Falling for La Tombola

A favourite holiday puzzle, sadly mislaid…

It had been an exhausting day, rearranging furniture and/or heading down to the footy to be wildly supportive of the beloved football team. By 7 p.m. sustenance we were all craving sustenance, our stomachs grumbling petulantly. Unfortunately, the fridge was bare. And where could we get a table at the last minute on a Saturday night?

An unassuming restaurant at the northern end of Unley Road, La Tombola has been delivering traditional Italian meals for years. The menu is not long, but every dish is terrific. The staff are friendly and funny, and we had a super night there recently, delighted to find such a gem barely a stone’s throw from our new city bolt hole.

La Tombola is an Italian game, similar to bingo. It is derived from an Italian verb tombolare, to somersault or tumble. The Collins dictionary suggests it is the equivalent of upsy-daisy, should a small child fall over.

Well, nobody seemed unsteady on their feet that night, although Tony and his staff were flat out when we arrived. We waited rather anxiously on the sidelines for a table – the place was seething. But let’s face it, if the tables are stuffed with happy eaters, it’s probably worth the wait. And it wasn’t that long before we were greeted like old friends, and ushered to a table by the window.

A great thing about Italian dining is that traditionally, a meal is not an event to be rushed, and La Tombola is, without a doubt, authentically Italian. In this respect at least. So we were given plenty of breathing space between courses, with time to dwell on good wine and good conversation. (No one was keen to venture back out into the cold anyway!)

We had taken a bottle of wine with us, but La Tombola is certainly not short of wine – of the red variety anyway. And most of them are locally sourced. I ordered a lovely, fruity Barossa Grenache, while the gentlemen enjoyed their Cabernet Sauvignon.

The One & Only, with his Italian name – and despite a lack of fluency in the language – instantly drew attention and became a firm favourite with the staff. We never went short of wine or food – in fact when the kitchen got a tad overwhelmed, our waitress dashed by with a basket of bread, just in case we were in danger of starving.

We started off with an antipasta platter to share, topped up with an extra plate of coppa – a salami of salted, aged pork shoulder, rolled into a short, thick cylinder, made by Tony himself. Our antipasto platter included frittata and pickled vegetables, as well as the usual array of salamis and olives.

For my main course, I chose a rich and delicious fusilli di estate: a twisted noodle tossed with veal strips, smoked bacon, onion, roasted capsicum and mushrooms in a creamy sauce and finished with basil. The gentlemen went for a spicier option: penne con pancetta picante; the pancetta mixed with Italian sausage, chilli and roasted tomatoes. Of course we shared the spoils without spilling too much sauce on the pristine linen tablecloth.

Finally, a dish of Tira Mi Sú with three spoons to finish up. Well, it seemed best to share, or we may not have had the capacity to walk home. But I am already planning my next visit. It had been terribly difficult to toss up between the Fusilli and the Ravioli Ortolani Rosati, and the One & Only is keen to try the Spaghetti Marinara…

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Sunny day, sweepin’ the clouds away
On my way to where the air is sweet.
Can you tell me how to get,
How to get to Sesame Street?

Ballaboosta (and you will find a variety of spellings) is a Yiddish term to describe the person who takes care of everyone; traditionally the homemaker, the one who brings the family together, who cooks for them and cares for them.On Halifax Street in the southeast corner of Adelaide CBD, Ballaboosta is touted as the café where “Where Mediterranean meets Middle East” in a custom made wood fired oven, and boasts that most of their menu is made from scratch.

Ballaboosta is open from 7.30am – 9.30pm every day but Sunday, when it closes at 3.30pm. I first came across them when I was desperate for coffee at an hour when every other coffee shop in town had closed for the day.  Not only did I get an excellent coffee, but I found a tempting range of home-made pastries and desserts.

The inside is tiny, but there is plenty of space on the pavement when the sun shines – or even when it doesn’t, as there are outdoor heaters and umbrellas when needed.

Staff are friendly and the food is a little different. For once, you can enjoy brunch without a whisper of smashed avocado. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a smashed avocado fiend, but it seems to have become ubiquitous on every breakfast menus, in Australia at least, so Ballaboosta’s offerings make an interesting change.

So, what do they serve for brunch, if not smashed avo?

Well, there are breakfast pizzas on flat bread (great for the kids), oven baked eggs with middle eastern spiced lamb mince, or wild zaatar and cheese in an eastern Mediterranean version of the quesadilla, to name but a few.

I particularly enjoy the dishes on ‘Betty’s Menu’ defined as ‘traditional soul food, made with love, by our very own Ballaboosta.’ These include chicken (shish tawook) or lamb skewers (kofta) and a marinated fish served with chilli, tahini and of course pita bread,and malfouf, like the Greek dolmades, only made with cabbage leaves not vine leaves. All theses dishes are great for sharing, for brunch or lunch. Mix them up with some of the mezze dishes for a real feast!

A few quick tips: Ballaboosta gets terribly busy over the weekend, so do book ahead – and don’t be in a hurry, as you may have to wait a while, even for coffee. (Well, I’m not the only person in town to think it’s a cool place to go!) I highly recommend going with someone you are happy to chat with while you wait. Tripadvisor gives it mixed reviews, and I have to agree that some days are better than others, but I have always enjoyed the food, even when not quite what I had expected. And the pita bread, freshly made in the wood oven, in whatever format, is always great. When the staff are on song and the day is sunny, Ballaboosta has got a happy, breezy vibe, where dogs and kids are welcome, and it makes me think of the Sesame Street song!

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Mintaro & Martindale

Gilbert Valley

Only eleven kilometres off the Horrocks Highway that sprints through the Clare Valley, Mintaro is a tiny, rural village that has been tucked into the hills since Adelaide was a toddler. In 1984 it was declared a State Heritage site, and for good reason. I am delighted to think we know how to protect some of our historic treasures.

