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

29.4.10

If on a winter's night a cook ...

The leaves fell and the cold weather dropped on the city like a broken garage roll-a-door and everyone put on coats and hats and started talking about food. Cold weather food.

Last night 774-Melbourne-ABC1's Derek Guille (why couldn't they stick with 3LO? why does everything have to be so damned complicated?) was asking his listeners what they liked to cook when the weather was cold; and at first you had to think because it's been so long, but then the calls started coming through and they were about goulash and lamb shank soup and pork and bean stew and ...

... and someone called in and said pea and ham soup. Pea and ham soup is almost a default winter dish; the one you think of when you can't think of anything else. It's a good staple, but it is really cooked as frequently as people claim? I don't notice a lot of ham hocks being scanned across the check-out. The clue came when the caller and the host agreed that pea and ham soup goes perfectly with fresh, crusty bread.

Wrong. Fresh, crusty bread is good with thin soups and consommes and acidic soups such as tomato; but it is not an ideal match for pea soup - with ham or not. The two bland textures get in each other's way and neither stars. What they should have said is that pea and ham soup goes perfectly with croutons - small, crunchy, toasty, buttery, flavour-packed cubes that taste great but don't overwhelm the soup. A crunch of crouton and a slurp of pea and a lick of salty ham; and add a drop or two of worcestershire sauce and there's nothing to touch it. It's untouchable.

Some of my winter favourites have been second-hand meals. The following come to mind. They are probably in the archive somewhere; but blogs don't come with indexes, and the search function works when it damn well feels like it.

1. Rigatoni with barley, chickpeas and avocado
Take sauce from leftover lamb shank and barley stew. Warm through the barley and some of the gravy with shards of the meat. Freshen it up with half a can of chickpeas and slice an avocado through it for silky texture and unctuous flavour. Boil up a pot of large rigatoni or tortiglioni. Serve the barley, chickpea and avocado ragu over the pasta. Garnish with parsley generously.

2. Garlic mash with tomato, olive and caper ragu.
Take leftover sauce from osso buco cooked with tomatoes, onions, olives and capers. Warm through the sauce and refresh with half a can of diced tomatoes. Serve over garlic mashed potatoes.

3. The best tuna sauce for pasta.
Ditto leftover marinara sauce. Add half a can of diced tomatoes, a can of tuna and half a cup of frozen peas. Serve over warm polenta or bucatini.

*

What are you planning to cook this winter? Or, if you are on the other side of the world, what recipes have you just filed away under 'see you next year'?

27.4.10

How books work.

A phone call from the publisher in the morning. He told me he'd been to the printer's. The book was gone.

It had been a nightmare. The college that had commissioned the book - an oral history of its relatively short seventy-year history - had pulled the launch date for the book back from August to May. This year. That was last December. The manuscript was still in my computer in January. I had read it on-screen, printed it out, read it on paper, cut and pasted the chapters from their cyber birthplace into word documents, and sent these to the publisher in late January. He commenced design and layout in February. He got the typestyle in one. It was perfect, but I was just about beyond arguing. Having built the body, he poured in the text and let it flow like treacle - warm treacle so it would flow faster - into five hundred pages organised into a preface; a contents page; an acknowledgment, disclaimer, NLA cataloguing details and copyright page; and seven neat chapters. That's it. No index. Five hundred and twenty-four pages. Thirty-five black and white illustrations.

That took March. March flew. Then he flung them back at me, chapter by chapter. I read them on-screen, as real page images. Then I printed them out and read them again on paper and marked up changes and typos and factual errors and omissions, and emailed the chapters right back to him again. The days were flying away like desk calendar pages in a bridging scene from a 1940s B-grade movie. Without the dramatic music. I didn't think we'd make it.

Then the last, most horrible, part. Getting the college to sign off - approve for printing - the book at proof stage. Anything can go wrong here and often does.

First, a forwarded email from the lawyers about the disclaimer, sent from the college without comment.

