Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

31.10.14

Green, green grass of home.

The last three Friday nights have been on the grass. I suppose it was inevitable. I was kicking a football around with the boys - refusing to admit football season was over - at Coburg city oval, when an under-tens training squad was setting up for a game down at the grandstand end. The coach came over. "Would you like to join in?" he called to the boys, having seen them running around. "We're short of a couple of players."

Ten minutes later they were fielding, and I was sitting on the grass outside the witches-hat boundary. The game finished about seven, with the ground draped in long shadows from the trees at the western end and the air still warm. The boys enjoyed the game so they signed up. Thomas had hit a boundary, William had taken a catch.

If you're going to join a club, it might as well have a good history. This one does. It came into being two years after Eureka, and a couple of years before the Melbourne Football Club was formed. The cap proudly states: Coburg Cricket Club. Est. 1856. Melbourne University CC was formed the same year and I can imagine cricketers travelling by horse, and possibly cart, up and down Sydney Road on warm summer weekends.

The ground is in walking distance and it's a nice stroll home in the dying light after the game.

29.10.14

Pasta with broccoli and avocado.

Cook half a 500g pack of linguine.

Approximately three minutes before pasta is done, add a cup of broccoli florets and a few sticks of asparagus chopped into one-inch batons. A minute later, add a cup of snow peas. Drain.

While pasta is cooking, warm through two chopped garlic cloves in olive oil in another pan, then add half a cup of sliced button mushrooms, an avocado sliced into segments, a good shake of black pepper and half a cup of white wine. Cover and cook gently for three minutes. Remove lid, add a tablespoonful or more of cream. Reduce.

Drain pasta and green vegetables and place into serving bowls. Pour creamy mushroom and avocado sauce over. Add parmesan and chopped parsley.

23.10.14

Yarraville Gardens food festival threatened by bureaucrat with one of the most absurd job titles in history.

Now, let's just get some perspective.

This city, Melbourne, has about four billion people spread across 9,900 km2 (3,857.2 sq mi). That's a lot of mouths to feed. Melbourne is also often regarded as the food capital of Australia in which the hospitality and food industries thrive. Melburnians love to be outdoors, especially on warm spring nights. It's almost compulsory. What? You're inside watching television on a night like this? They sit on sweeping lawns in Victorian-era parks (or in their own manicured back gardens), sipping cold wine and eating al fresco dinners while the aroma of barbecue drifts across the suburbs, and the children run wild silhouetted by a shimmering orange sunset. They go indoors only when darkness comes; and sleep, perchance to dream of marinated steaks and pork ribs and cold white wine and warm brulee and the best city in the whole world. And food trucks.

Food trucks have been around a long time, way back to the horse. For years, they serviced the industrial and manufacturing areas. Morris J bread vans roamed the suburbs and ghostly horse-drawn milk carts clip-clopped around pre-dawn streets. All part of the same industry, taking food to people for convenience or pleasure.

Then food trucks had a resurgence in the inner suburbs. Initially on their own, the new but retro industry soon found that trucks in pairs or even groups, rather than cannibalising the market, brought customers in even greater numbers, who were attracted by the variety and sense of occasion thus created.

In Yarraville, it was practically an impromptu food festival every weekend with up to 18 trucks lining Yarraville Gardens in what has become a tourist attraction. One truckie even bought a Citroen H van in Europe and shipped it to Australia. Customers love its pizzas, but the truck itself is a drawcard. Another van is a vintage all-over-chrome Airstream, yet another is an old green-grocer's Bedford. A food festival in which people come to admire the machinery? That's success.

So, as the hip expression goes, it's all good. Small business thrives, people enjoy a world of food in one place, and Melbourne's reputation as food capital is enhanced.

But, like grey clouds that herald a sudden rainstorm, enter the council.

Maribyrnong Council's ridiculously-named functionary, 'Acting Director, Sustainable Development' said, in an oddly contradictory statement, that while council supported the food vans, their numbers would now be limited to six.

What 'development' could be more 'sustainable' than a small business that has built its trade from scratch, using its own money?

