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


Day Five.

I sat on the edge of the Murray River just after sundown as a nearly full moon came up. The water looked still at first glance, but through the growing darkness I could see the current rippling in the soft copper moonlight. It would carry you a mile in a few minutes. Once, in 1830, they rowed a whaleboat up the river against the tide; 'they' being explorer Sturt and his crew. The party had reached the so-called mouth of the river that ended in a lake. Sturt climbed a ridge at the end of it and saw surf breaking in the far distance beyond a mile of sandbanked channel. They were landlocked. So they rowed the whaleboat a thousand kilometres back up the Murray at the height of summer. It was either that or walk. I went back inside the cabin and picked up the day's newspaper and tried to read a story about gender diversity in the workplace.


Next morning we took the road north. The other road crossed the river by ferry and followed the Murray on its south side. We would go north and rejoin the river upstream later. What Sturt would have given for a car. Earlier we'd gone into an information centre doubling as a post office/newsagent/general store/museum, I can't remember which, where a volunteer lady wearing an large and faintly ridiculous red bow (among other things) was declaring to an old couple who couldn't decide for themselves, "Oh, you don't want to go that way, there's nothing to see except paddocks."

She was right. There was nothing, if you like Big Pineapples. Level farmland dirt-brown after the harvest stretched away from the river flats on both sides of an arrow-straight highway. We passed an occasional Federation farmhouse; perhaps one every ten or twenty or fifty kilometres. These were neatly fenced as if to keep out the emptiness. Inside the neat fences were trees, shrubs, lush lawns, clotheslines partly visible in the backyard, and scattered toys. These interruptions of green looked like they had been lifted block-whole from a street in Camberwell and transplanted on the moon. The morning wore on. We passed some abandoned, ghostly houses whose residents had long gone, the buildings left to fall into disrepair. But the belladonna lilies and the freesias keep coming up decades later where the garden beds once were. You drive past and wonder who planted them and whether they knew the bulbs would outlive them and the house, and then the whole vision disappears into the distance.

It is so quiet out here out here that you occasionally get the finger from a passing local farmer. Not the rude finger of the city, but a forefinger raised from his steering wheel in greeting. We had left the plain behind, and now the road curved gently as it climbed budding hills that seem to part like curtains to reveal long vistas. A purple haze on the horizon looked like low cloud, grew larger, came closer, and turned into a row of hills that soon became a low mountain range, still purple. Take a photo and you've got a Namatjira painting. When I was growing up we had one on the lounge room wall, soft mauve watercolour mountains and not a dot in sight. The hoi polloi working classes had Namatjira prints on their poky walls, while the literati scattered their houses with Nolans and Boyds. I used to wonder why mum took the Namatjira off the wall and hid it when her rich friends from Kew came over.


Then the purple mountains receded and we dropped slowly down into irrigation territory again, having returned to the river via a triangular journey into the vastness of rural South Australia. Now there were trees everywhere, not gums any more but deciduous trees with medium size trunks and pretty canopies, all ordered into a thousand orchards. That's a thousand orchards, not a thousand trees. There must have been literally millions of them: almond trees.


Destination summary: Renmark processed 85,000 tonnes of almonds last year, a figure expected to rise to 135,000 tonnes within eight years, with 9000 new products on supermarket shelves worldwide having almonds as an ingredient. (Source: Almondco)

Accommodation summary: Paringa caravan park, full of noisy European backpackers in for the picking season.

Day Five in a phrase: Warning, contains nuts.


Day Four.

It was raining, so I was heading north away from the coast and into some warmer weather. Before leaving town, I stopped at the main street cafe where the owner of the house worked to drop off the two-day tariff. You can just leave it on the kitchen table, she had told me, but I preferred to hand it over in person, being from a crime-ridden major city. Seems they don't have house break-ins down this way. But I had put the keys back under the terracotta pot. Same thinking: in Melbourne they don't look for the keys, they just break down the door.

