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

31.7.06

Mr Thesaurus Remains Firmly Rooted in the Past.

It is one of the most widely used words in the entire world, both as a verb and a noun, but Mr R. Thesaurus remains blissfully unaware.

I love his question.

29.7.06

It was the 1960s. And there was pineapple. And sitar music. And flowers. And a girl called Daisy.

I was delving through some ephemera cookbooks of the 1960s - magazine lift-outs, that kind of thing. The recipes were wild. The pictures were all yellow and brown and the food styling was kind of hazy and way-out and then the room started moving and glazed hams passed overhead and there was muffled sitar music and ... and then I actually read the recipes and they were the weirdest thing of all.

Schnitzel Royle. (Sic - minor celebrities contributed their favourite recipes to this particular booklet: this recipe was from ABC-TV compere John Royle.)

Take a thin slice of veal for each person, season with salt and pepper and cook gently for ten minutes in a covered saucepan. Arrange slices on an oven-proof platter with a piece of ham on each slice of veal.

Kind of OK so far, but here's where the recipe takes a sudden and very expected turn off the straight and narrow and into somewhere wild and new and ... disgusting.

Surround with bananas, small mushrooms and rosettes of cauliflower. Cover with bechamel and sprinkle with grated cheese and small pieces of butter. Bake.

Whew. I suppose he could have been kidding. Let's look at another recipe. Remember how everything had pineapple in it in the 'sixties? Of course you don't, you weren't there. But yes, pineapple was in everything. It went especially well (or badly) with duck:

Duckling Ninon.

Salt and pepper duck pieces and roast them with a cup of water until water has evaporated. Remove duck. Toss a chopped onion into roasting dish and fry slightly, then add a tablespoon of plain flour and brown. Now add half a cup of port and a cup of water. Boil until smooth. Add juice of half a lemon and half an orange and more salt and pepper. Strain this sauce over the duck pieces.

You just know the pineapple is not far away now:

Garnish with pineapple and almond pieces which have been lightly fried in butter. Serve with potato croquettes and orange salad.

Orange salad! Exactly what was it about oranges in the 'sixties?

Beef and orange casserole.

Saute in maize oil one and a half pounds of cubed stewing steak, floured and seasoned, with two chopped onions and a clove of garlic. Place in casserole along with two carrots chopped into fingers. Cut into thin strips the peel of two oranges then blanch and add half of this to the casserole. Add the juice of the oranges to half a cup of cider, add two beef stock cubes and enough boiling water to make up one and a half pints, pour over casserole. Cook ninety minutes in moderate oven. Serve garnished with slices of capsicum and remaining orange peel. Ring serving dish with scalloped mashed potato and around that, more orange slices.

What did you do with the orange slices? Mop up the gravy?

On another page there was a thing called Lazy Daisy Bacon Cake, involving brown sugar, margarine, glace cherries, bacon and - yes - pineapple. I wondered what made Daisy lazy in the 1960s. Could have been any one of a number of things, I suppose.

I closed the book and the muffled sitar music stopped. Weird.

Does anyone else remember 'sixties food? Or heard about it from their parents?

27.7.06

Name the author.

… George said that, as we had plenty of time, it would be a splendid opportunity to try a good, slap-up supper. He said he would show us what could be done up the river in the way of cooking, and suggested that, with the vegetables and the remains of the cold beef and general odds and ends, we should make an Irish stew.

It seemed a fascinating idea. George gathered wood and made a fire, and Harris and I started to peel the potatoes.

… George said it was absurd to have only four potatoes in an Irish stew, so we washed half-a-dozen or so more, and put them in without peeling. We also put in a cabbage and about half a peck of peas. George stirred it all up, and then he said that there seemed to be a lot of room to spare, so we overhauled both the hampers, and picked out all the odds and ends and the remnants, and added them to the stew. There were half a pork pie and a bit of cold boiled bacon left, and we put them in. Then George found half a tin of potted salmon, and he emptied that into the pot.

