Safari Supper

adelaideAfter two entertaining, fun-filled evenings with Foodi tours in Adelaide, in parts of town I barely knew, I was inspired to create one of my own, and take the kids on a progressive dinner before I left town. Given that it was a Sunday evening – usually an extremely quiet time in Li’l Ol’ Adelaide –  I wasn’t sure what we would find open, but there were enough, and the uncertainty made our discoveries all the more exciting.

We set out early, on this balmy summer evening, to meander along Hindley Street, before turning up Leigh and weaving our way back down Peel. Both these back lanes have been refurbished and gentrified in recent years, and both are looking much better for the facelift.  The first place we came across with an open door was “La Rambla,” a converted, bluestone warehouse, with high, beamed ceilings, a mile-long bar and dark wooden floors.  It was a good spot to begin our moveable feast. We ordered a small selection of tapas, a beer and a couple of mocktails. The mocktail was, unsurprisingly, too sweet for me, but I had helpers at hand.

Our waiter was young, friendly and enthusiastic, and we wisely took his advice on the chorizo cooked in red wine. If patatas bravasyou remember, my last experience here included a thick wedge of decidedly dry fried sausage of which I was not enamoured. This was a different kettle of fish altogether, rich and moist and flavourful and absolutely delicious. We might have fought over the last two pieces, but two of us had moved at the speed of sound, and they were gone before the rest could blink. Ah well, there were other things to come. A flamboyant creation of brie and jamon on toast, with a dash of rocket went down chewily to mouth-filled mumbles of delight. The patatas bravas, however, was my favourite dish, and as good as anything I tasted in Madrid, if not better, generously doused in mayo and chilli sauce. And we were most grateful for the huge serve, as it proved popular with us all.

Across the road was an interesting looking place I had noticed the week before: a covered alley with café tables, and the tempting sign “Maybe Mae.” Last week a bridal party had teetered out of gorgeous vintage cars, and disappeared, on wobblingly high heels, down that alley. This week it was out turn

maybe mae logo“Maybe Mae,” once an RnB night club, is now an opulent, retro bar, hidden – like a Prohibition speakeasy – in the basement below “Bread & Bone”, the door secreted in wooden paneling at the bottom of a broad staircase. Inside, we settled into an extremely comfortable, curved, deep green leather banquette. Mirrors on the walls have been framed to look like windows, so that I kept glancing out and being surprised to see my own reflection. We sipped on Hendricks and tonic with a long, curling strip of cool cucumber.

The subdued murmurs from other corners of the room were a far cry from the harsh rattle and clatter of those sparse modern restaurants of sharp corners and polished concrete, where every sound is multiplied a hundred fold until your head rings. Here is an old fashioned world of assignations and quiet, whispered conversations … and carpet!

A bar man wanders over to joke with the kids, as we nibble on nuts’n’bolts, a long-forgotten snack my grandmother discovered she could make from Nutri-Grain, curry powder and peanuts. As a recipe that didn’t require her to boil the saucepan dry – always a bonus – it was also the perfect snack for her endless bridge parties of gilt edged cards and brimming ashtrays, colored glasses and those dainty wee pencils I wanted for my dolls. My daughter had never seen it before, and was delighted to discover it was actually ‘a thing’ and crunched away cheerfully on this glorified breakfast cereal.

Back up the stairs and along the tiled white tunnel between Leigh and Peel Steets, we passed “Casablabla” which I would love to have visited, if only for the name, but my daughter assured me that it is simply confused, with a random collection of memorabilia from Morocco, India and South East Asia that somehow doesn’t quite gel. Anyway, it was closed, so we headed west down Waymouth Street in search of the “Grace Emily.”

Waymouth street has smartened up a lot since I used to wander down to my husband’s office on Light Square. Thela rambla west end has become quite a happening locale, apparently, dedicated to the UniSA students who dwell on the West End campus. Cafes and noodle bars, refurbished pubs, a YHA that looks nothing like the cheap and dingy dives I would reluctantly rely on during my European adventure in the 80s. Light Square still sports the odd adult shop, but the park itself is kempt and cool, a nice spot to pause for breath. On a hot afternoon earlier in the week, I had passed a man who lay snoozing beneath a tree, his hat over his eyes, his sleek and shiny Alsatian stretched out beside him.

Eventually, we reached the Grace Emily, which I was surprised to discover was actually an old pub. And it is like stepping back to an earlier era, when pubs were all dim, gloomy, musty and dusty, smelling of stale beer and damp carpets. The Grace Emily has reputedly been a top hangout for musicians for years, and I think I was expecting something reeking of koolness and character rather than rising damp. But not so much on a Sunday night, it seems, when there is no music, very few customers, and a rather seedy vibe – although the boys thought it was fabulous, and promised themselves to come back another day. By which time, I was back out on the street…

cumbyFrom the old-fashioned Grace Emily to the Cumberland Arms – the “Cumby” – an inn exhibiting an impressive blend of historic charm and modern makeover, and giving off a far more welcoming vibe than its neighbour. Wandering down the passage past dining rooms, bars and lounges, and a smattering of pokey machines, we found our way to the big bright beer garden. Here we could choose between tall stools at high benches or wooden banquettes against the back wall. Cushions might have added a touch of comfort to the general outdoor austerity, but we were happy enough, watching the last of the day’s tennis in Melbourne on a large but surprisingly unobtrusive screen above the bar. The dull thud of tennis balls accompanied the soft, almost whispered voices of the commentators, as we ordered a mouth-watering marinated lamb pizza to share and a couple of pints. The stars in a velvet blue sky competed with strings of bright fairy lights…

And then a gentle stroll home: back across the river that was calmly reflecting the lights from the curved and stylish pedestrian bridge opened almost two years ago, designed to usher sports fans across the river from the railway station to the gleaming spaceship that is the new Adelaide Oval. Down along the river bank, the scent of eucalyptus was heavy in the air, while the final, sunset chirrups of birds coming home to roost held echoes of The Waltons “goodnight John-boy, goodnight Pa, goodnight Mary-Ellen…”  Goodnight Adelaide.\

*With thanks to Google Images for providing the photos

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Sampling Adelaide

Iimaget is twenty-five years since I last lived in Adelaide for any length of time. So this summer, it was fun to head back for a couple of months and set up house near the city. From there, I set out on a voyage of rediscovery…

And what a change there has been in the city centre in the last few years. Restaurants and cafés abound, in an amazing range of culinary variation. I remember when the Phuket opened in Glenelg, one of the first Thai restaurants we had ever seen, and we didn’t know how to pronounce it.

