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

27.9.14

Stadium review: Docklands

One fine cold winter day in the late nineties I was picking my way through some rotting sheds by the decrepit wharves of the former Victoria Dock. Sun streamed in through the broken walls, lighting the filth on the floors; and rats, fat on inner city detritus, grinned out of the shadows like petty criminals. The firm I worked for had been invited to submit a proposal for the naming and design of a new city development. A couple of Ian Stewart drop kicks away, a tangled mess of construction had already started. It looked like a bombed rail shed then, but it became Docklands Stadium two years later, known more commonly by its various sponsor names, currently Etihad Stadium.

Until last Sunday, I had never visited the stadium, despite being a Melbourne-born football tragic, and notwithstanding it being Essendon's 'home' venue. I preferred suburban grounds, such as the one within walking distance from here. So the boys spent most Sunday afternoons this winter kicking a ball around Coburg City oval during quarter time, half time and three quarter time, and before and after each game, in the sun, and sometimes in biting wind and occasional rain. And they convinced me to take them to the VFL grand final. That was how I came to break my Docklands duck last Sunday.

*

We walked up the bright side of Bourke Street, blinding sun reflecting off the glass towers. Over the railway bridge, $20 at the ticket box and into the arena. It was pitch dark after the sun. Dark?

The roof was closed.

Closed? On a Melbourne spring afternoon that was as agreeably pleasant as weather gets anywhere in the world? Inside, the walls and roof, possibly made of recycled Nissan Sunny door panels, or recycled lemonade cans, produced an echoing sonic boom, like 50,000 dogs barking in a wheat silo. And that was before the game. Overhead lights dazzled, while the sun penetrated the entrances and apertures behind each goal, so you had to squint. The turf stunk like a farmyard in the unnaturally still air. The electronic score line was almost unreadable without binoculars. My legs would have nestled in the lap of the person in the seat in front of me, had I relaxed.

Footscray ran out winners over a conflicted Box Hill/Hawthorn side. Box Hill should really give Hawthorn the flick and go back to being the Mustangs.

*

The Melbourne Cricket Ground is class, old Melbourne quietude, a place with vast presence. It holds a million ghosts celebrating unforgettable triumph or lamenting failure. Apparitions just about jump at you when you walk into the MCG. In theological terms, while St Paul’s cathedral a few blocks away is just a church, the MCG, set in magnificent parkland, is actual paradise.

On the other hand, Docklands stadium is a bleak tin shed sandwiched between a perished wharf and some decayed railway huts.

*

Top ten uses for Docklands Stadium.

1. A wheat silo. See above.

2. A mushroom farm. Dark and damp.

3. A city branch of Storage King.

4. Parcels office for Southern Cross station.

5. A gasometer.

6. An airport terminus with a helipad on the roof.

7. A shearing shed.

8. A city branch of Pick-a-Part. City workers could grab a rear indicator lens with their latte.

9. A new Festival Hall to replace the old one (eerily only 500 metres away).

10. A holding yard for Saturday night King Street drunks. Might not be big enough.

15.9.14

Little film lost: laconic actors lend murky realism to 1970s man vs nature tear-jerker.

Actors Jack Thompson, Ray Barrett, John Jarratt and John Hargreaves have starred in every movie ever made in this country. The federal government legislated in 1972 that no film could be released in Australia without these actors playing roles. It also legislated that they play the same characters in every movie. In comedy, disaster, costume drama and period romance, Thompson, Barrett, Jarratt and Hargreaves play the same laconic grass-chewing check-shirted semi-neanderthal ocker farmer/barfly/shearer characters, with minor variations: even in 128-minute art house films in which nothing actually happens. This has led to some truly innovative and creative Australian cinematic moments, which Hollywood has dismally failed to replicate. Also, titling services in Australia are much cheaper than other markets because the editor only has to change the font; the names stay the same.

