Shoo fly, don’t bother me!

‘Flies are of course always irksome, but the Australian variety distinguishes itself with its very particular persistence. If an Australian fly wants to be up your nose or in your ear, there is no discouraging him. Flick at him as you will and each time he will jump out of range and come straight back. It is simply not possible to deter him. ‘ ~ Bill Bryson

There have been many glorious and joyful moments about returning home to South Australia. The proximity of family, the fabulous food and wine, the delightful climate, the ease of life. Then there is the blow fly, that insect so annoying, so ubiquitous to the Australian landscape. So perfectly designed to drive you crazy.

After all these years away, I had forgotten – almost – about flies. And while this past summer has done immense damage to wild animal populations across the country, I am betting my bottom dollar that the common Ozzie house fly has not suffered one jot from smoke inhalation or destruction of habitat.

If it has, then the only remaining colony has taken up residence at my place, anticipating my lack of preparation and my rusty skills of elimination.

Six years living above the clouds in Manila and we had the occasional infestation of weevils, which, small though their little legs may be, seem perfectly willing to climb thirty-five flights of stairs to feed on the contents of my pantry. Oddly, though, we were too high for flies. In Luxembourg, it was apparently too cold for flies. The only intrusion from the insect world came in the form of tiny spiders who liked to snuggle into the corners and wrap themselves up warmly in their webs, but generally stayed out of the way. On the Isle of Wight, when the seaweed would occasionally sweep in over the reef and descended thickly on the beach at Bembridge, we’d be mobbed by sand flies on our evening walk. But on the whole, the cross-channel winds swept most small invaders up and away across the Channel, and I suspect they have since taken up residence in Brittany and speak fluent French.

I now – unwillingly – recall long dusty walks in the bush, when we would turn around to discover a vast swarm of flies piggybacking on our shoulders. White t-shirts would turn black, as we carried them from one camp to the next, free of charge, while a small posse of scouts would be sent forward to swoop and swarm into the corner of our eyes. Recently, I saw a very wise and well-prepared walker attach a net to her broad-brimmed hat, like a beekeeper, and will definitely be investing in that piece of genius. Corks look cute but never seemed to have much effect, and without some sort of protection, my swearing becomes prodigious.

In Adelaide – at our place at least, and with apologies to the neighbours – the house fly is alive and well, and twice as irritating as ever my younger brother could claim to have been. Unfortunately, too, no fly spray has any effect whatsoever on the tough strain of Musca domestica that has evolved since I last encountered it. And it has become a Jedi master at dodging tea towels, rolled up newspaper or even the swiftest slap.

My Number Two Son, lacking anything as practical as a fly swat, has got very handy with the egg slice.

Yes, I know we should love and forgive all God’s creatures, but I do find flies are beyond redemption – and definitely beyond my patience. They have a habit of waiting till I come down to make a cup of tea in the morning to start scooting round my face in that ‘look at me! look at me!’ manner of small children. Then they lie low, where I can’t find them with the egg slice, until I bring out something edible, and off they go again, swooping and careering over my breakfast, lunch and dinner. And I can assure you that this is not random, unconditional fly behaviour, but a concentrated effort to drive me completely nutty. It took me only three days to recognize that my resident flies simply love fly spray, and are happy to bathe in it like Chanel, despite the vast quantities that I aim furiously at their chirpy heads.

The egg slice is more effective, but where one dies, another simply rises in its wake… or maybe it’s just the same one with a Lazarus complex.

I have scoured the internet for clues, and finally found a possible solution. Apparently, flies hate the smell of basil, cinnamon, lavender and lemongrass – so ‘not only will spraying these essential oils around the house create a beautiful aroma, but they will also deter those pesky flies too.’ Well, here’s hoping. If this advice proves to be effective, I will be planting a Trump-style wall of lavender and lemongrass around our new house to keep the little buggers at bay.

In the meantime, I am sitting down at McLaren Vale, overlooking vines and hills, and enjoying a fly-free zone. Maybe it’s the crisp autumnal morning that’s keeping them tucked up in bed and out of my face. Or perhaps the howling wind that is deterring us from lounging out on the deck, has blown them all the way to Antarctica. One can only hope…

*With thanks to Google Images for the introductory image!

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‘You’re the avocado to my toast!’

“Truthfully this is one ‘recipe’ … I make and eat most often! … It’s the holy trinity of Vegenaise, avocado and salt that makes this like a favorite pair of jeans — so reliable and easy and always just what you want.”  ~ Gwyneth Paltrow

Nothing has EVER annoyed our daughter more than the comment from Australian journalist Bernard Salt that “twenty-two dollars several times a week [spent on smashed avocado] could go towards a deposit on a house.” This was reiterated by Australian real estate billionaire Tim Gurner, who advised millennials on Sixty Minutes that they should stop wasting their income on smashed avocado and expensive coffee and start saving for a house. His inference was that his success was due solely to working his butt off, and never wasting a penny on such fripperies as brunch, pissed off an entire generation. Our daughter certainly did not take this slur lying down. She quickly calculated that, for her grandparents, buying a house was the equivalent of three years’ salary. Today’s first home buyers are looking at the equivalent of eleven years wages. To some, that might simply suggest our kids should just work more, and work harder, for longer. Or perhaps, understandably, the idea of drowning themselves in debt creates a void perfectly filled by a little comfort eating!

I grew up, like Richard Glover*, in ‘The Land Before Avocado.’ I don’t believe avocados were available in regular supermarkets until the late 1980s, certainly not in South Australia, and even for those who knew where to find them, they were an expensive treat. Apparently, they could be found in Queensland as early as the 1940s, but misinformation and an untimely blight meant that they were forced to keep a very low profile for forty years. Then, waitressing at the original gourmet pub in Unley, I remember serving them as ‘baked avocado’ with prawns and melted cheese, which most distressingly to eager taste buds, all too often resulted in a ghastly bitterness that made the avocado slink backstage in shame.

Luckily, it eventually reversed the negative press by convincing people it was better raw, could cheerfully accompany any salad or prawn cocktail to the dinner table, or alternatively, arrive early with the canapés, accompanied by lime juice, coriander and crackers as a glamorous, green guacamole dip. In these rather tastier forms, it quickly became the ‘must have’ ingredient at any dinner party and on any menu.

