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

29.1.10

The magpie that came to stay.

I sprinkled a generous amount of fenugreek, my signature herb of this summer, over and under the skin layer of several pieces of chicken thigh and leg on the bone, along with some pepper and a squirt of lemon juice. Then I coated them with yogurt and put them in the refrigerator in a plastic-wrapped bowl to sit and marinate for a while, making a mental note never to buy plastic wrap again because of press reports. You never know whether it’s a beat-up or another thalidomide. Then again, if you were on the safe side of everything, you’d starve. Chicken? Shot full of growth hormone. Beef? Causes global warming. Kangaroo? You can’t eat the coat of arms. Potatoes? Acrylamide alert! Sheep? See cow, above. Tofu? Causes vegetarianism.

Two hours later the barbecue was glowing and the shadows were creeping across the lawn and I had some twelve-inch white zucchinis (no, you can’t buy them; our next door neighbour gave us a bag of them from the jungle-like vine in his backyard) sliced lengthways and brushed with olive oil and dusted with salt and pepper and basil and grilling away nicely next to the chicken. Needless to say, the aroma was somewhat enticing, which is not surprising. You could marinate bone-in chicken for the grill in motor oil and they’d come running.

*

Every night it's the same. I go out about eight or so into the mid-summer warmth of the back garden and sit at the table under the pergola and gaze at the sky.

As soon as I sit down, CLOP! something lands heavily on top of the timber paling fence at the side. The something is a magpie. I call it Half-Beak because due to some kind of accident it has only half of its lower beak. So as well as being ungainly, Half-beak also has a severe overbite, giving it a comical air. A clown in a magpie suit.

I first noticed Half-beak, a female, a couple of years ago when I found her partner by the side of the road with a damaged wing after he was apparently hit by a car. I packed him gently into a box and took him to a neighbour (another neighbour, not the zucchini one) who works for an animal shelter. I didn't expect the bird to survive but the neighbour brought him back two weeks later with a repaired wing and a loud caw, and we released him and away he flew to reunite with Half-beak. Now they are regular fixtures. (I suppose I should give him a name as well but nothing suggests itself, so I'll him Mr Half-beak.) You go inside for more ice in your gin and tonic and you come out again to find them on the table pecking at your linguine marinara without so much as a by-your-leave. Mrs Half-beak, of course, has had to modify her technique for picking up food but she manages reasonably well. She has to. Her two young, in their first summer, caw at her loudly and endlessly for food. They'll be on their own soon. Magpies pair for as long as they both live and they can live to 30. Who needs canaries?

*

The wind, a straight northerly, got up at three in the morning and raged and the sash windows of this house rattled and shook and other things banged and thumped and I lay awake writing things in my head. I believe there was a full moon or close to it. I fell asleep about six as the night was paling.

Now it's early afternoon and 37 degrees. The boys' daytime sleep is an idea that is beginning to lose its appeal for them, and they certainly won't countenance it at all in the heat. Instead, they get up to mischief in their bedroom. Today’s mischief is pulling out the winter drawer and putting on snow hats and mittens and pretending it’s cold. 37 degrees. I’m going to take them to the pool and sit next to it or in it with one eye on them and the other on the Sunday newspaper. Or that other Hemingway book I’ve never gotten around to.

Where's Banjo Paterson when you need him?

Someone sent me a letter offering me a free telescope. Should I have accepted?

It was the editor of Time magazine, or at least one of his associates. I suppose the editor is too busy reading letters to the editor to write letters from the editor. The writer wanted me to have the telescope with his compliments, and I thought that was very nice of him. I don't even know him. The telescope was described as having lots of pixels. I could gaze at things that were far away and see them in fine detail. Pixels at the end of the garden. The moon. The graffiti on a city-bound tram.

He didn't just offer me the telescope. No: he also offered to send me one of his magazines every week for a year, and I wouldn't have to pay for it. Not the full price, anyway. I would pay only $1.85; while the 'regular newsstand price' was $5.85, from memory. This made me feel slightly dishonest, as if I were to gaze out my window through my free highly-pixelled telescope towards the newsagent's down the street and watch some poor street-sweeper or impoverished parson forking out nearly six dollars for his Time magazine. Was that fair, I wondered?