A centre for slate mining, Mintaro village has been largely constructed from this hardy stone. Any modern alterations, renovations or even new builds must be in keeping with the character of the originals. If not for the passing cars – and these are few and far between on a quiet Friday afternoon in August – it is like entering a time warp.
It is also a far cry from the dry, dusty mid north I have visited before. After a wondrously wet winter, the countryside is unfamiliar to me in its verdant winter coat. I find myself smiling in delight at every turn in the road, every panoramic view from the crest of a hill. Plump lambs dance in paddocks carpeted in deep green grass. Flocks of gossiping galahs with their raspberry vests, provide a vibrant contrast. For once, the scattering of gum trees look alert and happy, not defeated by the long, hot summers.

Mintaro was initially a busy staging point for transporting copper from Burra to Port Wakefield in the 1840’s, the Magpie and Stump a popular watering hole with the bullock drivers trudging nine miles a day from Burra to the coast. In the 1850s, many deserted Burra for the more lucrative gold mines in Victoria and New South Wales, so the mining company began seducing South American miners and muleteers to fill the gap. By the 1860s Mintaro had struck gold itself – well, slate at least – and soon the local quarries were producing slate of some of the highest quality in the country, which it continues to mine and export today.

The Gilbert Valley is also a fertile farming district, producing wheat, wool and wine which have created wealth for local farmers over the centuries. Only three kilometres out of town, Martindale Hall stands in all its rather pretentious glory, a pocket-sized Downtown Abbey that once boasted a cricket pitch, a boating lake, a polo ground and a race track. £30,000 was spent importing marble tradesmen and furniture from Europe to create all this splendour. Yet sadly, such ostentatious wealth did nothing to ensure a happy life for any of its owners. In fact, the history of Martindale is surprisingly tragic.

The Bowman family grew from sheep farmers in the north of England to wealthy landowners in two generations. They made their money on the back of the sheep, first as pioneer pastoralists in Tasmania, among chains and convicts, later as landowners in the free province of South Australia. In the mid nineteenth century, Edmund Bowman Snr. established a successful merino stud on 9,000 acres in the Gilbert Valley. He also bred racehorses. But he drowned in the Wakefield River when his eldest son was still a boy.

Martindale Hall

Edmund Junior was educated at Cambridge University. He returned home to an inheritance large enough to recreate a slice of Georgian England in the Australian bush where he entertained lavishly. He named it Martindale Hall after a pretty valley near the family’s original home in Cumbria. A renowned polo player, he had little more than a decade to enjoy his glamorous lifestyle. Beleaguered by drought and falling wool prices, and financially over-extended, he was forced to sell up in 1891. He died in Adelaide at 66, after a long illness.

The Martindale Estate was then bought by William Tennant Mortlock, a South Australian politician and grazier. Also educated at Cambridge, he came home to marry his first cousin, Rosina Tennant. They had six children – five sons and a daughter – but three did not survive infancy. Their oldest son, Valentine, was born with cretinism and was hidden from the world in an upstairs bedroom until he died at the age of eight. His ghost has apparently been seen several times since, most recently in 2011 by a young visitor who thought he was a girl with his long blond locks. His small room, once gated, made my skin prickle, and I avoided looking in the old mirror above the fireplace. The influence of too many horror movies in my youth I suspect! William himself died aged only 55 when his two remaining sons were teenagers. One of these young men would later die in Colombo.

Jack, now the oldest son and heir, travelled widely – perhaps to escape from the family ghosts – and his collection of memorabilia grace the smoking room walls. He did not marry until he was 54, only to die fifteen months later. His wife lived on at Martindale Hall until 1965, when, according to her husband’s wishes, she handed it over to Adelaide University. It is now in the hands of the SA government, in trust for the people of South Australia.

Escaping from the gloomy, ghost ridden rooms of Martindale Hall, I drove back to town. Here, I found a much happier story in the middle of Mintaro, just across the road from the Magpie and Stump, the local pub. This pub has been around since Noah was a babe – well, almost – and here, the One & Only was spending the weekend being creative with lino cut and paint. Before crossing the road to Reilly’s winery, I soaked up the early spring sunshine for a while, lounging peacefully in the pub’s large garden, enjoying two cups of excellent coffee.

Reilly’s winery was established in 1993 by South Australian entrepreneurs Justin and Julie Ardill. The cellar door can be found in a beautiful slate cottage, built in 1856 by Hugh Reilly. Reilly was a shoemaker from Ireland, who established his family and a saddlery in the small town, and for whom the winery is named.

We had wandered in the day before, looking for lunch. Annette, the chef here for several years, provided us with a sumptuous platter of local olives and mettwurst, Reilly’s own chutney and dukkha, a perfect piece of steak, a homemade fishfinger in crispy batter, a divine little roast vegetable tart and two glasses of wine. The One & Only chose white: an aged Riesling (more to my taste than his, with its oaked butteriness reminiscent of those original Chardys), and the 2018 Watervale Riesling, which won the Travelrite trophy for Riesling of the year in 2019. Meanwhile, I indulged in a glorious grenache and a lighter but meaty tempranillo.

Reilly’s cellar door

Later that afternoon, I popped in to taste other wines. Justin has had great fun experimenting with all sorts of grape varieties and wine styles. And I had great fun tasting them! My particular favourites were the Old Bush Vine Grenache and the Copper Ox Shiraz, named in honour of the sure and steady oxen that pulled the wagons coming from the copper mines to the northwest. With grapes picked from 90 year old vines, its juices aged in oak, this glorious wine slides over the tongue like a deep-throated song, whispering of aniseed, mocha and deep red berries. The Grenache grapes come from even older vines, planted just after WWI, that grow close to the ground and require (flexible) hand picking. Peppery, with touches of liquorice and cherry, this lovely wine is aged in oak for two years, from which it benefits greatly, and showing off a long and elegant finish. A bright and flavourful Rosé or Saignée (literally bleeding) will be a perfect, chilled accompaniment to a summer afternoon in the garden – unless you prefer bubbles when you should reach for the cuvée Shiraz. The One & Only went merrily down the Riesling road, with a slight detour through the cabernet sauvignons. We left with some extra bottles of our favourites, including a rich Blue Tongue Tawny Port and the Cane Cut Riesling. Sporting luscious flavours of honey and marmalade, a cheeky dash of lime cuts this dessert wine’s somewhat cloying sweetness down a notch. And just in case you have sipped too many wines to contemplate the drive home, the Ardills own a selection of B&B cottages only a step or two down the road.And on that note, I’m signing off to drive back to our campsite, a pasta sauce we prepared earlier, and another glass of Grenache. Salut!

