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


Another world.

Early afternoon. Hot. The slight northerly air was barely enough to ruffle the wavelets. The crowds were gone and the beach was almost empty. Two hundred yards offshore, a windsurfer was trying to angle his sail to the breeze, but failed, and fell in slow motion into the water. I heard the 'slap' as the sail hit the sea. That and the muffled snarl of the traffic on Point Nepean Road.

Thomas was beside me silently making engineering feats in the sand with his legs. He'd been in the water and his hair was brined to his scalp and he was wet and now he was covered in sand.

I was in another world.
(Maigret) had not turned on the lights at once. After removing his tie and opening his collar, he had walked over to the window and leant his elbows on the sill, as thousands of other Parisians must have done that night.

The air was soft like velvet, almost palpable. Not a movement, not a sound disturbed the peace of the Rue Llomond which slopes gently down towards the lights of the Rue Mouffetard. Somewhere, behind the houses, could be heard a dull roar, the deadened noise of cars driving along the Boulevard Saint-Michel, of brakes and horns, but that was in another world, and between the roofs of the houses, between the chimneys, one could enjoy a glimpse of infinity inhabited only by stars.
Maigret Takes a Room, Georges Simenon, 1951


Built house flooded; unbuilt one still dry.

The house of a second cousin who lives in Brisbane was flooded after the Wivenhoe flood mitigation dam was left at 100% capacity due to fears of 'wasting water', despite Bureau of Meteorology warnings of severe flood.

1400 kilometres away, in South Gippsland, my sister had been planning to build a house two years ago but was prevented from doing so by bureaucrats who believed that sea levels would rise and flood the land.

Warmists have some explaining to do.

Cafe owner stoic.

Neville Cloak stayed in his cafe on the main street until 11pm, when the power went out and the torrent of water became too hard to fight. "The shop was going well until the front window caved in and the water picked up everything we had stacked up," he said. "Now it's rooted. The whole place needs to be gutted and restored. ... I don't think people will be able to afford to go out and buy a bloody latte for a while," he said.


Before the flood.

The papers are reporting that thousands of householders are finding themselves uninsured after the floods, and that Deputy Prime Minister Swan and Assistant Treasurer Shorten are gunning for the insurance companies. That should be interesting. The politicians in the red corner and the money men in the blue. Ding, ding. Snore.

No insurance, no payout, the insurers are saying. "If people do not purchase flood cover insurance, they will not be covered," an Insurance Council of Australia spokesman sniffed, somewhat self-evidently.

Unfortunately for those who might have thought they were reasonably covered, the issue is not black and white. Let's look at QBE's cover, for example. QBE is the quintessential Queensland insurance company - if there is a quintessential Queensland insurance company - formed in Townsville in the nineteenth century by renowned early businessmen Burns and Philp of Burns Philp fame. (Philp was twice Premier of Queensland, Burns a member of the Legislative Council of New South Wales and founder/benefactor of Burnside Presbyterian Homes for Children. Impeccable credentials both and indubitably gentlemen you would have no hesitation in having to afternoon tea in the parlour.)

On QBE's website landing page for 'home insurance' we read:

Your house is probably your biggest single investment. And, more importantly, it’s home to you and your family. So you'll want to feel reassured that the building and its contents are adequately protected against unforseen events. QBE is committed to providing homeowners with peace of mind.

From a company formed in stormy Queensland, that is certainly a heartwarming sentiment, sir. Naturally, you would expect these philanthropic early Queenslanders to have an ingrained knowledge of what dangers may befall native householders, no matter how rarely. After all, they are insurers and instinctively cautious. Yet perhaps that glaring error 'unforseen' was not a mistake after all. ('Oh, THAT unforeseen!') Let's examine the detail, if you can examine a detail. They make it difficult by hiding them somewhere in the back of the website and you have to click about like a cicada with attention deficit disorder to find it, and even then it is written ambiguously:

Building insurance covers the structure of your home against fire, storm, earthquake and other defined events.

That's QBE being 'committed to providing you with peace of mind', because that sure was a hell of a storm, and after the storm came the flood, and the flood is what did the damage.

Did someone say flood? And who is that whistling and gazing at the sky. Why, it's Mr Q. B. E. Insurance. 'Well, I'll just be off to lunch,' he mutters and exits the building, while we delve deeper into the website. Now we have left the 'home insurance' landing page and are scrolling down the Frequently Asked Questions, known in the trade as FAQs (they are clever in the trade):

Q. Am I covered for flooding?

A. You are covered for flash flood but not river flood.

Now, even though it is a hot day, a cold sensation is slowly crawling up your spine.

For more information, refer to your Product Disclosure Statement and Policy Wording.

The odd thing is, the only ones who need to refer to them are those whose PDS and Policy Wording documents are buried in their houses under eight feet of river flood silt.


... blue birds fly ...