*

Magazine subterfuge (if not outright generosity) is nothing new. Years ago, I used to buy The Bulletin. It was Australia's best weekly read behind The National Times, Nation Review, The Sporting Globe (OK, that was semi-weekly) and the Sunday parish newsletter. At one time or another, most writers wrote for The Bulletin including poets Henry Lawson, Andrew Barton 'Banjo' Paterson and Edward Dyson. (Later the magazine resorted to employing journalists, but a romantic age can't last forever.)

One day, my copy of The Bulletin felt a little heavier. It felt like there was another magazine inside it, as sometimes happens when two magazines get caught up on the newsstand, and you shake Foreign Affairs or The Spectator and Anglers' Week or Railroad Modeller falls out. I shook The Bulletin but nothing fell out, and then the newsagent told me it was stapled in. 'What was stapled in?' I asked him, and he replied 'Newsweek.' 'Why?' I asked. 'I don't know,' he replied, smiling; 'the rep said something about falling circulation, but it's freed up an extra facing on the stand, and from next week I'll be stocking Monster Truck!'

Monster Truck must have been more of a success than either The Bulletin or Newsweek because not long after that the former dropped the latter from its content and, soon after, The Bulletin itself went under. They should have given it back to the poets. It was rubbish at the end; the kind of journalism you get when you give a column over to a stand-up comedian and the food page is written by a chef.

*

I've decided I don't need a telescope.

27.1.10

The plane.

Just before midday on a hot Saturday. I took the Ring Road west and exited onto Tullamarine Freeway a confusing hundred metres after bad signage and the city turn-off. One mistake and you’re back in town. Heat haze shimmered in the distance and on the horizon Melbourne International Airport shimmered with it. The airport sits on the edge of a basalt plain, a parched flatland of leaning eucalypts and vague beauty spoiled by the kind of endless concrete warehouses and distribution centres that swarm around every airfield in the world.

I drove up the ramp to departures and pulled up outside the terminal and Tracy and the boys got out. I told her I’d meet them in the food court behind the international terminal and pulled away from the kerb, down the ramp and into the car park. I pointed the car into my favourite spot near the Thrifty rent-a-car depot, where there is always an empty space and it’s a short walk to the terminal. Then I followed the walkway to the terminal below the hotel that keeps changing its name. Holiday Inn or Travelodge? Who knows? Why do hotels always change their names?

We weren’t flying anywhere. We had come to farewell Tracy’s mother and her sister and her sister’s teenage children before they flew 2720 kilometres to the other side of the country. They live in Melbourne's far east – my mother-in-law in darkest, deepest, most beautiful Gippsland of the emerald hills and black and white cows – and it’s an all-day trek for them to the airport involving Skybuses and other complex and slow-moving modes of transport. This means they arrive hours before their flight, because you have to build in extra time due to all the variables involved in travelling by complex, slow-moving transport modes. A taxi from Gippsland would cost more than the plane fare to Perth. By contrast, I live fifteen minutes from the airport and I can lock the front door, drive to the airport, park in the long-term car park, race-walk onto my e-ticketed flight and be drinking bad coffee and reading inflight magazines full of ads for expensive watches within the hour. On the other hand, I have planes flying overhead. But I like planes. I grew up watching DC-3s, Electras and Vickers Viscounts through my school window. I remember the day the first 727 arrived. They called it the whispering T-Jet. It didn’t whisper, it roared. It cut a 25-degree diagonal across my ten-year-old life as it soared from the north-south runway of Essendon Aerodrome.

*

They were taking a week’s holiday before attending the wedding of a nephew late on a summer’s afternoon on the white sand of some twilit, endless beach north of Perth: Sun an orange ball on the horizon. Do you take this woman? – Yes, I do. Sun a red semi-circle. Do you take this man? - Yes, I do. Sun almost gone, just a rippling red vee on the Indian Ocean. I declare you man and wife. You may kiss the bride. Champagne. Finger food. A marquee in the sand. Music. Heat. Darkness.

*

They were sitting at a window booth in Hudson’s overlooking the enormous tail of a Qantas Airbus, the rest of which was obscured by an aluminium terminal roof. All the other booths were full of people eating food from Nando’s and Hungry Jacks and enjoying the view and I noted subconsciously the garish takeaway wrappings of the food clashed with Hudson’s cool muted décor. My mother-in-law did the right thing and ordered a nice sober dark brown Hudson’s coffee, but my sister-in-law did no such thing and came back smiling with a package of hot chips redolent of vinegar and salt, and sat down and shared them around and they were gone in minutes. What is it about hunger and airports? And why do people wear all those funny clothes? And who are all those sports teams? The enormous Qantas red tail moved out of view slowly, like a galleon setting sail, and soon another took its place and then the flight was called. QF758 now boarding.