He said that was the advantage of Irish stew: you got rid of such a lot of things. I fished out a couple of eggs that had got cracked, and put those in. George said they would thicken the gravy.

I forget the other ingredients, but I know nothing was wasted; and I remember that, towards the end, Montmorency, who had evinced great interest in the proceedings throughout, strolled away with an earnest and thoughtful air, reappearing, a few minutes afterwards, with a dead water-rat in his mouth, which he evidently wished to present as his contribution to the dinner; whether in a sarcastic spirit, or with a genuine desire to assist, I cannot say.

We had a discussion as to whether the rat should go in or not. Harris said that he thought it would be all right, mixed up with the other things, and that every little helped; but George stood up for precedent. He said he had never heard of water-rats in Irish stew, and he would rather be on the safe side, and not try experiments.

Harris said: "If you never try a new thing, how can you tell what it's like? It's men such as you that hamper the world's progress. Think of the man who first tried German sausage!"

It was a great success, that Irish stew. I don't think I ever enjoyed a meal more. There was something so fresh and piquant about it. One's palate gets so tired of the old hackneyed things: here was a dish with a new flavour, with a taste like nothing else on earth.


UPDATE

Well picked, Selwyn - Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, one of my favourites. (It's a great book to read aloud to a willing audience.) BTW, the extract is from Project Gutenberg which is a godsend when you have some down time at work and a computer in front of you. I once read Jerome's entire Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow in one sitting. That was probably BB (Before Blogs).

25.7.06

"You know what REALLY annoys me?"

Gordon Ramsay is such an angry chef, he is often referred to as Gordon F***ing Ramsay. Not that he minds, because his TV show is called The F Word.

Food writer Elizabeth Meryment reports in The Australian (no direct link available) that The F Word commissioned a survey to find diners’ top ten gripes about eating out. These were: waiters adding their own tips to the bill; badly placed tables; mobile phones; tables too close to toilets; public displays of affection; breastfeeding; children; overpowering perfume; bad background music and having to pay for bottled still water.

The poll was British. Apparently waiters there like to extort their own tip; although in Scotland, that is probably a good idea. (Pace, Scottish readers, it’s nothing personal.)

Ms Meryment lists her own top ten gripes: being seated at bad tables while good ones are empty; not being able to get a booking in Sydney for 8pm on a Friday or Saturday night; teenagers; waiters with attitude; being made to wait too long in the bar for a booked table; shaky tables; paying for bread; restaurants calling more than once to confirm; over-sized pepper grinders and bad coffee.

(That list is so manically Sydney, it’s not funny - Sydney, where everyone is important but no-one can get a table at their favourite restaurant; and when you do score a table the restaurant keeps ringing you to make sure you're coming but when you get there your table's never ready.)

But notice anything? Out of the twenty complaints above, NOT ONE relates to the food. Why? Because dining out is a fantasy. Restaurants are theatre. And fantasies are easily spoiled. It is easier to eat an 85% good meal in a place with perfect service, nice surroundings and no interruptions than a 100% perfect meal where the waiters are rude, the table is in a draught or children are having ADHD attacks at the next table. You cannot enjoy perfect food when ten business executives are power-laughing themselves hoarse behind your left ear.

Here’s my list of eating-out gripes, right off the cuff:

Waiters that don’t know. Me: “What’s the fish of the day, waiter?” Dopey, slow waiter: “I don’t know, I’ll have to check with the chef.” Me (with sarcasm):“I’m sorry to inconvenience you, would you like me to do it while you take some other orders? Slowly?”

Uncomfortable chairs. Hard chairs hurt.

Waiters that hover like hyenas especially when you are getting close to finishing your meal, as if you are taking too long. I feel like scraping my food onto the tablecloth and handing the plate to them with a theatrical flourish, saying, “Here you are waiter, sorry to hold you up.”

Minimalist décor. Because timber and metal are noisy and I can’t hear what anyone is saying. And just because.