"It's fine as far as a disclaimer goes," wrote the lawyer, smugly, "but of course it will not prevent an action in defamation if any of the material is offensive to an aggrieved past student/teacher."

Of course. He's a lawyer. He could never preclude the chance of an action. (And I love the slash in place of 'and/or'.)

On he went, thoughtfully, as if he had just returned from lunch and a good red at Caterina's in Queen Street, "You need to be sure that where names are mentioned there is no likelihood of defamation. If individuals are mentioned and you even remotely think there could be a problem you should try to have the material signed off."

A hundred contributions from staff, students and associates all writing in varying degrees of fondness about seventy years of the organisation and people within it and he wants every one, writer or writee, to sign it off? Well, at least, where I 'remotely' believed someone could sue.

I fired off a return email to the college. The college replied next morning.

"Relax," it read. "He's just being a lawyer. The disclaimer is fine."

I took the proofs to the college in a box. Five hundred pages fitted perfectly in a half-dozen wine case (Mt Alexander 2007 Shiraz). I gave the man at the college the weekend to read it. He was going to the football on the Saturday. "Take it along and read it at half-time," I joked. "I will," he joked back. I love it when you can joke something dangerously important all the way through without making a serious comment. You joke it into submission. "Just don't go out into a windstorm with it," I continued. "It's the only copy." He promised.

The launch is less than two weeks away. How fast does digital printing print? I've got no idea. The publisher didn't seem overly concerned. Why doesn't anyone tell me anything?

*

I took the ANZAC Day long weekend off and we went to the beach house to relax, but I kept having nightmares about the pages flying out of the spines of the finished books when you opened them - all of them - like desk calendar pages in a 1940s ...

22.4.10

Adana kebab.

It's been hot for a week now. It was 29 degrees at 2p.m. Late in the afternoon, storm clouds piled up in cylinders of violent purple and gold. Later, they were black, and distant thunder rumbled and crashed and the sky flickered like a thousand broken neon lights. But no rain. Not here anyway.

Usually at this time of year the cool air creeps in after dark and chases you inside but the air stayed humid all night. We sat out under the grapevine, turning red now, and dined in the kind of heat they call Indian summer in some parts of the world, so it may as well be that here.

The differences are striking. In summer you can't escape the sun in the garden, except directly under the canopies of the trees. Now, a long shadow falls across the yard, providing welcome respite. The trees are red and gold, but the leaves haven't yet started to drop. And the lawn is lush thanks to the late rains of summer.

*

Dinner was easy work. Minced lamb mixed with a finely chopped chile, a dash of chili powder and an egg. Formed into duck-egg shapes and pressed gently to flatten slightly. Then on to the barbecue over a bunch of mint leaves growing in the old double concrete trough next to the shed. Five minutes, turn, three minutes. Done. (You can use flat metal skewers to speed the cooking; they heat and cook it from inside as well.)

Fresh flat bread from A1 in Sydney Road. On each piece, a line of lettuce, a line of sliced tomato, a line of sliced onion, a line of garlic-infused yogurt. Then the grilled lamb. Two or three each depending on size and appetite. A good squirt of lemon juice, a shake of salt. Wrap tightly. Slice cylinder in two, fold two halves back on each other on the plate.

Glass of red, for a change. We walked about the weather and names for girls. William and Thomas were easy. Naming a girl is harder. I wondered why.

*

The distant thunder rolled on, somewhere else. I felt a drop of rain. It hardly made the ground. It just made the air more humid.

Enjoy your Indian summer. I like the colours and the heat and the fact that every warm day that passes means a shorter winter.

21.4.10

Breakfast radio.

I woke up one morning in April 1985 and there was a hole in the air.

I went to the kitchen and switched on the light, the kettle and the radio. The first two worked fine, but the wrong voice came out of the radio. The voice belonged to Rod McNeil, and in a grave tone it announced that Peter Evans had had a heart attack and wouldn’t be on air that day, or the next day, or the next week; but it was hoped he would make a speedy recovery and be back at the 3LO microphone in due course. Evans never returned. He died three months later. He left a gap in Melbourne radio that would never be filled.