Rubbish was mentioned as one of the factors in the new limit of six trucks. Rubbish used to be what council took away. It was their job!

Visit the Yarraville Gardens Food Trucks page for more news of this unfortunate, but all too common, and brutally stupid bureaucratic interference in people's lives.

22.10.14

How to write, by Johnny Speight.

Till Death Us Do Part writer Johnny Speight satirises the pseudo-intellectual public broadcast culture in explaining his writing technique:
... any big words would have been lost, not only on their audiences but on (the actors) as well. And as (they) didn't pay you any more for big words it seemed best to stick with the little ones. It was more economical because they took up less room on the paper. ...

I never had a lot of time for big words. They're harder to spell for one thing and if you stutter like I do they're harder to speak as well. I always tried to slip out little words before my stutter notices them. ...

Of course this was a handicap for a writer because only being able to use little words which everyone could understand, I had to be very careful what I said. I couldn’t hide behind an indecipherable display of semantics. I was out in the open, and on my own, without a dictionary to protect me. ...

I figured that most radio audiences were ordinary, simple people like my mum and dad, and that a simple lad like myself with a simple gift for simple words might have a warm-hearted appeal for them. ... Home spun philosophic humour written in simple four letter words.

Anyway, with my little words poking out of my new Smart and Weston suit I took myself off to the B.B.C. ...
It Stands To Reason. A Kind of Biography by Johnny Speight. M&J Hobbs in association with Michael Joseph, London, 1973

*

Simple words? Forget it. The bureaucracy has been awash with indecipherable semantics for as long as it has existed, but there’s no excuse for the private sector. From today's Herald Sun (no link):
Drinks giant Lion has secured its spot at racing's forefront through a five-year sponsorship deal with the Victoria Racing Club.

The deal, centred around the James Boag's Premium brand, aligns Lion with the Melbourne Cup Carnival, kicking off with Victoria Derby Day on November 1.

... A "brand experience area" known as the James Boag's Premium Celebration Deck will be set up on the front lawn at Flemington.
Translated: Starting on Victoria Derby day, racegoers can sample James Boag’s beer at a bar set up by new spring carnival sponsor Lion.

*

Top nine bar songs revised.

At night when the brand experience areas close down Brandy walks through a silent town

I matched the man behind the brand experience area for the jukebox/and the music takes me back to Tennessee

The guy behind the brand experience area was watching Ironsides on TV

Well Mr Harper couldn’t be here cause he stayed too long at Kelly’s brand experience area again

And at the edge of the brand experience area sat a girl names Doris and oh that girl looked nice

Then afterwards we drop into a quiet little brand experience area and have a drink or two

And I’ve got swingin’ doors a jukebox and a brand experience area

I looked down the brand experience area, at the brand experience area tender/He said, Now what do you want, Johnny?/One bourbon, one scotch, and one beer

The Gatlin boys just laughed at him when he walked into the brand experience area

Oh it’s lonesome away from your kindred and all
By the campfire at night where the wild dingoes call
But there’s nothing so lonesome, morbid or drear
Than to stand in the brand experience area of a pub with no beer

17.10.14

Out for a duck.

It was a cold overcast spring day - most have been so far this season - but so far no rain. It was a nice day for a walk if you're not the kind to be scrabbling for an umbrella and a coat and a scarf every time you see a cloud. I got a bag of loaf ends out of the fridge and took Alexandra down to the lake, heading for the south side near the picnic ground where the ducks gather. On the far side, the cliffs rise sheer and you can see joggers steaming up the hilltop path. I've been visiting the lake for years now, back to when William was a baby; and prior to that when the children's much older brother and sister were toddlers. That takes it back to the 1980s. We don't do it for the ducks; we do it for the children. Children like feeding birds. It's good for them; the children, I mean.

