In Isolation with Nic Dowse

Location: Melbourne, Australia

Last week, on a now rare trip in the car, I took a detour down a quiet, suburban street in North Melbourne where one of my beehives is hosted. This is a special street. It has a broad, four-metre wide nature strip that divides it in two, which is planted with a grove of twenty or so Ironbark trees. 

Ironbarks are a variety of eucalyptus renowned for having dense, hard wood and blood-coloured sap that seeps between the deep furrows of their rough bark. They are also renowned, in this little beekeeping bubble, for producing a monofloral variety of urban honey – something rare in Melbourne. There is an abundance of diverse botanical life in this city and its suburbs, and bees (much like humans who feed on a broad and varied diet) thrive here. This is perhaps counterintuitive: we often don’t see the city as being a place where nature thrives. But bees and many flowering plants in Melbourne do.

The honey from these bees is usually a polyfloral variety, made from the millions of flowers in the city’s urban forests, public parks, gardens and university grounds and, of course, the backyards of avid gardeners. As a result, the nectar that Melbourne bees gather is delicious but tastes like the flowers of an entire suburb rather than one particular floral variety. Fitzroy, Carlton and North Melbourne have seasonal variations but, for someone who knows their honey, it tastes like Melbourne urban honey – floral, medium-bodied, golden, sweet, happy.

Right now, the streets are quiet and empty. I take my time driving alongside the row of Ironbark trees, arm on the car’s window sill, head craned up to look at the foliage. I don’t see what I am looking for in the first few trees I pass. Perhaps it won’t happen this year? Perhaps my dates were wrong? But just as I start to give up hope, there they are. Flowers. Pink flowers on the first tree. White flowers on the next. Red flowers too.

While we are inside anxiously following news reports, or baking sourdough bread, or watching Netflix, or learning new stretches, the bees are working. They are probably enjoying the cleaner air, the unkempt lawns and weeds that have gone to flower, and the general lack of human activity as they quietly forage for fructose and glucose in the city’s flowers. And the trees, with their deep memory and underground network of intelligence spread through networks of roots and mycorrhizal networks of fungi, have probably noticed, in ways we will never quite understand, fewer rumbles in the root zone normally created by traffic; less heavy metal contaminants being pumped into the air from those same vehicles; and perhaps more bird species that, generations ago, were pushed out of their range, but are now returning to take advantage of streets deserted of humans.

The reason this street is so special is that there are so many Ironbark flowers that the bees don’t have to fly far to gather this nectar. This appeals to one of the fundamental rules that bees observe: efficiency. They seek food from the closest source possible. And, because it is mid-autumn and many flowering plant varieties have finished blooming, the honey the bees make is dominated by the nectar of the Ironbark flowers. This is what defines a monofloral honey variety. 

While we are inside anxiously following news reports, or baking sourdough bread, or watching Netflix, or learning new stretches, the bees are working.

Last season the Ironbark honey was a very dark reddish-brown. In the jar, it looked black. It tasted stronger and less sweet than the typical polyfloral varieties. Of the thirty or so hives I manage, in thirteen locations, this is the only black honey the bees produce. 

While we are inside, the bees go on, working hard to produce a surplus of honey that is out there, now, in that hive. And today, in sunny autumnal conditions, I will drive over to the hive and see what they have been doing. Bees are calm in autumn. They have fewer babies to defend. They have plenty of honey. If it has been a good season, there will be more honey in the hive than they need to feed themselves through winter. If that is the case, I will remove eight frames of honeycomb in the top box, and the timber box itself, and reduce the height of the hive from three boxes to two. This will reduce the overall volume of the hive, but leave the bees with two boxes packed with honey. The smaller space will be easier for the bees to keep warm during the cooler months. And the reduction in real estate means that moulds, wax moths and hive beetles will have fewer dark corners to hide in. 

At the end of the job, when the freshly extracted honey is dripping through the filter into the storage tank below, I’ll open the tap, pour off the first jar of the batch, and sample the honey for the first time. There is some cultured butter on the window sill in the sweet spot where, during these cooler days and nights, the butter is never too cold and hard, or too warm and soft. A generous amount of sour butter on good sourdough, some sweet honey to cut through the fats and provide balance, and just two or three granules of rock salt to enhance it all – this is my isolation salute to friends currently in their kitchens sipping wines or coffee and chatting with me on their phones.

Next spring, when the honeybee family needs room to expand, I will put these empty frames, and the box, back on the same hive. The bees will get to work cleaning the honeycomb cells and repairing them, then fill them with brood, pollen, and honey. And we beekeepers will monitor and, if required, guide the process – checking for signs of good health, troublesome diseases and expanding and contracting the hive, as the seasons dictate, to keep the insect superorganism happy and productive.

This seasonal cycle will continue, regardless of the pandemic. It has been this way for millennia. It reminds us that the nature of biology is one of cycles – of life and death, of decline and regeneration, of creative destruction. And, in these strange times, I hold onto that thought.

The honey is black, but the mood is good.