1978 saw the launch of Little Boy Lost on to Australian screens. It played to vast audiences nationwide, sometimes approaching the hundreds. Based on the song, that was based on the true story, that was based on ... a little boy getting lost in the bush, the movie portrays Nathan Dawes playing Steven Walls running through the bush looking for his father, pursued by hordes of drunken check-shirted Jarratts and Hargreaveses (Thompson and Barrett were excused from appearing due to other film commitments), who fail to locate the yellow t-shirted four-year-old, who in turn thinks the rescuers are out to harm him. Dawes originally wore a green shirt over brown trousers, but on the second day of the shoot, the cinematographer stood up from his Arriflex, turned to the director and said "I know he’s meant to be lost, but I can’t bloody see him for the f*&%$@# gum trees!" Wardrobe then found him a red t-shirt but that flared, so yellow was settled upon. Halfway through the movie, the boy can be seen fleetingly in the red t-shirt due to a continuity mistake. In the final cut, the film editor said that since the scene was evening, it just looked like his t-shirt was reflecting the setting sun.)

It soon becomes obvious that, despite being based on fact, the movie could be a parody, but isn't. The boy is intercut so frequently into the search action fleeing horsemen, leaping into creeks, hiding under waterfall outcrops and generally evading capture that it seems he is actually attempting to escape the movie itself, and its stilted players, its wooden dialogue, its sheer plodding action. But he fails, and is rescued; and John Jarratt and John Hargreaves depart, check-shirted, jut-jawed and silently brooding, for the set of their next movie.

But there was something. The interiors – the kitchens and hotel bars – are dirty, and broken, and have things placed where things in movies should not be placed. It looks like someone filmed the inside of my kitchen, or in the bar of a waterside workers' hotel. Everywhere, the colours are murky, seemingly un-art-directed. Costumes look like leftovers from Wake in Fright (1971) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). The only attempt at colour correction is the boy’s yellow t-shirt. Perhaps they forwent the stylist in order to pay John Jarratt and John Hargreaves' compulsory fees. The effect is good, portraying the kind of 'real' realism you don’t see in films in which stylists and art directors construct either a clean minimalism or, at the other end of the scale, clichéd over-realism. A dirty, disquieting air hangs over the movie like flies over a kill. The camera is still, capturing the bush scenes honestly and directly, instead of waving about like a Byron Bay hippy drunk on fake gaia spirituality. Getting lost in the bush for half an hour is enough to divest you of gaia, let alone four days.

The boy’s fate creeps up on you like a submerged Northern Territory crocodile on an estuary fisherman. So that when he is found, possibly hurt, and only the bloodied face and shock of blond hair of his small form is visible in his rescuer’s encircling arms (check-shirted, of course), emotion takes hold. He’s been missing four days. If you don’t shed a tear, you’re not human.

The penultimate scene is a long, elevated shot of the townspeople witnessing the boy being passed from rescuer to mother, left of screen instead of the usual clichéd front-and-centre; a slow, dreamlike sequence of frames in which the viewer observes what might be the closest a human being can get to the concept of heaven, a concept which involves having being on the threshold of that other necessary construct – hell – and returning: for no apparent reason.

That’s what had just happened to the boy’s mother.

Little Boy Lost, 1978
Summary: a lost classic in which good triumphs over ... bad acting.

10.9.14

Diner-style café found in Coburg arcade.

Sunday, midday. The café was long, like a bus, with a row of tables down one side and the servery on the other. A mirror ran along the wall and wrapped around the back, giving air to an otherwise claustrophobic space.

Some tables spilled out on to the arcade, and there was an old coin-in-the-slot tractor for toddlers to sit on while their mother calms her nerves with a coffee. It's like something out of the 1970s; the very concept of a café in an arcade is dated. But there are no hipsters, and that is a huge advantage. Hipsters want a street frontage and a view while they yap into their devices and eat buffalo cheese and sweet tomato compote out of ramekin-like vessels.

Eddie was on his own. Staff are expensive when there are no customers. So far, we were the only customers. That is; me, Tracy, William, Thomas, Alexandra, and Erin. It was father’s day. I was being taken out for lunch on the cheap.