Peter Evans was one very few radio announcers who never spoke to his audience. Instead, he talked to himself, or to Rosemary, his producer. You felt like you were in the studio with them. Evans always spoke to Rosemary slightly off mike, so you got a picture of the studio in your mind; and his mumbling soliloquy style suited your early morning fragility. He was grumpy and cheerful at the same time, if that is possible, and his manner was far more personal, not to mention easier to listen to, than any off-the-shelf power-laughing FM announcer's verbal acrobatics, over-inflections, lame jokes and smut. And while FM stations were troweling the airwaves with Wham, Phil Collins and Hall & Oates (hell, they probably still are), Evans kept on playing songs like That Lucky Old Sun by Peter Dawson, Australia's greatest bass-baritone. Perhaps greatest singer period. Evans made reading the paper, eating toast and drinking tea a pleasant, civilised experience. The FM lot were and are about as aurally pleasant as fingernails on a blackboard.

This month marks twenty-five years of no Evans at breakfast. I can still hear his voice, grumbling about joggers almost knocking him over as they ran through the City Square; or announcing the temperature in Paraburdoo, lampooning the oddness of the name. A bit rich for a Welshman.

20.4.10

Scene at a bar.

Ah, the wine list, please, sommelier. Or do you prefer to be addressed as the wine waiter?

You can call me what you like, sir, so long as you leave a tip.

Fine. Ah, the Eileen Hardy chardonnay, please.

Certainly sir. A fine choice. Citrus, melon, gooseberry notes with a touch of sultana. *

A former winery boss has been found guilty of passing off sultana grapes as the more prized chardonnay variety, Adelaide Now reports.

One-time managing director of Riverland-based Rivers Wines, Andrew Hashim has been convicted in the Magistrates Court on 34 counts of falsifying records, following the company having earlier pleaded guilty to 97 similar counts.

The court found that large quantities of grape juice and wine were sold as chardonnay during the 2003 vintage to more than 10 companies including Hardy's, now known as Constellation Australia, and Orlando, now owned by Pernod Ricard.
Meanwhile, in a town called Griffith, where anything could happen, the Wine Grapes Marketing Board has swooped on a liquor retailer and bought up all remaining stocks of dumped Argentinian wine being sold there in 2-litre bottles for $1 each:

Before the the board decided to buy the last remaining bottles of the wine, Mr Simpson said it was being dumped on the market at a time when oversupply was sending local growers to the wall.

He said the board also intended to have the wine tested to ensure it met Australian standards for minimum chemical residue limits.
I think he meant 'maximum'. Meanwhile, grape growers are giving up the whole shambles of an industry and ripping out vines:

DIABOLICAL. That's the word being used to describe the plight of grape growers in what for many is the lowest-paid harvest in nearly 20 years.

With vintage completed in Australia's inland, irrigated wine regions, another 20-30 per cent price cut has signalled breaking point for many growers. ... more than 4000ha of vines - or 17-18 per cent of the Riverland's vineyards - being ripped out or abandoned in the past two years.

On the Victorian side of the Murray Valley, growers have already abandoned or removed at least 3600ha of vines.
*

Meanwhile, back at the bar ...

Sultana? Don't you mean grigio or SB, waiter?

Er, yes. Sorry, sir. I was looking at the dessert blackboard at the time. Who'd put sultana juice in chardonnay? (LAUGHS) Ridiculous.

17.4.10

Up Around the Bend.

That's what happens when you hit publish post instead of save, complete with typos. Does anyone else write like that? Here's the rest of it.

*

It was Saturday morning and Off the Record was on the radio and I was painting again and the sun was shining and the announcer was talking about Independent Record Store Day. I'm not sure if that was the official United Nations Independent Record Store Day or just a bunch of Melbourne music enthusiasts getting together to promote themselves. Probably the latter. The UN is too busy.