I still remember the first time I met an avocado. One Friday evening, in my pre-teen childhood, my father brought one home from the Adelaide market. Like a surgeon, he sliced it in half, carefully removed the seed, and poured a vinaigrette (he had prepared it earlier) into the pit. Garnished with salt and a dash of pepper, he proceeded to eat it with a teaspoon. While he kindly shared it with his four fascinated offspring, he undoubtedly lived to regret his generosity, as we all adored this exotic, indulgent snack. If ever he tried to smuggle one into the house after that, we were bound to discover it, and hovered like baby birds, mouths open, eager to share the spoils.

Smashed avocado on toast had gained traction in Australia by the early 1990s, but by that time I had fled overseas. By 2010 ‘smashed avo’ was an international food trend. Yet we cannot claim its discovery by any stretch of the imagination – it has been popular in South America for centuries, in much the same way Australians have long eaten Vegemite on toast for breakfast.

Today, we see it on every café menu across the city – in fact across any city we have ever visited. It garnishes every California roll to be found in Australia in the past fifteen years. It attends every private dinner party mashed into the host’s favourite recipe for guacamole. I know, because I indulged in a glorious version at my aunt’s only last night.

This morning, we wandered down Prospect Road for a coffee. Like avocado, Prospect has become incredibly trendy since we last lived in South Australia, filled with quirky restaurants and cool cafés. And, of course, every café there has its own version of smashed avocado on toast. Today, I resisted, despite my own personal fetish for avocado on toast. Today I chose mushrooms on toast instead. Sourdough toast. Served with ‘chèvre goat’s cheese’ – just in case you didn’t know what the English for chèvre was! At least it wasn’t the price of a house mortgage – although there wasn’t much change out of $20 – but I did miss my avocado. And while I am not a struggling millenial, the condescension of the press has somewhat dimmed the unadulterated joy of avo on toast with a hefty sprinkling of apologetic guilt.

So, while the mushrooms were tasty – and a change is as good as a holiday, I am told – next time I will quash the guilt and proudly stand up for my much maligned avocado, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, as long as we both shall live!

*Glover, Richard, ‘The Land Before Avocado: journeys in a lost Australia,’ 2018

…And thanks to Google images!

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Let Them Eat Pie!

Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye, Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie…~ traditional nursery rhyme

Back in the fourteenth century, long before fridges and freezers came into existence, there was pie. Pie crusts were designed as a way of preserving food:  a thick, hard, inedible casing called a coffyn made from flour, water and eggs. Inedible it may have been, but apparently it could keep the contents reasonably fresh for several days. The ‘medieval equivalent of canning,’ surmises Charles Perry of the Los Angeles Times. It has been suggested that the name ‘pie’ came from the Middle English word for magpie, a bird renowned for collecting all sorts of odds and ends in its nest. Similarly, the pastry ‘nest’ was often filled with an astonishing mixture of meats: from venison and wild boar to heron, duck and stork, to blackbird and crow.

Blackbirds may no longer be a fashionable filling among the connoisseurs of pies, desirable today only in nursery rhymes, but pies with alternate tasty innards remain hugely popular as a dinner, a dessert or a quick snack.

The Cornish pasty, a distant cousin to the traditional meat pie, was originally designed as a portable lunch for the tin miners to take to work. Their wives would wrap meat and vegetables in a pie crust, adding a thick handle of pie crust so the miners could throw away that part without making themselves sick from the arsenic-laden dust that covered their hands. The pasty has since accompanied Cornish miners all over the world, although these days, a lighter, flakier pastry means the handle remains as a decorative but edible feature.

Americans have claimed the sweet pie: pumpkin, apple, peach, key lime, banoffee. The list is endless. In Australia, we have made the meat pie our own. The recipe for pie was brought to the colonies by the British, of course. By 1850, the pieman was already ‘a conspicuous institution’ in Sydney (from Michael Symons book ‘One Continuous Picnic’). Less than a century later, and presumably tongue-in-cheek,  meat pie with tomato sauce was being touted as our national dish. And by the 1970s, meat pies had become a lunchtime staple: in school canteens; in corner delis; for football fans as the Aussie equivalent of American hot dogs (Michael Symons again).

The Pie Floater is still remembered fondly in Adelaide. Once popular with late night revellers, the pie cart would wait resolutely in Victoria Square for peckish passers-by. This extraordinary dish consists of a meat pie turned upside down in a bowl of mushy pea soup, and squirted with tomato sauce.

The South Australian National Trust recognized the pie floater as a South Australian Heritage Icon in 2003, although sadly, the last pie cart was forced to close four years later.  About that same time, I was treated to a delicious, and decidedly more sophisticated version at the Adelaide Hilton, courtesy of TV chef Simon Bryant, who kindly presented his recipe on an episode of The Cook and the Chef, so we could all add it to our kitchen repertoire.

Since we moved back to Adelaide last year, our feet have all too often found their way to the nearest bakery in search of sausage rolls, pasties, meat pies or an apricot pie with ice cream for later. The steak and pepper pie has become a firm favourite, although I fear it is adding generous inches to my waistline. Therefore, it’s probably a blessing that I’ve always had a morbid fear of making pastry. Many years ago, my first weekend job was stuffing pasties at Opie’s Bakery, but I never learned the skill of creating perfect pastry. The list of ingredients may be minimalist, and the method looks simple enough, thus I am bound to find it excruciatingly difficult! Anyway, why should I tie myself in knots trying to achieve something that will bear only a tragically distant resemblance to the glorious pies that Simon Bryant – and every local baker – creates   with effortless ease? I accept my limitations, despite exhortations from Martha Stewart who produced an entire cookbook on pies and tarts. At least Julia Childs understands the fear of disaster – soggy dough, crumbly dough, too hard, too flaky – and cheerfully provides much helpful advice on how to avoid failure, for those of you brave enough to follow her lead. Her best tip is always to keep a marble rolling board in the fridge, as temperature plays a crucial part in creating an edible, visually satisfying pastry.

