Hallo and welcome to another excerpt from my memoirs
Today’s reading is about the cooking and heating delights and dilemmas of a wood burning stove and it’s called Food for Thought?
The need to light a fire for a wood stove every morning was a novelty for at least several days, soon transforming into a deadly monotonous daily chore in order to cook breakfast and produce enough hot washing-up water. Several hours of briskly burning fire were required before a shower or bath could even be contemplated.
“I even tried out a simple basin wash. Well-ll… simple was how it sounded in my mind!”. The reality was an icy cold Spartan-type wake-up, guaranteed to open the laziest eyelids to instant and absolute attention.
My day began by boiling a small saucepan of water on the deeply appreciated gas stove for that crucial first cup of coffee. A comforting, heart-starting sip or three, with the mug clutched tightly in hand, and the inevitable time had arrived to bravely approach my early-morning arsonist chore. It was unbelievably hard to get a fire even started in my old Metters wood stove (already an antique in the 1960’s), let alone sustain it for all the designated hours in order to meet all our needs. It had a wide and deep burning box that also happened to be shallow in height, making it tricky enough to light and sustain a flame, let alone achieve a lively blaze.
My whingeing fails to tell you of the great love I developed for my old faithful, and its marvellous cooking ability—once I mastered the skill of keeping the fire burning steadily and consistently. I believe there were even times I matched the reading on the aged oven’s temperature gauge. This may or may not have been accurate. Who knows? Fortunately, I could always blame it for any culinary failures or disasters without it ever answering me back. What a brave and silent sufferer.
The cast-iron cooktop had several lift-up flat plates of varying sizes, enabling direct flame to boil the contents of saucepan or kettle. Once boiling, the steel plates would be replaced and the container moved to one side for continuous slow simmering.The designer of the Crockpot or slow cookers probably got his inspiration from cooking on the top of a woodstove.
Delicious fragrances wafted out the window, filled with the promise of more comfort food. Such a satisfying way to produce soups and stews and other slow-cooking dishes. And a kettle constantly simmering, always ready for yet another fresh pot of tea or coffee.
Our meagre wage included a ration of a side of hogget, every other week, picked out and shot by Sam as the sheep grazed in the paddock. It’s not possible to get more perfect meat than when an animal is grazing one minute, and dead seconds later. This meat ration was supplemented occasionally by rabbits shot on the property. The variation was most welcome.
I know many hearts are broken by the thought of the destruction of these sweet fluffy little creatures. I’ve seen it from both sides and it never gets any easier. In countless rural areas rabbit numbers are large enough to cause severe damage and loss. We were in the heart of grain-growing country—cropping land that was highly vulnerable and deeply impacted financially by the wild variety of the much-beloved and cosseted city pets.
I had not known about their habit of ring-barking trees with their nibbling, and how badly the regeneration of the native shrubs and trees is affected. The shortest venture into the country will find stock sheltering beneath the tiniest shade they can find. Destruction of this relief for the poor creatures is unthinkable.
Kanute frowns. “And that’s still not all. Rabbits are just one more food source for predators. Many more foxes and hunting birds come into the area and attack—especially the lambs… AND their formidable burrowing and tunnelling skills!”
It’s not difficult to imagine a huge tractor, complete with broad trailing plough, becoming bogged down to its under-carriage in a ‘sinkhole’ created by a myriad of rabbit tunnels beneath the surface. Not difficult for us… we’ve witnessed it first-hand. Sympathy for the rabbit is a little thin on the ground at such times, and a swift bullet was no chore at all.
Their unique flavour was the second reason for their constant appearance on our menu—the main reason they were ever introduced into Australia—for food. An old cookbook I unearthed introduced countless variations and ideas on cooking rabbit. The adage says ‘necessity is the Mother of invention’, but it was the necessity for variety of meals in my kitchen, inspiring my imagination and the production of some interesting versions of tried and true recipes, originally intended for other types of meat. A favourite was a mouth-watering combination of rabbit pieces, bacon, onion and tomatoes, pepper and salt. Browned and cooked slowly in a roasting pan in my wood stove, it was a meal fit for Kings—and a constant request from our city visitors.
“Don’t forget those breakfasts,” says Kanute. “What about Josie and me and the gravy?” His eyes twinkle as he licks his lips.
Following a late night talk and drink fest, some of us slept in—whilst these two woke with hearty appetites, went fossicking and subsequently found the gravy stash. A new tradition was born the first morning; a ritual to be repeated on every visit.
On another memorable occasion, it was I who let the side down—despite the wood stove’s valiant and trustworthy contribution to turning concoctions in the mixing bowl into masterpieces on the menu.
I cleverly doubled all the ingredients for a chocolate cake except the flour. These days I can say it bravely. “But it wasn’t that I forgot it altogether. I didn’t double it, like all the other ingredients”
The result of the missing flour was a deliriously delicious ‘something’—more pudding-like than the planned cake. My red face of embarrassment smartly changed to the sweet flush of success, as the men heartily applauded my effort with lip-smacking appreciation. Thankfully, the day was well and truly saved. Due to my floury omission, I claim I made the original Chocolate Mud Cake or Chocolate Lava Cake. I’m not fussed by its name—or whether anyone else agrees with me—’the proof of the pudding is in the eating’ and this was how we ate it, with lavish dollops of cream on top.
I have come to realise why I never mastered delicacies like pastries, sponges and meringues Funny, putting it into words like that. I’ve never really thought through the reason. It’s not my fault at all—it’s all to do with my old wood stove in my earlier culinary years. I simply could not achieve the concentrated and consistent heat required to bring these delights to any satisfactory conclusion. From time immemorial country women have whipped up these delectable creations with a whirl of the whisk, an angelic touch, a self-satisfied smirk. But not me—my failures in this department have seen all of these airy affairs droop disastrously and flatten with flair. I bow to experience, and have been heard to mutter under my breath, “Bet they can’t write the stories of their successes as well as I can record my failures.” (A cheerful thought to salve my bruised and battered ego.)
Fond flashbacks abound of sitting in front of the wood stove on a winter’s night, the oven door open and our feet propped on it enjoying the welcome warmth creeping up our trouser legs. Yet another cuppa (and another glass of wine) helped us mull over the day’s events, and make plans for the next day.
“How about all the roos warmed and saved in front of it?” Kanute reminds me.
I smile. Kangaroo ‘bedrooms’ hung on chairs turned backwards to the fire, whilst other ‘rescues’ were buried in cardboard boxes of hay or old jumpers
“Wonder if ‘old faithful’ is still alive somewhere today?”
“Think it’s pretty unlikely,” Kanute replies. “If it was, I’d probably guesstimate its age to be… umm, well… it’d be over 120, I’d reckon.”
How wonderful if someone has seen its charms, and performed one of those impressive restorations. Whatever its reality, I’m so happy that I’m here still to tell the tales for both of us.