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

31.7.08

Carlton bistro, circa 1980.

The chef, Cimino, was a sullen middle-aged Italian, greying and on the portly side. Shout? He hardly spoke. He had a temper, though. He threw things, just not at people. He would scowl and hurl pots across the kitchen into the sink, smashing plates and glasses along its trajectory. Crash. What got him going most of all was customers sending back perfectly cooked steaks, complaining that they were too rare, too overdone or too medium. Yes: ‘too medium’, a diner complained once, to me. I was the waiter. It was my first waiting job. I took the ‘too medium’ steak back to Cimino, reporting the customer’s exact words. He said nothing, paused and then threw it across the room, into the bin; plate, trimmings and all. Then he cooked another one: less medium. Here’s your steak, sir. It’s less medium than the last one. Whatever that means. Hope you enjoy it. Your next Crown lager’s on us.

*

J. was not so polite. He was the head waiter, a classic Zapata-moustached Italian migrant in his early forties. J. was a chain-smoker. He always had a cigarette going behind the espresso machine. He told me once how he walked off the boat from Italy at Station Pier one sunny day in 1962 and went straight to the nearest shop to buy a packet of cigarettes. Rot-marn! Rot-marn! he had said urgently to the blank-faced shopkeeper. In vain. He had to point to the cigarettes on the shelf: Rothmans. The accent remained. As a waiter, J. had the fawning act down pat, but could turn savage in an instant. Late one night, a diner left some small change on the table as a tip. J. picked up the coin and followed the diner outside, chased him up dark Cardigan Street and pressed the coin into the unnerved diner’s hand. ‘This coin, sir. You might need it one day. For parking meter, or to telephone to your mother. Please! Take it!’ The falsetto sarcasm and wheedling tone would be laced with a kind of threatening undertone that suggested J. might pull out a knife and stab the diner should he ever repeat the insulting slight.

*

There were regulars. They had their favourites. There was Mr & Mrs Nottage Hill Cabernet Sauvignon – in the days before Nottage Hill was a discounted aisle-ender. Mr Nottage Hill wore a white rollneck sweater under a leather jacket and Mrs Nottage Hill wore a miniskirt and boots. Another regular couple’s drink of choice was their weekly bottle of Black Tower. It was imported from Germany in those days. The fake corks in its imitation pottery bottles were notoriously difficult to extract and one night, the bottle shot out from my hand as I flexed the corkscrew and it hit the floor, shooting liebfraumilch all over the red carpet. Probably the best place for it. I fetched another bottle, ashen-faced.

*

Everyone smoked. Waiters had to keep up with the ashtrays. A large table at the end of a big night was always a mess. Over port and cigars, people would butt their stubs into plates, half-empty glasses or in the pot plants. Of course, we sold cigarettes. The waiters took coins out of the till, dispensed Benson & Hedges, Stuyvesants or Alpine from the machine in the front bar, placed the cigarette packet on a paper doiley on a small plate with a matchbook, delivered it to the table and wrote double the charge on the bill. These days the diner’s fix is water. Waiters spend half their time filling up endless bottles. Today’s restaurant diners drink more water than marathon runners. It’s a mystery I haven’t been able to unravel.

*

Head waiter J. had that kind of weary fatalism often found in southern Europeans. Late in the afternoon, when the lunch shift had long finished but before the dinner rush, we would sit at one of the tables and eat crusty bread and sip red wine. J. would shrug about everything and drag on his cigarette and then dip his crust into his red wine and eat it like that. His girlfriend came in occasionally to meet him after work. She was a large, sad-eyed, black-haired Italian girl. They suited each other.

Babe: literally.

A controversial radio commercial currently on air has a three-year-old child speaking the following words:

"I wish it would all stop. I wish I could close my eyes and not wake up. Then I wouldn’t care any more."

An adult voiceover goes on: "It is commonly accepted that a pig has the intelligence of a three-year-old child" and calls for an end to pig farming due to what is described as horrific practices.

Animals Australia describes its ad as ‘hard-hitting’.

You could describe making a child voice words that suggest it wants to die as hard-hitting, and broadcasting such as even more hard-hitting.