You stand by the edge and throw a crust. The pigeons arrive first; followed by seagulls if there are any around. In this weather there were plenty. Arrogant nasty things lowering their heads and charging at the other birds. Then the ducks and moorhens or marsh hens or whatever they are called come sailing in, cutting beautiful ripples on the water, or just running across it making that curious flap-flap-flap sound. But today a family of swans were on the lake. Father and mother sailed regally towards the edge, shepherding four cygnets with soft yellow-grey fur. They were obviously old enough to eat. (I mean they could eat; not that I had designs on them for the oven.) The mother strutted straight towards Alexandra and the fun started. The other birds were trying to get a look-in. The father held full-back and swooped diagonally forward towards the flanks, like Malceski in the 2012 grand final. He cut off the pigeons easily and disposed of the swooping seagulls with a whiplash neck movement. The ducks were moving in from the forward flanks. The mother dealt with them while keeping an eye on the cygnets who were dining regally. Every now and then the father appeared to allow one of the lesser species to take a piece of bread; this had the effect of drawing off scores of pigeons, seagulls and moorhens who followed the lucky duck into the water hoping for a shard or two, and giving the cygnets more room to move.

The cygnets sat down one by one. They had had enough. The parents shepherded them back to the lake. The bread was gone. We walked on. Then I saw the sign. It must have been placed there only recently. Don't feed the ducks, it said. Not their right diet. You can feed them shredded lettuce and small pieces of carrot.

We'll have to start eating our own loaf ends. I used to make bread and butter pudding with them but you get lazy.

8.10.14

Purple haze.

I call it the grand final plant because I’ve been planting them on grand final day irregularly over the past few years. Not for any particular reason; the lady at the nursery told me one year that they pot their annual batch of echiums in the last week of September. So that's how I came to plant the first few on grand final day one year.

I had been looking for a low maintenance plant to fill the gaps in the garden at the beach house. Sandy soil means you don’t have a great choice apart from agapanthus, which would grow on the moon if it could. One winter, I ripped out enough agapanthus to fill a Kenworth tipper. Agapanthus spreads and clumps and takes over. You lose tennis balls in it. I was tired of having to deadhead the flowers each year, and tired of buying tennis balls. When I dug out the agapanthus, I found enough tennis balls to supply Wimbledon for ten years. There’s no tennis court in the garden; just grass, and the boys used to hit the balls all over the place; on the roof, over the fence, through windows; but the balls mainly ended up in that horrible undergrowth of agapanthus. Out it came and in went the echiums.

Echium has an open, spreading habit with grey-green foliage all year round and very striking purple spiky flowers in summer. It is also heat tolerant. The ex-agapanthus garden bed faces west and catches the afternoon summer sun and temperatures rocket up into the forties at the height of summer.

On grand final morning in 2009, I drove down to Glenvue nursery in Rye and bought half a dozen six-inch potted specimens. That afternoon, I took the radio outside, stacked the echiums in a row, dug holes in the garden bed along the west side of the house, and listened to the grand final while planting them. My team was out of the finals that year and I was going for St Kilda.

Just as I was planting the last echium, about ten past five, Travis Varcoe handballed to Paul Chapman, and he kicked a goal, and Geelong won. I think of that grand final moment when I look at that echium - next to the back door - now. But that’s OK, because Chapman plays for Essendon now and won a few games for the Dons this year. The echium is now at least six feet tall, and up to eight feet in summer when its spikes take off.

Same day the next year, I put in some more echiums, but I saved them for the grand final replay. I was going for St Kilda again because (a) my team was still out; (b) St Kilda still only had one flag; (c) they were playing Collingwood and (d) I was getting sick of seeing Ian Meldrum in the papers every grand week. Just bloody win one. They didn’t. I didn’t listen to the first game, but I knew the result. I had walked through the streets down to Blairgowrie beach and the clamour from all the backyard barbecues signalled every goal. I walked back to the house around five. Dead quiet. Eerie. I knew immediately what had happened, of course. Got home, turned on the radio. Draw.

Next week I was back in the garden, as usual. Collingwood won the replay. More in 2012, when for some reason I favoured the Swans. Can’t think why. Bloody Sydney. What a horrible city it is. We’ve given our game away. In the 1960s there was a novelty song in the charts called Melbourne and Sydney. One line it in ran, Sydney's got its strippers but we’ve got Ron Barraaaaaassi (pronounced rrrrrrrr). Not any more we don’t. First Sydney got Barassi literally. Now compare the Swans with this city’s iconic club, the MFC. What a joke.