Now you can choose between Nepalese and Vietnamese, Indian and Italian, Abyssinian and Afghani, to name but a few. With so many options, it is hard to know where to start. Thus, on a random Saturday afternoon, when the summer heat had quietened down to a sedate 28’C and there was a cool breeze to dispel any latent humidity, I decided to take advice from the experts, and booked myself on a walking tour of Adelaide’s hidden flavours.

imageFoodi is running tasting tours in most capital cities – apart from Canberra and Hobart – that range from craft beer to wine, chocolate to high tea. Being more inclined to savoury options, I decided on the Night Safari, encouraged a friend to join me, and put on my walking shoes. It turned out to be an excellent plan.

We were invited to meet outside Haigh’s chocolate shop on Beehive Corner, that historic landmark on the junction of Rundle Mall and King William Street, and a popular meeting spot for over a century. Here we were mustered by our tour guide, Anita. A passel of food enthusiasts, local and not-so-local, we followed her willingly, our own Pied Piper of Hamlin, through the back streets of Adelaide, eager to uncover some unknown eating places, to savour samples of their menus and possibly indulge in a cocktail or two.

So, ready, set, go, and we were off down Hindley Street, long infamous for its seedy night clubs, but quickly gaining ground on the foodie map of the city. It seems the city council has focused on giving the area a much needed facelift, and many of the narrow back lanes now house some alluring new watering holes and ‘greasy spoon’ cafés.

While an early-morning-after-the-night-before can still look fairly ordinary and uninviting on Hindley Street, the likes of Peel Street, Bank Street and Leigh Street have improved beyond recognition, and have acquired a really cool vibe, particularly on a Saturday night.

imageWe joined the weekend crowds and headed west. As we turned down Bank Street, Anita explained seriously that our first stop was McDonalds. Thank goodness she was joking! Instead, we wandered a little further down to a great little Vietnamese café, “Sit Lo.” Here we perched on leggy stools at a long bar that stretched down the centre of the café. The walls were decorated with bicycle wheels, while the counter top sported toy models of those quaint Vietnamese bicycle rickshaws. We waited eagerly to taste test some fresh bao, shorthand for bánh bao, which are similar to the Chinoy siao pao popular in both China and the Philippines. Bao are hand-sized pockets of freshly made, soft, squidgy steamed bun, with a choice of fillings. The “Sit Lo” chefs offer a sophisticated fusion version of this simple Chinese street food: fried chicken with coriander and chilli mayonnaise; pork belly with hoisin sauce and pickled cucumber; crumbed, soft-shell crab served with coleslaw and a dill mayonnaise. As we could only have one each, I chose the crab, which was fab. But I will to go back and try the rest. They all disappeared with alacrity, and barely a murmur of conversation could be heard.

A few steps away, we stopped again outside a Malaysian roti bar, “Mamak Corner”. Mamak stalls are well known in Malaysia, where they are home to this highly popular Indian Malay street food. Outside the cafeteria, Bank street has been lined with outdoor seating (referred to as “parklets”) which would have been a nice place to dine, but a stiff, cool wind sent us fleeing indoors, where we set up camp to share platters of freshly made, warm roti chanai, flakey and soft, dipped in a mildly spicy dhal or a sweet sauce, depending on your preference. This was accompanied by a cup of hot tea, strong, bright orange and frothy, from a hefty splash of aerated condensed milk that diluted the heavy tannin flavor to good effect. I am not normally a fan of this south Asian variety of black tea, but in fact it was surprisingly easy to swallow, lighter and far less saccharine than I would have imagined, And, as Anita promised, it actually made a good accompaniment to the dhal.

imageWhen the platters had been wiped clean, we moved on to Peel Street, where we located a Spanish tapas bar, “La Rambla”, in an attractive, nineteenth century, three storey stone building. Here was our first opportunity to add alcohol to the mix, and some new friends from England we met on the tour were more than happy to share a carafe of white wine sangria with me. It was refreshing and fruity, but I have to say, for the price, the bar staff were hardly liberal with the wine – more orange juice with a hint of grape – which made me a little peevish for $30. Still, we managed to empty the carafe in short order, while we nibbled on Catalonian tapas – chunky wedges of fried chorizo and sautéed garlic prawns – dipping slices of soft fresh bread enthusiastically into the oil at the bottom of the dish.

Dodging a clutch of beautifully elegant bridesmaids and some glorious, beribboned, vintage cars the colour of clotted cream, we headed south to Waymouth street where Ragini Dey of the renowned Indian restaurant “The Spice Kitchen” has recently established “Naya,” a dashing little Indian fusion tapas bar and restaurant, where the tables had been garnished with copies of Ragini’s cookbook, the eponymous ‘Spice Kitchen’, and packets of her own spice mixes. Here we compared notes on our curry making skills and nibbled on some rather uninspiring fermented rice and lentil pancakes topped with sweet potato, known as rosti upatham. Rather more popular was a platter of tasty and a bit-bigger-than-bite-sized butter chicken samosas – as I discovered when I indelicately put a whole one in my mouth and then struggled to chew. Moreish and mildly spicy, I washed mine down with a glass of sparkling wine, and quickly recovered my equilibrium.

imageOur last savory stopover was a recently revamped corner café, the rather swanky “Delicatessen, Kitchen & Bar” directly opposite the Advertiser (our local newspaper), so presumably it’s pulling in a reliable clientele of hungry journos. Despite the German name, apparently the menu is strongly influenced by French cuisine. Nonetheless, we were offered strips of hot, crunchy pork crackling (cholesterol free of course), served like cheese sticks in a glass, and another pizza-like arrangement of gruyere and truffle, seated at the long bar or at tiny round tables. Eventually, feeling a little tight around the tummy region, we were grateful for the opportunity to stretch our legs as we headed for the eastern side of town, to Rundle Street, where we landed up at “Steven ter Horst,” a trendy little artisan chocolate shop, now more than ready for ‘dessert’. There we perched at yet another high bench – like an altar – before a display cabinet full of luxurious looking chocolate morsels.image

We, however, were served up a veritable slab of chocolate torte, a weighty and luscious ganache on a wafer thin base of almond praline. And it was superb. And it was gone. I may even have licked the plate.