However, you could better describe it as dishonest, misleading, repugnant and irresponsible anthropomorphism.

The ultimate – if not ulterior - motive of organisations such as Animals Australia is to stop animal farming altogether. Or to stop the consumption of animal matter altogether.

Creating scenarios that bring to mind the substitution of a child for the pork chop on their plate is not the way to do it.

30.7.08

Oh, so that was the reason.

Pellegrini's Nino Pangrazio, upon learning that Starbucks is to close most of its Australian stores: " ... they just ruin the flavour of the coffee."

29.7.08

Bad career move.

It was cold and the wind whipped and people on the street were bent over almost double just to make any headway.

I struggled on. Lunchtime is like that. It makes you persevere, otherwise you would fall by the wayside and starve.

I was back in St Kilda Road for a few nostalgic days, and it was lunchtime.

Bleak? St Kilda Road is always bleak. Always was. That gentle, gracious curve past the gardens and the Shrine and Domain Road and Toorak Road is the perfect wind tunnel. Whichever way it's blowing from.

Today it was blowing from the north-west. I struggled past the Willows (the Willows has been there forever but I have never known anyone to have eaten there - why?), made Leopold Street and stopped at the red light. Two haggard, bent men clutching coats to their bony frames had just finished crossing Leopold Street the other way and saw me, and a thin hand reached up from one of them and a quavery voice called out to me. Apart from the gauntness, they were just the same two I used to work with in the city.

We were out for lunch, they said. But there was nowhere to eat, they said.

It's your own fault, I told them. It was your choice to leave the CBD and take up a job in the vast frozen wilderness of St Kilda Road, I went on. You may as well be in the Tarkine, I added, just to be nasty. It was a nasty day.

It's not as if they didn't know. The last thing one of them very quietly confided to me before the two of them left the company was nothing to do with career matters; it was that he had a nagging sense that the few extra dollars in his pocket would not be enough to make up for missing lunch in the city.

Miss it? This pair had made an artform of city lunching. Each weekday saw them at not one, but at least two cafes. Sashi Don at Don Don followed by coffee and chocolate at Koko Black. Something at Vue de Monde cafe followed by short blacks at Nick's in Queen Street. Yum Cha off Little Bourke Street, then sacher biscuits and machiatos at Brunetti City Square. Something different every day followed by something different to follow. They were back into the office by 2.30 most days with a smirk on their faces.

What now? Ribs at Barbarino's? Something from 1983 at the Willows?

No. We had lunch together, just to catch up, at a windblown vestibule cafe at the base of a towering office block halfway down St Kilda Road. The wind picked up the leaves of our stock standard Caesar salads and threw them at passers-by.

28.7.08

"What overheads?"

Someone wrote a letter to the editor complaining that he and friends had taken five bottles of their own wine to a restaurant and had been surcharged $5 per bottle.

Someone else wrote a letter to the editor, same newspaper, complaining that a restaurant charged them $6 for a bottle of water that sold for $2 in supermarkets.

25.7.08

Cheese and olives.

I picked up a piece of Wensleydale at the cheese counter in Leo’s, unintentionally cueing a scene that has been played out hundreds, probably thousands, of times.

Sure enough, the cheese shop man did not pause. “Ah, Wensleydale! You’re probably thinking Wallace and Gromit!” he said. “I’m more the Monty Python generation,” he added, referring somewhat cryptically to the Cheese Shop sketch in which a Mr Henry Wensleydale runs a cheese shop that has no cheese in stock. Actually, he might have been younger than me but I wasn’t going to say anything.

*

I like a retailer with a sense of humour. It makes shopping easier, sets the customer at ease and is good for business. (Unlike a visit to Coles in High Street, North Balwyn recently when the oaf behind the checkout literally ordered me to take my empty basket and stack it on the pile at the end of the enquiry desk that fronts the cigarette counter. “Why don’t I just jump the counter and run my groceries through the scanner while you go take a break?” I replied. “I’ll even ask myself if I have FlyBuys and tell myself to have a nice day.” He just stared. There’s one for you to work on, Richard Goyder!


