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Showing posts from December, 2006

Lime butter salmon, barbecued.

So in the end, people bought cold weather food. Turkeys marched out in droves - if you can have droves of turkeys when they are frozen and encased in plastic - on Christmas Eve. Forget the Boxing Day sales at the department stores. The real bargains were at the fish stall in the supermarket. Crayfish, $35 down from $70. Salmon, $12 down from $28. Oysters, $6.50. By mid-afternoon Boxing Day, a kind south-westerly had shunted Christmas Day's black clouds somewhere else, maybe over the mountains where the last week's blazing fires were still smouldering like a mother-in-law's disapproving frown, and the sun came out and made dappled shadows on the lawn. Just in time for our Boxing Day barbecue. Lime butter salmon, barbecued. Make the lime butter: add the zest of two limes and the juice of one, a tablespoonful of finely chopped parsley and two chopped cloves of garlic to 50 grams of softened butter. Combine and refreeze. Slice into rounds. With your knife blade on the horizont

White Christmas.

Rain was falling in sheets as I turned onto the freeway heading south and east. The road rose towards Bolte Bridge where you can see the city to the left and industry and docks rolling away to the right. The car crested the bridge and then we hit a traffic jam. Half the cars in Melbourne were headed west and the rest east. It was Christmas Day, midday. Even peak hour never jams up like this. I escaped the freeway at Docklands, idled through South Melbourne, turned left at Fitzroy and crossed St Kilda junction to Dandenong Road, veered onto Wattletree, slipped along a quiet, curving Malvern Road and picked up the freeway again at Chadstone. Easy. We were in the foothills of the Dandenongs by ten past one. I parked the car in some slush out the front of the house, a brown tumbled-brick eighties affair with arched windows behind a tall wall with ironwork inserts. There was snow on what would have been the front lawn if drought and extreme heat hadn't killed it. We went inside to get w

Anyone have a large casserole they can spare?

I knew it was Christmas when it was 42 degrees in the Safeway parking lot but inside the store, the checkout girls were wearing Santa hats and Frosty the Snowman was being murdered by someone who used to be a pop singer on the store radio. Jimmy Barnes? John Farnham? John Stevens? Cat Stevens? Neil Diamond? I don't know. I knew it was Christmas when I read in the paper that someone had been complaining that a school had banned the original central Christmas figure, whose name has five letters, to avoid offending minorities and then I read a few more paragraphs and realised they meant Santa. I knew it was Christmas last year when I kept ticking mental checklists of my relatives; but still missed one until 5pm on Christmas Eve, as the store doors slammed shut, when their name popped into my mind unprompted. I knew it was Christmas when I started to prepare the biggest eggplant and potato curry I've ever made and discovered I didn't have a casserole big enough to fit, nor a sp

Curried fish cakes.

The previous night's barbecue was just your usual sit-in-the-garden-and-watch-the-sun-go-down affair. I interrupted the chardonnay to throw a couple of pieces of very good fish onto the hotplate. They cooked quickly. Fish always does. Sear, sear, sear, flip. Sear, sear, sear, slap onto plate. Drown with lemon juice. Eat. To go with the fish, there was a very cold salad of quartered vine-ripened tomatoes, larger-than-usual cubes of very good fetta, eighth-segments of onion and very good fat black olives. That's all. Kind of a minimalist but cubist Greek salad. Which makes no sense at all, but after three chardonnays I always start analysing the food. It was still hot when the sun disappeared behind part of a tree. No cats appeared on the fence. I finished the chardonnay. But there was some fish left over, so here's what I did with it the next night. Curried fish cakes. Ingredients: Two good portions of cold leftover barbecued fish. One of rock ling, the other of salmon. Six

Early afternoon, Blairgowrie beach.

The haze is smoke from the bush fires. It sat on the bay for several days like a dirty wet blanket. About a third of Victoria is on fire. The heat of the day was intense and stifling, but there must have been air over the water because the boats managed to slip around each other in slow circles all afternoon. The middle-aged couple did the same for a while.

The mantelpiece over the stove.