I drove around the coast to Kingston then struck north along Rowney Rd for 50 or maybe 60 lonely kilometres, through mixed grazing country and pine plantations that stretched away down south as far as Mt Gambier. We hit the Riddoch Highway, and traffic again, and passed through Keith, a small settlement minding its own business. Then Tailem Bend, a town that sits on top of red cliffs along the Murray River, its main street and the road through an eastern tangent to an almost perfectly round bend in the river.

Then Murray Bridge, self-explanatory. It was close to stopping time, judged daily by the state of the rear occupants of the car, an 11-, 10-, and six-year-old. I drove another half hour or so to Mannum, an old seaport and shipbuilding centre from the paddle steamer days, and found a caravan park.

Cabin 13 was literally seven steps from the Murray River. None of us sleepwalks. The river crossing service operates around the clock and the night was punctuated by the metallic clunking rasp of the ferry docking. Late in the evening a paddle steamer churned up the river, lit up like a circus, its below-deck engine making a thudding echo across the water.

Destination summary: Mannum boasts the last steam-powered, woodfired, side paddle steamer in the world. Who was I to argue?

Accommodation summary: On the Murray - literally. Four stars.


Day Two and Three.

Another small town and another open air lunch break. We stopped in the middle of town at a small park near the 'information centre' in which volunteer staff ask you where you're going, where you've been and did you see this and that along the way; and if not, why not; and you musn't miss the historic feature on the road five miles out of town on north route 6. They're just trying to be helpful. But I just wanted a map.

Crowning the small park, set into an elaborate plinth, was a long white thing that looked like a narrow but very long overturned canoe. A plaque set into the plinth told the story. The long white thing was not an overturned canoe; it was one blade of a propeller from a wind turbine, an advertisement for the local wind farms. The local council website explained:
While in Millicent take time out to enjoy, experience 'clean & green' ... turn left at Canunda Frontage Road. Experience the peace and beauty of the natural environment, the bird life ... in their habitats ... gaze in awe at the mighty wind turbines that stretch as far as the eye can see ...
Birdlife? Mighty wind turbines? The council bureaucrats obviously published this without picking up the copywriter's savage irony. It is the very height of copywriting skill to inject irony into your words and have it published by an oblivious client. It might also be unethical, but funny nevertheless.

We ate lunch. Three or four birds sat on the propeller blade in the sun and preened themselves, the ultimate insult to the becalmed blade.


Earlier, we had stopped at the South Australian border and dumped a load of apples, after eating some, in the quarantine bin. Do the bugs know not to cross the border, one of the children very logically asked. I didn't know, I said. I imagined they stayed around their food source and that transportation, not self-propulsion, was the main cause of fruit fly infestation. I was able to demonstrate this later.


Ten thousand - or more - years ago, a Postglacial Marine Transgression made the sea rise, resulting in a coastline kink that was later named Guichen Bay in 1802 by French explorers who went around naming things but never actually settling. Not sure what the French were after but it obviously wasn't a pretty if somewhat wild and windblown bay which the British eventually turned into the seaport of Robe, now a sleepy fishing village.

We arrived at the house mid-afternoon. It was a 1940s timber cottage set on limestone footings, off the main street on a corner block. I opened the gate, drove in, parked by an overgrown rose garden at the side of the house and retrieved the keys - as instructed by the owner - from under an upturned terracotta pot on a shelf behind a small shed. A lawn behind the rose garden led to a rear garden, and an orchard behind that was sectioned off by a lattice fence with a small gate. I half expected Peter Rabbit to bolt from somewhere chased by Mr McGregor wielding a garden rake.

Inside the cottage was a timber-lined lounge with easy chairs arranged around a heater, an east-facing kitchen off that with a huge window that let in the morning sun, bedrooms at either end of the house and an old-fashioned covered laundry off the back door porch. There was a table and chairs on a front deck under the cover of some trees and another small table outside the back door that caught the morning sun. We stayed here two days but I could have moved there permanently.


Later the owner, a tall thin pleasant lady in her early fifties who had an easy smile and an air of being permanently busy in that getting-things-done way dropped in to see if everything was in order. She went behind the lattice gate in the garden, re-emerged a few minutes later with a basket of apples and figs, placed them on the table and then disappeared with a wave.

