Thursday, October 22, 2009

An October Update

October has been all about the weather. Rain and more rain. Not heavy but steady although regretfully not enough. About 100mm in total, but it has been slowly filling up the water table and turning the grass green. No runoff as yet so the dams are still not in a good state but the spring is again running.
It was also unseasonably cold for Spring. We had the fire going most evenings for the first half of the month which is unusual.
We have been full steam ahead with some long delayed in-house projects as well as getting our vegetable garden prepared, this year with irrigation installed to see us through until Autumn. We finally got lettuce, rocket, chillies, capsicum, zucchinis, shallots and 3 different types of tomato planted.
The grape vines are looking ok although about ten 15 year old Cabernet Sauvignon vines at the shallower end of the vineyard have been very slow to shoot due to the drought conditions. I finally succumbed to some temporary irrigation via a water weeper hose. This is made from 60% recycled rubber and is very porous letting the water seep out at a regulated rate along its whole 15m length. It seems to operate well despite the lower water pressure (gravity feed) from one of the water tanks. Will be interesting to see how those particular vines react to the additional moisture given that we have now been having considerably warmer weather.
The Semillon, Tempranillo and Pinot Noir have shot fairly evenly, albeit it extremely early, and are all in flower.
They had their first fungicide spray in the third week which was later than normal due to the wet weather and I was concerned that a primary infection of downy mildew might have been apparent.
But nothing.
When I went to buy some downy curative spray, 600g/L phosphorous acid, from the local agent they were out of stock due to other growers buying up more than normal quantities due to the longer wet spell. But maybe they didn't need it after all.
Other than that, we are waiting to get back into the surfing again. The water temperature is not too conducive at the moment at a coolish 18 deg C. In fact it was so cold that the powers that be called off the open water swim at the recent Masters Games in Sydney (13 deg C!) much to the disappointment of the many athletes who have travelled from all over the world to participate. But the warm current (the yellow) seems to be heading down our way according to the CSIRO.
Looks like we left South Dakota just in time. They had snow there the week after we left. From the looks of the already parched country around us and the predictions of the weather experts, it will be a dry and hot season coming. Farmers in our area have been granted special water rights and rates to keep them going through this unprecedented dry period. And I noticed during my last weekly boundary fence inspection that the red bellied black snakes are out and about; so that's a sure sign that Summer is just around the corner!
We have about 2 months of quiet left before the tourist invasion of the area starts so we are going to savour every minute of that.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Bridges of Madison County

In 1992 Robert James Waller wrote a short novel called "The Bridges of Madison County" which was subsequently made into a film a few years later by Clint Eastwood, starring himself and Meryl Streep. The book has sold an amazing 50 million copies world wide. An epilogue titled "A Thousand Country Roads" was written by the author in 2002 following much pressure from readers demanding a sequel.
The story is set in and around the small town of Winterset in Iowa and is a narrative about love and choices and consequence. I really like the film but up until now had never read the book.
We visited the area for a day from Indianola, IA.
There were originally twenty covered bridges but only 5 remain (plus one replica). The bridges were covered by order of the county board of supervisors to help preserve the flooring timbers which were more expensive to replace than the timber covering the sides and the roof. Most of the construction work was done by farmers to pay their poll taxes. The bridges were usually named for the nearest resident.

The Imes Bridge is the oldest remaining covered bridge built in 1870. It was first located over Middle River near Patterson but has been moved a number of times ending up east of St. Charles in 1997.

The Holliwell bridge was built in 1880 by Benton Jones and is located over the Middle River just southeast of Winterset. It is the longest of bridges measuring 122 feet. The interior is a good example of the intricacy of the timber work that is a feature of all the bridges.

The Cutler- Donohue bridge was moved from its original position over the North River near Bevington to Winterset City Park in 1970.
Winterset has another claim to fame.
It was the birthplace of John Wayne and his small four roomed house is open for tours and has a large collection of the actor's memorabilia.
We liked Winterset and its surrounds. The county has a population of around 14,500 and is set in a rolling terrain with wooded hills, small streams and rivers as well as corn and bean fields. The town lives off the film's popularity but the day we were there it was quiet and sleepy. The courthouse which sits in the middle of town is quite impressive. It was constructed in 1876 from the limestone of the area with the dome rising 122 feet above the central square.
The Northside Cafe, in existence since 1876, is the restaurant in the film where Robert Kincaid stops for coffee and offers Lucy Redfield a stool. The cafe is popular with film buffs and there were few in there taking photos. You can still take a seat where Clint Eastwood sat - it's the fourth stool from the front of the restaurant.
Unfortunately the cafe lives on that reputation rather than that of its food but it was fun to be there.
We explored the small town, had good coffee and found a second hand bookstore overflowing with bargains. I picked up a copy of the novel in pristine condition. The co-driver also found an apparently famous store in the quilting world, Fons and Porters.
The Hogback bridge is in its original position in a lovely valley just northwest of the town. Hogback gets its name from the limestone ridge which forms the west end of the valley. By this time the dust of the limestone back roads had covered our red car in a thick white layer. This turned out to be the norm and most cars we saw parked in the main street or on the country roads were similarly affected. Sorry Mr. Enterprise but we really did have to go off the tarmac to see everything.
The Roseman bridge has been in the same location since 1883. This is the best known bridge and played a prominent role in both film and book. The interior is covered in graffiti from romantics from all over the world. This is the bridge Robert Kincaid is looking for when he stops at Francesca Johnson's for directions. It is also where Francesca leaves her note inviting him to dinner. Also known as the "haunted" bridge, Roseman is where two sheriff's posses trapped a county jail escapee in 1892. Uttering a wild cry, it is said the man rose up straight through the roof of the bridge and disappeared. He was never found, and it was decided that anyone capable of such a feat must be innocent.
This was a most enjoyable day with the warm late summer weather making things even better.
I am glad we took the time to visit the area, basically on a whim, and were so well rewarded.
I have now read the book and was quite amazed how closely the film script adapted by Richard LaGravenese from the novel follows the original story. I guess when you are on a good thing.....
And as pure coincidence, the movie was running on our "Movie Greats" channel when we returned to Australia. Of course we watched it again.
And she still didn't get out of the truck!!!!!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