By Nic Dowse


In Isolation with Liz Breslin

Location: Wanaka, New Zealand

I slice the new potatoes on a diagonal into the pan, add some miso and all the leftover water from the kettle. While the potatoes shiver I read Fleur Jaeggy’s short story about Saint Angela da Foligno, medieval mystic and extreme-penance advocate. The ascetic and the goddess touch lightly, she writes. This is the second day in a row I am totally, successfully ignoring social media in the mornings, which feels so, you know, worthy.

Growing up Catholic in a small town without visible horizons, I did an excellent impression of worthy. I let the liturgy define me. Hunger is sacrifice is worthy is wake up and deny yourself until it’s time to kneel for the word made flesh. The body of Christ. The blood of Christ. Forgive me Father, for I. Fasting for the host on Sundays, the sins of Saturday clanging in my hungover stomach on not even coffee. A proper breakfast, after all these years, is still a small act of rebellion.

I turn the page. The tale turns to Agnes Blannbekin and the taste of Christ’s foreskin. I step away from the story. Turn Kate Tempest on and up. Because anyway, I’m a vegetarian and if I have a daily prayer now, it’s ‘Hold Your Own.’  The potatoes need more water. I poke them with the cleanest-looking knife. Carefully. I take the sanctity of non-stick surfaces seriously, and since I mostly cook with this one frypan, I like to rinse it and wipe it and not much more.

I make coffee, black, aeropressed. I swallow B-vits, iron, zinc and check Twitter. I’m standing up so it doesn’t really count. I add kelp to the potatoes. I think it’s kelp. I forgot to label the individual paper bags when I came home with panic-bought herbs. Was that only last week? Twitter says the Catholic Church are offering plenary indulgences in return for prayers and you can get this incredible deal for yourself or a friend. The water has bubbled away. Also there is a cat playing noughts and crosses. And some discussion about the porn-spammers who crashed the Zoom poetry show last night. I stab the potatoes harder than strictly necessary, tip them into the ridiculous yellow plastic colander I didn’t get ‘round to replacing in time, wait until my glasses have stopped steaming, and wipe the pan clean enough.

Fat is an indulgence and I have a homemade pottle of sage butter, wisely stashed at the back of the fridge. I carve out a couple of spoonfuls to add to the pan, with a slurp of olive oil, which, I’ve read somewhere, does something to a boiling point. I’m trying to recreate a dish I’ve eaten at, or from, Wanaka’s Big Fig – slow food, served fast; careless scooploads shared with friends, or strangers, in close proximity on benches, or solo by the lake. They call it creamy potato and mushroom gratin and I’ve always meant to ask for the recipe. As it’s a gratin I think I’m technically supposed to bake it in the oven for hours but it’s not like I have the time. I mean. I do. I have it in abundance. But I’m hungry now and can’t just nip down the road for my takeaway box to runneth over with delicious juices, so I’m in it for the one-pan fry.

A proper breakfast, after all these years, is still a small act of rebellion.

Mushrooms, firm and earthy. And there’s a withering eggplant on the shelf behind them that wants using. Wasting food is a sin and even though Stephanie Alexander doesn’t list mushrooms and eggplant as companionable in my worn and splattered copy of her stripy bible, The Cook’s Companion, nobody is watching.

I had a mild-to-moderate mushroom soup obsession when I was, maybe, thirteen. Night after night. Onions and mushrooms and marmite and water and cream. I remember cutting them, ragged, small, and mashing them smaller in the pan, set on a low heat on the front left electric ring. I think it was around about the same time as my peppermint cream phase, scrubbing hard at the practically indelible green food colouring marks on the bench. Mum was working hard, working late, always tired. I didn’t want to add to her burden. Also, God made my life a Pet Shop Boys song. Always watching.

The quest for worthiness leaves a hungry void. Of trust, of rules, of dichotomies.  Ascetic/goddess.  Insider/out. Alpha/omega etcetera amen. I only know how to cook with emotion. Slapdash hope. Hard-boiled rage. Packets, tins and takeaways are easy avoidance. At least I’ve learned how to eat without shame. I live, now, a knitting needle through the globe from where I grew into/out of the lies, in a 1940s cottage in New Zealand. Physical distancing. Borders. Horizons. Birds in the yellowing trees, neighbours who wave as they’re walking their dog. The kettle sings that it’s at a hundy, again. I set a second coffee in motion and prevaricate – Kate Tempest, Fleur Jaeggy, the news? In Fleur’s world, there is an angel, locked in a church, growing, looming, larger, stronger, over the years it has been ignored. Notice the movement of a stranger, says Kate. Hold your own and let it be catching. The news is numbers, never names.

The mushrooms, the eggplant are catching, burning up on the edges. I need more fat. I scrape the pan and eat the scraps from the spatula. I add olive oil and the drained potatoes. I pour in half a pottle of cream. It froths. Steams. How apt is the word reduction for today? How fortunate am I to have this plenty in this place? I tip half the gratin-enough into a low bowl, garnish it with a smugness of fresh thyme and eat it, sitting at the window, with a spoon.