*

My mother-in-law and her daughter and her daughter’s children kissed William and Thomas and waved to us and disappeared from view and we left the terminal. As I drove out of the car park, a plane screamed overhead and we drove home via the Tullamarine Freeway to Bell Street and east. It was quiet now, and still hot.

25.1.10

How much is an online newspaper worth?

Robert Thomson, managing editor of News Corporation's The Wall Street Journal ponders the future of newspapers.

News Corporation's local offerings range from The Australian, a reasonably good broadsheet with a website that is near un-navigable, to Melbourne's Herald Sun, a sick parody of a tabloid overrun with tack, trash and typos.

Thomson wants to charge. But for what, and how?
Even at the Natural History Museum you generally have to buy a ticket to see the exhibits, and yet we are still having an angst-ridden argument over whether it is right to charge readers for all or some of our content online.
The problem is not that people want free news - the Herald Sun still sells half a million papers a day despite its Z-grade content. The problem is that the papers need their figures to sell advertising; if it's not circulation, it must be web visit figures, and they will drop if papers charge for online content. Thomson knows that only too well. Despite his impatience with angst-ridden arguments, Thomson is agonising over the issue, as is every publisher in the world.
Sites which are now free must re-examine the worth of their assets - their journalists, the connections to people of profile, their archive, their role as platforms - and think creatively about what is a premium experience, so that there is a real distinction in the mind of the reader.
Today's newspaper yields few 'premium experiences'. Every now and then I am glad I picked up a paper; often I throw it in the recycle bin threatening never to buy one again. An exception was a piece about John Cale in The Age last week; the story of a child, estranged by his social climber grandmother from his father because the latter was an English miner, who grew up to be a musician thanks to the encouragement of his mother. Now, there's a tale.

24.1.10

How to make a cake.













21.1.10

The Italian signora.

It’s that time of year. Drumroll: basil arrives in the garden. After last year’s basil had gone to seed, I had placed the stalks in a paper bag in the shed and, six months later, scattered the dried seeds about the garden. It’s hit and miss. You never know where seedlings will come up. But when they do they are bulletproof. Neither heat wave nor snail can stop a rampaging basil plant.

*

It’s a retail relic; an artefact of days gone by. It should be listed in Carter’s guide to 1950s collectables. What is it? It’s the deli section at Piedimonte’s. It cannot last, of course. Piedimonte’s deli hangs on grimly to its customer base of elderly Italian and Greek immigrants who still refuse to shop where their children now do; at the thousands of Coles and Woolworths hypermarkets spreading across the country like an army of freeze-dried mediocrity. Piedimonte’s cannot compete with Coles and Woolworth’s, but its deli makes the Coles and Woolworths equivalents look like pig troughs of bulk party food with their truckloads of cocktail frankfurts and greasy factory-produced potato salad and generic Vietnamese fish fillets and chicken drumsticks dipped in vats of soy.

I am not in the Fitzroy Piedimonte’s, but its distant satellite in the outer suburb of Pascoe Vale South. Well, it was then. It opened when the second wave of immigrants started buying into Coburg when Fitzroy and Carlton were full. Today, the supermarket sits on Bell Street, where you can’t park; and its clientele who don’t waddle in on walking frames park their aging Coronas and VH Commodores on the handkerchief of land at the back. There’s no other place. A couple of years ago Moreland Council wanted to annex the car park for a block of ‘apartments’ (meaning flats designed by architects) and there was almost a bloody revolution. Think elderly Italians bearing rolling pins and heavy frypans. And they call it the People’s Republic of Moreland.

Inside Piedimonte’s there is not, of course, enough room to stock the endless house-brand and no-name products you find in the two major chains, but Piedimonte’s makes up for that by defiantly stocking a far greater range of pasta than you’ll find anywhere else; while next to the deli, a dairy cooler is laden with cheeses pre-cut from the round and shrink-wrapped – kefalograviera, kasseri, provolone dolce and piccante, treccia, pecorino plain and with peppers, among others - if you don’t want to wait for the Italian signora behind the counter. The Italian signora wears a white coat and a smile, and on her head she has hair-pinned one of those reverse peak hats fringed with red and white checks, like a 1950s soda fountain attendant who forgot it was the 21st century. She wraps your smallgoods in patterned wax-backed paper so they stay cooler; at Coles they throw it in plastic and it cooks on the way home. The Italian signora also cuts off an extra two or three slices of salami or mortadella with olives for the boys so they don’t have to wait until they get home to eat.