*

By now I had the west garden bed covered, and new plantings in a several island clumps further down the back garden. Every summer, the garden roared with bees. Open the backyard and it sounded like a Tiger Moth from Moorooduc airfield passing over but it was just a million bees getting nectar from the hundreds of purple spikes which were now up to eighteen inches tall. I had created a monster.

This spring, something happened. I didn’t have to go to the nursery. Hundreds of echium seedlings appeared in the undergrowth, like baby animals under the skirts of their mother. Literally hundreds. I could open my own echium nursery!

But I didn’t. I just waited until they were as big as the Glenvue nursery specimens had been, which was grand final week, of course; then pulled a dozen or so gently from the ground, preserving their baby root balls, and transplanted them along the northern fence line.

Echiums work best in massed plantings, and this is one hell of a massed planting. But it’s not the only plant. Behind the bungalow is a twenty foot plumbago hedge. Purple.

*

Purple Haze all in my eyes,
don't know if it's day or night,
you've got me blowing, blowing my mind
is it tomorrow or just the end of time?

27.9.14

Stadium review: Docklands

One fine cold winter day in the late nineties I was picking my way through some rotting sheds by the decrepit wharves of the former Victoria Dock. Sun streamed in through the broken walls, lighting the filth on the floors; and rats, fat on inner city detritus, grinned out of the shadows like petty criminals. The firm I worked for had been invited to submit a proposal for the naming and design of a new city development. A couple of Ian Stewart drop kicks away, a tangled mess of construction had already started. It looked like a bombed rail shed then, but it became Docklands Stadium two years later, known more commonly by its various sponsor names, currently Etihad Stadium.

Until last Sunday, I had never visited the stadium, despite being a Melbourne-born football tragic, and notwithstanding it being Essendon's 'home' venue. I preferred suburban grounds, such as the one within walking distance from here. So the boys spent most Sunday afternoons this winter kicking a ball around Coburg City oval during quarter time, half time and three quarter time, and before and after each game, in the sun, and sometimes in biting wind and occasional rain. And they convinced me to take them to the VFL grand final. That was how I came to break my Docklands duck last Sunday.

*

We walked up the bright side of Bourke Street, blinding sun reflecting off the glass towers. Over the railway bridge, $20 at the ticket box and into the arena. It was pitch dark after the sun. Dark?

The roof was closed.

Closed? On a Melbourne spring afternoon that was as agreeably pleasant as weather gets anywhere in the world? Inside, the walls and roof, possibly made of recycled Nissan Sunny door panels, or recycled lemonade cans, produced an echoing sonic boom, like 50,000 dogs barking in a wheat silo. And that was before the game. Overhead lights dazzled, while the sun penetrated the entrances and apertures behind each goal, so you had to squint. The turf stunk like a farmyard in the unnaturally still air. The electronic score line was almost unreadable without binoculars. My legs would have nestled in the lap of the person in the seat in front of me, had I relaxed.

Footscray ran out winners over a conflicted Box Hill/Hawthorn side. Box Hill should really give Hawthorn the flick and go back to being the Mustangs.

*

The Melbourne Cricket Ground is class, old Melbourne quietude, a place with vast presence. It holds a million ghosts celebrating unforgettable triumph or lamenting failure. Apparitions just about jump at you when you walk into the MCG. In theological terms, while St Paul’s cathedral a few blocks away is just a church, the MCG, set in magnificent parkland, is actual paradise.

On the other hand, Docklands stadium is a bleak tin shed sandwiched between a perished wharf and some decayed railway huts.

*

Top ten uses for Docklands Stadium.

1. A wheat silo. See above.

2. A mushroom farm. Dark and damp.

3. A city branch of Storage King.

4. Parcels office for Southern Cross station.

5. A gasometer.

6. An airport terminus with a helipad on the roof.

7. A shearing shed.

8. A city branch of Pick-a-Part. City workers could grab a rear indicator lens with their latte.

9. A new Festival Hall to replace the old one (eerily only 500 metres away).

10. A holding yard for Saturday night King Street drunks. Might not be big enough.

15.9.14

Little film lost: laconic actors lend murky realism to 1970s man vs nature tear-jerker.