I looked at the apples. Perfect. Every home garden apple tree in Victoria produces fruit that is always full of worms or codling moths or whatever they are. There's the reason for the quarantine.


Day One.

The rain started in Gellibrand, a small town on the edge of the Otways. We had started at eight in the morning of a warm, sunny late March morning.

Now it was midday and I had pulled the car into a small grassed park with one of those octagonal concrete picnic table and chairs. We sat and ate and watched the clouds gather. Down this way it can turn in minutes. I threw the lunch things back into the box I use as a hamper as the rain started and we resumed the journey into a raging storm.

Deep in the forest it was black at two thirty in the afternoon. The only other traffic was logging trucks going the other way, and I pulled over tight against the edge of the bitumen as they barrelled past carrying timber to be turned into home renovations for city hipsters with Save the Forests stickers on their cars.

Then over Laver's Hill, and the drive was a long coast down the mountains to the Great Ocean Road. The sky was clear now, but spume drifted across from the waves eating into the jagged cliffs. Past Loch Ard gorge. Imagine climbing up that at night, being one of only two people to survive a sailing shipwreck. Then the Twelve Apostles, all eight of them or is it seven now? Across the road from this, fifty buses were parked in careful lines, having disgorged tourists who were clambering along a small ridge where the cliffs met the churning ocean. Over the road, uniformed bus drivers could be seen smoking, bored, staring at nothing. Seen it all before. Then the collapsed London Bridge, or was that earlier? Port Fairy was a fuel stop.

I turned off before Portland along a lonely, picturesque road with no traffic, past towns with names like Bessiebelle and Codrington, and rolled to a stop in Heywood. Found a double room in an original fifties motel ("Business For Sale") with a DVD player and a selection of obscure old movies. For no reason, I put on The Magnificent Two, a 1967 Morecambe and Wise product extension satirising the John Sturges movie, its humour arising chiefly through Morecambe and Wise not being Yul Brynner, James Coburn, Steve McQueen or Charles Bronson. Earlier, the boys and I had visited the local footy oval which was still in that special twilight zone of having its cricket pitch still up, its football lines freshly marked and goalposts in place. Bring it on.


Destination summary: Heywood is a small town with very little in it except genuine shops and no 'shoppes', which is its main attraction. Tourist attractions and theme shops are the great fakery of the age.

Accommodation summary: Book in at a fifties-style motel while you still can and relive your retro dreams. Four stars.

Day One in a phrase: Hey! Wood!


Egg them on.

Football for 2017 commences in approximately 33 minutes. You need to make food fast.

Leek and cheese omelette.

Crack four eggs into a jug; whisk lightly with half a cup of milk and a good dash of salt and pepper. Slice the white section of a leek into very fine rings. Grate a cupful of cheddar cheese.

Pour the egg mixture into a melting teaspoonful of butter in a non-stick pan. Scatter the leeks and cheese over the egg. Lid the pan. Cook on lowest heat for fifteen minutes or until leeks are soft.

Slide off onto a plate. Segment into quarters. Serve quarters with a salad of shredded red cabbage, grated beetroot, grated carrot, walnuts, thinly sliced apple and mayonnaise; kind of a cross between Waldorf and coleslaw. It works well.

Tonight: Richmond should beat Carlton but you never know with Richmond.


Moral Superiority, the Sequel.

History repeats:
... and was soon recognised as one of the best cartoonists in Australia. ... not everybody reading the Australian was happy. ... 'You name it, Bill got attacked by everybody. If it wasn't the left wing it was the right wing.' People ... 'tried to stop me from drawing by complaining to the Press Council. There are also those who complained to the anti-discrimination board because you draw a black person black. What are you supposed to do. I'm a cartoonist. ... you jump in with both feet. Anyhow, all those attempts failed'. According to him, government ministers had written letters of complaint and the Church of England once claimed he was a racist.
The 'Bill' mentioned in the above extract from Comic Commentators: Contemporary Political Cartooning in Australia was not Bill Leak; it was one of Leak's predecessors, the savagely satiric cartoonist Bill Mitchell who died in his fifties in 1994.

