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Plan B

Do you have a wish list of the type of homes you'd like to live in?

Mine would be inner city terrace, weatherboard farmhouse, art-deco apartment, preferably in Paris, scandi barn-style house,  historic commercial building.  Never a brick veneer in the suburbs, I've done my time in those growing up.

I've always fancied living in an old commercial building, drawn to the gracious architectural details, soaring windows and generous proportions. And now we're here I do find myself wondering what the hell we were thinking.

We've long had a tremendous affection for this building, known as the Bowmont, it's a precious survivor with a colourful past that I'll share another time.  A regular haunt when it was an antique shop, we spent many an afternoon exploring the dusty rooms stuffed with furniture, paintings and knickknackery.

When it came up for sale I did think how wonderful it would be to own such a place, not really giving it serious consideration.  But as the farm project grew more and more difficult, I started to think about a Plan B.

The Bowmont had sat on the market for almost a year, and I couldn't understand why it hadn't been snapped up. This gem of the Huon, with river views and so much potential. What was wrong with people? Who wouldn't want to rescue a tired ex-bank, ex-hospital ex-employment agency and pour some love and money into the poor old girl.

Too big, too much work, no land, on a busy road, there were plenty of reasons why no one had bought it.  Not one to let such trifling realities stop me, I sent a cautious text to the agent to organise a visit.   I couldn't wait to see inside again and as the agent pushed opened the heavy old door I was a little underwhelmed to be honest, it was cluttered, and cold, and stuffy.  We walked through the building that was now part home, part backpackers, part closed antique store, and I took the photos, posted below.  Yet despite the bad curtains, shit paintwork and fluro lights, it still felt a little magical and dear reader, we bought it.

It's almost exactly a year since I sent that first text to the agent, and it's been quite a ride just to buy the building, it took forever (well, six months forever). Writing this now fills me with angst ridden memories of that uncertain period, of the many times we almost walked away from the deal. Wondering if indeed our only option was a brick veneer in the suburbs. But you know, she's an alluring mistress this one, and in my heart I knew it was meant to be.

So here I am in this draughty cold house, 22 rooms, eight open fireplaces, with no heating or insulation, a blanket on my shoulders as I type wearing fingerless gloves, chipboard covering the missing floorboards. Having the renovations finished seems like an impossibly long and ridiculous journey.  

But still, we're here, plans are afoot and as the sun streams through those glorious windows, honestly there's nowhere else I'd rather be.

* Sorry these photos are rather crappy, I'm still trying to remember how to post images properly!

Titles are always the hardest.

I thought, given that, these are crazy times we are living in, and right now, after many, many (many) months, there finally seems to be some words swirling around my head just begging to get out.  And while I can sit, mindlessly scrolling on my phone and popping a short story onto instagram, I'm missing the long, comfortable pace of a blog post where I can stretch my writing legs and tell a proper story without squinting my ageing eyes onto a tiny square.  Surprisingly I can remember how this blogging thing works and plan to spend some time kicking around here.  I may be a bit rusty, but like the first pancake, which is always a disaster and ends up in the chook bucket, the best thing to do is to start.

So without further ado, let's begin. Again. With a new story.

Last time we spoke we bought a farm, and things were looking up.  After two years of paperwork, permits, business plans, designs, hard graft and eye-watering costs, we were just about to press go on the civil works.  The builders were ready to start building our dream home, high on a windy hill in a beautiful paddock with views both east and west for miles down the valley.

It was awful.

For lots of knotty, stomach wrenching, lying awake at night reasons.  Financial, emotional, physical, here we were as family putting our everything into a project that left us feeling drained, stressed and miserable.

So we changed course and did something crazy, sold our beloved weatherboard farmhouse and bought a rundown two storey Edwardian bank on the shores of the Huon River.  And why not? With 400 square metres to rattle around in, consisting of 22 rooms with eight fireplaces, a magnificent blackwood staircase, right on the highway in the village of Franklin, it's almost identical to running a 35 acre farm.

The building boasts a colourful past, built as a quite fancy bank back in 1906, it's also been a hospital and seen over 3000 babies born in its rooms, it's been emergency housing for some colourful characters, government offices, a community centre, employment agency, antique store, backpackers and now a family home.

It's been loved and unloved, stood derelict for a time, burnt, vandalised, dozens of holes drilled into walls for data cables, fax machines, alarms. Doors have been kicked in, turned upside down and had ugly handles and bolts attached. Roofing gutters left unattended now spout a surprising diversity of grasses, possums live in the roof and power points dangle from cables off the wall.  Thankfully, the magnificent proportions and many gracious features still remain.

