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


Swedish heavy metal: VROOM in action again.

This Volvo is so old it was built before the Berlin Wall came down. Yet it appears to be brand new. I found it on a used car lot in Alphington.

The Volvo, a 740GL model first registered in March 1990, is a time warp. If you are sitting in the back, the glasshouse is so large it is like riding in one of those trans-national railway observation cars. The car handles like a train too.

Designed by Volvo legend Jan Wilsgaard, the 740 was poorly regarded by critics at the time of its release:
In 1983, Autocar's Gordon Murray said, "To me it's obscene ... goes right against the grain of what everybody else is trying to do. To me it looks like a European version of a North American car."
Murray still didn't like the model in 1990:
Ordinary passenger cars are getting bigger and heavier, and that's an awful trend. If everyone drove around in Volvo (700 series) there'd be no room on the road for you and me! It's ridiculous making these massive cars for people to travel around on their own.
Murray got that wrong. Today, everyone is driving around in SUVs the size of a block of flats; while the 740GL is sought after by hipsters and lovers of retro style for its cubist boxiness, sharp verticals and wedge nose. Also, I can play my old cassettes in it.


The white 740 GL is the tenth Volvo acquired by VROOM (Volvo Rescue Organisation of Melbourne). VROOM spokesman and sole member, Mr K. Hand, said with tongue firmly in cheek that rescuing old Volvos played a vital social role in developing an innovative approach to sustainability; and that "the alternative was too terrible to think about. Apart from that I could never drive a Prius".

Earlier VROOM acquisitions include:

* A pale blue 1978 245DL.

* A stunning orange mid-seventies 244DL in mint condition.

* A 1988 760GLE.


Avocadoes from across the Great Divide.

Eight of them came down, hard as rocks, from a friend's farm outside Euroa. They don't all come from Queensland; they grow well just across the Great Divide.

Put them in a paper bag with a banana, he said. Ripens them. Ripens the banana, too. Made banana cake when they went soft.

Been eating avocadoes for ten days. They came up beautifully. Four days in a paper bag with a banana will do that to you.

Creamy and cold, with a perfect interior of pale green, like a 1930s tiled bathroom.

I made pasta with avocado, variations of which I have posted many times; the clichéd but delicious guacamole; one, halved and baked, even became a rerun of the 1970s classic avocado vinaigrette. Then there were sandwiches of wholegrain bread with cold sliced chicken and avocado, tomato and cheddar cheese, possibly the best sandwich ever invented. (Toast these in winter and never go back to ham-and-cheese again.)

But the best dish with the Euroa avocado consignment was a scotch fillet steak grilled fast and rare, the outside charred but the inside red, and served under a sauce of cream reduced with thin slices of avocado and plenty of cracked peppercorns. Mash and green beans on the side. And a glass of red.


Across the Great Divide
Just grab your hat, and take that ride
Get yourself a bride
And bring your children down to the riverside.

- Robbie Robertson, 1969


A Cat With No Name, Part Two.

Synopsis: Kitchen Hand is visited regularly by a neighbour's badly-named cat whose health is in decline. Another neighbour, who works in animal welfare, intervenes. Now read on.

More months passed. Fluffball had fattened up again, but he still limped, and he had lumps around his neck. He used to fight with Lion, a cat who lived in the yard of another neighbour, unrelated to this story. One day, the animal welfare neighbour, whose name is Z., knocked on the door. Z. had a plan.

The broad plan was to steal Fluffball. Yes, take him. Kidnap him. Z. would take him to a refuge. But we had to catch him first. He would not voluntarily get into a car and be driven away. He didn't even really like being picked up. He just liked head-butting me.

The finer detail of the plan was that Z. would borrow a cage from a shelter. (You can get them from the council, but that takes six months and delivery is about as inconspicuous as riding a pink elephant down Bourke Street.) But she couldn't place the cage in her backyard, because she already had several animals, and the wrong one might get trapped. Z. wanted to put it in my yard; and if all went to plan Fluffball would, on his nightly prowl, be attracted to some food in the cage, and the door would spring shut, and Z. would take him away later.