*

The cheese shop is one of the best parts of Leo’s in Kew. On a previous visit I had Thomas in the child seat of the trolley and the cheese shop man offered me a sample of cheese to “keep him busy” - as he put it - as we went around the aisles. But instead of poking a tiny shard of cheese at me on the pointy end of a knife, he sliced off a huge slice of emmentaler, edged and quartered it and placed it in a lidded container. It was probably five dollars worth of top quality Swiss cheese, free. (At this point of proceedings, as I am about to champion Australian producers, I should add that I mainly buy Australian cheese.)

*

In a world of Coles and Safeway house brands swallowing up Australian producers (cached report from last week’s Weekly Times here) it is good to see Leo’s stocking premium Australian producers. Last week I bought some Mt Zero Manzanillo olives from Leo's excellent deli section.


*

Speaking of olives, after a long downturn in packaged goods advertising, you might have noticed olive oil importers advertising heavily on radio and elsewhere. Why? Because they have to. In the past, shoppers placed imported olive oil into their trolleys because they had no choice. Now, the Australian olive oil industry is up to full speed and the importers are wooing us with cute advertising. Reject it outright and buy Australian olive oil. You'd be 'Lupi' not to.

23.7.08

Cheap vegetable peelers warming the globe: an exclusive Kitchen Hand insight report.

During my recent jaunt around the Victorian countryside, I found myself missing a vegetable peeler, one of the travel essentials I carry in a box in the boot of the car along with salt and pepper, tea and sugar, enamel cups and plates, basic cutlery and a corkscrew. I must have left the peeler in a camping ground or a hotel room. (Vegetable peelers are among mankind’s most lost items: I regularly find several each spring when I turn over the compost bin.)

I called into a Coles supermarket in a medium-sized country town, I don’t know, Maryborough or somewhere, and bought a pack of three peelers. I had to buy three because they won't sell you one. The three peelers come affixed to a hanging cardboard display pack; metal-bladed and with red, white and yellow handles respectively.

I took them back to where we were staying, untwisted the metal ties with difficulty, removed the first peeler – the red one - and started to scrape a carrot.

The blade gave way, crumpling like the bumper bar of a Datsun 120Y hitting a gum tree.

I threw the red peeler across the room, extricated the white peeler from the cardboard and picked up the carrot. Again, the blade bent, like a twig in the wind, except that it stayed bent.

I was down to the last peeler: the yellow one. Sure enough, the plastic handle resisted the metal ties but the blade was no match for the carrot. And it was just an ordinary carrot.

*

Some things are mildly annoying. Other things I don't think twice about. But, occasionally, something really fires me up like the Flying Scotsman steaming out of London into a headwind on a freezing winter’s morning, if we can drag out a British locomotive analogy in the middle of Victoria, Australia.

Let's just think about this for a moment. The peelers were made in China, of course, because everything is made in China now.

But the steel for the blades came from this country, where it is mined out of a pristine red dirt landscape in Western Australia and then shipped by Andrew Forrest halfway around the world to some foul smelter in China spewing out half the world's pollution unencumbered by Kyoto treaties, emissions protocols or carbon trading schemes. Then it is taken to an equally foul factory where it is fashioned into something resembling a blade, before being transported by ancient Chinese truck to a filthy port and shipped all the way back to Australia in one of several hundred dirty containers sitting on a tramp steamer. Alright, a diesel powered freighter. In terms of food miles, my peelers had circumnavigated the world and visited some of the most environmentally-unfriendly locations on earth.

All that so I could buy a piece of crap.

Is this efficient?

No. It is possibly the most inefficient, wasteful, wanton squandering of resources, energy, materials and human labour ever conceived in the entire history of the world. (Apart from Olympic Games torch relays and the reality TV industry.)

What also steamed me up was that the peelers were not a no-name brand (which would be no excuse anyway) but bore the brand of McPherson’s which, if you know your Melbourne establishments, was one of this city’s leading companies in the days when such august businesses were known as Firms. McPherson’s had a magnificent art deco building on the corner of Collins and King. It was one of this city’s commercial jewels, in the days when Melbourne was the financial and commercial capital of Australia.