Some time in the night. The small hours. Maybe one, maybe two. I woke, if wake is the appropriate verb, which it probably isn’t; because although I will usually wake easily after three o'clock, before then I am like the log that has lain on the forest floor for fifty years. Tracy seemed to be feeding the baby in soft light, very soft light. Babies are like that. They wake at night and want food. It’s the one thing I can’t help with. Then, a sound from the other room. The other baby. The older one. The one that is cutting teeth. Molars. They are taking forever. He cries in pain and frustration and his cheeks go red. The molars pop out and go in again, like animals popping their heads out of the ground, what are they called? The golf course ones. I don't know. The sound stopped. Now I am asleep again. Who mentioned golf? Now I am holding a two iron. Driving through. Thwack. A beautiful shot. Straight to the green. I am a champion. Someone shouts: ‘Fore!’ Who can that be? I am a c

A house by the lake.

Once upon a time, a chef built a house by a lake. She built the house in a dusty field on a hill overlooking the swampy part of Lake Daylesford. The field was littered with the rusty hulks of abandoned cars and overgrown with blackberry. The house took two years to build and rabbits ate everything she planted. The chef was Alla Wolf-Tasker, whose Russian-Austrian parents had taken her to Daylesford as a child, to visit the spa. She called the house Lake House. The house by the lake. Simple, unpretentious. Lake House. Her idea was to open a little place in the country for people to visit, have a snack, maybe a meal. Open only on weekends. Who would visit weekdays? Nobody. But Alla Wolf-Tasker had worked in France where people enjoyed dining in the regions and she knew they would here as well. She would draw on her Russian heritage, her French training and the fresh produce for which the region is renowned and then see how it worked out. You can only try. People visited. Word got out. Aw

Gold Commissioners and nuns.

The Convent Gallery is a fortress of a building. It abuts the Botanic Gardens and looks out imperiously over Daylesford. On a clear day you can see Mt Franklin from one of its balconies. On a not so clear day you wouldn't be looking at the view anyway, you'd be inside having coffee or staring at the art. We did all three. Coffee first, view second, art third. Coffee always comes first. The Convent Gallery used to be a convent and I wondered how the nuns managed to trump the church heavies in getting an even better slice of land than the actual churches. Then I found out the building was not always a convent; it was the Gold Commissioner's private residence. How ironic: the churches weren't king of the heap after all. God came second to gold. The building is not exactly inconspicuous and would have been even more so in 1870, standing out like a ballerina in a bar. Then, in the 1880s the gold boom crashed and the Gold Commissioner left the goldrush town and the Presenta


It was still light. I walked out of the motel driveway, up the wide empty road to the main street, crossed it at the traffic roundabout near the supermarket and continued up a steepening hill towards the churches. Two stood on opposite corners, ignoring each other and looking down their noses at everything else. In those days churches always got the best real estate in town, high up on the hill, where the atmosphere was a little more refined than down on the main street with the dirt and the horses and the hotels. Other churches dotted the hill, spires jabbing the sky. In the 1870s, probably the whole town spent Sunday morning walking up the hill and down again. Repent; and build up an appetite for the Sunday roast. I passed the churches. Here, the hill gets even steeper. Another five minutes of puffing and sweating and you reach a gateway into the Botanic Gardens which sprawl over nine hectares of hill crown at the very top of Daylesford. I walked into the gardens and along a sand pat

The motel.

An arc of motel units could be seen beyond a big circular lawn at the end of a driveway that passed the reception office, which was partially concealed behind an overgrown shrubbery. I stopped the car and checked in at the office and the man, after telling me there was a vacancy and giving me the key to number two, asked conversationally, "Hot enough for you?" There was a metal table and a chair outside each unit. Outside some were sand-filled ceramic planters. They were the non-smoking units. You could smoke out the front. An air-conditioner hummed away over one of the doors, number four, which meant the others were vacant. It was still about 38 degrees and it was close to five o'clock. I like motels. I'm a motel buff. I like genuine fifties, sixties and seventies designs that are untouched. This was seventies messed up with some eighties kitsch and some nineties technology, such as three remote controls, the too-big television and the water-saving showerhead. But i

The lake.

We drove to the lake. It's five minutes out of town, to the south west. The road drops down, twists back on itself and you enter a carpark overlooking what used to be a lawn sweeping down to the water. The car drifted across the gravel and came to a stop facing the water. The lake is big enough to be impressive and small enough to walk around if you have a spare half day. Pine trees ring the water, rising away on the surrounding hills like spectators in stands at an arena. There was no breeze and the water was dead flat, almost a mirror. Dark jagged shapes were the reflections of the pines. We got out of the car and moved across the drought-beaten lawn down to the water. To the right of the lawn, under a stand of old pines, an old building used to be something else and is now a bookshop. It sits there in the shade, quietly, and occasionally has a customer. The customer buys a book and wanders out of the shop, trying to decide which particular piece of lake edge would be nice for re

What does million-year-old water taste like?