All this talk of pies reminds me of that wondrous children’s book The Magic Pudding, which the author himself describes as ‘that little bundle of piffle,’ written to win a bet that children prefer stories about food and fighting to magic and fairies. And yet, as the title suggests, that cut-and-come-again pudding was as magical as it was edible!

“The Magic Pudding is a pie, except when it’s something else, like a steak, or a jam donut, or an apple dumpling, or whatever its owner wants it to be. And it never runs out. No matter how many slices you cut, there’s always something left over. It’s magic. But the Magic Pudding is also alive. It walks and it talks, and it’s got a personality like no other. A meaner, sulkier, snider, snarlinger Pudding you’ve never met.’ ~ Norman Lindsay

I never understood why Albert (the name of the magic pudding) was so grumpy, but the idea of a constantly available snack is making me hungry. So, on that note, I’m off to the bakery for a steak and pepper pie. With sauce. Of course!

*With thanks to Google Images for the pics.

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Recapturing Charmian

In 1964, the Australian born writers Charmian Clift and George Johnson returned to Sydney with their three children after fifteen years abroad. Over the next five years, Clift would write more than 250 essays for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Melbourne Herald; her observations on life in Australia and how much it had changed in the years she was away. And the many ways in which it had not changed at all. Later, years after her death in 1969, many of those essays were collected in the books ‘Images in Aspic’ and ‘The World of Charmian Clift.’

‘Images in Aspic.’ What a perfect title to reflect her tangible frustration with Australian complacence. While Clift and her family had been living in an impoverished, post-war Europe, affluence had arrived in Australia, and she regularly bemoaned its stultifying effect on the free-wheeling, fearless, pioneering mentality of earlier, less prosperous generations, goading her apathetic countrymen into using their newfound wealth for cultural, emotional and intellectual exploration.

Clift may have been sharply observant in her critiquing of the average Australian, but she was also optimistically encouraging that we could rise above our middle-class apathy. Unlike fellow expatriate Germaine Greer, who has notoriously condemned Australia as ‘a huge rest home, where no unwelcome news is ever wafted on to the pages of the worst newspapers in the world’ and spent much of her life in Europe, Charmian came home, somewhat reluctantly perhaps, but with a relatively open mind.

I have recently returned to the town of my birth after almost thirty years abroad. I am delighted to be back, and look forward to putting down my bags for a while. And yet it has not been as easy as I had imagined. Four months down the track, and I still feel unsteady on my feet and unsure of my place and purpose here. I must also admit to succumbing to a lethargy I am finding difficult to shake. Not for me the rousing essays of an exile returned, but a hiatus in my ability to lift a pen and make even a mild observation on the changes that have been wrought upon our remote and pretty city over the past three decades. Not to mention the changes that have been wrought upon me! I know this city well. And yet I often feel like a total stranger. I swing between a desperate desire to settle down and an equally desperate desire to flee. The emotional roller-coaster ride is exhausting.

In my defense, I can only assume that Clift also had to spend her first months house hunting and job hunting and re-establishing her roots; that she too found the organization of all the day-to-day minutiae an exhausting mental challenge; that her piquant, pithy observations came later, once her body and mind had come to rest and she was able to take a good look around at her old environment reborn.

So, with this in mind, it is my new year’s resolution – albeit delivered a little late in the day as we sit upon the cusp of February – to closely observe this city of my childhood, to see how it has changed and how it has stayed the same. Unlike Clift, I have popped in for regular visits over the years, so it is not quite the leap of faith for me as it was for her. Nonetheless, I am noticing an almost daily clash of memory and reality.

There are so many new – and tall – buildings I don’t recognize in what was once an unusually low-level city. There is a ruinously expensive bus tunnel under the much-maligned park lands to save commuters a few precious minutes and three sets of traffic light. There is the on-going threat of a development planned for the North Adelaide Aquatic Centre to house the local football team and all its administration offices on public land. There is endless chaos at Darlington as the construction of an apparently urgent north-south corridor disrupts the traffic and the local inhabitants around Flinders Medical Centre. And there is that ever-creeping plague of suburbs crawling north and south combined with a tremendous amount of in-filling on the old, inner-city quarter acre blocks just to highlight how much the city is expanding. And were there always this many traffic lights?

And yet the familiar is still around to soothe ruffled feathers. Marion Vineyards, boasting a single hectare of grenache and shiraz vines planted in 1907, remains in rural juxtaposition between the traffic lights on busy Oaklands Road and the Marion swimming pool. In the heart of the city, the central market has been operating for a hundred and fifty years and is still a joy to the senses. The Botanic Gardens, the zoo, Rundle Mall, Cleland Reserve, all have been updated and upgraded, but in essence they have stayed the same as I remember them from my childhood.

There have also been some creative and fascinating new developments that have altered the skyline, enhancing the view and contrasting with the elegance of Victorian Adelaide. There is the Adelaide Oval, with its wondrous new curves to compliment the more angular 70s edges of the Festival Centre on the opposite bank of the River Torrens, while still boasting its historic score board, and retaining the view of Saint Peter’s Cathedral with its French Gothic silhouette. The extraordinary – and extraordinarily expensive – Royal Adelaide Hospital sits like a stack of huge shipping containers beside a giant cheese grater at the western end of North Terrace, providing an Alice Through the Looking Glass discordant reflection of the Victorian original now abandoned at the eastern end of town.

At ground level, beautiful wetlands have been created down the centre of the Old Port Road. There’s a 70 km path for pedestrians and cyclists along the Adelaide coastline, and another 30 km track along the length of the Torrens, from Athelstone to the sea. And all around the city limits, from Clare and the Barossa in the north through the Adelaide Hills to McLaren Vale, there is a veritable cornucopia of wineries a stone’s throw from the city.

I may not feel inclined to gush about all the changes I have seen, but I do plan to be more like Charmian than Germaine. And while Adelaide may not have the competitive vibe of Sydney or Melbourne, London or New York, why would we aspire to recreate our beautiful city in their images? Adelaide has been an elegant, tasteful, tree-lined city since Colonel Light first drew up plans for the new British settlement. And these days it purrs contentedly. It has a cultural agenda that punches well above its weight, and an abundance of gold star beaches, food and wines, wonderful rural landscapes and gorgeous gardens. All of which can be enjoyed at a much gentler pace than the frenetic cut and thrust of other larger cities. I think I am going to enjoy getting to know this elegant town a whole lot better!