Judging by the quality of my three peelers, McPherson’s has now been reduced to shipping unusable garbage around the world in an endless cycle of throwaway dross and sheer uselessness. Complicit in this crime is Coles, whose quality control department must be based on the dark side of the moon, or the Tooronga Village carpark, which is much the same thing.

The carrot remained unpeeled. I sliced it finely with my knife. It’s German, and more than twenty years old.

*

Tried to save the trees
Bought a plastic bag
The bottom fell out
It was a piece of crap

Saw it on the tube
Bought it on the phone
Now you're home alone
With a piece of crap

I tried to plug in it
I tried to turn it on
When I got it home
It was a piece of crap

Got it from a friend
On him you can depend
I found out in the end
It was a piece of crap

I'm trying to save the trees
I saw it on TV
They cut the forest down
To build a piece of crap

I went back to the store
They gave me four more
The guy told me at the door
It's a piece of crap.


Thanks, Neil. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

21.7.08

This season's favourite oxtail stew.

Oxtail stew polarises. People either love it or hate it. The idea, that is: why would you eat the tail of a poor beast?

It's a good question, but if you're squeamish and were given a choice between that and the sheep's head soup my mother made once when I was small, I'm sure you'd opt for the tail.

Here's one I made the other morning, to simmer all day. Herbs, white wine and butter combine to create a rich, aromatic and creamy sauce that really stands up to the richness of the oxtail meat. Served on creamy mashed potato it was a sublime choice for a cold Melbourne night in the dead of winter with spring still far away.

Oxtail stew with herbs and white wine.

Brown eight joints of oxtail in a heavy pan. Remove and set into a heavy pot. Lightly brown 100g of rindless bacon in same pan. Add to oxtail in pot.

Slice two medium onions and two carrots and place into pot along with a bay leaf, a sprig each of thyme and parsley, 12 black peppercorns and a whole clove.

Now add 1250ml beef stock. That's the first part done. Simmer three hours. Go out for lunch. (I had to go over to Toorak Road so I had the spinach lasagne at Romeo's. It was the same as it was in 1988, which everything is at Romeo's, especially the rich widow clientele.)

*

Now we're back home again and the aroma of rich beef, herbs and white wine has filled the house.

Remove joints to a platter and strain stock. Melt 50g butter in a saucepan, add 125ml white wine, simmer gently and reduce to about half. Mix 40g plain flour to a cream with a little of the strained stock, stir into wine mixture and continue cooking. When frothy, stir in remainder of stock. Stir until boiling, season, add joints and simmer for thirty minutes, stirring occasionally.

*

Serve, as mentioned earlier, with garlic mashed potatoes. And buttered peas. Drink: a 2003 Harcourt Valley Barb's shiraz. (Notes of dried apple? The winery was planted in 1975 on the site of a 100-year-old apple orchard.)

18.7.08

All India Radio appearing at Glitch Bar and Cinema.

All India Radio is a music project masterminded by musician Martin Kennedy whose career took a new path when he travelled through the subcontinent recording sounds wherever he went.

The aural harvest this yielded provided the inspiration for a genre of music that could be described as the filtered sound of a billion people and places set to the mesmeric rhythm of a heartbeat and embellished with an assortment of aural textures, sound effects, musical instruments and occasionally, the human voice.

Kennedy has collaborated with Steve Kilbey, Graham Lee of The Triffids and, earlier, Ed Kuepper; and his music is in demand for television and cinema productions worldwide.

How do you describe All India Radio's opus without resorting to the usual 'ambient music' cliche? I don't know, Ennio Morricone meets 2001 A Space Odyssey? Celestial spheres meets the flash and spark of Glamdring? I'll stop there.

All India Radio launches its new album, Fall, at Glitch Bar and Cinema this Saturday 19 July from 9 p.m. Glitch is at 318 St Georges Road, North Fitzroy and is described by filmink as 'The new hub of all things creative in Melbourne'. All India Radio is promising a night of music and film.

Time was when Saturday night entertainment saw music performed live in movie theatres in front of silent films; now the cinema screen is the bit player and the music is the lead.