It's been five months since we picked up the keys, and currently we have no floorboards in the hallway, no heating, no insulation and a terrible rising damp problem. The possums, for now, are gone.   But we love living here and while of course we're daunted by the enormity of the project, it's a challenge we're willing to rise to.

Fancy joining us for the ride?

Well then, let's melt some butter in a frypan, and start cooking those pancakes.

A Proper Seed Cake Recipe

Today was a thoroughly lazy Sunday, a precious day spent at home, pottering about the kitchen reading books and drinking tea.  Soon my thoughts turn to cake, one that required not much effort, a plain and simple, no-nonsense kind of cake.  A cake with a soft tender crumb, brightly coloured yellow from proper eggs and organic butter. Nothing too sweet, and flavoured with just a hint of spice.

No question that it had to be a seed cake, with its golden crust and a crumb speckled with caraway seeds. My only dilemma was whose recipe to use. Mrs Beeton wrote a recipe for A Very Good Seed Cake, but it seemed a bit big, and Fergus Henderson has a robust sounding version in Nose To Tail.  But today Monty Don’s recipe was just the ticket, taken from my favourite comfort food book.   It was perfect, served as Monty suggests, with a glass of madeira. Now it's stashed in a tin to nibble on a slice over the next few days.

I thought I'd share the recipe here, because I'm afraid you won't have much luck finding a cake recipe if you google the words "seed" and "Monty Don" what with him being a garden writer and all.

Monty makes his with a bowl and wooden spoon, but I used a stand mixer because as I did say, it was a thoroughly lazy Sunday. 

Seed Cake 
extracted from The Home Cookbook from Sarah & Monty Don 

Serves 6
150g unsalted butter, plus a little more for greasing 
150g caster sugar 
3 eggs
2 teaspoons caraway seeds 
200g self raising flour, sifted 
1 -2 tbs milk if the mixture needs softening.

Preheat oven to 180C

Grease a 15 x 10 x 7 loaf tin with butter and line the bottom with baking paper 

Cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy

Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Sprinkle in the caraway seeds, then gently fold in the flour. 

Add a little milk if the mixture seems too stiff, it should drop easily from a spoon.

Spoon the mixture in the prepared tin and bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted int eh middle comes out clean.

Allow to cool for a few minutes before turning out on a wire rack to cool completely. 

It keeps well in a tin for several days.

We bought a farm

I often wonder how to tell people stuff about your life and dreams. How much of your life you should share. And most importantly, when to share.  Do you tell people from the start of your dream, and take them on a journey through the trials and struggles, and then, when you reach your goal you can all celebrate in the triumph.

Or do you get stuck in behind the scenes, keep the challenges to yourself until the big reveal..." Ta - Da here's this thing we did! Twas nothing!"

That's how I feel about telling people we bought farm. It's not actually a farm yet truth be told, but a 35 acre parcel of land, with paddocks, a woodland and a river bank. It has magnificent views of the glorious Huon Valley to the east and of the wild snowy mountains to the west.

There's some ramshackle fences, a few flogged paddocks and a pile of stones, and best of all there's a forest that runs along the banks of the Huon River, filled with tall eucalyptus, devils dens and wombat burrows. Plus then theres a sandy riverbank, where you can swim and kayak and fish. It's dreamy and it's ours, and we fancy calling ourselves farmers one day.

For many years, we had a dream to buy an old farmhouse on lots of land, do it up, start a family business and create a place where people could come and learn, connect and unwind. But despite our earnest looking, for years, nothing seemed right, or we couldn't afford it, or someone else bought it before we did.

Then as things often happen, this parcel of land appeared, the land was perfect, the zoning and facilities or lack there of, not so perfect. It wasn't what we were looking for, the lawyers said don't buy it, the conveyancer told us we were mad, but we bought it anyway.  A whopping big parcel of land in the Huon Valley without any infrastructure, tricky zoning,  but hey, it has a river bank and forest!

That's what's been keeping us busy these last 18 months, planning a farm.  We've been in lots of meetings; meetings with council, with architects, grazing consultants, weed management consultants, town planners, bushfire risk planners, markets gardeners, landscapers and Resource Management bureaucrats.