*

I bought two very red and very ripe tress tomatoes, a packet of La Triestina spinach fettucine and a wedge of fresh ricotta cut from the round by the Italian signora. I drove out of the handkerchief car park and home, parked in the drive and picked three sprigs of basil from the garden bed under the front window.

Fettucine with ricotta and fresh tomatoes.

The simplest, most delicious summer dish of all. The queen of the table.

Cook fettucine until al dente or however you like it. Drain and arrange on serving plates. Halve tomatoes and slice thinly into half-moons. Place on pasta. Add ricotta and top with chopped basil and freshly cracked pepper.

Accompany with crusty bread dipped in olive oil into which you have added more finely chopped basil. Cold white wine. Sundown.

18.1.10

Three items in the news.

Last weekend I read the following three items in succession in the papers.

One: a man was detained on 17 charges after a violent incident on a highway. He had 349 prior convictions and was last jailed (for 18 months) in 2006 for an assault on a child. His own. And he's on the streets?

Two: Frank Skinner discusses capital punishment with a degree of levity necessary to make the subject palatable to the liberal sensibility, creating an 'id' to utter what he cannot: "My liberal ego takes a breather in the passenger seat and my right-wing id takes the wheel. ... Many liberals will be horrified by my id's nasty thought processes ...".

Three: Haiti. It was the picture: a three-month-old child, naked, face-in to a female rescuer, skin white with concrete dust like a small, precious, live statue. Smudging the dust at the base of the its back, a dark green stain told of the child's unutterable wait as it lay miraculously uncrushed beneath God knows how many tonnes of twisted concrete.

*

No connection between these articles at all.

But why may a man with hundreds of convictions including violent assault draw breath while a small probably-orphaned child soils itself in dreadful aloneness awaiting death or rescue?

Temperature: 25 chillies.

An item in the morning newspaper last week advised people to avoid tea on hot days. Nonsense. My mother and father used to double their tea intake during heatwaves. Hot and strong and sweet. It was cooling. My father never drank a glass of water in his life. Today you see people sucking on water bottles in air-conditioned shopping malls as if they were trekking through a wadi.

The same principle with spicy food. A chilli-laden dish is a great thing to eat on a sweltering night. Far better, for example, than a roast or heavy pasta. Eat it with hot tea or cold beer (only after the sun has gone down in the latter case) and you’ll be well fed and well hydrated. Vivek Singh, in discussing regional variations in Indian cooking in his book Curry: Classic and Contemporary (Absolute Press, 2008), writes:

'The southern end of the peninsula, consisting of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, is blessed by a long coastline, and hence a strong bias towards seafood dishes. ... The climate is quite tropical and can be very hot and humid. Chillies and spices are added liberally to dishes in order to promote sweating, creating a cooling effect.'
Indeed. Eat magnificently and be fanned by a gentle sea breeze picking its way through the coastal vegetation, curling across your verandah and ruffling your curtains in the evening light. Who needs a rumbling, dripping air-conditioner? Give me whispering pines, far-off traffic and a distant growling ocean any time.

From Singh’s book, I cooked the following dish:

Laal maas (fiery lamb curry)

1. Break 25 dried red chillies into two or three pieces each and soak them in warm water. Yes, this is going to be hot.

2. Dry-fry two teaspoons of cumin seeds until fragrant and mix them through two cups of yogurt along with four teaspoons of ground coriander, two teaspoons of ground chilli powder and one teaspoon of salt.

3. Heat a teaspoon of cloves, four re-soaked dried red chillies, two bay leaves, six green cardamom pods and four black cardamom* pods in three tablespoons of ghee or oil in a heavy pan. When they start to crackle and change colour, add six tablespoons of finely chopped garlic and sauté until it starts to turn golden. Now add two finely chopped onions and cook, stirring constantly. Four chillies down; 21 to go.

4. Now add 750g diced lamb (or goat, or mutton) and cook, stirring, over high heat for three minutes. Add 15 re-soaked chillies to the pan. That leaves, what, six chillies? Cook for another ten minutes.