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Mid Winter Jitters

At last, the rain took a day off and we could get down to the beach this morning for some much needed fresh air.

While we have been hiding away – partly the weather, partly a brief South Australian lockdown – the wind and rain have been having a jolly old time scattering foam and seaweed, cuttlefish and cockles up and down the length of the beach. Waves have ridden right up over the jetty and high tides have torn away the sand dunes in vast chunks.

My childhood memories of growing up in South Australia suggest it rarely rains here. Faulty memory or global warming, this past month has been cram packed with howling winds, torrential downpours and endless British ‘mizzle’ – that ultra-fine drizzle that seeps into your skin and leaves you feeling damp and ever so slightly mouldy.

So, what to do? Well, with a blue sky at last tempting us out into the open, we headed north to Port Willunga. Here, at high tide, the beach was non-existent, waves were roaring up to bombard those massive cliffs, and a couple of intrepid surfers were catching a final wave or three before night descended.

The Star of Greece was wrecked off Port Willunga almost 170 years ago, and the restaurant that sits perilously close to the cliff edge, like an eagle’s eyrie, has been named in its honour. After a desultory walk through the dunes and along the Willunga Creek, we decided we were long overdue to dine there, and wandered up for an early tea. We were surprised to find that the Star of Greece – despite sitting 10 metres from the sea – is not a glorified fish’n’chip diner but is, in fact, a fine dining restaurant with a range of interesting menu choices. Nervous that we were rather under-dressed for such splendour, we were assured we would be welcome, as long as we were wearing shoes. In fact, the website suggests summer guests can enter in flip flops and sarongs over bathers – or ballgowns! I do love the Australian attitude to casual. Dressed many degrees below ballgowns but a step or two up from thongs and sarongs, we went in.

 On such a chilly winter evening, the deck was wisely closed, and we were more than happy to snuggle inside, away from the obstreperous wind. A table by the window gave amazing views across a choppy sea and up the coast to the lights of the southern suburbs.

We read through the menu armed with a KIS O’Gin, garnished with rosemary and orange. (Note to self: order a bottle for home consumption. It’s five star.)

The menu is a good length – not barraging you with a million choices but providing a great variety of flavours. (And there’s a good menu for vertically challenged diners, if you want to take the kids along.) Of course, we had set our hearts on fish’n’chips, so after some consideration, we by-passed the confit duck leg with seared scallops and the Wagyu steak for whiting and hand cut chips. We did, however, get a bit more daring with the entrees: a delectable raw Murray cod and a bowl of baked burrata with salsa rosa and asparagus.

There is definitely an Asian fusion theme going on here, with kimchi, betel leaf, nori salad, fermented chilli and daikon radishes teamed with local specialties such as Kangaroo Island whiting, KI squid, Spencer Gulf prawns and local mushrooms. Servings are generous without being overwhelming, and the service was great. Despite having to talk through masks, our waiters were delightful, welcoming us warmly and checking in regularly to make sure all was going well.

The Murray cod (think ceviche) was mixed with fermented chilli, green mango, coconut, nigella seeds and lime and served on a betel leaf. What a stunning amalgam of delicate flavours! Although possibly better for a warm summer evening out on the balcony, it was nonetheless fabulous, and it went perfectly with my G&T. I found myself feeling positively nostalgic for the Philippines, and not just the rather warmer climate. The One & Only’s reconstructed bruschetta was warm and tasty and much better suited to the weather. It was also something I will certainly try to recreate at home.

After a nicely spaced interval, we were served our main courses. The One & Only chose the traditional battered whiting – was that an apple cider batter I tasted? A twist on the old beer batter? – while I went for grilled. Both were superb and served with a light garden salad and a truly delicious homemade tartare sauce. We savoured every mouthful.

The restaurant has been a staple for Port Willy residents and holiday makers alike for over twenty years. Apparently, it was originally a tiny fisherman’s shack, but it has been renovated and enlarged several times since it was originally built. some 70 metres (230 feet) above the sea. And there is a kiosk next door, currently closed for renovations, that will doubtless be up and running again by the summer.

While we forwent a bottle of wine (the road home is dark and winding and littered with kangaroos) the wine list is well designed and benefits from the proximity of McLaren Vale, although not exclusively. A few Mediterranean wines and other SA wine regions also get a mention. We’ll save them for next time…

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“The Wide Brown Land for Me.”

‘I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains.’ ~Dorothy McKellar, 1908

The Australian landscape may not change quickly but change it does. Growing up in South Australia, I had assumed all inland Australia was as dry, dusty and fly blown as our own state north of the Mount Lofty Ranges. Oh boy, was I wrong. Last month we headed off in our campervan, barney, planning to follow the coast road from Adelaide to Melbourne and north to Sydney. Having reached the far southwestern corner of Victoria, Covid struck yet again in Melbourne, and we turned tail and dashed back across the border to safety. We followed the back road north, before turning right into New South Wales. Planning to stop for a breather in Tooleybuc, we discovered the town was now a hot spot of possible Covid infection. Tooleybuc football supporters, it turned out, may have been infected on a trip to regional Victoria. A false alert, we were later to learn, but by then we were halfway to Mount Kosciusko. In six days, we covered the Coorong, the Riverland, Alpine bush land, Siberian steppes and coastal forests. And the weather was almost as changeable and dramatic as the scenery: sunshine in Robe; storms in Portland that threatened to rip the top off the camper; frost in Tumbarumba and an ardent desire for the gloves and scarves we had left at home. Last year’s snow was still lying, unmelted, in the shade along the side of the road in Kosciusko National Park. On Wallagoot Lake, we were back to 20’C and sunshine, paddling with the hooded plovers along the beach. It was surreal. But we finally made it to Sydney!