*Two sculptures by James Hamilton, on display at Brighton Beach for the 2020 Patritti Brighton Jetty Sculptures. With thanks to the PBJS website for the image of ‘Equilibrium’ (the giraffe). ‘The Crown’ (or violin) – is my own photo.

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Oh, What a Feeling!

The week before Christmas, the One & Only and I took the Toyota, Bruce, for a run to the Yorke Peninsula. A simple, short break was required before the Christmas mayhem kicked in.

The road north out of Adelaide is rarely a tempting proposition, particularly in summer, when the flat, dry, unresponsive landscape seems to suck the marrow from your bones. The horizon is vast, and the sky is deep blue and cloudless, but even that feels joyless, when it leaves the sun free to blister your skin like a grilled pepper, despite the tinted windows.

And yet, after what seemed like hours of empty, yellow paddocks and shimmering tarmac, we shimmied through Port Wakefield – where the fish shop was ‘sorry, closed, for it’s a bit hot’ – and rounded the elbow at the top of Yorke Peninsula, and followed the coastline south-west to Marion Bay. Here, the pelicans were soaring over the jetty in perfect synchronicity and the oystercatchers, ankle deep in clear water, were pecking delicately at the sandbank.

It was my first trip to the Yorke Peninsula since a brief and boozy weekend during the university years. Prior to that, there is a solitary photo of me in my slippers and dressing gown at Pine Point, at a point in time when I was too small to remember even the best beach holiday. So, I had few expectations, other than the supposition that bleak, dry moonscapes would feature heavily. They do. Man has cleared mile upon mile of scrub and eucalyptus for the purpose of planting mile upon mile of wheat and barley. Random settlements have sprung up along the coast where boats could anchor and fill their holds with the farmers produce. A scant sprinkling of gum trees lines the highway – a churlish nod to the thick, cluttered hedgerows of the Homeland – and dust invades every orifice.

Shaped like a boot, Yorke Peninsula is the central leg of three peninsulas in South Australia: Eyre to the west and Fleurieu to the east, with Kangaroo Island floating just below, across Investigator Strait, like a football. It was named for British Home Secretary Charles Philip Yorke by Matthew Flinders, who sailed around the coast of South Australia in his ship HMS Investigator in 1801-1802. It may sound more prosaic than the choice of French explorer Nicolas Baudin – Cambacérès, after a statesman of the French Revolution – but given that Yorke Peninsula was to become a land of Cornish copper  miners and tough, farmers, it seems more fittingly pragmatic.

Originally, this peninsula was home to the Narungga people, but the early settlers soon decimated the local tribes with their European diseases and desire to claim the land, and today, Innes National Park is all that remains of the original landscape: 10,000 hectares of coastline, scrub and sand dunes. The tea tree is king, and blowflies are in aggravating abundance. Several attached themselves to us as we wandered around the ruins at Inneston and then proceeded to hitch a ride on the car so they could accompany us to every corner of the park, even out to the lighthouses where a feisty wind threatened to blow us over the cliff, but could not dislodge the flies from our shoulders.

Weathered cliffs and rocky islands loom over the graveyards of numerous shipwrecks. On land, the park teems with wildlife. Drivers must potter along at a mere 40kmph in order to give way to a sun-struck lizard who plods witlessly across the road in front of us, or a family of emus stepping daintily through the saltbush, completely oblivious to the road and our bright orange car. The shy Tamar Wallabies, once extinct, have been successfully reintroduced, but prove impossible to find. However, we do spot a solitary, rust-coloured peregrine falcon swooping overhead in search of lunch. And on Pondalowie Bay, a mob of dolphins – we count an extended family pod of about thirty – play in the water, competing with surfers for the breaking waves, racing up and down the coast and dodging neatly between the surfboards. Out on the Sternhouse Bay jetty, we first smell and then see a bunch of penguins balancing on the smooth rocks at the foot of the cliff. And, out for an early swim one morning to beat the heat, we interrupt Kanga and Roo grazing in the sand dunes above Whipbird Way.

It is a harsh climate, even in this era of air conditioning and icy beer. Yet I imagine the lives of the gypsum miners and their families, isolated at the south-western tip of the Yorke Peninsula, a two-day ride to the nearest town, were imminently harder. Here, in the late 19th century, about a hundred and fifty inhabitants were toughing it out beside the saline Marion Lake. A rough paddock on the edge of the tiny town is now labelled ‘cricket ground’ but there is little else to indicate a lighter side to life. Odd to think that even the joys of the surf probably did not register with these late Victorian settlers, working to scratch a living from the less-than-lush landscape.

Yet, aside from the persistent Fly and the insidious dust, both exhibiting a keen desire to inhabit my nostrils, Marion Bay is quiet and serene, well removed from the hue and cry of Christmas shopping. With one pub and a small grocer at the petrol station, there is little to do but drift along pristine beaches, search out lonely light houses and rhapsodize over sunsets.

On the one day when the soaring temperatures trap us indoors with the air conditioner and Christmas lists, we are set free a little sooner than expected, when the hot north wind whipping through the treetops suddenly does an about-face and blasts the heat away in a matter of minutes. We push lists aside and decamp to the veranda with a glass of rosé and a local Brie. Restoring the calm is a worthy occupation. The magpies seem to agree.

*With thanks to the One & Only for his beautiful images.

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Nine Lessons & Carols

‘The air was dry with summer heat, and smoke was on the yellow moon…’ ~John Wheeler

The temperature gauge is swooping up to the century as we gallop into the third week of December. It’s a far cry from last year’s somewhat chillier Christmas in northern Europe. As I sat on the balcony early this morning, sipping tea and enjoying the cool air before the heat kicked in, I heard my first magpie warbling among the rooftops. And last night, at our local church, the carol service gave me my first touch of Christmas, the candlelight and haunting music sending shivers of anticipation up my arms.

