For our last two and a half weeks in Australia we had found ourselves a place to work again. Not paid work; but some volunteering through Workaway. This time we arranged a stay with a family of four just outside Daylesford about an hour and a half west of Melbourne. We chose them because they lived in a self-built mud and straw house, used a permaculture approach to gardening and tried to live a low-impact lifestyle; something we are planning to do when we get back home. Therefore, this would be a good practice run and we hoped to pick up a lot of tips and tap into their experiences.
Mara, the mother, welcomed us with open arms and a very tasty lunch. We felt very welcome and knew we would have a great time here. We got a spacious double bed room in the main house (they also had a separate building with two bed rooms). Despite having just arrived we were immediately put to work. Zoë got to make a curtain to cover our glass door so we had some privacy. The family only moved in last year so the house was still not completely finished. Over the next two weeks we would be helping to complete some of the open projects.
We don’t want to bore you with a day-by-day activity list so we will compact it a little. Our usual working hours were 9 to 3 including a lunch break plus help with dinner or washing up later. Mara was a super keen gardener and had a huge garden with three different sections to manage. We worked on covering one of them with straw to kill off weeds, but most of our time was spent in the main kitchen garden. Despite it being winter, about half of the vegetable patches had herbs, lettuce, kale, garlic and other plants in them. The rest was empty, i.e. covered with dead plants and weeds. It took us about three days to work them over, remove weeds and pile dead tomato plants. Due to a lack of a proper compost the bio material was left in the patches to rot. In this process we also spread horse manure and levelled the patches. They all looked a lot neater by the end, but it was hard work. Hardly a day passed with out at least one rain shower which made the soil wet, sticky and sometimes hard to work with. In the end it was still somewhat rewarding as we could easily see what we had achieved and how much of a difference we made. The worst and least rewarding job in the garden was weeding close to 50m of gravel paths. It was slow thanks to the Australian Onion Grass which was very though to remove. Imagine removing thin blue bells from dense soil and you are pretty close. The more enjoyable tasks in the garden were putting in new wooden boards round some parts of the patches with Ralf, Mara’s partner. It was a welcome break from weeding and particularly Matthias enjoyed working with wood and power tools. One day Mara trusted us to plant seeds for her next generation of herbs and vegetables. We put them all into plastic trays to propagate in the green house before getting relocated to the garden. In about 6 hours we planted at least 1,500 seeds: from tiny flower seeds to fairly big cucumber seeds. If everything goes well Mara will have absolute heaps of different heritage varieties of aubergines, tomatoes and cucumbers to eat, preserve and sell. While working outside around the house we also had Haru, the family springer spaniel to play with. He lived outside and was super excited when somebody worked in the garden and gave him attention (ideally lots of belly rubs). He was not allowed in the patches and sometimes the easiest way to get him out was to tease him with cuddles. He behaved a bit like a cat and liked sitting down right where we were working and demanding attention. Since it was winter, working outside was normally quite chilly thanks to the cold winds. At least we always had a hot cuppa or coffee to warm as up back inside.
During our indoor days we learned a new way of baking sourdough bread and how to make fresh and lovely pesto. Being Italian, Mara could not go without it and there was always a box of it in the fridge. The new bread making method was quite a bit more time intensive, but the result was some of the tastiest bread we had in a very long time. It is not quite compatible with a full-time job (unless you set a day aside on the weekend), so we will probably end up sticking to our tried-and-tested method with kneading and longer resting periods. Matthias got very excited we he got the chance to help whitewashing one of the interior walls. This was the first time we could pick up some practical knowledge that will help us building our straw bale dream house. Limewashing an earthen wall is a surprisingly lengthy process that requires careful preparation and special drying conditions. While he was busy painting walls, Zoë got to paint one of the internal doors. She enjoyed it as well, but it was not made easier by having to paint in situ and without being able to sand the existing paint. We both ended up with very presentable results which made us really happy. On that note: it is a real pain to remove tape from glass if it has been left on for too long.
Beside all that we were very busy kitchen bees. On our first day Mara showed us how to make pasta sheets for lasagne and we made heaps. Another new skill that we learned (and practiced quite a lot) was making pesto.
Zoë got a real in-depth course in making sourdough bread in a more elaborate way. Matthias was in charge when we made a batch of soap using pork tallow and rosemary. We learned about the saponification process and improved Mara’s recipe by reducing the water content thus speeding things up, but the soda still took a very long time to react. It wasn’t until we increased the temperature that the mixture started thickening and setting. In the end everyone was happy with the result. Our other kitchen DIY project was making kimchi. This is basically fermented spiced cabbage. We followed a recipe which turned out to add way too much salt, so we spent about 3 days trying to rescue it by adding more and more cabbage and draining of excess liquid. Half a week later it had fermented enough that the acidity had taken over and it was bearably salty.
On the first weekend off we went into Daylesford to explore. The town had a beautiful lake and creek to wander around; just a shame that after a while rain clouds moved in and forced us to retreat to a café. Sundays were market days and we had a great time exploring the local produce. In the end we bought delicious scones (backed in situ on the back of a trailer and an organic raspberry jam. Mara was slightly offended since she made buckets of delicious jam, but did not have any raspberries yet.
During the week we went to an evening screening of videos produced by high school students (including the family’s eldest daughter) which was really good. The second weekend was also the beginning of a reading and book festival. Mara went to nearly every event over those two days while we joined her for an introduction to home mushroom growing which was interesting. As much as we would like to take this up back at home due to the environmental requirement this will most likely be a long-term project.
Sadly, the weather was pretty unstable during our stay which stopped us from longer explorations. On the plus side we used the time to catch up with our families, some technical things and plan our time in New Zealand. Most afternoons we spent our free time playing games with the girls before helping with dinner. As a result, we formed close connections with the family. Far too soon it was time for us to leave and continue our travels and everyone was a bit sad. When our friend Robin came to pick us up we had a delicious lunch featuring an amazing home-made lasagne (including our pasta sheets), béchamel sauce and ragout. As we drove off, Mara and her oldest daughter followed us outside and waved after us until we were out of sight. We loved our time there and would have quite happily stayed longer, but at the same time we were excited about flying to the land of Hobbits and big, snowy mountains. We will definitely keep in touch with our guest family and maybe visit again some point in the future.