We ordered. Eddie got busy. An old, short Greek man and his wife drifted in, like two tired pigeons. They had come from the Orthodox church in Victoria Street. Eddie is Greek, so they have an affinity. They perched on a bench at the front. Another customer arrived with a child, who climbed onto the tractor.

Eddie buttered rolls, turned on burners, frothed milk. He was calm. But his customers are patient. They are old Coburg, some literally and some figuratively. The elderly, the tradesmen in fluoro vests, the checkout ladies from the supermarkets on their break. Also, the special needs people from the assisted accommodation on the other side of the railway line. There will never be a place like this again. I can’t see special needs people eating smoked salmon and blue cheese panini.

Eddie brought out the salad rolls. These were old-school, meaning they contained one of everything that could potentially be in a salad roll. A major feature: they contained beetroot. Eddie loves onions, so his salad rolls also encompass about half an onion each. This may be excessive for some tastes. But I gave the rolls five out of five. (Compare with bad salad roll experience.)

Old-school food is always accompanied by chips. Here they are fat, and of an appetizing pale yellow colour, crisping to nut brown at the edges. An initial crunch yields to a soft, steaming interior enhanced by liberal application of vinegar and salt. Pointedly, the chips arrived on an oval diner-style plate, courtesy Bristile super vitrified hotel china, made in Australia, with date-stamp underneath. You can’t kill these plates; and they don’t look ludicrous, like ramekins.

The elderly couple were pecking at their toasted sandwiches. Some takeaway customers came in and stood at the bar waiting. Eddie juggled brown paper bags, pans, knife and coffee machine.

Newspapers are supplied free for customers. I flicked quickly through the colour supplements. That weekend the supplements were fathers’ day special editions, because it ... editor briefs reporters ... was fathers’ day and you can generate four, six, eight, twenty pages, if you want, out of vapid interviews with fathers. Compulsorily, in today’s clichéd-journalism content, one page portrayed a small boy with two daddies. His eyes were bright, and he smiled for the camera with his two daddies. What kind of extraordinary contemporary self-regard can consign a child to motherlessness? Motherless children have a hard time, according to Blind Willie Johnson, when mother is dead, Lord. But this child’s mother wasn’t dead. I presume.

I threw the magazine back on its rack. Having seen off the takeaway customers, Eddie tipped pancake batter onto the flat grill. The pancakes arrived in two minutes, on invisible plates, because each pancake overlapped its edges, and was topped with twin mountains of plain white vanilla ice cream rising sheer out of a lake of maple syrup. Providentially, the boys were hungry, having spent the morning practising goal-keeping on the soccer pitch at the bottom of St Bernard’s valley, adjacent to the second football ground (in which has just been laid and sowed the new cricket pitch), while I walked laps. They could have eaten the vinyl of the seats. (Thomas, in fact, had already eaten his mother’s salad roll, minus onion.) The picture below is indicative, with Thomas in the shot for purposes of comparison, like a foot rule against a just-caught fish, as I don’t usually post pictures of food, especially in cafes. (Photographic credit: Erin.) The degree of difficulty in eating the whole pancake was judged: almost impossible. The boys proved the judges wrong. Alex helped with the ice-cream.

Size here is important, as reported by a commenter on a popular online restaurant t review site: "Swear to God, they (Twins Famous Burger) were as big as the MCG." The same reviewer estimated that Eddie was on first name terms with 90% of his customers.

Summary: Three adults, three children: forty bucks.

Twins Café. Foley’s Mall, 441 Sydney Road, Coburg. Experience it while you still can. Recommended: burgers the size of the MCG, chicken schnitzel sandwich, pancakes.

3.9.14

Once upon a time in Spain.

I'd been walking all morning, down from the mountains, and I crept up on a town built on the side of a hill crowned by a cathedral.