Badly behaved diners. This includes phone use; getting drunk; boorish behaviour; “asking” ill-behaved children to be quiet “or we won’t take you out again”; and fellow diners in larger parties failing to cover the cost of their meal or reckoning their share down to the last cent. Parsimony belongs in the supermarket, not at a shared dining table.

Oversize plates with minimalist architectural food. Get over it, chefs.

Sugar in paper tubes. Mankind’s second-worst invention after the leaf blower. Sugar goes in bowls.

Loud music. Waiter: “Can I help you, sir?” Me: “Yes, waiter, can you turn off that dreadful music?” Don’t be afraid to complain. Restaurants are like any business. They need to know what their customers like.

Placards on the table advertising Aurora gelati or brands of wine. It’s a dining table, not a direct marketing channel.

Unfriendly waiters. Because a nice smile, a willing helpfulness and a sense of wanting to make your dining experience pleasant puts all the other complaints into perspective, while having a nasty waiter only amplifies them.

So. What REALLY annoys you?

23.7.06

How to get through a cold night.

Soup is the answer.

Minestrone is all very well but WHERE'S THE BEEF?

The following recipe is, on the other hand, based around lean meat, barley and root vegetables. This soup fills the house with its deliciously strong aroma - it reminds me of coming home after school - I could smell it cooking about a block away. It is the perfect meal on a cold, wet Melbourne night of which we are currently experiencing PLENTY. Right now I am staring out the window at a massive cloud as black as night stealing into view from the south west, and it's only three in the afternoon.

This recipe uses lean beef; some variations use a lamb shank.

Scotch Broth.

1. In a litre of water, simmer 750g of lean beef cut into pieces for two hours. Skim if necessary.

2. Now add half a cup of barley, a chopped onion, a diced turnip and a chopped leek and cook another half an hour; then add a diced carrot and a few stalks of celery, finely chopped.

3. When carrot is just tender, remove meat, shred and return to pot.

4. Serve broth in large bowls sprinkled with parsley with hot thick buttered toast on the side.

Follow that with some old-fashioned chocolate sauce pudding with cream; and on a bitterly cold night with the wind blowing like a demon you'll sleep as snug as a bug in a rug, as Dad used to say. Speaking of Scotch, a single malt might help as well.

21.7.06

'The toasted baked bean and duck sandwich, thanks, waiter!'

How could I resist? Only a great chef or a fool would have the confidence to pull that off.

We sat up at the bar, awkwardly, because the cutting edge café designer hadn't designed an actual space for legs under the bar. You either ride side-saddle on your stool – try eating in that position – or you splay your legs to each side which, if you’re 6’2”, is awkward, and more so for the people either side of you.

Other customers were sitting on those little box things that are increasingly popular in cafes – you prop yourself on a box and either balance your meal on your lap or on the bench that runs around the perimeter. Some of the customers Totally Didn’t Understand The Design and sat on the bench and put their meals on the little box things instead. The designer would DIE if he knew what these people were doing. In short, cutting edge café design stinks. Enough said. Now we can talk about the food.

The guy behind the bar came over and we ordered. I chose the duck confit and baked bean jaffle and my friend chose the babaganouge. The latter was accompanied by toast soldiers. I haven’t had toast soldiers since I was a kid. These were toast soldiers for grown-ups, kind of French-toasty with a cheesy, crunchy texture and flavour. The babaganouge was intensely smoky and delicious. My friend finished her toast soldiers before her babaganouge, leaving her with the dilemma of how to salvage out every last scrape of the eggplant-based yumminess without resorting to licking the bowl; but the guy behind the bar came to the rescue, bringing soldier reinforcements at no charge (pardon the pun, if it is one, which I doubt). The jaffle tasted exactly like what you would come up with if you combined the taste of preserved duck with smoky baked beans and condensed it and placed it in a sandwich and toasted it - delicious.

For dessert, my friend had a lamington and I had a game pie, which is not dessert but I was still in a savoury mood after the jaffle.