The announcer, not Brian Wise this week, played what he described as a 'promotional floppy disk' which had been a freebie in a 1972 issue of New Musical Express. The disk was a compilation of track selections from a new album by the Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street. He played the disk and it was full of crackles and hisses and it sounded fantastic.

It got me thinking about the record stores I have visited over the years and in particular the record store from which I purchased my first record. That would have been the store known only by its street number: 100 Puckle Street, Moonee Ponds. It was a barn of a place that sold stationery and other items and there was a huge recorded music section near the front window that drew music lovers, mainly teenagers as I remember, from suburbs around. The first LP I brought home from 100 Puckle Street was Cosmo's Factory, a piece of vinyl packed with fat, swampy bass and soaring lead and slide that nearly blew the roof off the house when I mischievously I switched it on at full volume when half the house was still asleep one Sunday morning. "There's a place up ahead and I'm goin' ..."

My brother and I had long debates about which Creedence Clearwater record was the better - his Willy and the Poor Boys or my Cosmo's Factory. We could never decide so we had to keep playing them in turn.

Where did you buy your first record?

16.4.10

Drought over, according to lily.

Last month the naked ladies made their annual appearance, baring their slender limbs and opening their delicate pink blooms in the autumn sun.

Belladonna lilies (amaryllis) are a living relic of times gone by. They were a garden favourite decades ago. No-one puts them in any more, but the elderly bulbs still in the ground remain in blissful ignorance of garden fads and continue to flower annually. (Or not: more in the third paragraph.) You can see them around the countryside where old farmhouses once stood; and now there might be just a tumbledown shack, or the remains of an outhouse, or an old wire clothesline slung between two rotting posts, or even just the brick chimney of a long-gone timber house that has burned or crumbled away. The lilies can be seen close to what might have been the back or front door, and they pop up each year as if the house were still there and householders to marvel at their pinkness and beauty and put them in a vase on a mantel that isn't there any more. (Sometimes there are also fruit trees grown wild, or the occasional once-tame rose that has climbed and engulfed any remaining structure.)

*

A few weeks ago, one of these pink beauties sprang out of the ground under an eave by the front door at the beach house. We have had the place since 1999 and the belladonna has never appeared in that time. Perhaps the drought really is over and the water table is reaching parts that haven’t seen sufficient moisture for more than a decade. That means Belladonnas are able to survive at least twelve years without water and without flowering, holding life deep inside themselves and waiting for the day when the return of reviving water sends them in search of light and warmth again.

Either that or someone is running around the peninsula and sticking bulbs in people's gardens at random. I doubt it!

15.4.10

Throw out the Beatrix Potter boxed set. And that boring old Kenneth Grahame book about rats and moles.

I really shouldn't be drawn into these discussions. One of today's newspapers - the smaller, trashier one - reports:

Playing computer games with your children can be just as valuable as reading to them, an expert claims.
It depends on what you mean by 'valuable' and 'expert', I suppose.

Jeffrey Brand, head of media and communications at Bond University ... likens concerns over the effect of computer games to 19th century fears that reading novels was bad for children because it would stop them from playing outdoors.
Jeffrey can liken all he likes. It doesn't mean the comparison is valid. Or even in the same galaxy in terms of logic or common sense. You have to remember he is an academic.

And he believes it's only a matter of time before there is a "canon" of classic computer games, just as there is a literary canon of classics by great writers such as Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens.
Coriolanus' Smashing Cyborg Escapade. The Merry Wives of Grand Theft Auto. Romeo and Mario. Jeffrey Brand warms to his own hare-brained theory:

"We're on the brink," he said. "People are already celebrating a 'games canon' of computer games that are in some way advancing the form. ... You have to go through a trash culture before you arrive at high culture."
You're right about that, Jeffrey.

13.4.10

Throw another tail on the barbecue.

And so ended more than 120 balmy days in a row, in which the maximum daily temperature did not fall below twenty Celsius. As well as warmth, there was plenty of rain, so the garden grew; and there was lawn, and the sound of mowers resonated on Saturday mornings again across the suburb.