Great. I was being implicated in a plan to kidnap a cat. That's a criminal offence. It's theft. What if Fluffball had been microchipped with a GPS tracking device, and it was traced it to my back yard?

I finally agreed, but only reluctantly; because I had come to like Fluffball and enjoy his head-butt greetings and, indeed, his company. Of course, I never called him Fluffball. He used to just sit there on my porch and not say anything, and that is a very good thing when you are reading a book in the evening.

The day for the kidnapping came. Z. sneaked the the cage into my backyard about 7pm, and set it up. Then she crept away, and I returned to my spot on the porch with my book and a drink. Minutes after Z. left, Fluffball walked past the house on his first-edition evening promenade. So far, so good.

Soon, I heard him fighting as usual with Lion. Then, a jarring occurrence really unnerved me. Fluffball's owner appeared. I had not seen her out looking for him since that first encounter the previous summer. Yet here she was, right outside outside my house on the very night we planned to steal her cat, and she was calling Fluffball! Fluffball! Fluffball! Even as the cage sat in my backyard waiting for the heist.

I shrank into my chair. After a while, Fluffball's owner gave up the search and disappeared. Minutes later, Fluffball reappeared, his grey fur dishevelled from his spat with Lion. I thought he might have heard his owner calling. But no, he turned left at my gate and sauntered up the path. Christ almighty, don’t incriminate me yet, I thought, putting my book and drink down for the fifth time in half an hour. She might still be looking. She might walk past again and see him. And follow him in, right up to the back yard. And see the cage. And realise.

But she didn’t.

Some time during the night, Fluffball played his role. Next morning, he was trapped in the cage like Burt Lancaster in an Alcatraz cell. I bet he would have liked a pet sparrow as well.

Z. knocked on the door after breakfast. Another shock. I can't take him for three days, she said, so can you look after him? What if he howls, I thought. Then, do cats even howl, I wondered. What if he escapes? Or digs his way out? Or breaks through the wire?

But he didn’t. He sat in the cage for 72 hours, and I fed him richly, and he slept and generally just took a well-earned break from prowling and street-fighting.

And finally, he was gone. Z. took him away. Drinks on the porch in the evening were no longer quite the same.

I heard nothing for a month or two.

But that didn't matter. More importantly, I heard nothing from Fluffball's owner. I thought she might have taken a week or two to even realise the cat was gone and then start putting 'Cat Missing' posters up all over the neighbourhood. But no.

Phew. She hadn't even missed him. Or didn't care.

And, no doubt, he hadn't missed her.

But I did. Him, I mean.

Six weeks later, I saw Z. She told me what had happened.

At the shelter, Fluffball had been assessed and sent to the veterinarian. He was found to have feline AIDS, an old compound fracture of the hip and rear leg - probably from having been hit by a car at some time - and a cancer in the neck. Each a death sentence.

He had then been desexed, and had his diseases treated, and his old fracture rebroken and reset. He had been kept in the shelter while he recovered.

He had then been rehomed, with an elderly lady, with whom he lives indoors, in a far distant suburb.

And, best of all, he was given a new name.


Fair trade doesn't get any fairer than this.

The price of a cup of coffee at Coburg’s original and best café, Coffee and Kitchen, has risen for the first time in four years. It is now $2.50. That is not a typo.

Coffee and Kitchen caters for the old Coburg crowd; the elderly Greeks and Italians who moved into the suburb in the 1950s and '60s as young factory fodder and are now in their twilight years. The two newspapers most read here are Il Globo and Neos Kosmos; and, unlike most cafes, the most popular drink served is the short black, leaving the ubiquitous café latte a distant second.

Gradually supplanting the old guard of customers at Coffee and Kitchen is a new generation of Coburg families whose children love the milkshakes or kick balls around in the mall while their parents sit outdoors under big market umbrellas in hot weather. But Coffee and Kitchen is still not quite hip enough for the hipsters - ironically, because it is exactly the kind of place foodie experience-seekers travel the world to find: an unpretentious European-style café where genuine locals enjoy good quality coffee and buy coffee beans, pasta and basic kitchen items at down-to-earth prices.