USA 2009 / Part 2

We crossed the border into Iowa a few hours after leaving Elkton, SD and it was good to see the Missouri River again and drive through our old haunts of Sioux City and environs. We turned east on the I680 and headed in the direction of Des Moines. Looking for a place for lunch we came across the small town of Walnut in the wonderfully named Pottawattamie County. The town was designated as Iowa's Antique City in 1987 and there are more than 15 separate antique shops in this town of 900 people. But none are open on Mondays. However Aunt B's cafe' was open and she does a mean burger with fries and great rhubarb pie (with ice cream of course). And any town where tractors pull into the main street parking spaces among the cars is ok by me.

After a slight detour to the town of Adel (for a quilt shop visit, naturally) with its wonderful county courthouse, we arrived at our destination of Indianola just south of Des Moines for a two night stay. Our B&B was on acreage outside this thriving agricultural centre and we saw white tail deer feeding on the lawn and smelt a skunk outside our bedroom window during the night. There was a really good Mexican restaurant in town and as well as a cafe', Winn, run by the son of Vietnamese refugee whose only concession to his ethnic cuisine was egg rolls (Chả giò or spring rolls). Otherwise it was steak and pizza and an excellent salad bar. After three weeks in the mid west you can see were were starting to crave some genuine Asian food.

Next day we headed for Madison County (see separate post) and the Summerset Winery. The latter was the first winery in Iowa and we were warmly welcomed and encouraged to try all their wines. They grow nine varieties of American native and French hybrid grapes on their 12 acres. Most of the wine produced is semi sweet. The whites are far better than the reds, which due to the short growing season are quite thin and acidic. But it was interesting to get another slant on wine growing particularly in a very cold climate area which is so different to ours.
Next day we headed east on Highway 92 (I like avoiding the Interstates where possible) and took a small detour on the advice of our B&B host. Crossing the dam wall of Lake Red Rock which holds back the Des Moines River on its way south to the Mississippi, we arrived in Pella. This is a town with a long Dutch heritage of which they are justly proud. Founded in 1847 by immigrants escaping religious persecution in their homeland, the town has a distinct Dutch look about it and development of this theme has been done with great taste.
It was also the childhood home of Wyatt Earp and the now home of the Pella Corporation, a large manufacturer of windows and doors. We enjoyed a longer than expected stop here to enjoy the Glockenspiel, a walk around town, some old and interesting architecture and some really good coffee. I window shopped the many bakeries but resisted!
Next stop were the Amana Colonies which are a group of settlements of the radical German Pietists who fled religious persecution in Germany around 1842. They originally set up a community in New York State, eventually arriving in Iowa in 1854. The area in the Iowa River valley comprises seven villages. Often mistaken as Amish, these people lived a very strict communal and religious life until the 1930's when the reality of their critical economic situation brought on by the Great Depression forced them to rationalise their lifestyle.
We found the Colonies to be a little disappointing. It was hard to find anything culturally significant but rather commercial enterprises willingly gouging the tourist dollar. And despite their German heritage, we ate what would have to be the worst pseudo German food I have ever tasted. Luckily Annie's B&B in Amana village was one of the better places we have stayed in.
Back in South Dakota we started making our final rounds of visits. I had an afternoon's gambling at the local casino with my gambling buddy, Lisa. The winnings paid for some quilting supplies. And Karen and Emmet went with us one night to a Bingo session. We had fun but only one of us had any success albeit pretty small. Emmett has a unique way of growing tomatoes ie. upside down in buckets. We will try this at home this year.
He also has a barn filled with the some of the cheapest lucerne (alfalfa) hay I have come across. One seventh of the price I pay. To say I had hay envy was a understatement.
There is also a pretty silo on his property which is fairly typical of those in the area.