As the warm days crash headlong into cooler weather, I cooked something that welcomed an old winter favourite, but was finished on the barbecue. Autumn compromise. The best of both worlds.

Kare Kare

This is a traditional Filipino twice-cooked oxtail dish with a tomato peanut sauce and a fishy kick. It had a livelier flavour and is easier to eat than the oxtail stews and soups we are used to.

With old-fashioned oxtail stew recipes, you brown the tails first. Forget that - here, you just throw them in the pot with seasonings and brown them later – on the barbecue.

Stew:
I put a kilogram of oxtail – about seven pieces – in a large pot with a chopped onion, a bay leaf, three cloves of garlic and salt and pepper. The I covered it with water, brought it to the boil, simmered it for an hour, then switched it off and let it cool.

Stir:
Then I made the sauce: in a pot, I cooked a small chopped onion and a clove of garlic in a little oil for a few minutes until they started to soften; added three tablespoons of peanut butter and ¾ cup each of tomato puree and broth from the stew, and stirred it over a low heat until it thickened. Then I stirred through three tablespoons of chopped parsley and a dash of salt and pepper.

Barbecue:
I removed the oxtail pieces from broth, seasoned them and brushed them with oil, and placed them on the very hot grate, turning them every couple of minutes. Six minutes: done.

I served the tails on boiled rice, three to a plate and one left over. I spooned chopped anchovies over the oxtail and topped it with the tomato peanut sauce. (You can serve the sauce on the side for dipping. In place of anchovies, you could use a few drops of fish sauce; if you were in Manila you might use bagoong.)

11.4.10

How to run a truly bad restaurant.

When Shannon Bennett announced he was moving his Vue de Monde restaurant to the 55th floor of the Rialto building, he told the papers, "(British critic) A.A. Gill said no restaurant with good views has ever had good food and I plan to prove him wrong."

The opposite might prove the rule. The meal I had at Stefano's viewless cellar restaurant at Mildura's Grand Hotel was as good as any I've eaten. The down side is it's a 1,076 round trip for dinner from Melbourne, although you could break the trip each way and stay mid-point at Wycheproof, where you'll hear the lonesome midnight whistle of the late goods train as it rumbles down the main street in the dead of night. You'll think it's the garlic snails and the cheese platter you ate, but it's not, it's a real train. They built a track down the middle of the main street for some reason lost in the mists of history.

Then again, Lake House in Daylesford has stunning views and a good reputation for its food. I've never eaten there.

Let's refine the theory. As well as views, a truly bad restaurant must also have two other key features, which are:

(a) A floorshow, and
(b) It moves. The restaurant, I mean.

That brings us to the most appalling restaurant in Melbourne's history: Rob's Carousel. The entire place was built on a circular platform. It was one giant lazy susan. As you ate your prawn cocktail entree and steak diane main course washed down with a bottle of Porphyry Pearl or a couple of fluffy ducks, you could watch the lights of Queen's Road slide by your window every five minutes. Great for the digestion. Or, if you were queasy, you could direct your attention inboard and watch the floorshow at the pivot of the circle. Veteran waiters tell of unsteady patrons walking through the wrong door and stepping off into Albert Park Lake in the darkness. Other veteran waiters tell of opening wrong doors to patrons who hadn't left a tip. The place was big in the 1970s. It didn't last of course. People kept falling over in the carpark.

8.4.10

Across the mountains.

It was a hot Easter and we were in the same small country town in the same green hills of Gippsland. There is almost no flat ground in this town. All the houses are on slopes and the slope down which the boys rolled their boiled eggs for the annual egg roll was steeper than you'd like; and the eggs tumbled out of sight, gathering speed, and the boys laughed and ran and fell on their faces on the soft green grass chasing them down the hill.