We've also done workshops on fencing, farm planning, weed management, wildlife monitoring, stock grazing and irrigation.  We've dived head first into learning about regenerative farming through soil health and pasture regeneration. Studied cattle grazing, sheep grazing, cell grazing, egg production, and pig rearing.  We've applied for funding for weed management, tree replanting and scholarships for farm mentoring. We've crunched numbers, created dozens of spreadsheets with different scenarios, explored many business models. It's been a huge learning curve, and an expensive one.

And I can't help feel frustrated at how slow the process is. How expensive the process is, even through we haven't built a fence, bought a chicken or even begun to build a foundation. It's still a long journey ahead despite how much work we've done so far.

But what we have done is dreamed.

We've sat in the paddocks and listened to the wind rustle through the long grass and imagined where our house would sit, we've mapped out where the new fencing be installed, hammered in stakes where the orchard will go, the vegetable garden will be sowed, the wind break native trees, grasses and shrubs will be planted. We've swum in the river, kayaked along the rapids, picnicked on the river banks.   We've camped in the paddocks, cooked dinner on the fire, looked up at the big sky, taken big breaths and dreamed.

A few weeks ago we submitted a huge whopping proposal to council, putting all our knowledge that we'd learnt during the past 18 months, into a business plan that we hope ticks every box, so that we can get the go ahead to proceed with our dream.  To create a farm, a Good And Proper Farm.

I feel now is the time to tell you, and if you like, you can come along for the journey. The exhilarating, funny, frustrating, scary and expensive journey of starting a farm.

I mean, how hard can it be?

Meet The Hungry Chook


There's a lovely sense of quiet serenity here now that the kids are back at school. The only sound being the dog snoring as he dozes at my feet.   Now, cup of tea by my side, I can finally catch up on all my work emails and get some planning for the year done; workshops, photoshoots, farming, hosting a German exchange student, turning 50. 

2018 is going to be a big one.

Between preserving, school runs and settling in my temporary German son, I've also been doing lots of recipe testing, ordering produce and working hard in the garden to make sure things are looking as spick as span (well as I can get them) for our workshop in March. I'm so thrilled that our preserving workshop has sold out and there's just two spots left for the Italian inspired cooking class and lunch. Whoop! 

So in the meantime, I thought you might like to get to know Vanessa @thehungrychook Miles who is hosting the workshop with me. I'm so thrilled that she is coming to share her knowledge and skills with us in our little corner of the world.  I'm also delighted that Vanessa has persuaded Flore Vallery-Radot to join us. Flore known as @thefloshow is an accomplished cook and photographer amongst many other skills, and she'll be joining us to film the two workshops. Flore also took this gorgeous image of Vanessa. 

Read on for a little background on who is Vanessa, The Hungry Chook....

Have you always enjoyed cooking and eating?

Yes! My father is a wonderful cook and we always ate well when I was growing up. I have fond memories of making fresh pasta (and the fun of hanging it over broomsticks balanced over the backs of chairs), when I was very small. I also remember mornings staying at my grandparents’ house when my grandfather would wake up with the sparrows and go out in his boat. Hours later, he would return smelling of the sea as he cleaned garfish on the back porch, which my nanna would then cook us for lunch.

Why is growing your own food and keeping chickens important to you? 

Growing up, there was an enormous apricot tree near the worm farm in my grandparents’ backyard. My sister and I waited all year for late-summer when my grandfather would climb up an old, wooden ladder and pass us apricots which we would eat, still-warm from the sun. I can still taste the tiny beans my nanna would let us pick and eat raw from the bushes she grew in rows -- these are taste-memories that wouldn’t be possible had the apricots or beans come from the nearest supermarket chain. Today, we have only a small backyard, but growing what we can and keeping chickens is a privilege that reminds us to eat seasonally, reduce waste as much as possible, and to eat less meat (and meat that is ethically sourced).

What do you enjoy about teaching? 

Cooking for others is about nurturing and nourishing the people I love, it’s something I do to relax and I’m very passionate about it. Teaching is an extension of this – an opportunity to share not only recipes and helpful hints, but also stories from my travels in a relaxed and fun setting.

You spend a lot of time in Rome, what do love about it? 

For me, Rome is not just Italy’s capital, and the most populated comune in the geographical centre of that boot-shaped country: it is the place where for centuries food has been the centre of social life.
I have been lucky enough to visit Rome four times over the past five years and slowly, as I have discovered the best places to eat ‘carciofi’, to buy Pecorino Romano, and to navigate its streets without a map; I have fallen in love with it more and more. Nowhere is the concept of eating seasonally more tangible.

Thank you Vanessa, it's been lovely to chat!