The area around Trent, Flandreu and Brookings where we mainly hang out is from our point of view, flat. Think the aircraft buzzing scene from "North By NorthWest". The main crops are soy beans and corn. Thousands of hectares stretching as far as the eye can see.
As Autumn approached the bean fields started to turn yellow and the corn started to dry out. The roads were beginning to fill up with combine harvesters and big trucks taking the grain to the elevators at the many railheads or to the ethanol plants. This disturbed the resident deer who frequent the fields in great numbers so one had to be very careful travelling the country back roads at night.
Soon it was time to head back to Minneapolis for our flight home. We made a short overnight detour to the Mall of America in Bloomington but I think we were shopped out. It took us only 3 hours to cover the biggest shopping mall in the USA and spend $37.
The flight home was uneventful. One hundred percent full and cramped did not make for the most comfortable journey so we were glad to reach Sydney twenty four hours later, pick up our car and head for home. On a sombre note, while driving along one of Sydney's major roads, a car coming way too fast in wet conditions in the other direction spun out on a curve, mounted the median strip and literally flew towards us. How we missed it or it missed us, I will never know. I just managed to squeeze between it as it landed and a parked car with centimeters to spare.
I think we are lucky to be still here!
The day we arrived back, Ulladulla had 60mm rain. This was basically the only rain in the area since we left. All looked pretty brown and dry as we drove in. However follow up rain in the last week is changing the landscape dramatically. Apart from the huge blackened burnt out areas around us, a green carpet is beginning to form. The vines are looking healthy and despite the loss of some condition the cattle are not looking too bad.
So now it's back to work!

Monday, October 05, 2009

USA 2009 / Part 1

So it was welcome back to the land of driving on the wrong side, upside down light switches, people driving with mobile phones stuck in their ears, huge meal servings, tipping and cheap petrol. Our three days in Minneapolis were taken up with the Minnesota State Fair, book and clothes shopping and catching up with some of our favourite fast food outlets and restaurants eg. Chipotle, Coldstone Ice Cream and of course, Caribou coffee.
After picking up our hire car (thanks for the free upgrade, Enterprise!), we drove immediately to the park and ride station for the fair. What a great service. Ten minutes by free bus to the front gate.

The fair was above expectation. Reminded me of what the Sydney Easter Show used to be like. Apart from the carnival area (Midway) and the ‘terrible’ fair food there were great livestock, agricultural and horticultural displays, wonderful arts and crafts exhibits, live entertainment catering to all tastes and a smattering of less artery clogging food to eat.
There was even a Christmas Tree competition and the Minnesota Grape Growers Association had an impressive display with featured vineyards, tastings and lectures during the day.

We solved the mystery of Australian Battered Potatoes that we had seen advertised on the fair web site. They turned out to be our potato scallops (a fries substitute at fish and chips shops) but with the added 'incentive' of being either smothered in melted cheese or the choice of dipping sauces. The stand seemed very popular.

We spent most of the day there but passed on the deep fried onion flower, third of a pound of bacon marinated in maple syrup and deep fried (on a stick), deep fried Snicker bars and the 2kg (64 oz.) bucket of fries. Grilled brats and Summit beer were more to our liking.

I loved the corn exhibition. Ears of corn up for prizes! I never did find out what the criteria for awards were but there were lots of entries and the judging seemed quite intense. The portrait of Barack Obama made from various grains, better known as crop art, was a highlight.

It was also great to catch up with Cindy too, share a bottle of wine or two and a laugh or six.
Then it was off south to Sioux Falls, SD and surrounds. After the family got over their initial shock of our visit, we got into the full swing of catching up, get togethers and late summer goings on in the area.
One was the Sidewalk Arts Festival downtown with hundreds of stalls featuring crafts, fine art, folk art and of course, food. I had my first taste of funnel cake and kettle corn. Both great! It was a bit strange to see an "Opals of Australia" vendor there but he was getting a lot of interest. There were also plenty of quirky items.

Of course we continued our restaurant/fast food pilgrimage: Culvers Butter Burgers and frozen chocolate custard, Mexican at Chevys, Incas, Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara (Mexican food in Australia is pretty ordinary), a BIG breakfast at Perkins even at 10pm, lunch at the Phillips Avenue Diner, a Brutus Burger at Applebees and the traditional jalapeno burger at Steve’s Bar washed down with numerous MGD's. And we found also some other interesting and new places to eat. Then there was the clothes shopping at Cabelas in Mitchell about an hour’s drive away. No summer specials (too late!) but I managed to stock up on essential items to get me through the next year.
Not all meals were out, we had great BBQ's and special dinners at home as well.
Karen's surprise 50th birthday cake prepared by Kay tasted as good as it looked.

You will have noticed by now I was keeping my sugar and fat intake at a reasonable level.
After a few weeks of disturbing the family's day to day lives, we decided to take a break and travel down to Iowa to see the Bridges of Madison County and the Amana Colonies. So we made the necessary B&B bookings and headed south along the I29.