Back in South Australia, it has been alternating between tropical downpours and English drizzle for the past four weeks. Is this climate change, or simply one of the challenges of living in Dorothy McKellar’s ‘wilful, lavish land?’ The rain has filled the pool and the water tanks to overflowing and the moss has built a home on the paving out the back. Everywhere, the sour sobs are spreading their yellow flowers like fields of canola.

With SA in lockdown for the next week, I hoped to spend some time in the garden, which has been over-run with weeds, but given a non-Covid cough and some seriously bitter weather, not to mention rain, rain and more rain, I’ve decided that discretion is the better part of valour and have stayed firmly indoors with the heating on full bore, thinking enviously of the friends who snuck off to Queensland before the stable door was locked.

It’s not so bad, though, being housebound. The One & Only is experimenting in the kitchen – ossobuco is on the cards for dinner tonight – and this damp and dreary weather is hardly tempting me to set out on a march along the beach. Anyway, it’s time to get back to work, after an enforced hiatus at She Gathers No Moss. My poor wee blog has been on hold for weeks, after an annoying little gremlin found its way in and sent ten years of stories into a coma. But this morning, my uninvited poltergeist was finally evicted by a friend with a firm hand and far more techno-knowhow than Yours Truly, and we are back in action. We may not be able to travel or eat out right now, but when has that ever left me short of something to say?

Welcome back, one and all, and thanks so much for your patience. It’s good to be home.

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Poemat means ‘poem’ in Polish

My mother has often said there is nothing more decadent than having someone else cook a meal in your own kitchen. We tried it out last weekend and found her theory thoroughly validated.

Judyta Slupnicki is a woman who loves to cook. She has owned and run many kitchens in both Adelaide and Melbourne, including those at the Old Lion, on the Ghan and at her own Phore Seasons in Semaphore. But these days, she is a freelance cook in the process of setting up a new business: She Chef: a qualified chef who will come to your home and cook a designer dinner for one to one dozen guests. Judyta loves to cook Vietnamese and Italian dishes, but on Saturday night she treated us to a Polish feast. While suitably eastern European, and reminiscent of the style of cuisine I remember in neighbouring Prague, it was decidedly more sophisticated than No.1 Son’s favourite dish of dumplings and gravy.

Judyta is Polish. Born in Warsaw, she and her family escaped from Poland when she was barely nine years old. As I settled at the kitchen bench, gin & tonic in hand, as she prepared our dinner – yes, also with a G&T to hand –  I heard how her family fled from Poland in 1981. They even slept for at least one memorable night in a cemetery, before they found their way out of Poland, into Germany and then across the seas to Australia.  From Perth to Melbourne to Adelaide, the family found themselves in a refugee camp in the Boondocks for three months before they were resettled in  a starter home in Woodville Gardens, close to the primary school the three girls were already attending. She and her sisters quickly assimilated – there is a family knack for languages – but despite a strong Aussie accent, she is still, unarguably, a Pole. A year passed, and her father was able to get a loan for a house, and set up business as an upholsterer. Keen for his second daughter to join him, he encouraged her to study business and book-keeping,.

In her free time, Judyta loved to hold dinner parties. She soon realized, however, that her happy place was in the kitchen, rather than playing hostess at the dining table. After taking a gap year and heading off round the world with her (then) husband, she had an epiphany, finally recognizing an unquenchable desire to bring a broader food culture to South Australia. And, of course, she was encouraged by all those friends who had attended her dinner parties. “You are such a good cook! You should open a restaurant!”

On her return to Adelaide, a year was spent looking for suitable premises. Eventually, she found the perfect location: an antique bed store in Semaphore. 220 square metres was rapidly converted into a 100-seater restaurant, complete with a baby grand piano, a seven metre, solid wood bar and tapestries on the walls.

A friend of mine once wrote of ‘the classic restaurant dreamers, people who believe that loving food and hosting dinner parties is adequate preparation for running a business.’ Yet, for a while, this worked. Despite no formal training in catering or cooking, but with a deep understanding of business and finance, Judyta managed to get ‘Phore Seasons’ (as in Sema-phore) up and running in short order. Creating a largely Italian menu with a dash of Polish, Juditya now admits that the whole experience was a trial by fire, literally and figuratively, the learning curve steep and precipitous. One night, after the chef slipped and broke a toe, Judyta, arriving in high heels from another function, had to step in. A pair of slippers was unearthed in the basement and the rest is history. Judyta’s night in the kitchen gave her the overwhelming conviction that this was where she belonged.

Judyta realized pretty quickly that she wouldn’t be able to cope on enthusiasm alone and enrolled in a professional cooking course at Regency TAFE. With all the energy of youth, she ran the kitchen, studied, and managed the accounts. The restaurant survived, albeit with a change of perspective. The fine dining menu was simplified, but not before Judyta had won awards for her efforts.

Eventually, Judyta decided that the ‘Phore Seasons’ had run its course, and she set off in search of new culinary adventures. This would include being chosen to perform on Channel Seven’s Iron Chef challenge, competing against Guy Grossi. From there, she worked on a Polish cuisine episode of Food Safari (Season 4, episode 7) with Maeve O’Meara. She also had a stint with Qantas, via the Adelaide Convention Centre, running their Business Class menus. En route, she discovered a penchant for Vietnamese and Japanese cuisine, but she also loves nothing better than a home cooked Polish meal.

