Once upon a kitchen….start of the stormy season. The yard is awash with decaying brown leaves. The verges are all tatty. The already very messy Australian landscape is even more dishevelled. Eucalypts with a bad hair day. Wind has wreaked havoc on the saplings that were valiantly growing beside the house. Its top is knocked off in the 120km/hour winds that has gotten hold of its canopy and whisked it.
I am on at the Stephanie Kitchen Garden at school. Cooking can happen despite the weather. Maybe because of it apple pie sounds the perfect choice. The white board tells us we are cooking melanzane parmigiana, bagno cauda, preserving lemons and finishing up with apple pie. The season is right for preserving lemons. They are given away for free outside neighbour’s houses and in fish shops. So much better than the store-bought kind whose waxy skins cannot be grated and whose flesh does not deliver juice. Atop the bench the fresh ingredients spill from the wicker. Fancy eleven years olds that know that strange purple gourd = eggplant = aubergine = melanzane.
I have three lads to corral. A bit like dogs with storm phobia, they are feeling the barometric pressure fall, and are all fidgety. But perhaps they are just eleven year old boys needing to stay on the hop. One has braces, another lanky and thin, and the last with a crew cut, except for the rat’s tail strand of hair that tickles the back of his neck. Wash and dry the lemons. Cut them to their bases in quarters but not all the way through. Fill their centres with salt. Pound the coriander seeds in a mortar and pestle. Rat’s tail wants to taste everything despite it just being salt, or coriander, or lemon juice. I tell him all the salt he is consuming is not good for him. He continues grinding it into the cupped palm of his hand and tasting it with the tip of his tongue, like a horse on a salt lick. Delicious, he says. Braces measures the quarter cup of honey and places it on the bench. He is keen to do everything. He will not miss out on life. Rat’s tail picks up the honey-laden cup, with goo spilling down its sides and then drops it on the floor. Meanwhile Lanky is squeezing the lemon juice we need. Braces is quick to get a cloth. The honey is wiped up. Don’t tread in it, I warn. I notice the largeness and puffiness of their sneakers, their feet already the size of men. Rat’s tail is still busy testing and tasting everything. He wants to know if he can eat the cinnamon quill. The large jar is stuffed full of the lemons and salt, coriander, cinnamon, honey, juice and water and set in a large stock pot to bring to the boil. They must fill the pot and then lift it out of the sink together. Rat’s tail keeps testing the temperature of the water with his finger. He is a real poker and prodder. A finger in the pie of life. The type to open the oven door too early. The type to discover something new because of his curiosity. He could also be the type to jump into a murky pool, not knowing its depth or what lay at the bottom. Lanky is the one to do most of the cleaning up. When the other two have skedaddled, he is still at the sink, scrubber in hand.
Meanwhile the eggplant has been sliced and crumbed and the homemade tomato sauce spooned over it and then the grated cheese is placed on top. It is under the grill. Another group is covering the wedges of apple with cinnamon and sugar to make the filling for the pie. The pastry has been rolled and cut. Another group has dissolved the anchovies in the warm olive oil, previously crushed and pressed at school. They have steamed the cauliflower and potatoes and cut the other vegetables into dipping sticks that will be plunged into the sauce.
We will eat at the long table under cover on the stage of the assembly area. The weather is not allowing us to eat at our usual table in the sun. Kids who have previously thought they don’t like eggplant or anchovies are finding it not as bad as they thought. But Rat’s tail still holds his nose while he consumes his melanzane, just incase. But finishes it, he does. Of course there has never been a kid who does not like apple pie fresh from the oven. Has anyone ever had an allergy to sugar?
At the end of the day, as the storm front approaches, again the wind picks up. Jasper and his mate give out notices to take home to parents, saying the school could be closed tomorrow, if the storm results in building damage or loss of power. There is general excitement and joy at the prospect of this. Literally leaping. On twitter the storm is brewing fear. Someone retweets that the university is evacuating at five. I think I will move my car from its position under the widow maker. In our cottage, over a hundred years old, we feel very protected from the elements. Knowing it has stood so long gives us great confidence in its strength. It has hundreds of years ahead of it, if it is to become like the homes of the Europeans. In Spain we once lived in a 600 year old house on a street barely wide enough to drive a car. The walls were constantly being plastered over so they grew thicker and thicker. Damp made the plaster periodically fall away and crumble, but there was always more whitewash to be found. So in my Fremantle house I feel safe from the storm. My limestone walls move not an inch. I hear the rain on the tin. The dog positions himself bang in front of the gas heater; legs splayed heater-hog style. I hear the wind outside and see it across the oval whipping up the trees. Once upon…a storm.