Supercilious eastern states visitors might forever belittle Adelaide as an undersized, uneventful city, but they would be wrong. I went on a foodie tour of Adelaide. And I travelled the world…

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“There’s a red house over yonder…”

imageI have been ‘camping’ in South Australia with the family over Christmas, so I was absolutely delighted to discover a great new, character-filled coffee spot within walking distance of our temporary home in the north west corner of the city, and I have to say my feet have been wandering past almost daily since I arrived in mid-December. I am not the only one.

Named for a favourite Jimi Hendrix song, the Red House Café (not red at all, but bluestone) squats sedately between the railway line and the golf course on War Memorial Drive, the only building between Park Terrace and the Red Ochre Grill at the weir, the air redolent with the scent of eucalyptus. Once the North Adelaide railway station and stationmaster’s house, this lovely old bluestone building stood empty and unloved for years. The site, on the fringe of public parklands, made it more than a little problematic to convert the station into a commercial business. Council and heritage groups were also wary of changes to the building that would have a negative impact on its heritage listing. Nevertheless, Emily Pescod and her family were determined to try.

When the station came up for lease, mum Kate got very excited, but Emily was wary. She had originally planned to open a shop for her large collection of vintage clothes, perhaps with a small café on the side, and she was worried that the site might be a bit off the beaten track. Once she had seen the building, however, she was won over by its charm, and quickly put forward a proposal.

Progress was slow. It took two and a half years from the time Emily applied for the lease until they were able to pull off a low-key opening on July 21st last year. Emily was patient with council protocol, but persistent, and her stratagem eventually paid off. The project instantly became a family affair, in which Emily’s mother, Kate Russell, grandmother, Cynthia McNeil and father, Mark Deltow, have all been actively involved.

Kate described how Emily had always loved trawling op shops and vintage markets, “probably because I was such a imagetight-arsed mother!” she laughed. As the collection grew and grew and grew, Kate eventually suggested she should try selling some of it. Emily says the hunting and gathering part has been much neglected since the café opened – but she figures she has stocked up on so many garments, she shouldn’t run out for years – especially as the project had somehow morphed from the original idea into one where the café would be larger, the vintage clothes outlet smaller.

At twenty-six, Emily is a pragmatic, level-headed young woman, calm and sure with a firm hand on the tiller, as she manages her hand-picked and plentiful team of chefs and waiting staff. The team is like family, she claims, and she is “super proud” of the job they do. “I adore them all” she smiles. And the warm and friendly atmosphere is a tribute to their efforts. The large staff allows flexibility for the band of mostly casual student waiters, but Emily and her family have been working a seven-day week for months.

imageThe Red House is just that: a series of small rooms and a courtyard, as well as some seating on the front verandah – colourfully striped tables and chairs with umbrellas to hide from this summer’s overly enthusiastic heat. The ticket office now houses the coffee machine and the original waiting room Is the largest dining space. The original station master’s kitchen has been renovated and modernized to the chefs’ specifications, and there is a pretty courtyard full of potplants and sunshine the northern end. The walls are decorated with an eclectic collection of art and ornaments. There is even a bowl of golf balls in the bookshelf, that arrive daily on the front doorstep, gifts from the more wildly swinging golfers across the road. One room is choc-a-block with 50s fashions, and there is talk of an outdoor entertaining area on the southern end. It’s like coming home. The staff is welcoming and friendly, and it has only taken me a week or two of showing up regularly to be treated like an old and treasured friend.

This morning, after a sumptuous brunch, I joined Kate with my coffee, to chat about the genesis of the Red House Café, with occasional asides from Granny, who does a terrific job as the official ‘Meeter and Greeter.’

It is soon obvious that this is a creatively artistic family, handy with paintbrushes and saws. The furniture has been largely designed and built by Kate and Mark, who have constructed tables, painted doors and re-upholstered old chairs and bar stools. Kate said they had a lovely time collecting all the bits and pieces with which to furnish the café. Working to Emily’s creative concept, it is a thoroughly eclectic collection including memorabilia from a well-timed auction at the South Australian Railway Museum. One black and white portrait of a solemn, middle-aged Victorian couple hangs above my table. Kate claims they are the stationmaster and his wife, Charles and Gertrude. After spinning a lovely tale, she confesses they don’t really have a clue who the couple are, they just named them for fun, and we agree ‘Charles’ actually looks more like a banker than the Fat Controller.

Since they opened six months ago, the café has been evolving daily, as they have worked to overcome teething problems with chefs, air conditioning and menus. While online reviews in the first few weeks ran hot and cold, it seems everyone agreed the place had potential. Emily assures me that it’s all running smoothly now, and there are barely any glitches left to iron out. After a slightly rocky start, the menu was simplified. Since then the Red House has gone from strength to strength, and Emily is about to expand the menu again.

The menu is largely tasty comfort food: mix and match a big breakfast or savour the muffins that Kate bakes daily. Emily is “really interested” in food (she gets my vote for avoiding that overused word “passionate”) and spends every spare minute obsessing over cookbooks, testing recipes and planning menus. She also likes to ensure she has plenty of options for anyone with food disorders or allergies: as she says, “why shouldn’t they have a good experience too?”

imageBoth Kate and Mark have run their own restaurants in the past, and Emily was the bar manager at the Adelaide Oval for several years, so it would seem Hospitality is in the blood. A six week crash course in business has given Emily the extra theoretical knowledge to run the café. And she has plenty of plans for future developments.

I sit in a corner with a coffee, watching the ebb and flow of customers: young families riding in on bikes with baby seats; ladies of all ages gathering for lunch; the local constabulary wandering through in droves – partly due to Kate’s previous existence working for the SA Police, partly because they think it’s worth the detour. We tease them about a drug raid, but they’ve just come for the great coffee.

