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

28.11.07

Moved by cheese.

Thanks to Will Studd, I can eat a rare steak topped with a slice of roquefort. He was the man forced to bury 80 kilograms of the stuff, an event leading to the reversal of the roquefort importation ban.

Mr Studd's new book is entitled Cheese Slices. Review here, courtesy The Age. This would be a perfect Christmas gift. You could read it after Christmas dinner, with the cheese platter and another drink at hand, when everyone else has fallen asleep or gone home.

But you would have to like cheese, of course. Mr Studd does. You can tell by the way he talks:

" ... I learned that Spanish Valdeon blue, which I always thought was matured in caves and wrapped in sycamore leaves, was actually wrapped in plane tree leaves and matured in fridges."

We all have those apocalyptic moments.

26.11.07

Left, right.

There he was, on the front page, photographed coming out of church with his wife on Sunday morning, trying to look humble and not quite succeeding. The man who declared he was an economic conservative at his campaign launch. The man who slammed the Coalition's profligate spending promises.

Who was Right and who Left? Before the election, the papers were similarly all over the place. The editorially Right-tending Weekend Australian endorsed and recommended a Labor vote; Left-leaning Fairfax's flagship and only national newspaper, the Australian Financial Review, wanted to stay with the Coalition.

The voters bought. Left went Right, and Left won. You could be forgiven for thinking that Right is now to the Left of Left. It isn't of course, but based on the campaign, that's how it looked on major policy fronts. And now Australia has a conservative Christian Prime Minister - a Queenslander - who has promised to cut spending and slash bureaucracy. These attributes and a party nominally of the Left are not, of course, mutually exclusive; but in modern Australia they are collectively unlikely, particularly in the inner urban Labor strongholds which largely cleave to government largesse and generally instinctively reject religiosity of the church-attending kind.

From the other side of politics, congratulations to Mr Rudd on a convincing victory.

Awards night, part three.

A mechanical curtain about the size of a hangar door opened slowly, groaning. On the other side of the curtain, a vast room contained a sea of round tables. There must have been a hundred. On every table sat a burning candle inside a tall white cylinder embossed with a design of black tracery resembling curled wrought iron. The glow of the candle reproduced the tracery, in shadow, across the white linen on each table. It was perfect.

Then seven hundred people galloped in and sat down.

Wine waiters circled tables backwards with one arm behind their backs and the other pouring from linen-shouldered wine bottles into impossibly large glasses. Try it sometime. It's not easy, especially when people put things on the ground behind their chairs; I don't know, bags, coats, award trophies, walking sticks. Then the food arrived. Battalions of waiters came out from somewhere far away, beyond the black curtain, plates up their arms like shields. They dealt them around the tables without spilling a morsel. Or not that I could see. To my right, Sandra's 'potato and cheese gnocchi with tomato ragout and shaved grana' was gnocchi in napoli sauce with a few extra words. I was dealt the 'chicken, cherry tomato and fetta risotto with salsa verde drizzle'. Sandra's gnocchi was OK, she said, but it was the bought-in style of gnocchi, not home-made. Then again, when you're serving 1000 people, you don't have the luxury of nonna rolling out potato dough in the kitchen. The overcooked chicken pieces in my risotto would have been better omitted. The salsa verde was pesto and too heavy for an entree, which becomes apparent if you can still taste the pesto when you're eating the next course. Apart from that it was just fine.

Some musicians carrying instruments were filtering through the crowd, high-fiving people. I thought dinner-dance bands were supposed to just materialise, like sunset. These guys were collecting accolades before the show. The wine waiter did another lap, forwards this time, and tripped over someone's award, a brass bird of some kind in flight stuck into a timber base. He limped away. He might have broken a toe.

By now the decor was slowly disintegrating into the usual function mess of confused crockery and cutlery, accidentally extinguished candles, leftover bread rolls and half-empty lipsticked glasses. A few years ago there would have been cigarette ends butted into every second plate. Tonight, half the crowd was outside, probably butting their cigarette ends into the over-sized pot plants or cracks in the wharf. Meanwhile, the waiters were dealing again and the head waiter, with one of those microphone things in his ear connected to kitchen central, was darting about, barking 'vegetarian option here, here, here and here' to the waiters. I wonder how he knew. Everyone had moved around.