Since the kids were in primary school, I have particularly loved this special Christmas service. Nine bible readings follow the story from the garden of Eden to Bethlehem, these short stories wreathed with glorious, spine-tingling Christmas music, sung by the resident choir and congregation.

It’s a tradition that began in the south west of England in the late 19th century. Previously, carol singers would traipse through the snow from house to house, singing secular Christmas songs.  When the Victorians published a Christmas hymnal in 1895, the frost-bitten carol singers moved indoors with relief to the marginally warmer environs of the choir stalls, up beside the altar.

In 2001 we attended our first such service in a cosy village church in Kent, where two of our children performed in the school choir. It was an ambitious project courtesy of the enthusiastic music teacher at their primary school. Somehow, Mrs. Cooke inspired these kids, aged eight to eleven, to sing joyfully in Latin, German and old English. We were rapt.

Yesterday, after a quick dinner, we followed the sound of the bells, to find a throng of people already filling the pews at St. Cuthbert’s, each person carrying a small, battery-operated candle. As the light faded, the candles winked in an array of rainbow colours, while real wax candles burned from sconces on every pillar.

As I glanced around the church, it was interesting to note the cultural variety amongst the congregation: a wonderful microcosm of the multi-cultural landscape of Australia, that was once so predominantly British. And, as the vicar noted in her opening remarks, all these different nationalities and races are ‘united through our faith in Christ.’

This cultural potpourri was also reflected in the choice of songs. While the congregation trilled enthusiastically through all the old favourites (Away in a Manger, Once in Royal David’s City, O Come All Ye Faithful’), the choir branched out into Christmas favourites in a variety of languages: Spanish, Slavic, French, German and Latin, a negro spiritual, and  two beautiful Australian carols from the 1940s.

Later, the choirmaster told me the tale of a visiting Russian conductor, a short grumpy bloke who never smiled. He was nonetheless eager to perform music that would be more relevant to an Australian Christmas than those carolling of deep mid-winter, holly and driven snow. He discovered a staff writer, John Wheeler, in the depths of the ABC who had written five Christmas poems with an Australian setting. This feisty, somewhat dictatorial Russian insisted that Wheeler team up with ABC’s music director, W.G. James, who promptly set the poems to music for an SATB choir (an acronym for soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices).

So today, instead of wintry songs about chestnuts and open fires, ice, snow and sleigh bells, we have a series of carols with references to the southern hemisphere in December. Or, as Julian Dennison and Ronan Keating remind us in ‘Summer Wonderland’ mozzie spray, sunburn and cricket bats are far more relevant to a southern hemisphere Christmas than snowmen.

‘The north wind is tossing the leaves, the red dust is over the town; the sparrows are under the eaves, and the grass in the paddocks is brown…’ ~John Wheeler

In my childhood, department stores still cocooned Father Christmas in huge black boots and a woolly red suit and sprayed fake snow on the windows, while elevator muzak consisted largely of American Christmas songs. Today, we no longer feel obliged to kowtow to northern hemisphere traditions. Why overheat the house cooking turkey and Christmas pudding in 40 degrees, when its the season for fresh prawns and salad. And there’s no need to wrap ourselves coats and scarves for a postprandial walk on the beach at the end of a long boozy Christmas lunch – a wonderful concept that I fully intend to make a family tradition.

Like that jolly Air New Zealand version of ‘Winter Wonderland,’ many antipodean Christmas songs since John Wheeler’s worthy offerings. Yet I suspect that his five carols were the first public acknowledgement that Australians weren’t simply English migrants but had established an independent culture in a completely different clime to their origins in northern Europe. Now most of us know the song about Santa using six white kangaroos to pull his sleigh, and that catchy Twelve Days of Christmas full of galahs, kangaroos and an emu up a gum tree. And of course, there’s Tim Minchin’s ‘White Wine in the Sun’ which has become a firm favourite.

And yet, the best reminder that I am back in the land of water restrictions and suffocating summer heat is not the north wind tossing the leaves – although it is currently flinging dust and gum leaves furiously across the state – but the sign above the loo that reads ‘in this land of surf and sun, we don’t flush for number one!’

Have a very merry Christmas!

*With thanks to Google images for the colourful Christmas pics!

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Road Trip

I have just returned from a road trip to Melbourne, to reacquaint myself with the Australian landscape. In my shiny new, burnt orange Toyota Corolla that I have baptized Bruce, I have chewed up the miles with glee, driving through the Adelaide Hills and across the Murray, along the Coorong to Robe and down the Glenelg Highway to Buninyong. (Isn’t that a lovely, lyrical name?) Then east to Heidelberg, around Port Philip Bay to the Bellarine and back to Adelaide via Ballarat and Penola. Past paddocks and vineyards, countless gum trees, an abundance of inimitable Aussie birds and the inevitable, innumerable sheep. And I drove through a surprising amount of rain for a country that has been despairing over drought and bush fires further north. This land of immense horizons and ‘boundless plains’ has felt a very, very long way from England’s ‘clouded hills,’ its ‘green and pleasant lands.’ And while the contrast has been startling, it has also been a wonderful re-awakening to a very different kind of beauty…

Signs to the Coorong tempt me off the highway, but I know I will pass this way again for a closer look. So, its onward to Robe – an old favourite – where I pause for a couple of days to soak up the scents of sea and saltbush, bury my toes in the sand, find an old friend, and dine on fabulous local fish. A couple of days later, I find myself drifting through Saint Kilda for a slap-up brunch with my brother and his family, where the trams brush past my elbow, and ladies dash by in high heels and fascinators, running late for a Melbourne Cup luncheon. I drop in to see a cousin’s new home among the gumtrees, its high, wide windows overlooking the Yarra River in the gully below. As we nibble on onion tarts fresh from the oven, we chat of wombats at the bottom of the garden and our children’s aspirations.