Actors Jack Thompson, Ray Barrett, John Jarratt and John Hargreaves have starred in every movie ever made in this country. The federal government legislated in 1972 that no film could be released in Australia without these actors playing roles. It also legislated that they play the same characters in every movie. In comedy, disaster, costume drama and period romance, Thompson, Barrett, Jarratt and Hargreaves play the same laconic grass-chewing check-shirted semi-neanderthal ocker farmer/barfly/shearer characters, with minor variations: even in 128-minute art house films in which nothing actually happens. This has led to some truly innovative and creative Australian cinematic moments, which Hollywood has dismally failed to replicate. Also, titling services in Australia are much cheaper than other markets because the editor only has to change the font; the names stay the same.

1978 saw the launch of Little Boy Lost on to Australian screens. It played to vast audiences nationwide, sometimes approaching the hundreds. Based on the song, that was based on the true story, that was based on ... a little boy getting lost in the bush, the movie portrays Nathan Dawes playing Steven Walls running through the bush looking for his father, pursued by hordes of drunken check-shirted Jarratts and Hargreaveses (Thompson and Barrett were excused from appearing due to other film commitments), who fail to locate the yellow t-shirted four-year-old, who in turn thinks the rescuers are out to harm him. Dawes originally wore a green shirt over brown trousers, but on the second day of the shoot, the cinematographer stood up from his Arriflex, turned to the director and said "I know he’s meant to be lost, but I can’t bloody see him for the f*&%$@# gum trees!" Wardrobe then found him a red t-shirt but that flared, so yellow was settled upon. Halfway through the movie, the boy can be seen fleetingly in the red t-shirt due to a continuity mistake. In the final cut, the film editor said that since the scene was evening, it just looked like his t-shirt was reflecting the setting sun.)

It soon becomes obvious that, despite being based on fact, the movie could be a parody, but isn't. The boy is intercut so frequently into the search action fleeing horsemen, leaping into creeks, hiding under waterfall outcrops and generally evading capture that it seems he is actually attempting to escape the movie itself, and its stilted players, its wooden dialogue, its sheer plodding action. But he fails, and is rescued; and John Jarratt and John Hargreaves depart, check-shirted, jut-jawed and silently brooding, for the set of their next movie.

But there was something. The interiors – the kitchens and hotel bars – are dirty, and broken, and have things placed where things in movies should not be placed. It looks like someone filmed the inside of my kitchen, or in the bar of a waterside workers' hotel. Everywhere, the colours are murky, seemingly un-art-directed. Costumes look like leftovers from Wake in Fright (1971) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). The only attempt at colour correction is the boy’s yellow t-shirt. Perhaps they forwent the stylist in order to pay John Jarratt and John Hargreaves' compulsory fees. The effect is good, portraying the kind of 'real' realism you don’t see in films in which stylists and art directors construct either a clean minimalism or, at the other end of the scale, clichéd over-realism. A dirty, disquieting air hangs over the movie like flies over a kill. The camera is still, capturing the bush scenes honestly and directly, instead of waving about like a Byron Bay hippy drunk on fake gaia spirituality. Getting lost in the bush for half an hour is enough to divest you of gaia, let alone four days.

The boy’s fate creeps up on you like a submerged Northern Territory crocodile on an estuary fisherman. So that when he is found, possibly hurt, and only the bloodied face and shock of blond hair of his small form is visible in his rescuer’s encircling arms (check-shirted, of course), emotion takes hold. He’s been missing four days. If you don’t shed a tear, you’re not human.

The penultimate scene is a long, elevated shot of the townspeople witnessing the boy being passed from rescuer to mother, left of screen instead of the usual clichéd front-and-centre; a slow, dreamlike sequence of frames in which the viewer observes what might be the closest a human being can get to the concept of heaven, a concept which involves having being on the threshold of that other necessary construct – hell – and returning: for no apparent reason.

That’s what had just happened to the boy’s mother.