The band, sectioned off at one end of the room behind a filmy sheer curtain, couldn't wait any longer and started belting out too much bass, rendering normal conversation impossible as we ate. At least, I tried to eat, but my 'rack of lamb with summer bean cassoulet and fondant potato' came in one of those bowls in which the bowl section is an inverted hub cap in a plate the size of a cartwheel. How can you dissect a rack of lamb in that? You need a lateral sawing action with rack of lamb and you can't achieve that in a bowl, no matter how large the rim. But it was pink and tender and the dew-drops of jus were cute. Sandra's 'salmon fillet with rosti potato and hollandaise' was also in a hubcap but it was a lot easier to eat, she informed me.

The band got louder. I don't know how. The music was described on the menu as a kind of acid-house Caribbean funk. That could be anything, but in this case it meant a wailing keyboard, a guy with no shirt on hitting five drums with his hands, several trumpets and a blatting saxophone fighting each other and someone singing a completely different song.

23.11.07

Awards night, part two.

After a while my eyes adjusted to the darkness. It takes time after standing in blazing sunshine for half an hour.

The auditorium was enormous and the interior designers had thrown a lot of black paint around. Everything was black. Black walls, black stage, black seating, black floor. The ceiling was at a vast height and if you craned your neck you could make out the usual affair of blacked-out air conditioning piping and lighting and sound wiring and spotlights. That's a lot of black paint. $12 million dollars worth.

The PR writers gush:

'With no expense spared on the $12 million fit out, Peninsula is best described as a sublime warehouse conversion that fuses Shed 14’s rich-heritage (sic) with today’s most contemporary and glamorous design, created by leading interior design firm blackmilk.'

That explains the black. The place is described as have been 'inspired by London's iconic Tate Museum', which seems a stretch, unless you reverse the comparison and think of the Tate as being like an old wharf building painted black inside. But with all that darkness, you need light:

'The pi├ęce de r├Ęsistance is a 66-metre crystal chandelier designed by Melbourne lighting designer Dean Phillips that spans the length of the room and comprises 1,200 cut crystal pendants.'

Sounds like the place for your next global warming conference. Flick the switch and half the power supply coming into Melbourne from the La Trobe Valley gets diverted to Docklands.

Finally everyone sat down on the black seating and the place went dark and then a spotlight hit the stage and the awards began. Denise Scott, one of the country's funniest comedians, presented the awards and insulted everyone as they came to the stage; and then, just before the night's major awards were about to be presented, the roll of drums on the PA cut out and the next thing we heard was a kind of phut! - very loud - and everything went totally black.

Then some sound guys ran out from behind the stage and another guy came to the stage and announced that there had been a major glitch and would we please be patient. He sounded nervous, as you would be if you'd just opened a new $12 million high-end function centre and the place goes down just as the awards are being presented to a bunch of C-listers who think they are A-listers. They're always the hardest to please.

Denise Scott saved the night and went right on cracking gags despite the lack of a microphone, ad-libbing the electrical failure into her act. She brought the house down. She started raving about a fringe-theatre one-act show she once went to see, featuring a woman by the name of Annie Sprinkle, and threatening to replicate the act if the electricity didn't get switched back on soon.

After a while the electricity came on again and the gongs were handed out. By now the schedule was an hour late and the temperature was still 35 degrees.

The charge to the bar was like a thousand stampeding elephants. Maybe two thousand.

21.11.07

Awards night, part one.

This time I knew exactly where to go. Last time I was in Docklands, it was late and dark and I hadn't been to that end of town before. This time the building was easier to find and it was broad daylight. The problem was it was 38 degrees and I was wearing a dinner suit and the flies from way up north had invited themselves along.