Lamingtons are a staple of traditional Australian picnic fare and my friend’s version came with its own little plastic test tube of syrup that you squirt into the lamington just before you eat it, so the cake part doesn’t go soggy. Instead, it is like biting into a chocolate with syrup inside. You get a sharp burst of sweet syrup followed by the blander taste and texture of the cake and finally an intense chocolate coating finish. Or vice versa - I’m not sure which - but you get the genaral idea.

The game pie – hare - was a small masterpiece, like a Faberge egg (in that it was a masterpiece and small, not that it was an egg). In between the size of a ‘party’ pie and a regular one, the pie also came with its own tube of hot fluid – a fragrant gravy which you insert, just like the lamington syrup test tube, into the pie. The effect is that the pie is bubblingly moist and delicious, but the pastry never gets overly wet. The only drawback about mine was the tiny, rounded bone the size of an olive pit on which I bit – probably a small foot joint from the hare, opined the waiter mildly, as if it were an everyday occurence. At least it demonstrated the genuineness of the cooking, although if I’d broken a tooth I might not be so kind.

*

And that was lunch at the Vue de Monde Café: Shannon Bennett’s new venture, next door to his restaurant, Vue de Monde, in which he pays homage to the great French chefs. According to his website, Reviews and word of mouth have resulted in notoriety achieved largely through Shannon's obsession for classical cuisine which has seen him reinterpret the cuisine of creators such as Carême, Dugléré and Escoffier into Modern French. Notoriety? I think he means fame, although perhaps his culinary experiments have had consequences I don’t know about. Whatever - it's brilliant, completely self-assured cooking which reinvents traditions instead of slavishly following trends.

So if you can’t afford to eat at the restaurant, you can sample Bennett's ideas and inspirations via these cute little tastes and treats in the café. Prices are all under $10, except for the ‘lunchbox’ at $15, which is a selection of different items, like a bento box. The pie was a mere $4. You could almost regard this as paying a nominal table rental and getting the food for free.

At Vue de Monde Café you can dine like a king at the table of one of the country’s very best chefs, enjoying food that is highly inventive while being strongly influenced by centuries of cooking. (Except a king would demand a comfortable chair and shout ‘Off with his head’ at the designer. They could use a piece of his cutting edge furniture as the guillotine.)

Vue de Monde Café.
430 Little Collins Street, Melbourne.

20.7.06

Bunch of Fives.

Neil (formerly Tanked Up Taco) at Food For Thought tagged me for this quite some time ago, before we went on holidays.

Why five? I don't know, but it reminds me of a restaurant I visited once. It was called Fives and it was at No. 555 in Nicholson Street and its telephone number ended in 5555. Anyone remember it? I think it became Ajay's and then Flor.)

Five items in the freezer.
1. Bottles of frozen water. I use them to keep food cold in the Esky when travelling.
2. Two packs of frozen peas. One pack to eat and the other to treat knee and back injuries, as an ice pack. Don't mix them up - the ice pack peas have been defrosted about a thousand times.
3. Stock. What kind? Who knows. I never label anything. I defrosted some fish stock once and it was leek soup.
4. Ants.
5. Empty plastic ice block makers. I keep forgetting to refill them. Most annoying when you want a cold gin and tonic. T. goes right off at me.

Five items in my closet.
(I suppose this means wardrobe, unless it means the broom closet, in which there are only brooms and candles. Why do people always store candles in the broom closet? It's one of life's mysteries.)
1. A Ride T-shirt from 1994. I never wear it but I'll never throw it out.
2. A T-shirt with a New Yorker cartoon on it - the David Sipress one illustrating a smoking dog and its owner standing outside a restaurant with No Dogs and No Smoking notices in the window. Owner says to the dog: I don't think this place is going to work for you, Theodore.
3. My 'slippers' - a fifteen year old pair of ASICS Gel-121 running shoes. The laces are gone and the tongue hangs out forward like Turkish shoes. Ugly. But comfortable.
4. A pair of Loake brogues. The best-built shoes in the world, made in Britain by craftsmen.
5. A shoe horn to get the Loakes on.