Little Boy Lost, 1978
Summary: a lost classic in which good triumphs over ... bad acting.

10.9.14

Diner-style café found in Coburg arcade.

Sunday, midday. The café was long, like a bus, with a row of tables down one side and the servery on the other. A mirror ran along the wall and wrapped around the back, giving air to an otherwise claustrophobic space.

Some tables spilled out on to the arcade, and there was an old coin-in-the-slot tractor for toddlers to sit on while their mother calms her nerves with a coffee. It's like something out of the 1970s; the very concept of a café in an arcade is dated. But there are no hipsters, and that is a huge advantage. Hipsters want a street frontage and a view while they yap into their devices and eat buffalo cheese and sweet tomato compote out of ramekin-like vessels.

Eddie was on his own. Staff are expensive when there are no customers. So far, we were the only customers. That is; me, Tracy, William, Thomas, Alexandra, and Erin. It was father’s day. I was being taken out for lunch on the cheap.

We ordered. Eddie got busy. An old, short Greek man and his wife drifted in, like two tired pigeons. They had come from the Orthodox church in Victoria Street. Eddie is Greek, so they have an affinity. They perched on a bench at the front. Another customer arrived with a child, who climbed onto the tractor.

Eddie buttered rolls, turned on burners, frothed milk. He was calm. But his customers are patient. They are old Coburg, some literally and some figuratively. The elderly, the tradesmen in fluoro vests, the checkout ladies from the supermarkets on their break. Also, the special needs people from the assisted accommodation on the other side of the railway line. There will never be a place like this again. I can’t see special needs people eating smoked salmon and blue cheese panini.

Eddie brought out the salad rolls. These were old-school, meaning they contained one of everything that could potentially be in a salad roll. A major feature: they contained beetroot. Eddie loves onions, so his salad rolls also encompass about half an onion each. This may be excessive for some tastes. But I gave the rolls five out of five. (Compare with bad salad roll experience.)

Old-school food is always accompanied by chips. Here they are fat, and of an appetizing pale yellow colour, crisping to nut brown at the edges. An initial crunch yields to a soft, steaming interior enhanced by liberal application of vinegar and salt. Pointedly, the chips arrived on an oval diner-style plate, courtesy Bristile super vitrified hotel china, made in Australia, with date-stamp underneath. You can’t kill these plates; and they don’t look ludicrous, like ramekins.

The elderly couple were pecking at their toasted sandwiches. Some takeaway customers came in and stood at the bar waiting. Eddie juggled brown paper bags, pans, knife and coffee machine.

Newspapers are supplied free for customers. I flicked quickly through the colour supplements. That weekend the supplements were fathers’ day special editions, because it ... editor briefs reporters ... was fathers’ day and you can generate four, six, eight, twenty pages, if you want, out of vapid interviews with fathers. Compulsorily, in today’s clichéd-journalism content, one page portrayed a small boy with two daddies. His eyes were bright, and he smiled for the camera with his two daddies. What kind of extraordinary contemporary self-regard can consign a child to motherlessness? Motherless children have a hard time, according to Blind Willie Johnson, when mother is dead, Lord. But this child’s mother wasn’t dead. I presume.

I threw the magazine back on its rack. Having seen off the takeaway customers, Eddie tipped pancake batter onto the flat grill. The pancakes arrived in two minutes, on invisible plates, because each pancake overlapped its edges, and was topped with twin mountains of plain white vanilla ice cream rising sheer out of a lake of maple syrup. Providentially, the boys were hungry, having spent the morning practising goal-keeping on the soccer pitch at the bottom of St Bernard’s valley, adjacent to the second football ground (in which has just been laid and sowed the new cricket pitch), while I walked laps. They could have eaten the vinyl of the seats. (Thomas, in fact, had already eaten his mother’s salad roll, minus onion.) The picture below is indicative, with Thomas in the shot for purposes of comparison, like a foot rule against a just-caught fish, as I don’t usually post pictures of food, especially in cafes. (Photographic credit: Erin.) The degree of difficulty in eating the whole pancake was judged: almost impossible. The boys proved the judges wrong. Alex helped with the ice-cream.

