Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Pretending to be a food blog

Instead of telling you about such gory country things as the beheaded mouse my mechanic found in my car engine yesterday (he declined to search for the head and told me that I might notice the smell of bbq soon), or how busy my week is, or even the great deluge of last week that resulted in Mr. Blithe taking five hours to get home, I am going to pretend this is a food blog.

According to a local source, people in this area aren’t interested in history (by which she means boring things), but they are interested in exotic snippets from the past. Every time I make rosella jam, someone tells me that “My grandmother used to make it and I loved it. I didn’t think anyone made it anymore.” So forthwith, here is the lowdown on rosella jam complete with boring historical details.

Rosellas are:
a) a native bird in Australia.
b) The name of the mother of my best friend in primary school.
c) The fruit of a small shrub brought to Australia by Chinese miners in the gold rush of the 1800s.
d) All of the above.

Of course, the answer is d). Rosella jam though is made with c) the fruit of the Hibiscus sabdariffa which is a native of West Africa that is widely used in Asia as an ingredient in fruity flavoured teas and as a source of vitamin C in herbal medicines. The shrub grows to about 1.5 metres tall and has small yellow/cream flowers with a dark red centre that look exactly like a classic hibiscus flower in miniature. The fruit grow along the branches and can be quite hard to pick (garden clippers or heavy duty scissors are useful). One place in Australia that has seeds is here.

Some people call rosellas “Queensland jam fruit” which implies that it is a regional speciality. However, my Sydney-born and bred mother used to make rosella jam in Taiwan out of dried rosellas that could be purchased in large packets from the preserved fruit vendors in the market. She would reconstitute the fruit by boiling them gently before proceeding with the jam recipe. She was perhaps a regional anomaly.

We obtained our rosellas from a holidaying neighbour who asked us to pop in and pick over the bushes in their absence. From two bushes we picked a large plastic bagful. If you pick the fruit regularly, the plant can fruit for up to nine months in temperate climates.

To make jam, the calyx (calyces/calyxes/calices) need to be separated from the seeds. This is simple to do, but needs to be done with caution as insects love to shelter inside the calyx. We removed a multitude of ladybirds and a few spiders in the process. Our family looked like the perfect pioneer family sitting around the kitchen table picking over the rosellas. This lasted approximately three minutes till the Blithelings were disgusted by the insects, the hairiness of the seeds and the monotony. They also found that handling the fruit made them itchy although it doesn’t bother me.

After the calyxes and seeds are separated, the seeds need to be covered in water and simmered for about 40 minutes. This liquid is then strained into the saucepan containing the calyxes. The seeds looking like tiny boiled brains are discarded now.

At this stage I usually add additional water so that the fruit is well covered.

Bring this big pan to the boil and boil until the fruit is tender. The liquid should then be measured and sugar added in a 1:1 ratio (one litre of liquid to one kilo of sugar). If you are me, you eyeball it at this stage, adding sugar gradually while tasting until the right flavour is reached. Also if you are me, you might not have checked how much sugar you had before starting, and end up without enough to achieve the proper ratio anyway. Having used up all my regular sugar, the caster sugar and scraped the sugar bowl into the pan, I decided that it was sweet enough (2.2 kgs of sugar to about 3 litres of liquid). Some people add lemon juice to the jam, but I think the fruit is tangy enough and the pectin from the seeds adequate without this. If you like a softer, “brighter” jam i.e, one that is cooked for less time, you might want to add a couple of juiced lemons. I personally like dark, rich jam so I cook it long enough to set firmly.

After adding the sugar, bring the mixture to a rolling boil. It will foam up a lot at this stage so make sure that you have a large enough pan. Keep the jam boiling until a spoonful of liquid placed on a chilled saucer wrinkles when you push your finger through it (about 40 minutes in my case). Turn off heat and let it sit for five minutes to let the fruit redistribute evenly.

Bottle as usual. Everyone has their preferred bottling method. I run the jars through the dishwasher, pop them in the oven to dry out if they aren’t totally dry inside, ladle in the jam, making sure that it is only about one centimetre from the top, wipe around the top of the jars, put on the lids, tighten carefully and let them cool. Jars whose lid “pops” get stored and the one or two jars that don’t seal properly, get eaten immediately.

Rosella jam is wonderful on toast with lots of butter or stirred through a bowl of greek yogurt. Make plenty of small jars as everyone wants some, historical artifact or not.

Monday, 25 May 2009

It’s official now

I had no idea of today’s date. That should have been a sign. The word of the day on my email account was “depredation” as in “the cold’s depredation of her immune system.” All I wanted to do after exercising this morning was go back to bed. The cawing of crows at daybreak left me nauseous.

The literary competition that launched the careers of such luminaries as Tim Winton and Kate Grenville (The Australian/Vogel Award) is only open to writers with unpublished manuscripts born after 1974.