I was a little early and I waited out the front of a building called Peninsula at Pier 14. I was meeting a colleague who had my ticket. Pier 14 is an old warehouse at the bottom of the now-extended La Trobe Street, where that street arches up over the railway yards and dumps the trams and the traffic at the water's edge. Pier 14 sits facing square north, alongside the old Swanston Dock which ten years ago was a festering heap of rats and broken timber beams with no boats tied up, and is now Victoria Harbour with million dollar cruise boats and water that sparkles with money. It's amazing how the view changes when you call a dock a harbour.

I had a dinner suit on because the invitation said 'black tie'. I thought black tie meant black tie, but no. It means anything except black tie. Guests were unfurling out of taxis at the corner of La Trobe and Harbour Drive and they were wearing no ties, fat-striped ties, unbuttoned shirts with flapping gay scarves and pastel T-shirts under white jackets. Event organisers should just drop the male dress specification and tell the women what to wear instead - 'little black dress and heels' - and the men could go right on rocking up in hessian sacks or bermuda shorts or kaftans or Geelong football jumpers. Since they do anyway.

I waited in the intense heat and futilely batted flies away while a few hundred more casual Friday non-black tie variations crawled out of their cabs and sauntered over to the entrance, an enormous original dock warehouse door that looked like it was made from about 150 oak trees. Then my colleague arrived in heels and a gauzy, filmy black thing that she was kind of wearing and kind of not. She gave me my ticket. We went inside.

It was dark.

16.11.07

Travelling poppies.




Ten years ago, we lived at No. 5 in this street. The previous owner of No. 5, Mr Treadwell, had been something of a gardener and had flowers leaping out of the ground all year round, just to keep him entertained, I suppose. No YouTube or plasma screens in those days.

So we moved in and the flowers entertained us. Poppies shot up in November, unfurled their pink heads to the sun and then gently faded away, leaving stalks and flowerheads carrying seeds. I kept the seeds from year to year.

Then we moved to the country. The seeds came along and the poppies grew in the country. Later, we moved back to the city, a few suburbs away from this one. The poppies grew. Then we returned to this street in October 2005, buying the house at No. 1, two doors away from our old house.

Today the poppies are flowering fifteen metres from where Mr Treadwell tended them for how long? He had been in that house since 1938.

14.11.07

Cloud and surf.

Late afternoon Sunday. Hot. At Blairgowrie beach, the tide was out. Children played on the sand, paddled in the shallows, splashed and shrieked. A southerly breeze meant it wasn't any hotter than it could have been.

The sky had been clear all day, but earlier in the afternoon I had noticed a grey smear to the south, over Bass Strait. Over a couple of hours the smear came closer and pixillated. Then it came down from the sand dunes and drifted across the north-facing beach in shards of something white and wet and tingling. The cloud cover was on the ground. I have never seen anything like it, at least not in these conditions. It was like being hosed with the sprayer set to a fine mist. It was like standing in rain that hadn't rained yet. In fact, it was exactly that.

Half an hour later, we left the bay beach and turned the car south, crossed two kilometres of peninsula and drove into the carpark at the ocean side to get a better view. Here, the unbroken cloud mass was rolling in on an onshore breeze. We walked down onto the sand. Visibility was probably a hundred, maybe two hundred metres. The sun was just the outline of a white ball. There was no colour anywhere, just wet whiteness. Surfers loomed into sight, black figures in mercury. It looked like a blizzard. Either that or scene three, take two from Endless Summer. But there was no music soundtrack, only the surf roaring.

It was six o'clock. We drove back to the beach house and cooked dinner and watched wisps of cloud getting snagged on the ti-tree.

9.11.07

Pasta with walnut, olive and capsicum sauce.

Otherwise known as provencale sauce. Enjoyed by vegetarians and carnivores alike, this sauce is robust and spicy and is ideal with long or short pasta. I often pair it with gnocchi. It improves overnight as the rich flavours intermingle.

Set a heavy pan on the slowest of flames. Throw in a couple of dozen halved walnuts, the same number of halved and pitted black olives, a chopped onion, a chopped red pepper, a dozen quartered button mushrooms, half a cup of peas, a chopped red or green chili pepper and a scored clove of garlic. The idea is to give the walnuts a head start on a slight toastiness and then let everything start to sweat before adding fluid.