Five items in my car.
1. A picnic blanket, tartan, rubber-backed. Probably the most important item in the car, apart from the actual engine.
2. Coins. In the ashtray. Yes, my car has an ashtray. Cars without ashtrays are a danger to the environment. People throw their butts out the window and cause bushfires. ASHTRAYS FOR CARS! NOW!
3. Old BASF 60 minute cassettes on which I recorded the Sunday night John O'Donnell album show on 3XY in the early seventies. I found them in a box on top of a wardrobe a few years ago. Argent, anyone? Then there's Yessongs, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs Live at Sunbury '72, Chain, Madder Lake and pre-disco BeeGees. I get a real blast driving through the country listening to these, complete with crackle, hiss and bits of the announcer's voice.
4. Dust from outback New South Wales.
5. Petrol! I must be rich.

Five items in my wallet.
1. A Blairgowrie Cafe coffee card. I've never used it. I don't like freebies. They're undignified.
2. A small card my daughter made me when she was nine, seventeen years ago. It reads, with every word written in a different colour, using felt pens: Dad, this card entitles you to spend a whole day with me, going wherever or doing whatever you want. You may choose the date and the place. Below that is her nine-year-old signature. Of course, I've spent countless days with her in the intervening years but I keep the card because it is possibly the most loving thing I've ever read. Sometimes I just take it out and look at it.
3. A picture of T.
4. A picture of my two older children, taken at a wedding outside St Therese's Church in 1985, when they were seven and five.
5. A picture of William.

Anyone else for Fives?

18.7.06

Sociology lecturers, spatlese lexia and the Patricia Sandwich.

At university parties in the late seventies, there was always Brown Brothers wine - usually White Hermitage and Cabernet Shiraz and usually out of the ten-litre box. I remember the lecturers celebrating the last sociology lecture of 1979 by laying on cubed tasty cheese, sliced salami, olives and Brown Brothers wine. This was at ten in the morning, you understand. Then we had lunch at the Clare Castle in Rathdowne Street. I don’t remember much of the afternoon, but then I don’t remember much sociology either.

All this came back to me as we drove through the King Valley and past the Brown Brothers winery at Milawa, on a cold winter morning under a heavy black sky. Although they are based here, the Browns now grow fruit in about seven different regions. It’s a label that is slightly out of favour so I suppose they must export. Why out of favour? I don’t know. Maybe it was the tankloads of spatlese lexia they sold in the eighties. Or maybe it’s the name. Today’s edgy wine labels bear names like The Broken Down Tractor, Sixteen Emus and a Wallaby or Kelly’s Last Revenge.

It grew darker. The clouds hung as low as they could without actually sitting on the ground. Rain was coming down in sheets and we had the headlights on. Can it rain from inside a cloud or only from the bottom? The things I think about when I’m driving. It rained so hard I had to call upon the wipers to perform in ‘extra fast’ mode (the only other speeds being ‘intermittent’ and ‘normal’ in a 1986 Volvo wiper set-up). I stopped for petrol in Benalla, positioning the car so that it would be subject to as little horizontal rain as possible. Not that rain bothers me, but moisture in the fuel tank is never a good idea.

Then we pressed on towards lunchtime which, when we’re travelling, can be anything after 10am, but it was about eleven when we stopped at Euroa. Euroa is now bypassed by the Hume Highway but is worth a detour to visit Euroa Fine Books (mission statement: Descriptions of condition mirror those of the older generation, when 'a good copy' meant a better copy than usual; and not, as now, a dog of a copy).

Across the road, we found the equally refreshing Euroa Café, a large place with a central kitchen, some really switched-on waiters and an eccentric menu in which all the items seem to be named after customers or friends. As in: Patricia Sandwich. Filled with all the things that Patricia loves best. We ate a simple lunch of toasted sandwiches and the coffee was good so I had two. The cakes in the display case were stupendous. We shared a piece of sponge cake about a foot high. Sunday drive idea: lunch at the Euroa Cafe and a few hours browsing Euroa Fine Books. Sure beats shopping at Chadstone or, worse, DFO at Essendon Airport.

