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

17.2.12

Shiraz undaunted by strong flavours.

Eye fillet with garlic butter.

Slice two inches off a 250 gram stick of butter. Allow it to soften but not melt. (Not difficult in this climate: at the time of writing it was 32 degrees outside (we’ve gone from Fahrenheit to Celsius in two posts) with black clouds and storms approaching the city). Assist the softening process if necessary by cutting into smaller cubes.

Chop a sprig of parsley as finely as you can including the fine stalk. One way to do this is by placing it in a glass and chopping it with scissors. This works surprisingly well.

Peel four cloves of garlic and chop them as finely as possible. Combine the butter, parsley and garlic: best done with a fork, in a cup. Add salt and cracked pepper to taste. (Vary the relativities in this mixture depending on your preferred garlic Beaufort Scale.) Transfer to a piece of aluminium foil, roll up and shape into a cylinder. Refrigerate.

Meanwhile peel, chop and boil four large potatoes; trim twenty green beans. If you are not busy enough, throw together a salad of lettuce, halved cherry tomatoes, fetta cheese, pitted kalamata olives, a pinch of dried oregano and a splash of olive oil. Open a bottle of wine. Last night it happened to be Mount Alexander Shiraz 2008 but you won't find it at Dan Murphy's or that ridiculous bottle shop whose logo is a camel. Seriously, marketing departments have lost the plot.

Heat and oil heavy pan. Grill steaks – eye fillet it happened to be, two inches thick; but porterhouse or Scotch fillet will suffice – to preferred doneness.

While steak is grilling, drain potatoes, reserving some water in which to boil the beans for a couple of minutes - and beat with enough milk to achieve a creamy mash. Add salt and pepper and a sprinkling of sheared parsley.

Place a coin-thick – or thicker - slice from the hardened cylinder of garlic butter on the steak next to a small mountain of mash on plate. Beans on the side. See if you can resist adding extra garlic butter to the mound of creamy mash. It’s almost impossible. Just make a dent in the top and pile it on.

Pour a glass of shiraz, if you have not already done. Profoundly inky with a flavour as deep as the ocean, it cuts through that butter beautifully and is not frightened by the garlic; truly a sea dark wine.

15.2.12

Sunday, 19 December 1971

It was another brittle morning, one of those summer daybreaks that brings a gentle roar from the horizon like distant thunder. The last cool breeze had long gone.

Eight in the morning, and I was dripping sweat onto the back seat of a 1967 Valiant that had already been laboring for two hours. People collect them these days, but then it was just a car with green vinyl seats and an AM radio and no headrests and windup windows.

We were heading directly west and it felt like the home straight, if any home straight was ever 600 kilometres long. Earlier the sun, rising behind, had made a long shadow of the car on the road ahead. Now it was rampaging across the sky. Like so often before, I dozed. If you happen to doze because you are trapped in a stifling car driving across an endless lanscape, you start dreaming the heat. First I was standing too close to a campfire; then I was shovelling coal into the firebox of a 4-6-4 steam engine; then I was a steelworker in a blast furnace. Then I woke up with an vertical indent in the left of my forehead from leaning against the window pillar.

No air conditioning, only the quarter vents ahead of the front window. You twist the chrome thumb handle and angle the glass to direct a torrent of hot air into the car. Of course, we had had to keep them shut earlier when the road was fine dust. Won’t need to worry about that again until the return journey. Oh. The return journey.

The plain had paled from the strident red that I had seen too much of, to a soft yellow. The car had moved through measureless desert and across a lifeless mining plateau, emerging at last into the West Australian wheat belt, on a ribbon-smooth road where even the faintest curve gave respite from the inexorable straightness of what lay behind. A white pipeline – built in the gold rush to save miners from death and drought – snaked alongside the road to the horizon.

It got to 100 degrees in the middle of the afternoon; but hotter in the car. I was drowsy again, hummed into sleep by the singing tyres, dreaming dreams of everything in the future. When you're a teenager, everything is exciting and in the future. One day it changes. Not for a long time, but eventually. Towns drew up and receded. Southern Cross. Merredin. Northam. We had travelled 2700 kilometres without a map. It was hardly needed.

Suddenly, Perth.

Shimmering in the distant haze. Lying there like a lost diamond, sparkling in the mid-summer sun on a golden Sunday afternoon. Beyond it, the Indian Ocean. Blue, demure, silent, endless, and as impossible as a mirage.

