sprouts

Next to this container is a smaller one with only one sprout. They were planted at the same time as the tomatoes but seem somehow reticent. I’m tempted to poke about to see if they’re even trying. The one survivor is growing quickly though, and hopefully will pop out with a flower or two soon, and perhaps even some little, pinky-sized smultrons (wild strawberries).

At the same time, other living forces are underway in the spare room, getting on with a process as old as civilization. Brewing.
Two weeks ago my fella started creating what I’ll call generic beer, with the help of a friend who is much more knowledgeable than me about beer. Which isn’t all that difficult to achieve really. There was mixing, boiling, cooling, stirring, the adding of yeast and pouring, accompanied by the drinking of beer (to collect bottles for the brew) and much serious staring at the malty, hoppy mass. Some of the malt mash was used to make two excellent loaves of bread, thick crusty loaves that go down well with butter. The pre-beer is now bubbling away happily, along with the newest addition to the brew room.

Freshly baked beer bread

Freshly baked beer bread

This last weekend we spent a fair amount of time purchasing a juicer and 10 kilos of apples, and then lugging them home. Sadly I was able to eat none of the apples, as they were all put through the juicer to serve a higher purpose. Their juice is now frothing away, fermenting merrily into what I hope will become cider.

Frothy fermentation

Frothy fermentation

The next step is unclear, but mead, stout, lambic beer, wine and apple beer have been suggested. All I hope for is that when they’re done to our satisfaction we can have a sunny day to enjoy them, perhaps by the lake. If I’m very lucky there may even be a handful of cress, a couple of juicy tomatoes and nasturtium petals to mix into a salad. Or even a tiny, extremely sweet wild strawberry to savour as I sip our homemade cider in the fading summer light.

Baking away the darkness

To complement the hordes of articles that seem to be popping up in newspapers and magazines lately about how to deal with the oncoming darkness and not go crazy, I thought I would add my little bit of advice. I have learnt it through a combination of instinct and necessity, and unlike pretty much all of the advice that others seem to be spouting, it doesn’t involve leaving the house. Or even the kitchen. And you eat it.
Oh yes.
I’m talking about baking.

My home town in the middle of November at 3:30pm. On a nice day.

My home town in the middle of November at 3:30pm. On a nice day.

(If you’re reading this from Australia or somewhere else that isn’t currently getting dark by 3.30pm, pretend I am making ice-cream, or whatever else you like that suits weather over 5 degrees.)

It started some time ago, when I realised that this whole making bread thing isn’t as hard as I thought and that if I make bread my partner gets a bit giddy with excitement. I found an amazing recipe that makes bread rolls in about 45 minutes, from start to finish. And they are perfect. I’ve done it three times now and both times there was a sense of a miracle as I took the tray out of the oven. The second time was also the time when I realised that this baking thing was becoming a thing. It was halloween, and as mentioned in that post, I decided to do some traditional, themed baking. There was the Roman dish, soul cakes and the bake that was not quite a cake.

Successful soul cakes!

Successful soul cakes!

It was the first of my recent failures and it stung. A few weeks later I decided to use the scrapings from the halloween pumpkins to make pumpkin bread for book club. It… did not work. We agreed that it made decent slice though, and left it at that. I brought tiny vegemite sandwiches to make up for it.

However I kept going, making another delicious pile of rolls (oh the burgers, oh the joy), and it started to creep up on me that there was a pattern in my behaviour. I’d wake up, do weekend things and somehow find myself in the kitchen, wearing an apron and spraying flour dust around the counter, while outside the sky lowered and rain fell. The oven would be on and though kneading and cries of ‘oh damn, why is it still sticky!’ lay ahead, I knew at the end would be something warm and comforting, and edible achievement that perhaps in some way made up for the cold and inability to picnic.

Bread rolls

Bread rolls

It was around this point that we began to get creative. By now my partner had decided he wanted in on this baking thing, and not just as the happy recipient of baked goods. Prior to my baking revelations he had been the house baker, proud owner of the knowledge of how long to leave the yeast to grow and at what temperature, how elastic the dough should be and how many times to punch it before baking. And he does certainly make very fine bread. So when I said that I was curious about making rye bread he fiddled on his tablet and replied soon after that he might be interested in making barley bread, using ancient recipes. So after a trip to the shops for the correct flour and extra yeast, the bake-off was on.
Except without officially being a competition, because I don’t like competitions. And neither of us are especially graceful losers.

We set to in the kitchen, wearing our respective aprons and were soon thoroughly dusted with flour. There was much kneading, poking, tutting about consistency, watching dishcloths slowly rising and finally carefully putting them in the oven. Both turned out great, especially just baked and slathered in margarine. Most certainly a victory for us both.

Rye bread

Rye bread

This has all been leading, as the best stories do, to a climax. Last weekend we had been invited to dinner by a good friend and I offered to bring dessert. My inspiration, as I leafed through cookbooks and the internet, was chocolate. In the end I found a chocolate cake that was not only egg and milk free, but it had the word epic in the title. After recent cake incidents I wasn’t feeling confident and there were minor details that I could have done better (such as reading all the instructions before getting halfway through) but at the end, when I assembled it at the friend’s house and stood back to consider, I decided it was damn good. You should have tasted it. In fact, there is still some in the fridge now, if you’re quick!

Chocolate cake. Mmmm.

Chocolate cake. Mmmm.

So I suppose what I mean to say is that I’ve found my own personal type of activity/therapy to while away the crawl to the day of least light. It requires practice and concentration, there is always something new to learn and I can pretend that watching The Great British Bake Off is studying. Plus we eat the results. I’d be curious to know what other habits or hobbies others are taking up to keep the darkness at bay. Whatever it is, may it be satisfying and keep you sane.