We finished lunch, got back in the car and drove the last hundred or so kilometres back into Melbourne, arriving home at half past three. Just in time for afternoon tea. Put the kettle on!

15.7.06

Cold night in Bright.

The outside temperature was down to about two degrees by seven o'clock. We left our apartment, coated and hatted and scarved, to walk a hundred metres under a black moonless sky to Sasha’s Restaurant and Bar, which took all of a minute. Once inside, we removed our coats and hats and scarves and hung them on the rack, which probably took two minutes. Then we sat down and read the menu.

Sasha is Czech and specialises in his homeland's cuisine. I chose the roasted pork knuckle 'Prague-style' with potato pikelets, red cabbage and horseradish. The 'knuckle' was about the size of a lamb shank and the meat had been roasted so long it almost melted on the fork. The potato pikelets were lightly fried and infused with spices and flecked with bacon. The whole thing was on a bed of glorious mash over which flowed, like the river Vltava, delicious smoky-roasty juices. I just about stood and applauded when the waiter came to take the plate away but I was able to restrain myself.

T. chose the goulash which was rich and pepper-sweet and was served with deliciously light dumplings which were dotted with shreds of speck. Another round of applause. Someone at an adjacent table had kassler which was fanned out on the plate and surrounded by potatoes and topped with a delicious-looking gravy. Sometimes you find a place where you'd like to eat your way through the menu every night for however long it would take. This was one.

Dessert was apple strudel, which is often a cliche, like when it is served at fake German-themed restaurants in the Dandenongs; but is a genuine delight when made properly. As it was - dense with apple and nuts and dried fruit and proper pastry and real cream. After that, a nice short, sharp, sweet coffee and the last drops of the nectar that came from a bottle of Ingoldby cabernet.

We put our coats and hats and scarves back on and walked back to our apartment under a black sky dotted with hard white cold radiant stars. We slept well. I dreamt of Prague. I don't know why. I've never been there.

14.7.06

Afternoon tea in Bright.

We wound our way back down the State of New South Wales through pretty towns like Cootamundra and Young (cherry capital of Australia) and ugly ones like Albury-Wodonga and then we were back in Victoria and we turned towards the high country and stopped in Bright and stayed there for three days.

Bright is a ideal name for a place to stay in the middle of the coldest winter for forty years. Nestled among forest deep in the foothills of the Australian Alps, it is the prettiest town in Australia, maybe the world. Summer’s green turns to stunning reds, yellows and oranges during autumn and this is when most people visit, but it is starkly beautiful in winter as well with pale sunlight filtering through the tracery of bare trees.

In the early afternoon, I went for a long walk with William in his stroller (the three-wheeled jogging type, easy to negotiate), while T. rested; and we went up the steep hills at the back of the town where the streets switch back and forth and found ourselves almost at the top and turned around and the town looked something like this. Sometimes when you gaze at a view, everything goes silent and time seems to stand still. It was like that.

Then we went down the hill and back to our little apartment. T. had woken and made afternoon tea. We had scones with jam and cream. William got the jam and cream all over his face. He's a robust eater. Loves his food.

12.7.06

Signs, bushrangers, authors and coffee.

There is a Colonial Motor Inn in every town in Australia. There must be a law about it.

*

Pack lunch before travelling and you'll find heaps of places you would like to have eaten at. On the other hand, take no food and you'll find nothing worth eating along the way. That happened several times. In Grenfell, southern New South Wales, we ate a huge picnic lunch in the sunshine and then walked down the main street only to find a cafe with the most amazing array of food. Special of the day was mulligatawny soup with spicy bread and the cake display was awesome. We could only manage coffee. Next time we'll stop for lunch.

*

More than several towns claim that Ned Kelly, Ben Hall, Dan Morgan and other notorious bushrangers slept there. How would they know? Wouldn't bushrangers with a price on their head choose to hide out in the bush somewhere overnight for fear of capture? Obviously not, they clearly rode their horses up to the local Flag Inn and booked in.