Recently, she has returned to her roots: cooking for dinner parties.

Having shared a few foodie experiences with our sociable chefette, I decided I had better stop distracting her, and joined the rest of the guests in the garden. It was an incredibly mild autumn evening as we gathered around the outdoor fireplace, chatting quietly as our host cooked chestnuts over the coals. Later, he  showed me the menu they had agreed on, laid out as ‘rounds.’ The food was indeed comparable to a musical composition: a harmonious combination of tastes and textures.

Round I: roasted chestnuts. Chestnuts have long been popular in the northern regions of Europe and North America, where they thrive on frost, snow and sun. At the winter fairs that abound across central Europe, the aroma of roasting chestnuts is all part of the spirit of Christmas. Chestnuts also grow well in Australia, particularly in north-eastern Victoria. While they are terrific in stews and pasta sauces and even soups, roasting them over hot coals is simple and easy. And they smell – and taste – divine.

As soon as they were pronounced ready to eat, Judyta arrived with a tray of Żubrówka Bison Grass Vodka (Polish pronunciation: [ʐuˈbrufka] in shot glasses. I’m not madly enamoured of vodka, but this particular clean, clear spirit, flavoured with bison grass, is something else entirely: smooth, heart-warming and far too easy to drink. The bison grass in the bottle comes from the Białowieża Forest (I’ll leave you to guess how that is pronounced!), which is one of the last parts of the primeval forest that once stretched across the Central European Plain. The forest is still home to 800 European bison, Europe’s heftiest land animal. They, too, like the bison grass, but heaven knows what they would make of the vodka.

Chestnuts gleefully devoured and vodka skulled, we headed inside to sample the rest of the meal. Judyta’s sister Monica had arrived to support Judyta as sous chef and together they presented us with an outstanding dinner.

Round II: a homemade tomato soup with thick, flat noodles, like fettucine, dill and sour cream. A perfect soup for a winter’s night, and we cleaned our plates with the fresh rye sourdough bread our host had prepared earlier.

Round III: Coorong mullet served with capsicum and herb butter and fried slices of baguette – cooked, like giant croutons, in the oil that had just fried the fish. Sadly, I must confess to being utterly hopeless with bony fish. I have never learned how to eat it elegantly, and fight my way through every mouthful to the detriment of the flavour. Luckily, my far more adept neighbour assured me the fish was fabulous.

Round IV: Roast duck with apples. I had been waiting greedily for this course, having watched Judyta preparing it as we sipped our G&Ts, and savoured the tempting aroma of roast duck wafting past my nostrils .  Two of the largest ducks I have ever seen were seasoned with marjoram and salt, then stuffed to the brim with apples that would later be served on the side. With the duck came an absolute cornucopia of vegetables. A zesty cabbage, barley and sauerkraut salad, (think coleslaw with a zing). roast beetroot with caraway seeds (wilted leaves included to great effect), roast potatoes (inevitably) and a huge dish of Brussel sprouts and blanched green beans. Judyta had gone to great lengths to remove the outer leaves of the sprouts, which she tossed in oil and salt and cooked in the oven, Voila! Brussel sprout crisps. The Brussel sprouts themselves were halved and roasted, then, at the last minute, tossed into the bean mix of green beans and breadcrumbs fried in melted butter. Seasoned with a dash of olive oil and garnished with the crisps and lemon zest, it was a dish to die for.

Discussing this later, Judyta gave me several interesting tips. ‘Keep the stalks from the beetroot and pickle them.’ Likewise, take the dill stalks (remember the soup?) and toss them into pickling liquid. Do not deep fry the vegetables, she told me firmly. This has become a trend because it is quick and easy, but it is definitely not the best way to eat them.  

After all these delectable dishes, dessert was almost one step too far, but how to resist? ‘Poemat’ means poem in Polish, the perfect name for this delectable dessert. Judyta had first created a cheese mixture with eggs and sour cream, vanilla and milk, cooked slowly over a low heat, then drained through cheese cloth and cooled in the fridge. The mixture was then combined with whisked butter, and divided into three. One third was mixed with cocoa, the other two thirds, with  toasted ground  walnuts and soaked raisins, pressed together and refrigerated overnight.

Before serving, the ‘poemat’ was brought back to room temperature and served with strawberries and raspberries soaked in cognac, then sprinkled with ground walnuts. With a velvety smooth texture, poemat is like a firm mousse. Add a dash of crunch and a splash of sweetness, and you have a truly divine dessert.

Judyta has decided, after years of experimenting, that she loves cooking with a passionate joy, but prefers to be her own boss, creative and independent.  So she has chosen a name, set up a business plan and has just launched her website www.shechef.com.au. Now she can establish herself as a freelance chef, happy to create private dinner parties in your own home.  A special birthday or anniversary? An intimate dinner for two? You name it, as long as there are no more than twelve at the table, Judyta will create a bespoke dinner to amaze your friends and your taste buds. Go forth and conquer!

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Roaming in the Riverland

It is dawn. The sun sits like a navel orange on the horizon, reflected in the dimpled river. The air is crisply cold, but that doesn’t seem to bother the pelicans swooping low and dipping for breakfast. Two wrens dash through the reeds and a pair of black swans fly across the sun like shadows. It’s 6 a.m. on the Murray. While the avian world is already bustling about with raucous caws, carolling and tweeting, the only sound of human activity is our own soft whispers as we sip our tea and watch two pelicans flirting on the opposite bank, while fish leap, flashes of silver in the sunlight.

We are camping at Plush’s Bend, just outside Renmark. In search of some obscure family history, we have found an unexpectedly leafy corner of South Australia. Renmark is the last town on the Sturt Highway before it crosses the border into Victoria. Brothers John and Robert Robertson settled in the area in the 1860s. In 1887, two Canadian  brothers, George & William Chaffey, arrived, with plans to establish an irrigation system that would allow crops to thrive in an otherwise dry and dusty landscape. Today, the area is a cornucopia of fruits, nuts and flowers: citrus and stone fruits, pistachios and almonds, roses and grapevines. The grassy riverbanks in town roll down to the water’s edge like green carpet.