*

Sunday lunch was a picnic at Tarago overlooking the river where it is dammed. It was a hot day and we got there early and we won the double: a table under cover of trees, close to an electric barbecue. Grandmother and aunts and uncles hauled in shiploads of fare in old-fashioned tartan coldboxes and someone threw a large cloth over the table, obscuring the timber slat table, so that the wine and beer glasses were falling over all afternoon until you learned to find a flat spot underneath the cloth. I drove the barbecue. You had to press the button every ten minutes or it switched off. There was enough Scotch sausage to feed Aberdeen for a week and I grilled it to just a slight char and the aroma of coriander and pepper drifted across the picnic ground on faint white smoke and heads in other parties reclined on blankets turned and wondered what they were missing out on. Later there were tins of cakes and biscuits and coffee from an old steel thermos that has probably seen fifty Easters.

*

Late afternoon. I left alone, leaving the boys and their mother to stay with my mother-in-law for a week at her little house in the beautiful rolling green hills. I usually take the freeway south, down out of the hills, and then west across the vast flatland that stretches past Pakenham and bores onwards to Melbourne. But this time I turned north where there was no freeway. You start at Neerim South and you pass Neerim, Neerim Junction, the sign to Neerim East, and then Neerim North. No sign of Neerim West or Neerim Heights or Neerim Springs. Along this road you stare at the mountain range rising in front and getting closer; a wall of green shadow with a jagged line at the top and even more jagged in places where the fires burned last year. Then you hit the green wall at a T-junction and the way to the right rises further into the mountains and you end up at Mt Baw Baw. I turned left, where the road falls, and headed west into a chasm. The road dropped down to the forest floor and was flanked by giant eucalypts rising up out of tree ferns. When the road straightened out of its curves, far-off ridges and peaks showed ahead in the opened gap. I felt like a beetle crawling along the nave of a mediaeval cathedral. It was late in the day and the sky, when you could see it, was late autumn gold. The day was still warm and I had the window down in the old orange Volvo 244 and the air smelled of eucalypt and pine.

*

The last time I had driven this road was a long time ago. I had my two older children with me in the car. It was 1985 and they were seven and four years old. Amazingly, we were riding in a car that was newer then than the one I was driving now. This Volvo was manufactured in 1975; the car I drove back then was another Volvo, a '76 GLE model. The things you remember.

*

Down through Powelltown, once a logging village on the side of the mountain, where narrow gauge rail and tramways used to cart timber from the sawmills down to the trucks below. Then I was out of the mountains and the road met the larger highway before Launching Place. After that, Seville and Lilydale, and stoplights, and vast intersections, and then the furniture stores and takeaway places near Ringwood where you smell the drift from KFC and Hungry Jacks. It was almost dark now; daylight saving ended the night before.

*

Then the freeway and home. I made a late dinner; just ordinary spaghetti with red capsicum and slices of avocado and a few anchovies and some parmesan cheese and parsley, and ate it alone. Where's all the noise? I had to switch on some music. Miles Davis in Spain. Another Easter over.

6.4.10

Late one night in a Brunswick Street cafe.

It was late. I was sitting at a small table against the side wall in a Brunswick Street cafĂ©, facing the street. It was the kind of place where you can go alone with a book or a newspaper or nothing at all and not be bothered and eat in peace. It was the week before Easter and I’d been working on a book I have been editing for about five years; a history of a college. It goes to print soon and then all the pedants will come out of the woodwork and pick it to bits. I can’t wait. I was proofing the chapters about the 1960s and 1970s, part of which I had spent at the college; and reading the text was like dragging my consciousness through the soundtrack of my life. Sylvia’s mother said, Sylvia’s busy; too busy to come to the phone ...

I had a glass of house red and ordered the pasta carbonara and I couldn’t read any more, so I listened to the conversation of two diners at the next table instead, like a tired cyclist hanging on to the end of a tram just for the ride home. They could have been academic scientists or they could have been out-of-work actors or they could have been vacuum cleaner salesmen from Brisbane. I couldn’t tell and I didn’t care.