And in the height of an extravagantly hot summer, the top billing on the sandwich board out the front goes to the new air-conditioning and cold drinks – in that order! I suggest you try the milkshakes – my boys rave about them – and if you are coming for lunch or brunch or any other meal, be prepared. Bring a hearty appetite, as the servings are not for the faint hearted. And keep an eye out for the ‘living’ doors and the rather special collection of lamp shades…

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Melbourne Means Movida

imageTucked away down a dark alley off Federation Square prolific with graffiti, is Movida. This trendy tapas bar is the brain child of Spanish born Frank Camorra and his business partner Andy McMahon. It spent its first year in a pub on the city fringes before moving to its central location on Hosier Lane in 2003. For over a decade now it has been touted as one of the best dining experiences in Melbourne. And these days it is no longer an only child, but part of a growing family that includes its twin, Movida Next Door (quite literally), a small sister at Tullamarine airport, and a brother in Sydney’s trendy Surry Hills.

Frank Camorra has also co-authored several cookbooks, with writing partner Richard Cornish.

I met Richard, clutching their latest addition to the Movida Library, ‘Movida Solera,’ last May at Madrid Fusion Manila. So when I was planning a night out with a girlfriend in Melbourne recently, I grabbed the opportunity to meet the food behind the recipes. I have also taken the opportunity to give Richard the Spanish Inquisition about his involvement in the cookbook process.

“I am good mates with David Mackintosh… one of the major driving forces behind Movida. He had a team who had a venue but no chef. He searched the newest and the best around Melbourne and around 15 years ago there was a young Spanish bloke who had worked with Guy Grossi and had returned to his home in Spain. That was Frank Camorra. David put Frank and the team with a venue together and Movida was born… In 2007, David suggested we do a Spanish book. I broke Frank’s stories and recipes into chapters and we approached a publisher. Since then we have sold almost 100,000 books.”

It was not an area Richard had worked in before; his back ground is TV and papers. He told me, however, that “I know how to reverse engineer a process.”

‘Did you get to travel to Spain with Frank Camorra to collect the recipes?’ I asked him.

‘God yeah. It’s the reason you do the books. There’s no money in books. To throw yourself into another culture and another language and learn it through the benign filter of food is a gift.’

Did he, I asked, have any good stories to share from that trip?

‘Meeting the nuns. Meeting the cheesemakers. Meeting the Gypsy singer. All by chance. The best story was in Sierra imagede la Franica about two hours west of Madrid. Traditionally [it’s a] poor area. Frank was walking ahead down a cobbled street in a small village following his nose. He darted down a stairwell and ended up in the kitchen of a former Michelin starred chef. He [the chef] was preparing lunch and was braising leeks in butter. (Odd that there was no meat in this dish but this town had a long history of being very poor.) We were early, so we waited in the dining room cum household living room for lunch service. Another man in the room, an old man, came over. He had just a few teeth, ruffled hair and sagging trousers. “Are you the Swedish journalists,” he asked. “No, we’re the Australian food writers,” we replied. He darted off and reappeared 15 minutes later with brushed hair, braces supporting his trousers and his false teeth in. “My name is Fausto,” he said formally. “I am a food philosopher.” For three days he took us under his wing and showed us the food of the region and told us the history of Spanish food. It was an amazing and serendipitous experience.’

Back in Melbourne, on an unusually warm September evening, Richard very kindly arranged a space for us at their long bar in the original Movida. (Not a simple exercise on a busy Saturday night with only a few days notice. I recommend a little less spontaneity to be sure of a seat.) The front door opened into a hive of happy diners, the enthusiastic buzz and bustle almost palpable. Divested of coats and bags, we settled at the bar, to be greeted enthusiastically, almost instantly, by the bar staff, who made us feel like old friends.  And even as my dining partner was voicing her wish to start the evening with bubbles, a glass each of icy cold sparkling wine was handed across the bar.

Anticipating our every need, the champagne was followed by an introductory plate of Cantabrian anchovies on toast, with a tomato sorbet (hand filleted artisan anchovies of course, and a sophisticated smoked tomato sorbet). Starting to feel like movie stars, we perused the rest of the menu, bubbles in hand.

La Movida Madriena was a cultural revolution that began in Madrid in the 1970s and spread across the Iberian Peninsula. Based on freedom of expression, it gave birth to a new permissive, hedonistic Spanish society, a far cry from centuries of gothic Catholic oppression.  Movida, this welcoming, winsome bar of the same name reflects that sensuous, self-indulgent liberality in every mouthful.

Unversed in Spanish wines, we were more than happy to be guided by our well-informed waitress, who confidently recommended an excellent red, as well as suggesting a couple of tapas dishes we had initially overlooked, and introducing us to the specials.

Grazing on tapas is always my favourite way to eat, and the dishes just keep piling up on the bar in front of us. It was a stunning array of culinary creativity, distracting us from our conversation: lightly fried, quietly crisp Jerusalem artichoke croquettes; delicately flavoured quince paste and goats cheese ‘cigars’ or quesos; alcachofas (a mouthwatering confit of baby globe artichokes), and caballa ahumada, Spanish mackerel with a pine nut Gazpacho sorbet that literally smoked as Renee took off the lid. There was plenty of conversation to attend to between glorying over each item on the menu, so we sadly missed out on the last serve of duck, but as you can see, we were not otherwise deprived.

At any other restaurant, the food may have passed us by unobserved, while we talked nineteen to the dozen and caught up on five years of news. Movida dishes, however, are no wallflowers willing to be overlooked, and rightly so. Refusing to be marginalized by girly gossip, be it ever so juicy, every platter elbowed itself into the conversation, determined to override the torrent of chatter and be noticed. We willingly obliged, and drew a halt to proceedings as we savoured each delectable, unusual, innovative mouthful.

imageHere is a rare restaurant that makes you, the diner, feel really special.  The staff obviously cares about the customers, and enjoys looking after them, keen to ensure they are given the best possible experience.  This is a restaurant that seems to go from strength to strength and never flags. The reason? Richard believes, simply, that “Movida over-delivers on expectations.” Or as the website says: “Our aim is to capture the vitality and spirit and Spanish dining culture but making it suit the place where we are. We avoid pastiche and stereotype and embrace authenticity. Ultimately we love to make people happy with really delicious food, good drinks served by staff who are good at their job and know how to have fun.  ”

And with a fabulous menu that has already earned a chef’s hat in the 2016 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide Awards how can you go wrong? And now, I think, I am off to write a cook book…

 

*First published in ANZA News, November 2015. Photos care of Google Images.