I look at people driving by and wonder if they really are old enough to be driving a car. I think that women over twenty should abandon crop tops and babydoll dresses. I speculate on what someone’s tattooes will look like when they have had several children or are in a nursing home. I have to write notes to myself on my calendar about basic things. I went to a concert and thought that the music was too loud. I fall asleep watching television in the evening. I can no longer drink coffee after about eight pm.

It’s official: I am no longer a BYT (Bright Young Thing).

Friday, 22 May 2009

Early winter meditation

Sit on stone wall, bare feet in wet grass,
Hot sun, air with edge,
Deep breaths, eyes closed.


Tiny finches rustle grass
Seed heads rub on ironbark and wire
Mulberry leaves jostle like dropped manuscript
Currawong’s musical gargle
Something peeps urgently in response
Calls of high-flying crow
Two dogs discuss their day’s agenda
Grind of trucks on highway
Banded lapwings explode in noise
Crunch of wheels on gravel
Constant drone of frogs
A child shrieks
Tiny native bees hover in the snowflake bushes (euphorbia euphoria)
Wind in apple-scented gum
Twigs bounce off tin roof
Creak of house.

Draw back into yourself
Eyes open
Hills and skies so bright
All seems new again.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Striking truth

When I tell people that we’re working on a book on mining in the Rosewood-Marburg area, everyone thinks first of the New Oakleigh mine on the Rosewood side of Tallegalla. It’s not huge by Queensland mining standards, but in a rural landscape of farms, hills, fields and scattered houses, an open-cut coal operation is noticeable. All day coal trucks rumble down the main street of Rosewood, taking coal to Swanbank power station. Coal trains haul their loads through Rosewood from the same company’s mine in Oakey. I sometimes think that the existence of Rosewood is a blot on the mining company’s landscape. After all, the trucks have to slow down to a crawl through town, the freight trains compete with the commuter train – all in all an inconvenience. And pesky people keep complaining about dust, noise and scenic pollution.

No, the coal mines in which we are interested are the family ones. Ones where the farmer would milk the cows, do the farm jobs, go down the mines for a few hours, then milk the cows again. Some of the mines were big enough for several people to work there, but some were simply family operations. Coal was put on the train and taken into town for sale. Sometimes people had individual contracts supplying a couple of bags of coal a week to local hospitals or businesses. One story is told of how during the mining strike of the 1930s, Rosewood and Marburg coal kept people and industry in south-east Queensland going. Private coalmines weren’t unionised and were the only ones that could keep going. And according to my colleague, that’s how we know coal is black, because it was so declared by the unions.

The book that we envisage is based on oral histories of these small coalmines and the “lived experiences” of miners and their families. We want to hear about the experiences of working down the mines, of conditions, how the coal was extracted, where it was sold, where the mines actually were, who worked there, how long, what it was like being married to a miner, how wives and mothers got mining clothes clean, whether people got injured and how, when did people’s children start working in the mines, what people liked and disliked about mining, when they stopped mining, what happened to the mines…

We’ve been warned that such oral histories are asking for trouble. After all, everyone has different perceptions so how can you write about what really happened? I don’t think I’ve told my collaborators yet that I don’t really believe that a contemporary person can get at historical truth or that such “truth” exists. A historian can write about the bare bones of events, but even these skeletons can be a matter of conjecture and assumptions (both historical and contemporary). All “truths” are based on interpretation and filtered through individual experiences and understandings. What a historian can do is to present these understandings and seek to tell a story on several levels.

One level is that of an individual’s understanding of what happened. This can be set into the context of public stories being told in news reports and contemporaneous publications. This in turn can be set into the context of modern understandings – the perspective that is gained from time having passed. At no point, as someone trained as a historian and as a professional communicator, would I feel comfortable claiming truth.

This doesn’t mean that everyone’s stories are equally valid. There are good and bad observers and people whose perceptions of events are clouded more heavily by their own experiences. And there are purposeful distortions and manipulations at all levels of society. It’s the job of the historian to sort through all of these and draw together ideas and thoughts into some kind of cohesion.

I’m looking forward to hearing these stories. If you or anyone you know have stories about mining in this area, please do feel free to contact me through the blog, or through my email. We’ll be in touch.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Venturing forth

It’s boring to read other people’s litanies of how busy they are and why they aren’t doing things. So I won’t bore you. I can just assure you that I am not silent because I am living the high life (although I did attend a morning tea on Tuesday where there were butterfly cupcakes filled with real cream. Maybe I am living the high life after all).

I really should be dropping fascinating historical snippets and revealing the secrets of the Rosewood Scrub to you. It’s been far too long since I did that. Instead I will tell you what I am doing about my book.

You can buy huge tomes on how to get published full of lists of agents, publishers and outlets for one’s creative outpourings. Any email mentioning books or novels gets tagged on gmail with offers of advice on getting published or propositions for vanity publishing. And according to Mad Men (currently on SBS television) you can get published if you get your wife to put out for the right person. Well I don’t have a wife and I am very possessive of Mr Blithe. Besides which, he doesn’t actually know any publishers as far as I am aware.