17.7.08

Six pears on a cake.

There are dozens of eating places in Daylesford these days, but I always seem to end up at the Harvest cafe, a few doors down from the IGA supermarket on the corner of Albert and Vincent.

Maybe it's the huge formica tables on which you can open up your favourite broadsheet without poking the next customer in the eye with your elbow. Maybe it's the slightly bohemian air (although the coloured-wool crew seems to have migrated, like birds, across the road south to Muffy's Cafe). Or maybe it's the cake display case.

A cheerful log fire was already crackling away when I pushed the door open at around eleven, which is always a good time for coffee, especially when it has been raining all morning and you ate breakfast in darkness at six o'clock.

The cake display is the first thing you see when you walk in the door.

The cake that struck my eye was about the size of a Vespa front wheel. Getting it into the display case must have been a job in itself. It was a pear and ginger cake, with six whole pears on top. It looked like a kind of Sydney Opera House with softer curves. I ordered a slice. It arrived on a dinner plate, pure cream piled three inches high off to the side of a huge wedge, like a ship about to be engulfed by a giant wave.

The pears, whole beurre bosc, had been peeled and poached in something delicious and then laid gently over the cake batter so that as it baked, the pears sank ever so slightly, creating rifts and valleys of delicious ginger-infused texture. Very fine chocolate flakes had been added to the batter and the finished cake was dusted with ginger and icing sugar. It took the four of us to eat it.

The coffee was fine.

15.7.08

Winter barbecue.

The road wound down from the green highlands north of Creswick and back into pockmarked gold country, across the pleasant flat lands in between the Pyrenees and the foothills of the Great Divide, and through the villages of Blampied and Eganstown that are more signpost than town.

The east approach into Daylesford is a rapid ascent, because 350 million years ago Daylesford was a volcano.

It was early afternoon, a cold clear day with the bite of a north-easterly straight from the alps. I drove right into the town and turned left at a roundabout into the main street. It was busy because it was Sunday and the winter weekend tourists were in town for the spas, the markets, the coffee shops and the antiques. I drove out of the town again, south and downhill.

Jubilee Lake is a mile out of Daylesford, reached by a road that winds past Lake House and forks left. This is Daylesford’s second lake, fed by Wombat Creek which leads from Lake Daylesford and further east, where mineral springs line its banks.

*

The water of Jubilee Lake was a mirror at the base of an escarpment to the north and east, giving it natural protection from the wind. Around the other side of the lake, there was a boat launching ramp at the edge of the water, grassed parkland beyond and a backdrop of enormously tall, straggly eucalypts behind that. Amongst the trees were cabins for hire.

I pointed the car down the narrow gravel road, stopped at the caretaker’s cottage adjacent to the boat ramp, picked up the keys, drove a further two hundred metres and stopped at cabin no. 4. This was near the front of the trees and directly overlooked the parkland and the lake. Two steps led up to a timber verandah. In front of the verandah was a kind of brazier ingeniously constructed from a truck wheel hub and a flared metal barrel.

*

5pm. The fire crackled and roared in the brazier: eight large pieces of perfectly dry red gum. An hour later, they were hot coals and a pan sat on the grate. In the pan were strips of zucchini, rings of onion and whole garlic cloves. In the fire were potatoes wrapped in foil. Next onto the grate were foil-wrapped chicken fillets with soy, ginger and garlic. Last, a T-bone that looked like it could have come from an elephant. It dripped fat and the fire spat and flared and puffs of smoke appeared and the aroma was the same as it has ever been, for as long as meat has been cooked on an open fire in the darkness under a black sky on a cold night. Which is: irresistible.

By now, the sky was black and ablaze with stars. More red gum on the fire. It lit up the boys' sleepy faces.

Then, to finish, the rest of the French stick - the batard from Avoca - sliced down the middle, toasted on a long fork, buttered heavily and eaten with melting cheese. Have you any idea how good that tastes when accompanied by a glass of Heathcote shiraz? I hadn't either, until then.