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Royal Indian Curry House

imageIndia has held a place in my heart since I was a child. My father returned from a business trip to Delhi when I was about seven with an Indian doll and a glorious picture book that would inspire my imagination for years with its images of dark eyed, dark haired Beauty clothed in gold and kohl and the vibrant, shimmering, swirling colours of tactile, fairy tale gossamer fabrics. It was a different world, lush and luscious as its cuisine, with its scented, resplendent, decadent, transendent culture. Years later, in my early twenties, I arrived in Delhi with a backpack, a boyfriend and a budget of about $5 a day. The reality proved daunting: the sheer volume of people, traffic, sounds, smells and images, with no way to turn it down.  And yet I will return…

In the meantime, on a whim and a tip from a friend, we decided to walk down to the northern end of Makati Avenue last weekend to try out a new neighbourhood curry house. The walk was not unlike my first impressions of India.

We trudged along Kalayaan Avenue in single file, dodging parked cars, pot holes, and threadbare dogs. Scaffolding often blocked the narrow footpaths and rubbish cluttered the gutters. Aromas, good and bad, lazed heavily on the humid air, barbecues and drains intermingling. Unlike the more hygenic but slightly sterile streets of Rockwell, these narrow, cracked lanes teamed with life. Pixie-sized children in second-hand sports kit and bare feet scuttled through the traffic to beg with woebegone faces from the tourists  who glugged beer at al fresco bars under flashing neon signs. Wealthy locals block the way with their monstrous funereal cars. Taxis catapult themselves up Burgos Street, playing dodgems with the pedestrians and any other vehicles that defy their desire to be first to the traffic lights.

Out on Makati Avenue, jeepneys drive haphazardly down the dotted lines, swerve across lanes, stop unexpectedly to disgorge passengers. Taxis weave round them, tooting fiercely, oblivious of how or why to use indicators, or even that they possess such a radical driving tool. Traffic wardens risk their lives in the centre of crossroads, flapping Mickey Mouse gloves at the traffic, almost invisible in the dusk in their dark uniforms. Pedestrians surge like a river along the narrow footpaths, flooding out across intersections, heedless of cars and trucks and buses, an undammed force, an irrepressible tide of bodies. Food stalls cling to the narrow strips of footpath, their owners touting enthusiastically for business with eager cries of “Ma’am-Sir” as we pass.

And then we turn the corner and step through the door of a brightly lit buildingimage opposite a weekend market, and the world shifts. The noises dim, the air cools and the unquenchable, almost acrid odour of palm oil and smoky barbecue is replaced by the equally pungent scent of Indian spices.

Rich by name and rich by flavour, The Royal Indian Curry House on General Luna is the latest Indian experience in Manila, and it is magic. It has only been opened a few weeks, but it is already filling up with keen diners, including many Indians – always a good sign – and the chef is serving up some amazingly robust dishes, heavy with flavour and fragrant aromas.

The tall, narrow building consists of a restaurant on theground floor and mezzanine, a second floor sports bar and there is talk of a third floor lounge. Fresh, kempt, bright and well-groomed, the dining room emits a warm, welcoming atmosphere. The décor is light and modern:  trunk-like pillars cloaked with intricately carved wood that looks like soapstone; deep pluoôîm coloured upholstered chairs; an ancient, pitted wooden door hangs on the wall like a painting; three simple statues grace a small alcove above our table.

We are greeted by half a dozen staff members bearing big smiles, and ushered to a table in the window. Within moments we are joined by a basket of unexpectedly spicy pappadums curled into cones and a selection of dips: a mint chutney, a tamarind sauce and a killer chili dip. We have reduced them to a scattering of crumbs before our friends arrive. We order a re-fill and a square pan of deconstructed vegetable samosas (samosa chaats) topped with yoghurt, tamarind sauce and mint chutney. They are reminiscent of Mexican nachos, but taste much better. We also order a large platter of mixed vegetables to ward off starvation while we carefully study every page of the lengthy menu for more. If we were wise, we would stop here. We are not wise.

imageThe vegetables are a mix of simplicity and surprise, whetting our appetites and delighting our already watering mouthstaste buds. Our vegetarian friend takes charge, and we are soon devouring creamy dahl and malai kofta with buttery naan.  The One & Only selects just one meat dish to indulge the carnivores, and our waiter recommends the chef’s special chicken dish to good effect.

The menu is poetry, a litany of exotic names, some we know, many new to us: pakora, samosa and martabak; kolkote and mommos; sharaabi chana; pani puri; vindaloo and biryani; rogan jhosh and buttered naan. The culinary influences are multi-cultural: Northern Indian, South Indian, Nepalese and Rajasthani, Tibetan and Afghani – we even notice a smattering of street food. We savour only a small selection from this generous offering, but I am already anticipating many happy return visits to extend our repertoire.

 

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Singing Carols at Christmas

imageI love singing, particularly at Christmas. It lightens the heart and puts a smile on my face. So when I arrived in the Philippines and discovered there was a choir I could join, I jumped at the chance.

Asia Minors is a singing group that was established in Manila in 1973 by a handful of Canadian expatriates. Originally it was quite a difficult club to join. Highly disciplined, the list of rules and regulations included the ability to read music and the need to audition. There was also a strict expectation that members would attend every practice, twice a week. For over twenty years, Asia Members required their members to play the guitar as well, as the group had neither piano nor pianist. The first Asia Minors pianist was Lisa Hollins, who joined the group in the 1990s.

Today, with the comings and goings of the expatriate community, most of us have sung with the Asia Minors for only a handful of years. Three singers, however, can count their membership in decades. Carole Tagle, Jenny Wallum and Heather Price have sung with the group since the time they used hand-written song sheets, and devised their own harmonies. Last Friday morning, as we gathered to rehearse for the festive season, Carole, Jenny and Heather, reminisced about some of the highlights of their years of performing with Asia Minors.

Carole joined up about thirty-five years ago, about the same time as the American Women’s Club of the Philippines was founded, when AWCP President, Joanne Kelly, led the Asia Minors as well. Carole was surprised she was allowed to join, as she couldn’t actually play the guitar, but nonetheless her voice was obviously a welcome addition to the group.   Back in the day when expat spouses were not able to work in Manila, and there were far fewer social groups, the Asia Minors were able to practice twice a week, and would also perform regularly at private houses, embassies, ladies luncheons, even once for the celebrated Concerts in the Park at Paco.