In the late afternoon, we visited the mineral springs. The sun was lower now, but it was even hotter than earlier. Anything involving water sounded a good idea. The ancient water wells from the depths of the earth, having leached upwards through volcanic rock for 450 million years to emerge as clear and clean as this morning's dew. It has health-giving properties. It's one of the purest mineral waters on earth. The water comes out at metal taps built into a series of rockfaces scattered along a kind of linear sunken garden alongside a watercourse. You can follow the path and taste the water at each of the taps. The taps curve downwards elegantly, like the beaks of Kiwis. You press a pump and the water flows. It does so with a gentle hiss, like a soft sigh from the deep. The water you don't drink or catch drips through a grate and into a drain that leads to the garden. That's why the picnic lawn was so lush. Ironic, I thought to myself, pardoning the pun, You can't

Hepburn Springs.

To get to Hepburn Springs, you drive down an alarmingly steep hill that descends into what was probably once the crater of a volcano and ends at a gate which bears directions to the car park and the spa centre. The carpark was empty except for a single day tour bus parked cheekily across several empty angle parks. I parked the car as close as possible to a tree, for shade. On a day that hot, the lawn next to the spa centre was possibly the shadiest and coolest place for a picnic in the entire State of Victoria. We threw down the picnic rug and the food cooler and the basket of plates and the cutlery and parked the pram with Thomas in it and sat William down on the blanket and unpacked the picnic: Lebanese flat bread, cold cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber, tuna, cold boiled eggs, home made apricot fruit cake. And thermos tea. Having a picnic is a complicated business but it is worth it if you're organised. We were organised. All the organisation pays off when you have eaten enoug


450 million years ago, a volcano blew up and left a large hill, not quite a mountain, sitting in the middle of Victoria, and a large, deep lake next to it. 449,999,849 years later, a bunch of gold diggers decided to build a town on the hill overlooking the lake. They called it Daylesford. They built churches towards the top of the hill, a main street level across its brow and a spa centre over the mineral springs bubbling away deep beneath its surface. Despite its elevation, Daylesford was baking in the heat when the Volvo purred to a stop under the canopy of a large tree right outside the Harvest Cafe, just off the main street. We went into the cafe and the screen door banged behind us and we found a table near the window. The Harvest is your alternative cafe with organic and vegan meals and fair trade coffee and a toy corner for the children of the local hippies. Now it has added an organic store, stocking fresh fruits and vegetables, packaged food products and organic wines and beer


The Western Highway bore on, a black ribbon through a flat dry nothing. Then it dropped into a bowl that used to be a volcanic crater and is now Bacchus Marsh, a small market garden town that relies on whatever water is left in the Lerderderg River, if any. Look out to the right and you can see endless rows of vegetables. They must be getting water from somewhere. Perhaps they're trucking it in. The road lifted out of Bacchus Marsh and kept rising towards Ballan. All the way from here to Ballarat used to be emerald green. Now it's yellow brown. Not so much summer harvest yellow, but more walk-off-the-land brown. We swung off the main road after Ballan and the exit road swept an arc over the Western Highway and pointed north. Now we were into hillier country dotted with the kinds of small towns in which no-one lives any more. Bunding. Barkstead. Spargo Creek. Towns with nothing left except maybe an old church converted into a weekender for people who want to spend weekends in a


We packed some things into the car and left on a hot morning, early. The wind was already hot and already dusty. We headed west. You take the Western Ring Road and then you take the Western Highway. There's no confusion. You can't go wrong and you're out of the city soon. But it used to be sooner. Melbourne sprawled north and east, but it never sprawled west. To the north, artists followed the river, enchanted by the light and the mists and the nightlife at other artists' places. Then the bohemians followed the artists and then everyone else followed the bohemians and built suburbs. Orchardists and farmers looked east, enchanted by the Blue Dandenongs, and settled in the foothills or built houses right up there under the tang and crack of the soaring eucalypts and the pines and rebuilt them every few years after bushfires. But no-one went west. Melbourne stopped at Sunshine, which was named after a manufacturer of heavy machinery . Beyond Sunshine was a dusty plain as f