Size here is important, as reported by a commenter on a popular online restaurant t review site: "Swear to God, they (Twins Famous Burger) were as big as the MCG." The same reviewer estimated that Eddie was on first name terms with 90% of his customers.

Summary: Three adults, three children: forty bucks.

Twins Café. Foley’s Mall, 441 Sydney Road, Coburg. Experience it while you still can. Recommended: burgers the size of the MCG, chicken schnitzel sandwich, pancakes.

3.9.14

Once upon a time in Spain.

I'd been walking all morning, down from the mountains, and I crept up on a town built on the side of a hill crowned by a cathedral.

It was close to midday, and bright and hot, and the streets were empty. I opened a heavy door in the cathedral. Inside, it was dim and cool and lonely. I stayed long enough to cool down, and went out again into the harsh light.

I walked on. The claustrophobic streets were confusing, winding back on themselves and lined with tall, narrow houses. From some, laundry hung out over the street, high up. Caged birds twittered from open windows. Dark doorways lay open to allow the passage of air. I passed them. Every now and then an escalier – or whatever the Spanish call those narrow stairways that connect streets at different levels – ran upwards or downwards, scores of steps disappearing in the blinding midday sun. I followed one down. I was lost, but I didn’t care. I had all day; all week in fact. I was free that year. I was also hungry.

The descent ended at a narrow street beneath an overhanging wall that ran its length, over which grew vast hedged shrubs. Their foliage hung down almost to the tops of the doors. Between two vast whitewashed buildings, an old wrought iron sign that read Cantina Zafra hung from a portico. There was no mistaking the aroma of fish, garlic and herbs. I pushed the door open and went in.

The place was small and dark but still managed to hold a dozen or so dark timber tables, several of which were occupied. These were obviously locals and not tourists, their expressions betraying a kind of bored familiarity; a boredom more related to serenity than to any get-me-the-bill haste.

A small blackboard by the kitchen had one word chalked on it: soup, in Spanish, of course. That one word represented a now long-lost minimalism, serving both to inform the customer and to save work. In any case, there was no space on the board for a raw tuna salad with lemon foam and warm hints of wasabi - even had the waiter wanted to write out such nonsense. (The loss of minimalism has also seen the introduction of the indefinite article in menu descriptions. Whoever heard of a soup? But I digress.)

A waiter, who was probably the patron, materialised. He was small, like a jockey. He wore a leather apron over a white shirt and black trousers. I didn’t know if he was Zafra or just the hired help. He said nothing. I pointed to the menu. He went away. The room was silent apart from an occasional word or two uttered between the locals. Minimalism even in the conversation. And no phones.

A few minutes later the patron materialised again and put a glass of white wine on my table. Then a bowl of soup. The bowl was large. The soup was like a kind of stew. The soup itself – meaning the fluid essence in the bowl – was a sea rich with garlic and onion and saltiness. That's what I had picked up on the air outside. In the middle of the sea was a large mound of caramelised onions that tasted like they had been cooked for hours with herbs of some, or many, kinds. There was something warm, like paprika, or cumin, but I could not be sure. On the shores of the caramelised onion island sat large rounds of sausage that had been fried crisp on the outside. It was similar to, but not the same as, what we know as the clichéd chorizo. I hadn’t known whether to start with the fork or the spoon, and then the waiter had come back yet again, this time with a small basket of hard-crust bread in one hand, and a glass of water in the other. That was all. Barely a word had been exchanged between us. I ate and drank. Some more locals came in, and a couple left.

Later, the sun almost blinded me when I went outside after paying the bill. I took an hour or more to find my way out of the maze of streets to the other side of the town, but I wasn’t really trying. The soup kept me going until dusk.

1.9.14

Potato-free mash.

Nothing wrong with potatoes, but sometimes something different works wonders for a jaded palate emerging from a long, cold stew-filled winter. The following mash is sweet and sour, nutty and salty, smooth and unctuous and is easy to make.

Swede and carrot mash with pine nuts and prosciutto.

Take half a kilo each of swedes and carrots. Cut into chunks and cook in salted water until soft.