*

Likewise, according to signage, Henry Lawson was born in about eight different towns, which is pretty good for a writer. That's eight first chapters of your autobiography straight away. I can't remember a Henry Lawson autobiography, I can only remember The Loaded Dog, a great story.

*

The farther you travel from the larger cities, the more interesting the road signs: Do Not Enter Bridge When Horses are Crossing. Stock on Road. And the most intriguing: Rock Falls Here. One rock falls? Who puts it back?

*

What is it with historic towns? They seem to specialise in shops selling kitsch - teddy bears of all descriptions; lace items that no-one uses any more such as doilies, tablecloths and those things that your grandmother used to put on the top of the milk bottle to keep the flies off; white-painted wire decorative things that look like recycled aviaries. People travel hours to browse this kind of stuff. Why? Moonee Ponds has entire streets of it.

*

More funny place names: Trundle, Thuddungra, Bogan Gate (which is one wheat silo and a rail siding), Harden, Cookardinia, The Rock, Tootol, Porepunkah. Not to forget Wagga Wagga, which is known as Wagga. Just so you know.

7.7.06

The farm.

Now we're a couple of hours north of where we were before and the towns are smaller and the roads are narrower and at last there's a turn-off and we're on an unsealed road, just dust and gravel, and that means we're nearly there.

Exactly 17.5 kilometres from the turnoff (as per the very precise instructions), we turn in at a gate on the right and the car trundles over a cattle grid and crunches up a long winding gravel drive, past fenced-off paddocks and outbuildings and a machinery shed and some old stables. Then, through a blur of winter-bare, gnarled fruit trees we see the house and the car sweeps around a last bend and pulls to a stop outside a small gate which leads to an inner cottage garden beyond which is the farmhouse, a low, white affair with shady verandahs all around. The cottage garden is wild and rambling and a pathway through it leads to the front door. It's a sweet little place and it's just half an hour to the nearest very small town and if you want coffee in an actual cafe or to shop in a supermarket it's a further hour.

*

The front door bursts open and Mary and the children run down the pathway to greet us. There's a flurry of kisses and hugs and ‘My, how you’ve grown!'s and then we troop inside. Mary is T.’s best friend and they talk on the phone all the time but actual visits are few and far between.

Mary’s husband, David, makes us perfect nutty orange-brown caffe lattes and we sit at the table looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the farm stretching away into the distance. The farm runs sheep and rotates grain crops and is way beyond the irrigation areas and depends on rainfall which sometimes happens and sometimes doesn’t.

*

Later, we went out and played with the toys. David’s current machinery includes GPS-equipped tractors. These amazing monsters don’t even need to be steered. You simply map your farm topography and seeding or harvesting information on your laptop, feed the information into the tractor’s computer and global positioning satellite does the rest, piloting the tractor according to the instructions; while the software ensures correct delivery of the right proportions of grain, starter fertiliser and water to the right terrain. Amazing. No wonder David knows how to make coffee. Or has time to. It seems GPS sometimes goes off the air and farmers all over the country are stranded in their fields with nothing to do for an hour or so but listen to their iPods. Or go back to the farmhouse for a latte or two. If they’re within walking distance. Heh. And advertising agencies still portray farmers wearing check shirts and chewing straw. Stupid advertising agencies.

*

David is the chef of the family and conjures up roast lamb with rosemary and studded with garlic for dinner. There's roasted potatoes and pumpkin, green beans and zucchini, rich gravy and mashed potatoes as well. Afterwards there's a chocolate fudge cake that Mary has made, served with thick cream and coffee and then we start on bottle of red number three, or is it four? It’s OK, no-one’s driving anywhere tonight although I wouldn’t mind a spin on the GPS tractor in the moonlight. You don't have to steer it.

4.7.06

Afternoon walk.