Numbers did – and still do – fluctuate as singers come and go from Manila. And it has always been a truly cosmopolitan membership: English, Malaysian and German, Indonesian, Indian and Vietnamese, Canadian, Korean and American, Japanese and Filipina voices unite in the joy of singing.  This year we have been joined by a Slovakian singer. The music we choose to sing is also very cosmopolitan, representing song-writers from all over the globe.

For the past few years, Yvonne Parkes led the group with infectious enthusiasm from her home in Dasmarinas. Since Yvonne left Manila last year we have been joined by our first professional choir mistress, Phoebe Bitoon, a diminutive Filipina with a beautiful, unexpectedly imposing voice. (Her rendition of Autumn Leaves at our Christmas party was truly a joy to hear.) Asia Minors perform for friends and family twice a year: at a potluck dinner before the Summer break in May, and again in December when we join forces with the Manila Play Readers to double the entertainment value. And we also perform for a selection of festive lunches around the city.

Jenny and Heather remembered a time when the group sang at the Canadian Ambassador’s house, only to discover that renowned Filipino singer-songwriter Jose Mari Chan was in the audience. Much to their delight, he later came over to chat with them. Carole described a rehearsal in an apartment on Roxas Boulevard when an earthquake began an unexpected accompaniment and had them all singing ‘vibrato,’ while one member was throwing up in terror.

And they all laughed about the time Asia Minors tried to record a tape of their performance, in a recording studio so heavy with damp and mildew that nobody could sing properly. The result was, apparently, quite dreadful. Heather’s favorite memory was about the time they joined the Manila Hand Bell Society. Together, they performed a beautiful Robert Frost poem ‘Stopping by the Woods’ that had been set to music. She told us us that “it gave me goosebumps every time we sang it.”

These days the group rehearse every Friday, and no one needs to play the guitar as we have our own talented pianist, Mio Ishida – although we occasionally add percussion as required. For the festive season this year we have been singing a wide range of songs including ‘Walking in the Air,’ that beautiful theme song from the animated film The Snowman; a locally inspired version of a 1930s American song ‘A Winter Wonderland,’and a 16th century German carol ‘Es ist ein Rose entsprungen.’

My own favourite moment? Persuading a reluctant choir to sing that much loved Australian Christmas Song ‘Six White Boomers’ for which some of us wore antler headbands and tried to persuade our audiences to join in.

Singing: it’s more fun in the Philippines!

*First published in the ADBSA Newsflash

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Hidden Treasure

Hidden Springs3Five years in Manila and somehow I had never even heard of Hidden Valley Springs. It took a friend visiting from Hawaii to show me the way, and what a blissful escape from the madding crowd created by the APEC summit it proved to be!

Hidden Valley Springs is a private resort in Laguna, secreted between Mount Makiling and Mount Banahaw, a few kilometers off the highway to Batangas. We had booked a tour with Seat-In Coach Tours, which may not have been the cheapest way to go, but it saved us a lot of angst, and Bernie proved to be a terrific source of information on Filipino politics, education, tourism and history. (He also knew where to find us the best Barako coffee at an open air market in Santo Tomas. We got caffeinated merely on the aroma filling the car all the way home.)

Once off the Pan-Philippine Highway, the road narrowed and the scenery became more rural, as we dodged tricycles, children and dogs sunbathing in the middle of the road. At last a signpost directed us down a tiny lane, past banana plantations and bamboo farm huts, more dogs,  and into an almost empty car park amongst the coconut trees.

It was a perfect day. Clear blue skies mocked the rain and pollution we had left behind in Metro Manila. The sweet, nutty, mocha scent of cocoa beans hung in the air. We meandered along a broad footpath through lush tropical gardens, giant ferns and tall native trees, to a bridge overlooking three clear swimming pools cradled in a narrow valley and shaded by the lush vegetation of this tropical rainforest. The pools are filled by a mountain stream that flows down the mountain and cascades into the first pools before racing over the rim and on down into the second and third, before escaping back into the valley.

A steeply winding path led down to the edge of the Warm Pools. It was mid-week and the smallest top pool was already quite full, but downstream we had the two larger ones entirely to ourselves. The water is a lovely temperature: comfortably warm, fresh and unchlorinated and as clear as glass, the bottom lined with clean grey volcanic sand. We drifted happily in the shade of the overhanging trees, relaxed and admiring of this glorious watering hole.

Eventually, we wandered on to explore the other pools on the property. The Soda Pools are so called because the strong flow of the stream apparently allows you to experience water massage similar to European spas. Hmmm. True or not, these two pools are even lovelier than the first, the surroundings landscaped to allow for sun lounges and a couple of spacious salas or gazebos tucked up amongst the trees.

Later, we rambled on, down the path to Lovers’ Pool, and found ourselves clambering up a bamboo ladder to walk along the trunk of a vast tree that apparently came down in the typhoons of 2013, and now lies across the pathway. Gripping the wooden railings to help us keep our balance, we walked tentatively along the broad, damp torso of this fallen giant. Eventually we reached the smaller Lover’s Pool, tucked cozily into the hillside at the bottom of a winding path. The whole area is kept immaculately clean, and the peace is addictive. We float and duck-dive and drift…

It is a short hike from here to the less cultivated hidden falls at the end of a kilometer stretch of bamboo walkway. BeHidden Springs6 wary of doing this in bare feet, as we did, as the joy of a bamboo massage on the soles of your feet quickly wears thin, but it made the last stretch easier, where we had to clamber over rocks and through rock pools to reach the falls.

At some stage our stomachs began to send out hints of hunger, and we sauntered up to the Veranda Valley, a large al fresco restaurant for our buffet lunch.  A trio of folk singers wandered around the tables singing soporifically sweet ballads and Christmas carols, as we chewed bravely on fatty pork and battered fish fried in my not-so-favourite rancid palm oil. I’m sorry to say it, but the kitchen really lets this place down. Endless complaints on Trip Advisor don’t seem to have affected the chef one iota. Desserts are dreary, and while there is plenty of variety amongst the savouries, the only one I really enjoyed was the beef Bicol Express. I wouldn’t bother with the rest. My suggestion would be to smuggle in a picnic, or go elsewhere for lunch.