Meanwhile, lightly toast some pine nuts in a pan. Chop a few slices of prosciutto into pieces and crisp these in the same pan.

Drain the vegetables, retaining a little of the water. Mash, adding salt, pepper and a little nutmeg and place into a serving bowl.

Shower pine nuts and prosciutto flecks over the top and serve as a side dish with ... anything, especially eye fillet chargrilled quickly so it is still rare inside, drizzled with garlic butter.

*

Oh look! It's September! Spring! Football finals! Warm weather! Right now it's raining fit to flood the Merri Creek.


28.8.14

Spring into fish: baked Tasmanian Atlantic salmon with leeks, red onion and lemon.

1. Chop a leek radially into thin rings. Rinse out grit if necessary. Chop a large red onion into rings. Sweat the leek and onion in oil in a covered pan until they just start to soften.

2. In a bowl, combine three tablespoons of olive oil with the juice of two lemons, a handful of chopped parsley and half that amount of chopped dill. Season.

3. Place two large salmon fillets into a baking dish and cover with warm leek and onion mixture. Pour over the herbed oil and lemon mixture. Cover dish with foil. Bake twenty minutes depending on size of fish. Salmon cooks quickly, staying moist.

4. Serve with asparagus drizzled with lemon butter: boil and remove asparagus from pan, drain most cooking water, add the juice of two lemons and a pat of butter, reduce, pour over asparagus and add cracked black pepper.

21.8.14

Thirty years?

Impossible? 1984. It had always been in everyone's conscious future because of the George Orwell book, but then it arrived, and now it's thirty years in the rear vision mirror.

I got the grand final video out for the boys. The colour is muted. It had been an overcast steel-grey day with patchy rain. I had walked to the M.C.G, of course; lived in Carlton then. Through the Carlton Gardens, across at Nicholson Street, past St. Patrick's Cathedral. And yes, I dropped in. Call it superstition. Could you seriously walk past when your team is in the grand final against the club that won by more than thirteen goals in the same game the previous September? Through the Fitzroy Gardens. Yarra Park. In.

I watched the video with the boys. The soundtrack is strangely muted. The old commentators let the pictures speak for themselves, waited for the goal umpire before calling the score. Essendon hopelessly behind all day, and then that electric last quarter that will live on in the memory of anyone who was there that grey day. I had been hemmed in in standing room like a tinned sardine. That's hardly even a simile. You could barely get an empty beer can to the ground. Yes, we dropped them in those days, but that was simply because you couldn't move. Also, you could bring them in.

There is a ghostly passage of play in the dying light of the last quarter, when Nobby Clark tears out of the back pocket and fires a pass to Merv Neagle. That passage might be on a frequent loop at the 1984 Essendon premiership reunion next month. Only way to get those two players there.

15.8.14

Tail end of winter.

August could be my favourite month. While the weather is still intermittently bad, you can see the end of winter.

So now we're having a last rush of cooking winter dishes before h swept away by spring's warmer weather. Heavy stews like the following always taste better when the weather's cold.

Oxtail with red wine.

Take an average oxtail* and joint it. Hardly necessary: the butcher will do it for you. Boil the pieces ten minutes with a bay leaf, a clove of garlic and a teaspoonful of pepper. Drain.

Now sear the oxtail pieces in a cast iron pan and remove to a large pot.

Place two chopped onions, two chopped carrots and a scored clove of garlic in the pan in which you have seared the oxtail. Add a cup of boiling water. The residual heat will deglaze the pan juices, combining them with the vegetables. Pour the lot into the large pot over the oxtail. Add half a bottle of red wine and one jar of tomato passata. Add enough water to just cover the contents.

Simmer a couple of hours, then cool and chill. Next day, remove fat, reheat and eat. The meat will fall off the bone. Ideal on garlic mashed potato.

Turn the remaining gravy and meat into a ragu: add a can of chickpeas and a sliced avocado, reheat and serve over tortiglioni or rigatoni. Possibly even tastier than the original dish.

*What's an average oxtail? 1.5 kilograms according to a farmer I just asked.