Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 1, 2013

Clay Gully, Stories from an Apple Orchard (2013), by Sally Van Gent

Clay GullyI love books with recipes tucked into the text.  Remember Nora Ephron’s droll novel Heartburn? That was the story of a magazine food writer whose marriage fell apart but she consoled herself by cooking.  Sally Van Gent’s memoir Clay Gully is not quite like that, but it has its own charm.

It’s the true story of the battle to establish an apple orchard near Bendigo in north-eastern Victoria.  Beautiful country, which The Spouse and I visit from time to time when the Woodend Arts Festival is on.  There are splendid eateries, and it’s a good place to visit wineries because there is something about the terroir which results in stunning red wines with a characteristic ‘flinty’ flavour.  But as Sally Van Gent and her husband soon find out, it can be heartbreaking country too, its caprice best expressed by Dorothea Mackellar’s iconic poem, My Country:

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me!

With no experience either of farming or the climate the couple were deceived by the verdant landscape of a ‘good’ year:

The front of the property is divided by a broad irrigation channel, used to flood the paddocks in the days when they were part of a dairy farm.  Contemplating the grassy, treeless area farthest from the house, we discuss its possible uses.  In this, our first year at Clay Gully, our dams fill with water in the spring and thunderstorms replenish them in the summer.  Good rains are predicted for next year offering us the opportunity to establish an agricultural enterprise. (p.5)

Sally’s husband Nick vetoes keeping livestock on the ten-acre hobby farm because she’s too tender-hearted to kill anything, and they don’t want to take the risk of growing grapes for a capricious market, so they decide to grow the heritage apples that Sally’s grandfather used to grow in England. Gorgeous varieties, with names like Beauty of Bath, Lord Lambourne, and Tydeman’s Early Worcester. This book is lavishly illustrated with the author’s drawings, and these include pictures of these apples, diagrams of how to plant them so that they pollinate each other, and a fancy array of the watering system designed by Nick, a former marine engineer.  Like friends of mine who bought a strawberry farm in the region, the Van Gents delight in their early successes: the apple orchard thrives, and they plant a mixed orchard too, with apricots, pears, plums and loquat.  Sally learns to preserve her own olives, and serves them on pizza and tarts, (as The Spouse does, to great acclaim because they are less salty than commercially-produced ones).   Sally shares the secret of making quince paste,  and her recipe for orange pistachio biscuits is destined for trial in the Test Kitchen of T&L before too long.  So is her recipe for cold tea cake, which uses honey from their own bees.  (We’ll have to make do with honey from our local Farmer’s Market.  The Spouse kept bees as a boy, but I’m allergic to them).

The wildlife tests Sally and Nick’s claim to Clay Gully in no time.  A hostile bird takes an interest in their pet Chihuahua, the kangaroos displace the labels on the apple trees, and the magpies attack the insulation paper put on the apple trees to deter hares from stripping off the bark. The currawongs make short work of the plastic gutter guard tried as a replacement.  Sally gets a nasty fright from a snake.  But most of the time the birdlife is beautiful and there is great delight when the front paddock becomes a nursery for young joeys just venturing outside the pouch.  The anecdotes about echidnas and ducks and the frog that met its end in the transformer box are a delight to read, revealing the author’s simple but honest pleasure in discovering the joys of Australian bush life.

But farming just isn’t easy.  Having experienced a similar phenomenon with the grapes at the family vineyard in Macclesfield, I felt for Sally when a flock of parrots turned up to inspect the ripening Tydeman apples and were resistant to all forms of deterrence.

The next day they are gone and all is peaceful.  I expect the ripe Tydemans to be ruined, so with some trepidation I walk along the rows surveying the damage.  For a moment I feel a flood of relief, for the trees are still full of apples. It’s only when I look closely that I realise that a tiny piece of flesh has been removed from each one.  Even those not fully ripe have been carefully assessed by an experience avian eye.  In each apple a little hole has been pecked in the very centre of that first small area of pink blush.  There will be no crop this year after all.  I collect the remaining apples which, though imperfect, are fine for sauces and chutneys. (p 53) (There’s a nice recipe for red cabbage with apple, too, probably very nice with pork?)

That optimism comes to be sorely tested. A naïve attitude to Australia’s rural pest, the rabbit, sees an influx attack their plants, a problem resolved by other invaders, a family of foxes.  A variety of insect pests have to be dealt with accordance with organic farming rules.  Breast cancer, mentioned without a shred of self-pity and almost in passing, prevents Sally from working in the orchard for a long time.  Bramley apples turn out not to be Bramleys at all. The dogs – lovingly immortalised in affectionate portraits – grow old, and one is poisoned by eating a bird that had ingested snail bait from a nearby farm.

And inevitably the drought hits.  No matter how cunning, a watering system relies on rain, and when the rains don’t come and the water allocations dry up, only the hardiest of Australia’s native vegetation survives.  To make matters worse, dense smoke from a nearby bushfire makes work impossible in the orchard, and fatally, 42 degree summer heat actually cooks the apples on the trees.

It is too trite to say that adversity leads to new beginnings, but Sally, who had never had any thought of being an author, has used this experience to discover that she has a gift for writing.  I loved reading Clay Gully, was enchanted by the pictures, and am inspired by the recipes.

The Bendigo Advertiser featured this book back in August.

Author: Sally Van Gent
Title: Clay Gully, Stories from an Apple Orchard
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2013
ISBN: 9781743051887
Source: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press


Fishpond: Clay Gully: Stories from an Apple Orchard
Or direct from Wakefield


  1. I have this book on my review pile too … am looking forward to getting to it, soon I hope. Sounds like a delightful read.


    • I think you’ll like it too, Sue:)


  2. […] and cardamom biscuits from Sally Van Gent’s memoir Clay Gully which I had just read and reviewed.  There they are on the right, fresh out of the oven, and I can’t tell you how scrumptious […]


  3. […] you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may remember reading my review of Sally Van Gent’s first venture into publishing, Clay Gully, Stories from an Apple…(2013) and the follow-up feature in my Meet an Aussie Author series.  Sally’s life has been a […]


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