Lake Cargelligo is a natural overflow basin for the Lachlan River. For thousands of years, it was a ceremonial, and practical, meeting place. The locals used to source red and yellow ochres for body paint from pits near the lake's edge. The remains of these pits can still be seen. I learned all this as I walked around part of the perimeter of the lake, pushing William in his stroller, reading the signs that have been erected explaining the history of the lake.

It was one of those quiet, still afternoons that seem to go on forever. There was faint sunshine and the birds were milling about the lake doing what they were doing yesterday and I could hear a tractor or some piece of farm machinery buzzing in the far distance.

I walked on.

Australia has been inhabited by Europeans for 218 years last January, I thought. Most of the country, including here, much later. That's the blink of an eye.

The stroller crunched in the gravel and we rounded a tiny inlet in the lake.

My grandfather died at 98 years two years ago. One and a half lifetimes more of that length would have exceeded the entire history of European settlement, I thought.

We enjoy our traditions, celebrate our backgrounds, hold on to our Irishness or Italianness or Indianness or wherever we came from that blink of an eye ago ... , I thought, walking on and reading another sign about the birds that congregate on an island in the middle of the lake in winter, having flown from China or Japan or somewhere. ... But what happens to thousands of years of Aboriginal tradition? Who celebrates it? Does it evaporate? Does it sink into the soil? Do a bunch of broken, alcoholic aborigines on a mission somewhere dream about it at night? Does someone write it down?

I walked on and the pelicans sat on the lake and pointed their beaks at nothing. They might know. I don't.

3.7.06

Sunrise at Lake Cargelligo.

We were greeted by pelicans. Some were just overhead, heavily banking and wheeling like airplanes being flown by trainee pilots. Some were higher up, flying in formation. Some were just sitting on the lake with their big beaks stuck out in front like signposts to nowhere.

Lake Cargelligo isn't really on the way to anywhere in particular and isn't big enough to be a destination in its own right. Which means it's the perfect place to visit. The lake is sanctuary for the aformentioned pelicans, black swans and great crested grebes (not that I'd know; I read that in the motel's Guide to Lake Cargelligo. Well, I know pelicans and swans but I wouldn't know a grebe from a budgerigar).

The motel was fewer than a hundred metres from the edge of the lake and the entire east wall of our room was glass, a window onto the water.

The show started at 6am.

There was absolutely no noise. It was so quiet you could hear yourself breathe. At first, there a slight tinge in the sky, low down. Or was there? It was indistinct and was of no discernible colour. After a while there was a colour, which might have been faint lilac and might have been something else. The colour grew and changed to purple and then parts of that turned deep red, like a scar across the bottom of the eastern sky. The light was just enough to dimly reveal the lake which was as flat and still as an abandoned mirror. After a while, maybe ten minutes, maybe twenty, the scar grew some more and the red turned orange. It stayed that way for a while and then, all of a sudden, fiery liquid gold seemed to ooze out of the horizon and it spread like molten lava across the lake.

Then the birds all woke up at once and the racket was deafening.

I forget what happened for the rest of the day.

2.7.06

Art deco towns and back roads.

Of the two roads north(ish) out of Narrandera, one goes via the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area - the fruitbowl of Australia; while the other grinds up through the major town of West Wyalong, which is west of a smaller town called Wyalong, which means the latter should really be called East Wyalong and the former Wyalong. Oh, forget it.

Anyway, we took the first route. Both will get us to where we want to go but the MIA sounds more attractive. We stopped for morning tea at Leeton, a cannery and rice processing city designed by Walter Burley Griffin. It's all art deco shopfronts and theatres and guesthouses. (Griffin also designed Canberra and the Essendon Incinerator. Shame about Canberra.)

We stopped for a picnic lunch at another town, taking a stroll down the main street looking for a takeaway coffee. We found one. And a vanilla slice with passionfruit icing.

The car purred on into the afternoon and we turned north towards Rankin's Springs. We were well away from the main highways now, on a quiet back road with very little traffic, just us and the flat plains. William dozed in his baby seat and the soft sun made gold out of his closed eyelashes.

Then occasional jagged hills appeared on the horizon, floated towards us and receded to the rear, like islands.