That said, the setting was so appealing, and the breeze so cool and gentle, I found myself less perturbed by the quality of the food than I expected. And the entrance fee, Php 1,800 per head, includes the lunch as well as a welcome drink and merienda, so at least it’s not an extra cost. It may seem a bit pricey for a day trip, but if you head down early – to beat the traffic and make the road trip as quick as possible – you can then dig in until dusk.

Hidden Valley Springs is a small slice of heaven, the grounds are most beautifully kept and the peace and serenity is a balm to ruffled nerves. Overnight cabins are also quite expensive, but to capture that sense of harmony and tranquility for a little longer is possibly worth the price. It really was a day to soothe the soul.

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The Scottish Ball

flagSt. Andrew’s Day on November 30th is a day of celebration marked by Scots all over the globe, a day that serves up traditional Scottish food, bagpipes, ceilidhs and country dancing.

St Andrew was first recognised as the official patron saint of Scotland in 1320 and he has held a prominent position in Scottish culture since.  But who was he? A Galilean fisherman, brother of Simon, Jesus’ first apostle, Saint Andrew was crucified by the Romans on an X-shaped cross known as a saltire, at Patras in Greece. The saltire was subsequently adopted as the national flag of the Scots.

The St. Andrew’s Society of Manila has been in existence since 1879. An event to recognize St Andrew’s Day has been held every year since then, with the exception of 1942-45, when the Philippines was occupied by the  Japanese.  The St Andrew’s Ball, a tradition of decades, has been hosted at the Polo Club Makati since its debut sixty-five years ago.

Christmas lights were already dripping from the trees as we drove up to the front door, which gave the evening a magical start. The entrance to the Ball is always marked by a large castle gate with turrets, and the room is decorated with family coats-of-arms and strips of tartan fabric on every table.

Highland dress abounds with tartan kilts, sporrans and ghillies for the men. “Ghillies?” you ask. Ghillies are those rather girlish-looking black, lace-up slippers worn with thick, knee-high socks that actually have a more manly purpose than their appearance suggests: apparently the laces are wrapped around and tied above the ankles so that the shoes do not get pulled off in thick mud, and there is no tongue so wet feet can dry more quickly in.  (A ghillie is also the name for a Scottish gamekeeper, which you probably know if you have ever watched Monarch of the Glen.)For the women, there is a lighter style of ghillie, inappropriate for tramping through the hills, but perfect for dancing. And there are no knee-high kilts for the ladies, but ankle-length tartan skirts, worn with a tartan sash or shawl.

Originating in Scotland in the 16th century, tartans were associated with a particular region or district until the 1850s, the colours chosen from the natural dyes that could be manufactured in that area. Family names began to be associated with particular tartans during the Victorian era, when industrialization brought with it more textile variety, and Scottish patriotism was enhanced by a royal visit for George IV. The Highland dress tradition was then adopted in the lowlands and became a fashion craze that evolved into an invented – but now honoured – clan tradition. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert even bought into the trend for tartan, when they acquired Balmoral Castle and carpeted it in the patterns of the red Royal Stewart and the Stewart Hunting green.

OK, so that little bit of trivia fascinated me, but perhaps you would rather hear more about the Ball? Fair enough. Well, my One & Only always looks lovely in a dinner suit, and I looked simply gorgeous too, of course – although the faces I accidentally pulled in the photos might indicate otherwise.  And unfortunately my plan  to cross the border and investigate our family tartan last summer was scuppered by the Edinburgh Fringe festival, which had taken over the city and made accommodation that week a non-starter. Maybe next year.

The Chieftain and his partner were piped in by our regular piper, Roy Espiritu, a rather talented Filipino with impressive expertise on the bagpipes. This was followed by a round of national anthems. Surprisingly, it was the only time I have heard the Philippine National Anthem played without anyone breaking into song, and I swear I was the only person in the room singing (quietly) to God Save the Queen.

The whisky flowed as toasts were made and Chieftain Rob Air honoured the haggis, with great dramatic effect, in the words of Robbie Burns. (There are always lengthy discussions at committee meetings about the best place to source and store the haggis.) While there is always a touch of formality in the shape of those anthems, toasts and speeches,  our current chieftain kept insisting, the evening was all about having fun. So we did.

Once all the formalities were done with, hoards of excited dancers leapt to their feet for the Dashing White Sergeant, Strip the Willow and the Gay Gordons. My good friend Heather practices for weeks beforehand with anyone keen to learn a selection of Scottish dances so they can join in on the big night. A group of young Filipino dancers from  Studio 116 –also trained by Heather and their regular instructor Julie Plummer – danced two sets with light feet and straight backs, and an effortless grace that we mere mortals could only dream of emulating. (For those of you familiar with Scottish country dances, they performed the ‘Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh’ and ‘Montgomeries Rant’ with consummate skill.)

Being the food-aholic that I am, I have to say the dinner was a definite highlight. The haggis entrée was truly superb: haggis topped with ‘neep’ (mashed turnips) and a combination of squash, sinkamas (Mexican yam), carrots and mashed potatoes and infused with a hearty dash of  Famous Grouse whisky. Somehow, it remained remarkably light. I have to admit that I gobbled it down in a most unladylike fashion. The steaks were perfectly cooked (if you don’t mind them blue) and everything was beautifully presented and delivered in a timely fashion – not always the case at dinner events with so many to feed. Dessert was a thick, silky smooth crème brûlée topped in a light splash of whisky that slid down my throat most joyfully. Don’t worry, I danced it all off. I hope!

More able dancers than I then enjoyed some of the more complex dances such as the Punchbowl and the Duke of Perth while I wandered off to explore the cheese buffet, and where I also found a wondrous selection of cupcakes expertly decorated by Leanne Jardine in a range of Scottish emblems. We nibbled and chatted out on the terrace, admiring the stars and the clear skies, with thanks to the APEC summit for clearing the streets and the pollution.

It was, as always, a great night for catching up with old friends and making some new ones, for casting off and quick steps, figures of eight and grand chains, for poussettes and progressions, reels and jigs and generally having a ball. Till next year, by which time I might just have located that family tartan…

 

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A Secret Garden

Pinto1Last weekend we had a long, fume-laden trek through the traffic to the Pinto Art Museum in Antipolo. Fortunately, and to our very great joy, it turned out to be well worth the effort. Winding up through the hills above Manila, we eventually ourselves in a quiet, leafy subdivision high above the city.