Before I move on from Melbourne, I grab an hour and a bowl of gnocchi with an old mate in Toorak. I long for a glass of red wine to go with it. If only I wasn’t having to navigate my way across city afterwards…

A seaside town, a stone’s throw from Geelong, full of stately stone buildings, churches and old-fashioned shop fronts. A morning tea by the sea that includes Portuguese tarts. Popular in Luxembourg bakeries due to a large Portuguese workforce, these custard tarts are now popular with me, too, my sweet treat of choice, whenever, wherever I can find one. Who would have thought I could find one here in Queenscliff, so many eons from the Douro or the Alzette? Yet here I sit, on a cushioned bench by the fire, with a coffee and a Portuguese tart, resenting an unseasonable cold burst that has laid waste to my light summer wardrobe, one I packed after several stifling days in Adelaide. Why am I never prepared for the unexpected weather changes? After all this practice, it beggars belief that I could pack so poorly, as yet again I amuse my One & Only with despairing tales of my chilled and coatless state.

Luckily, I can borrow extra layers from the hospitable friends who have acquiesced most cheerfully to my last-minute invasion. I have never travelled this way before, and I am taken aback, after hours weaving through city streets, suburban roads, and eight-lane highways, to discover Curlewis, an unexpected pocket of green paddocks and boutique vineyards on a quiet stretch of Port Philip Bay. I am happy to drift off the beaten track, keen to explore. Over the following days, we stroll along blustery beaches, drop into a neighbourhood winery for a bottle of bubbles, eat endlessly, and occasionally pause to snuggle up by the fire and catch up on family news and favourite books. Gazing towards the bay one afternoon, we spot a giant double rainbow, almost close enough to touch, one tiptoeing among a grove of gum trees at the far side of the paddock, the other dipping its toes in the sea.

Then it’s time to head out for a light dinner at the Dunes, on the edge of Ocean Grove, a shiny new restaurant predictably perched above the beach, with polished concrete floors and a vast expanse of glass through which we squint at the setting sun, sip wine, and fill ourselves to the brim with vegetables and lamb, served on shared platters like tapas, before dashing off to book club and a realm of indigenous writers I am only now discovering after so many years abroad.

A final lunch together on the Barwon River, where we mix the cultures – seafood with an Asian twist and an affogato for dessert – and then I am heading north west towards Ballarat, past another clutch of wineries, before turning off to Buninyong and a Thai feast mixed with Aussie wines, politics and birthday candles. Did I mention I am eating way too much..?

My final stop is Penola, where I realize it has been a journey interlaced with a thousand wineries. An old school friend in Wrattonbully provides iconic Australian entertainment in the form of a balletic Kelpie and a barbecue, while a welcome G&T helps to lubricate several jolly hours of hectic, happy chatter before I turn for bed…

And then homewards, through Naracoorte and Keith, with a short break in Tintinara for a meat pie in the company of a hungry magpie, to a city whose streets are lined with jacarandas in exactly the same shade of blue as an English bluebell. As I cruise back along the Western Highway, the bleached paddocks are truly a far cry from the verdant fields of Hampshire. Yet this stark landscape has its own, elusive beauty. And it has been a joy to revive some wonderful memories of a youth spent exploring the hinterland of Victoria and the South Australian coastline. To revive old friendships, too, garnered from all over the globe. My heart, as ever, is divided between the ear-splitting shriek of cockatoos among the scented branches of the eucalyptus and the gentle twitter of wrens and robins hidden deep within brambly hedgerows; between the deep blue, painfully bright skies of inland Australia and the hazy, washed denim heavens above the Solent. How lucky am I, to know and love two such different, yet glorious countries, to keep a piece of each in my heart?

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Paella with a Pinch

Moments away from packing our bags and heading home to Australia, we first needed to fulfill a promise made in Rome over two years ago, to meet our dear friends in the south of Spain. Airbnb provided a super little nest among the tiled rooftops of the old town, the glorious dome of a nearby church clearly visible from our balcony, the walls around us laced in bougainvillea. Yet there was no time to stop and ponder the philosophies of life in our little eyrie. We were booked into a cooking class across the river and although it didn’t start till 9.30 am, that is still dawn in Spanish terms.

On the west side of the Gudalquivir is Triana, an attractive and ancient quarter of Seville that once thronged with fishmongers and carpenters. Today, it is bursting at the seams with ceramic shops and tapas bars. We wandered over Puenta de Isabella II – or Puenta Triana, whichever you prefer – to the Mercado de Triana, that was built over the remains of Castillo Santo Jorge, a medieval fortress that was also used as the headquarters and prison for the Spanish Inquisition. It was demolished in the 19th century, but some of its walls and cobblestones have been excavated since, and can be seen below the floor of the market, where there is a museum that focuses on the history of the castle, including three centuries of religious repression in Spain.

Once an intermittent open-air market where fishermen sold their wares fresh from the river, it is now a permanent, roofed structure with a plethora of stalls brimming with fish and pork, fruit and vegetables, coffee and a cooking school: Taller Andaluz de Cocina. We meet up with our guide, Clara, as the market opens on a bright and sunny Saturday morning. Joining a multi-national group of wannabe chefs, we follow, meek as lambs, as Clara takes us past the Pescados y Mariacos, the Charcuteria, and the Semilleria. At a Frutus Y Verdurus, I am thrilled to find a colourful display of fruit we haven’t tasted since we left Manila – custard apples, pineapples, pomegranates – as well as local oranges, bitter and perfect for marmalade, whose scented trees line many of the city streets. A round, yellow melon – the galia – is apparently hugely popular with the locals, although not particularly flavourful, Clara admits. We admire the purple skinned Spanish garlic, so much stronger and sweeter than the white, Chinese variety. And we learn that Spain produces 45% of the world’s olive oil. (Next week, our friends will travel by car to Granada, passing through mile upon mile of olive orchards that feed this significant industry.) At a fish stall, we pondered how best to cook cuttlefish and dogfish, sea snails and obas, or cuttlefish roe. Any thoughts?

We are introduced to Queso Payoyo, a local goat’s cheese from the Andalusian mountains, as well as the more familiar and firmer Manchego, made from sheep’s milk. Clara tells us all about the free-range black pigs fed on ten kilograms acorns per day in order to produce the perfect Iberian ham: pata negra or Jamón ibérico de Bellota in Spanish. Salted and hung out to air dry for anything from 12 – 48 months. Last year, my sister and I stayed in the remote town of Jabugo, which is almost entirely devoted to the production of Jamón ibérico. Here, vast, silent hangars house the famous pork shoulders that have been popular since Roman times. The specific appellations are distinctions that will be strictly adhered to and protected by the region and the EU.