But it was real.

14.2.12

Populist books kill bookshops: independent bookshop owner.

She says chain bookshops often failed because they were overlit, treated customers like cash cows and sold populist books that ironically catered to a small, occasional reader market. They neglected the 'real readers' who read voraciously but wanted intelligent staff and a wide choice.
Paradoxical? Condescending? No. The owner seems to have a very good instinctive grasp of the business.

The fact is, buying books is difficult when you have to reach your purchase across a counter stacked high with ephemera designed for the impulse purchaser. Into this category, I place books with one ‘wisdom’ quote on each spread opposite a picture of a sunset; books filled with pictures of cats; books filled with pictures of flat white buildings in Greece; books filled with pictures of cats sitting on flat white buildings in Greece; books that spin off from television shows; and books with ‘Little’ in their titles (e.g., The Little Book of Calm). This last has sold two million copies, according to its publisher. True serenity in a two-minute read? Do two million readers even begin to understand the sheer hyperactive idiocy of the concept?

Another sign of a careless bookstore is having to spell the name of an author to bookshop staff. This makes buying the book feel like an ordeal. It spoils the pleasure, like the staff telling you the ending as they hand over your change. The Russian authors I can understand. They have variants, as well as being hard to spell to begin with. But asking if there are two m’s in Hemingway? No.

There is a real grain of business truth in the bookshop owner’s observation. When she says ‘populist’, she is clearly referring to all that counter top rubbish. All scale but no depth. You have to look after the return customers before the loss leader opportunists. It’s like the regular newspaper buyer having to stand behind ten lotto ticket buyers in the newsagent line. You tire of it.

9.2.12

Food destinations, and how I got there.

Souvlakis: Carlton

When I was a student (because only students eat souvlakis) I was in the habit of crossing five suburbs to Twins, on the corner of Elgin and Lygon streets, for what were the best souvlakis in Melbourne. Soft, fresh pita were jammed with juicy lamb drowned in yogurt and lemon juice and served in a greaseproof-lined brown bag that collected all the lemony, garlicky juices in the bottom. Slurp. On one return trip, the exhaust manifold came away from the engine. English cars are great until they break.

Navy blue 1964 Morris Minor Traveller (the wood-panelled estate)


Hamburgers: Ballarat

I used to drive to Ballarat for hamburgers. It was a small shop on the Melbourne side of town on the north side of Victoria Street opposite one of the old churches. The burgers must have been good, because it was a three-hour round trip. The crazy things you do in your early twenties, but it was a fun car to drive.

White 1965 Ford Falcon XP


Lebanese: Russell Street

In the old days Lebanese House in Russell Street was the only place in Melbourne to go for kebbeh and moughrabia. Literally. Then Abla opened just up the road, and suddenly lovers of food of the western Levant were spoiled for choice. The foodies trooped off to Abla’s, while the public servants, the arabs, the students and I stayed with LH for its homeland-style meals, unaffected service and the giant mural of a camel casting a long moon shadow across a wadi. Oddly enough, I always got a park out the front. Couldn’t do that now.

Mushroom 1965 Humber Super Snipe Series V


Italian: Moonee Ponds

Years ago I was a drinks waiter (before they invented the sommelier) at a Ballarat Road Sunshine reception centre. It was the hardest job I’ve ever done. Every shift was like running a marathon. Most of the patrons were non-paying wedding guests and drank their weight in alcohol, and the place was about the size of the Flinders Street rail yards. I’d just about walk halfway back to Footscray doing one tray circuit around the Opal Room. At the end of the night, I'd detour via Moonee Ponds for a late wind-down dinner at Carosello, usually a massive bowl of spaghetti napoli eaten while reading the late edition – Last Race, All Sport - of the Saturday Herald, Melbourne’s best broadsheet. Being super-reliable, the car always got me safely out of Sunshine. No wonder I stuck with Volvos.

Yellow 1974 Volvo 144GT


Cabbage soup: Acland Street

Such a simple thing, but for this I would cross town to Scheherezade.

1976 Volvo 244 GL Executive


Scones

How difficult is it to bake a scone? I used to catch the tram into town and down St Kilda Road, and then wander through sweeping lawns, mature trees and overhanging gardens in the Royal Botanic Gardens to the lakeside café for scones with jam and cream, and tea. If civilisation reached its zenith with Devonshire tea, taking it in the Botanic Gardens overlooking the ornamental lake through floor-to-ceiling glass took it even higher.