By Liz Breslin


In Isolation with Léa Antigny

Location: Sydney, Australia

At the beginning of March, I moved with my partner to an apartment of our own. I mean ‘our own’ in a purely spatial sense, having moved from living in a sharehouse with a friend, to a space that is ours alone but a property that is not. We are renters in a long and low building of eight apartments. The blocks either side of us are like siblings: not identical but similar enough.

From our new kitchen window, I can look down and across a distance of about two metres into a stranger’s kitchen. When I am at my sink, and I can tell from the light and movement across the gap that someone is there, I keep my head down. When we are at our sinks simultaneously – so close we could hold eye contact and a conversation without raising our voices – I feign obliviousness. It’s a small gesture meant to reassure my neighbour that I respect their privacy, that we are both safe and alone as we perform the intimate minutiae of domesticity, rinsing suds or wiping benches or stirring a pot.

The weekend we moved in, the coronavirus spread was in the news but it didn’t feel close. We moved our things and went out for burgers. I squeezed into a seat which was cramped so close to the seat behind it that a total stranger and I sat with our backs touching as we hunched over our plates, licking mustard and sauce from our fingers. Then it all happened at once. Confirmed cases in Sydney rose suddenly, while a surge in fatalities overseas were reported at a startling rate. We bought a fridge, a washing machine. We were sent home from our offices to continue our work remotely, two of the lucky ones that can.

I thought that we might spend this month luxuriating in newness, freedom, the potential of empty space. Walking through busy markets, browsing second-hand stores, messaging strangers online: Is this still available? I can come to pick it up today. How satisfying it would feel to turn down an invitation to drinks and entangle our legs on the couch while a horror movie flickered on the screen. We are instead occupied with thoughts of survival, preparedness, and functionality. Ergonomics, at-home exercise, apps. Home as office and dining place and love nest. The pantry: lentils, tinned tomatoes, dried beans, pasta, cereal, sugar, honey, cleanskin bottles.

One night, during the first week of stay-at-home orders, I stood in the kitchen and while I unpacked the dishwasher, I listened as my neighbours cleared up after their dinner. I thought, with some delight, isn’t it nice that putting cutlery away sounds the same in almost every home? There’s the sliding of a drawer, the clanging of forks against forks, the methodical drop, drop, drop of utensils falling into their slots. I pictured someone standing with butter knives clustered together in one hand, tea towel in the other, wiping any last droplets away one by one, while I did the same. I often draw comfort from mundanity, from small significances. It comforts me to know that my neighbours and I are going through the same motions, both of us performing a degree of normalcy under strange new conditions.

I thought, with some delight, isn’t it nice that putting cutlery away sounds the same in almost every home?

We seem to be on a similar sort of schedule, the strangers across the gap and I. A few nights ago I was making pantry pasta – too tired to read a recipe, too anxious to go shopping, too lazy to pretend I preferred anything more complex – just tinned tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, chilli flakes, anchovies. While I moved between benchtop and stove, sliding mashed up cloves off their board, pausing to rinse and wipe and stir and taste, I listened as my neighbours prepared their meal. Both of us made the same sounds, sort of rhythmic and melodious in their own way, like a distant tune I half-remembered.  

I love these sounds from next door: a spoon tapping against the rim of a pot to rid it of excess sauce, the excited first hiss and sizzle of meat hitting an anticipatory heated pan. I love hearing the varying speeds of slicing, dicing, chopping. The slow, halted, pressured thunk through pumpkin or sweet potato; the steady, whoosh of knife through onions; the furious, manic chop-chop-chop-chop through herbs.

It reminds me of a night a few years ago, when I saw Nigella Lawson in conversation with Hugh MacKay at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre. Nigella spoke that night of the joy of cooking alone, just for the self: ‘I feel symbolically it’s important to say that you will take care of yourself…just the act of doing something, and I don’t mean you have to follow an elaborate recipe, even just setting yourself a nice place even if you’re just having a bit of toast. Those things make an awful lot of difference – you have to create your own space if you’re by yourself.’

That sentiment has returned to me many times since, and I’ve been thinking of it again lately, in my new (old) kitchen as I hear my neighbours bring something to the boil. We are connected by the plain fact of our isolation. When I hear the familiar sounds of food preparation coming through the walls I am reminded of the small gestures we make, day after day, and I feel a strange sense of being kept company. When I tap the sink strainer on the edge of our kitchen bin, discarding kale stems and stray chopped onion, I hear in that rhythm-of-threes – tap tap tap – the sound of luck. Taking the time to do anything small and domestic and mundane is the height of luck.

We’re coming into autumn now, which has always been a season that makes me feel full of potential. People turn their lights on earlier, the streets start to quieten, and there is a collective turning inwards. I look out my living room window as I write this and watch the squares of warm light across the road, some flickering, each a portal to other quiet lives. And I can hear my neighbour clanging something metal against something else, preparing for another night of small, mundane luck.

By Léa Antigny