At the Semilleria, there are open sacks of dried beans and lentils, and tiny boxes of saffron, which sell for 5,000 euros per kilo. Back in the kitchen, we will learn that saffron must always be the final touch to a dish, possibly roasted in tin foil, but never fried. I consider whether any of my friends will notice if I use a pinch of smoked paprika for a similar effect at a fraction of the price…

Saffron is one of the most precious spices in the world: the golden nugget in a purse of copper coins. It is even nicknamed ‘red gold,’ although it turns a dish yellow when added to the cooking pot. The Ancient Greeks used it in perfume, the Chinese found it medicinal, the Indians like it to dye their fabrics that distinctive marigold colour. Saffron is incredibly labour-intensive, which is what makes it so expensive: the red stigmas are hand-picked from the purple flower of the Crocus Sativa, and it takes thousands of stigmata to make a pound of saffron. About ninety five percent of the world’s saffron comes from Iran. With its aromatic, vaguely floral flavour, it is so intense you only need to toss a pinch into the cooking pot for that distinctive je ne sais quoi

Once the food stalls have been fully explored, we return to the cooking school to start our class. Clara swiftly hands over the reins to her partner, Victor, and dons an apron to become both sous-chef and chief bottle-washer, while Chef Victor explains the four-course menu and how we will all take a hand in preparing it.

Our first recipe originated in Cordoba. Quick and easy to make, Salmorejo is a salmon pink emulsion of tomato, bread and enough olive oil to make the average American decidedly nervous. We are soon chanting, ‘more, more, more’ like a pantomime crowd until the tomato puree has turned into an orange cream. Chilled for a couple of hours, it will then be garnished with hard-boiled egg and diced jamon. Salmojero is a rich and creamy soup, served cold, like gazpacho. Much to my surprise, Victor then explains that traditionally, gazpacho is not really a soup, but a Sevillian summer drink served from the fridge like water.

Next, we toss together a vegetarian dish of garbanzos (chickpeas) and spinach that contains enough cumin – ‘a Spanish pinch’ – to make it taste more Moroccan than Spanish, and uses fried bread and garlic as a thickener.

Clara then presents us with pitchers of cold Sangria, that fresh summer party drink concocted from Tempranillo and orange and lemon soda, then garnished with diced fruits and a cinnamon stick like a southern Pimms. Its name is believed to come from the Spanish word for blood: sangre. I am a little wary of alcohol this early in the day, but it certainly helps to enliven the culinary experience.

Suitably lubricated, we move on to the pièce de résistance – is there a Spanish word for that? – paella. Traditionally, paella is the pan, not the dish. Nor is it the seafood concoction the world is used to, but a country dish of rice, rabbit and chicken, runner beans, butter beans and artichokes in season. Originating in Valencia, it was made for the fieldworkers from whatever ingredients came to hand, which could include snails and duck. And according to our expert chef, it must not contain chorizo, however strong the temptation, as it will overpower the delicate flavour of the saffron and make the dish too greasy.

Although born in the north and bred in England, Victor is fierce about the honour of his Paella Balenciana. It must be fresh and simple, laced with garlic, paprika and a Spanish pinch of saffron. Simple ingredients maybe – but it requires practice to perfect a paella. Measurements and timing must be exact, to the last grain of rice and the moment to remove the pan from the heat. As he demonstrates how to fillet the chicken with a knife so sharp it cuts through the bird like butter, Chef cautions us to stay away from restaurant paella. It’s not the real deal, he claims scathingly, and is often a defrosted, reheated mockery of the traditional paella. Chef uses only the red meat for the paella, putting the breasts aside to use in another dish. All the other discarded parts then go into the pan to make the stock. To qualify as a true-blue paella, he says, as he neatly arranges the ingredients around the edge of the pan, it should be cooked on a charcoal fire made from orange trees. Most importantly, he declares, one must never stir the rice once all the ingredients have been added and evenly spread across the flat-bottomed paella. And he sternly warns us to hide the wooden spoon from any officious helpers. Meanwhile he tosses in a Spanish pinch of salt that looks like a tablespoon’s worth to the rest of us.

We are shown that the paella pan has handles held on with rivets, which cleverly help to quantify the amount of stock and rice. Once the ingredients have all been added, the heat is turned up for five minutes, then turned down for a further 12 minutes.

As the wine is poured and the paella served up, our mouths are watering eagerly, and all is silent for several minutes as we tuck in. After the plates are all but licked clean, Clara presents each of us with a champagne sorbet made from lemon sorbet and cava with a final Spanish pinch of mint. It’s a lovely, light palate cleanser to complete the meal. Our late lunch (it is now 3pm) has been a very jolly, utterly delicious affair. ¡Viva!

*With thanks to Sarah & Ian for sharing their photos… and their holiday!

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RIP Carlos Celdran

It was with real sadness that I read the news of the death of Carlos Celdran in Madrid this week. As the story broke, there was recognition and regret on the Facebook page of every friend I had in Manila, be (s)he Filipino or foreigner, who had ever had the good fortune to meet the Philippines’ very own National Treasure.

Consistently a thorn in the side of the Powers That Be, Celdran was renowned for his seductively sacrilegious tours of Intramuros, and his equally seditious, often scandalous and inevitably slanderous one-man show about the nation’s first lady Imelda Marcos. And how we laughed. This funny little man in the Turkish slippers with turned up toes, and top hat covered in stars and stripes like some unlikely Dr Seuss character, bravely turned a mirror on the history of his beloved country, daring to display its past, warts and all, yet with the humour and love that is only possible when we love someone without reservation or pretense. With mimicry and mockery, he spoke the unvarnished truth of a country mired in all the horrors of colonial occupation, dictatorship and religious oligarchy, while still exhibiting love and respect for the country to which he owed his allegiance with every ounce of his being.

