Die Kinderwelt von A-Z : a children’s encyclopedia

Books were a rare treat in our house. My father only read Penny Dreadfuls he bought at railway kiosks, printed on cheap, sepia coloured paper. They were either short crime stories or westerns. Resembling newsprint, they appeared in two columns in a font that was hard to read. For my short-sighted father, they would have presented quite a challenge, especially as he was reading in a language that wasn’t his own.

I learnt to read Enid Blyton’s Noddy books which were readily available at our school library, translated into German. I read and reread his adventures under my doona using a torch to illuminate the page. Lights had gone out long ago.

I loved losing myself in stories, pretending I was right there with the characters who had become my friends. I was closer to Pippi Longstocking than any of my classmates. I could anticipate her every move and even finish her sentences. She was a braver version of me, an unconventional girl who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind.

When a book fair was announced at our school, I begged my mother to be allowed to go. There were two long trestle tables with books displayed face out. My mother, seeing the wide-eyed look of desire, whispered caution in my ear. ‘You can only choose one,’ she said.

Many wonderful stories beckoned but I knew that choosing one could never satisfy. But the thickest book there was different to all the others. It promised to reveal the whole world  A-Z and that was the one I chose.

When we arrived home, my mother took out our sharpest knife and ran it between each adjacent page. It was only then that the contents of the encyclopedia were revealed. I inhaled the smell of the paper and ran my fingers along the cloth spine. I knew I would treasure this book.

On page twenty-five, I found a map of Australia. Back then, it seemed like an exotic place far, far away. I remember looking at the depiction of a spear throwing Aborigine, wheat, gold, and kangaroos. I never imagined I would go there.

I learnt so much about the world around me from this book. Everything from descriptions of wild animals to how motion pictures work and even the symbols used in Morse code could be found between its covers. I read and reread many of its pages for years.

Today, I have several thousand books in my collection. I still delight in their smell and occasionally, I still have to cut open their pages. Books present both a sensual and cerebral pleasure and while there are many books I treasure, the pride of my collection is this quaint old-fashioned children’s encyclopedia. After all, it started my love affair with collecting books.


Baking sour dough bread is my meditative ritual. It is slow and deliberate and gives shape to my week. Three years ago, on a weekend retreat at Shalom in the small town of Carcoar, I was given the gift of fermented wild yeast known as starter. On that weekend we learnt to make sour dough bread. While waiting for the leaven to infuse the dough, we reflected on bread as a gift of life.

The oldest forms of bread are thousands of years old. When ancient grains were ground into flour and made into a paste with water, they were cooked on hot stones in fire. Then it was discovered that if the paste was not immediately used, it fermented naturally as wild yeast began consuming the sugars in the grain. This wild yeast is in the air all around us, just waiting for a host. Given the right conditions, it will begin the fermentation process.

Yeast is a single cell living organism which releases carbon dioxide as it is fed. This is what gives bread its characteristic tiny holes throughout. I have made bread for many years using baker’s yeast. It is quick and easy, but the bread hardens quickly. For a very long time, I bought yeast in little sachets and never knew that a wild variety was freely available and everywhere. 

Bread has long been considered the staff of life. We break bread with family and friends and Christians pray ‘give us this day our daily bread.’ It is nourishment for body and soul.

And so, we come to my weekly ritual. Tuesday night after work, I take the jar of sour dough starter out of the fridge. Sourdough bakers like to continue a long-held tradition of naming their starter. Mine came from a wild yeast mixture called Harold and I have called his daughter Demeter, after the Greek God of harvest and fertility. When I open the jar, Demeter looks rather neglected. There is a dense grey sediment at the bottom of the jar. I put my nose to it. A strong smell of alcohol affronts my senses. I swirl the jar and see the culprit. Hooch, a light alcoholic liquid, has formed on top of the flour mixture.  Demeter is telling me she needs to be fed. I discard the hooch and I’m left with a mixture not unlike house paint.

I need to feed this beast. Equal parts of strong baker’s flour and water should do the trick. I measure out my quantities with precision and stir. This mixture will sit on my window sill until Wednesday night.

Come Wednesday, I remove the lid to find that Demeter has come back to life. She is bubbling at the surface and the mixture looks light and fluffy. She now has that pleasant fruity yeast smell I associate with bread making. Each time I observe this phenomenon, I marvel at the tenacity of life. It doesn’t take a lot to coax it into being. At times, I feel like an alchemist, mixing my ingredients to produce pure gold.

I am ready to start with my first pre-ferment. Making sourdough requires flour and water to be added in small quantities at first. This process of adding equal parts of flour and water are repeated, each time in larger measure. I cover my dough-to-be with a beeswax wrap and let it rest until the following morning when I coax it with more flour and water. This is the second preferment.  It is now Thursday night and I can finally add half a kilo of flour, water, seeds and anything that takes my fancy this week. My trusted spurtle, a rod-shaped Scottish porridge stirring stick, is put to good use as I autolyse the bread. It is a gentle method of mixing the ingredients which is followed by a well-earned 20 minute rest. A glass of red is the perfect way to while away the time until the dough is ready to be stretched and folded. Finally, I get my hands into the dough and gently pull it out and fold it back in three to five times before putting it to rest overnight in the fridge.

I think about bakers spanning millennia engaged in the ancient art of making bread. The recipe, adapted to new environments, refined by the hands it has passed through makes its way across centuries and cultures to the bakers of today. I am honoured to be part of this ancient lineage. My much-loved recipe and sour dough starter were a friendship offering by a master baker to his apprentice. In continuing this tradition, I have watched my levain grow in distant kitchens of friends and family with whom I break bread.