5. Add the cumin-, chilli- and coriander-infused yogurt to the pan and cook 15 minutes over medium heat. Add two cups water, lid the pan, simmer 30 minutes. But what happens to the six remaining chillies?

6. Warm some more ghee in another pan, add six cloves and the rest of the re-soaked chillies and cook for a minute or two until they change colour; and then pour the mixture over the lamb. Finish the dish with chopped coriander and lemon juice.

This dish has an inbuilt temperature dial. You have four chances to turn down (or up) the heat: reduce the chilli powder in the initial yogurt mixture, in the first frying process, after the meat is added and finally in the ghee-clove-chilli addition at the end. And you can further fine-tune the heat by de-seeding the chilli at any or all stages.

*Track these down in Sydney Road. It’s hardly a hunt; there are more spice shops there than supermarkets now. No excuses not to use the genuine article.

17.1.10

Sunday morning coming down.

Hail is forecast for today. Haven't seen any yet; but there was a welcome shower late morning. Of course there was. Tracy had ventured outside to do some painting. I stayed inside and started a curry for tonight with plenty of chili and garlic and black cardomom (recipe later after I sample the result) and gazed out the window at the roses on the shed and the morning rain coming down and Tracy glancing at the sky.

*

Last night, a flattened green capsicum sandwiching a thick wad of home-made pesto on the barbecue, lightly wrapped in foil. It charred over the fire and the aroma was almost too much to bear while cooking and the flavour was sensational. Also, a warm salad of sweet potato: cut a peeled sweet potato into one-inch cubes, boil until soft, drain, toss in a bowl with a knob of butter until it coats the sweet potato, then toss over three of four chopped spring onions and sprinkle white vinegar. Salt and pepper and that's it. Oh, there were lamb chops as well. Lamb seems to be supplanting beef steaks on the barbecue. Lamb stays moist and tender however you cook it. Its fat layers assist in this as they drip away onto the coals and add extra barbecue flavour. Steak needs to be marbled to stay similarly moist. To prepare, I press salt and pepper and chopped fresh rosemary into each side and grill them, turning once. They are ready when the cut edge of the bone just starts to char. Seve with home-made mint sauce and sweet potato salad on the side.

12.1.10

Gilded honeyeaters.

Late Saturday morning, warm and overcast. I drove out to pick up Tracy from her walk along the cool path that runs between the ti-tree and the beach and came home with a single bed, two Parker pens, four tennis balls and six books, including Bolte: A Political Biography and The New Yorker Book of Lawyer Cartoons. On the way back we had stopped at a garage sale (William calls them garbage sales: four-year-old unintentional wit) but this one was good. I almost bought the Pentax SLR camera, perfect condition with original hand-case, box and instruction book, $5; but my hands were full. Someone else could have it. The bed, in excellent condition, is for Thomas. It’s a very beach-housey bed, of the type they used to call bedsteads, with polished walnut head and base connected by large iron interlocks to the timber-framed wire mattress support. We slept in these as children. They used to sag with use, especially when we jumped up and down on them, but this one is perfectly flat.

*

Sunday evening, six o’clock. Radio news item: hot weather warning. Cut to a spokesman from some government department or other advising ‘people’ to ‘ensure adequate fluid intake to avoid dehydration’, before continuing - after a kind of verbal semi-colon pause - ‘however if you choose to cool down by swimming, do so safely to avoid drowning’. It wasn’t the radio’s fault, but I punched the dial just a little too hard and switched over to 3MBS where you can listen for hours without some government spokesman telling you not to die at the hand of your own stupidity.

*

Next morning the Herald Sun front page screamed Get Out Now. The accompanying story had the CFA chief - or it might have been police chief Simon Overland, they all sound the same - advising ‘people’ in Code Red ‘catastrophic’ areas to leave early if that was part of their plan; or alternatively, if it wasn’t part of their plan, to stay. The language in these announcements is beyond absurd. It's a kind of jargon end game. The bureaucrats have reached a point at which their language is now simply refusing to convey any sense of what they actually mean. Perhaps they don’t know what they mean. They could drop the ridiculous radio ads describing the new fire warning system and just play the old Manfred Mann song (with a few changes) instead and save everyone the pain of trying to understand.