A small drought-ravaged town in flat, semi-arid north western Victoria yesterday logged its highest rainfall on record. Town by the name of Rainbow.


Where did the turkey come from?

After being critical of the role of traditional fare on the Australian Christmas dinner table, it started following me around. First a parcel of cold chicken arrived from somewhere a few days after Christmas, and later a stretch-wrapped platter piled high with cold turkey appeared in the refrigerator at the beach house. I was being stalked by festive poultry. My mother-in-law had been to visit. It must have been her. She always brings things; frozen Lorne sausage, home-made fruitcake, bottles of Johnny Walker Black Label, that kind of thing.

The chicken was easy: I chopped and mixed it with good mayonnaise and divided the mixture into three bowls, to which I added (a) cracked pepper and snipped chives, (b) a mixture of chopped capers and celery, and (c) chopped walnuts, a dash of paprika and finely sliced spring onion respectively. This made an excellent New Year’s Day lunch platter of sandwiches on Potts wholemeal, sourdough baguette, and Coles’ brand plain square white loaf. Guess which went quickest? The chicken/mayonnaise/walnuts/spring onions on white, of course. Chicken sandwiches are always best on white.

That left the turkey.

It had been another hot day and we had spent it on the beach and returned to the house late, the sun still blazing, and the following dish came together in the time it took to cook the pasta; and we ate outside at the card table on the balcony in the dying light, with birds calling in the trees and cold white wine at hand. Then my foot nudged the leg of the card table and my too-tall glass, top-heavy with Mt Alexander chardonnay, teetered on its stem and fell and fractured, spoiling a perfectly good paragraph.

Carbonara-style pasta with turkey.

Slice the turkey into small squares and sauté it in a large pot with a scored clove of garlic in some white wine and pepper. In another pot, cook your spaghetti or other pasta and drain it, reserving a couple of tablespoons of the liquid. Quickly transfer the drained spaghetti into the other pot, add two eggs – crack them straight in – and grated parmesan, and turn the pasta to coat it in the egg and cheese and lift the turkey through. It is cooked when the egg sets. Mere seconds. That’s it for classic carbonara, but add cream if you want an even more unctuous dish. Add a little pasta cooking fluid if necessary.


Mint in solitary.

I once had a garden in which mint had taken over. It will annex as much territory as you allow it, and you can make only so much mint sauce or drink so many brandy smashes.

These days I keep my mint imprisoned in one of those old double concrete troughs they used to have in pre-1940s exterior laundries – known as wash houses. My mother had one into the early 1970s. Originally, she'd wash in one side of the trough and wind the washing into the other side through a hand-wringer consisting of two enormous rubber rollers clamped onto the dividing wall. Best thing ever. As children we used to try to catch each others' hands in the roller and wring their arm through. Nasty little brutes we were.

Most of the old troughs were smashed up and taken to the tip when washing machines came along, but visionary householders kept their troughs so that later generations could reuse them as plant pots. Their brass outlets offer better drainage than most of today’s planters, and the thick concrete walls don’t leach moisture like terracotta, which is next to useless in the heat of summer. That leaves plastic. And let’s leave plastic there.

The only inconvenience with your old concrete trough is its weight. If you happen to find one in the shed or behind the chicken coop in the backyard of the renovator special you just paid $800,000 for, you’ll need a truck to move it. I used a hand trolley to put mine into position and bricked under it to support it around the outflow pipe.

I found its concrete 'legs' in another part of the garden and now they lie flat in the soil behind a bed of ancient weigela.

And there's my mint in solitary confinement in the right tub of the old concrete wash house trough propped up against the shed in a sun-trapped corner of the back yard where the temperature can hit 50 celsius on very hot days. In the other tub lemon thyme, ordinary thyme, sage and oregano thrive and you never have to water them. Oregano can tend to take over if left on its own, but it is behaving itself in that company. On barbecue nights, I pick a sprig or two of each and throw them on the coals and make aromatic smoke signals and the neighbours' heads pop up over the fence. Have a mint julep. There’s the mint patch.


Irrelevant comparison syndrome #324: eat all your dinner or the planet dies.

OK, it’s the silly season. You have to expect filler in the newspapers. But this was exceptional:
"The vast majority of Australians are unaware that when discarded food rots in landfill, it gives off methane, a greenhouse gas that's 25 times more potent than the carbon pollution that comes out of your car exhaust."
Some people will believe anything, no matter how far-fetched. It was a hot afternoon and I’d been sitting on the beach reading a Clive Cussler novel, wading through a scene in which a sociopathic mass murderer has been imprisoned, and the only way the author could possibly plot him free is by having him bribe the jail governor and he goes right ahead and does exactly that. I threw the book down on the sand and picked up the newspaper instead and read the story containing the paragraph above. Talk about drawing a long bow. So I threw the paper down again and went back to the Cussler. Sorry, Clive. At least the story was entertaining and featured a Mercedes Simplex in full flight.