For three days I have stretched and folded and stretched and folded the dough. It is now ready for the last step. I heat the oven, slash the loaf and watch it rise through the tempered glass door. The smell of fresh bread wafts through the house. Within forty-five minutes, the crust is crisp and brown. I turn the bread out onto a rack and knock on its underside. A hollow sound at the centre tells me it is ready. As much as I am tempted to cut into it now, I leave the bread to cool. This completes the cooking process. Waiting another couple of hours seems like a small sacrifice to make.

Finally, the bread is ready to eat. At first, the knife resists the crust before slicing through its soft centre. I treat myself to the end piece, lightly buttered and crunchy. Demeter has worked her magic once more.


Chanterelles  or Eierschwammerl/ Pfiffferlinge © Nadya Kubik / shutterstock.com

‘See if you can find some mushrooms in the woods, when you come home from school’ my mother said before leaving for work. September was the best time for picking mushrooms and of all the chores, this one was my favourite. I took my dog, a bitser of a German Shepherd and, wicker basket in hand, we headed off. Going mushrooming was an adventure, a reason to go exploring the woods with my favoured companion.

I was nine years old and knew all the edible mushrooms of the Vienna Woods. I followed my nose and went deep into the forest where the dappled light shimmered across shadows and birds courted each other atop the canopy of beech trees. I listened for the cuckoo, the woodpecker, and the chirpy lark. They accompanied me in song and lifted my spirits as I meandered from the path in search for mushrooms at the base of ancient tree trunks.  

Looking for mushrooms was different to every other chore I had. It wasn’t time bound – I could justify being away for hours, unlike going to the shop to buy bread. To my dismay, my mother could calculate the time it took to walk there and back to the minute. Mushrooming, however, was an art, and art took its time. No one would accuse me of dawdling in the woods.

Deep in the forest, I felt at peace. Safe with the dog by my side, we looked out for one another. He never ran too far from my side. I was there to remove a thorn from his paw or find a cool stream for a drink, he was there to protect me. Sometimes, it was he who led me to the tastiest mushrooms. These afternoons were our precious time together.

While finding mushrooms for that night’s dinner should have been foremost on my mind, there were unexpected pleasures in the woods; a salamander that scuttled across the path and disappeared under leaves, a doe that looked deep into my eyes before trotting away. These encounters were pure rapture. I knew I belonged to this magical world and would always be welcomed home.

And then, there were the times when I found a meadow of wildflowers and I’d fill my basket before remembering the real reason for my ramble. Or, tired from my long walk, I’d lie down in a clearing and watch the clouds assemble into my favourite animals. All I had to remember was to be home before six and explain that mushrooms were particularly difficult to find that day. This was the latitude I was given when looking for mushrooms that would provide our evening meal.

Even so, I still had to find them. I could not go home empty handed for there would be no dinner on the table. I’d search carefully around promising trunks, moving leaves with a stick or bending down to explore a mound that could signal a troop of mushrooms. I was always delighted when my instincts proved right and I could pick three or four chanterelles before moving on.

On bountiful days, I’d return with enough mushrooms for a couple of meals. The sweet earthy smell in my basket scented the kitchen. For the next two nights, we would eat well. We’d have our fill of fried mushrooms and boiled potatoes and would not go to bed hungry.

The ink blotter

As a young child I loved my pen but hated my handwriting. My letters were neither neat nor tidy; they danced a wild tarantella across the pages of my exercise book. I had learnt to write with an old ebonite fountain pen that belonged to my mother. The pen had an elegant green and black pattern and made me feel quite grown up. But fountain pens are faithful creatures, and they won’t accommodate another person’s hand. The nib of a pen is bent toward the shape of a writer’s hand.

Try as I might, my letters were either scratchy or overflowing. Many a night I sat crying over words that spilled on the page or smudged as I closed my exercise book. Yet I loved the smell of the blue-black Pelikan ink that ebbed and flowed from the bottle on my desk. My fingers were constantly spattered with ink which left adults frowning.

Later, when my letters had been beaten into shape, I enjoyed writing letters to a friend left behind at another school or to my grandmother who lived in a country we would never visit. And then, there was the old woman who lived in a villa on the way to school, who reminded me of grandma. She had fine lines around her twinkling eyes which appeared when she smiled. When she invited me in, I was ushered into a large room with floor to ceiling bookcases and a stately oak desk upon which I spotted an ink blotter. At first, I had no idea what this contraption could be. Her ancient husband sat at the desk composing letters and when he finished a page, he reached for the blotter and in a see-saw motion, he dried the ink.

I found this simple device endlessly fascinating. I could watch for an eternity, waiting for him to finish a page and reach for the wooden artifact with a piece of blotting paper covering its convex base. There was something alluring in the simplicity of its design. I inched closer to watch him write. He used a carbon copy book for his correspondence, a habit I later adopted myself.

‘May I dry the page for you?’ I finally had the courage to ask. He lifted me onto his lap and guided my hand over the ink blotter. I felt entrusted with an important task as my hand rocked back and forth drying the ink. He then folded the letter, slipped it into an envelope, and I licked the gum to seal it.

I adored this old couple in the villa with its overgrown garden. I visited often and we talked about the books I had read and poems I liked to write. Entering their library, I was transported to a magical world of books and writing. The old ink blotter remains a tangible expression of that magic.

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