Renmark was proclaimed a town in 1905 and connected to Adelaide by rail in 1937. Now the train line is defunct, but the road goes all the way to Sydney, crossing the River Murray on the Paringa Suspension Bridge, built in the 1920s for the trains. One of only four suspension bridges over the Murray, it opens twice daily to let the paddle steamers through.

The day brightens. A houseboat, squat and broad, meanders upriver, the hum of its engine disturbing the peace, and competing with the thrum of a tiny biplane overhead. Crows caw on the wing. Ducks squabble. Pelicans glide.

After a slow, lazy start, we pack up camp and drive back into town. As in so many country towns, the roads are broad, and parking the campervan is a piece of cake. We cross the suspension bridge to neighbouring Paringa. Two huge silos have recently been decorated: a dozen painted pelicans photo bomb four river scenes of paddle steamers, fishermen, houseboats and an odd-looking man I will later spot on the cover of a library book in Berri. ‘A Man called Possum,’ was a local recluse who lived off the land along the Murray for fifty years.

Around the corner sits the huge black stump and root system of a 600 year old red river gum. As I read the story on a signboard, I am interrupted by the eccentric storyteller himself.  Frank ‘the Chookman’ Turton and his wife spotted the fallen gum tree 35 miles upriver almost forty years ago. Cutting off the trunk, they attached a dozen 44 gallon petrol drums and a tiny two stroke engine to the stump. Frank then perched on the stump in a deckchair, and guided it downstream to the Paringa bridge, where a crane heaved it from the water. The stump – eight metres across – now sits outside his home on Murtho Road. His other home, the heavily decorated houseboat, “Willitsinkorwon’tit,” has been serenading Renmark pedestrians from the riverbank opposite the Renmark Hotel most of the day.

Established in 1897, the Renmark Hotel was the first Community Hotel in the British Empire, and its first licensee was actually a woman, Jane Meissner, almost 70 years before women could enter a public bar in Australia. In 1937 it was redesigned in the Art Deco style we see today, and an extra floor was added. Two years ago, the hotel opened a small museum on the first floor, to exhibit memorabilia from the hotel’s past.

Renmark is home to Angoves Winery and the 23rd Street Distillery. It also has an excellent book shop, a pub, a number of small cafes and a great Thai restaurant that is – of course – closed on Tuesday nights. There is also a plethora of small churches. Anglican, Uniting, Catholic, Methodist, Greek Orthodox and the tiny church on the hill at Renmark West. One church – possibly Congregational – has been converted into a family home. Another was recently demolished. Once upon a time, when the settlements along the river were barely there, a small steam launch was converted into a floating chapel, and would visit the embryo towns to conduct christenings, weddings and confirmations.

The people here are friendly & helpful. I share travel tales and bird stories with the local doctor and talked antique books and local history with the bookshop owner. The One & Only exchanges tips on planting vines with a local carpenter, while I admire his beautiful, rustic furniture, and wish there were space in the campervan to take some home. The receptionist at the Murray Pioneer office is happy to show me copies of the local paper from 1917, delicate and fragile as they are. The waitresses at the pub may be too busy to chat, but always smile as they approach our table. The young woman at the Information Bureau is the font of all wisdom and delighted to share all she knows about the area, its attractions and its history. And while I am busy exploring the town’s history, the One & Only  wanders along the five-kilometre riverfront walk.

And then onwards, to a soft pink sunset just beyond Berri, in the Murray River National Park. A kangaroo and its joey check us out from the edge of the campsite. The water on Katarapko creek is as smooth as glass, reflecting the gnarly gums like a mirror. We have gathered up bark, fallen branches and dry leaves and built a bonfire in a fire pit provided by the rangers. We will light it as soon as we have poured a couple of glasses of Riverland Tempranillo. Then we can keep our toes warm as the sun finally drops below the horizon, and the temperature with it.

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A Tale of Thai Dining

“Be consistent—people will come back because they like your food, they don’t want it to change. Don’t compromise on quality either. Today’s customers are knowledgeable about food. They’ve travelled and know what to expect. If you cut corners and buy cheaper meat or vegetables, they’ll notice.” ~ Peter Thanissorn

Growing up in the suburbs of Adelaide, South Australia, the most exciting gastronomic experience I can remember came from the chicken shop opposite my school. All the girls catching buses to the Hills would queue for a $2 bag of hot chips to share on the way home. My journey home was a five minute stroll round the corner, so, sadly, sustenance en route wasn’t justifiable. Thus, I became the Bisto kid, following the visible scent of sizzling roast chicken and frying chips. Then, mouth watering, nostrils flaring, watching enviously as the Hills girls boarded their buses, paper bags brimming with crispy chips doused in chicken salt. Which just goes to prove you don’t have to be a starving Dickensian child to lust after food!

Since those bygone days, the original bright yellow chicken shop may have disappeared, but bistros, coffee shops and take-aways have become prolific along the length of Unley Road, and Asian restaurants abound. And opposite the long-gone chicken shop, is, in my humble opinion, the best Thai restaurant in the area.

“Suree’s Thai Kitchen” has been ensconced on the corner of Unley and Commercial roads for many years now. It was originally opened in 1999 by Peter Thanisson and his wife Suree, who is, in fact, Cambodian. Peter (who is Thai) had previously owned ‘The Bangkok’ restaurant in Regent Arcade. Peter arrived in Australia to study architecture, but coming from a family of hoteliers, he couldn’t resist the opportunity to start a restaurant.  ‘The Bangkok’ opened in 1979, becoming the first Thai restaurant in South Australia, and was soon enormously popular – despite the fact that most Aussies back then couldn’t have pointed out Thailand on a map, and authentic Thai ingredients were hard to come by. Peter was soon joined by Cambodian chef, Suree. Twenty years later, Peter and Suree had married and moved out to the burbs, where their new venture, “Suree’s Thai Kitchen,” received a resounding welcome.