But wait a minute, I thought later. Rotting food isn’t the only methane emitter. What about farmed animals? I could see the offset scheme already: for every kilogram of leftover food that you send to landfill, you can pay someone to kill a cow. Maybe the most environment-friendly thing you could do is order the biggest steak in the house and not leave a mouthful on the plate. Save the world by eating the cow out of existence. Hello, Vlado’s. Cut me a large one and cook it rare. Stoves emit carbon.

Having said all of that, I don’t like wasting food any more than the next person. But purely for economic reasons, not for today’s tortuously moral relativistic ones. Or should that be torturously? Probably both.

So here’s a recipe to satisfy the high priests of the lobby groups – both in terms of appetite as well as moral judgment.

What to do with leftover mash.

Take two cups of left-over mashed potato, half a cup of Greek yogurt, two square inch cubes of good feta cheese, one 85g tin of tuna in olive oil, two cloves of garlic, and a couple of crushed dried oregano leaves. Place the lot in a blender with a good dash of salt and pepper to taste. Blitz for ten seconds. Pour into a large bowl, if it will pour, or spoon it. Chill, sprinkle with olive oil and shards of olives, and serve to dip with two-inch sections of split spring onion, fine lengths of carrot, thins strips of red capsicum, quickly-boiled asparagus or any of your favourite crudités. Or spread some on squares of pasta dura bread and top with a sardine. Or just stand at the fridge and eat it out of the bowl.


Small plastic fish.

One report said that more land than France and Germany combined is under water in Queensland. That will be your fruit and vegetable crops and your sugarcane, as well as Rockhampton, Bundaberg, Condamine and other towns. A photograph showed a man in a dinghy rowing past the Bundaberg rum warehouse halfway up the wall in front of the polar bear symbol. (Who came up with a polar bear for a rum distiller?) Another photograph showed a snake toiling along the top rail of a fence, and there were reports of people returning to houses full of reptiles.


A couple of nations worth of water, and work continues at the desalination plant down here in the south. A big water pipe would have been good. They built one from near Perth to Kalgoorlie in the 1800s, but that was for the goldfields. Gold got things done.


There was ham last week after all, but it was cold and thickly sliced. It had been a long drive out of town on Christmas day; a kind of reverse peak hour at the wrong time of day on the wrong day of the week. It didn’t feel like a Saturday. I pulled off the freeway half an hour past Berwick and we were north into the rolling country where the foothills of the Dandenongs lose themselves in rich West Gippsland soil. Upper Beaconsfield was a blur on the side of a hill where the road swings east, and I looked for a line of old windbreak trees and found it, then turned north again. Ten minutes later, through an iron gate and along a winding lane lined with agapanthus and I rolled the car to a stop at the end of it in front of a screen of cypress. But where was the house?


It had been more than four years. All different. My brother-in-law had since made garden rooms with hedges and lines of shrubbery and lawns and vistas and pathways. Now, if you have an argument, you can disappear for half a day like Bertie and Aunt Dahlia and come back when you’ve forgotten what it was about. I sent the boys ahead of me left around the cypress screen and followed them carrying boxes of presents and wine and they crossed a lawn and rounded a corner where an ancient cotoneaster crouched over some pumping equipment, and came out south of the house, at the back of it, where a covered verandah gives onto a paved outdoor dining area overlooking a pool with a waterfall edge. We were below the waterfall. A flock of aunts above waved and shouted and pointed the way and we skirted the south wall and came up the side, following a glass fence, and found a gate secreted in a tall shrubbery of photinia. Tracy, carrying the baby, had turned right around the cypress instead of our left, and had walked ten metres through a walled garden to the front door, which is at the side of the house, and so had arrived about five minutes before the boys and me.


Christmas lunch was at two and five o’clock, main course and dessert respectively, preceded by appetisers at midday. Of course, it became impossible to keep the boys away from the water. One of the cousins had given them nets and tanks and they were fishing small plastic fish, trinkets from the crackers, out of the water and placing them in the tanks and then tipping them into the water again and fishing them out again.


The afternoon was a haze. Clusters of golf cap-wearing uncles drifted by on the lawn below and several aunts and a grandmother, wearing borrowed costumes, and some cousins were in the water. Grandmother, in up to her waist, clasped a Teacher’s and water in one hand and a five-month-old baby in the crook of the other arm. Which would she drop in an emergency? Neither, of course.


It was a warm day but the sun had been behind cloud. It came out at five o’clock. I was in the east garden. A nephew told me he and his father did all the work, and it took only about a week to prepare it for Christmas. We left close to seven. A small group of stooped aunts and uncles farewelled us at the gate. They are not getting younger. That’s the bitter-sweet taste of Christmas, because some years you don’t see them between December 25ths. I watched them with one eye in the rear vision mirror until the agapanthus lining the curved drive blocked them from sight, freeze-framing them in a wave.