It was close to midday, and bright and hot, and the streets were empty. I opened a heavy door in the cathedral. Inside, it was dim and cool and lonely. I stayed long enough to cool down, and went out again into the harsh light.

I walked on. The claustrophobic streets were confusing, winding back on themselves and lined with tall, narrow houses. From some, laundry hung out over the street, high up. Caged birds twittered from open windows. Dark doorways lay open to allow the passage of air. I passed them. Every now and then an escalier – or whatever the Spanish call those narrow stairways that connect streets at different levels – ran upwards or downwards, scores of steps disappearing in the blinding midday sun. I followed one down. I was lost, but I didn’t care. I had all day; all week in fact. I was free that year. I was also hungry.

The descent ended at a narrow street beneath an overhanging wall that ran its length, over which grew vast hedged shrubs. Their foliage hung down almost to the tops of the doors. Between two vast whitewashed buildings, an old wrought iron sign that read Cantina Zafra hung from a portico. There was no mistaking the aroma of fish, garlic and herbs. I pushed the door open and went in.

The place was small and dark but still managed to hold a dozen or so dark timber tables, several of which were occupied. These were obviously locals and not tourists, their expressions betraying a kind of bored familiarity; a boredom more related to serenity than to any get-me-the-bill haste.

A small blackboard by the kitchen had one word chalked on it: soup, in Spanish, of course. That one word represented a now long-lost minimalism, serving both to inform the customer and to save work. In any case, there was no space on the board for a raw tuna salad with lemon foam and warm hints of wasabi - even had the waiter wanted to write out such nonsense. (The loss of minimalism has also seen the introduction of the indefinite article in menu descriptions. Whoever heard of a soup? But I digress.)

A waiter, who was probably the patron, materialised. He was small, like a jockey. He wore a leather apron over a white shirt and black trousers. I didn’t know if he was Zafra or just the hired help. He said nothing. I pointed to the menu. He went away. The room was silent apart from an occasional word or two uttered between the locals. Minimalism even in the conversation. And no phones.

A few minutes later the patron materialised again and put a glass of white wine on my table. Then a bowl of soup. The bowl was large. The soup was like a kind of stew. The soup itself – meaning the fluid essence in the bowl – was a sea rich with garlic and onion and saltiness. That's what I had picked up on the air outside. In the middle of the sea was a large mound of caramelised onions that tasted like they had been cooked for hours with herbs of some, or many, kinds. There was something warm, like paprika, or cumin, but I could not be sure. On the shores of the caramelised onion island sat large rounds of sausage that had been fried crisp on the outside. It was similar to, but not the same as, what we know as the clichéd chorizo. I hadn’t known whether to start with the fork or the spoon, and then the waiter had come back yet again, this time with a small basket of hard-crust bread in one hand, and a glass of water in the other. That was all. Barely a word had been exchanged between us. I ate and drank. Some more locals came in, and a couple left.

Later, the sun almost blinded me when I went outside after paying the bill. I took an hour or more to find my way out of the maze of streets to the other side of the town, but I wasn’t really trying. The soup kept me going until dusk.

1.9.14

Potato-free mash.

Nothing wrong with potatoes, but sometimes something different works wonders for a jaded palate emerging from a long, cold stew-filled winter. The following mash is sweet and sour, nutty and salty, smooth and unctuous and is easy to make.

Swede and carrot mash with pine nuts and prosciutto.

Take half a kilo each of swedes and carrots. Cut into chunks and cook in salted water until soft.

Meanwhile, lightly toast some pine nuts in a pan. Chop a few slices of prosciutto into pieces and crisp these in the same pan.

Drain the vegetables, retaining a little of the water. Mash, adding salt, pepper and a little nutmeg and place into a serving bowl.

Shower pine nuts and prosciutto flecks over the top and serve as a side dish with ... anything, especially eye fillet chargrilled quickly so it is still rare inside, drizzled with garlic butter.

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Oh look! It's September! Spring! Football finals! Warm weather! Right now it's raining fit to flood the Merri Creek.