If you want to stay
Well that’s all right
But if you’ve got to go, go now
Or else you’ll have to stay all night.


(And who are ‘people’ anyway? Do they mean the public?)

*

Monday. 43 degrees. In and out of the water. A northerly blew across the bay and if you sat behind the ti-tree after immersing yourself it felt cool. No fires on the horizon until late in the afternoon. A dark smudge rose above Mt Martha and drifted away to the south. It turned out to be the Inghams chicken processing plant. No code red warnings for chickens.

6 p.m. Dark grey cloud moved across the bay from the west and for almost a whole minute, fat drops of rain danced on the bay, simmering the steel grey water as we stood knee-deep in it. Hot rain in the afternoon reminds me of childhood; in particular, one hot afternoon at Williamstown beach that turned stormy, and hard rain hit our faces as we swam in to shore, and I rode home rolling around covered in sand in the back of my father’s EH Holden wagon, the seats filled with other children.

*

Last night was Melbourne’s hottest night in a century and the equal hottest on record: a low of 30.9 degrees celsius. That means the next hottest night was over a hundred years ago. Global warming, early twentieth-century style. All that railway building.

*

Too hot these days for elaborate cooking. Vegetable salads, rice and seafood just about covers it.

A late dinner: one cup basmati rice and three cups cold water in a pot with a tight-fitting lid, stir, bring to boil, simmer three minutes, switch off, leave for ten minutes, lift off lid. Perfect rice. Quarter one potato, one yellow button squash, one onion. Chop one carrot into rounds and a head of broccoli into florets. String a dozen each green beans and snow peas. Cook vegetables progressively, adding snow peas last with seconds left to go. Pile vegetables over rice, smother with hot chili peanut sauce. Drink cold beer.

We sat on the balcony and watched the honeyeaters scrabble in the ti-tree and the gold of the late sun creeping up and out of the boughs until it was dark.

7.1.10

Dinner guest.

I opened the shed door carefully and with difficulty. The shed, vintage 1948, is on a lean and the door sits awkwardly in its frame, the timber of which is so weathered it will no longer take nails or screws without crumbling or splitting. The door, and the shed itself, will last as long as I don’t slam it, or leave it open to swing. One blast of wind will have it off its hinges and then the whole shed will have to come down and I will have to put up one of those flimsy Bunnings aluminium ones that you can’t stand up in and how long will that last? Stick with what I’ve got.

The shed’s unlined interior timber framework is still fine even though the uprights are several degrees out of perpendicular. The horizontal beams have had countless nails hammered into them over the years and from these hang tools, ropes, interesting pieces of metal waiting years to find uses, ancient extendable timber-handled iron wood clamps from the days when people made furniture with dowel and glue using hardwood instead of pine, old dog collars and leads, plastic bags containing extension cords and power boards, and hundreds of other items that cannot be thrown out because they are useful, even if not in actual use.

The shed has no windows. To look into some corners you have to wait until the sun is at a certain angle. Or use a torch. Power is not connected. In one dusty corner sits a stack of spare plastic chairs. I bring these out each summer. I hose the dust off them and set them around the table and we have barbecues all summer and at the end of summer, the spare chairs go back in the shed and collect dust again, a kind of mundane suburban equinoctial event.

This year, flecks of dust and broken dead leaves were caught underneath one of the chairs in a web. Webs don’t hose off. I upended it and pulled out the web strands and couldn’t see any arachnids, but it had to be there. The recessed squares of plastic adjacent to the underside of each leg make perfect spider holes. I scrubbed out some more web and there it was, folding itself up into nothing; but when forced out, poor thing, it was dazzling glossy black in the sunshine with a striking red diamond on its back like a winning jockey’s silk and eight shiny black thin legs. It was a about an inch in length including the legs and was as fine a red back spider as you’re likely to see and there it was living under my guests’ chair.

It was just one of the original family. We seem to be living in a red back spiders’ ancestral home. About a year ago, Thomas was wheeling one around in his wooden trolley. Lucky he didn’t pick it up. William wandered inside and asked me what the orange bug was in Tom’s trolley. I thought it was going to be one of those bugs we used to call billy beetles, or the like, but it was Mrs Red Back. Another time several were under the outdoor table at a lunch we gave.

Further inside the recess there was another screwed-up lump of grey web. I pulled it out and could see that it contained another spider. This one had no red diamond. It was her partner. He was dead. She would eat him later.