Instead I’m going to take a first shot at an Australian independent publisher that actually accepts unsolicited, unagented manuscripts and is tactful enough to label their slush pile as the “Treasure Chest.” Nothing ventured, nothing gained. It helps that it is a publisher whose books I have read and admired for content, editorial and production values. I can work my way down the foodchain later.

It’s quite a task getting the manuscript into shape. The submission has to include a cover letter, author’s bio, one page synopsis of the novel, current CV and the novel itself. I’m working my way through the list, then a final read-through of the manuscript. Finally I’ll cast it on the waters of the internet delivery system and await my verdict. I’m sure that I’m mixing metaphors there, but I’m too tired to sort them out. I think I need another butterfly cupcake.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Sweet relief

Blithe Girl approves! She picked up a few egregious typos in the manuscript such as my continual mistyping of shop for ship. This shop is one that has many adventures on the high seas.

She devoured the book over the weekend. I kept coming around corners and finding her reading it. Each time I stopped, heart in throat. It was worse than final exams.

I know that she isn’t the most critical of readers, being related to me and all, but I really wanted to get the perspective of a ten year old reader, my target audience. Was the pacing good? What about the characters? Did you like them? Did you care what happened to them? Were there bits that were boring? What parts did you like? I was amazed by her thoughtful responses and thrilled by her enjoyment of it. The final verdict – she can’t wait to read the next book. I am a happy woman.

Now I have to write a killer cover letter and start sending it off, one publisher at a time of course. Wish me luck!

Friday, 8 May 2009

May evening

The same view twelve hours later.

May morning Marburg Valley

A reward for getting up early this morning. A second reward: my book is finished. I am giving it to Blithe Girl to read this weekend.

* Click on pictures for slightly larger view.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Life cycles

I’ve had a few emotional dry and rough patches this year at least partly due to change. One whole year was dedicated body and mind to the house. Now that energy needs to be redirected and so far it hasn’t been. Lots of projects are on the boil, sitting there simmering away without anything to move them onto the next level. Things have changed at the school and all of us have been a bit unsettled. Blithe Girl is poised on the edge of, not teenagehood, but no longer childhood. Blithe Boy has realised that he and Mum are different people. Merry Girl is not always merry. I believe it’s called family life.

I’ve been learning a huge amount in my first research contract. Gaining that learning has been hard work. I’m slightly encouraged by my boss’s comments that it is a particularly hard project. After nearly a decade out of the formal workforce, I wondered how much was due to my own lack of skills and confidence. Unfortunately moving forward on that project is dependent on someone else’s input and I am currently on hold. The second project is still hanging in the balance.

The novel is still not finished although slow progress is being made. Next week I’m meeting with the team to discuss the book about mining that somehow needs to be written this year. It may be movement but I’m not sure in what direction.

And this last weekend was the Marburg Show – my annual reminder that the year is no longer young. It was a quiet show, which I enjoy, although financially it isn’t the best for the community groups that depend on the show for a good chunk of their annual fundraising. It was also a glorious autumn day of sunshine, cloud and breeze.

There were rides and displays, helicopters and utes. Horses, cows, chickens and birds. Vegetables, giant pumpkins, sugar cane, eggs and honey. Quilts, embroidery, jewellery, weaving, crochet, scrapbooking. Police displays, fire ant warnings, historical information, an accordion player, a collection of sewing machines, a gem polisher, a blacksmith and food galore.

There’s the annual tussle between three venerable ladies over who wins the most floral awards. This year I winkled the secret out of one of them. You have to spend weeks picking flowers at their peak and putting them in the fridge. When your fridge is full, you borrow a neighbour’s. On show week you spend all week arranging flowers from your stash. There’s no way I can compete with such dedication! Nor, to be honest, is my garden up to scratch.

Of central interest to us is the school displays. The school children submit craft, handwriting, drawings, poems and creative writing. The first thing we have to do on arrival at the show is make our way to the main hall and check out the displays. Merry Girl’s “true” poem snagged a prize. I wonder how the original poem would have gone. Other prizes were garnered as well. What brought tears to my eyes though, was that both Blithe Girl and Merry Girl won first prize for their age groups for creative writing. My pride knew no bounds. So please excuse a little boasting.

Friday, 1 May 2009

On the subject of…

Advantages and disadvantages. Yesterday I participated in my first teleconference from home. The advantage, eight people across Queensland were (hopefully) not aware that I was wearing my woolly slippers.

The disadvantage? The green tree snake slithering around the pittosporum tree next to my office window while I was trying to outline the proposed evaluation and retain some semblance of professionalism (as much as one can while wearing woolly slippers of course).

Mr. Blithe suggested that maybe someone was suggesting that this job is a satanic temptation. He then conceded that he had simply wanted to use that phrase in an email for a long time. Google ads then presented me with offers for Gold Coast Resort accommodation and a “luxury retreat” at Peppers Spicers Peak Lodge. Someone somewhere has a sense of humour.