Now add either a jar of passata or a couple of 425g cans of diced tomatoes, a tablespoonful of pesto and a cup of water. I always rinse the water through the tomato jar or cans to use up every last bit.

Now give it a good turn with a wooden spoon, bring it to a simmer and leave the sauce bubbling slowly for half an hour. Chill and refrigerate overnight; return to a simmer, cook pasta, spoon sauce over pasta and sprinkle parmesan over.

8.11.07

Cup afternoon.

Early afternoon. Warm. No wind. A perfect day, one of the ones you dream about.

I walked east along Woolley Street on the way to my sister's house. Nothing stirred. They say the Melbourne Cup is the race that that stops a nation, but you don't really believe it until you walk down a street anywhere in the country an hour before the race. Anyone who is going anywhere has already arrived and anyone else is staying right where they are.

Except me. I walked on. Across the road, a gate clicked and in the silence it sounded too loud, like in a movie. Further along, from a darkened open front door, the muffled wheeze and strike of a clock. Two o'clock.

I reached Mt Alexander Road and crossed the first half of the road to the median strip where the tram line runs between stands of old palm trees. A tram came out of the palm trees rocking gently from side to side and slid down the hill, under the railway bridge and out of sight. It was empty except for the driver. He would have had a radio glued to his ear. I finished crossing the road and walked on for another five minutes and knocked on the door at my sister's house, an old Victorian shambles partially hidden under far too many mature trees of various types. My sister tries to have a life in between sweeping leaves. But it's all worth it when you sit under the canopy in the back yard on a warm afternoon, she says.

We sat under the canopy in the back yard around a couple of tables and out came the drinks and then out came the food; platters of cut fruit and savoury snacks and small quartered sandwiches and hot pastries and little cakes. All the usual Cup day fare. The two resident cats, huge overfed things, dozed on chairs in the sun.

We went inside and watched the race, crowded around the television screen near the old fireplace in the lounge room. The grey horse won. Did anyone catch what one of the owners mouthed as the cameras were on him? I did.

*

The cats were still dozing on their chairs in the sun when we went outside again, but a couple of pastries were missing.

6.11.07

A shorter history of the Melbourne Cup.

1963. Early childhood memories are stills, later ones are moving images. This is a still: my father's workshop, dim and dark; wood shavings everywhere; a timber project in progress on the sawbench; His Master's Voice radio, fake red leather encased, sits on a shelf, covered in wood dust. Bert Bryant calls the race on 3UZ and Gatum Gatum wins. I liked the name. It sounded like galloping hooves.

1965. Family picnic in the backyard. Father runs a sweep and everyone gets a horse. Mother's wins: Light Fingers, ridden by Roy Higgins.

1968. My father's on-and-off freelance photography career sees us on the rail at Flemington. We stare at the bizarre sight of a single horse rounding the turn and entering the straight. It is Rain Lover, winning the Cup by the greatest margin ever.

1973. I am back in the workshop at home, going through an early oil painting phase. I am trying to paint a mountain and wondering what colour they are as Gala Supreme crosses the line. The mountain ends up being purple.

1976. I am driving home from a wet Cup day picnic in the Dandenongs with my girlfriend. A heavy rainstorm causes us to pull off the road and take cover, somewhere around Ferntree Gully. We sit in the car reading The Age waiting for the Cup broadcast. I'm reading Peter Smark's weekly restaurant review. They weren't food writers in those days, they were just reporters, so they often brought a sense of perspective and humour lacking in today's over-earnest 'food writing'. The things you remember. Oh, the Cup: Van Der Hum on the wettest track ever. He could swim.

1980. Now I'm at a Cup barbecue in Fairfield, the home of one my Media Studies lecturers, a heavily bearded ex-journalist with a mind full of conspiracy theories. He'd invited the whole faculty in a fit of largesse and we ate burnt sausages and drank red Brown Brothers cask wine and talked Roland Barthes and Marxism and then the Cup came on the radio and everyone shut the hell up and Belldale Ball won and we went home.