It seems it takes a satirist to know a satirist. Everyone else is just plain offended. On Saturday, Barry Humphries wrote:
"Bill Leak was the best political cartoonist in the world. ... He made the mistake of telling the truth, which is the mark of a great satirist. ... Bill despised aspects of political correctness, in the sense that they obscured the truth. A famous cartoon - or you may say an infamous cartoon - was so blatantly a pro-Aboriginal cartoon that only an imbecile could throw the epithet 'racist' at Bill Leak. He was the very opposite ... ."
Critics of the cartoon Humphries mentions blindly ignored its portrayal of the appalling and wilful neglect of aboriginal children; rounding instead, like a bunch of droop-lidded Texas salamanders sniffing out a waterbug, on the alcoholic father of the child as the victim. Yes, you would have to be an imbecile to run, arms outstretched, to the drunk instead of his impoverished son.

In a column last year Leak wrote, "By enabling tantrum-throwers to re-establish their feelings of moral superiority they can walk away purged." Last Wednesday night, at the launch of his book Trigger Warning, he said, "When I met the great cartoonist Bill Mitchell about 34 years ago, he said, 'Mate, a cartoonist only has to be funny once a day, but it's a lot harder than you'd think.' ... Political correctness is a poison that attacks the sense of humour. Luckily for Mitchell, it was tipped into our water supply at around the same time he retired."

Comic commentators: Contemporary Political Cartooning in Australia
Edited by Robert Phiddian and Haydon R. Manning
Network Publishing, 2008

Trigger Warning: Cartoons by Bill Leak
Wilkinson Publishing, 2017


What if a politician turned up to your cafe on Sunday?

Talk about being played for a fool.

Now let's go back a little first. One of my many jobs in the far distant past was in the hospitality industry. I was a wine waiter. I worked weekends. I worked weekdays, too; but weekend work was necessary as well.

Weekend work earned more money. The reason was that fewer people wanted to work on their weekend; it was a supply and demand equation. Then the award was enshrined in law; or rather the concept of the weekend was enshrined in law, a bargaining chip the unions would never let go. The weekend was sacrosanct. No-one goes to church any more, but the weekend remains a quasi-religious occasion. So you get paid more to work. A lot more. Sometimes three times as much.

The other truth - there are always several, despite current beliefs - is that small businesses can't afford multiple staff on weekends, especially Sundays, when trade can be sporadic. Weekdays in the cafe business bring regulars who work close by; weekends bring customers who might decide to brunch in Northcote, Moonee Ponds, East Brunswick or Seddon instead. Four staff at $50 or more an hour times five or six or seven hours means no profit, so you don't open. It's a no-brainer. Weekends are sacrosanct for workers, but owners will open on the same day at a loss? Don't be ridiculous.

So the Fair Work Commission reduced penalty rates. I couldn't see them bringing down the same result under a Bill Shorten government, before checking with Bill that he could roll it. No problems checking with Bill, they're all mates. It's a Labor club.

But we don't have a Bill Shorten government. We have a Coalition government. You beauty, said the FWC. Bring it on.

A landmine.

It's blown up in Turnbull's face. What does he do? Nothing, beyond muttering about more jobs being created because lower wages mean more to go round. Cold comfort for the worker.

Are you serious?

This week, we have a disgraced Labor politician who has just (9.30 a.m.) been chucked out of the Labor Party for hiving off a hundred grand of taxpayer funds for beach house money; we have a Liberal minister who forgot she just bought a house. No, not Sussan Ley, that was last month. Michaelia Cash. Wait, isn't Michaelia Cash the minister for employment? Responsible for among other things, part-time work?

This is nuts.

That self-same thieving, amnesiac political class says, "Hospitality staff, in order that we run Australia better, you are required to pool the contents of your pay packet with your fellow staff. Now, where's my limousine, I'm off to the airport/Bruce Springsteen concert/global warming convention."