*

The weather turned during the night. The wind got up and roared and howled. Rain set in and thrashed the cabin. It was an angry storm. It felt like the weather was paying me out for daring to barbecue in winter. I lay awake from 3 a.m., terrified. I had broken my golden rule: never camp under gum trees. A broken limb would have crushed the cabin like an egg carton.

After a while the rain stopped but the wind still tore at the sodden trees and the foliage kept dropping water in huge splashes on the roof. I fell asleep at last and dreamed that someone was tipping buckets on the roof. Why would anyone want to do that?

11.7.08

The books can wait. Both of them.

If you were halfway between the Pyrenees and the Grampians elsewhere in the world you’d be somewhere in the outskirts of London or maybe even in the North Sea; but I was on a road that went through a town that was called Amphitheatre, just out of the goldfields.

Amphitheatre is exactly that. It sits in a bottom of a wide bowl, the rim of which is where the surrounding hills touch the sky. It is a town like hundreds of others: small and pretty and vacant.

It’s the perfect place if you’re happy to sit in the sun on the front porch of a picture-book cottage on a north-facing hill overlooking the town and read books – long ones - for the rest of your life; or write your own books – long ones - in a sun-filled study while you gaze out of a picture window at the mountains that rise away blue on all sides of the town.

Because there’s not a lot else to do.

But it had been tempting, because there was just such a little cottage on the sunny hill above the town and it was for sale, for about a third the cost of a house in the city; and for just one fleeting moment (which lasted about a month) we could almost have made the move. That’s why they invented the Internet: so people can move to the country.

However, the house had been sold, and now someone else will write the very long book in the sun-filled study and sit on the porch and gaze at the million-year-old mountains and not live in the city ever again. (And it’s only a 28 kilometre round trip to Avoca for a good cup of coffee. You could probably do it before you switch on your notebook in the morning and write a chapter a day. Fired up with caffeine.)

*

I drove out of there and took a road east that cut through a rift below the peak of an old volcanic outcrop now called Ben More. This was to the west of Mt Lonarch, and as the car drifted around a curve in the beautiful green valley, where cows grazed on impossible gradients high above, I realised that the Scots had won the name game.

Either that, or that this place really did look more like Scotland than France. It’s hard to know whether the naming procedures of the early eighteenth century explorers were based on what a place looked like; or whether they were simply tearing about the countryside naming as many geographic features as possible after their home town or their mother's maiden name or their first pet before dying of thirst (Burke and Wills), being speared by natives (Edmund Kennedy), getting lost in the desert (Ludwig Leichhardt) or having a pea named after them (Charles Sturt).

*

The road rose up and out of the valley and ribboned across a strange green landscape made luminous in patches by the sun cutting here and there through clouds that hung almost to the ground.

Then on through the highland and into another valley created by vast propellers in the sky - the Waubra wind farm. We witnessed the bizarre sight of trees swaying in the considerable breeze while not one of the turbines was moving. Later I found out the wind farm is still under construction and they're not yet switched on. No, wait ...

7.7.08

No. 160.

No-one was sitting at the cafe tables outside No. 160 in the main street of Avoca. Why would they? It was about six degrees celsius with a biting westerly blowing the few leaves left over from autumn into oblivion.

No. 160 is one of those ancient small-town main street shops that have a flyscreen door that slams shut behind you, dusty old shelves that reach up to an impossibly high ceiling and sawdust on the floor.

We opened the door and went in. The shop had an unpolished timber floor with the remnants of a japaned finish popular in Victorian times, a counter and stools set into the window and a few wooden tables of different sizes with chairs that didn't match. A tall, dark-haired thirty-something woman was busy behind the counter. Newspapers were spread about the tables.

The sawdust was gone, of course, and the shelves were no longer dusty. Who knows what they held in days gone by: hardware? sacks of flour? implements for gold-digging? manchester? hats? gunpowder?

I decided gunpowder and we ordered coffee at the counter and then sat down to wait at the largest table. A man was perched at a window stool drinking tea, reading the sports section of the paper and ignoring the view. What's there to look at? It hasn't changed in a hundred years.