During major world sporting events, Frank switches on the big screen. The café also turns brown and gold every September. Look out for a four-peat this year.


Coffee and Kitchen
7 Victoria Street Mall Coburg


One I photographed earlier. The newspaper dates the picture to August 2008.


A Cat With No Name, Part One.

Another animal story, but this one is highly confidential as it includes cruelty, identity theft, actual theft, kidnapping, lies, trickery, and deception. Tell no-one you have read this.

One day two summers ago, a cat walked in my front gate, proceeded up the long driveway, turned left at the pathway that leads to the front door and sat down on the front porch. I watched this happen through the front window and was strangely moved by the cat's nonchalant self-possession. It looked like it had been here before. But I was sure it hadn't.

I invited it inside. You don't usually invite cats, you just let them in. But this one had such a debonair personality I felt a more formal approach was appropriate. The cat accepted my invitation and marched in regally, walked to the kitchen and sat down expectantly at the refrigerator. This was a cat that knew what it wanted. I fed it.

The cat was a complete male, confident and fat and sleek with soft, small fold-over ears and shifty oriental eyes. Its coat was grey with stripes, and it had a white chest and an orange nose. It purred deeply. It had no name tag. I supposed its name would be Buster or Sam Spade or Mr Wilson or Hammer.

It came back the next day. I fed it again and gave it some milk. It slurped the milk noisily and sailed straight back to the front door without a backward glance and waited for me to open it. When I did, it walked away languidly like a diner leaving a French restaurant after having eaten a chateaubriand and drunk half a bottle of Beaujolais.

A few days later, a lady who lives a few doors away flittered past my house as I was collecting the mail. Have you seen a cat?, she asked. I've seen plenty in my time, I replied. This one is grey, she said. Yes, I've seen it, I said. I've fed it too. It visits me. I hope you don't mind. She didn't mind.

It gets out, she explained, a little unnecessarily. She told me its name was Fluffball. I felt a vague sense of disillusionment. Fluffball?

Summer passed and I didn't see Fluffball for a while. He reappeared one night in early winter. He had lost weight, and he limped, quite badly. He started visiting again, and still took food, eating lustily each time. He had developed a habit of head-butting me, a pokerfaced form of affection. He would stalk onto the verandah, head straight for my leg, lower his fat grey head with the floppy ears and ram me like a goat. And she calls him Fluffball? Ludicrous.

Months passed. He came and went. Then I had a visit from another neighbour. This other neighbour works in animal care. I knew what she wanted to talk about. She wanted to talk about Fluffball.

to be continued


Carrying the drinks.

Greyhounds have quirks, if not outright eccentricities. You have to wonder where they come from; the eccentricities, I mean. Perhaps it is because they have been living with humans for centuries. It is the only dog breed mentioned in the Bible, but that may have been a mis-translation.

Our last visitor, Lou, (who gives them these names?) was here during the hot weather. Dogs like to play with their water, so you have to put around multiple sources. If they tip out their water on a 40 degree day they're in big trouble. I used a large plastic basin and two-litre yogurt buckets with handles as backups. Lou would gently nose the handle up to the pick-up position, take it delicately in his jaws, and carry the bucket to another part of the garden, where he would set it down again.

Without spilling a drop.

He did this all the time. He was self-taught. I have the evidence. I should upload it to YouTube, but the last thing the world wants is another pet video. Like most things, it works better as a story.

Like Lou, our new foster dog, Tiger, has a quirk. She likes to pick up objects when out walking, usually cylindrical items. The first was a disposable coffee cup, which she carried for several hundred metres before dropping it, possibly because she did not like the smell of coffee, but how would I know?

The other evening about seven o'clock, when it was still hot, Tom and I took her out for a walk. I sometimes use the same route to visit a nearby bottle shop on hot nights. On the way back, she picked up an empty can - one of those black ones with the distinctive white colonial script that is easily recognisable from a distance as a brand of bourbon - and carried it the whole way home. As we walked along the street the drivers of a few passing cars gave the drink-carrying dog a sideways glance. One tooted and waved, but I couldn't see who it was.

The next day, a friend asked me, "How did you train your new dog so quickly to carry your drinks?"