Those baseball bats they sold out of at Rebel Sport for home invasion and carjacking protection are going to do double time at upcoming elections. Look out politicians.


Monster tomato vine.

The tomatoes are over the fence. Ignore all the mythology about growing tomatoes. You just need four things: sunshine, water, air and nutrients. Air meaning pinch out the lower limbs as the plant grows taller. This season I grew a cherry tomato, Tommy Toe, in the old compost-filled ex-laundry trough on the east side of the garden, so it gets the westering afternoon sun. It is now above the fence line and I have tied its upper canopy to the unroofed pergola. That's eight feet of tomato vine. It has yielded hundreds and more are still coming thanks to a fortnight of unbroken sun.

So, into the salads with fetta and olives; chopped with basil onto olive-oiled crusty bread; and into pasta dishes, such as:

Gnocchi with ricotta and cherry tomatoes.

Boil four medium peeled and chopped potatoes until soft. Mash thoroughly, make a crater in the mound on a floured breadboard and tip in an egg, three-quarters of a cup of flour and some chopped basil. Hand mix and then roll out the dough to make cylinders. Chop into one-inch sections, make fork impressions if you wish, and transfer the sections to a lightly-buttered and floured tray.

Drop gnocchi into boiling water in a large pot and wait until they rise to the surface, then scoop them out using a slotted spoon.

Meanwhile, press a cut garlic clove into serving dishes; add the gnocchi and top with tomatoes, either whole or sliced in two (I like them whole but the unwary diner can squirt juice clear across a table when biting into them), ricotta, a drizzle of olive oil and a scattering of extra chopped basil and parsley. Crack pepper over the lot. Finish off with grated parmesan.


The empty house.

It was a hot summer morning and the gumtrees in the middle distance had that tick-ticking noise. I was sitting on a chair at a table outside the quietest café in inner Melbourne overlooking a golf course that stretched away up an incline bisected by a tramline. I sat and watched golfers in ragged groups making their way up the green and out of sight. Trams rolled by slowly as if reluctant to disturb the golfers. The coffee was OK, but I wouldn't go out of my way for it. The silence was enough.

The café was on the eastern end of a large square aged-care hospital building. After an hour I wandered around the corner and back into the sliding glass doors on the south side. She had just finished her occupational therapy lesson and was waddling down a long corridor towards the light accompanied by a therapist who looked like a sumo wrestler. Over the reception and waiting area hung a television broadcasting the Third Test, with subtitles misspelling Shane Warne's jokes. We walked slowly out into the sunshine and up a pathway, past a 1940s chapel building and out into Park Street. I drove her home.


I was between Parkville and Carlton all summer long. People complain about parking at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, but I know about a bank of free two-hour spots that are always empty within 300 metres of the front door. I used it a lot over summer. (Clue: behind the Old Melbourne Motor Inn or whatever the graffitied run-down mess is called these days.) Waiting at RMH is easy. There's always plenty to do. I had coffee in the canteen (it is still a canteen despite the baristas and wraps), read the paper, checked back to the ward, and then went out and moved the car to a fresh spot. Still no-one there; yet cars were driving around in circles trying to get a spot directly outside the hospital.

She had had three spells over summer; two falls and a fainting episode. She had stayed in for up to two weeks at a time; this time she was a day patient, to be scanned in one of those tank things. She was finished after a couple of hours and had to lie there for another half hour while the nurse gave her sweet tea to revive her. When she was ready, I brought the car back to the five-minute drop-off outside the front door, brought her down and drove her home.


While she was in hospital I kept an eye on the slanting old house I grew up in, and kept the wildly overgrown garden alive. I stood there in silence in the mid-morning sun watering pots; ancient orchids, geraniums, a rose, a cactus; and in one pot, a spiky grass thing that had not been the original inhabitant but had blown in, killed the first occupant and taken over.

