It was the coldest Saturday morning I can remember. I walked out to get the paper and it felt like Sir Ernest Shackleton’s third expedition. I must buy a scarf and a hat. The sun came out mid-morning but made no difference to the temperature, and then it disappeared again, probably to sulk behind a cloud. It stayed cold all day. We went out for lunch, to a warm place with hot food.
The warm place with hot food had brown brick walls inside, and we walked through to the back and past the kitchen and under a brown brick archway and sat at a dark-stained timber table in a dining nook far from the wind and the rain. Pictures on the walls showed a house by a sunny lake in Umbria, and cottages of many colours cascading down to a small bay of electric blue water. Either would be nice right now.
Writers are ambivalent about Lygon Street. The first line of Michael Harden’s Lygon St. - subtitled Stories and Recipes from Melbourne’s Melting Pot - reads ‘Lygon Street is one of Australia’s well-known streets.’ Faint praise, in not the most exciting opening line in publishing history. Most well-known? Best-loved? No. The author continues, in an oddly defensive introduction:
Nobody who heard about this project had to ask what or where Lygon Steet was, though there were plenty who questioned why you would devote a whole book to it. The most common responses were evenly divided between those who dismissed the iconic street as a clapped-out tourist trap and those who viewed it as a hotbed of organised crime.
Then why write the book? The reason for the defensive prelude may be that in a food-obsessed city, Melbourne writers are fixated with finding the latest fad, which they drop like a hot brick when it is discovered outside their inner circle. It’s hard to get an angle on something that’s been around forever when the weekend food columns are full of riesling jelly and biscuit gravel. (Biscuit gravel? I used to give butternut snaps to my adopted greyhound Billy for a treat, and in one loud crunch he’d wolf them down, sending a shower of biscuit crumbs all over the floor. Pass me the brush and pan! That stuff is culinary gold!)
It was not long after midday but steaming plates and bowls were already coming out of the kitchen. There were pungent aromas of garlic foccaccia and yeasty pizza dough and briney pescatora sauce and fresh ground coffee. This is a regulars’ place. You can tell by the way they enter purposefully. New customers stop in the doorway and look around and sometimes point, as if getting off the train in a foreign city. Regulars push the door open and wave to the front of house, nod at the cook in front of the pizza oven, smile at the waitress and head to their table without breaking stride, while unfurling a newspaper from under their arm.
Then we forgot about the lake and the coloured houses on the walls and the other customers, regular and irregular, and we ate hot minestrone dusted with parmesan and plenty of crusty pasta dura and butter, and calzone stuffed with ricotta and egg flecked generously with hot prosciutto, and the boys ate spaghetti competently. They have learned to twirl. Why obsess about teaching them to count? That will happen. Forget the baby Bach nonsense. Who cares if a child is a genius? Teach them to eat spaghetti. That’s all that matters, and then you can take them out for dinner. If they can eat spaghetti they can eat anything. Mind you, they have relapses.
Then coffee; bitter, sweet, hot, strong. And crepes with strawberry. No blobs of jus or bits of chocolate stuck to the plate here, just very good large crepes rolled around hot thick strawberry sauce that oozed when you depressed the lightly sugared dough with a fork. I looked out the window. There are tables on the street if you wish to sit outside and watch the world and the Doncaster buses go by. You won’t freeze. Those gas heaters that look like a flying saucer on top of a rocket put out so much heat you could sit there in a T-shirt and read The Saturday Age and pretend it was springtime. Several customers were doing just that. One set aside his newspaper as the waitress approached. He ordered inaudibly and the waitress nodded and smiled and said something to him in return and came back inside, and the customer picked up his newspaper again. At the next table, a family was eating pizza.
221 Lygon Street, Carlton
Lygon St. Stories and Recipes From Melbourne's Melting Pot.
Murdoch Books, Sydney, 2008