6.1.10

The pointy end of the peninsula.



The event (see yesterday's post) commenced somewhere in the wider part in the distance and proceeded into the foreground where, at the narrowest section, a fierce southerly blast blew everyone's hats into the water; and then along the road at the top, down around the lip at the end of the peninsula, up the steps and back. The waves of wild Bass Strait make a stark comparison with Port Phillip Bay's gentler waters. What you don't see in the picture is the Bellarine Peninsula, like the opposite crab's claw. It appears so close as you crest the last rise that you think you could long-jump the Rip and land on it. No wonder so many ships were lost at the point where they meet:

"On April 3 1936, at 7:30AM, and in relatively calm conditions, Nairana, under command of Captain McIntyre, was approaching Port Phillip heads with a full load of cargo, while most of the 88 passengers were either in their cabins or having breakfast in the dining saloon. A few passengers were on the deck to experience their passing from Bass Strait into the Bay. Suddenly, and without warning, a huge wave rose up from the calm waters and and struck her starboard quarter. She rolled over to such an extent that the water came up to the boat deck, more than 40 feet above the water line. A passenger named Parsons, his wife and 20 year old daughter were swept from the promenade deck and were never seen again. (A fleet of small craft later searched). Robert Gillow, another passenger, was killed when the wave smashed him against the ship. His wife and infant daughter had a narrow escape as did stokers in the boiler room who became pinned against the bulkheads by barrows, shovels, and loose coal. Many passengers received injuries while in the dining room, food and crockery were thrown around and some were scalded by hot water."
(Picture courtesy Mornington Peninsula Shire.)

5.1.10

Rhyming oxymoron.

I dislike fun runs and avoid any event that uses those two vapid rhyming words in its title. What's fun about paying $45 to lope around a course someone else has chosen along with 25,000 sweating strangers obscuring the scenery and wearing worn-out 1980s running t-shirts bearing the faded words '1981 Big M marathon', when you could do exactly the same thing on your own, enjoying peaceful solitude - and the scenery - free of charge? Fun? About as much fun as shopping at Northland the week before Christmas. Or any other time.

On Saturday I made an exception. For two very good reasons. First, the organisers of the annual Portsea event have removed the words ‘fun run’ from the event's title, branding it instead the 'Portsea Twilight 2010'. The second reason is the scenery. Plus, I didn’t run anyway. I walked. Why hurry, with all that view to enjoy?

The event starts on the old road leading to the pointy end of the peninsula normally not open to the public because it is crawling with unexploded bombs and lost ordnances left over from the days when this entire end of the peninsula was a defence establishment. You’d think military discipline and efficiency would have meant bombs should not have been left laying around, but the warning signs are on the fences every hundred metres or so, so all I can deduct is that defence personnel must have had some pretty wild Saturday nights to have left their bombs and guns all over the place.

So you stick to the road. And what a road. It carries you on a rollercoaster ride along the top of the peninsula where it narrows to mere metres, before a last circular rise overlooking the heads, with the polite waves of Port Phillip Bay on your right and the threatening, rolling spume of thunderous Bass Strait on your left. It’s like running down a soup spoon resting on the side of a bowl. Way down below, a ship was labouring up towards the city under a load of containers stacked higher than the bridge. It was blowing a gale and at the neck of the spoon where the cliffs fall away on both sides, running caps were flying off everywhere and being blown into the sea. We circled the bowl of the spoon, dropped down to sea level and commenced the climb back out and up, via 110 stairs. There was a three-minute bottleneck wait at the bottom of the steps that got the runners all flustered and madly hitting buttons on their oversized computer wristwatches because it was going to play hell with their elapsed times, but could we just relax and enjoy the view of the gulls reeling gold in the light of the sun going down over the water? No? OK, then. Go ahead and hit your buttons and fret about your interrupted time. Obsessed.

Then we got to the top of the stairs and it was the same rise and fall in reverse as we advanced, like an army without ordnances, back up the peninsula with a different view this time; across a darkening bay to Melbourne and Mt Martha and Arthur’s Seat and points further east and west and north and a couple of empty ships setting off into the night, to China, to fetch more containers.

The Portsea event is held annually. I would recommend it to everyone. But only because they don’t call it a fun run. You’ll never forget the views, where two bodies of water meet at twilight and turn gold before your eyes.

4.1.10

The old book.