1985. Somewhere on the Grand Ridge Road in Gippsland, touring. My five-year-old daughter - William and Thomas' much older sister - fancies What A Nuisance because it is an expression we use frequently. It wins to her great delight as we descend into the weird yellow half-light of the La Trobe Valley.

1993. I'm walking with my very new girlfriend through Royal Park, behind the Children's Hospital; at the crown of the park where you get the best view of the city lights in the whole of Melbourne. The Irish horse Vintage Crop has just won the Cup. After our walk we drive to Brunswick Street and have coffee and cake at the old Rhumbarella's. It was carrot cake. The things you remember. I married her.

2004. Makybe Diva wins her second consecutive Melbourne Cup. We attempt another Cup day picnic, but Tracy is not well, so we go home. She is pregnant.

2005. Makybe Diva makes it a hat trick. Picnic at Coburg Lake, on the hill. William, four months old, sits in his pram in the shade of a tree.

5.11.07

You could have put the house on it after all, and doubled your money at least; although in this current property market bubble, you would achieve much the same result just by waiting until next week.

Meanwhile, the headline writers are in top form if you like bad puns.

3.11.07

The fly.

It's the time of year.

Last weekend we had a picnic way down there in the valley by the Tarago River in deepest Gippsland where the black and white cows live; and the flies came along, just to be sociable.

It was Sunday afternoon and we barbecued my mother-in-law's Lorne sausage, which is a highly spiced combination of minced beef and pork and you eat it on fresh buttered bread with Lea and Perrins sauce and sip a scotch and imagine you're back in the Highlands; except the temperature is thirty degrees celsius. Well, it was last Sunday, in Gippsland, before that gale came over and whipped the treetops so that they looked like streamers at a Grand Final. After the gale, the temperature dropped and the flies went away.

Later in the week, another fly came along. I could see it. It wasn't buzzing and flicking like the Gippsland flies, but it was kind of swimming backwards and forwards in front of me, as if in jelly. The funny thing about the fly was, I could only see it with my right eye.

*

The lady behind the desk at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital was one of those unflappable middle-aged medical receptionists you see at every public hospital in the world. She had cropped hair, funky purple glasses with those wide arms that stop your peripheral vision and a black knitted top with a skull and crossbones in chrome studs across the chest. I didn't ask her if she was wearing it ironically, I just told her my name and my date of birth and about the fly.

She tapped all of that into a computer and directed me to a waiting room where I waited for ten minutes, and then a nurse came out and took me to another room and asked me a few questions - no, I'm not allergic to anything - and then we walked along a few corridors and around a few corners to another waiting room, a larger one with about ten people waiting and a television chattering away in the corner. I sat down on a chair and read all of a Harvey Norman homewares catalogue, most of a 2004 TV Week magazine and half of a September 2007 Time magazine. Then I watched the TV in the corner for a while. Huey's Cooking Adventures was on and Huey was pushing around some snow peas in a pan and grilling some salmon in another pan, and the salmon broke in two and Huey said bugger! in that New Zealand accent he still has and then the doctor came out.

The doctor was a sandy-haired, happy type in his early thirties: long enough out of medical school to have seen it all but not long enough to be tired and bitter and over it. We went into a dark room and I sat in the chair and he poked a light into my eye and, after a few minutes of small talk during which he told me about his sixteen-hour shift coming up tomorrow, he said 'Good news!'

I love the way they say 'good news' first, because then you don't have a heart attack when they tell you what the condition is, because while they know the condition, you don't. Any condition you don't know about always sounds fatal when they tell you you've got it.

My fly was a 'posterior vitreous detachment', and it was moving around inside my eye and the doctor said it would move around inside my eye for the rest of my life and not to worry about it. He said that I wouldn't even see it after six weeks, because my brain would get sick of pointing it out to me. That was the good news, or that it wasn't a completely detached retina, which probably looks like an African elephant galloping around in your eye instead of a fly, but the doctor didn't say.

Six weeks? I might give my fly a name. How about Huey? It's as good as any.