Here, tucked away behind wrought iron gates, through a walled courtyard, and along a cobbled path that led into an enchanting garden, we met our friends for a delightful lunch in the garden café, where we sipped on my favourite Sauvignon Blanc (Craggy Range – so far the only Sauvignon Blanc I truly love) and eating a heavy-duty, mouth-watering, barbecue lunch of deep fried pork knuckle, beef steak and dinosaur ribs. Actually, they were really beef ribs, but they were large enough to make me seriously consider dinosaurs or genetically modified cows. And they were overflowing with flavour. The meat literally fell off the bones and I don’t think I have consumed so much protein in one sitting EVER, but I loved every mouthful, especially from our prime position under the trees, looking out across wide lawns and alluring flower beds.

Later, my One & Only – an avid trawler of art galleries – was in seventh heaven as we wandered through room after room of paintings and sculptures.  And it was also one of the most attractive galleries we have ever seen with its high ceilings and plenty of natural light. The buildings, roughly plastered, whitewashed and flat-roofed, have a thoroughlyPinto6 Mexican, or Mediterranean flavour. They spill down the hill in a series of rooms, galleries and courtyards, filled with a huge variety of contemporary Filipino art. We were lucky enough to have four of the artists dining with us, which delighted my One & Only in particular, as he thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to discuss Filipino art with some of the artists themselves.

I was equally blissed out by the surrounding Silangan gardens, beautifully landscaped and scattered with intriguing
sculptures, many made from recycled household objects – the dragonfly with wings made from pieces of a wire fan guard, for example, or the bulldog made of what looked like the offal of an old car engine. And everywhere we walked there were lovely old wrought iron, four poster beds topped with comfortable mattresses on which to lounge beneath shady trees, or on patio areas by the pool, or out on the flat rooftops of the house and museum. Victorian birdcages hung from trees and verandas, housing brightly coloured parrots, parakeets and lorikeets. There was even a small, white private chapel in the garden, decked out with statues and an amazing sculpture of a seemingly airborne Christ above the altar.

Pinto, it would appear, is a peculiarly apt name for this wondrous Pinto3art museum, as it is not only the word for “colourful” in Spanish and “painted” in Portuguese, it is also the Filipino word for “door.”   And entering through the pretty little arched gateway is like stepping through the wardrobe to Narnia or through the looking glass into a wonderland of creativity and artistic fantasy. I would highly recommend that you take a day off and head for the hills, to experience this glorious spot where art and nature meet and blend.  Take your time. Wander. Absorb. Enjoy. Tours are available, for those who don’t have the artists on tap, and there is much to see and explore. We will definitely be calling in again, despite the traffic. And with a very reasonably priced entry fee, it is even more tempting to visit again and again.

 

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Bondi & Bourke

BnB.2Bondi and Bourke arrived on the Makati restaurant scene last summer, and it already seems to have collected quite a lot of fans. The One and Only discovered it at its ‘NOT-A-Soft-Opening’ back in June, and I finally got to check it out this month. Twice.

An Australian Gastro Pub in Legazpi is certainly novel. Well, the menu says gastro pub, but the decor actually suggests fine dining with its cream leather chairs, edgy bar and open plan kitchen. The menu, however, is full of dishes o-so-familiar to the pub-dwelling Aussie. Here you can happily indulge in fish and chips, burgers, schnitzels and pies – even Oysters Kilpatrick, an old favourite that I haven’t tasted since the 90s. (For the uninitiated, this is an Aussie classic: oysters in their shells topped with diced bacon and Worcestershire Sauce and lightly grilled till the bacon is crispy. Particularly tasty for those not mad about oysters au naturel.) Chicken parmigiana also gets a look in – with a personal note to local bloggers: Americans may familiarly call it a chicken ‘parm’ but in Aussie-speak, it’s a ‘parmy.’ (Colloquial Australian adds ‘y’ or ‘ie’ to everything.)

My first visit involved a cosy dinner for three, with said oysters, salads and a cake with a candle to celebrate a lamington cakebirthday. Don’t start imagining the usual Filipino birthday cake, with multiple layers and inches of icing, though. This was an iconic Aussie offering in the form of a light, fresh lamington. Never heard of it? Lamingtons are cubes of sponge cake dipped in chocolate and then rolled in grated coconut. This one even had a thin layer of jam and cream in the middle. (I highly recommend trying them here, as making them at home can be a thoroughly messy business.) As a special treat, it was large enough to share a spoonful each with the birthday girl, after we had been joined by most of the staff for a round of singing.

Last week I went back for lunch, eager to try the home-made pies. For the non-Aussies amongst you, meat pies are as ubiquitous to Australian street food as pizza is to Italy, or siopao is to the Philippines.

So here I sit, at a table by the window, beside a living wall of green pot plants, waiting for my friends to arrive. I watch a large group of businessmen pour through the door into The Roast Room, a large, private dining room. I admire the elegantly Spartan décor, and spend some time describing what I mean by a lime and soda to a baffled waitress. (It’s a standard Aussie pub drink, often served in pint glasses when alcohol is not required. The original South Australian variety needs Bickfords lime cordial, but fresh lime juice will do just as well – minus the sugar syrup please.)

Then my friends arrive and we chat for a while before turning to the menu.

BnB.4The service here is decidedly slow, but the staff is friendly and engaged. And, as promised by my One & Only, my pie is terrific. I have found it hard to find decent pastry in Manila – any tips welcome – but this is puff pastry at its best: light and a little crisp around the edges. And the filling – classic steak pie – is sumptuous and rich, if a little runny. And hot! (Just refer to the now blistered roof of my mouth, and take your time. Don’t rush in, as I am always inclined to do.) Surprisingly, no tomato sauce was forthcoming, but luckily my friend – who had got an espresso cup filled with homemade tomato sauce for her fish and chips (go figure), was happy to send it my way. She was also able to take supper home to her husband, as the serve of fish and chips was more than generous for one.

So I am going back soon to try the parmy, the chicken pie, and the sticky date pudding, to see if it is as good as Mum’s. I would definitely recommend Bondi and Bourke as the ideal dining spot for the homesick Aussie, but it also seems to be very popular with the locals, which is great news. And just remember to ask for sauce with your pie – coz in Australia pie’n’sauce go together like fish’n’chips – or love’n’marriage!

 

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