And now it was another day and I was on a beach and the sky was blue and it was neither hot nor cold and there was nothing to look forward to except fresh mussels in wine tonight; and tomorrow, which would be the same.

I had nothing to do and nothing to remember and nothing in my head except the book I was reading, an old Hemingway that had sat unread and yellowing on my bookshelf for years, next to a brown hardback Brunnings Australian Gardener from 1958. So it was time I read it. It had a 1980s Arrow Classic red cover design that had dated badly and typography that made it look wrong, like a light romance by Edgar Allen Poe.

Like all good writers, Hemingway does great geography and he’s in a car lurching across a dusty border into Spain with low dry mountains and villages in the distance and later there will be bulls and wine and treachery and heat and death.

I read for a time while William and Thomas moved sand at my feet with small plastic vehicles and soon we arrived in one of the Spanish villages and got out of the car and went into a dim bar and then I fell asleep. That was fine. Tracy was by my side to watch the boys. She was reading as well: James Hadley Chase. We seem to be catching up on our twentieth century light reading and ten per cent. of the next one has already passed. The novel fell out my hand and I dreamed that aliens had landed on the beach and they saw people doing nothing except read long novels and wonder what to have for dinner, and children shouting and splashing, and yellow sand stretching to two horizons; and after a while one alien asked the other if he wants to return to their cold dark rock six million light years away, and the other replied "No, of course not. Are you crazy?" and so they stayed and lived happily ever after, eating mussels in wine.

*

Evening. The last day of 2009. I showered a dozen North Queensland wild prawns with finely chopped garlic and squirted them with lime juice and a shot of chili sauce and threw them over the coals for exactly thirty-five seconds each side.

I had marinated some fresh calamari for an hour or two in lemon juice and a few sprigs of oregano and a dash of pepper and then I dusted them in flour just before I placed them on the grill and they turned opaque and slightly crisp within a minute and I whipped them off and onto plates and more lemon juice on top.

Then there was ocean trout in foil: lime juice again with thinly sliced rounds of onion and ten minutes over the fire was probably a little too long.

Earlier I had made a peanut and chili dipping sauce, the kind known in some places as sate but every region has its variation. In a pot, I heated about ¾ cup peanut butter, two tablespoons tamari, four of hot chili sauce, a good squeeze of harissa paste, two squeezes of lime juice and two tablespoons of white vinegar. I slowly added enough water, mixing it through, to give the finished product an ideal dipping consistency; somewhere between motor oil before you start the engine on a cold day, and warm honey. The amounts and ratios of these ingredients can alter according to your taste. I like it spicy so I usually use more chili paste and sometimes a raw chopped chili. The sauce was to go with the prawns and fish, but it is very good with blanched vegetables such as zucchini, florets of broccoli etc. Or try it with sweet potato: split a sweet potato down the middle, bake it and top it generously with peanut sauce and sour cream and a squirt of lime juice and a shower of coriander. You’ll think you’re halfway between the West Indies and Thailand. (That would put you on a shore in Honolulu; or, if you went in the opposite direction, in the southern Sahara in the north of Chad. The sauce would taste exactly the same in either case but you’d probably enjoy it slightly more on the Pacific sand.)

*

Nine o’clock New Year’s eve. Dinner on the front verandah. Crackling thunder in the distance. Blue black clouds low enough to touch. Cold white wine in glasses the size of halved footballs. Why do wine glasses keep getting bigger? They take up half the table. It’s one of those fads, like dinner plates as big as truck wheels in the late 1990s.

Crunch. The prawn tasted of sea and lime with a far-off chili warmth. Then bang. Out went the lights, and at the same time the clouds opened like a tap. It rained tropically, with no wind and the air still hot. I lit candles and they guttered and we ate the prawns and rice and hot peanut sauce and later the lights came on again, which was a shame because I like candles, especially when they gutter. They remind me of a draughty Rathdowne Street French café I used to eat at in the late 1970s. It was called Bullfrog.

*

Early New Year’s Day was like that first morning in The Day of the Triffids. Deathly quiet. Hours went by. Nothing. Then, from not far away, perhaps next door where they had been singing Morningtown Ride at 2 a.m., came the first inkling of human life reawakened. It was that unmistakable, enchanting aroma of bacon and eggs cooking, with back notes of buttered toast and a mesmerising hint of coffee. Brewed.

Happy New Year. And Decade.