Decades flashed backwards in a vortex. The house straightened up; the garden shrank back to a pleasing ordered geometric pattern, a hideous jungle of ivy sunk into the ground uncovering a garage which rebuilt itself; and a mid-blue Holden Belmont rose out of the ground. It was 1967. I was watering potplants. But they were not my mother's; they were potplants in a trellised outbuilding in the house next door. The owner was Mrs Snaith, and she was away on a summer holiday, probably at her daughter-in-law's beach house. She was very old, and she paid me to keep her pots alive and there were hundreds of them. I climbed the fence each day and walked into the kind of quiet I would never forget. Just the drip of the pots on their terraced shelves, and the hiss of the hose.

My own house had seemed a suburb away even though it was just over the fence. I could just hear the muffled throng of summer-holidaying children. I had wondered why I got the job.


Stir-fried chicken and vegetables.

I remember when chicken was a luxury. Nine dollars for breast fillets means it's now one of the few proteins that fits a family budget. Their appetites are growing.

Cut two chicken fillets into slices. (Not too small, they will shrink slightly in the wok as they give off fluid.)

Marinate them in soy, ginger, garlic and a little sesame oil mixed into peanut oil. Overnight is good otherwise a few hours.

Slice red capsicum, spring onions, a white onion, button mushrooms, carrot, broccoli, green beans and cabbage. Blanch green beans and broccoli.

Heat wok. Put in chicken first to sear in a little oil, then add the vegetables. Forget about all that spectacular orchestration of vegetables flying around over three-foot high flames; this is not a cooking show. I have an ordinary stove, so I simply toss the chicken and vegetables around for a couple of minutes to touch the hot wok and then put the lid on and they kind of steam through to finish off. Speed is the key.

When the chicken and vegetables are nearly done, add a mixture of a teaspoon of cornflour mixed through half a cup of water and a dash of soy and stir through to give the whole thing a nice sheen. Or add some oyster sauce. Serve on rice.

Optional: add sliced chilies and sesame seeds.


Whiling away a lazy afternoon.

Let's say, for example, that you were quiet at work - as in nothing to do that particular morning, or afternoon, or even better, both - and that you had a computer in front of you; and thirdly, that you had a passing interest in sport.

Were those metaphorical planets to align - and there have been occasions when they have for me - then this webpage could keep you occupied for, I don't know, hours, morning, an entire day?

Note: the Coburg City Oval scoreboard is no longer. An electronic one was installed at the end of last football season (the main scoreboard was not used for cricket) and so the rolling numbers will never be seen again at Coburg.


Coburg Cricket Club Invitational XI vs Vanuatu XI T20.

You don't have to leave the suburb to see an international sporting event. Coburg plays the self-described 'coolest cricket team on Earth' next Thursday, February 16 at 5.30 p.m. on the equally-cool Coburg City Oval, the ground which most people you ask don't know is there.

The boys will be there after an early under-12s training session. Loyalties could be tested.


Paris: nice at this time of year.

Taxpayers coughed up nearly $200,000 to send 22 bureaucrats from Canberra to Paris for a three-day conference to discuss savings measures.
Time to drain the billabong.


Spaghetti with zucchini and chicken meatballs.

Yes. Zucchini in meatballs! But chicken mince is the main actor here.

Combine 750 grams of chicken mince with half a cup of breadcrumbs, an egg, two tablespoons of grated parmesan cheese, a couple of finely chopped cloves of garlic, half a very finely diced zucchini, half a cup of milk, a handful of chopped parsley, and salt and ground black pepper to taste.

You are aiming for a consistency that sticks together but isn't too dry, with the milk balancing the added dry ingredients. Form the mixture into egg-shaped meatballs.

Have your tomato sauce ready in a large pan - a couple of cans of pureed diced tomatoes or a jar of passata cooked with some onions browned in oil and herbs of your choice: I tore a few sprigs of parsley, a leaf or two of mint and some chives out of the garden and chopped them finely and threw them in.

Drop your meatballs into the pan and simmer low until meatballs are cooked. Twenty minutes will do it; probably less. Add torn strips of basil if you have them.

Cook spaghetti, pour meatballs ands sauce over and add parmesan.