The most explosive things on the shelves these days are the jars of chilies. It's the kind of place you want when the only supermarket in town doesn't have any olives. (It didn't: the IGA Express had neither fresh, canned, pickled, green, black, stuffed, halved nor pitted.) On the other hand, the store at No. 160 had several varieties in large glass jars in a chilled display case by the counter. The shelves held good coffee and tea, good oil, canned fish, good pasta and similar items that are usually referred to as 'gourmet'.

The coffee came out. Tracy still drinks that appalling concoction they call 'decaf', but she says the quality and flavour is improving. It would want to. My long macchiato was so good I broke my cardinal rule of coffee-drinking and ordered a second. The second is never as good; but this was.

It was mid-morning and we had ordered a croissant for the boys by way of morning tea. The pastry would have made a Frenchman swoon: semi-transparent golden outer layers flaked away to the touch, revealing an interior of soft, buttered meltiness. Not that I got to eat any. I'll never buy a chain bakery croissant again. The house-made apricot jam came in an earthen dish and there was enough for four, so Thomas ate a large spoonful. (Yes, I know, but there was no-one else in the room except the man in the window.)

*

Nothing like two long macchiatos (-i?) to power a country drive. On the way out, I collected some small black olives and a loaf from the large tin of short and long sticks on the counter. (The Frenchman would have had to swoon again: the loaf had the look, taste, texture and 'give' of a perfect French batard.) Then I noticed six perfect red onions arranged very carefully on a raised display stand.

Are they for sale, I asked. Or just display? You never know these days. The woman hesitated, a smile playing about her lips. Both, I suppose, she replied. I bought two, completely spoiling the display, and a couple of small bulbs of home-grown garlic. She gave me two more, gratis. It was that kind of place.

The door slammed behind us. The man was still in the window and still not looking out.

*

(You need to know the number because there was, at the time of visit, no visible sign reading Janie's Kitchen, the name of the business. The verandah outer edge bore the name of a previous enterprise, Days of Yore; obviously a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

Smoked salmon with individual salades nicoises.

Warm your smoked salmon through. Peel and chop ten kipfler potatoes and cook them until just done. Slice two dozen large cherry or miniature roma tomatoes in two. Drop the same number of green beans, topped and tailed, into boiling water. Retrieve and drain after a minute. Do the same with asparagus. Boil two eggs until almost done. Halve a clove of garlic and press it around serving plates to impart flavour. Add warmed smoked salmon fillets to plates; pile potatoes and tomatoes into cairns on each plate; nest beans and asparagus over and place two halves of egg in each. Restart when it all falls apart. Strew caperberries on top.

Serve with buttered slices of perfect French batard from Janie's Kitchen.

3.7.08

Avoca main street: more gold.

The butcher at number 110 had a nice array of fish in the window. I bought a pack of smoked salmon. The butcher smokes it himself in his own smokehouse.

The salmon at Pyrenees Gourmet Butchers alone makes a trip to Avoca worthwhile. It was the best I've tasted and completely different to the smoked salmon you find in most other places. For one thing, it wasn't orange. For another thing, it wasn't oversalted.

Of course, the butcher had meat in the window as well. After all, he is a butcher. But you have to diversify these days. Just look at any post office. You can't see the stamps for Wiggles books, Steve Parrish greeting cards, outdated street directories and useless plastic junk. I suppose you have to forgive them because who writes letters any more? No-one. I haven't received a letter in years.

I bought some sausages as well. Children don't eat smoked salmon. While the butcher was wrapping the smoked salmon and the sausages I glanced around the shop and nearly fell over when I looked to the right of the counter on the opposite side to the door. There was an entire wall of bottles of red wine. All regional. None of your million-selling Fosters Group Beringer Blass Mildara Southcorp or whatever they call themselves this week.

The unusual propinquity of red wine and racks of eye fillet brought me around to thinking, as the butcher placed my package on the counter, that if you liked your meat rare, really rare, you could just about whip the top of a bottle of red and eat in, right there.

I took my package and paid the butcher and, in the paling late afternoon with the low sun painting orange tracery through winterbare trees onto the Victorian shop verandahs, I walked down the main street of Avoca, which is called Main Street, just to save any confusion.

It was a long street, and wide enough to turn a camel train.