In 2004, Sie King Tiong & his partner Wen Zhen Teo – a Chinese Malay couple from Sarawak – also came to Australia to study: King to do an engineering degree; Wen Zhen to do a Master’s degree in Accounting and Finance. As university students, they found part time work at Suree’s. When the couple graduated in 2007, Peter & Suree were keen to pull back, and offered to hand over the restaurant. Like Peter, King and Wen Zhen also decided to jump ship, and the rest is history.

Whenever I am in town, I find my feet – or is it my nostrils? – travelling down the road to Suree’s of their own accord. Unfortunately, due to it’s popularity, spontaneity isn’t always the best policy. Open seven nights a week, and Friday lunchtime, I have rarely been to the restaurant when it wasn’t packed to the rafters, and the staff are kept on their toes from beginning to end of the evening service. Yet, if you have shown up unexpectedly, and there isn’t room at the inn, you can always order a takeaway instead. Or have it delivered.

The food at Suree’s is consistently excellent. This is largely because the same chefs have worked at Suree’s for years. Head chef Suchat Orasri originally worked at the Amarin Hotel in Bangkok. (“Good grief! We used to go there years ago when we lived in Bangkok!”). He started working with Peter & Suree in 2005. And while the staff are inevitably flat out, I always find them polite, smiling, and keen to keep the customers happy.

King and I had an interesting discussion about the menu, and whether Australians are comfortable with authentic Thai cuisine, or if the chefs have had to westernize – or indigenize it – to suit our palates. He laughs and suggests there may have been the odd tweak – lamb, peas, and Moreton bay bugs are possibly not bone fide Thai ingredients – but the Thai dishes generally come from traditional recipes. At least one of the signature dishes, however, and a personal favourite of mine, is one of Wen Zhen’s creations.  This is the sensual, sweet-and-sour dish of lemon & lime prawns. Made with lemongrass, lime leaves and shrimp paste, it is absolutely irresistible.

As we look through the menu, I spot a few dishes from other South East Asian cuisines. The majority are certainly Thai, and the old favourites are all there – larb gai, Pad Thai, Tom Yum Goong and green chicken curry – but there are a couple of Malay offerings, too, and some excellent Vietnamese cold rolls.

As for the wine list, King sees no point in leaving Australian shores to fill his cellar, although I notice he has snuck in a couple of New Zealand offerings. I find a beautiful Cape Barren Chardonnay I haven’t met before and look no further. But if you don’t fancy wine, you can always try a couple of authentic Thai beers.

King suggestss I try the tea & milk ice cream, another “Suree’s” creation. Sadly, that will have to wait till next time, as I am now filled to the brim with a fabulous crispy barramundi in a really hot, spicy red curry sauce. Cheers!

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A Picnic with Shakespeare

Apologies dear readers, I meant to post this piece weeks ago, but mislaid the draft. At least it is an almost current event when compared to many of my recent mediaeval travel stories!

Romeo & Juliet by Frank Bernard Dicksee, 1884.

Last night (early March!) we lugged an inordinately heavy, but much beloved picnic basket up into the Adelaide Hills, to celebrate the return of outdoor theatre to our new world rule of limitations. It was a warm day that rapidly cooled when the sun set, but we had remembered coats and rugs, thank goodness, and had only to feel sorry for the actors in their somewhat sparse, summery costumes.

As I sit in an almost empty airport, masked and not-so-dangerous, glasses steaming up as I type, it’s laughable to think about last night, and the number of people squeezed together on the lawn at Deviation Road Winery, eating their sandwiches and drinking their pink bubbles, waiting with almost tangible excitement for one of the best productions of Romeo & Juliet I have ever seen. (And I’ve seen a few.)

Shakespeare’s original cast list included at least twenty speaking parts and another handful of marginal characters. Last night, Essential Theatre told the old tale in a fresh and exciting new way with a cast of eight players, many of them doubling up, and/or changing the sex of the original characters: a male Nursey; a female Mercutio, a female friar. It was brilliantly done, with humour and a lightness of hand that looked effortless, but doubtless took weeks of hard work to make it flow so seamlessly.

Of course, the setting was glorious, as we settled among the vines and gum trees, our picnic table laden with chicken, various salads and a birthday cake we had smuggled in for my unsuspecting mother.  We ordered a bottle of Deviation Road’s pink bubbles (aka Altaire Brut Rosé) which we drank from pewter goblets, feeling most Shakespearean. Before the performance began, we managed to surreptitiously light the candles and sing to the birthday girl, much to her embarrassment, although I don’t think anyone else turned a hair.

And then it was ‘on with the show.’

This version of the notorious tragedy of the star-crossed lovers unearthed a lot more humour than many of us had ever suspected lay hidden under the covers of Shakespeare’s teenage romance. Directed superbly by Alister Smith, every actor deserves a special mention for a brilliant performance. Alex Aldrich was excellent as Juliet’s brassy, determined mother – comparable to Jane Austen’s single-minded Mrs. Bennett. Helen Hopkins swung effortlessly between the sharp-edged Lady Montague and the softly spoken, rather Bohemian friar. The nurse was played as a camp, decidedly ditsy and thoroughly delightful nanny by Adelaide original, Lachlan Martin. Madelaine Nunn as Mercutio was a joy: a brazen, bumptious character who rarely drew breath and added a huge dose of comedy to an otherwise tragic tale. Joshua Monahan as Romeo’s sensible sidekick Benvolio and the somewhat starchy Paris was remarkably sympathetic in both roles, and Rashidi Edward, who played Tybalt and the Apothecary might have had limited air time, but was nonetheless a notable performer. Eddie Orton as the volatile, somewhat fickle Romeo, clearly portrayed the awkwardness of the adolescent lover, overwhelmed by hormones and emotions, taking risks without thinking through the consequences. But the star of the show was undoubtedly the gorgeous Juliet, played exuberantly by Mia Landgren, who may be several years older than her character, but who totally captured the giggly teenage girl revelling in the emotional joy and excitement of first love. Gone was the deep intensity of so many favoured Juliets, instead we see a young girl ablaze with love and almost floating on air.