Tour guide, cartoonist and writer, artist, actor and activist, Carlos has had a finger in many pies over the years. Promoting Philippine tourism through his walking tours, his theatre, and his writing, he was a passionate advocate for Manila, its history and culture. The last time I spoke to him, he was heavily involved supporting the Mayor of Manila to clean up and improve the city. Most recently I heard about his involvement in the art and cultural Manila Biennale in 2018 or as it was touted ‘bringing the soul back to the city.’ Set within the walls of Intramuros. An expansion of his own Intramuros walking tours, it was designed to expose the darker side of Manila’s history, while celebrating its creativity. And to make people think.

This review from Josephine Vi. Roque in ArtAsia Pacific, issue 108:

‘Filipinos are often criticized for their selective memory and collective forgetting that allows the son of a former dictator to run for the second-highest office in the country, and for corrupt politicians to return to public service. Controversial issues from the Second World War remain unresolved. The drug war continues unabated despite protests and an alleged death count of more than 12,000. Given this context, the biennial succeeded in exposing the horrors of past and present, no matter how painful. Perhaps this dialogue with history is enough to encourage change and question political systems. For what is the use of commemoration if not to save us from ourselves?

Loving the Philippines though he undoubtedly did, Celdran was nonetheless determined to expose its underbelly – those issues he felt should not be swept under the carpet and forgotten. Yet in bravely drawing attention to one such issue in 2010, he would find himself being forced into self-imposed exile in Spain – eight years after the publicity stunt he pulled at Manila Cathedral, to protest against the interference of the Catholic Church in the Reproductive Health Bill.

Despite popular support, the Supreme Court last year convicted Celdran of blasphemy and offending religious feelings. After an unsuccessful plea to overturn the penal code that convicted him as unconstitutional, he moved to Madrid to escape a potential prison term. Even in exile, he was irrepressible, continuing to work on his art and his writings. In August, he was quoted by journalist Luis H. Francia as saying, ‘The irony that an antiquated Spanish law somehow sent me to exile in Spain? It’s just part of the delicious absurdity of being Filipino.’

This week he died there, aged only forty six, reportedly of natural causes. He will be much missed in Manila, as a tourist attraction, a cultural icon and a rare soul prepared to stand up for what he believed in, whatever the consequences. Articulate, yet elusive, intense yet entertaining, quirky and spontaneous, Carlos Celdran was irrepressible, and forever passionate about the city of his birth. I feel blessed to have met him.

Posted in Local Culture, Philippines | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Changing Seasons

A one-time bandstand on the beachfront. Pale blue sky, wisps of cloud. Vast merchant ships line the horizon in orderly fashion, like a game of battleships. Wooden groins, dusted in mossy weed, are half submerged in a rising tide. The sea sparkles and softly licks the sand. White cliffs loom in the distance, topped with the fragile silhouettes of houses that may slip over the edge at any moment. Dogs pad calmly along the sand. A white coffee. Mushrooms on toast. Sunshine in my hair. All is well in my world.

Behind me, the hills slope steeply, verdant and fertile. Yet, barely a week into September, the harvesters are standing by to mow the fields, the leaves are beginning to turn brown and gold, and the heat has been sucked from the sun. No more buckets and spades and childish shrieks from the water’s edge. The beach has been swept clear of holiday detritus. The children have returned to their classrooms in shiny new shoes, with arms and faces flushed and healthy from myriad summer days.

The narrow lanes wind between hedgerows that are crowded with blackberry clusters. Once chock-a-block with too-wide caravans and campers that slow the cars to a crawl, now it is the torpid tractors and red-faced cyclists pedalling sluggishly up the precipitous ascents of the Downs that create snail-trails of traffic. The cafés, once raucous, are subdued now. Even the seagulls seem to know it’s the end of the season and have retreated to gossip in the barren fields. Somewhere above the island, three pairs of migrant sea eagles are learning the landscape of their new home. Rolls of hay, like fat buns, lie sedately on the earth.

Like the summer, I, too, am abandoning this glorious island to the brewing winds of winter. Reluctantly, plaintively, knowing the days are already closing in and the sun will soon be setting before the afternoon is over, knowing I must soon say goodbye to an eclectic bunch of warm and welcoming friends and neighbours from the croquet club, Carisbrooke castle, the Bembridge windmill and my prodigious writing group.

Every walk to the beach, or drive to town, creates a dolorous sense of loss deep in my chest. Is this the last time I will pass this way? Or this? I long to lock in every minuscule memory to recapture later, when the landscape has changed beyond belief and I am dwelling on a much larger island, the island of my other childhood, where the pert red squirrels and Watership-Down-rabbits will give way to larrikin possums and drowsy koalas; the Scottish magpies with their Thai silk sheen and rasping voices will withdraw in favour of their far less dainty antipodean cousins of the dulcet, gurgling chortle, while the Beatrix Potter hedgehogs and badgers will be usurped by Magic Puddin’ wombats and bandicoots.

There are new adventures ahead, but for now I am dwelling, achingly, in a present that I have adored for a handful of all-too-brief months, knowing it was never forever, that knowledge ensuring that nostalgia set in even as we unpacked our suitcases and hunted out the best coffee spots.

Post card images fill my head: a Norman castle, a modern lifeboat station, and an eighteenth-century windmill; a reef scattered with lanky, grey herons, little white egrets, oyster catchers in red stockings, and neat-petite black headed gulls. Watching a flotilla of softly-softly sailing boats on the Solent, or an eager-beaver hovercraft zipping industriously to the mainland like a zealous mosquito. Passing a row of lugubrious houseboats squatting on a lagoon of sulphurous seaweed. Strolling across Brading marshes, over stiles and through kissing gates, past curious heifers that lick my arm and swans that stand on tiptoe and flap their broad wings ostentatiously, then into the wildflower meadow that blossoms with wild orchids and butterflies. Picnicking on the foreshore overlooking Bembridge reef, or relaxing in a deck chair on Culver Down, enjoying an eagle-eye view over Sandown and Shanklin, Bembridge and Saint Helen’s, Brading and beyond…

New friends will soon to be swapped for older ones, recent experiences will be traded for childhood memories and the promise of novel new escapades. Isn’t it wonderful that I have room in my heart for them all?

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