Toorak No 8 tram


Chinese: St Kilda

I used to frequent Fairy Stork for Melbourne’s best old-school Chinese including scallops in ginger, onion and garlic sauce. But tastes change. Fairy Stork is long gone and the new wave of fast, fresh, cheap Asian eating houses - such as those along Swanston Street or High Street Preston - probably spells the end of the remaining gilt-décor Chinese places. I visited one recently and it was overpriced, stuffy, slow and served very ordinary food, while the dynasty-like pecking order of waiters made ordering difficult. Who could be bothered? And those lazy susan spinning things are ridiculous.

Metallic burgundy 1980 Datsun 280ZX


French: Rathdowne Street

Bullfrog was a raffish French bistro with dark nooks and corners, bare candles on timber tables, a man playing annoying French tunes on a violin in the corner, old black and white prints of Paris on the walls and the full-on pre-'nouvelle cuisine' French menu. The place was a favourite with beret-wearing Australian academics. Some even brought Le Monde with them. Some even read it. The escargots came in tiny individual earthenware pots filled with bubbling butter and garlic, and you would stink of garlic for days afterwards. The steak roquefort was topped with the genuine item - half an inch thick - before its importation was banned into Australia – with impossibly thin frites on the side. Dessert was a magnificent creation called Coupe Mont Blanc, a kind of chestnut puree topped with cream snow. The wine was cheap, and the bus stopped at the door.

No 253 Rathdowne Street bus

7.2.12

Metaphorical idiom, or cheap cliché?

Yesterday I walked into a room, and there were no elephants in there.

2.2.12

Friday, 17 December 1971

The day before, during the torrid drive northwards, I had wondered why someone hadn’t built a detour; a giant hypotenuse to slice a triangle off the journey. I did some back-seat mental calculations. Norseman to Kalgoorlie, 191 kilometres. Okay, build a road north-west to strike the Great Western Highway the same distance west of Kal. That’s a saving of 112 kilometres, I figured, thanks to third-form mathematics.

I turned my head. What do you think, cousin? Cousin, bored - even with the music now, at this stage of the journey - was drily not sure the Kalgoorlie chamber of commerce would like passing traffic diverted 179 kilometres (mid-point of the hypotenuse) away. To hell with the chamber of commerce, I said, and we kept driving up the first leg to the right-angle vertex. After a few hours of this nonsense, we had arrived.

Like far too many places in this story, mining town Kalgoorlie was surrounded by desert. Its gold rush occurred during the 1890s depression, so everyone was twice as desperate to get at the gold. There was no water, which was at one time more expensive than gold, or was that a myth? Imagine if you had crossed the globe for gold only to be overcome by Kalgoorlie’s heat and lack of water, and had then heard about a new strike in a faraway place that was cool and had water; and you had set off for the seaport of Esperance the very next day, to sail for the Klondike. Death by thirst or freezing. Take your pick (and literally, of course).

We stopped in the main street, got out of the car and walked to bring our legs to life. The streets were wide beyond belief. You had to be able to turn a bullock train in them. The haggard architecture was all faded Victoriana and slamming screen doors. Red dust crept up to the very doorsteps, reminding you that you were still in a desert. It was like a movie set town, except you opened doors off the street and there was a real room – dark and swathed in that fifty-years-out-of-date manner – behind it.

The faded Victorians were the ghosts of a hundred hotels that had once swanked along Kalgoorlie’s main streets like trinkets in a gaudy crown; the back streets had secreted a similar number of attractions of a different kind, because when there is the sniff of gold, everything is for sale. Gold – what does that bring you? Trouble and death. The aborigines roamed here for eons, gold undisturbed beneath their nomadic feet. 120 years of Kalgoorlie history is nothing. That’s almost living memory. Some natives can recall their great-grandparents talking about the time before European settlement, before the distant echo of the Dreaming came crashing to a halt.

We walked on. Some aborigines, dressed in brightly coloured and ill-fitting hand-me-down western clothes like so many dress-up dolls, were sitting around on street corners in the shade of massive Victorian verandahs, or under sprawling eucalypts, too full of stunned lassitude even to wave the flies away from their diseased red-black faces. Too broken to beg. Too lost to know what to do. We walked past them and drove out of town. But I remembered them.