While still keeping true to the original 17th century drama, there were plenty of modern touches, that simply highlighted what we already knew: Shakespeare’s tales are timeless, saying more about the condition of mankind than about a particular historical era. Mobile phones, a polo match instead of a sword fight, a pair of ‘Desperate Housewives’ (aka the Ladies Capulet and Montague) squabbling among the vines of Verona, illustrated the modern day relevance of feuding households better than any Kardashian melodrama. The production was pacy, and the immediacy of the actors performing at our feet immersed us all in the atmosphere. I quickly became a willing extra rather than a spectator.

The added delight of an outdoor performance come from those unscripted moments that take even the actors by surprise. An unexpected shower, a flurry of wind to whip off a hat – or in this case, a kangaroo who chose to interject with a brief cameo appearance, hopping across the back of the stage to the delight of any who noticed. Later, a couple of ducks circled ostentatiously over the audience, while a kookaburra hooted with laughter at one of Mercutio’s stunts. It was an absolutely joy-filled evening.

*With thanks to Google images for a copy of the wonderful 19th century oil painting.

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Rocket Fuel with a Twist

‘Becherovka is a genuine symbol of national identity in the Czech Republic, where its reputation is based on its completely traditional process and authentic roots.’ ~ Frederic Legrand

Many years ago, when the children were small, we lived in the Czech Republic for a couple of years. For our Carb King son, this time was a pure joy, as one of the local specialty dishes – and a regular for school dinners – was suet dumpling with a goulash gravy. Or potatoes and gravy. Or roast pork and dumplings. With gravy. And sauerkraut. Good, solid stodge for those icy winters. Inevitably, for the adults, all these dishes are washed down with beer.

Although renowned as a nation of beer drinkers, the Czechs also like their liqueurs.

The origins of many of our favourite liqueurs today can be traced back to the monastic herb gardens of the Middle Ages. Monks, learned in the skills of alchemy, would commonly blend herbs and sweetened spirits to create cordials or elixirs for use as medicines, stimulants or restoratives. The recipes were closely guarded secrets, handed down to only a handful of people over centuries.

The word ‘liqueur’ comes from the Latin liquefacere, meaning to melt, or dissolve, and refers to the method of dissolving spice and fruits into a base spirit -usually brandy or whisky – through maceration, distillation or percolation.

The Czech Republic also has its own herbal liqueur that evolved from this tradition of herbal medicines. Described as ‘herbal bitters,’ Becherovka ‘packs a mighty punch.’ At 76 proof or 38% alcohol, it is like drinking rocket fuel flavoured with a dash of cinnamon, ginger and cloves, and it could quite plausibly be used to fuel your camp stove.

Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed President of the Universe in Douglas Adam’s ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,’ describes the effects of a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster. Apparently, it’s like “having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick.” He also remarks that “after two of those babies, the dullest, most by-the-book Vogon will be up on the bar in stilettos, yodelling mountain shanties and swearing he’s the king of the Gray Binding Fiefdoms of Saxaquine.”

This describes Becherovka perfectly.

Unlike many liqueurs that have been around for centuries, Becherovka is a relatively modern invention. It was created in the early nineteenth in the Bohemian spa town of Karlovy Vary by Czech pharmacist Josef Becher and a visiting English doctor, Frohig. Originally devised by Frohig as a cure for indigestion, it was also rumoured to work on impotence – an early form of Viagra, perhaps?

Whether aphrodisiac or restorative, Becherovka quickly became popular with the town’s wealthy clientele. When Frohig returned to England, he left his recipe with Becher. Later, Becher’s son, Jan, opened a factory to produce the popular digestiv in commercial quantities. While the name of the product and the bottle design has changed several times since then, the recipe has not. Today, it is well regarded as an aperitif, and it is still made from the original blend of more than twenty spices from a recipe known only to a tiny handful of master craftsmen.

Gustav Becher, Joseph’s grandson, later devised a novel method of marketing that would become highly successful around the world.  Artificial shortage meant that buyers were limited to the amount they could purchase, creating a rarity value that ensured high demand. By the end of the century, Becherovka was being exported all over Europe. By 1904, it had become so popular in the Viennese court that the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Franz Josef II, awarded it a special appellation: ‘supplier to the Hapsburg Court,’ and was ordering 50 litres to be delivered to Vienna every month.

The Becherovka recipe was handed down from father to son until the end of World War II, when the communist regime insisted the company be nationalized and handed over to a State appointed Board of Management. In 1997, after the Velvet Revolution had overturned the communists and a democratic government had been established, the company was privatized and Becherovka was sold to the French manufacturer Pernod Ricard, much to the horror of many locals, who were keen to keep it in Czech hands. While the brand may be owned by Pernod Ricard, Becherovka is produced in Karlovy Vary by the Jan Becher company, and claims to be one of the oldest registered trademarks in the Czech Republic. Today, the distinctive green bottle can still be found in every bar in the Czech Republic. It’s most popular form? The BeTon: a Becherovka-based cocktail served with tonic and a wedge of lemon.

While we lived in Prague, it quickly became the local specialty we had to share with overseas guests, so there was always a bottle in the house.  And while we weren’t exactly addicted to the taste – it is rather inclined to strip the skin from your larynx – it does warm you inside and out during those freezing cold winters.

If you haven’t experienced its fieriness yet, it might be wiser to mix it with pineapple juice or tonic water, the first time you try it. I would also advise you not to sit near an open flame… and hide your stilettos!

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