DINER A: Have you noticed that commentators are starting to refer to the federal government more and more as Australia’s “second worst” since the war? Someone says it and everyone repeats it, like parrots. (GLANCES AT THE SPECIALS BOARD) The pumpkin gnocchi with avocado and spring onion sauce sounds good.

DINER B: Yes. I might have the slow-roasted veal shank on tapenade mash. I’m a bit hungry tonight. (PAUSES WHILE HE STANDS THE OVERSIZED MENU ON ONE OF THE TWO VACANT CHAIRS AT THEIR TABLE) Yes, that second-worst government thing – and second-worst Prime Minister, as I’ve heard - is just lazy journalism. They pick up a phrase or an idea and use it without any analysis and it becomes a de facto truth. It is also a dreadful slur.

DINER A: Not on this Prime Minister, of course.

DINER B: No, of course not. He deserves it. It’s a slur on the Whitlam government, which is what they are suggesting was the “worst government”; and on Gough Whitlam himself, of course, who is alleged to have been Australia’s “worst post-war Prime Minister”. To suggest that Whitlam was in any way ‘worse’ than the current Prime Minister beggars belief.

DINER A: It beggars history as well, which everyone forgets, of course.

DINER B: Of course they do. Doesn’t anyone remember Billy McMahon? (LOOKS AROUND TO THE BAR) Where’s the waiter? Shall we get some wine?

DINER A: A sauvignon blanc might be nice, although it doesn’t really go with your veal shank. I remember McMahon. They called him Silly Billy, which shows that tags have been around forever, I suppose. His greatest achievement was the slit in his wife’s dress at a state dinner at the White House in 1971. And what about Harold Holt?

DINER B: Indeed. Or Malcolm Fraser? John Kerr didn’t destroy Whitlam, it was Fraser. He withheld supply in the Senate. He wouldn’t pass the money bill. He was holding the country to ransom. Kerr just called an election to break the deadlock. He decided the people had to be looked after first, and the politicians could slug it out at the ballot box later. Pensions weren’t being paid. You have to pay pensions. People forget all that.

DINER A: And then Fraser did absolutely nothing for eight years except recognise Robert Mugabe and we had to vote in a trade unionist to get anything done.

DINER B (LOOKS AT THE WINE MENU): How about the Cable Bay Sauvignon Blanc?

DINER A: Fine. You know, we may as well merge with New Zealand now that we’re drinking all their wine.

DINER B: Wouldn’t bother me in the least. Our flags are just about the same anyway. Wouldn’t be much argument over that. Take out two stars and make the others red and you’re in Wellington.

DINER A: I have an uncle who lives in Clyde. Prettiest scenery in the whole world. No wonder they shot Lord of the Rings there.

DINER B: The Tasman Sea is in between the two countries, so you could call it Tasmania, except there’s one already.

DINER A: It could always change its name back to Van Diemen’s Land in the national interest. (HE WAVES AT THE WINE WAITER) Of course the standard of political discourse has plummeted in the intervening forty years as well. People forget Gough Whitlam’s first-class command of oratory, which he combined with wit and humour, so he never sounded pompous.

DINER B: Exactly. His Ciceronian exchanges with Sir James Killen on the opposition benches were legendary. They were political enemies but they liked each other. They were gentlemen. Today’s politicians just berate and bully and browbeat and bluster. The closest Kevin Rudd comes to ancient Greek is when he complains to some poor frightened waitress on an RAAF flight about stale feta in his salad.

DINER A: Indeed. Except Cicero was Roman.

DINER B: Well, parmigiano reggiano in his Caesar then. The hell with it. It’s supposed to be old. Speaking of which, quousque tandem abutere, waiter, patientia nostra?

DINER A: Here he comes now.

*

It was close to eleven o’clock. I had finished my carbonara, had another glass of red and then a filter coffee. I packed up my work, paid the bill and left the diners at the next table discussing which country should host the capital of a merged Australia and New Zealand. They were coming around to a Canberra solution and thinking of putting it on Lord Howe Island.